Wildly Unique

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

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| This is the 321st story of Our Life Logs |

Editor’s note:

This is the story of Ingrid Jonker, South African poet laureate, who passed away on July 19, 1965. Her daughter, Simon Jonker, retells the following story in the tone and voice of her mother.

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What makes a person unique? One just has to look up at the night sky. Just as each star differs from all the others, each of us has a part to play, and we must do it well.

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1 | For Every Object I Took, I Should Bury Another

I was born in 1933 in a small town called Douglas, the Cape Province in South Africa, to Beatrice Cilliers and Abraham Jonker. Sadly, my father was not present at my birth. He kicked my mother out when she was eight months pregnant after suspecting her of having another man’s baby. She fled with Anna, her 2-year-old daughter and my soon-to-be older sister, to our grandmother’s house where she gave birth to me.

Me at three years old.
Me at three years old.

From a young age, Anna and I had to adapt to living a rootless life, always moving from one place to another on the outskirts of Cape Town. With my granny quickly aging and my mother’s frail health, we had to make do with very little. To help feed our tiny family, Anna and I used to collect fish heads from the fisher folk so our granny could make a soup. When we started school, we were too poor to afford proper school bags so I was given Granny’s old cracked patent leather handbag to use, and I filled it with books.

I loved reading all day long. Sometimes, Mother didn’t mind if Anna and I skipped school to sit in the hollowed-out bushes on the beach to read. She would say, “What better way to spend a day than reading books?”

On those days by the shore, I’d often collect feathers and shells, flotsam and jetsam along the thin blankets of waves. Yet, I believed for every object I took, I should bury another in the sand and called these buried treasures, “secrets.”

I then began to fold secrets into paper. I was a determined little girl and learned to write poems after perusing a Christian hymnbook. I’d come to like what I’d written, and at the age of six, I submitted a few poems for publication in a children’s magazine that Anna and I loved reading—and one was selected! When Granny asked me how much it would cost to have poems published, I smiled, shook my blonde curls at her and said, “No, Granny, they pay me!”

Granny played an enormous role in my formative years and throughout my finishing school. She was the source of encouragement for me to continue pursuing writing. She once said to me, “The act of writing is the act of faith.”

In my prime, writing.
In my prime, writing.
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2 | I Came Walking Towards the Fire

After finishing school, I found work in a bookshop. Much to my boss’ frustration, I never got much work done as I always had scores of friends coming to visit and chat for hours with me at the shop. What can I say? I loved people! I eventually found work as a proofreader and typist for a publishing firm, a job for which I was much better suited.

I’m seated in the center of friends in my apartment in Cape Town.
I’m seated in the center of friends in my apartment in Cape Town.

As a young woman, I had an inquiring mind. I once asked my local pastor whether “The Lord’s Prayer” was correctly translated because I couldn’t understand why God would “lead us into temptation.” Around this time, I was sharing an apartment with a friend. In those days, pastors of local churches used to make home visits. One of them came by for a visit, and after we politely invited him in and offered him a cup of tea, he took a seat on a big wooden box. Little did he know that he was sitting on a box that contained my rather large pet snake! My friend and I stood by nervously as the pastor preached to us about how young girls should watch their morals. The priest finally left, much to our relief and he none the wiser—but he sure gave us a scare! We weren’t sure how having a pet snake fit into the ladylike nature he was expecting of us. Very early in life, I learned that “happy” and “ladylike” were not inherently synonymous.

I’m sure you can figure out by now that as a young woman, I didn’t follow social norms. I didn’t see much fun in following them. Instead, I loved socializing and I loved to party. My friends and I used to sometimes hold beach parties on hot summer nights. I would wear my tiny, little tango-style bikini (that I handmade!) to each of these glorious escapades. My short hair was always full of sand, but I never minded it.

On Clifton Beach Cape Town in my handmade bikini.
On Clifton Beach Cape Town in my handmade bikini.

I decided to go skinny dipping at one of those parties, flushing my body with the shock of cool water. After the swim, I came walking towards the fire. The guests presumed I was a wearing a white bikini until they realized as I came closer—I was completely naked! One of the female guests was disgusted and grabbed her husband, leaving the party in a huff!

It was during one of my days on the beaches that I met Piet, a handsome golden-haired man who looked like a Greek god. We soon fell in love and got engaged. I didn’t like the idea of a conventional wedding in a church. My dream was to get married by the sea wearing nothing but a Greek toga. However, we decided that it would not be practical—let alone legal—so, we eventually married in a small church in the wine lands of the Cape in a town called Paarl. My estranged father gave me away, despite how often we bumped heads as I got older.

With my husband, Piet Venter, 1956.
With my husband, Piet Venter, 1956.