Miriam Braithwaite opened the door of the black Mercedes and slid comfortably onto the smooth leather seat. She turned the key and listened as the engine purred softly. Just then the gardener appeared and released the latch on the giant ivy-covered iron gate. Mrs. Braithwaite smiled and waved at the old man. In a moment the car would be at the end of the winding driveway, leaving in its wake one of the most beautiful mansions in the hills of St. Andrew.
The old man watched the tail lights disappear. He carefully latched the gate then headed back to tend the roses and anthuriums and water the lawn before the rest of the household woke up. It was the day before Christmas and he wanted his chores done early so he could help with the last-minute decorations. He especially wanted to accompany the children to Grand Market. He felt like a little boy again when he imagined himself in the market among the crowds of smiling, friendly people and the sound of children laughing and blowing fee fees. The sheer anticipation of experiencing a warm Jamaican Christmas once more brought a lump to his throat. He did the first two steps of a jig and shook his grey head in disbelief at his good fortune. Here at last, though only a gardener, he had become part of a family again.
It was three months ago that he had first met Mrs. Braithwaite. He was living in a residence for the elderly poor in a rundown section on the outskirts of Kingston. It was called an “infirmary” now but he had no illusions about his situation. He was living in a poorhouse, plain and simple. She, in her refined dignity, would come to volunteer her services every week. She did the hands-on hard work, washing laundry, feeding those who were too infirm to do it themselves. She would bring them food, new bedding and even read them stories. The inmates would live all week for Thursday when “Miss Bratey” would come and bring a little humanity into their lives.
The old man could not explain it but from the first day they met, his spirit took to her. He just liked her a lot. She must have felt the same way too, he surmised, by the way she looked at him with a special warmth in her eyes. But then, he thought, she was just a sweet, nice young lady with compassion for the needy. He soon learned that Mrs. Braithwaite was the wife of a prominent physician, David Braithwaite, and was well known for her charitable works. Still he wondered why she would journey to this unhappy place, tolerate the constant smell of disinfectant and perform chores reserved for low-paid helpers, and treat each bedraggled soul with compassion and dignity, unlike some of the workers who treated the inmates with contempt.
The old people were resigned to the ill treatment though because they believed they deserved it. After all, wasn’t being in a poorhouse in your old age testament to the miserable life you must have led? Wasn’t it punishment for some unforgivable sin in your youth? If it weren’t so, wouldn’t there be a son or a daughter, a brother or sister to rescue you from this fate? With that in mind, the residents took their bad treatment like children taking castor oil. That is why when Mrs. Braithwaite visited and called each resident “Mass” or “Missus” and would hold the mug with porridge to a feeble mouth and ask in a tender voice, “Is it too hot?” “Is it sweet enough?” that often a silver glisten would appear on a wrinkled cheek. At one point Mrs. Braithwaite had to intervene when a worker was hassling the old man about his grey beard. She thought he was too old to be a “rastaman” and should shave it off. Even though he told the woman that he wasn’t a rasta and simply liked the way he looked with it, she wouldn’t let him be. Mrs. Braithwaite informed her in polite, but no uncertain terms, that the gentleman had a right to have his beard without being harangued about it. “Everyone has a right to personal dignity,” she gently scolded.
Weeks passed, and the fondness between the old man and Mrs. Braithwaite grew. Then one Thursday she pulled him aside and told him her gardener was leaving for farm work in the United States and asked if he’d like the job. “But…but…” he stammered. “She touched his hand and reassured him, “The work isn’t hard. You can do it, and you’ll have your own room. You won’t have to worry about food or clothes, and we’ll give you a reasonable salary.” The old man looked at her stunned. “Come on, Mass George,” she pleaded, “won’t you help me out?”
Two days later he followed Mrs. Braithwaite out of the poorhouse with all his possessions in a battered grip. This consisted of a dog-eared Bible, two shirts, a pair of pants and a pair of black shoes she had given him earlier. That night he sat on the edge of his freshly-made bed and by the lamplight opened the tattered Bible and removed a faded photograph. Tears streamed down his face as he looked at the attractive young woman holding a bright-eyed baby girl. He closed the Bible, lay down and tried to sleep. But sleep would not come.
His mind took him back thirty-five years before when his wife and baby daughter, along with his mother and older sister, accompanied him to the Kingston wharf where he would board the big ship that took him across the ocean to England. It was a few years after the second World War and he was told there were lots of jobs over there. A few people from his district had gone before. Each had written home that they were doing well. To pay his passage, they had to sell the family’s one cow and few goats. Their one pig was given to the obeahman in exchange for a good-luck charm he would take with him to ensure a safe journey and good fortune. Being a master carpenter, he was sure to find a job right away. And as soon as he was settled in he would send for his family. His wife ironed his suit and his starched white shirt. And when he was dressed and put on his new felt hat, his relatives exclaimed in unison, “Bwoy, you look good man!”
But he had no conception of the demons that awaited him in England. The only jobs to be found were menial ones. “I used to work as carpenter in Jamaica, sah. I can make nice furniture and work on houses too,” was met with stony silence and a look that cut him to the quick of his pride. Some would tell him outright, “We don’t hire coloured people for those jobs here.” The salary from odd jobs were just about enough to maintain his very modest lifestyle. He wrote his wife and sent what little money he had a few times. He didn’t tell her how miserable he was, how much he hated London and the constant drizzle, the dampness and the racists who thumbed their noses at him. He wanted so much to return home to Jamaica. Then the combination of bad weather, homesickness, racial and cultural isolation threw him into a deep depression. He began drinking and betting on everything he could. Before he knew it, weeks had become months, and months irretrievable years. Begging on the foggy streets of London had earned him quite a few stays in the lockup for vagrancy. He would turn away and hide his face whenever he glimpsed someone from back home he thought he might know. He changed his name to George Thompson and grew a beard so he wouldn’t be recognized, afraid the shame might reach his family in Jamaica.
Many times he had picked up pen and paper to write home and beg forgiveness and ask them to send the fare so he could return to Jamaica. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Why should they believe him after all that time? They had seen men return from from England time and again, sometimes in coffins. But they had never seen one return penniless, broken in spirit and in mind. He thought about his mother and how she must have died not knowing what became of her only son. He often went to sleep hating himself for letting his loved ones down. It was a constant lash to his conscience.
It was thirty-four and a half years almost to the day that George Thompson left Jamaica when he stepped off the airplane in Kingston. The young man who waved vigourously to his wife and daughter, mother and sister as he left, returned arthritic and wrinkled with not much more than the clothes on his back. He had, with the help of a British charity, managed to scrape up enough fare to return to Jamaica. He was afraid to go home to his district to face his family so he bummed around Kingston for a while and ended up at the infirmary.
A smile formed on his lips as he thought of how his little girl must be a grown woman now. He hoped she would be as nice and kind-hearted as Mrs. Braithwaite. Then he shivered, “What must my daughter think of me?” He there and then pledged to himself to save up all his salary and in a couple of months find his way home to his district to find his family. No matter what the consequences.
The black Mercedes moved slowly through the downtown traffic. Seated beside Miriam Braithwaite was a woman higgler.
“Girlie, you must be crazy to take old man from poorhouse to come live wid you. Who evah hear anything go so? Me no raise you wid betta sense dan dat?”
“Oh, Mommy, please! You haven’t even met Mass George. He’s nice.”
“Nice me backfoot! If him did nice, him wouldn’t end up a’ poorhouse. A God himself put him deh. Me mother used to tell me dat only de wicked end up at poorhouse. So you goin’ against nature doing dis ting. If him was good some fambily would tek him in even if it just fi save demself de disgrace of having people tek it cuss dem se dem have family inna poorhouse. David mus’ be crazy too if he go along wid dis!”
When her mother got to talking like that, there was nothing Mrs. Braithwaite could do. As far as Miss Sarah was concerned, you reap what you sow. Her daughter could not tell her about social, economic or psychological factors. Those were just big words that belong in a university, not in the real world. So Mrs. Braithwaite quickly changed the subject.
“So, Mommy when you’re going to quit this higglering and come live with us? You know the kids would love it.”
“Girlie, you know me cyaan live inna no fancy place wid no maid an’ butla. Me love me life de way it is. Besides, me cyaan leave me house. Yu fada build it himself and me will neva leave it. Me glad him madda live so comfortable inna it wid me since yu auntie died. Me so glad she move in wid me so me can tek care of her. Christmus suppose to be happy time, Girlie. But is always sad time fi me. Me tink how dem nevah send yu fada body home from Inglan so me could bury him an’ visit him now and den. Dem probly nevah even give him a proper funeral so him spirit no haffi walk all ovah farrin and cyaan find no rest. Me nevah even know how him dead.”
She touched her daughter’s hand. “Lawd, him wudda proud a yuh! How you win all dem scholarship to university. Me tell you time and again how him did love yu. Dat’s one reason him did go to Inglan so you could have a betta life. But de poor man ongle live fi write de three letters me show yu. Dat’s how me know seh him dead. Him wud nevah abandon yu.” Miss Sarah sighed and shook her head.
Mrs. Braithwaite liked it when her mother called her by her pet name “Girlie.” Miss Sarah called her Miriam only when she was very angry with her like the time she skipped school to go see a movie with friends. It took a whole week for her mother to call her Girlie again. That’s when she knew her mother’s anger had dissipated. She wanted so much to ease her mother’s pain over the years. She hoped Miss Sarah would remarry, but she was never serious about any other man. No one measured up to Zebediah. And every Christmas season her mother would descend into a deep sadness over her lost husband.
“Oh, Mommy, don’t fret, “ Mrs. Braithwaite said softly. “We’ll go pick up Nana as soon as we get out of this traffic mess. And tonight as always, we’ll remember Daddy in our prayers.”
Although Mrs. Braithwaite was too young to remember her father when he left, she loved him dearly for she saw him through her mother’s eyes. Her grandmother, too, painted a picture of a loving husband and a loyal son who was the light of her life. She never fully accepted his death believing that something happened in that far-off place that somehow kept him from writing or returning to Jamaica.
On the way to fetch Nana, they drove through the narrow country roads mostly in silence. Then as they approached the house, Miss Sarah blurted out that Nana had recently dreamed about Zebediah. She said he was so real, his mother expected to see him in the room when she woke up. Even though Nana was up in age, she was in relatively good health; but the way she related the dream gave Miss Sarah the chills. “Sometimes she see tings dat not dere and her head a tek in wata bad. Sometimes she cyaan remember a ting, Miss Sarah said.” Mrs. Braithwaite suggested Nana get a thorough medical check up after the holidays. Her husband, David, would make the arrangements, she offered.
That evening when the children, their father and the old man returned from Grand Market, both children ran to their grandmother giving her lots of hugs and kisses. Then they descended on Nana who gave them a bag filled with grater cakes and paradise plums. When Mrs. Braithwaite introduced the old man, Miss Sarah said a distant “Evening sah” and barely looked at him, except for his white beard which put her off even more. Nana was too busy entertaining the children to pay much attention. As was the custom in the Braithwaite home on Christmas Eve, all the household staff sat at the table with the family for a late supper. Mrs. Braithwaite asked Maas George to say grace. Everyone bowed their heads as he began “Father in Heaven, thank you for this day, for this food, and for this blessed….”
“Zeb, Zeb?” Nana whispered, interrupting the prayer. “Zebediah?!” Nana shouted. Everyone looked up. “Oh, dear,” Mrs. Braithwaite thought, “Mother was right, Nana is confused.” The old man was frozen in his seat. He had almost forgotten that name. His name. “Zebediah Thomas, my son?” Nana cried.
“Mamma?” He virtually leaped across the table and lifted his mother off her feet, burying his face in her shoulder as tears flowed freely. Then it dawned on him. This was his family! He looked over at Miss Sarah who fainted dead away.
Needless to say, no one slept that Christmas eve night. Zebediah tried to explain the whys and wherefores of his behaviour. Of his lost years. Of his deep shame. Of his love for his wife, his daughter, his deceased sister and his mother, and the grandchildren and son-in-law he’d come to know over the past weeks.
“Zebediah,” his mother said, “me pray yu would come back to me before me eyes dem close. I thank Massa God me live to see yu face again. Me can go in peace now.”
“Not so fast, Nana!” David joked. Everybody laughed.
“This is the best Christmas gift ever!” said the youngest child. “Amen!” everyone chimed in,“Amen!”