From the Hills to The Mother Land and Back: A Jamaican-Canadian Woman’s Story of Overcoming and Achieving.
Melissa Rowe, PCC, MSW was born in Beeston Spring, Westmoreland in 1945. At the time of her birth, she became number seven of what would eventually be fourteen siblings in her family. As the middle child of an abusive father, she experienced and saw tremendous trauma. Although she left Jamaica with a sixth-grade education, Melissa is now a counselor and bestselling author, whose passion is helping women find their power to overcome obstacles in their lives. A part of her life story is depicted in the bestselling book, Pebbles in the Pond. Having grown up in a rural area where extreme poverty persisted, her story of overcoming and achieving unprecedented obstacles is one that will move and inspire you. We sat with her a few days shy of her 70th birthday to discuss her life, her book, and her upcoming projects.
Your chapter in Pebbles in the Pond begins with the phrase “I was in my fifties when I was shaken by tremendous awakenings…” but as the chapter continues, those awakenings were never revealed. Why?
The process of writing that chapter came out of a number of coaching sessions I attended, in which I was taught to do transformational writing. I am usually good at writing from my head but in this case, I was forced to write from my heart. Many things were revealed throughout this experience and the editors thought it was appropriate for me to start with that revelation. The chapter had to be a certain length and every contributing author had specific guidelines to which he/she had to adhere. My edits just happened to leave that portion unanswered but all of that is revealed in my upcoming memoir.
So you’re writing another book?
Yes! If you look closely at my chapter, you will realize that there are many themes that emerge in the story. Beyond those themes are even more themes and events that need to be revealed. I was talking to my sister about her thoughts on my chapter and she asked me an important question. As you know, the chapter starts with me at age 16. Well, I asked her if there’s anything else she would like to hear from me and she asked “what about your life before 16? I want to know more about your childhood story.” I’m writing more about that, among other things.
Another quotation from the chapter: There was a point at which you said you “saw yourself.” What does that mean and what was it like?
I was waiting a long time to “find” myself. It was a revealing process that I explained in the chapter. The whole thing made me more courageous and in seeing myself, I saw how similar my journey was to my mother’s. A friend asked me if I had yet reconciled my feelings with my mom. She asked in a very interesting way and I was forced to sit and think about my anger, bitterness, and shame regarding my father’s abuse and my mother’s victimization. My friend asked, “have you now developed a relationship with your mom?” I thought she was crazy! My mom had been dead over thirty years when my friend asked me this. But I soon came to realize that when I saw my mother, I saw myself.
You spend your life inspiring others. Who inspires you?
I never had to think of that. You know, people inspire me. But I think I have to say that after reflecting, I realized that my mother actually inspired me. For many years, I didn’t think I learned anything from this woman who took all of a man’s abuse and yet kept bearing his children. I had so many unresolved issues with her and with him and within myself. I had that Eureka moment and that’s where I realized I needed to forgive her, forgive him, and forgive myself. At that point, I realized how courageous and strong my mother must have been. I no longer saw her as a victim but as an overcomer for sticking to her children. The chapter discusses a point at which I felt so abandoned by her but I’ve come to learn that she must have been quite a woman. I experienced different forms of abuse and realized I was not that much different than she was. So I forgave her and now she became an inspiration to me.
Tell me about yourself, your story, your accomplishments.
Well, I’d say my first accomplishment was built on determination to step out of the box that I knew in Beeston Spring by leaving and going to Kingston, where I worked for strangers as a servant. After leaving my mother’s house, I went to become a domestic servant in several homes. My mother was heavily abused by my father and he soon left and went to the UK, leaving her with all eleven children (three died at birth) to manage on her own. She did her best, but we all only had up to an 8th grade education, which I later learned was just 6th grade in Canada. After hearing about a domestic workers program in Canada, I began having aspirations to leave Jamaica. Eventually, I gained access to the program and I left Jamaica to, once again, work as a servant to others in a new country, leaving all my family and everything I knew behind. That determination to leave, and the leaving itself was my first major accomplishment in life. Upon arriving in Canada, I was only required to work one full year to complete my contract. I then had a new goal, which was to become educated, so I did an education upgrade program that got me to 10th grade. After that, I went to a commercial college, where I learned to be a secretary. I never went to high school, formally. I just did a 10th grade upgrade, and went straight to commercial college. After I graduated commercial school, I had my first child at 28 years old. The chapter talks about the struggles I experienced with that particular experience, too. My next accomplishment was getting married! I got married and my husband and I had another child. His job took him on international missions, so soon after, I moved from Canada to Botswana, where we lived for two years. We then moved to Zambia and while there, I traveled throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa. That was a major accomplishment for this girl who grew up in Beeston Spring, took a chance to leave Jamaica for Canada, and was now traveling throughout Africa! While living in Africa, I had another monumental achievement! I met and shook the hand of the President of Mozambique. I felt like I would never wash my hands again! Remember, I came to Canada as a domestic servant. I was now shaking the hands of a president. In Africa! Anyway, when our mission in Africa was complete, we moved back to Ottawa and soon after, I found myself a divorcee and single parent. Here I was, single, with limited education, limited funds, and two children. So I made up my mind to overcome these things. I signed up at Carleton University. I wanted to be educated. I was determined to go to university.
So you attended university while working and raising two children, as a single mother?
It took me thirteen long years to complete my university education. I would take one-one credit and so forth. It took 13 years to complete a 4-year degree! But I did it because I was doing that for me. I spent my life serving my family and others and this was something I was doing for myself. When I was a child growing up in Beeston Spring, Jamaica, I had no dreams. I had nothing to aspire toward because I could see life outside of there. It wasn’t until I moved to Kingston that I realized I could have dreams. So once I realized that, I started setting goals and accomplishing them.
Tell me about more of your accomplishments.
Well after completing my Bachelor’s degree, I went on to do a Master’s degree in Social Work. I am proud to say I am the first of my siblings to attend university. That was a major accomplishment for me because even as I was doing it, I kept telling myself I couldn’t do it. It was truly a commitment to myself that forced me to achieve this goal. Soon after finishing my degrees, I became an adjunct professor for a college that trains police officers. My classes were designed to teach them how to address diverse populations, specifically “First Nation” or “Aboriginal” peoples. In the states, you guys call them Native Americans. But I trained them to deal with non-white people in their practice.
Is it then safe to give you credit for helping Ottawa police officers understand diversity in a changing city?
Yes! Definitely. Over time, I taught at least 300 police officers—white men who had little vision outside of their immediate surroundings—how to address diversity fairly.
Tell me more about your accomplishments.
Well, one year I went to Mexico and I met, hugged, and shook the hands of Vicente Fox, then president of Mexico. Again, I was meeting a president. A great honor! Very recently, I was nominated for a YM/YWCA Woman of Distinction Award. That whole experience was empowering because they treated all of the nominees like Queens! I got dolled up and they sent a car for me, and I got all of the bells and whistles. I did not win the award but it was an award-winning experience and I enjoyed every moment. It was great!
A Woman of Distinction, indeed!
Yes and you know, there’s another great accomplishment I achieved. Well, someone was doing a documentary about women who immigrated to work as domestic workers and they recognized and honored me as a “Domestic Pioneer” in Canada! After I completed my mandatory year of servitude, I turned around and mentored the women who came behind me, so they acknowledged that and I’m now in a documentary!
I heard you are now considered a Human Library Book?
Yes! Soon after my 70th birthday in a few weeks, I will be a human library book. The library in Ottawa has selected people to become books. You know, you can go to a library and check out a book? Well, instead of a book, people are going to check out a person with whom they will have conversations about life and history and all kinds of things. I’m going to be one such person this coming Black History Month!
Truly amazing! Tell me what it feels like to be turning seventy.
I love celebrating milestones. So for my fiftieth, sixtieth, sixty-fifth and now seventieth, I had a big celebration. I am looking forward to seventy.
So you’re a Jamaican in Ottawa who moves about the city as a Human Library Book, a counselor, a mentor, and what else? What would you consider your biggest accomplishment yet?
Well, I completed undergraduate studies at 54 years old and a Master’s at 55. I met presidents, I traveled and still travel the world, and I’m now a bestselling author. But I would say the results of my parenting are my best accomplishments.
Tell me about your children!
Well, in the chapter, I discuss the situation with my first-born son. I have two wonderful sons. My first-born’s father wanted nothing to do with that pregnancy. Today, my son works for the United Nations. He reports to the UN Security Council. He does peacekeeping missions throughout the world. He has lived in too many places to name—Sudan, Congo, Burundi, Haiti, Johannesburg, ahh, all over! My son has gone into homes in war-torn areas and people have handed him their guns in exchange for food, help, support, anything! That man who does these things, I gave birth to him! My second-born works for the Canadian government in a high security position that focuses on protecting all US-Canadian borders. Both of my children have jobs that focus on serving others, but in very official and highly professional ways. I am extremely proud to be their mother. And, oh, I am the grandmother of the greatest little three-year old boy on earth!
Wow! That is quite impressive, considering your humble beginnings in Beeston Spring, Westmoreland! What can you say to the 16-year -old girl who is looking at you now at 70 and feeling the things you felt at 16?
There is nothing you cannot do, so what is it that you want to do? Anything is possible, you know. So what is it that you want to do? I love you. I believe in you. You can do it! You will do it! If you need support, look at me. I went to school with no shoes as a child. I walked miles and miles to get just an 8th-grade education but now I’ve flown miles and miles around the world. I am here for you if you need me. You can do this. You can overcome. I believe in you!
Who is one person you would like to meet before you die?
I have always dreamed of sitting in Oprah’s chair and having a conversation with her about my life. But now, I really, really want to meet Iyanla Vanzant! Oh I have read all of her books and I love everything about her work. I really, really want to meet Iyanla before I die. I want to talk to her!
Maybe we ought to start tweeting Iyanla to make this happen!
Oh I would just love to meet her!
Where can we buy your book and learn more about your upcoming projects?
Find me at www.MelissaRowe.ca and I’m serious about those 16 year old girls who need encouragement or any woman who reads this and needs a boost. Just send me a message on my website. You can do it! I believe in you!
About Everyday People
“Everyday People” is a series created by senior writer, Dr. Kerri-Ann M. Smith to show you the widespread influence Jamaicans around the world. Do you know some extraordinary everyday people? Email Dr. Kerri-Ann M. Smith to see how they may be featured in this series.