Comforting Words: My Life, My Story: Upside Down

Sunday, September 18, 2005

My Life, My Story: Upside Down

When I started the series My Life, My Story, My Gifts, I told you it was a story that started taking written form some years ago. I also told you that it is an unfinished tale.

This week as my Comforting Words, I share "Upside Down," the final written portion of my story. You might need to re-read the first part of this story, Naked Before God,and also "The Tender Years," which is part two.

Over the next few months, I will continue the story, writing it from my memories and sharing it with you as it comes along.

In the meantime, I invite you to pick up where we left off last week and along with quotations for Sacred Words and Words from the Heart, allow these words to open your heart to your own story. It is my hope that one day some of you might share your stories with me, joining those who already have, either in person or here at Comforting Words.

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Sacred Words
(By using Sacred Words to describe the quotations that I chose to use in this section, my intention is to share with you words from a variety of sources that are dedicated to Truth and to what is holy in our experiences as human beings.)

From "Women's Words: The Columbia Book of Quotations by Women" compiled and edited by Mary Biggs:
"...Suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us - extraordinary." Dorothy Allison (b. 1949, U.S. author and lesbian feminist)

"...Money trials are not the hardest, and somehow or the other, they are always overcome." Amelia E. Barr (1831 - 1919, U.S. author)

Words of Comfort

Mama's marriage was falling apart.

From the little I understood at the time, the problem stemmed from her husband's inability to keep a job and bring home a steady income. He had many income-generating ideas, including using our home as the venue for what was then called 'paid sessions'. Not to be confused with psychotherapy, these sessions, although therapeutic in their own ways, had nothing to do with deep analysis.

Music and enjoying life is at the being of every Jamaican and Mr. H decided to capitalize on this in our community. Our house became the monthly venue for a dance session, with patrons paying to enter our 'yard' and living room to party the night away.

Loud playing speakers, a room lit only by a low-watt blue bulb and couples in close embrace against the walls, Mama at the back of the house selling beers, malt, rum punch and other hard liquor, plated meals of curried goat meat on a bed of hot, white rice and Mr. H at the turntable, disc jockey for the night, was the scene at my house one Saturday night every month.

This too passed, however, when the landlord got wind of what was going on at his property, particularly the fact of the frequent brawls and breaking of bottles when somebody's lover got a little too plastered.

With this 'career' ended, Mr. H would later, with a loan from Mama's savings and from what he managed to scrape together, become an 'agricultural marketer' of sorts. He journeyed weekly to his home town, in St. Thomas, which is a dry and seemingly barren parish in eastern Jamaica.

St. Thomas was most popular for the power and potency of its obeah men. Obeah or vodoo (as it is called in Haiti) was and still is practised in Jamaica and many balm yards can be found across the island. However, Mr. H's trip to St. Thomas was for a different purpose. He bought pig meat and other agricultural products including yams, potatoes and pumpkins and brought them to Kingston and sold them to families in the community and at his former workplace.

This venture also brought some food to our own table and for this my mother was happy and grateful. You knew Mama was happy when she was singing certain songs and serving Mr. H the choice cuts of the meat, baked potatoes, rice and peas and vegetable salad - all in the best serving dishes and bowls. I always wondered why Mama only set the table and laid out a spread for Mr. H. I was later to learn that that is how a woman should treat her man, showing respect if not love.

All the singing and merriment soon ended. To me, it seemed as if a whirlwind had hit our house and took with it all the songs, pig meat, set table and Mama's good dishes.

Mama was sick and admitted to the Spanish Town Hospital - in a private room of course. I overheard the adults saying she was going to have a "growth cut out." Children were not allowed in the ward or so the explanation went why I could not visit but this was fine with me as I got to stay with a close friend of my mother's and her family.

Glory day came when my Daddy turned up, with his wife and took me to visit Mama. Until that day, I had not known he was in touch with Mama, worse yet that "the woman," as Mama referred to her, actually lived and breathed. The day turned out to be even more glorious when I got to the hospital and Mama was served her dinner and I got to eat the imported grapes and jello!

I told everyone who would listen about my visit - not seeing Mama but the food I ate and the television in the room. No one could convince me that I had not visited heaven. Someone had to explain though why a few weeks later, I arrived home for lunch to find an empty house.

I always considered myself lucky living a stone's throw away from school. I did not have to rise with the chickens to get ready for school in the mornings nor did I have to journey too far to get my lunch. On that fateful day, however, I wished my house was somewhere else than on the main access street to Pembroke Hall Primary School.

The school bell had rung some thirty minutes or so earlier but for some reason unbeknownst to me now, I delayed leaving the compound for lunch that day. I casually passed through the main chain-link gates of the school, not feeling overly anxious to get home and even stranger feeling of gloom overcame me. My intuitiveness was alive from those days, it would however take years for me to learn to be aware of and assess those sensations I would have about a person or situation.

Kicking a pebble, I exited the compound and with my head hanging down, I slowly passed the vendors on the sidewalks totally uninterested in their wares. As I made my way up Potosi Avenue, two girls approached me coming from the opposite direction.

I recognised one of them as being in my class. Her name was Sharon and she was a short, fair-skinned girl with waist-long, black, straight hair. She was of East Indian descent and to most children in my class that fact, coupled with her skin colour, made her special.

"Claudette, you moving?" she shouted to me from across the way.

"No."

"But me see a moving truck a' your house, " she informed me.

I did not want to hear any more. I was no athlete and the sport was not my favourite, but somehow I made the fifteen-minutes distance in probably five seconds and surely enough there was a big open back truck, laden with our furniture pulling away out of the driveway.

"Mama, Mama!" I was shouting as I entered the front door, which was swinging in the wake of whoever had just exited. Were we robbed? Had Mama moved out and left me? But why?

These were the questions filling up my head, as I wandered through the two bedroom house, noting that the television set was missing. The Phillips radio, the stove, the refridgerator, the sofa set and anything large and of value were gone. Only the two beds and the wardrobes were left.

"Mamaaa!" I wailed. No response.

I was trembling uncontrollably, worse than the time Dr. Jone's nurse gave me the wrong injection for the chicken pox.

"Mamaa, Missa H!" I screamed. No answer.

Choking now on my coughs and screams, I huddled in a corner with my knees pulled up to my chin and waited.

How long I sat there God alone knows but when my eyes opened, puffy and hurting, I heard Mama's voice. "Mama," I shouted.

"Cutie, you inside?" she called back to me. "Come here child."

My mother's embrace never felt warmer and I would have stayed there until the frightening day was over. "Me think you gone lef' me," I said to her.

"You crazy pickni'," she admonished. "Me come and realise what happen and go back out through the door and didn't realise you in the bedroom."

"So where is the furniture?" I asked, still clutching her legs, not wanting to let go, scared that she might go missing too.

"Mister W sent bailiff pon' me," she explained. "Them take the furniture dem' until me clear off the how much month back rent."

This was all way above my head and as if sensing this, Mama filled me in. "H nuh pay di' rent from before me go into hospital," she informed me. "Is over seven months rent nuh pay."

According to her, her business started to slow down long before she fell ill and she was planning to close the shop, with the hopes that "the worthless man would help out." She was relating this story to me as if she would to one of her woman friends. "I know that we were behind, but never realise that a so much owe!" she told me with tears of embarrassment flowing down her cheeks. Her next words had me joining in her crying.

"H eat out the money and gone. Him lef' me!"

That was how I was informed that Mr. H was out of our lives and a show down in the divorce courts was pending. It was also the first stage in our downward spiral.

(To be continued)

Words from the Heart

Momma Welfare Roll
Maya Angelou


Her arms semaphore fat triangles.
Pudgy hands bunched on layered hips.
Where bones idle under years of fatback
And lima beans.
Her jowls shiver in accusation
Of crimes cliched by
Repetition. Her children, strangers
To childhood's toys, play
Best the games of darkened doorways.
Rooftop tag, and know the slick fell of
Other people's property.

Top fat to whore,
Too mad to work,
Searches her dreams for the
Lucky sign and walks bare-handed
Into a den of bureaucrats for
Her portion.
"They don't give me welfare.
I take it."

Blessings, until the next audiopost.

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