Frances Rutgers grew up playing in District Six. She married a white man.
Yesterday, Wednesday September 12, she turned 103.
In the build-up to her birthday, the resident of Wynberg’s Murambi House frail-care centre spoke to the Bulletin and shared the memories she has made over more than a century.
“Look, I can still walk,” she laughs as she walks across her 2mx4m room aided by a frame, under the watchful eye of three carers whose love for this amazing woman is obvious.
Excited to be in the Bulletin, hair neatly combed, she wears a navy shirt and matching earrings that were bought by her daughter, Moira Wyatt, in 1980, before she moved to Australia.
Born in Hanover Street, Frances describes a carefree world before television, a time when she could play in the street, make music with her family, where she was close to the people she worked with.
Frances played hockey and was captain of the ring-pitching team. She parodies a speech: “Ladies and gents, I accept this award as captain and on behalf of the first successful team.” She laughs, adding that the team broke up the next year.
Hers was a musical family. Frances is the only one who could read music. Her sisters had beautiful voices. Her older brother, a twin, showed her how to deliver mean upper-cut punches.
“I asked him why all men love me, I’m not pretty, I’m damn ugly. He told me I have inner beauty.” She laughs some more.
Frances has a love, a knowledge, of men, borne out by her words and those of her carers who say she still flirts with her doctor.
She grew up with brothers. They moved from District Six to Albert Road in Woodstock.
“We could hear the boys doing bell practice at the church. It was beautiful. Young men don’t do it anymore, it’s hard work,” she says.
She married George in that church, her children were baptised there, although she confesses to not being very religious. “But I tried to live a normal life,” she says to laughs from the carers. “If you are normal, you would not live to 103,” she adds, to more laughter.
She says there was nobody like George. They were married for 52 years, and she says they never quarrelled.
“He was white, I am black. The only time I shouted was when he came home with a stupid grin on his face. He said he won’t do it again. I would shout, ‘George!’ And sometime later, he would do it again. I would shout, ‘George!’”
Frances worked for 50 years in the printing trade, helping the foreman control the men.
She lost two fingers to machinery. Back then, belts were used to drive cog wheels. Running to switch off a machine, the floor slippery, she fell. She did not feel the pain then and never missed the fingers but feels pain now.
She loves reading and uses Murambi House library to read anything she can get her hands on. In her youth, she would pick up old books on the Parade. She taught herself how to do embroidery among other things.
Apart from hearing loss, Frances is in good health, although she says she has been in every hospital on the Cape Peninsula. She remembers once doing a climb on a mountain route called Ledges, a complicated route that includes a chimney and much rock scrambling. She says she never used ropes and they could walk alone then, but not nowa- days.
“I’m donating my body to the university when I die. My doctor told me I won’t die a painful death but in my sleep,” she smiles.
Her mother raised her on herbs. It was all she could afford. Frances used Whites Chemist, which used to be in Plein Street. The pharmacist told her to use alternative medi- cine.
“For cramps in the legs at night, use fine salt, keep it next to the bed. Take a little salt, and Mr Cramp flies away like a bird. Alzheimer’s is no joke. Use ginkgo biloba,” she counsels. “We think it’s our age, we get forgetful, we think it’s our brain. I’ve been on it for years.”
She also takes Swedish bitters for high-blood pressure; bilberry for eyesight; hawthorn for her heart.
“It must be a tincture. Each (medicine) knows where it has to go, so you are not wasting your money. A pill goes to the stomach,” she says.
She had four children, the eldest, Beryl, died at a young age; Kelvin lives in New Zealand with his daughter; Moira, who lives in Australia, has a son and a daughter, and Wendy lives in Cape Town, and she has a son.
There are four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
As for advice for others who want to reach 103: “Live a healthy life. What is a healthy life? Sunshine, fresh air and these words of wisdom from my mum: ‘Don’t ever think you are better than the next person, and don’t think that they are better than you.’”