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Mrs. Dup

Story ID:3016
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Person:Gladys Du Plessis
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OurEcho Preface This post deals with a mature theme or contains explicit language. While the post is not extremely violent or pornographic, it does contain language or explore a subject matter that may offend some readers. If you do not wish to view posts that deal with mature themes, please exit this post.
Ladies and Gentlemen: This story contains strong language. It is never my wish to offend anyone, so, if you are offended by expletives, please don't read this story. It is a true story about an extraordinary lady who lived in my home town.

Gladys Du Plessis was known as Mrs. Dup’ – just that. Everyone knew her first name and her last name, it wasn’t an uncommon one, because she belonged to a specific ethnic type of South African Boer, she was of French Huguenot extraction. The Huguenots were a Calvinistic religious order which became the subject of persecution in France during the reign of Louis the XIV and his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. In 1685, Louis revoked the “un-revocable” Edict of Nantes which afforded certain religious freedoms to religions that opposed the Catholic faith, with the result that Huguenots were forced to flee to find some place they could practice their beliefs freely and, in turn, impose them on others.

The Dutch had already arrived in South Africa at the “Cape of Good Hope” in 1620. Jan Van Riebeck landed with a band of settlers in 1652 with instructions to manage the Cape because the Dutch saw an interestingly strategic location for Dutch International Trade Dominance through the famous Dutch East India Company. Settlements were erected and the few African tribes that existed in those areas at that time, were used as “volunteer” labor. As others migrated south to see the strange white beings that would put you to work and sometimes even feed you, they were conscripted too.

The Huguenots arrived in the late seventeenth century and names like Du Plessis, Du Toit, De Villiers, De Klerk (originally Le Clercq), Fourie, Fouche, Joubert and Villion, which became Viljoen, a more acceptably Dutch sounding name, spread throughout the Afrikaans community. They brought their wine making abilities to South Africa from France and much of the excellent quality found in South African wines is due to Huguenot experience in France.

Mrs. Dup seemed to have lost all vestiges of a French connection. She walked with a pronounced limp after suffering from Polio as a child and her legs were uneven and weak. She had a short body with long arms. Her hands and feet were large and masculine and she was considered quite homely. She never let that stop her or even slow her down. A tough looking, wiry blonde with short cropped hair that would have been nothing but wisps on her small head, had she let it grow, Mrs. Dup ran the local General Store and unofficial mortuary, right opposite my cousin Alan’s house. She never minced words and always said precisely what she meant. Her language was called “colorful” by some and “outrageous” by others. At a time when gentlemen would not even tell a risqué joke in “mixed” company, Mrs. Dup walked her own path. She was so articulate in the lower forms of both the Afrikaans and English vernaculars that had Swaziland not been land-locked she would have left a wake of blushing sailors everywhere she went.

Her store was fascinating and both Alan and I spent as much time as she would allow visiting inside and trying to understand what even half the goods were! There was everything from hardware to voodoo supplies, dehydrated snakes, sea sand, different colored powders, creams and unctions, herbs and spices, there were blankets, plain and colorful, machetes, guns, knives, bicycles, pocket knives, cables, rope, monkey skins, hands and feet. There was even a Vervet monkey head. The mortuary was in an adjoining room and if you were lucky, she’d let you see a dead person. This was quite a thrill to a couple of small town boys - frightening and fascinating at the same time.

I don’t believe Mrs. Dup ever married. I can’t imagine she had any suitors, although she was very active and well known in the community. She attended funerals in somber clothing and stood looking dutifully sad at the dearly departed’s final farewell, bowing her head for whatever religious ceremony was necessary to ensure the deceased a front row seat in heaven, whether she believed in it or not. Business is business and Mrs. Dup knew that she did as good a job as anyone in Swaziland of preserving and making up the remains for the final viewing. She may even have felt some attachment to the corpses she decorated so carefully. She took care not to apply too much make-up so that her clients never looked clownish, but enough to make it look like the deceased was merely in repose, taking a nap from which he or she might wake up at any moment and ask: “Why is everyone looking so depressed?” Mrs. Dup took her work very seriously. She liked a good joke, but when it came to her taciturn clients or her macabre profession, she seemed to have had her sense of humor surgically removed.

My father, on the other hand, was probably the most irreverent person I have ever known and always willing to create humor in any form possible. Raised in Ireland as a Catholic, he epitomized what I came to know as the “European Catholic.” He was a man who took Catholicism and, indeed, any organized religion, with a bucket of salt. He saw it as a comfort to some, a necessary, extraneously imposed conscience for others, and often a socially acceptable expression of insanity for still others.

Both my father and mother loved Mrs. Dup. She didn’t really know it though and didn’t return their affection, but they didn’t mind. They admired her spirit, tenacity and business acumen. My father often took any opportunity to joke with her and every now and again, would manage to get just the shadow of a smile from her. This would immediately be submerged in the seriousness of a business question or some other distraction device, but the fact remained: Mrs. Dup could smile and my father felt it his mission in life to get her to laugh.

Death is entirely indiscriminate. It comes to all, whether you are rich, poor, beautiful, homely, charming, aloof, personable, brave, timid, gregarious, dull, fascinating, enthusiastic, black, white, brown, yellow, brunette, redhead or blonde. One day a local woman, who had been most of those things at some point in her life, died. Just about every adult in Swaziland knew her and her departure was a shock to some and, at the very least, a surprise to the rest.

Although my sister and I had never met her, we were told that we would have to attend the funeral. I hated and still hate funerals. I get very depressed at the family’s pain and wish I were dead too, so I begged and pleaded to be let off, but my parents said I had to go and I had to get dressed in my best and darkest suit.

The women, who always seemed to have as many clothes as they needed, were expected to wear a black dress with a black hat and a decorative veil over their faces. Men could wear a dark suit, if they didn’t have a black one, but were then expected to wear a black ribbon around the arm to signify their respect for the dead. I was handed a black ribbon to tie around the left arm of my suit jacket. Later it was pinned with a safety pin, because although I was a boy-scout, my parents had no faith in my ability to tie a knot that would last through the duration of this funeral. My best suit was a gray material with a lot of shiny thread in it. The fashion at the time was referred to as “Time to Shine” and the cut of the suit made it look like something the Beatles wore in “A Hard Days Night.”

The funeral was held at the in-town cemetery. This cemetery, like so many others, had obviously been built before anyone expected the town to grow and it occupied some of the best commercial real estate in the town. It was surrounded by hedges which had, mercifully, been retained. When you entered the main gate you moved from frenetic; haphazard shops on dirt roads to a calm, almost serene, block-sized enclosed area with nothing but eucalyptus trees, hibiscus hedges, bougainvillea, clipped lawns and marble tomb-stones. We liked to walk through there, coming back from the Indian tailor’s house, except at night, because no matter how brave you are, walking through a graveyard at night is just horrifying.

This day, the sun was bright with patches of clouds, the tombstones were clean, the grass smelled clipped and a mound of freshly dug, reddish-brown earth was piled beside a new entrance to the after life. The cemetery was crawling with mourners, all dressed in their Sunday best, despite the fact that this was not Sunday. My parents were escorted to a place near the front, so close to the inner circle that they found themselves standing beside Mrs. Dup. My sister and I, thankfully, were standing behind my parents and all of us were looking appropriately miserable when the priest began the ceremony.

I could just see between people’s arms and looked to see if there would be anything different. There was a speech about the virtues of the departed lady, her friendliness and popularity as evidenced by the number of people attending her final voyage, the loss to her family and friends; unequivocal assurances that she is now in a better place, which was always a confusing concept to me looking at her cramped coffin between the exhausted pall bearers. Then the priest asked God to take her into His presence and began the litany about dust and ashes, after which her coffin was lowered into the earth by means of three sisal ropes the sweating pall bearers let slip slowly through their raw hands. Family members moved forward and threw in flowers and when that was done a moment of silence was called for. It was during this moment that my father decided to lean over to Mrs. Dup and say quietly, in using his most sincere tone of voice:

“Gladys you are looking beautiful today.”

Without moving an inch from her sad and stooped position the beautiful looking Gladys Du Plessis exclaimed: “Fuck off!”

There was a stunned silence and then the entire crowd, including my father and mother, after a valiant struggle with self control, burst out laughing in absolute hysteria. People literally began falling onto the grass and over adjacent tombstones in hysterics and the poor priest, after a few ineffectual attempts to restore some decorum, threw up his hands and gave into his own hysterics. I looked at Mrs. Dup and saw that there was a slight hint of a smile on the serious face as she realized how enormously inappropriate her response had been under the circumstances. I looked at the family of the deceased and saw that even they were laughing through their tears and I knew, right then: this is exactly how I want to go!