Daughter of the Caribbean
Jamaica is calling me again !
Beloved Jamaica, the island of my birth, where brilliant sunshine and glistening white-sand beaches demand reverence; and where the fruit is sweet and abundant. Exotic Jamaica, the island of my muse, where fowl feathers are fervently plucked so there is fresh poultry on the table; where I’m chastised for chatting in Patois (the local dialect) and not the Queen’s English; and where I’m lulled to sleep by loud pelts of rain on a tin roof. Profound Jamaica is where I encountered joy, abandon, intrigue and adventure; where I gripped an old midwife’s hand and pushed my firstborn through my loins; where the people are strong, defiant and accomplished; and where my loved ones flourished and perished. And Jamaica, my island of rare dismay, is where grace and conflict always compete for regard, and where ancestral struggles and modern-day politics challenge any psyche.
Twickenham in Jamaica is also calling me again! Rich-and-conflicting Twickenham, where I galloped through tall grass, flirted with the supernatural, communed with harrowing and notorious ancestors, embraced my uniqueness, and learned that heritage influences character.
Childhood in Jamaica is calling me again! I pause, I listen, and this time I surrender. Four young attendants lowered a small mahogany coffin into the grave on crude, calico-cotton belts. They sweated profusely and muttered to each other in Patois. Then everyone scooped up dirt and threw a handful into the grave out of respect for “poor Miss Jenny,” my mother’s friend. The weeping and wailing intensified into horrifying screams — and one emotionally distressed woman yelled at the top of her lungs, “Mamma gone, Lord, Mamma gone!”
Then she leaped feet first into the grave. The weary grave attendants sighed because their next task would be to pull Miss Lucy, who was over 250 pounds, out of the grave. This was one hell of a challenge, as she flailed around, squirming like an animal in pain, shrieking over and over, “Mama gone, aaay, Mama gone.”
Miss Lucy was finally hauled out of the grave, totally disheveled, without her hat, every hair on her head standing on end, face all wet with sweat and tears. She had generated much body odor from the grave-jumping drama — and now she wore only one shoe.
This spectacle confronted my mother Miss Birdie and me, as the funeral was our first stop in Portland Cottage, the small town where my grandmother lived. We had traveled slowly for over five miles on unpaved roads from Lionel Town, where our family lived. The old jalopy had pulled up to a gathering of about 30 people, all dressed in their Sunday best.
They were rocking and singing a most mournful hymn, “Abide with Me.” It was the typical Jamaican funeral, with loud singing and several women bawling at the top of their lungs. One woman wailed so hysterically she fell to the ground, while others tried to comfort her and get her back on her feet. The country preacher raised his hand and hollered, “And the dead in Christ shall rise up to meet Jesus on that special Day of Judgment!”
I clutched my mother’s frock with both hands, burying my face into the cloth on her belly. The singing, rocking and wailing continued for what seemed like an eternity. Miss Birdie’s belly pulsated under her frock as she belted out hymn after hymn with that massive voice of hers. I remember thinking she should be singing on the stage in an opera. “Oh, how I hope to grow up with a voice like hers,” I thought to myself. These thoughts diverted my attention and comforted me, as the weeping and wailing rose to a feverish pitch. I peeked out from my hiding place to see the country preacher raise his trembling arms. He bellowed, “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, in Jesus’ name, amen and amen!”
As others in the congregation tried to console the hefty woman just fished from the grave, more dreary and mournful hymn singing accompanied dirt shoveling, until a neat mound formed on top of the grave. A large, crude cross was stuck on top of the mound to memorialize “poor Miss Jenny,” as the crowd walked away from the grave site, glancing back in sorrow. I looked back at the wooden cross, perched against a beautiful orange-and-yellow Caribbean sunset. It was a relief to be looking back at this spectacle.
As we hurried toward Mass Harry’s old car, the mosquitoes began to sing around us and eagerly bite our flesh. Miss Birdie picked me up and plopped me into the car, after several stops to moan about Miss Jenny, what a hard life she had, and how she’s gone to her maker in the sky.
We finally headed to my grandmother’s house at her estate called Twickenham, with seven passengers instead of three. And at least five others from the funeral chased behind us, yelling, “Mass Harry, beg you a drive just … down to Main Street.”
Mass Harry smashed the accelerator and left the funeral throng in the dust. We headed back through the town of Portland Cottage at 4:55 p.m. What a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I thought, now feeling less traumatized by the dreadful graveyard scene we’d left behind. Then Mass Harry slowed the vehicle to a gentle chug.
It was August 1957. As the sun warmly caressed the old jalopy, a gentle breeze kissed the trees with a playful promise that made my skin tingle, and the pink satin ribbon in my hair flap against my ear with glee. To the right, a countrywoman headed home with a large pail of water on her head. Her skin was black as coal, and two thick, short braids stuck out from under an old yellow scarf tied roughly around her sweaty head. Her full skirt swung from side to side as she strode along the side of the dirt road. I turned around with childish curiosity and saw that her belly was plump.
“Why is that lady’s belly so big, Mama?” I asked.
“She has a baby in her belly, my child,” Miss Birdie lamented.
“How can she carry a full pail of water on her head and a baby in her belly at the same time, Mama?”
“Ah, my daughter, life can be very tough for some of these country women,” sighed my mother. “Not only do they have to carry water from the wells for miles on their heads, but when they get home, they also have a bunch of hungry bellies to feed.”
I looked up at Miss Birdie. “What you mean by hungry bellies, Mama?’
“Some of these country women have six to 12 children at home to feed, and a man who wants to be fed in more ways than one. When you grow up, you will learn that a woman’s work is never done.”
We were headed down a winding dirt road toward my grandmother’s house at her estate, Twickenham. I was in the front seat of the old car, bouncing up and down as the rocks played havoc on the old tires. In the backseat was the funeral throng, heads and arms hanging out the car window, jabbering away in Patois. At the wheel, Mass Harry looked far older than his years. His skin was brown and leathery from years of hard work in the blazing Jamaican sun, and his eyes were red and weary. I sat next to my mother, Miss Birdie. She was dressed in black, her brown hair pulled back and neatly coifed under a lovely lavender straw hat.
“Mass Harry, when are we going to reach Sedith’s house?”
“Soon,” he said. “It’s just up the road. Sedith is going to be glad to see you!”
I looked up at Miss Birdie. “Mama, why do they call my grandmother Sedith?”
This time, Mass Harry answered, glancing sideways at me with a big grin.
“Everybody in the village calls your grandmother Sedith. Sedith is the short version of Miss Edith. We all love the old lady. She feeds many of our children and gives of us work at Twickenham during hard times. She is like an angel from heaven.”
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up in front of a small, red-roofed cottage that was invitingly framed with a charming veranda. I looked up curiously at the old wooden emblem that said “Twickenham.”
As Miss Birdie got out of the car and opened the double-iron gates, I saw two inviting bamboo-and- cane rocking chairs on the veranda, moving slowly to and fro in the warm Caribbean breeze.
We drove slowly through Twickenham’s gates, and there she was — a simply dressed, slim, elegant older woman. She stood proudly, a natural beauty, with wavy, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a long-and-ample braid. Her locks framed the most beautifully scrubbed almond-colored face I’d ever seen. She was definitely of an exotic ethnic mix. I didn’t know it then, but that old woman was about to become a defining presence in my life.
“Where have you been all this time? I was worried about the two of you!” declared Sedith.
“It was a long and rough ride,” Miss Birdie said.
“I think Mass Harry picked the biggest rocks to ride over. At times I thought my belly would leave my body; but we got here in one piece, thank God!”
“We were running late, Sedith,” Mass Harry explained, “so I took them straight to Miss Jenny’s
funeral. Miss Birdie didn’t want to miss saying her goodbyes.”
This was my first memory of my grandmother Sedith and the estate called Twickenham. Miss
Birdie said that we were together many times before, when I was only a baby. After a few minutes of chatter about how Miss Jenny just up and died, and how Sedith went to the church service but not to the gravesite because, “My nerves just couldn’t take the bawling and wailing today,” we waved goodbye to Mass Harry. I watched with amusement as the old car made its way down the rocky-dirt road, through bushes and around trees, backseat passengers’ heads bumping up and down like country bumpkins in a donkey cart.
Sedith’s maid Cookie had dinner waiting, and we sat down around the ornate antique mahogany dining table to a meal of rice and peas, stewed beef, and the sweetest lemonade made of brown sugar, fresh lime juice and water. My sister Dahlia did not attend the funeral. She sat across from me at the dinner table, and as I ate and swung my feet up and down under Sedith’s linen tablecloth, she smiled and winked at me.
Dahlia had lived with Sedith for several years. I vaguely remembered meeting her earlier. I later learned that she was my father’s child from his first marriage. She was 12 years old with a beautiful slender frame, and her long, thick black hair was parted down the middle and braided in two. She was a charming girl, smart and “quite the athlete,” according to Sedith. I was immediately drawn to her kind, innocent, unassuming face and knew right then that she would be a lifelong partner, sister and friend.
After dinner and some more chatter, Miss Birdie stood up from the table and declared, “I left my handkerchief at the funeral yard, and I’m going to search for it. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
But I did not see Miss Birdie for four long years after that departure. In all her innocence, this was my mother’s way of saying goodbye because, she later told me, she didn’t want to see me cry.
Miss Birdie left the island to join my father, Mass Pet, in England. My father worked as an engineer throughout Europe, and England would be his home base for the next four years.
Living with Sedith was a privilege by Portland Cottage’s standards. She was the major landowner of the area, a prominent member of the local Adventist church, and the village’s matriarch. Indeed, she was a woman with the presence of a fallen queen.
Sedith’s pride, pomp and stiff upper lip reflected her role as the village’s most influential woman. The stiff upper lip was a result of her British upbringing, which included strong discipline and the attitude of “never let them see you sweat.” Elegance, kindness and class — Sedith was blessed with these remarkable qualities.
Norma Jennings was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Jamaica in the West Indies. From an exotic multi-ethnic background of black, white and East Indian descent, two strong and dynamic
women and a remarkably intelligent and adventurous father influenced her.
Jennings migrated to the United States in the early 1970s, where she earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Angelo State University and graduated from the Management Development Program at Harvard Graduate School. She built a successful career as corporate executive in the hotel, education, banking and health care industries and has specialized training and experience in recruitment, employee relations, compensation, employee benefits, information technology and labor and immigration laws.
Find out more at: http://www.daughterofthecaribbean.com
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