Yvonne Lorraine Engela (1934-2013)
Yvonne Lorraine van der Westhuizen was a talented poet and writer in her own right – having written 97 poems in Afrikaans, and 81 in English – a total of 178 written between 1953 and 1971 – although she never submitted her poetry for publication. Yvonne married Theo Engela, who was a published writer of some local renown, and their daughter, Christina, is also a writer. A collection of Yvonne’s Afrikaans poetry (“Op Vreemde Weë“) was released on April 8, 2018, and an English poetry collection (“When Day Is Done“) on April 11 of the same year.
Yvonne Lorraine van der Westhuizen was born on August 25, 1934 in the district of Adelaide, a small town located in the Eastern Cape (then part of the Cape Province), South Africa. She was the 6th of 7 children of Helena Catherina Durant (1898 – 1989) and Peter James van der Westhuizen (- 1943), and was the youngest of 5 daughters.
In 1943, Yvonne’s father died from cancer while in military service, stationed at East London. After that, her mother had to raise their 7 children on a war widow’s pension of 5 pounds per month.
In 1948, Yvonne’s mother and elder brother Johnny moved the seat of the family to Port Elizabeth, to live at No 6 Brister Place, North End, Port Elizabeth.
Yvonne attended school at ‘Waterval’ – a farm school in the Adelaide district, boarding with the teacher’s family for a number of years and only seeing her mother when she would go home on holidays. The little school-house still survives to this day, being used as a rural school for farm-worker’s children.
Yvonne arrived in Port Elizabeth in time to complete her last year of primary school at Excelsior Primary School (which still exists in the same location at Brister Place). The school was an easy choice, as it was right on the other side of their boundary fence! Having been at a farm school with children of mixed years in the same class, and having helped older children with their work, she was already familiar with all her work and was was perceived by teachers to be something of a prodigy!
Yvonne enrolled at Pearson High School in Mount Croix in January 1949 to start high school, which in those days started at standard 7 (grade 9).
In December 1950, Yvonne completed Std 8 and left high school. Having grown up poor, she had tasted what money was during her school holidays while working for the PE Wool Board, and decided never to go back to school, despite being offered a study bursary to go to college if she finished Matric. In those days, girls seldom stayed to Matric, and it was expected of them to finish school in standard 8 – after all, they weren’t expected to have careers, they were expected to get married and be dependent on a man! This proved to be a choice she would regret her entire life.
In 1950, after a few unhappy months spent apprenticing as a nurse, Yvonne started working at Engineering & Hardware.
In 1952? She began working at Robertson & Moss construction as the Manager’s secretary, where she earned the nickname of ‘Ginger’ on account of her striking hair color.
In 1956, Yvonne resigned from Robertson & Moss after the manager attempted to break up her marriage, which he did by duping her into believing she was being loaned to the Cape Town branch of the company to train the new staff there – meanwhile, he had transferred her to Cape Town. Yvonne traveled back to Port Elizabeth and found a job at Colonial Bank in North End.
In 1972, Yvonne left Wesbank in North End, Port Elizabeth, where she had worked since 1956, when it had still been Colonial Bank. As was the (unfair) practice in those days, there was no such thing as ‘maternity leave’ – pregnant women were forced to resign at 7 months term. Yvonne supported her alcoholic husband Theo on her six month’s unemployment fund payout until 1973, when Christina was ten months old, and Yvonne started working for Lubbe Recordings, a contractor to the Department of Justice, where she typed transcripts of recordings of court cases at home. She continued to work for Lubbe from home until the company became Sneller Transcriptions, and after that with their successor Ikamva Veritas.
In 1983, when Christina was 10 years old, Yvonne was 53, and she realized she wouldn’t be leaving very much behind for her child to inherit, and she wanted to buy a house. She In order to do that, she needed to get a job with a government department, since in those days, the government used to subsidize housing purchases for employees. These ambitions led her to apply for a job as a typist at the South African Department of Justice. Yvonne started work at the Magistrate’s Court in North End, Port Elizabeth in 1983, as a typist on the first floor, next door to the old Library – and quickly became known for her work ethic. The second job supplemented Yvonne’s income and also, since it was a government job, it allowed her to reach for the stars and buy a house, and had benefits like pension, job security, salary, a 13th check, and the housing subsidy.
Although Yvonne was repeatedly praised for the quality and speed of her work by numerous magistrates and even Chief Magistrates – and received a performance bonus every single year she worked for the department, she was overlooked for promotions to Senior Typist, due to her having only standard 8, and not matric. In 1989, the Supreme Court (which had for many years shared the Magistrate’s Court building) moved into a new building in Bird Street, Central – and Yvonne accepted a transfer there in 1990 to be the Senior Typist, where she worked until her retirement on August 25, 2000, having worked 2 jobs concurrently since 1983.
Now a pensioner at the age of 65, Yvonne continued to work from home, typing, until the very day before she was admitted to hospital in early October 2013, where she died on October 24.
Marriage and Later Life:
In 1948, the Van Der Westhuizen family moved into a house in Brister Place, Port Elizabeth, across the road from where Theo Engela was staying with his parents. Although the houses in that closed circle were close together and often the residents attended the same social events, she was something of an introvert and didn’t socialize that much. Yvonne did not think much of Theo at the time.
In 1951? – more to prove a point to Jock Elberg, a lover wwho had spurned her and married another woman than anything else, Yvonne married John van Straaten – a marriage which would last only 2 miserable, abusive weeks, and which left her with an abiding dread of physical intimacy. As soon as they returned to Port Elizabeth from honeymoon in Knysna, she packed her bags, went home to her mother and divorced him. Yvonne had the dubious honor of being the first member of her immediate family to divorce – which was something of a social scandal to at least one of her elder sisters, who was a socialite.
Sometime later, one of the Van Der Westhuizen sisters, Dulcie, caught Theo Engela‘s eye, and he invited her to a dance. Dulcie was not really interested, but suggested he ask Yvonne, her younger sister. Yvonne and Theo went out on a date together, and while at the party venue Theo was asked to play the piano – which he did. As it turned out, this is one of the points that won Yvonne over to his charms.
Theo and Yvonne married in August 1955 and moved to Johannesburg shortly thereafter, where Theo had found a good job. Sometime later, in 1958, Theo’s mother was taken ill and was in hospital. Theo (moved by an instinct that something was bad was going to happen) had gone to Port Elizabeth to be with his mother. Yvonne followed, to be met by a distraught Theo at the train station, to learn that his Theo’s mother Hendrika had passed away. An operation to repair a leaking aorta had failed, and after a month-long illness in hospital, she had literally bled to death. Theo and Yvonne remained in Port Elizabeth thereafter.
Because of Theo’s heavy drinking, he was unable to hold down a job for long. Theo, who was a talented writer, strove to write a novel that would be a ‘best seller’. Knowing his talent with the pen, Yvonne acquiesced to his request to support him at home for an initial period of 1 year, in order to have the time to write his ‘best seller’. The end result was “A Way Of Life“, which although a brilliant work about the struggle of an alcoholic character, received only rejection letters. This was followed by “Only Yesterday”, which was also rejected. Yvonne had had enough being the sole breadwinner in their relationship, and pressured Theo to look for employment again. Theo resumed working for himself as an entrepreneur, tuning and repairing pianos for clients in the Port Elizabeth area, and in fact, alongside names such as Eddie Yapp, Theo Engela became well-known as one of the best piano tuners in the area.
Yvonne and Theo’s marriage was generally a troubled one. She was a romantic who craved love, affection and attention, and Theo was essentially an emotional cripple, being outgoing yet emotionally aloof. As time went by, he gradually spent more time with his drinking friends than at home. This led to inevitable tensions in their marriage. Further, due to his excessive consumption of alcohol, it began to affect his health. They remained childless for the first 17 years of their marriage – which also contributed to tensions on Yvonne’s side because Yvonne longed terribly to have children. Doctors blamed Theo’s heavy consumption of alcohol for a very low sperm count. Additionally, she’d also suffered internal injuries when she fell out of a tree as a child, which also appeared to play a role.
By 1972, Yvonne had given up on ever having children – only to learn, quite unexpectedly, that she was pregnant! In 1972, expecting the birth of their first child after 17 and a half year’s marriage (and numerous embarrassing and invasive fertility treatments) Yvonne and Theo moved from the bachelor flat at Clevedon Court they had occupied since 1968, into a much larger apartment in the same building, flat number 1, which had private front and back entrances.
On February 1, 1973 – at the age of 38, Yvonne gave birth to a daughter, Christina.
In 1976, Yvonne bought a black and white Philips TV for the family, considering how much Christina was missing out on the new phenomenon, and the kind of educational programming Yvonne had picked up on from seeing TV at friends and relatives homes.
In 1977 Yvonne finally divorced Theo – not for a lack of love in their relationship, but because of the financial burden supporting two people on her small income presented. Theo was an alcoholic, which made him unemployable. He also appeared to be one of those alcoholics who couldn’t stay on the wagon, despite having supported numerous alcoholics through their own recoveries through the AA during the 1960’s and 70’s. Neither of them remarried, and they stayed in contact, and Theo still came to visit Christina and to have at least one meal with them per day after that.
In 1978, heavy weather resulted in large-scale flood damage to areas of Port Elizabeth – which was almost as bad as the ‘Big Flood’ of 1968, during which cars and caravans could be seen washing down the Albany Road valley to the sea! The flat at Clevedon Road was flooded out due to it being on the ground floor, but also partially below the water table on one side. When the water table rose due to heavy rain, the water seeped through the floor. The flat having been condemned after assessment, Yvonne sought new lodgings – but the family could only relocate in late 1979. In the meantime, the ‘condemned’ flat remains in use today, for a time owned by another relative, with periodic flooding still causing damages to tenants.
In 1979, young Christina started school at Greenwood Primary School in Park Drive, going straight to Sub A instead of Pre-primary, at the age of 6.
In early 1980, Yvonne temporarily moved the household to the ironically named ‘Hillside Mansions’, a decrepit old building overlooking Brickmaker’s Kloof, while waiting for no 7 Hampton Court – which was a thoroughly modernized show-flat of the building – to be cleaned and repainted. This took several weeks, during which time, Theo, who visited often, was struck by a passing vehicle – hit and run – in the street outside. Being the tough man he was, Theo took the mild concussion and torn ligaments in his left lower leg in his stride so to speak, and continued his walk to the nearby corner cafe to ask the perplexed shop owner for a dozen scrambled eggs!
In 1980, Yvonne moved the household into number 7 Hampton Court, in Pearson Street, Central – where the family lived happily for the next 4 years.
In 1980, Yvonne’s sister Marjory died from a brain aneurysm at Provincial Hospital in Port Elizabeth.
Largely due to the combined income provided by both her jobs, in June 1983, for the first time in many years, Yvonne was able to go on a holiday to visit her family in Johannesburg. She and Christina traveled by train and stayed for the June school holidays. The trip was repeated the following year, also in the June school holidays.
In late 1984, Yvonne caught pneumonia which developed into full-blown asthma directly as a result of an incompetent medical practitioner who (closed his practice three times to retire – only to return out of boredom) had repeatedly prescribed archaic treatments for bronchitis.
In 1984, a new system which allowed building owners to sell off apartments in their buildings separately, affected rent costs for flat and apartment tenants across the board and threatened to make rental un-affordable. Until 1984, monthly flat rentals had been low and easy for ordinary people to afford – suddenly prices doubled, tripled. By the time the family moved from Hampton Court, the monthly rent had already doubled.
In 1984, Yvonne was informed that she was eligible to apply for the state housing subsidy, and so house-hunting began in earnest!
On Christina’s 12th birthday – February 1, 1985 – almost as a birthday present, Yvonne moved the household out of 7 Hampton Court, Pearson St, Central into a house in Richmond Hill she had bought through a state housing subsidy agreement for a then princely sum of R48,000.00. The monthly house payments also meant there would be no more annual holiday trips away for the foreseeable future.
A few days after being admitted to hospital, on August 16, 1985, Theo died at Provincial Hospital, presumably of pancreatic and widespread internal cancers resulting from heavy alcohol abuse and smoking. He’d spent the last week of his life before that with Yvonne and Christina at the house so he could be cared for. His ill health was obvious and he struggled for breath. Despite them having been divorced, she took his death very hard. He’d always recovered miraculously from injuries and illnesses, leaving doctors astonished and amazed, and so she never really expected him to die this time. Yvonne also paid for his funeral, and other arrangements.
In January 1986, Christina started high school at Pearson High School – the same school Yvonne and several other relations attended, but at the new building in Summerstrand.
In June 1987, Yvonne took her mother and Christina on holiday to Johannesburg for the school holidays, by air. She did this on a relatively small income compared to what she was making by 2013 – and by which time prices had escalated and the cost of living had made such luxuries untenable.
In 1988, at the age of 54, Yvonne eventually got her driving license, at the second attempt, a feat she was always very proud of, even after one of her sisters – who had always been financially well-off after marrying a railway signals engineer, scornfully asked her ‘what do you want a license for?‘
In August 1989, Yvonne purchased her first and only car, a 1979 VW Golf for R3000. Up to this time, Yvonne had relied on public transport to commute to and from work, or lifts from colleagues or family. Christina had used public transport to and from school.
In June 1989 Yvonne’s sister Lettie died a lingering death from acute emphysema in a Johannesburg hospital. Having asthma herself, Yvonne was terrified of dying like her sister.
On August 8, 1989, Yvonne’s mother Helena Catherina Van Der Westhuizen died suddenly and unexpectedly while alone at Yvonne’s sister Dulcie’s home in Kragga Kamma, Port Elizabeth, in her 91st year.
In November 1991, Christina wrote her final Matric exam and matriculated from high school. She would see Christina off to her army national service in the following January.
In December 1992, Yvonne proudly attended Christina’s demobilization parade after completing her year’s military service. Christina rejoined the Army for the first of several short-term contracts of employment.
In November 1993 Yvonne financed the building of a new garage for the house in Richmond Hill, which was – due to the position of the house to its plot boundaries – basically only long enough to accommodate a small car, but was sufficient for her own car – and to cater for her daughter Christina’s later Beetle obsession!
In December 1993, Yvonne invested in a new Panasonic color 68cm TV, replacing the failing old black and white Philips she had bought in 1976. It may seem like a small thing, but to a poor struggling single parent, it was an achievement.
In 2000, Yvonne’s niece Lynette – who had grown up with her and her siblings as a sister, as she was also partly raised by Yvonne’s mother, died aged 50 in Johannesburg from an asthma attack and incompetent medical staff.
On August 25, 2000, Yvonne retired from the Port Elizabeth Supreme Court, as Chief Typist with an impeccable record and having received numerous merit awards during her 16 years of service! The staff threw her a well-attended farewell party.
In January 2006, Yvonne accompanied Christina to Bedfordview Gardens hospital in Johannesburg for gender confirmation surgery. She also helped Christina to pay R50,000 for the expensive procedure.
In 2011 Yvonne’s brother Johnny (John Cecil) van der Westhuizen died at home with his wife and daughter, from skin and lung cancer.
Yvonne died suddenly and unexpectedly after 5 weeks in intensive care at St George’s Hospital in Port Elizabeth on October 24, 2014 at the age of 79.