"We don't really have cocktail hour — we have cocktail days," says Alexandra Fuller's mother. Her stories often begin, "Well, there was rather a lot to drink ..." and inevitably end with "chaos and madness and hilarity."
In her first memoir, Alexandra Fuller painted an unforgettable portrait of her mother, a young British woman raised in Kenya, as a madcap adventuress with a predilection for drama. Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight chronicled the family's life in Rhodesia — the country now known as Zimbabwe — where Fuller's parents saw three of their five children die as babies and toddlers. Fuller's mother stars again in her new book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.
In Fuller's second memoir, she reaches back much further — into her mother's early life — and probes her about the imagined paradise of the Africa she grew up in. Through the writing of her latest book, Fuller discovers a mother she never knew — a dynamic if troubled woman who would introduce herself as "Nicola Fuller of Central Africa" and saw herself as a character of high romance.
"She, at some point, must've looked around and decided that all her literary heroines — Beryl Markham and Isak Dinesen — had flown airplanes," Fuller tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "This was something she did not have in her repertoire, and therefore her biography was incomplete. So she signed herself up with this charlatan flying instructor and taught herself how to fly."
Nicola Fuller's wit and eccentricity were never more on display than during costume parties. "Mother's fancy dress parties were always hell," her daughter recalls. "I think it must be a peculiarly colonial form of entertainment, to slap your kids up in these awful, hot, inappropriate, itchy costumes and to make them parade around in the baking sun."
Fuller says she is fairly sure her mother suffered through these parties during her own childhood — but kept the tradition going anyway. She gleefully subjected her daughters to what Fuller describes as "ever more killingly imaginative costumes."
The worst, she recalls, was the time her sister Vanessa got to dress up as a rose — in a pretty pink tutu. Alexandra, meanwhile, was dressed as "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" — in an insecticide drum, which, she suspects, still had some insecticide in it. She writes:
Mum explained that while she was in labor with me in England, the radio was playing "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," which was prophetic, because when I arrived, I really was, as promised, Not a Rose Garden. (It makes no difference to Mum's story that I have since discovered this song became a hit for Lynn Anderson a full year and a half after I was born and therefore could not have been playing when she was in labor with me.)
"She had yellow skin and black hair. That's why we call her Bobo," Mum explained, "because she looked just like a little baboon."
No feelings spared there. But that was simply the way things were. "One of the things about being raised British in Africa is that you get this double whammy of toughness," Fuller explains. "The continent in place itself made you quite tough. And then you've got this British mother whose entire being rejects 'coddling' in case it makes you too soft. So there's absolutely nothing standing between you and a fairly rough experience."
But fancy dress parties were the least of the hardships — the book describes the dangerous world Fuller inhabited, growing up in a country at war. By the end of the war in the late 1970s, landmines were exploding on the roads near their family farm, and attacks on farmers were increasing. "My parents didn't want us being on the roads unnecessarily because of ambushes and landmines," Fuller remembers.
It was for that reason that Fuller and her younger sister were left with their neighbor one fateful January morning. "I was left to keep an eye on my little sister at our neighbor's house, and she drowned," Fuller says. Never mind the war and the landmines and the ambushes — it was an unsupervised duck pond that killed Fuller's baby sister. Her father later told her: "It wasn't that your mother didn't want to protect you. It's just there was so much to protect you from."
Cocktail Hour ends up back at The Tree of Forgetfulness, the banana and fish farm where Fuller's parents live now. It's a passage that reveals the peace and beauty her parents have found during their lifetime in Africa:
The evenings here on the north bank of the Zambezi River are tremulously beautiful. A shaky ribbon of blue smoke from a nearby village's cooking fire hangs over the farm. Emerald-spotted doves are calling, "My mother is dead, my father is dead, my relatives are dead and my heart goes dum-dum-dum." Frogs are bellowing from the causeway. The air boils with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Egrets, white against the grey-pink sky, are floating upriver to roost in the winterthorn trees in the middle of Dad's bananas. "I won't let him chop down those trees," Mum says. "The birds love them."