I do not know how deep my heritage of family memory goes, but presumably, on an organic level, it stretches back to the colonies of unicellular organisms that left their traces in the form of petrified mounds. The oldest family artefact I possess is a seal from the second half of the eighteenth century, which belonged to one Thomas Knox, my thrice-great grandfather. The handle of the seal has an almost baroque excess of lathe work and the brass face of the seal also shows marks of machine turning in the circular lines which texture the surfaces. I have reversed the photograph so that the initials of his seal can be read more clearly. About Thomas Knox, nothing else is clear to me. I have neither image of his face nor details of his life. I do not know exactly where he lived. There is a family story that the Knoxes were planter aristocrats lording it over Irish peasants, but I do not know whether this was the case. Thomas Knox has become, for me, less than a text: just two initials, a degree of relationship and a rough date. Were it not for the seal, he might not exist at all. As the imagination moves into the past, the inhabitants of that zone become increasingly tenuous until they merge into a more general notion of history, or disappear altogether.
A photograph from near the start of the oldest album shows a group of people lounging around a campsite, having posed themselves for the invisible and nameless photographer. One of the men, although I cannot say which one, is Raymond Cope, older brother of my grandfather Carol. The woman on the right with the white collar is presumably Jeannie Cope, nee Jeannie Roberts. If this is the case, then the man with a pipe and hat who places one hand on the back of her chair is probably her husband. On his right (our left) a young woman stands holding a rifle. She is, I think, my grandmother Vere. Family legend has it that Raymond Cope, after whom my brother was named, was a transport rider who worked the route between the new gold town of Johannesburg and the port of Lorenço Marques. The route was a difficult one and involved braving the dangers posed by the wildlife, the inhabitants of the region and tropical disease. It was none of these dangers which was to prove to be the older Raymond Cope’s downfall. Rather, the family story goes, it was a liking for booze and the wild life that did him in. In these rough conditions, he brought up his daughters (and if there were two of them, I do not know the other’s name) as boys, teaching them the manly skills of hunting, shooting and bush survival.
I can conclude that this life was not satisfactory to Jeannie and her daughters, as the story relates that the women left Raymond and his rough and ethanol-soaked habits, and that Vere never once again mentioned her father. If this is in fact the case, then I am at a loss to guess the source of the legend of his roughness and of the flight of the women. I do not know what became of Raymond, or whether he died before the railway replaced his function as a transport rider.My grandmother, who wore a bandolier and a spotted necktie as a young girl, can be seen in a Queen-Mum hat in her latter days. In the photograph from which this image was cropped, she holds in her right hand the symbol of her station: gin and tonic, in a glass.
Throughout the time that I knew her and, for all I know, ever since she left her father, Vere was devotedly ‘feminine’, wearing well-cut dresses, specialising in a modest demeanour and generally behaving in a very lady-like manner. The people in that brown and fading photograph have, with the exception of Vere, passed into that realm of forgetting where they have become names, initials, ghosts, surmises, or nothing at all. Those transport riders trekked through the mosquitoes and tsetse-fly of the Lowveld, and Vere must have passed through the White River area to which she was to return much later. Perhaps when she was a girl, the wagon train stopped and camped under the Big Thorn, a truly vast flat-topped thorn tree which stood at the centre of a circular driveway outside the main buildings at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, and which was known to have been a popular outspan place for the earliest whites who moved through the area. Vere may have had a continuity of connection with the place completely unknown to me as a child, and it also seems possible that this relationship, if it existed, may have shaped the lives of her younger daughter and her grandchildren in ways that she could not have suspected, for it was not more than a few metres from the Big Thorn that, in 1961, she attended the wedding of her daughter Lesley to Anton Luitingh Junior. Anton was, as I make it, about twenty-eight. It was less than a year before Lesley’s fortieth birthday.