Greensleeves: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

Alas my love, you do me wrong to cast me off so discourteously,

For I have loved you well and long, delighting in your company.

Greensleeeves was all my joy,

Greeensleeves was my delight,

Greensleeves was my heart of gold,

And naught but my Lady Greensleeves.

To the eyes of a seven year- old coming  from the relative intimacy of a small infant school with a gentle and doting spinster and  devout Christian  ‘Aunt Dell’ as my teacher, who I was to learn later was a  cousin on my father’s side; the Mandeville  Government School –  comprising  the Infant and  Primary Schools –  was a jungle, a fearful, frightening jungle.

Situated to the rear of the town, the sprawling primary school was a dusty, noisy and intimidating place, inhabited by loud, boisterous children and  grim-faced teachers who walked around with leather  straps attached to their wrists like permanent appendages.  The primary school building consisted of three   cavernous rooms, each room housing three classes.  Senior school, the middle room and largest of the three, housed  4th, 5th and 6th classes and the Head teacher’s office, which was merely an open area to the right of the raised platform at the top of the room, and glass enclosed  wooden book shelves.  To the right was  the junior school – classes A,B and C.  Middle school to the left accommodated first, second and third class.  The infant school,  toilet block,  head teacher’s cottage, woodwork shop and school garden completed the facilities on the compound.

My first term spent in first class passed in a haze. I can remember nothing but the constant slap of the strap on the back of some luckless child. It was not until I was ‘skipped’ to third class under the strict but kindly guidance of a Mrs, Bowen that I began to feel a part of the school and to understand the reason for my presence there. However, it seems that – unknown to me – I   had made some sort of impression on my first class teacher as she had recommended my promotion to third class.

Mrs. Bowen, a widow with a son Jeffrey who was also my age, had beautiful, tightly pressed and curled  grey hair and drove to school. In my child’s eyes, she awas a rich lady. In those days, apart from a few taxis, cars driven by black people  were few and far between. So I was duly impressed.   Mrs. Bowen did not beat often, but heaven help you when she did. She was particularly hard on her son who seemed to be in a permanent state of angst.

My life was to change dramatically in third class, when I was diagnosed with a  heart murmur. It all started out quite innocuously one Saturday morning, when I bent down to tie my shoe laces and could hear my heart thumping  quite loudly. Terrified, I rushed to my Grandmother who promptly instructed my mother to take me to the doctor in Mandeville. Dr.  Williams’ office was in the back  of Mr. Linton’s hardware store on Manchester Avenue.

Those were the days when doctors mixed their own medicines in dark brown bottles. I was ‘sounded’ and  given a particularly noxious tasting liquid  and my mother instructed that I should be kept as quiet as possible.

At seven years of age, my days of running, jumping  and any other form of vigorous play had come to an abrupt end.

For three years, until I entered high school. I led the life of  a virtually physically challenged child, with my mother and grandmother as my watchmen at home and at school  my Aunt Celeste who had started teaching at the infant school. No more games at recess, no more taking off my shoes and socks  to play  hopscotch and bunnins. I immersed myself in the world of books even more deeply  than I had before.  Already an only child in a household of adults, my personality changed from a fairly gregarious child to that of an introvert.

But I reveled in this world. My imagination ran riot with Grimm’s Fairy Tales,   Greek and Roman Mythology, the exploits of Hercules and Atlas. I shuddered at the thought of Medusa and her head of snakes, I felt great pity for poor Pip and Miss Havisham of  Dickens’ Great Expectations and for Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities on the C18th. French Revolution. Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels gave me nightmares.   I read voraciously, I hated any form of interruption and would hide under my Aunt Dor’s bed to block out the sounds of my family calling me to do chores. My Grandmother was my saviour. She told them to leave me alone. Eventually, they left me to revel in my make-believe world.

I read proudly and boastfully, above the level expected of my age, and was not daunted, even when I could not pronounce the words correctly. My aunts – Joyce and Ven. – were there to help me whenever I surfaced and asked for their assistance. It was this love of books and reading that influenced my first choice of a profession in librarianship.

Fourth class was an entirely different kettle of fish. Mrs. Watson was a statuesque St. Elizabeth red woman, with a daughter, Veronica.  She lived about 20 minutes away from school behind the town’s Moravian church and every day she sent two children – both boys and girls – there was no gender distinction here –  for her lunch.

How I longed for the day when I would be sent. But it did not happen. It was not until late in the year that the penny finally dropped, much to my disappointment. Only the dunce students were sent. And, of course, with my Aunt Celeste there, it was simply out of the question. So, I had to survive fourth class without the perks that came with it.  – collecting lunch in the three-compartment white enamel carrier from Mrs. Watson’s home!

Teacher L.H .E. Reid. The very name evoked fear in our 10 year-old hearts. Mr. Gordon had retired and Mr. Reid had taken over as Headmaster. And he taught only sixth class students. Not just one subject, but all the subjects!  Apart from his son Wayne, there were three of us in his class over whom he would pay very close attention. In fact, he placed us together. Those days the school bench and desk were attached as a single unit, accommodated three pupils. So there we were, Gloria, Jewell and Rose, center front row, directly under his eagle eyes. Wayne sat at his immediate left beside us. We got away with nothing. Yet, not once did he beat us throughout that memorable year.

He  was a short stocky black man, with a flat broad face and a mouth that looked as if he had had extracted all his teeth  and was awaiting his dentures. On the rare occasions when he smiled, his face lit up and his eyes sparkled. His wife was also a  St. Elizabeth red woman,  very quiet and composed, who taught fifth form. To our impressionable mind, she was afraid of her husband. He looked fearful enough!

It was Teacher Reid who opened the world of classical music to me. For one afternoon each week, there we were in this huge open room in the middle of the school building learning  the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart,  Handel and Brahms.  Mama taught me the practical. Mr. Reid taught   Musical Appreciation.  That was the name of his class. We were never taught anything Jamaican or West Indian. Colonization had done its job well, even on Teacher Reid.

While I did not care much about these long-dead white people and their strange-sounding music, Musical Appreciation was a respite from the pervading fear that Teacher Reid evoked in me. He was more relaxed, even benign, albeit with the omnipresent strap around his neck like a big brown snake at rest.    One song that for some inexplicable reason still stands out in my memory is ‘Greensleeves’ an English folksong. Teacher Reid had us sing this song over and over while he conducted . I am tone deaf and shudder to think of the assault on his ears.   I have since identified this song.   It is alleged that it was possibly composed by Henry VIII – King of England between 1509 and 1547 –  for his lover and future queen, Anne Boleyn, who initially rejected his attempts to seduce her. However, it is also said Lady Greensleeves was a prostitute and that green at that time had a sexual connotation; for example, a ‘green gown’ referred to grass stains if you had engaged in sex outdoors. Another explanation is that Lady Greensleeves was incorrectly believed to be immoral because she wore a green gown. Still another explanation is that the colour green at that time was the colour of lightness and love, hence “Greensleeves is my delight.’  Whatever may be the explanation, what I do know is that I have lived with this song  ‘in my head’ for  fifty-plus of my life, thanks to the late Teacher L.H.E. Reid of the Mandeville Government School.

It was during my sojourn in primary school that the decision was taken by someone – I do not know who – to expose me to more than Mama and Smallwoods.  So it was off to music lessons with Miss Little, headmistress of the infant school.  Miss Little’s name was in direct contrast to her size. She was an amply-proportioned woman and  when she sat on the piano stool, there was very little  space left for me. But we soldiered on.  I enjoyed the  piano, but felt more at home with Mama, Smallwoods and the organ.  Then Miss Little  married Mr. Forbes and got pregnant. As her pregnancy advanced, my space on the piano stool got smaller and my balance  more precarious. Many were the times I was in real danger of landing on the floor. My foray into formal piano lessons ended when Mrs. Forbes proceeded on maternity leave and did not return to school.

I survived sixth class.  We all did. Mr. Reid prepared us to sit the Ministry of Education’s scholarship exam to secondary schools. There was no argument. He decided. Parents had no say.  At that time very few scholarships were granted.  I had heard that St. Andrew High School for Girls in far-off Kingston was the only girls’ school worth attending.  But when I asked my mother if I could go there, the look she gave me was answer enough. I did not persist. It was Manchester Secondary School or nothing. So, to Manchester Secondary School I went on a scholarship –  at the ripe old age of eleven.  The year was 1953.  

‘Hole dem firm child and stop squirming about.’  Woven into my primary school days was my grand aunt Caroline or Auntie, who played two significant roles in my young life – my hair and my sweet tooth. Saturday morning had come around again and Auntie was painstakingly and laboriously combing my hair for Sabbath School at the West Indies Training College. Auntie was an  artist and it had long become obvious, even to my puny eight year-old brain,  that the artist in her was frustrated each time she attempted to comb my springy hair into her favourite dress-up style of drop curls.  My hair simply refused to conform to her desires, despite her painstaking ministrations and manipulations, and my constant fidgeting at the length of time she was taking. I must have been a young masochist. I knew Auntie always took an interminably  long time to comb my hear, yet I went religiously every Saturday morning. Perhaps my childish  vanity ‘knew’ that the tedious exercise was well worth the finished product.

She meticulously divided my hair into several equal sections starting from the crown. She then painstakingly oiled, combed  and twisted each section, which she transferred to my hand with the admonition to hold  carefully and stretch. At the end of this exercise, Auntie carefully tied a huge bow – made of two-inch terry ribbon to match my church dress – in the front, precisely over my right eye.  This was followed by the climaxing ritual when  she carefully used  the palms of her hands – damp with the remains of castor oil – in a repetitive squeezing motion to ‘straighten’ my nose. Mission impossible. Even as I gasped for breadth,  she transferred her ministrations to my legs to ‘smoothen’ my skin. The ritual over, I left Auntie and hurried home to complete my ablutions for Saturday morning Sabbath school.

Auntie was  one of four children – Sarah, Caroline,  Samuel my grandfather  and Edward. A tall, elegant woman, she was always impeccably dressed in fashionably folded tie head,  leather belt and ankle-length black boots.  An inveterate smoker, Auntie  lived in a  single room, with separate kitchen and toilet, to the side of a steep hill that led to Cedar Grove where I delivered buns and cakes at Easter and Christmas for my grandmother. At right angles to the main house was a room on stilts, in which lived a woman who I never saw fully and who nobody ever told me about. Without any visible steps I was extremely curious how she had managed to get into the room and if she ever left it.   Whenever I asked I was dismissed. All I knew was that her name was Cema. And then one day, the room disappeared along with its occupant.

Many years later I learned that Cema was actually the daughter of Auntie’s older sister Sarah who  had migrated to Kingston, fallen in love and became an unwed mother. She fell on hard times but was too ashamed to go back home. My grandfather heard about her plight and went for her and her daughter. Aunt Sarah eventually died and left Cema who was mentally challenged. Auntie took care of her until she too died, hence the sudden disappearance of the room.

Auntie  was never without her white chalk pipe, firmly clenched in the left side of her mouth. Her tobacco of choice was jackass rope, made from sun-dried tobacco leaves, which. the farmers wound into huge coils and sold in the Mandeville market. You could buy any length you wanted from an inch to a yard, cut it up into small pieces and store in an airtight tin.  Auntie’s room was always redolent with the pungent aroma of tobacco.

Auntie was an expert grass weeder. She never knelt. She could squat for hours on end as she tended the strawberry,  cabbage  and carrot patches at Jones, the centre of the farming operations  of the Hall family. She never married,  but had lived with a Mr. Morgan, for many years.

Saturday mornings were not the only times I visited Auntie. In fact I visited her quite often because Auntie had something I never tired of eating – head sugar, beautiful, ginger-flavoured  head sugar, carefully packed in a trunk to the right of the back door of Auntie’s one-room abode. The front door was never opened because it was blocked by her ‘centre’ table where she kept her precious ‘knick-knacks.’  She would painstakingly remove the thick brown wrapping paper from the head sugar, a circular block about four inches high and six inches in diameter, the base a tad smaller than the top.

She would then call Hilda, her protégée and general factotum, to bring the knife from the kitchen.  Auntie’s kitchen was a lean-to, tucked among the craggy rocks that made up her back yard. Armed with her knife, she would slowly and deliberately pare off what was always to my greedy eyes and appetite, too small a piece.  I would sit in the doorway and  savour that ginger sugar, alternately licking and sucking the sharp gingery- sugar taste to the last drop. Many were the Saturdays when I helped myself to more of Auntie’s sugar while she was busy cooking  in the out kitchen  .My final treat was to try on Auntie’s dress shoes, high-heeled, laced up black leather shoes. To my childish eyes they were the zenith of elegance. I later found out that they were the rage of the 1930s. Those shoes were sharp.

A self-composed, unobtrusive woman, Auntie lived her  life in quiet  dignity. That is not so say she did not enjoy a good joke. She would slap her hip and say “Puppa! Puppa! Puppa! to convey her mirth. But then she also said Puppa! Puppa! Pupa! to convey consternation, and at a lower decibel, worry or concern.  And when she felt I was chatting too much, she also used it to convey forbearance, “Puppa, Puppa, Puppa, pickney  mek me ears eat grass.’  In other words, Shut Up!  Many were the times she begged for me to avoid a beating from either my mother or my grandmother. They claimed she spoiled me. I loved my Auntie. Up to her death at age 96, Auntie read her Bible daily without the aid of spectacles.

The antithesis of Auntie, she used to come to  Ivy Cottage quite often. She came from New Broughton, near to Alligator Pond  in  southern Manchester. She never stayed overnight.  She would come early on a Saturday morning by the mail van  and leave on Saturday evening on the Enterprise bus.  Her name was  Elma Palmer and she was my grandfather’s cousin. When she visited, I did not pay her any attention and she reciprocated.  It therefore came as a total surprise to me one summer,  when Mamma told me and Aunt Ven  that we were going to spend time with her. There was no argument. You followed instructions.

So, duly packed, we were off to the country with Miss Elma on the Enterprise bus  It was dark when the bus reached the stop closest to our destination. It was a long walk  to the house. The first strange phenomenon we noticed was the prominently placed tombstone at the front gate of the house. We were taken to a  room with two beds and very small windows.

There was no electricity, a luxury to which we were accustomed and there was a pervading musty smell.  Miss Elma gave us black tea and bread, prayed over us  and we prepared ourselves for bed.  With the lamp light out, the room was uncommonly dark and the sound of the crickets seemed much louder than at Ivy Cottage.  I woke up in the middle of the night to loud praying and weeping for “Mumma, Mumma, Mumma!’ I could not tell if I’d been dreaming or not.  I nudged Aunt Ven who was also awake. It was Miss Elma  praying and weeping for her mother, who we were later to find out had not died recently, but rather several years ago.  She prayed and wept noisily for the remainder of the night. We also prayed and wept silently, but for a different reason. We wanted to go home.

We must have dozed off eventually, because we were woken sharply, just as the rays of the sun were filtering through the windows.  We were subjected to another round of prayers before being allowed to go outside. We took in our surroundings. There were two houses in the bare, earth-packed yard, which was surrounded by fruit and coffee trees.

Miss Elma told us that prior to her mother’s death, they had  lived in the big house.  When her mother died, she built the room we had slept in. We were not allowed in the other house.  Every day  she cleaned and dusted the ‘big’ house which she was now treating as a shrine to her mother. Not surprisingly, the tombstone at the gate was her mother’s.   Miss Elma  obviously did not have all her mental faculties intact.  We were placed on a severe diet. We were not even allowed to pick any of the fruits that grew in profusion around the house.  One kind neighbor, who I came to believe knew of Miss Elma’s mental state, invited us to her house, fed us and lent us books to read to pass the interminably long and boring days.  I selected a book entitled Jane The Determined.  When asked to read the title I pronounced ‘determined’ with the emphasis on the second syllable. Miss Elma advised me that the accent was in fact on the first syllable. Another source of  dissatisfaction with the ‘holiday.’

After a week, we were in a state of desperation. Then, it dawned on us that we were not hostages. We were free to go. Aunt Ven had our bus fare and the worst that could happen was Mama’s anger. We decided to take our chance.  So, we told Miss Elma that we were leaving the following morning. She demurred faintly, but I believe that secretly she was as relieved as we were to see the backs of each other.  We left the house as we came, in darkness. We boarded the Enterprise bus to Hillside. It was early morning when we walked into the front door of Ivy Cottage, to the surprise of all. No negative reaction from Mama.  We were relieved.  When Miss Elma came back to Ivy Cottage, Mama told her a convoluted story which she seemed to accept. And that’s the story of  our ill-fated ‘holiday.’  Gloria and Ven were two girls, determined to return home, regardless of the syllable on which you chose to place the emphasis.

Years later I learnt that my other aunts, at different times, had also been subjected to Miss Elma’s ‘holidays.’  Apparently Mama had felt sorry for her each time she visited Ivy Cottage and pleaded with her to send one of the girls to ‘keep her company.’ My aunt and I were the last ‘in line’  to experience our ‘rite of passage’ at Aunt Elma’s ‘holiday house.‘