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The stories I tell to weave a magic cocoon of safety around us

The stories I tell to weave a magic cocoon of safety around us

How we find strength and comfort in words whispered and written.

The custom of storytelling continued in my own new family. I invented bedtime stories that were unusual takes on traditional fairy tales, or complete imaginariums.

Storytelling was a magic cloak that enveloped us as children. My mother could transport us from a dreary room to a house bustling with maids, where I smelled the red wax polish she had buffed into the porches of her middle-class employers.

My mother’s stories were infused with pinches of drama, tragedy, and comedy. They sketched ghostly outlines of people from another era. They felt so real that I reached out to touch their muslin hems.

The domestic and budgeting skills she learned in her years of service were passed on to her daughters. I only needed one lesson to know how to iron a shirt correctly. My older sisters bore the harder work of cooking, hand-washing laundry, and ironing stacks of clothing.

Late afternoons, we huddled around the radio, engrossed in drama series. We listened to Esmé Euvrard telling housewives “So maak mens!”. My father bought a Salora colour television in 1980 and we were spoiled for choice.

The custom of storytelling continued in my own new family when my daughter was small. I invented bedtime stories that were either unusual takes on traditional fairy tales, or complete imaginariums.

It helped that I started my career as a storyteller in museums, dreaming as I touched the objects in the dioramas on the first floor of the Local History Museum in Aliwal Street, Durban. I loved the colonial building with its broekielace trim.

The stories I whispered to my daughter in dim light wove a magic cocoon around us. She inspired me to reach into my lonely heart to create worlds she still remembers.

We both loved the fable about a boy who was forgotten in the Russian forests. He learned to speak to small wild animals who taught him how to forage for food. When he grew old, he rested in his chair and the vines and moss enveloped him until he returned to nature in the cycle of life.

These stories helped ease our anxiety and insomnia. Focused meditation, stretching, and visualisation exercises were our delights. Her favourite place was the beach, where her toes wriggled in the warm sand and she smelled the briny ocean.

I craved the cool, dark forest that enticed me to explore its mysteries. We would often stand behind a sheet of water in a cave hidden behind a waterfall.

That year, our feline companion, Stinky, suffered organ failure and I made the tough decision to release her from her pain. The house was silent on our return and we both cried for weeks, missing Stinky’s gentle presence and companionship.

How could I soothe this little girl’s profound hurt? I bought a tin of pretty pink note cards and envelopes and started writing letters from Stinky in Heaven.

I had to tiptoe into the lounge to place the letters on the table before my girl woke up. She was overjoyed and they started a spiritual relationship that still exists.

Soon, I ran out of cards, and we gained more ancestors who passed into the spirit realm. I wrote her letters on cheerful paper from her Ouma Liena, Uncle Andy, Auntie Karin, Uncle Riyahd. The letters are safe in a box and they’re among our most treasured possessions.

A decade later, I called on my inner strength and storytelling to weave a bond of safety around us. We were sharing living space in a shelter for abuse survivors. This was no place to fall apart.

I knew, from an early age of coping with trauma, that I would have to play a role in order to retain my core identity, dignity and self-determination.

In places where therapeutic approaches were modelled on a parent-child relationship with clients, it would be easy to submit and lose sight of the next phase of our life.

My ability to mask had reached an expert level. I spoke respectfully yet playfully with the house mothers and executed my cleaning duties with precision.

My favourite duties were solitary, scrubbing the red porches of my mother’s heyday and cleaning the staff ablution facilities.

Four days a week, unemployed residents made craft items to raise funds for the shelter. The bickering, petty gripes, and noise drove me away from this forced community.

I made a deal to work on my writing off-site. The noise faded into the background as I entered a world of words, writing enough to fund our own place.

Anchoring our future in the realm of fantasy was risky, but it was the best way I knew we would progress to a better situation, away from strife, gossip and fleeting relationships.

In our free time, we enjoyed a self-defence course and voice lessons. We savoured the feline therapy of Bella, the calico cat, and lying in dappled sunlight.

The voice lessons unlocked my chest and released torrents of emotion. With every note singing “Back to Sorrento” with Dean Martin, I stopped caring how much I weighed in others’ estimation. We were piloting a hot air balloon to unknown shores.

Cheryl Damon

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

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