A sister is a gift to the heart,
A friend to the spirit,
A golden thread to the meaning of life.
(Isadora James :1890-1975)
Early one April morning in 2010, Velma picked me up from my home in Garveymeade. Her daughter Sheryl was with her. We were on a journey. For me it was a journey that had its genesis, some 60 years ago; for Velma a shorter time, but a journey nonetheless. The journey had two major, but interconnected stops.
The first was a house in Duhaney Park in St. Andrew. We stopped by a blue and white gate, at which stood a woman, obviously waiting for us. She looked to be in her early sixties, about 5ft. 5inches, thick dark brown hair, buxom, with small hands and feet, a testament to the fact that in her young days she had been, like the rest of us very slim, but children and middle age had added the usual pounds. She had a welcoming smile. “Velma, that’s not Yvonne is it?” I asked from the back of the car “Yes, it is.” my sister said in her usual forthright manner. Somehow, that was not the picture I had built in my mind of a sister I was now meeting for the first time. Don’t ask me to describe the specifics of ‘my’ picture, but I had envisioned a diminutive woman. We hugged briefly. The emotions were too strong for me to do anything else.
Many years ago I had heard that I had a sister named Yvonne living in Duhaney Park and that she was married to a ‘Chinaman.’ That was the sum total of the information. We talked during the trip. Yvonne said she knew me, had seen me on occasions in the media, knew when I had worked at the Jamaica Library Service many years ago and had even sent a child to me for a particular book – The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Because the nature of my job in public relations at the Urban Development Corporation and later at the Jamaica Information Service, meant that, at times. I would have been in the public media. I refrained from asking why she had not tried to contact me since she had had the advantage of knowing where I could be found. It was too early for what could have been perceived as confrontational or accusatory. Moreover, I was still carrying the baggage of my primary school days and the presumed ‘superiority’ of legitimate over illegitimate children.
The second leg of this epic journey took us to the Hilton Hotel in New Kingston and to my sister Janet. Tall, fair-complexioned, sloe-eyed, sophisticated, exuberant Janet, who greeted me with a tight hug and the words “Hello my sister.” Apart from a brief visit from friends of Janet’s late husband, the four of us spent the entire day in her hotel room, chatting, laughing, eating, reminiscing about the Mandeville days, about our father, about Yvonne’s husband Lennie’s life-threatening illness from which he was just recovering, about Velma’s and my sojourn in England and our brother who had now joined the band of ‘returning residents’, in the process of remodeling his Santa Cruz house so he could retire in comfort in his beloved country. The camaraderie was instantaneous. The genetic link was obvious. We all had the quick repartee, the wry humour, the sharp tongue with its caustic undertone, the spontaneous laughter. ‘We are indeed Reggie’s children. He has left his indelible genetic mark on us all.’ I said to myself.
Sisters are different flowers from the same garden
That we had got to this historic day can be attributed solely to Janet’s epic mission to find her older siblings – Velma, Winston and myself. It is her story and I hope she will tell it in writing because it bears telling. It is a story of determination, of hope, of despair, of sheer doggedness and of ultimate success. It may not be a unique story, or even an uncommon story, given the history of our country; one scarred by the indelible physical and psychological imprint of slavery and the deliberate separation and emasculation of fathers from their children as a form of control by the slave masters, with the complicit support of the colonial government. It is the story of female-headed households and absentee fathers, which predominate even in the 21st. century. Lessons learned long ago die hard. Such is the power of history, of culture, of family, of socialization, and its attendant power of negative thinking, auto-suggestion and the self-fulfilling prophecy.
I will only say, that day in the hotel room at the Hilton Hotel was a combination of persistence and serendipity – a telephone call to complain about poor dental service answered by my daughter-in-law Audrey. We were to discover thatr Janet and my son Christopher, live less than an hour by car from each other in Florida. How ironic that Christopher and his children saw my sister before I did.
Why is it that earth shaking events in our lives come upon us in such mundane ways? No clash of cymbals. No eclipse of the moon. No sudden penetrating portend of things to come. Just another routine day. Just another day on the calendar.
Less than three months after I met Janet and Yvonne, my husband Michael died suddenly, in his sleep, of a heart attack. Janet had met him only briefly on that life-changing visit in April. In addition to my mother, my children, my friends and my neighbours, I now had three sisters to support me in my time of incalculable grief. Janet flew back to Jamaica to attend Michael’s funeral, as did my very dear friend Artley who flew in from Cleveland, Ohio. In the difficult days and months that ensued, my sisters were there for me; providing succour, prayer, humour, encouragement, love.
Naala met Janet and Yvonne when Michael died. Both children wanted to know why I had not told them about my other eight siblings. Auntie Velma they had known all their lives. They knew about Winston but had not met him because they were never in Jamaica on the occasions when he visited. What could I have said to them that would have been an acceptable explanation? Did I really have one? Should I have trotted out the one given to me when I was six years old at primary school with my siblings and told not to speak with them? I searched my heart. Did I subconsciously feel a sense of kinship with my brother and sister who had preceded my father’s marriage? Did I see us as different – the outsiders who should stick together? The answers came back with embarrassing clarity. Yes you did. Was it self-preservation? Perhaps. What I do know, is that I have been given a second chance. We have all been given a second chance. And I for one am extremely grateful.
In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future (Alex Haley: 2013))
Christopher and my grandchildren Christin and Cayla are thrilled that they now have a grandaunt on Daddy’s side of the family living close by. Chris used to express how lonely he sometimes felt when, at family gatherings, he had “nobody from my family there.” Janet tells the story that the first time Chris called her, he asked if he could call her Auntie Janet, to which she responded “What else can you call me baby?”
For years, I had considered myself lucky that after the suicides of my two uncles and my father, I had been spared any further deaths in the family. Forty eight years later my husband Michael died, to be followed in quick succession by the very tragic death of a nephew I had not yet met. Ian, Yvonne’s third child was brutally murdered at his home on November 04, a day before his 45th birthday. The family was utterly devastated. Devoted Roman Catholics, Yvonne’s and Lennie’s faith, family, friends, neighbours and the church community buttressed them. How does one overcome the death of a child especially the circumstances of his death and the failure of the police to find the perpetrator? I marvel at the strength and dignity displayed by Yvonne and Lennie.
In October 0f 2011, with the ‘machinations’ of Janet, Christopher and Artley, I was able to take some time off from minding my 89 year old mother and spend a week with Janet in Florida. Rick her son who lives in Canada was able to take a few days off to come down and meet his ‘Aunty Glo’ as he christened me. It was marvelous. It was poignant. It was unforgettable. Once again, the manifestations of the incontrovertible power of the genetic imprint simply screamed at us. I look at Rick and see the family resemblance. Apart from his eyes, which are definitely his mother’s, Rick could be my son. Our colouring is identical. I see a young version of what I used to look like in photographs of Nyri, the daughter of my youngest brother Robin, who Janet took me to visit in San Francisco. In Nyri, my children have found a wonderful friend and cousin, and for me a favourite niece. No, rather a younger daughter. We have much in common – a love for writing, an insatiable curiosity about our ancestry, our Caribbean history and culture, our sense of humour. And Janet declares that Sheila, her immediately older sister and who I remember from Mandeville when we were both teenagers, is my exact genetic imprint.
Janet’s house is decorated in the same earth tones as my house. We both have a living room wall painted in burgundy. We both love plants and flowers in profusion. We love the same types of books, music and food, including a passion for nuts. The similarities are uncanny. Why were we denied access to each other and my other siblings? Why did adults make decisions that so negatively influenced the lives of their children? We do not know. In the words of the song by the iconic group Peter, Paul and Mary ‘The answer is blowing in the wind.’
Through Janet I met my father’s younger sister Aunt Hortense. She lived in a nursing home less than ten minutes’ drive from Duhaney Park. At 89, although physically challenged from a stroke, she was a beautiful, feisty senior citizen, with a ready smile, razor sharp brain and a phenomenal memory. I see the resemblance to our father and Naala in Aunt Hortense. We also met her only grandson O’Neill and his wife Juliet. A year after I met Aunt Hortense she passed away.
On December 28, 2011 at age 72, our brother Winston succumbed to prostate cancer after a long and heart-wrenching illness, played out in London and Jamaica. We mourn his loss but we know we must not be selfish and release him to the angels and to the place where he will feel no more pain. We loved our brother dearly and are gratified that we were able to spend quality time with him when he came home briefly mid-year in the throes of his illness.
Winston was a tall, handsome, shy man, with a natural attraction for ladies. He possessed the charisma of his father but in a more subtle lovable, self-effacing way. He was an excellent father to his two sons Wayne and Raymond, and a proud and doting grandfather to their six children. His wife Gladys, predeceased him by seven years after a long and debilitating illness during which Winston cared for her uncomplainingly and unselfishly. Our brother was an angel. Janet, an airline stewardess with flying privileges attended his funeral for us all. We miss him. He will live in our hearts forever.
Research strongly suggests that there are genetic and environmental bases for suicidal behaviour. Simply put, a family history of suicide increases the risk of future suicides. How else can one explain the indescribably, heart-wrenching suicide of Janet’s only child, Rick on January 24, 2016, Why did Rick follow in his grandfather’s footsteps? No one knows. Buh there we were again. Another violent passing of another male member of the family, re-awakening old wounds, unbearable pain, deep introspection. I met Jackie who flew down from San Francisco, and two other siblings at the funeral – Carmen and Paulette – and Danielle, the daughter of Richard, another brother.
I cannot and will not attempt to empathise with Janet on the passing of Rick. It would be presumptuous of me. Instead, we mourn with her. We weep with her and we continue to love her unconditionally. What I do know, however, is that the women of this family are strong. We are rooted in the strength, power and resilience of our foremothers who were transported from Ghana; in Queen Nanny of the Maroons (1686-1733),who together with her brothers Accompong, Cudjoe and Quao, successfully waged a guerilla war against the British and won their freedom from slavery, perhaps even foreshadowing full freedom in 1838.
Regardless of the vicissitudes we experience, both within and without, we remain a family – strong, resilient, optimistic, loving life and all its wonderful offerings.
If a family were a fruit,
It would be an orange,
A circle of sections, held together but separate – each segment distinct
(Letty Cottin Pogrebin)