Johanna Theunissen grew up playing marbles on Sir Abe Bailey’s stoep.
She lived in a world before most roads were built, before television; she grew up close to her family, close to the sea, and to the people of the sea.
On Friday August 31, Ms Theunissen turned 100 years old and shared her memories of growing up in Muizenberg from the St James Retirement Hotel where she now lives.
“I was born Johanna Auret, but my grandfather called me Joantjie,” she said.
She speaks the pet name with relish, with love. She was her parents’ first-born child, but her grandparents raised her.
“My mother said to them, ‘This is my child, how can I give her to you?’ And my grandmother just said, ‘This is not your child, she is ours’,” Ms Theunissen said, smiling.
And so she was raised by doting grandparents, between Diep River, where her grandparents’ home still stands, and the open beaches of the far south.
“My father, Jan Auret, worked for my grandfather, so I was never far from my parents,” she laughed.
Her grandfather, Abraham Zachiariah Auret, was a bit of a maverick, always with a broader vision than those around him. He ran a bustling fishing business, but he also bought a hotel, Mon Disa, which was close to the Muizenberg train station – and he was the first person in the Muizenberg area, she said, who opened the doors of the hotel to Jewish customers.
This irrevocably changed the family’s life, as every
year their holiday seasons were spent taking care of the needs of the Jewish folk from Johannesburg, who often booked the entire hotel out for bar mitsvahceremonies,she remembered.Hergrandfather was always invited to the functions.
He later sold that hotel to Jewish business owners, she said.
Mr Auret also taught a man, whom she only knew as Mr Buhr (whom everyone called Boer), all he knew about building boats.
Mr Buhr went on to build most of the fishing fleet’s boats thereafter.
Her stories are rich with detail. Christmas was a time of special joy and family cohesion.
“My grandfather had boats and fishermen who worked for him, but there was no ‘us and them’. As children, I played with the fishermen’s children, and we all played marbles on Abe Bailey’s stoep. He never chased us away,” she said, referring to the diamond tycoon, politician and cricketer.
She recalls walking everywhere they went, and the way her grandmother would fuss over their sore, bare feet and then organise shoes for all the children.
Mr Auret Senior and Sir Bailey would do business together, so she saw the Randlord often, and described him as a very good, kind-hearted man.
“The Aurets had a good name, and I am a granddaughter,” she said. Not just any granddaughter, but the pet child of her grandfather, she smiled.
In the lead-up to Christmas, Ms Theunissen’s mother, aunt and grandmother would go to the city to do the gift shopping; to Garlicks
and Stuttafords to buy the “poplappies” for the girls, and marbles and badges for the boys.
As a child, part of her contribution would be to sew dresses for the dolls, which would be given as gifts to the fishermen’s children on Christmas Day beneath a massive pine tree brought to their front garden for this very purpose.
Fairy lights and decorations in the tree, the excitement, the preparation and the sense of community were a central part of her childhood.
She still smiles at the memory of her mother doling out koeksisters to her and her friends, or the times her mother would return with little bags of sweets for the children as treats.
She remembers the children bringing empty tobacco packets to her home and having her grandmother fill these with raisins for them.
“How we loved those raisins,” she said.
The children went to school, but afterwards were free to play.
“The girls all wore long dresses with long sleeves and hats: it was a lovely time for children. I had a happy childhood,” she said.
Ms Theunissen’s early memories were of her grandfather building little homes for the fishermen and their families in Constantia.
“There were no houses there yet. No roads. They hadn’t been built yet. And my grandfather built homes for the men who worked for
him and their families,” she said.
Her grandfather was a fair man, she said, and was once asked by an out-of-town visitor why he associated with coloured people.
“He told them, ‘You do not live here.
“These are my people; we are all the same here. If you do not like this, you can leave’,” she said.
Hermemoriesare unfiltered – she as readily remembers her grandfather giving the fishermen wine – each man had his own- but giving their pay cheques to their wives. “Otherwise they would drink all their money out in one weekend, and the wives would not be able to feed or clothe the children,” she said.
She said Kalk Bay was filled with Filipino fishermen and their families in later years, and they bought or built their own homes along Boyes Drive and were nice people.
Ms Theunissen described Simon’s Town as raw in those days – undeveloped, and far away.
Too far away to visit because only the rich visitors could afford to take the train, not the locals, she said.
Born Johanna Auret in 1918, she married Pieter Theunissen, a bank manager from Stellenbosch.
The couple lived in Lakeside and had three children: two daughters and a son. In his later years, Pieter was the curator of the Military Museum.
Ms Theunissen was a housewife, and an excellent seamstress.
She volunteered at the Westlake TB hospital and worked for Warner Lambert for many years, once her children were grown.
She has nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Kalk Bay, St James and Muizenberg were the fishing centres of the far south of her youth, and Ms Theunissen remembers waiting with her friends in Kalk Bay to
watch the fresh fish catches come in.
“You could see the fish jumping high out of the nets there were so many,” she said. “It was a wonderful life.”