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Life in a women’s shelter taught me the meaning of hope and grace

Life in a women’s shelter taught me the meaning of hope and grace

In seeking refuge from the world outside, we found a way to be ourselves.

Our two small families would sit and watch the squirrels in the garden. The young mother brought tokens of affection for my daughter: acorns that had fallen from the trees.

In a quaint, crumbling Edwardian home in a suburb of Cape Town, my daughter and I sought refuge at a difficult time. We walked through the garden, with its bright Bird of Paradise flowers and abundant shrubs.

There was a small courtyard between the modern annex buildings and the rambling structure. The cottage, creche, and staff offices stood just behind.

A tall brass-handled door led to the first part of our stay. The old home’s dining room doubled as a training room by day. Across the passage was a lounge with overstuffed couches and a TV, where residents could relax after making bags and baskets.

The broad staircase led to shared rooms named Hope, Love, and Joy. We were led into Grace, a sunny corner room, which we shared with a reserved young woman.

The rules of the refuge were reasonable. Mothers of small children had to supervise them at all times. We had to line up for meals.

The “house mothers” were our first point of contact for assistance and medical emergencies. From the 6am wake-up until after supper, the day was set aside for chores and duties.

Those who tried ditching their duties had to make up for it early the next morning. We signed out twice daily for shop time, and were allowed overnight and weekend passes.

I met women who had come to the shelter in the hope of rebuilding their lives. Some had come to escape abusive partners or stalkers. There were sisters from elsewhere in Africa, women who had exited the psychiatric system, and others struggling with addiction.

The homely setting encouraged the sharing of confidences. I didn’t ask the other women why they were there, but many trusted me with their life stories. Sometimes it was tiring to be the mother in the group.

I wonder what happened to some of the women who befriended us. The beautiful slay queen and weave-maker who was always cheerful. The quirky mother who found hands-on basics difficult. She had run away from home at 16, and had been drawn into a life of drugs and parties.

People are naturally curious. When they are bored and constantly in each other’s company, they may think they’re in love. A young mother had several romances going on at work and at the shelter. She and her four-year-old girl tugged at my emotions.

The child spoke like a small adult. Our two small families would sit and watch the squirrels in the garden. The young mother brought tokens of affection for my daughter: acorns that had fallen from the trees.

I often felt keenly observed as an outsider, a puzzle with many secrets. A casual confidence could lead to a shift of allegiance. A secret shared could become common gossip.

There was fierce competition for popularity, dominance, and resources, especially bigger portions of food. Soon after we arrived, we moved to the cottage. It had four bedrooms and accommodated nine women and their children. The small kitchen had a microwave oven and little else.

We could eat meals in the main dining room or at the cottage table. This created rivalry and tension with the manor residents.

Sometimes, because I had to leave my girl behind, I would surprise her with early returns and small treats. My mother’s love language of giving food had become my own.

To escape the shelter’s strictures and rules, we would go to nearby fast food places. It was a small gesture of independence and a reminder that life carried on in the world outside.

One of the women at the shelter regarded me as strict. She jokingly called me Ma’am Cheryl. I didn’t stay quiet when one woman gossiped about another, or when a very young girl got involved in online romances in exchange for mobile data.

She found the siren of money enticing, and a salon job led to secret romances and new braids every few days. We can’t reach her on WhatsApp anymore, and she was my daughter’s peer. I do worry.

One day, it was time to leave. We went to stay in a familiar place before I received a message telling me that a real home awaited us. I made the snap decision to accept the offer.

And so the light we had cautiously invited in became a daily marvel, filled with loving pets who shared their whimsy with us, in a place we could at last call home.

Cheryl Damon

Change expert, Cheryl Damon, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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