Secrets That Hold Us

October 21, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 8 min read

1.
“I didn’t grow up with my mother,” Mom tells me. We’re sitting on the front verandah looking out at the grass before us wilting in the afternoon sun and the dwarf coconut trees that line one side of the driveway. The coconut fronds dip with the breeze, revealing green-and yellow-husked coconuts. It’s hot on the verandah; the aluminum awning, put there years earlier to shield the sun and rain, traps the late afternoon heat as well.

“I was 12 before I knew my mother,” she says.

 My mother is responding to some transgression of mine, what specifically I don’t remember. Perhaps something I neglected to tell her. There’s a lot we didn’t talk about then and don’t talk about now—a trait I earned honestly, I now know.

To grow up in Jamaica is to hear and know these stories of mothers who have migrated abroad or to Kingston, leaving their children to be raised by another relative. Barrel children, we call them, a term that stems from the fact that the migrating parents often send barrels of food and clothes back home for their children. But this is not my mother’s story.

I am in my 20s then when she tells me about meeting her mother for the first time. My mother was 12, living in Clarendon on the southern side of Jamaica with her father’s twin sisters, a cousin, and three of her father’s other children. She talks about that day as if it’s nothing remarkable: A visitor comes and one of the aunts tells my mother to take the woman to another relative’s house some yards away on a vast tract of land that is subdivided for various relatives. They’re on their way, when my grandaunt call my mother back. It turns out they were watching to see what my mother would do, how long it would take my mother to start quizzing the visitor.

“That’s your mother,” my grandaunt tells her. My mother was a baby when her mother left her there with the aunts, too young to recognize her own mother those 12 years later.

Among her siblings, my mother’s story is not unique. My mother’s father worked with the now-defunct railway service in Jamaica, crossing the country on the east-west train line. I don’t know how or where he met the mothers of his children. But it seems, he collected his offspring and deposited them in Clarendon for his sisters to raise. “I don’t know what arrangement Papa Stanley had with her,” my mother says of her parents.

My mother’s mother—Mother Gwen—raised three boys. “She gave away the girl and kept the boys,” my mother says. In it, I hear the sting of abandonment and the loss of having grown up without a concrete reason for her mother’s absence. It’s years before my mother sees her mother again, and by then she’s an adult with a life far different from that of her mother and the sons her mother kept and raised.

2.
My mother came of age with the generation that ushered in Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962, and she lives the Jamaican dream, that of moving off the island for a better life elsewhere. Generation after generation of Jamaicans have moved abroad—some to Panama to help build the canal, some to Cuba to work the sugar cane fields, others to Britain during the Windrush era, and countless others to America. A year after marrying my father in 1967, my parents moved to America for undergraduate studies at Tuskegee University, and later to Urbana, Ill., for my father’s graduate studies. Driven away by the cold, winter’s wrath, snow measured by the feet instead of inches, my parents returned to Jamaica in 1971, with the first of their three daughters. My father settled into a job with a unit of a bauxite company and my mother begans teaching early childhood education, supervising teachers and later teaching at a teachers college.

In 1977, they bought the house they still own—a split-level with a front lawn that slopes down to the street. The house overlooks a valley, where a river once ran. Across the valley is the main road into town and a forested cliff side. We sit on that verandah, my mother and I, looking out as she tells me about this grandmother I hadn’t known about until recently. The openness of the yard, the grass sloping down to the road, contrasts with the family secret she’s held on to for so long.

3.
I am already out of college and in my early 20s when my sisters and I rediscover Mother Gwen. We had, the three of us, come to our separate conclusions that our maternal grandmother had long been dead. I don’t have a specific reason for thinking she was dead—no memory of a funeral, no snippets of a conversation at the back of my mind. But growing up, we made weekly or biweekly trips to visit our relatives in different parts of the island: my paternal grandparents in Anchovy, a small town in the rambling hills that look down on Montego Bay; my maternal grandfather in Kingston; the grandaunts who raised my mother in the woods of Clarendon amidst coffee and cocoa and citrus plants. Now, I suspect that I assumed she had passed on because she was not among the relatives we visited, and unlike my other relatives, I have no specific memory of her—no Christmas or Boxing Day dinners, no visits to her after Easter Sunday services.

Grandma—my father’s mother—I remember clearly. She baked birthday cakes in three different sizes because my sisters and I celebrated our birthdays in back-to-back-to-back months—April, May, and June. My older sister got the largest cake, I got the mid-sized cake, and my younger sister got the smallest cake. Grandma divided money in a similar manner—$20, $10 and $5. Our birth order mattered to her.

I don’t have childhood memories of Mother Gwen, or the sons she raised without my mother. Instead, I have a vague recollection of an unfinished house, a metal drum by the side of the house, and large red and orange colored fish swimming in the makeshift aquarium. I don’t know if the house of my memory and the house where we rediscovered our grandmother are the same but it’s the memory that came to me when we walked into the house that Sunday afternoon and my mother said to her mother, who was slowly going blind, “These are my daughters, your granddaughters.” The specifics of the conversation are lost to me now but I imagine we must have talked with our grandmother and our uncles about our studies, our lives in America. Our uncles gave us trinkets they made or bought to sell—bracelets with the Jamaican colors: black, green and yellow.

Even now, I can see the shock on my sisters’ faces—eyebrows going up, eyes widening, exaggerated blinks. How could we have lived so long, on an island as small as Jamaica, without knowing our mother’s mother still lived?

4.
On the verandah that day, my mother tells me that she feared her brothers, feared they would harm her children in some way. In response, she kept us away. My mother doesn’t give a concrete reason for fearing her brothers but vaguely says something about the differences in their lives, what she had built of her life and what they hadn’t made of theirs—and the possibility that potential jealousy of what she had accomplished would bubble over. Unlike my mother who taught at a teachers college for most of my childhood, her brothers—all Rastafarians—made and sold trinkets in various roadside stalls and markets. But they had feared her return to their lives, thinking that perhaps she’d come to claim what she thought should be hers. Perhaps her brothers said something that gave my mother pause.

Without my sisters and me, my mother drifted in and out of Mother Gwen’s life, not taking us back until we were in our 20s, young adults embarking on our own lives. By the time I rediscovered my grandmother and her sons, it was too late for her to become grandma or her sons to become uncles.

But later in her life, my mother truly became Mother’s Gwen’s daughter, driving some 60 miles every Saturday to Spanish Town—where Mother Gwen lived with the only surviving son—with bags of clean laundry and bags and boxes of grocery: fish, chicken, yam, bread, eggs, pumpkin, thyme, and sometimes a pot of fresh soup. Then she’d call out to Mother Gwen, blind then and a little hard of hearing, before walking into the room where she slept or sat in the doorway to catch the Jamaican breeze. My mother gathered the soiled bed sheets and clothes, hand washed some before she left, and hung them on the line in the back to dry. The rest my mother packed to take home where she washed them, only to exchange them for a newly soiled batch a few days later.

On the few occasions I was there, my uncle hovered, keeping watch over my mother, and when he had me for an audience, he turned the small verandah into a stage and spouted word-for-word Marcus Garvey speeches he has rehearsed, every inflection perfectly placed, his eyes staring straight ahead as if looking at the words scrawled in the air. Thin and wiry, he talked about the occasions on which he’d been invited to recite a Marcus Garvey speech, the opportunities he’d missed to make a career out of this ability of his. Sometimes he talked at length about reasons for a decision or reasons he hasn’t been able to make more of his life—his mother, of course, was the main reason.

Mother Gwen died blind, completely dependent on the daughter she given up.

5.
Mother Gwen left her daughter but my mother didn’t. For my mother, I think her mother’s absence is like a shroud she can never remove. And I think it’s why she was always there for her children.

I only have two memories of my mother not being with us: once she took a sabbatical from the college where she taught and spent some time in New York. I don’t recall the length of her absence, just that I got sick the very day she left; the helper who was with us fed me tea made from the leaf of a lime tree and cream soda. I’ve never liked either since. The second time—the summer after my older sister graduated from high school—my mother took my sister to New York and left my younger sister and me at home with our father. We’d always traveled together—my sisters, our mother, and I—so this was new. The morning after their departure, after my father had left for work, the phone rang—an operator with a collect call for my mother. In the background, I heard a cousin saying Papa Stanley had died. I didn’t even have to accept the charge for I already knew the message I had to pass on: my mother’s father was dead. Mom returned within the week.

6.
covercoverThe absence of my mother’s mother lives with me, too; an obsession I cannot shake, a recurring motif that springs from my unconscious into most of my longer pieces of fiction. These days, the recurring theme in my novels is mothers who don’t raise their children. My first novel, River Woman, is about a young woman who loses her son, and whose mother returns to Jamaica after years a broad for her grandson’s funeral. Their reunion is fraught with tension. My second novel, Tea by the Sea, is about another mother who spends 17 years searching for a daughter taken from her at birth.

While I didn’t set out to write my mother’s story, the ideas of abandonment and loss and belonging have crept into my work and remained there, a lurking obsession that I don’t yet seem able to escape. Perhaps, it’s my unconscious attempt to reach under the layers of family stories to discover why my mother holds on to these family secrets and stores them, as if they will be her undoing.

Sometimes I think the secrets my mother holds trap her into bearing responsibility for her father’s transgressions, for the circumstances of her birth. It’s not her burden to carry, and yet she does. I see it in her response to the news of another brother, another of her father’s children, whom she learned about not long before her father’s death. She had known the young man, taught him at school, knew him with a surname different from her own. As she tells it, her father said the young man, now grown, was coming to visit him. Why, my mother asked. “He’s my son.” Even now, years and years later, my mother still hasn’t fully accepted him. She says, “I didn’t know him as a brother,” and recalls his mother naming him as another man’s child—a jacket, in Jamaican terms—as if those circumstances are her brother’s to bear.

As a writer, I can fictionalize the reasons family members hold onto secrets long after they have lost their usefulness. Or they can let them go, setting free the secrets that trap a child into bearing responsibility for a parent’s mistakes.

7.
My mother is nearing 80. Cancer has weakened her body, perhaps lowered her defenses. She invites her brother—the only one of her mother’s three sons still alive—his daughter, and two grandchildren to visit her home. They came on a Sunday in March, the first time in the 42 years my parents owned that house that her visited. She made cupcakes with her grandniece. And when my mother talks of the visit there is joy in her voice.

I imagine them on the verandah looking out at the expanse of green before them: a brother and a sister nearer to the end of their lives than the beginning, both reaching across the years to their memories of the mother who held them together.

Image Credit: Pikist.

was born in Jamaica and is the author of the novel River Woman, winner of the 2003-4 Towson University Prize for Literature. Tea by the Sea, for which she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature, is her second novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, and the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad, among others. She received her undergraduate degree from Fordham University and an MFA from American University. She lives in Maryland, and is also the owner of D.C. Writers Room, a co-working studio for writers based in Washington, D.C.

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