Quest to find a house and the memories of a fading mother

Review: Vivien Horler

The Blackridge House – a memoir, by Julia Martin (Jonathan Ball)

blackridge houseFrom a family home to a retirement flat to a single room to a single bed – this is the trajectory of so many people as they age. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

It was the experience of Elizabeth Madeline Martin, who was born in what was then Natal in 1918 and who died in Cape Town in 2012.

Elizabeth Martin was the mother of Julia Martin, the author of this fine, touching, and beautifully written memoir.

As dementia claimed Elizabeth, her memories drained away. She didn’t remember her husband, she often didn’t remember Julia, frequently confusing her with one of her own long-dead sisters. She told Julia: “My memory is full of blotches, like ink left about and knocked over.”

But what remained clear in Elizabeth’s ruined mind was the home she had shared with her parents and five siblings during the first seven years of her life, a wood-and-iron house in a magical garden outside Pietermaritzburg, where the mango tree was a haven for young climbers, and where baby bats would tuck themselves into curled-up banana leaves.

Elizabeth lived in a frail-care facility, where she took pleasure in watching the grey squirrels on the branches of the syringa tree outside her window, and feeding the pigeons. Of the squirrels she told her daughter: “Look at that one, just rippling along.”

But despite regular visits and calls by Julia and her two children, Elizabeth was unhappy. She was lonely and wanted desperately to go “home”, although she had no idea where home was.

Julia decided to try to find the house at Blackridge to give her mother a sense of  closure. Elizabeth thought this was a wonderful idea, and told her: “Well, if you do find the place, I’d like you to bring me back two things: a photograph, and something growing from the garden.”

And so Julia and her family began a journey to find the house where her mother’s memory had rooted. But it was a far from easy task – they had no address and all they had to go on were a couple of snapshots, and a description of the area: a house, the railway line above, the road below, and a stream meandering through the garden. Nearby was Blackridge Station, and a small church.

In the course of her quest, Julia tells her family history, of the grandfather who was something of a Boer War hero but was also a dreamer who was unable properly to provide for his brood, of the grandmother who was a martinet and once ordered a son to shoot the family dog, of the move from Blackridge to a dry dusty farm that never prospered.

People helped Julia in her search: the retired land surveyor, the librarian, residents of Blackridge, strangers who were charmed by her task and did a great deal to help.

And alongside the story of the journey is story of the relationship between Julia and the increasingly confused Elizabeth, written with compassion, humour and great love.

Julia Martin, who teaches English at the University of the Western Cape, is a beautiful writer – her travel memoir A Millimetre of Dust, was long-listed for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. I would be surprised if The Blackridge House doesn’t do at least as well, if not better.





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