BRUMALIA: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

My  stepfather Clement Thompson was a tall, slim man with shiny eyes and of very few words. I do not know how and when he came into my mother’s life. My first recollection of Mr. Thompson was on the day he married my mother. I was a flower girl, one of three, bedecked in white organza thee-sister dresses with little rose buds and princess tiaras. Whenever I look at the wedding photograph, I delve into the depths of my memory about the day and come up blank.  I believe I  was t either nine or ten years old.

What  I do know is that her marriage heralded her moving to Brumalia, a new suburb of Mandeville and I visited her there occasionally. I preferred to remain with my grandmother at Ivy Cottage.  Mr. Thompson, who was a farm worker spent several months each year in the USA, so my mother was alone, apart from  Rudolph, my grant aunt Hess’s son from Westmoreland and  a yard boy Panton who helped her with livestock – cows and pigs, and the many fruit trees and strawberries which  supplemented  her earnings from dressmaking.   Rudolph worked on construction sites  in Mandeville.

When I entered third form, I moved to Brumalia as it was closer to school and there was a bus service. The house was newer and smaller than Ivy Cottage. Situated on a long, narrow lot, a fair distance from the road on six acres  that extended in the rear to the boundaries of the Owens a family friend. The house had three bedrooms, separate living and dining rooms, bathroom, kitchen and a helper’s room. The bedrooms were separated from the living room, dining room  and kitchen by a passage that ran the full length of the house, from the verandah to the back door.  All the rooms, with the exception of the front bedroom  opened  in the passage.  Brumalia also had a water tank and a pump that fed the water into drums on the roof, so there was running water in the bathroom and the kitchen. It was Panton’s job to fill the drums. In his absence, the task fell to me.  It was hard work with tremendous pressure on my puny arms.

Despite the modern conveniences at Brumalia, its relative proximity to Mandeville and a regular  bus service, I  missed my grandmother and Ivy Cottage.  I was afraid of my mother and I was not particularly fond of Mr. Thompson whenever he was ‘in residence.’  Rudolph was much older than I was so there was very little communication between us. Panton was my sole friend. He called me “Miss Gloria”, cleaned my school shoes for me and  when it was  corn or potato season I was assured of coming  home to sweet potato baked in the ash tray of the Caledonia Dover stove, or corn roasted and popped perfectly to my liking.   Panton was also my knight in shining armor.  He saved me from many a beating from my mother, by shamelessly begging for me and even offering to take the beating instead.

Mr. Thompson was a dresser. He was also a drinker and a sneak.  Every Saturday he would dress in his crisp white shirt that my mother had ironed and go to Mandeville. He invariably returned home drunk, staggering up the long driveway to the house ‘stink of rum.’  He would slurp his dinner and then flop down in a drunken stupor.  He developed a habit of demanding that I kiss him on his cheek. One evening, as I held my breath and  warily attempted  to kiss him on his cheek, he swiftly turned his head and pushed his tongue in my mouth. I retched.  I was repulsed, but I did not know how to tell my mother, so I worked out my own method of dealing with this outrage. I started spending week-ends at my Ivy Cottage.

Then Mr. Thompson sent for his niece – his sister’s daughter –   to live with us. We had nothing in common.  She was older than me and was not particularly interested in forging a friendship with a school girl. There was also a palpable tension between Delsie and my mother, who saw her presence as an intrusion. Mr. Thompson saw it as his right to have any member of his family at his house,  certainly, if I was there.  I wanted to go back to Ivy Cottage. Providence in a series of intervened.

But this was not the only source of tension between my mother and stepfather when he returned.  During his absence, my mother had become friends with a gentleman, a Mr. Marsh – I never knew his first name – who had also bought one of the lots in Brumalia and was also a farmer.  A former farm worker, he had a beautiful orange orchard and an unfinished house. He was building it gradually to eventually accommodate his wife and daughter who lived somewhere else in Manchester.  Mr. Marsh was  a soft-spoken, courtly  gentleman. I was sent on several errands to his house, including taking dinner for him and my mother was a frequent visitor. All contact with Mr. Marsh stopped abruptly when his wife and daughter took up residence.  Years later I  deduced the nature of the friendship between Mr. Marsh and my mother. She was vivacious, a perfect counterfoil to the quiet Mr. Marsh. From the vantage point of adulthood and my own experiences of   the ebbs and flows of life, its hopes and disappointments, its peaks and troughs, with periods of gut-wrenching loneliness in the prime of one’s life,  I came to understand  the nature of the relationship between my mother and Mr. Marsh. However, it was not then and  still remains no business of mine.

I was fifteen years old. It was the summer holidays and I was spending some time with my mother at Brumalia. She was busy sewing and I was sitting on the verandah step reading. She called me when I had but a few lines to finish a chapter of an engrossing mystery. I told her I was coming. She would have none of it. As I put down the book and rose from the step, there was my mother at the door leading on to the verandah from the passage, strap in hand, menacing look on her face demanding “When I call you, you come.” Before I could answer she swung the strap in an arc toward my face.  I grabbed it, yanked it from her hand and threw it down the passage where it slithered like a snake on the highly polished red stained concrete floor, coming to rest by  the back door. Surprised at my audacity but not missing a beat, she grabbed a foot of her shoe and proceeded toward me even more menacingly. Once again I grabbed the shoe from her hand and it quickly followed the belt. My mother was incoherent in her surprise and rage. “Oh, so a woman yu tu’n.  Since yu a woman, come outta mi house!”   I was simultaneously  calm and cold with fury at the injustice of her  behaviour. While she continued to berate me, I dressed and left for  my grandmother.

By the time I reached Hillside I was in tears – partially real, partially contrived .  One look at my face and my  grandmother asked “What happen to you child?”  I recounted what had taken place with my mother. My grandmother’s response was “I tired to tell Icy to stop bully you or I will tek yu  back from her. She love beat, beat too much” To my grandmother, reading  was synonymous with education and consequently sacrosanct. You do not interrupt a child  who is reading to do any domestic chores. It was unheard of and unforgivable.  So, on to Brumalia we went that very afternoon. I was not privy to the conversation between mother and daughter, but the end result was that I was back with my beloved grandmother  and Uncle Butt  at Ivy Cottage, away from my stepfather and my mother. Little did I know that another tragedy awaited the family.

But Hillside and Ivy Cottage turned out to be no longer my paradise, my sanctuary.  Uncle Alton  had become the worm in the apple, or rather the scorpion in the household.  He too had gone to the USA on farm working and returned with a strong American accent liberally interspersed with Jamaicanese.  My grandmother was inordinately proud of her ‘foreign’ son, even while his siblings laughed at his contrived accent. Soon their laughter turned to anger and apprehension.   Uncle Alton had insinuated his way into Mama’s affections to the point where she had given him a prized lot on the Jones property to build a house  and lent him money without informing any of her other children. They only knew about the house when they saw it under construction and enquired about its ownership.  In addition, she cooked special meals for him and treated everything he said as pearls of wisdom.  Inevitably, he kept on demanding more from her until sanity resurfaced and she tried to call a halt to his never-ending demands for money. When none of his new demands were met, Uncle Alton turned nasty.

In all of this seething family unrest, Aunt Hannah, my great grandmother’s youngest sister,  came to Ivy Cottage to spend time with Mama her niece. She was tall and spare like Auntie and a Seventh Day Adventist. One Friday night, Uncle Alton  came in drunk and  decided to abuse the entire household. When Aunt Hannah tried to reason with him, he pushed her to the floor and broke her arm. He was neither remorseful nor repentant. At that time Aunt Hannah was in her eighties. Her arm healed slowly and painfully and she eventually returned home to Westmoreland. Uncle Noel, sorely disappointed in Mama’s behaviour, migrated to England. That left Uncle Alton, Uncle Butt, Mama and me at Ivy Cottage. Aunt Celeste was teaching in Morant Bay. Aunt Joyce,  Aunt Dor and Aunt Ettie were in England and Aunt Ven was working in Kingston.

Uncle Alton’s behaviour worsened. He would come in drunk, demand his dinner and if he did not like what had been prepared,   he would simply toss food and containers through the door and go on a drunken rampage.  Many were the nights Mama, Uncle Butt, Naomi  and I would have to flee the house and hide under the coffee and grapefruit trees by the barbecue. Uncle Butt’s attempts to defend his mother were treated with disdain and contempt  I was terrified of Uncle Alton, even more so when I saw him  acting out his rage in a carefully choreographed performance in the vanity mirror in my Aunt Ettie’s room. Thankfully he did not see me. Before he left, Uncle ‘P’ had told my mother of Uncle Alton’s behaviour. I hated Uncle Alton for making my Uncle P leave home. Uncle P was my light. Uncle Alton my shadow.   Never a favourite of hers, one day my mother accosted him in Mandeville and warned him of what would befall him should he even attempt to lay his hands on me.  In his contrived insanity,  apart from muttering that, “Mi no business wid yu bad Mumma” he left me alone.

Uncle Butt had always been a quiet man. Not surprising therefore that he did not share his emotions about his brother’s terrorizing of his mother with anyone. But he had a plan. Over several days he stored his urine in quart bottles and secreted them in his room. There were no plastic bottles those days.  One night, when Uncle Alton decided to terrorize his mother once more, Uncle Butt  executed his plan. He crashed the bottles of urine on his brother’s head and back.  The end result was not pretty – in looks or smell. Uncle Alton was taken to the Mandeville Hospital, a bloodied mass of broken bottles and an all-pervading stench of stale urine.  He spent several days in the hospital. Once again Mama’s inexplicable favouritism for Uncle Alton rose to the surface. Instead of thanking her eldest child for protecting her, even saving her life, she berated him for injuring Uncle Alton, telling him that he would likely end up in prison, if charges were proffered against him.  Uncle Butt went into depression, despite the support he received from my mother and persons in the community who were aware of Uncle Alton’s reign of terror and who had initially treated the attack on Uncle Alton with extreme hilarity at the ignominy of his defeat at the hands of his crippled and seemingly defenseless brother. It was the quintessential David and Goliath  story.  Uncle Alton recuperated fully and left for England.

It was summer and I was at Ivy Cottage.  I woke up one night to the sound of an angry discussion between  my uncle and my grandmother.. He was begging her not to go somewhere and she was insistent. When I awoke the next morning,  neither my grandmother nor my uncle was at home. Naomi and I were alone.  It was not until early afternoon that she made the terrible discovery of my Uncle leaning against one of his favourite grapefruit trees ,a rope around his neck. Dead. My grandmother arrived home amid the teeming curious, gawking crowd who had once again taken over Ivy Cottage.

So it was another suicide. Another burial at Jones.   Another blot on the Hall family.   Uncle Alton healed and left for England. I never saw him again. Mama had lost her four sons – to death, to migration, to alienation.  But even in this time of pain and sorrow, there was humour.   Uncle Butt had dentures, gold-filled and quite expensive. Never one to pass up a good chance to acquire some money to show off on his drinking buddies, Mr. Thompson  confiscated, no stole my uncle’s dentures, waiting for the appropriate time to have them melted and the gold retrieved. But Uncle Butt was having none of it. He wanted his dentures. So one night, he ‘instructed’ Mr. Thompson to return his stolen property.  Mr. Thompson woke early the following  morning, clearly shaken, and told my mother that Buttie had dreamed him and told him he wanted ‘his teeth.’  Understandably reluctant to argue with the departed,  Mr. Thompson hustled off to Hillside and unceremoniously threw the dentures on Uncle Butt’s grave.  Uncle Butt never ‘dreamt’ him again. Guilty conscience or duppy story? You decide.

After Uncle Butt’s death, we removed from Ivy Cottage to another house Mama  had built in nearby Knock Patrick, beside Uncle Eddie her brother-in-law. Mama, Naomi and I lived there for a short while.  No one liked that house.   Then it was on to Kingston, and Haldane Avenue close to Molynes Four Roads, where my grandmother became a ‘farmer’ in a house plot than could only accommodate a small garden to the front and a kitchen garden to the back. My grandmother lost her zest for life. She went into a deep depression. She went into a self-imposed exile in her bedroom. Not even the birth of her second grandchild, daughter of Joyce and her husband  John Jackson, who were living with her at the time and Aunt Celeste who was now teaching in Kingston,  could shake her from her miasma of despair.  She eventually contracted pneumonia and died. I lost my beloved sixty-eight year old grandmother a day before my eighteenth birthday.

While the actual funeral service remains a blur, I have a stark memory of my grandmother’s burial at the  May Pen Cemetery. Her pall bearers from the hearse to the graveside were four daughters, a son-in-law and one granddaughter – me. I was at the left rear of the coffin. As we struggled to keep our balance on the uneven path, I saw myself heading straight for the open grave and in my grief-stricken state I welcomed the opportunity to be  buried with my beloved grandmother.  Suddenly a voice rang out: “Watch it! oonu no see seh de little girl a go fall dung inna de grave!”

About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis