Secrets That Hold Us


“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.
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.
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?
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.

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.
The 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.
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.

A Brief Caribbean Reading List


Among the string of islands known as the Lesser Antilles lies St. Lucia, famous for the picturesque twin volcanic peaks—Gros Piton and Petit Piton—that rise sharply from the sea. Beyond the beaches and lush rainforests that draw tourists are the simple villages and remnants of a colonial past that inspired the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott.

Reading Walcott’s poetry is akin to walking the streets of his childhood, beneath fragrant frangipani trees, brushing up against the hybrid languages and people. Walcott’s work—an ode to the island where he was born—is intimately tied to St Lucia.

Like Walcott, these four Caribbean writers celebrate their complicated homelands. Setting aside what’s been in the news of late—flippant, dismissive comments from politicians about Africa, Haiti, and by extension, the entire African diaspora—these four Caribbean writers take you to the heart and soul of Caribbean living, while tackling big issues—from natural disasters and their aftermath to mental illness and the underbelly of tourism.

Recent news cycle aside, Haiti today is remembered for the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince, taking nearly 300,000 lives. Katia D. Ulysse’s Mouths Don’t Speak takes readers back to the earthquake and its aftermath. With no word from her parents following the earthquake, Jacqueline Florestant presumes her parents died and mourns their loss. She returns to Haiti, which she hasn’t visited since she left 25 years earlier. Seen through the eyes of an expatriate, the Haiti of Jacqueline’s childhood is no more.

Along with the destruction of the country of her childhood, Jacqueline struggles with her husband’s battles with post-traumatic stress disorder from his stint in the military, deception, and more deaths of the people around her.

Far from the brutal regimes of dictatorship—one of the stories we read so often about Haiti— Mouths Don’t Speak tells a story of Haiti we don’t always hear. 

“The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them.” So begins Naomi Jackson’s Star Side of Bird Hill, which follows two New York girls sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother can no longer take care of them. The two sisters, age 10 and 16, experience the Bird Hill community and Barbados through the lens of their Brooklyn upbringing. And through that lens, the “sea explode[s] her sense of wonder, especially when the dense tree cover gave way to the blue-blue water lapping against the shore,” and the “sea got gobbled up by the hotels and resorts, only peeking out between openings in the concrete.”

Before their exile, the girls are virtually on their own, with Dionne, the 16-year-old, standing in as mother to her younger sister. In Barbados, the girls are under the watchful eye of their grandmother, with Dionne trying to shake her grandmother’s grip and the younger Phaedra accompanying her grandmother—a midwife—to deliver babies and trying to get at heart of the mysteries of her mother’s life.

This coming-of-age story is a window into small-town island life and the interwoven lives of the many characters who inhabit Bird Hill.

The Montego Bay where Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is set isn’t your typical tourist destination. Yes, there is a glitzy resort set apart from everyday life in Montego Bay, where Margo works and carries on late-night trysts with male guests to make extra money. And there is River Bank where Margo’s sister and mother live—a different world altogether from the manicured lawns and lush gardens in the resort areas.

Here Comes the Sun is a look at what sisters, Margo and Thandie, believe it takes to break out of the societal constraints into which they were born. Margo trades her body for money, which she saves to pay for her sister’s education and save her from a life similar to her own. The younger Thandi bleaches her skin to achieve what she thinks is the epitome of beauty and success.

And it’s a study of the courage to love without restrictions, as well as the hidden lives of the many employees away from the glitz of the resorts.

Lauren Francis-Sharma’s ‘Till the Well Runs Dry teems with forbidden love and the secrets that undo relationships. Sixteen-year-old Marcia Garcia meets a policeman, Farouk, of East Indian descent, who, in turn, seeks the help of an obeah woman to make Marcia fall in love with him. She does, but their marriage falls apart before it even has a chance to begin. Despite Marcia and Farouk’s failed marriage, they have four children together, and the children’s voices are an integral part of this family tale.

There are secrets, lots of them. Early in the novel, two children under Marcia’s care disappear without a trace. Not only is the fate of the two boys who could not have left on their own a mystery, but so is their parentage.

From Toco to Blanchisseuse, the villages are authentic places you can visit—from your armchair or in person—on Trinidad’s north coast. ‘Till the Well Runs Dry is a great primer of life near the north coast beaches.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.