Reggie: A Kaleidoscope Of My Jamaican Childhood

Did I know him? No!  Did I love him? No!  Do, I regret this? Sometimes.

But the fault lies squarely on his shoulders. Love is not automatic. It is earned. He was the adult. He was responsible, or irresponsible?  Should he have known better, done better? Perhaps. But it’s too late now.

I arrived on the scene six years after my grandfather’s death, making my debut at the Hargreaves Maternity Hospital in Mandeville, on Thursday, November 07, 1942.   My mother reached her twenty-first birthday, exactly five weeks prior to my birth. My father, Reginald Hylton was an accountant from the neighbouring parish of St. Elizabeth.   He had left two other children, Velma and Winston with two women there. When he came to Manchester to set up the accounting systems for a new branch of a chain of hardware stores, he met both my mother and another woman. He had obviously decided to start a new round of romances. The story goes that he dated them both simultaneously.  Both got pregnant, but he chose the other woman as his bride. Olive had been raised as a devout Roman Catholic by her grandmother, as her mother had migrated to Panama.   Her grandmother was a housekeeper to the Roman Catholic Priests at their Rectory in Lane, a short distance from Mandeville. Unwed motherhood was therefore completely out of the question.

Between 1891 and 1904, when the Panama Canal was being built, hundreds of Jamaicans went there to seek work and as an avenue to migrate to the USA. There still is a ‘colony’ of Jamaicans in Panama.

There is a rather derisive folk song about those who returned home, flaunting their wealth, but still illiterate.

One, two, three four, Colon Man a come, wid im brass chain a lick im belly, bam, bam, bam.   Yu ask im fi de time, an im look upon de sun, wid  im brass chain a lick im belly, bam, bam. bam.

Colon was the other name for Panama then. The song derides the nouveau riche who returned with their fancy chain watches, yet incapable of reading them; having to resort to the time-old custom of looking at the sun to gauge the time, or the pretenders who only had the chain and no watch attached.

Reggie, as I prefer to think of him – I never called him father or Daddy and he never insisted on it whenever I saw him   – was a charming scoundrel. In retrospect, it must have been a most awkward situation for us both. But he never insisted on it. Perhaps if he had I would have.  But then for that matter, I never called my mother Mama either. That was reserved for my grandmother. At least in that case I had someone to call Mama.  My father dressed impeccably, spoke flawless English, quoted Shakespeare with consummate ease, rolled the ‘r’ in my name like a Scotsman, He was blessed with a sharp, incisive intellect and cursed with a fatal vulnerability to alcohol.

He was the union of a woman of Scottish descent, originally from Mountainside in the same parish, Alice Buchanan, ‘Ma Lis’  and  Thomas (Tom) Hylton,  a ‘chocolate-coloured’ gentleman with ‘good hair.’  who was the ‘village ram’ of Corby Castle, close to Munro, also in St. Elizabeth. Velma who lived with Ma Lis for a while – along with my late brother Winston – describes her as ‘almost white, short and stockily built, always barefooted, with long brown hair which she plaited in two and tied under her chin. She kept candy for them in the pocket of an apron which she always wore. It was the second ‘union’ for them both. ‘Ma. Lis’ had a girl Ida, and Thomas, a daughter Corinne. The story is that Ma Lis and Tom lived in separate communities and when she got pregnant, they developed a code to advise him, by telegram, of the sex of the  new arrival. If a girl, the telegram should read ‘bicycle arrived, pump missing.’ If a boy the telegram should simply say ‘bicycle arrived.’

Reggie was the only child of the union, but there were younger siblings. According to my Aunt Hortense, his younger sister whom I met through the instrumentality of my sister Janet. When he got Aunt Hortense’s mother pregnant, she packed her daughter off to Manchester, as she wanted to protect her from any  further involvement with the Lothario of  Corby Castle.  Based on my father’s behaviour, it would seem that Thomas’s genetic imprint was perfectly transferred to his son Reginald.

I remember my father as a shadowy figure, moving in and out of my life after long intervals. While at primary school I used to have lunch at a restaurant immediately across from his office and then visit him afterward. The visits stopped when my mother no longer sent me to the restaurant. Much later, I learnt that he had made the lunch arrangements, but had failed to pay the bill.  I cannot remember him ever hugging me,  sitting with me, and imparting words of advice, wisdom, or encouragement to a growing child. I have strong recollections of attending primary school with some of my younger siblings, but being advised by my mother not to ever speak with them because’ they think they are better than you.’

Yet, contrarily, I have vague recollections of my father bringing these same siblings to Ivy Cottage, on a Sunday evening, usually during my mother’s absence; of my grandmother greeting them and taking them to pick strawberries and of my tagging along on the periphery. It would seem my grandmother had had a good relationship with Reggie.  Some sixty years later, Janet showed me the house where my father and his family had lived when they paid their sporadic visits.  It was but a stone’s throw from Ivy Cottage.

As a high school student, I have recollections of visiting my father when he was the accountant for a prestigious firm of attorneys in Mandeville. By then he was a striking, imposing man of stocky build, with a large head covered in iron-grey hair which seemed to have a life of its own.  He still dressed impeccably, still pronounced my name with his version of the Scottish burr, but the light seemed to have gone from his eyes. Later I was to learn that his uncontrollable drinking had resulted in his losing his job from one of the new bauxite companies operating in the parish.  He had begun to slip.

My next recollection was when I was still attending high school and living in Brumalia with my mother and stepfather Clement Thompson.  Early one morning, as I was getting dressed for school, a taxi drew up at the door and out stepped an obviously drunk and disheveled man. It was my father. My mother hurried me off to school. Needless to say, my concentration was below par throughout the day. I hurried home, only to be told he had already left. My mother said she had cleaned him up, washed and ironed his clothes, and after an extended nap and a meal he had departed for places yet again unknown.

I was in my pre-Senior Cambridge year at school when my father came back into my life. It was during this long summer holiday that he seemed to have awakened to the fact that I was his child and he should make some attempt to be a part of my life. By that time, he had slipped even further down my totem pole. He had lost the job at the legal firm – to drink again – and was now accountant to the owner of a bus company and gas station, who I found out later was a cousin.  I used to go to ‘work’ with him in the days, by calling out the figures from the ledger so he could total them.  The company had invested in an adding machine – the type where you punched in the figures and pulled a small lever to record the numbers. I watched my father struggle with this machine. It slowed him down. He was much more comfortable and adept with running his fingers down the columns and adding in his head.

It was 1957, the year of the historic Kendall Railway Crash, the worst rail disaster in Jamaica and the second-worst in the world at that time. It took place on the night of Sunday, September 01. when a  train, carrying parishioners of the St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Kingston, was returning from an outing to Montego Bay. As reports stated at the time, the 12-carriage train was severely overloaded with free-loaders of questionable reputation.

Many theories still abound about the cause of the accident. One is that is was the accidental closure of an angled wheel brake. Others say it was done deliberately and in ignorance of its potential deadly consequence by the criminal element on board. Another is that the carriages were so badly overloaded – approximately 130 when the maximum was 80 passengers per car – and therefore so out of balance – that when the train tried to maneuver the deep curve at Kendal, it overbalanced and derailed, sending the carriages hurtling into the ravine below. Two hundred persons died and over 700 were injured. News spread quickly about the crash and crowds converged on the site.

My father and mother visited the scene, came back to the gas station, green around the gills, at the unbelievable carnage they had witnessed. They warned me not to go to the Mandeville Public Hospital where the dead and injured were still being taken. Knowing my own squeamish behavior and fear of the butcher shop, I should have known better than to follow my friends to the hospital which was immediately across the road from the gas station where I was ‘working.’  But the ghoulish excitement was too much for me to withstand. So, with a combination of false bravado and trepidation, I followed them. I have never forgotten the horrific scene that confronted us on that sunny Monday morning. As we entered from the back – we did not know that that was where the morgue was located – we came upon a stack of dead bodies, naked, bloodied, piled on top of each another.

I remember so clearly the body of a morbidly obese red-skinned woman, lying by herself – she was too huge to be in the pile.   She was later identified as a Mrs. Tapper.  Our bravado deserted us and we beat a hasty and silent retreat. I had nightmares for weeks, nightmares I could not speak of with either my mother or father because, in a rare show of unity,  both had instructed me to remain at the gas station and not go to the hospital, while they went –together –  to the crash site. Disobedience does have a price.  Later, tall tales abounded about duppies trying to find their way home to Kingston via buses, taxis, and private cars, some wandering around with their heads and other body parts in their hands.

I met my sister Velma the following year when I was sixteen, after I had taken my Senior Cambridge examination, and was marking time at the then West Indies Training College – now the Northern Caribbean University –  close to Ivy Cottage. My grandmother was a great believer in education and so, while I was waiting for my examination results, she packed me off to the College.  Velma was working at the St. Elizabeth Parish Council as a Secretary and, unknown to me,  my father who knew the Secretary of the Council. Victor Nembhard, wangled a job for me as a filing clerk. I worked at the Council for six months, and left for a job with the Jamaica Library Service, through the instrumentality of the Council’s Accountant, Mr. Samms, who was also a member of the Parish Library Committee.  During my time with Velma, we never spoke of my father. I did not know where he was. Later I was to understand that she knew, but for whatever reason, did not tell me.

My father committed suicide when I was twenty-one years old. In August of 1963, I was working at the Trelawny Parish Library on a three-month stint for the Librarian who had gone off on maternity leave. Early one morning, shortly after I got there,  two policemen came to see me. I thought it had something to do with the library. No such luck. With grim and embarrassed looks, they advised me that my father had hanged himself on the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church in Brown’s Town, St. Ann and my mother had sent a message to the police station to advise me to go and collect his body. Numbed, I moved in slow motion to the library, called my mother in Mandeville, and asked her if she had sent the message. In fact she was unaware of his death. At that time Velma was working at the Manchester Parish Council. My mother called her. She sent the undertakers for his body. It was subsequently discovered that it was his wife who had sent the message. I am still trying to ascertain how she knew where I was. The assumption is that my father knew, but had taken a decision to remove himself from my life.

I remember the numbness and pain I felt at that funeral. I remember the hollowness I felt at that funeral. I felt that my life had been cursed. This was the third suicide in my young life. I could no longer console myself that it was confined to one side of my family, with the suicide of my two maternal uncles. Now that my father had done the same thing. I felt doomed and cornered and that emulation was inevitable for me. At the funeral I have vague recollections of seeing my siblings, but we never spoke. I carried the newspaper notification of his death – captioned ‘Accountant Commits Suicide’ – in my wallet for many years until it became faded and torn at the folds. That was the only concrete thing I had of my father. A newspaper notification of his death by suicide. A memento?  How ironic.

My mourning for the loss of a father had been ongoing, albeit subconsciously, from my early childhood. My ‘new’ mourning centred on the shame he had brought the family by taking his own life, his extreme selfishness, particularly when he knew about the suicides of my uncles.  For many years I papered over the   sharp pain from the permanent void  I felt by the absence of a father in my life. And whenever asked  I lied about how he had died. I said he had died from a heart attack, rationalizing that ultimately all deaths result from heart attacks.     But it was not until many years later that I recognized it for what it was – a gaping hole which created emotions of anger, neglect, jealousy, and rejection. It is ironic how, through ignorance,  pain can be revisited on the next generation. Because I had failed to recognize the source of my anger and self-rejection, I harboured an impatience, a lack of respect for the role of the father in a family. I had grown up without one and was doing fine, so if my husband erred – however slightly – my children and I could do very well without him.  And so I exposed my children to the same pain of abandonment and rejection I had experienced.  Thankfully, I was redeemed, as were my children in my second marriage to a man who turned out to be a wonderful husband and father.  Not all of us have been so lucky.

Not until some forty plus years later, when I met my sister Janet, did I come to understand the complex yet painful legacy Reginald  Hylton had left his eleven children – we were convinced he had twelve. Eleven is such an untidy number for an accountant and perfectionist. They were loved and abandoned alternately by a brilliant man who was an inveterate alcoholic. As my father’s fortunes fell, they were moved from one tenement yard to another. Some were not able to finish their secondary education. It is thanks to their fortitude and sheer strength of character that they prevailed and have become useful productive citizens in Jamaica and their adopted countries, the USA and England.  Had he lived, I am certain that he would have been inordinately proud of us all. While the circle has yet to be closed, the sense of connectedness, of being an integral part of a larger whole, to see parts of yourself in others with whom you share a common parent, to see the clear manifestations of this genetic bond, is indeed a type of healing.’

Years after my father’s death I was to learn two additional things about him.

When I was doing my undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies, a girl friend of many years asked me if I had a sister from Portland, or rather if my father had ever worked in Portland. I told her no. Carmen insisted that at the very least he must have visited the parish; because, ‘there is a girl on the campus who looks just like you. Would I like to meet her?’ I said yes. So Carmen arranged the meeting. I got to the agreed spot first. When I saw the young woman walking toward me, I felt shivers running up and down my spine. I was looking at me walking toward me. The only difference was a small scar on her right cheek, which I later learned had resulted from a motor vehicle accident.  I was overcome with the most uncanny feeling. We looked at each other awestruck and dumbstruck. Carmen preened in the background, her face clearly saying ‘I told you so!’ to both of us.  When I related my experience to Velma, she informed me that Reggie had in fact worked in Port Antonio at the Titchfield Hotel  and that perhaps this was the 12th child. We did not maintain contact, but some twenty years later I was asked by a co-worker about my sister at a certain office where he had worked. Did I know I have a double? He too was absolutely convinced that we were not just related, but closely related!

 I have come to terms with my father’s life and death. He was my father. A genetic fact.  I see him in my children, in my daughter’s style of walking, -swinging her feet and hands in carless abandon. You walk close to her at your own peril. I see him in the charm my son exudes around young women and their obvious attraction to him. I see it in the flair for fashion and the crisp and precise way my younger granddaughter speaks. As Janet my sister  told me that her maternal Uncle Charles so succinctly described family: “We a one belly gut!”

About the author

Gloria Royale-Davis