I did not cry when my mother died. Not when I got the news. I was in the kitchen at home in Florida, tooling around the stove trying to fix a quick breakfast, when the red, car-shaped phone rang. I reached quickly into the corner of the counter where it was parked and grabbed it before it stopped ringing. I pressed the on button and jammed it against my ear, gripping it firmly between my hunched-up shoulder and my head, cocked awkwardly to the side. They were my extra pair of hands, as I needed my regular pair to delicately turn my eggs over so as not to burst the red; I loved them slightly runny, just like my mother used to prepare them for my father when I was a little bwoy growing up in Norris. My brother’s voice came through from the other end of the line: “Miss Lil gone,” were the words I heard, somewhat perfunctory, and the egg red burst.
The words jolted me, but they did not shock. And though they sank into the nether reaches of my soul, they did not stir up and force out a ban’-mi-belly whoop. Nor did they create a sudden onset of sadness. Instead, they morphed into a wave of relief that gently picked me up and floated me along, like on a mosaic cloud of a thousand and one undulating, random thoughts about her, serene and calming. Somewhat antithetical, perhaps, but uncaring, no, for she was now at ease and, with this realization, so too was I. She had suffered long enough, and now Eternity had come by and left with her to take care of her pains and quell God knows whatever battles had been waging inside her mind.
We were never fully sure, over the last few months before she left, what rough waters she had been wading through. We could not read her mind through her stoic, fixed stares. Her only communication to the outside world had been silence, broken occasionally by cries of anguish whenever any attempt she made to move was thwarted by tightly locked joints, grating and painful. I had not seen her during the time the waters were at their fiercest, which was in the last few weeks before she went away. I can only imagine now that the suffering I endured along with her over the years must have been much more intolerable for my sisters, who had sat through the silence and pain with her at home as they cared for her.
The news of her death came in October of 1994. It was the 17th, a Monday, early in the morning. I always recall the date quite easily, as it happened to be the day Jamaica celebrated National Heroes’ Day that year, the third Monday of the month. It was as if our Maker and all of our ancestors had made a pact to bring her home on a Heroes’ Day, for she too was a hero: She was theirs and ours, and of so many of my friends and family and neighbors in Norris. While the world may not have known of her good deeds during the time before her departure on this new leg of her journey, our Maker and ancestors certainly knew, and so they specially reserved this day for her ethereal homecoming.
I had grown tired of my life of expat perambulation over Western Europe and had relocated to Florida just five months earlier, in search of stability and permanence: Eight times I had moved over a span of ten years, including twice each in three of the five countries I had lived in up to then. This exercise in déménagement had become too much a constant for my liking. For one, it was not the ideal lifestyle needed for starting a family. Also, it was inimical to my chances of seamlessly completing another degree I had embarked on in the last two of those ten years. Furthermore, the vagaries of an international nomadic life, once novel and euphoric, were no longer as appealing as in the beginning: I had seen and experienced a lot beyond the shores of my tiny Jamaica, and so laying down deep roots somewhere close to Yaad was the logical thing that my heart and my mind had led me to do.
The last time I had seen my mother was a few years earlier when she and my father had flown up from Jamaica for my wedding. It was almost immediately after her arrival that I sensed something very different about her, for she was not her usual gregarious and jokifie self; rather, she sat quietly most of the time while everyone else bustled around, making ready for my big day. Also, she was a bit repetitive in the staccato conversations we had, another walloping murmur that things were no longer the same as how they were when I had left her in Jamaica for Europe for the second time, right after Gilbert came by. It did not feel right, and neither did I. “You remember Rita?” she asked me. Rita was a neighbor of ours in Norris. “Yeah, I do,” I replied, and she started to relate a joke with Rita in the starring role. Just at the time I thought was going to deliver the punchline, she suddenly paused, and then fell silent for a while, as if to gather and organize the rest of her thoughts for the side-ripping clincher. Moments later, she asked again, “You remember Rita?” and she restarted the same unfinished joke. After the wedding reception, as my wife drove us away to the start of our honeymoon, a few tears fell. These were not tears of joy over my new life that had just begun. Rather, it was an uncontrollable, outward show of how hard the transformation in my mother had hit me. By the time I made my anchoring move to Florida a few years later, it had long been confirmed she was ill.
It was on the first or second night of the set-up at home in Norris that I cried for the first time after her passing. I had been holding up quite well until Miss Dels, one of her close friends, beckoned me to sit with her on one of the long benches placed underneath the Julie mango trees in front of the house. It was night time, but the bulbs, strung high in the trees, provided light for the well-wishers and the onlookers, the domino players and the rum drinkers.
The leaves of the mango trees formed a thick canopy, made complete by the giant leaves of the breadfruit tree that towered over them. During the daytime, the canopy provided a welcome shade from the burning midday sun in the height of summer. There was always a light breeze rustling the leaves, generating cool air, almost like a nature-made ceiling fan. As kids, we fell asleep many a day under the canopy, lolled by the coolness and by the calming, rhythmic sounds of the rustling that ebbed and flowed like gentle sea waves. The area beneath the canopy also served, on those hot days, as a place of respite for travelers making their way to and from Yallahs on foot. My yard was like a stage stop, where they rested their legs and caught their breath, refueling their energy to continue on their journey. In those days before the prevalence of the present-day land-bound flying taxis, we had to walk to go almost everywhere, as public transportation was limited to Downie bus that passed through from Trinityville to Kingston in the morning, doing its return leg mid-afternoon, and by Morning Star that did the opposite. Miss those buses and we had to foot it.
I had not seen Miss Dels in ages. I was glad to see her, and she too, me, although maybe we both preferred the reconnection was under different circumstances. In her consolation, she started to relate some of the kindness my mother had shown her over the years of their friendship, and just hearing her gentle words warmed my heart; so much so that my eyes felt the warmness too and started to sting. Shutting them tight could not restrain the swell of eyewater and, before long, it forced them open and seeped through, rolling soft and warm down my cheeks. A few drops shifted course and curled into the corners of my mouth, and I tasted salt. No, the death of my mother did not make me cry; rather, it was the feelings stirred by the memories of her kindness that Miss Dels shared, and that countless others would also share in the ensuing days, that made me teary. And, of course, the emotional path that the words from the red phone had set me off on was lined with my own wonderful memories. Funny that some of those memories were not that wonderful at the time the deeds they were tied to were actually happening… “Wha’ sweet you gwine sour you” was now reversed. What soured me back then was now transformed into sweet memories… The licking I got for meddling with the sewing machine and snapping the needle one Saturday when she had gone shopping in Kingston. Or the cuss-out for breaking a dish while washing up after dinner: “You know how hard you father work fi buy dem? Is because you lazy and don’t want wash dem!” Weird that when she broke one, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to do them, but rather because, “Bwoy, Satan strong sah!” Blessed memories.
How ironic that the bulbs in the mango trees glowed brightly in support of the wake, for they had played, also, a somewhat celebratory role when electricity came to Norris and to our house in the late sixties. As I listened to Miss Dels and pondered the irony of the bulbs, the glowing light led me back to the waves, and I was once more adrift, floating on the clouds: On the night after the house finish string up, and after the long, black wire stretching from the roof high across the road was connected to the lightpost on the other side, my mother flipped the white switch on the wall in the front room for the first time. And when she did, magic happened, as the single bulb in the center of the ceiling flooded the room with light. It was light so bright that it was almost more magical than the light of the sun on a bright, cloudless, blue-sky Jamaican summer day.
Surely, it was much brighter and much steadier than the flickering glow of the kerosene-powered Home Sweet Home lamp, whose shade we had to clean at least twice a week for it to remain bright. It was a job for pickneys, for our hands were not adult hands and so could easily slide into the shade to wipe the smoked blackness out with crumpled, moistened pieces of Gleaner. Unlike the little wheel on the side of the lamp, though, the switch on the wall could neither make this ‘lectric light wax nor wane (at least not back then). For the bulb had no wick that could be lowered or raised with the turn of the wheel to make it dimmer or brighter: Turn the wick down too low, and the flame under the lampshade would sputter and die; turn it up too high, and soot would form more quickly, dulling the glow, and calling for an extra piece of Gleaner the following day to remove it, restoring the shade to its pristine state. From that night on, we literally moved into the light, except for when some drunken fool would hit a lightpost with his car and cause a blackout, forcing us to make it Home Sweet Home again on those occasions.
It’s funny how wicks and smoke and kerosene controlled so many lives in the pre-electricity days. “Peter, come and see if any smoke coming out of the chimney,” my mother would say, as she got down on her knees to light the wick at the bottom of the Electrolux kerosene-powered refrigerator. I would stand, transfixed, and monitor the dark smoke coming out of the back, watching it slowly paling and disappearing as she turned the wick down; my eyes had to be sharp to catch it the moment it totally disappeared, so blinking was not an option. At the very moment the smoke disappeared, and not a whisper of a second later, I had to yell, “Stop!” For if she turned it down too low, the ice would take forever to freeze, and the food would not keep cool enough. And how did my mother know when the kerosene tank needed cleaning? Simple. The temperature in the refrigerator would refuse to go down, and the syrup-flavored suck-suck that we tried to make in the metal ice trays would refuse to set. We did not care whether the meat or the food spoiled; our priority, as kids, was to have our suck-suck, so we were happy when our mother did her maintenance.
The wick and smoke of the kerosene cooking stove were even more controlling: Sometimes the stove burned nicely, with flames yellow and soft, especially after getting a good cleaning. At other times, suddenly, the daydream turned into a real nightmare: As if possessed, it would flare up, and no amount of adjustment of the wick would prevent it from bunnin up the outside of the pot. Only the cold ashes harvested from the roast breadfruit wood fire outside, mixed with water and applied with pieces of coconut husk, would be able to restore the shine.
In the glow of the light from the bulb on that first night of electricity, I remember my mother seizing the opportunity to sweep the floor with one of the new brooms she had bought the day before from the Bobo Dread: “Go deh lighty, go deh lighty,” she spurted in delight. She was so happy that she even forgot to say “Move duppy” when she swept the dust outside into the night; for, you see, sweeping your house at nights surely meant you ran the risk of powdering a duppy out in the darkness. Usually, they didn’t take kindly to this, hence you had to alert them to be on guard and get out of the way. Perhaps she didn’t need to alert them anyway, for they would perhaps have already recoiled into the fringes of the darkness, puzzled that their usual cover could be blown by this new, night-time sunlight.
My mother was, and still is, one of the kindest persons I have ever encountered in my life… Starting at the front of the house and going beyond the gully of our yard, stretching across to the other side of Collier’s Spring, we had a variety of food-bearing trees and small crops. Coconuts and ackees. Guavas and limes. Papayas and mangoes. Bananas, corn, gungo peas, yams, pumpkins and cho-chos. Oranges and grapefruits and avocados: She shared it all with those in need. “Miss Lil, sell mi one breadfruit!” And she would say, “Aaright, ah will give you one or two. Just pick some for me too when you climb the tree.” Whatever she decided to sell, neighbors would come from far and wide to make their purchases, for she always gave them brawta.
She was a housewife. She was not one of those who sat pretty at home all day long, or who went out to afternoon teas. She was a hard-working woman who toiled at home without complaining, except when we left empty water bottles and ice-less ice trays in the fridge. Or when we ate the last of the sweet potato pudding and left the scraped-out-bottom container nicely covered in the cold oven to prevent the infiltration of ants. Growing up with my siblings, we felt a sense of entitlement, taking for granted that our daily routine was on auto-pilot: she woke us up in the mornings to get ready for school. She had an internal alarm clock that beat the roosters and the sun rising behind the Blue Mountains to the draw. Without fail. She prepared our breakfast and packed our lunches. Luckily for her, she always had a kerosene stove and a coal pot, and so did not have to ketch up a woodfire in the mornings, getting down almost on her knees to blow the embers alive for heating the water for the bush tea…or the Milo tea for those who preferred that stuff. And off we went in our freshly starched and pressed uniforms.
Close to the end of a hard day at school, after putting up with teachers who crazily felt we had nothing better to do than to retain their rantings about pronouns supplanting nouns and how to figure out how many shillings and pence made up half a crown, our attentions would turn to the delights of the dinner that awaited us at home. For while we were toiling away with lessons, our mother would be wracking her brain about what meal to prepare; and if it was not ready by the time we got home, we would not be pleased at all. Even worse, we would be even less pleased if it was ready but turned out to be something we did not like. I, for one, never liked seasoned rice, dotted with pieces of yellow ackee and green susumber, interspersed with bumplets of salted cod, or janga, freshly harvested from Collier Spring behind the house, or brought home from a day of washing clothes at Yallahs River. It was only when I got old enough to start doing some of the household chores that a world of realization-turned-appreciation slowly opened up about her packed days: laboring over a washpan of clothes, and then ironing them with coal-heated real-iron irons; ridding the yard of the constantly falling breadfruit and mango tree leaves, keeping the floors of the house a shiny, coconut-brushed red…
Laughter was the buttress of her life. Laughter of the tear-dripping, belly-hurt variety. A good joke made her day, almost like fuel that carried her through her daily chores. And it didn’t matter if she was the one giving it, or if she was the beneficiary of a good one. Not a single neighbor could go by the house without her calling out to them. Invariably, they would come up to the fence, and a banter would ensue, ending up in an eruption of laughter. It seems it is something my brothers and sisters and I have inherited. Thankfully. We live in different countries now, but whenever we catch up on the phone, or in person, the common thread is always laughter.
I can imagine her reading over my shoulder now, cracking up as the words appear…