My grandmother ruled over a diverse group of children. . Wilbert, the first child of the union who was struck with polio when he was 12 years old was the quiet one. He walked with a peculiar loping gait from his permanently bent knees, one shoulder higher than the other. This posture resulted from total paralysis on his entire left side His job was to sell strawberries in Mandeville, after which he either took to his room, or to one of the four shops in the ‘square’ for a rum and a chat.
Etta the eldest girl was a hairdresser and the fey one. She hated her name and preferred to be called Ettie. She was the one who named me Gloria-Mae, after a friend of hers who lived in Kingston. She was tall ,slim and elegant like her aunt, Caroline, her father’s older sister. Aunt Ettie laughed a lot and marched to a different tune. She did her hairdressing at home. Those were the days of the pressing iron, heated in a coal pot, wiped off with newspaper and a folded rag, then applied to small bunches of hair liberally greased with Palmer’s Pressing Oil. When hot comb and oil met, there was a hissing sound and the pungent smell of burning hair. When it was time to press around the ears, if you did not want a burn, you held onto to them tightly, for dear life, grimacing, as if someone was about to rip them from your head.
Curling was another horror. Once again it was time to heat the curling iron and apply it to what was now stiff, shiny, ‘straight’ hair. This time, checking the temperature of the curler would also necessitate the not-so-subtle application of a little saliva which also had to give a hissing sound if the temperature was just right. A little smoke when the hair was being turned in the metal clasp of the curler was a positive indication of a good curling job. On completion, a gentle combing out was done, curl by curl, followed by another, less liberal application of oi; this time by putting a dab in one palm, rubbing both palms together and gently patting on the top of the curls, very careful not to disturb them. If you could only afford a press, and not a press and curl, then you would go home and put in your rollers, twisted strips of brown wrapping paper, onto which your hair was carefully rolled and tied.
By the way, hair was always washed at home with either brown or carbolic soap. Only in the fancy parlours in Mandeville could you get a wash and set. I used to watch Aunt Ettie performing her magic on her customers’ hair. One day, a customer came in to get her hair done. She chatted incessantly. When it was time to press around the ears, she was so busy chatting she failed to hold one properly and was promptly burned. “Lawd, Ettie yu bu’n me!” To which I precociously replied: “A should a yu mout’!”
Aunt Ettie’s loud laughter ensued. The customer was not pleased, but my Aunt’s response reassured me that I was not in serious trouble for speaking to an adult in such a discourteous manner, more so in a household where children were to be seen and not heard.
When Aunt Ettie recounted the story to Mama and her siblings, they also thought it funny because they all knew this woman as an inveterate chatterbox. During the recounts I made myself scarce just in case, a delayed scolding was in the offing. ‘A should-a-yu-mout’ was added to the anthology of family jokes.
Doret, the dressmaker also worked from home. She was businesslike and very organized. It was Aunt Dor who always collected me from Kindergarten school at West Indies Training College. It was Aunt Dor who made my organdie three-sister church dresses with the long streamers tied in a huge bow at the back of my waist. She was also slim, spare and with what in those days would be referred to as ‘bad’ hair. Unlike Ettie and Celeste, her hair never seemed to grow Aunt Dor migrated to England in the 1950s to do nursing. On completion she returned home, but not for very long. She left for Canada. When I visited her several years later, Aunt Dor was still trying to ‘grow’ her hair.
Aunt Celeste was the fractious one who always seemed to be at odds with her siblings. She was short and dark with a striking nose which must have come from her Jewish great grandfather. I remember very clearly one Friday evening when she tried to teach me arithmetic.
Perhaps I did not understand it quickly enough for her and she hit me. Uncle Noel who had just ridden in objected strongly. Perhaps because she was an older sibling, Aunt Celeste a petite 5ft.confronted her 6ft. 2” brother. Uncle Noel held both her hands and gently pushed her away.
It was not until adulthood that I picked up fully on the latent tension between my mother and my Aunt Celeste.
When I asked my mother she recounted a tale of squabbles throughout childhood. In essence, Celeste did not take kindly to her place as Icy’s younger sister and therefore not being in a position of entitlement. Celeste wanted her dress cut before Icy’s, Celeste refused to wear Icy’s hand-me-downs. Celeste once wore her new felt hat without her permission, and when she complained Celeste and Alton of whom she was also not particularly fond, cut up her hat. To crown it all, and to give uncontroversial support to her argument that centered on disrespect, Papa’s name for Celeste was ‘she-cock’ because she was aggressive, to the extent that one day she got into such a terrible temper that he had to cover her under a bushel basket used to dry corn on the big barbecue.
Alton was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He laughed a lot but had a dark, sinister side, an uncontrollable temper and a jealous, selfish streak. According to my mother, Alton was so puny as a child that he alone drank thirty-two tins of Barley infant feed, unlike all of Mama’s other babies who were strong and healthy. He and Uncle Noel shared the front room to the left of the house, and directly off the verandah. Mama had the other front room at the opposite end.
I remember sleeping occasionally with my uncles, but I do not remember mistakenly using his work shoes for a chimmey. I am told he took it in very good stride. Uncle Alton and I had something in common – a gap in the centre front upper set of teeth.
I have a distinct memory of the Friday night of August 17, 1951 when hurricane Charlie tore into Jamaica. I was nine years old. I remember my grandmother’s frantic worry that Alton and Noel had not come home and the storm would be coming soon and they would be in terrible danger.
I remember listening to the national broadcast of the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Hugh Foote, on the big brown Telefunken radio with the fancy knobs and the mesh covering the speakers. The broadcast was on the sole radio station at that time – Radio Jamaica. He wished Jamaicans good luck and God’s blessings, and then all transmission ended.
Alton and Noel had gone to the Friday night movies at the Odeon Cinema in Mandeville because they did not believe the hurricane would hit. I remember hearing the wind building up and then the furious whirring of the bicycle pedals as my uncles rode into the yard at break-neck speed at almost the same time the sound of the winds got louder. My Uncle P’s familiar booming laugh, as he lifted his bicycle onto the verandah, seemed to be vying for ascendancy against the howling wind.
More than 150 persons died, 2,000 were injured and damage exceeded fifty thousand pounds sterling, which included some 80% of the banana crop. Charlie was regarded as the worst natural disaster of the first half of the C20th.
The following morning when we crept outside, it looked as if the trees had made a pact to empty all their leaves and young fruits on the front lawn, the barbecues and the back yard. Shortly after Charlie, Aunt Ettie went to England. I did not see her until 15years later.
Noel – or Uncle P as it was said I had christened him – tall, slim, handsome, with an inner quiet, seemed somewhat apart from his siblings. I am told he was the epitome pf his father Samuel. We shared a special relationship. He taught me to ride, and brought a special joy to my life even at my young age. My special treat was whenever he collected me from government school in Mandeville and towed me home on the crossbar of his bicycle.
When we got to the very steep hill – The Seventh Day Adventist Hill – on which the school was built – he pushed the bicycle with me still seated on the crossbar up that hill. He also taught me to ride. His method was both innovative and dangerous. He would put me to crouch under the crossbar, but somehow grasping both handlebars. Then he would give the bicycle a swift push, run to the front gate and catch it before the bicycle and I hit the gate. We did this over and over again until I got the feel of a bicycle and its movement.
This was followed by having me sit on the seat, and hold the handlebars, while he firmly grasped the back of the saddle to keep the bicycle steady. In no time I got the hang of riding and eventually in high school, I was given a bicycle which I rode occasionally from Hillside to Mandeville. Uncle Alton’s behavior left a trail of unhappiness and tragedy in its wake. My Uncle P became one of his victims and migrated to England.
I saw him a few times when I went there as a student in 1966. Like Aunt Ettie , he too died in England.
Joyce and Sadie, my youngest aunts were shadowy figures in my early days. I do remember, however, how smart they looked in their blue and white school uniform with the brown and gold tie, white broad-rimmed jippa-jappa hat with a matching band around the rim. They rode shiny ladies wheel bicycles to a distant school somewhere far away – it had to be far if they had to ride. I would wait for them on the bottom step of the verandah and follow them around. Naturally, they ignored me so I wandered off to either terrorize my Uncle Butty, or ‘occupy’ myself with my favourite pastime – reading.
I have kept my mother for the last, because the bonding between us was not as strong in my early years as it later became in the decade before her death at 91 in 2013. Why? You may ask. Perhaps because my grandmother had usurped her role, or because my mother was unable to perform it. I was always secretly afraid of her and sought love and succor from my grandmother, which were there in abundance. My recollections of my mother are of a somewhat distant woman, performing her role as mother, as a responsibility; efficiently, capably but without demonstrating any love. I thought of her more as one of my aunts than my mother.
My grandmother was my Mama and no one could change that. When it was suggested by my mother that I call her Mama, I objected vociferously. She left me alone. I did, however, like the fact that she bought me nice patent leather shoes and pretty ribbons, and money to buy ice cream and butterfly fingers at the West Indies College Bakery on Sunday evenings.
On Saturday evenings she would buy me plantain tarts. I would wait at the gate for her to ride up on her bicycle from Mandeville, take the tarts and share them with my grandmother.
In retrospect I suspect she may have been relieved that Mama had taken me over. After all, who wants to be a 21-year old mother, who had been ostracized during her pregnancy for bringing disgrace on the upright and upstanding family in the 1940s? Now that she had had the baby and her mother had taken over the responsibility of child-rearing, making me in effect her eleventh child, calling her Mama seemed most appropriate. Perhaps because I was allowed to call my grandmother Mama, I have never felt comfortable calling my mother any of the traditional nomenclatures accorded a biological mother during my childhood, It was not until I became a mother when I cravenly copied my children and called her Grandma. What’s in a name? Plenty it would seem!
My grandmother ran a very tight ship .I remember the daily ritual of ‘reading’ the Daily Gleaner and the Holy Bible to my grandmother, and her patiently correcting my mispronunciations. It was her way of improving my reading skills and it worked.
I remember her insistence that I eat the Friday evening liver and light dinner (light is unchewable); the Saturday beef soup with the fat and thyme leaves swirling around on the surface. But most of all I remember the forced morning ritual of the boiled milk, fresh from milking, with the coating of cream on the top and the skill I had to develop to use my teeth as a sieve so those lumps did not pass my throat and make me retch.
I hated boiled milk or scald milk as it was called those days. I remember cow foot dinner on Sundays and that preparations started on Saturday evenings with the heating and scraping of the skin with a sharp knife and hot ashes, and the cooking for hours and hours. I loved how eating cow foot made your lips stick together.
Monday was washing day. All the white clothes had to be placed on a zinc sheet on a stand and wet regularly throughout the day so they would not ‘wingall’ Friday was ironing day. The wood for the day had to be cut and stacked on Thursday. Early Friday morning, Naomi made up the fire by placing a thick, long log at the back. Smaller and shorter pieces of wood were then stacked in front of the large block. This log had to burn slowly and last for the entire day.
Triangular-shaped, dark grey coal irons were then placed in front of the fire, handles out. A small amount of kerosene oil would then be strategically sprinkled on the back log and lit. As soon as the irons got sufficiently hot, they would be removed individually, carefully cleaned and applied to liberally damped and rolled – garments, bed linen, tablecloths, everything to be ironed. The hot iron had to be carefully cleaned on pieces of cloth and tested on a second piece, or a little saliva to test the suitability of the temperature for the item selected.
As soon as the iron being used became too cool to effectively perform its function, it was placed on the fire and another iron removed, cleaned and applied. The process was somewhat like a relay that lasts for hours. The more difficult pieces were ironed first and the softer fabrics left for last, usually in the afternoon, when the fire starts to recede.
At the end of the day, the fire was extinguished by water – not too much – and the ashes and wood remnants carefully swept and separated. The more functional pieces of wood would be recycled in the Caledonia stove in the kitchen, while the cooled ashes would be used as an insecticide.
The yard was swept every day, using broom weed, which grew in profusion and doubled as a grease remover in dishwashing. On holidays, I helped Naomi in this chore, but I much preferred to trek behind my grandmother to Jones where I could eat strawberries, and raspberries from a huge shrub on a tree beside the strawberry patches, eat tangerines; or even better, during avocado time, buy bulla from the shop in the square and eat three long-neck avocados with one soft, sweet bulla.