I have little or no sense of direction. When I must think in compass points, I project a schoolroom map of the United States in my mind’s eye. And say to myself: OK, if I’m facing California, north is to my … right?
Reading a real map can take me awhile. When I moved to South Africa in 1993 as a reporter for the Associated Press, I relied on a map book of Johannesburg and the surrounding region of Transvaal. The map, north to south, east to west, was about as big as one of those atlases you find in libraries. It had a soft red cover I can still see.
Each time I had to go someplace new, I would first translate what I was seeing on the map’s pages as a list of directions to myself, written in my reporter’s notebook. Out of the office to the highway, take exit Y, turn toward California after three intersections, then the next right and so on. I’d stack my notebook atop the map, put them both on the passenger seat of my little sky-blue Toyota hatchback, and off I’d go.
Sometimes a map can do only so much. One morning, I read in the local papers that Josia Thugwane was back home after winning the marathon at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Thugwane, a mine custodian who had never been to school, was the first black athlete to earn Olympic gold for South Africa. I decided to try to interview him. I did not have a phone number or an address, but the papers had mentioned his hometown, which was on my map. How far could it be? And how hard could it be, once I got there, to find a national hero in a sports-mad country?
It turned out to be pretty far. Night was falling before I pulled into the tiny town. Shops were closed. Mine was the only car on the main road. That made it all the easier to spot, in the distance, the lights from the party Thugwane’s neighbors were throwing him, and to hear the marching band from a nearby high school that had turned up to serenade him. I got the interview.
My map, my notes, and serendipity were my allies on the roads for three years in South Africa. I moved on to assignments in India, Egypt and the UK. In 2008 I returned for another tour in South Africa.
The maps had changed. Instead of just four regions – Transvaal, Orange Free State, Cape Province and Natal – South Africa was now divided into nine provinces that better reflected population centers when everyone, not just whites, counted. Streets and towns and other places had new names to more fully acknowledge and share history. Back in 1993 I’d flown from New York to an airport named for Jan Smuts, a white military leader who in the early 20th century was twice prime minister of the Union of South Africa. By 2008, that same airport, which I flew into this time from London, had been re-christened to honor Oliver Tambo, a black lawyer and teacher who was president of the anti-apartheid African National Congress from 1967 to 1991. Tambo died in 1993, just a year before South Africa’s first all-race elections.
My family had changed. My husband and I returned to South Africa with a daughter who was almost five years old. Technology had changed. My husband bought me a GPS as a birthday gift. What a revelation! A soothing woman’s voice in the car to effortlessly if somewhat woodenly read aloud the kind of directions I used to sweat out for myself.
At the risk of leaving the mistaken impression I was a sportswriter in Johannesburg, I have another story to share of a world class runner from South Africa. In 2009 Caster Semenya won the world championship in the 800 meters in Berlin. Her time of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds was more than 2 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher. But her victory was quickly overshadowed by questions from her rivals on the international track circuit about whether Semenya was really a woman. The International Association of Athletics Federations violated its own rules by speaking publicly about investigating the charges, a humiliating situation for an 18-year-old woman. I was curious how Semenya’s family and neighbors in rural South Africa were handling the news. As with Thugwane, I had little more than the name of a village. I set out from Johannesburg this time with a photographer and a TV crew. It was a somewhat bigger story than Thugwane’s straightforward triumph. We managed to get to a community radio station, where I interviewed a host about local reaction and got directions to the homes of some of Semenya’s relatives. They lived in a particularly treeless and flat corner of South Africa. I could imagine Semenya fixing her eyes on the horizon and running and running. Among her relatives there was an older cousin who told me that Semenya had been a stand-out athlete from a young age, and that this caused some talk in a traditional community where only boys were supposed to be interested in sports. The cousin said Semenya’s family always supported her in her ambitions and told her not to get upset when people made fun of her for her looks or jealously tried to shake her confidence when she won. International track officials would eventually and quietly wrap up their investigation. Semenya kept running – she won gold in the 800 in Rio just this last summer. I was happy to get some insight into her story. As the mother of a young girl, I was even happier to get a bit of child-rearing guidance from an elder.
The very next day after my visit to Semenya’s village, my daughter went to a birthday party. A friend whose daughter also had been invited drove both girls from school to the celebration, at a tea house in a garden in a part of Johannesburg that had been veldt not 10 years before. When it came time for me to do the pick-up, I found my GPS completely baffled by the address. I wandered a bit, then I used my cell phone –another innovation since the 90s – and called the host. She talked me in like a flight deck controller guiding an errant pilot on a moonless night. All the while, I was thinking: But I found Caster Semenya’s family just yesterday!
At about that same time, back in the United States, in California, my father bought my mother a GPS. My mother had gotten lost coming home from the hairdresser across town. A place she had been going every other week for 30 years. My dad thought, or hoped, she was confused because new buildings were changing the landscape in San Diego. But my mother’s GPS was the harbinger of a dark development, one we were all slow and even reluctant to understand. My mother was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s.
It is a fierce disease. My mother lost so much of herself before she died in January, 2016.
My mother was a nurse. Nurses identify problems and set out to solve them with dispatch, expertise, creativity and no small amount of humor. As far as my mom was concerned, all the better if you can also look great while you’re doing it. Did I mention she visited her hairdresser every other week? In the intervening weeks, she had her nails done.
When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my mom was frightened and angered. Knowing what to do and doing it were her way of caring. She imagined her illness would rob her of her ability to show love. But another nursing skill she had perfected was that of radiating steadfast calm and reassurance without saying a word. Even as her illness progressed, there were still times when her simple presence was a source of strength for me. A lodestar.
My daughter has been known to use compass points when giving me directions. She makes up for that by being a little unclear on left vs. right. She knows she comes from a line of confident, competent women. We get where we’re going – thanks to the love of family and friends, thanks to whatever technology is at hand, and thanks, every now and then, to a little luck. My daughter will be ready, when it’s time, to find her way without me.