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    Synopsis:

    A story of hope, strength, struggles and tenacity that started with a young girl’s dream of coming to America from South Africa during the hated apartheid era. South Africa remains etched in Helen’s heart, she recounts her stories. Encountering AK47’s aimed at her back and stomach in Niarobi, Kenya, to struggling to get and keep a work visa in Texas, to meeting a President face to face. Her journey has been filled with lessons and miracles.

    Chapter 1

    South Africa

    The street lamp partially hid the white stuffed sock tied to a string. It was lying still on the hot asphalt. “Shhhh…” The sound of silence echoed as we huddled behind a large oak tree. My friends and I sat hunched and quiet, waiting.

    “Here they come!”

    As we slowly pulled the string, the white stuffed sock bobbed and glided across the street, shadowed by the dim streetlight. Screams of fear and running feet were heard, for what seemed to be a mile away in the opposite direction, as people ran back to where they came from. The game of “who thinks it’s a snake” started again, and again, and again. Our tummies hurt from all the laughter. We played until our parents called us in to clean up and go to bed.

    We loved to play outside in the street, and in the park, which had trampolines, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a place to ride our bikes. The tennis courts had pressed red clay with whitewashed lines. We played tennis with our wooden rackets and ate wild gooseberries growing around the courts, which made for great snacks. The one and only low water tap that protruded from the ground was used to water the clay courts, make tea, and quench our thirst. The little corner store was a long way away, so we had to rely on this tap. My mom would not let us wear blue jeans, drink “fizzy drinks” such as Coca-Cola, or eat out of a can. She was a gourmet cook, and we ate only fresh food, many fruits, and fresh fish from the fish market every Wednesday night. A rare treat was to get dressed up, go to the city, and eat at Wimpey’s, where I ate a hamburger or grilled-cheese sandwich with a lime milkshake (my favorite).

    We walked miles to school and back, our heavy, hard cardboard suitcases, filled with books, dragging hockey sticks, wooden tennis rackets, swim gear, and more. No school buses existed and there was no public bus route that would take us to school close to where we lived.

    Jaracanda trees filled the streets and sky with a brilliant lavender-blue color in the summertime. Many “monkey weddings” happened in the summer (short, soft rain with the sun shining brightly). Summertime also brought on electrical storms that were fierce. The winter had many days of blue skies and sunshine.

    It snowed once in my lifetime that I spent in South Africa. Everyone scrambled to build a tiny snowman. The higher altitude of Johannesburg, 5,751 feet, gave us a California climate. No central heat or air in any homes, and the winter cold was brutal to our fingers and toes. In the winter we would take a small hot bath at night (which we shared, Mom first, then my sister, and then me, as the severe droughts made water scarce—it would sometimes not rain for two to three years, and we would watch the clouds roll in and roll out with not a drop of water hitting the ground). In the morning, we would take turns plugging in the asbestos heater and throwing our clothes over it to warm them, then get up and hurriedly get dressed.

    When I turned fourteen, we had to move from our duplex of fourteen years, as it had sold. We had nowhere to go. There was an old house down the road with an overgrown old shed, and the woman living in the house offered the shed to us at a small rental fee, which my mom could afford. It had no running water or indoor toilet. My sister and I prayed and prayed that we would not have to live in that old shed. Then someone offered to help Mom, and we moved to a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a suburb far away from Bez Valley. It took two public buses to get to my all-girls high school, and I was very shy. In the cold winter, in the rain, in the heat, I stood waiting for public buses to bring me to and from school, leaving home at six in the morning and getting home between seven and eight o’clock in the evening, after piano lessons, hockey, swimming, tennis, and netball (a game similar to basketball).

    Every Christmas, in the summertime, my mom, my sister, and I rode the train a thousand miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town and back, to our grandparents, cousins, and friends. My sister was born in Cape Town and I was born in Johannesburg. We lived in Johannesburg, but our grandparents, family, and friends lived in Cape Town. Every year Mrs. Curry would teach my sister and me to swim in a tidal pool in the ocean, at Kalk Bay. When we visited and swam in Fishhoek Beach the water was warm from the Indian Ocean, with streaks of icy water as the Atlantic and Indian Ocean joined there at Cape Point (very close to Fishhoek).

    I loved the clickety-clack of the train, the wind blowing on our faces in our sleeper car, the narrow passageway and the food in the dining car. I enjoyed looking at the railway tracks speeding under us through the toilet hole when I stepped on the steel pedal to flush. I spent hours looking out of the windows at the different terrain. At night, we closed the windows; otherwise, the soot from the locomotive would cover us by morning. It covered us anyway. I would lie and listen to the sound of the steel wheels on the tracks and feel the sway, which rocked me to sleep. It took two or three days to get to our destination, depending on whether it was the milk train, which would stop at every small and nonexistent town to deliver milk in the Karoo Desert. Looking out the window in the Karoo, I would see the terrain had small cacti, shrubs, many rocks, sand, and maybe one small house in view. Near the end of the train journey, the train winds through tunnels, through the mountains and then all of a sudden, out of the dessert, the terrain changes and a most beautiful sight of vine yards and wild flowers appear, a part called the Garden Route of the Cape. This journey was the highlight of every year.

    Back in Johannesburg after the Christmas summer holidays, a new year of school would begin. Excited to see all our friends and exchange holiday stories.

    One day I had terrible pain in my stomach. My mother gave me the usual treatment for stomach aches, a saucer filled with burnt brandy. Dr. Ribinowitz made a house call and said I had to go to the hospital and have surgery.

    My eyes were heavy and I was groggy from the anesthesia. I’d had my appendix out. I thought I was seeing things. My dad was sitting beside my bed, a rare visit. It was rare to get a visit from my Dad, as he worked in Persia for many years for British Petroleum, and some years he worked in South Africa.

    “Hi,” he said.

    “Hi, Dad, I had a wonderful dream. I dreamt I went to America.”

    “America?” he answered, surprised. “Why do you want to go there? It is a mess. I think the pain medicine is making you have dreams, because at thirteen years old, ow are you going to America?” It was 1968, and the United States was going through many changes. In my mind, I determined that I would one day visit America.

    I felt very groggy, but my dad and I continued to talk a little about the crazy dream I had. The dream of coming to America never left me. I had no idea how vast it was in the United States.

    My dad’s twin brother had migrated with his family and settled in the San Rafael, California, area. My cousin, who was my age, started writing to me and we sent each other tapes with our voices and interesting things about how we lived. I loved it. It was not often, but I would get so excited to hear about America.

    I started making jewelry pendants out of baked clay, with leather thongs for the necklace, in all colors and designs and then selling them to get money to go to America. My mom would take them to work and sell them for me. The people in our neighborhood bought them as well. At the end of that year, I had made a little over the equivalent of a hundred American dollars (a hundred rand). I was never going to make enough money to go to America!

    Years went by; I completed high school at age sixteen, and then went to nursing school to become a registered nurse and midwife, or a “sister,” as they called us, which means a nun in the United States. When I first came to the United States, I would tell people I was a sister, and they would say, “That’s nice.” I found out later people had no idea I was saying I was a registered nurse; they thought I was saying I was a nun. At that time, nurses were the lowest paid profession in South Africa; next was teachers.

    I kept dreaming of America.

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