“When Mom Was My Age” is an interview series between daughters and mothers. New interviews appear every Monday. If you would like to participate, contact Jane.
The following interview is with Naomi Dawn Heinemann (age 76), reflecting on her life at age 53, interviewed by daughter Judy Croome.
I live and write in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jozi, as we call it, is a vibrant, charismatic city and, like all big personalities, can dazzle and charm you with its complexities. Much like this energetic metropolis, my beloved Mom, Naomi Dawn Heinemann, is another big personality.
Where did you live?
After our years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) we were living in Welkom, the centre of the Free State Goldfields in South Africa.
[Note: South Africa is one of the world’s largest gold producers and the Free State Goldfields one of its major sources of gold production.]
What was a typical day like?
I’ve always been an early riser, and Dad’s shift at the mine started early. I liked to get up with him, around 4 a.m., to do the multitude of small household tasks needed to start the day. Then once you and Iona were safely at school, I’d do the big household tasks—cleaning, washing and ironing—before heading off to play tennis or squash. Then it was walk to the school to pick you girls up.
Afternoons would be taken up with supervising homework, sewing, preparing dinner. Evenings were for finishing whatever needed doing, then into bed at around 11 p.m. to read and relax. Weekends were spent following Dad around with his sport, camping in the bush as a family, or socialising with friends.
How did you manage to do all that you did in a day?
I made lists.
As a child I hated my Mom’s lists; the whipping out of the latest list from Mom’s pocket usually meant trouble for me. Even when we went on holiday, there were lists taped inside our suitcases so we would know what went with us, and what must go home with us. I swore that when I married and had my own home, I never wanted to see another list. Ironically, on the first day of my honeymoon, my accountant/lawyer husband whipped open his suitcase … and there, taped to the lid of his suitcase, was A List. Then and there, I gave up and decided if I couldn’t beat ’em, I’d join ’em. Now—but, shhhh! Don’t tell Mom—I live by my daily and weekly things-to-do lists, and couldn’t manage without them!
When I was 24, I’d been appointed the first female assistant accountant in the Free State Goldfields which, in the early 80s, caused some consternation in our small mining town. I’ve always had your total support in following my careers and yet, once you married Dad at 21, you never worked outside the home. Did you want to?
Never. My biggest dream was to be a mother and a wife and to be part of a family. But you always needed more than that, and that’s why I encouraged you to follow your own dreams.
What did you worry about most? Did the future scare you?
Of course I had the usual worries that my family would be safe and healthy and, most of all, happy. When there were earth tremors and Dad was still underground, I’d say a quick prayer for his safety. But I’ve never been a conscious worrier about what the future holds – perhaps that was God’s greatest gift to me. My way to survive what life throws at me is to live my life on a comme çi, comme ça basis: whatever happens, deal with it as best you can. You can’t change it, and worrying about whether something turns out for good or bad is a waste of time I never really had to spare.
I have many vivid, vibrant memories of you, but the ones that have most influenced me, have been the ones of you helping others, no matter what the cost to yourself. One memory that scared me the most was when those four enormous men were harassing that African grandfather with his grandchild. You were sworn at, physically threatened, spat on and called names. By the time I’d found Dad and brought him to the scene, you had controlled the situation, and were buying the old man and his grandchild lunch at a whites-only coffee shop. Why did you never join a political organisation like the Black Sash?
I’m not a political animal. We can’t all be a Ruth First or a Marion Sparg, who give their lives to heroic causes. Some of us are just ordinary folk, and possibly because I never had a family as a child, all I wanted in my life was to concentrate on bringing up my own family to be safe and happy. But people are people, and even a beggar in a street should be treated with respect and allowed to keep his human dignity. That old man was being humiliated in the eyes of his grandchild and I couldn’t bear watching it. So I stopped it. I didn’t want that little girl to have a memory of her Grandda being shamed. I wanted her to remember him, one day, with love and pride.
How do you look back on that age now? Do you have any regrets?
I loved my fifties! That decade of my life was my golden age: I feel I was at my best physically, mentally and emotionally. If I have one regret, it’s that we didn’t travel more. But money was always tight and there was always something more important to spend it on.
Yes, like my mom’s soup kitchen for the homeless street kids or buying blankets in winter for the township poor or … well, whoever needed help was never turned away from my parents’ door. No wonder they never had any money left over to spend on themselves!
Perhaps it’s only because I love my mom that I can see how her natural humility can’t recognise what I can: that, although she is—as she says—”only an ordinary Mom,” she is also a woman of courage and compassion, a shining example to her daughters, her grandchildren and all who meet her.
Judy has asked me to draw the name of a random commentator (you can leave comments below), who will win a copy of Judy’s novel Dancing in the Shadows of Love, available in paper or electronic editions. The winner will be selected and contacted by Jane on July 10.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.