The morning after my husband and I arrived in Johannesburg last July, I sat at my brother-in-law’s dining room table, listening to the doves outside the open window. It was like hearing a recording of a loved one’s voice played backward; I recognized their sound but not their song.
In my first few weeks, if anyone asked how I was doing, I answered mostly in terms of doves. They were familiar—I didn’t need to see them to know they were doves—but their songs were “wrong,” slightly different here, halfway around the world, and so they were an easy touchstone for describing my slow adjustment to the country. There were other less poetic touchstones: Fords and Chevrolets exist in South Africa, but most of them are sedans, not pickups (and they’re driven in the left lane). The houses have fences, but the fences are never wooden; they are walls obscuring what they protect.
The more identifications I could make—of birds especially—the more stable I felt, but it was lonely work. It made me miss my parents, because the last time I had so many questions was as a child, when it was their job to teach me. Now I was learning by myself, surrounded by South Africans—including my husband—who already knew the names of everything around them; they had learned long ago what I was trying to learn now. Soon I understood that when South Africans asked what I thought about South Africa, they expected me to make big-picture generalizations about my country and theirs, but I was focused on literal scenery—birds and trees and flowers—that did not much matter to them.
Even when my husband bought me a thick green guidebook called Birds of Southern Africa, it was to support me in my coping, not join me in it; this was his home, and he was enjoying a homecoming—he didn’t need a guidebook to this place. When alienation overwhelmed me, I would sit in the bottom of the bedroom cupboard. Like a child, I couldn’t bring myself to answer when my husband came into the room, calling my name. I didn’t know how to explain myself.
“Why don’t you call your parents?” my husband would suggest, and I couldn’t think of anything I desired less than to let them see me so sad. I thought of their love and support as an investment in my happiness, and for that reason I felt I was failing them. This guilt has existed for me long before moving to South Africa. When I started college, I’d planned to become a lawyer, but it was my parents who encouraged me to see how far I could go with what I loved: writing and editing. They saw me through two unpaid internships at literary organizations and a rocky transition from a full-time editorial job to graduate school for creative writing. I relied on them more heavily (financially and emotionally) than I thought a twenty-something should, but they never suggested I try anything else.
In the background of my narrative is my father’s: he entered college as a fine arts major but after two years switched to chemistry, the better to find a career to support a family. He made this sacrifice so that his children could do whatever they wanted in order to be happy, and I took that love and support and education and moved thousands of miles away, only to become the saddest and loneliest I’ve ever felt.
My parents came to South Africa in April, and on their first full day in Johannesburg, I took them to the botanical gardens near my husband’s and my apartment. I identified for them the birds we saw, birds I had described to them over the phone in favor of talking about anything else. There were hadedas and go-away birds and red bishops and Egyptian geese, as ubiquitous and familiar to South Africans as Canada geese are to Americans. I could differentiate between the native species of doves. My parents were impressed, and though I basked in their approval, I didn’t want them to know that loneliness had occasioned my learning. I shook an acacia tree to flush the mousebirds hiding in its branches while my dad waited behind his camera.
On our return home, I watched him upload his photos and begin to edit them. Very few were the landscapes I had come to associate with his work; rather, the images were almost entirely of the birds I had pointed out. They were beautiful, but I could only bring myself to call them “cool” and “great,” like I always have. I thought it might embarrass him if I used a word like beautiful, that such a word would bring emotion too near the surface.
Of all the ways my relationships changed after moving here, finding a different way to connect to my dad was the most difficult. Until I moved away, our relationship was based on doing. Together, we maintained my 1999 CR-V for the eleven years I had it, and we got really into beer, recording different taste profiles in a shared journal. I worked in Yellowstone National Park because my father had; I kept maps of his favorite trails in my glove compartment. If we could have been closer because we talked about our feelings, then I wouldn’t know; that’s just not the kind of person he is. We had found our way, but with my emigration we lost it. When there was nothing for us to do together, we didn’t know how to communicate meaningfully. Long silences punctuated our phone and video calls, each of us too shy to say how much we missed the other, but unwilling nonetheless to hang up.
On the fourth day of my parents’ visit, we drove north to Magoebaskloof, where we stayed in off-the-grid cabins in the Woodbush Forest Reserve. A two-thousand-year-old cabbage tree that grows there is the oldest of its species in the world, and birders travel to the reserve every year. I read lists of species from the lodge’s website, and the native birds were nothing I’d ever had occasion to look up in my guidebook. What was a chorister robin? What was a trogon? A white-eye? The more I read about them, the more I understood something about birds I had never considered: they can be reclusive. I’d assumed that all birds have roughly the same level of aversion to humans and that the reason I hadn’t seen these species before was simply to do with habitat; the bugs they ate and the trees they preferred were simply elsewhere. Now I learned those weren’t the only factors; birds’ unwillingness to be seen could be as much a part of them as the colors of their feathers.
Faced with the idea that birds would actively avoid us, I worried that my father would have nothing to photograph, and my anxiety was disproportionate. I knew my parents had come for me, not the birds of Southern Africa, but that couldn’t dilute my fear of failing to support my dad’s art in the smallest way I could: by bringing him to birds that neither of us had ever seen.
I don’t think many people get to witness their parents’ creative expression, and I wonder if my father feels about my writing how I do about his photography. I feel protective of it, and proud; he has had to wait for retirement to devote himself fully to this practice that he loves. To hear anyone criticize his work would be nearly unbearable; it’s because of me that he’s had to wait to pursue his art.
This thinking ignores my father’s autonomy and, in some ways, undermines his decision to pursue a career in chemistry instead of photography. Perhaps he never wanted to be an artist. Perhaps changing his trajectory wasn’t the sacrifice I’ve always imagined. But sometimes I fear that he gave up what he actually loved because there was no one there to support him, or because he didn’t think he was good enough. I look at what he has given me, and I wish he could have had it for himself. I wonder if he could believe that my heart could break for him in the same way his could for me.
We were following a game trail when I spotted a bird about ten yards ahead perched on a low branch. All I could tell was that it was green with a pointy yellow beak. My parents and my husband and I took turns with the binoculars, but it wasn’t until the bird flew away that we were able to see its bright red belly. Later, from a blurry long-range photograph, we identified it as a Narina trogon, a bird named for its discoverer’s lover, a notoriously shy bird that customarily keeps its back turned to any lookers-on. It doesn’t live anywhere else in the world but on the African continent.
The next morning, as we were preparing to leave, I saw another Narina trogon through the bedroom window. It sat on a pine branch about twenty feet from the ground and it must have been unaware of me because it had perched facing in my direction; its red belly had caught my eye. I watched it as long as I could, regretting that my phone was dead so I couldn’t take a snap to show the others.
After the bird flew away, I walked to my parents’ cabin, trying to decide whether I should tell them what I had seen. I felt the same loneliness I had before their visit, when I was identifying birds by myself. I didn’t want to believe it was possible to feel this way before they had even gone.
My parents were sitting on the porch, huddled over the display screen of my dad’s camera as he shaded it from the sunlight. “Come look at what your dad saw,” my mom said. On the small screen my father showed me, in perfect detail and clarity, the Narina trogon he had captured. It had faced him, too.
“Mzansi South” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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