I have three memories of my paternal grandma. Only three to carry with me, tucked safe and locked in her space in my heart. The first pained, the second confused, the third warms and strengthens.
Granny has many grandchildren; I don’t know the total number. From daddy alone she claims five and she had many more children to hook her up with grands. I’m a little odd, though. Of all her grandchildren (that I know of) only one (me) didn’t have the blessing of growing up with her.
My parents were married at a time when people allowed themselves to be weighted by many more societal taboos than we’re afflicted with today. The nothingness today of birthing children without the bother of prior nuptials was still somewhat scandalous to most “respectable” people then and did more (I think) to join my parents in holy matrimony than is openly admitted. But, for whatever reason(s), my mother and father, thankfully, married. I say thankfully for the purely selfish reason that their marriage, sticking with each other as long as they did, gave me the opportunity to appear on the scene. I was born two years into their union, two years after my brother made his debut, and while their marriage wouldn’t last much longer than that, I’m totally grateful to them for holding on long enough to get me here.
So they married, divorced, and after a couple of years of weekend visitation for daddy to be a dad, completely went their separate ways, leaving visitation as a footnote of our history ending in my third or forth year. The event that led to the ending of weekend visits with dad is a story in and of itself but that’s for another day. Point is it ended when I was around three or four and, from then on, my life was 100% with my maternal family. I know them all, inside out, some more than I care to. Growing up, they were all I had, all I knew.
As small as the island is I rarely saw my father in the years that moved me from child to teenager and there were days, every now and again, when out grocery shopping with granny or in town with aunt Cicely or Len or mommy, when I secretly hoped to see him, just in passing, maybe driving by in his car or even walking on the street. In my little girl mind, on those days when the thought to long for a father came to me, I’d play the whole fantasy of the chance encounter out. Always in that fantasy he was ecstatic to see me and would lift me up and hug me and I would know that, even though he didn’t see me often, he still loved me and I was still special to him.
As life goes, the little girl fantasy remained just that – the unfulfilled wish of a little girl. I have no memory of the chance encounter or happy-to-see-me daddy face. I remember seeing my dad two times growing up: once in town with my aunt Cicely, the cantankerous, spicy one with the big heart if she likes you. We were in town and my father was on the opposite side of the street walking hurriedly to wherever he was going. I saw him; hoped he saw me… he didn’t, and kept walking to his destination. I remember aunt Cicely saying “its ok to miss him, he’s your father” when I lied and told her I didn’t care that he didn’t see me. My guess is I was seven or eight then. The next time I saw my father was at the neighbourhood bread shop late one afternoon. I was older then, maybe twelve, and walked to the bread shop with my best friends, “the twins”, Kristy and Kronskie. We’d scavenged enough money between the three of us to have enough for a sausage roll, a bun tart, AND a current roll (big money in dem days) and the plan was to share each between us equally. Daddy was leaving the bread shop as we were coming in. He saw me then and greeted me with the “you alright?” that I’m now accustomed to, laughter in his voice as always. He told me to come meet my sisters and there, for the first time, I became aware of and met my three younger sisters, Kyla, Shawna and Chantal. The only thought I had then was “they look like me, only chubbier”. All other thoughts came later as they tend to when reality settles. I wouldn’t see my father or sisters again for another five years!
So you see my life growing up was void that paternal side of my family. I didn’t know my father’s sisters or brothers or their children, and honestly, didn’t consider them worth knowing either… and not simply because I didn’t grow up knowing them. That feeling, that notion that my father’s family wasn’t worth knowing was something I picked up from the matriarch of my mother’s family, the domineering grandmother that I was with more often than not growing up. Now I love that granny dearly. Whatever her flaws not loving her own isn’t up there. She loves to a fault and I have many beautiful memories of life with her to be grateful for. Yet, she was very strict, as old school as they come with a nauseatingly keen awareness of class lines. My granny, that granny, fancied herself too respectable to associate with “certain types of people”. That she and her mindset are a product of colonial Antigua isn’t lost on me at all; neither is the leading role she played in making sure her pregnant, unmarried daughter married the man responsible to ensure the legitimacy of the child they created (as if his very presence wasn’t legitimate enough) and, most important, save the family’s good name, if not face. My father’s march-to-the-beat-of-your-own-drum-ness irked her just as much as her inability to control him and she never forgave him for his cardinal sins (namely bringing “shame” on her family and “causing” the subsequent divorce). For these sins, and possibly others, he and anyone associated with him was “no good”, “scoundrel”, members of the *gasp* “those people” group. And, as he and they were that for her, he and they, over time, became that for me.
Without knowing why I developed a dislike for my father’s family (the same ones I didn’t know) that matched my grandmother’s. Without knowing why I saw them as “those people”, clearly different from “us” but just not clear why. Without knowing why I knew I wasn’t supposed to like or be like “those people”.
When I was eleven, on a typical hot, restless, summer afternoon, Kristy, Kronskie and I walked to the bread shop. We only had enough for one thing and debated the whole way there what that one thing would be. I wanted the bun tart because it was sweet and big enough that we’d all get a good portion. Kronskie easily shot that down with a quick “bun tart mek you fart!” and that was the end of that (she was right too, no one can eat a bun tart and escape the bun-tart-fart afterwards). Kristy, I think, wanted a rock bun and Kronskie wanted a sausage roll. Memory is telling me Kronskie won that day. In any case, on our way back from the bread shop, as we passed the house across from Miss Anthony’s shop, a woman, older lady, grandmotherly sort, standing by the fence in a yard I’d been to years before, called out to me. I ignored her. She called out to me again. Again, I ignored her. Kristy said “you don’t hear somebody calling you?” and I, with smugness I knew would make granny proud, said “I heard her but I’m not answering!”. So we kept walking. Two more times this woman called me and as we walked up the street with the St. John’s Cemetery on the left and barking dogs on the right, I just knew I had done the right thing… after all we didn’t associate with “those people”.
The following Saturday, market day, I went with granny to the market, something I rarely did. Why I went that particular Saturday, only the ancestors can say, but I went and was good and bored for most of it, though keeping up with granny and the increasingly heavy straw basket through the crowd and chaos that is a typical market Saturday should have kept boredom at bay. As we were making our way out of the market, a woman stopped granny and they greeted each other. I was a bit confused because it was unexpected. They spoke and the woman told my grandmother that, just days before, she saw me walking on the street just outside her home and called to me and I ignored her. Well, I was sure granny would congratulate me for acting just as she would have, considering that this woman was “those people”. Instead, I heard a voice like my granny’s shout “WHAT?!” and before it registered that she was far from proud a cuff in my head and a tump in my back hinted at the beating that would come later behind closed doors. Granny made me apologise to her counterpart, my paternal grandmother. My apology was a half-cry “I’m sorry granny” that couldn’t hide my confusion. Daddy’s mother seemed satisfied with my apology and mommy’s mother and I went home after she thanked her counterpart for bringing my bad behavior to her attention and promising it wouldn’t happen again.
The whole affair confused the life out of me and as we drove home, me in silence and granny cussin’ the whole way about being embarrassed and how children today to damn rude and don’t know dey place, I could feel nothing but confusion. “Where did I go wrong?” I wondered. How could I have been so off the mark? I felt sure granny had no use for “those people”, she never had a kind word to say about my father and, by extension, them. In ignoring his mother I thought I was doing the right thing, enough to make granny proud. Clearly I was wrong but, then, I didn’t know why.
I wouldn’t find the answer to the question that day or any of the days following. Confusion over that entire incident would be the only thing etched in my memory through the years. There are a handful of beatings I got as a child where I didn’t understanding what I was being punished for and that was one of them. It would be years later, as an adult, that I would not only understand (and feel enormous guilt for) what I had done wrong but understand, too, what my granny had done wrong. A child denied of part of its family is disadvantaged already; but to teach that child, consciously or unconsciously, to dislike part of its family and, therefore, part of itself, for whatever reason, is wrong.
The last time I saw my father’s mother was many years later in the dimness of a dream. She had been an ancestor over ten years by then and I was going through a particularly dark, scary time in my life. Faced with a possible cancer and infertility diagnosis I flowed through life on auto-pilot, outwardly functioning but completely shut down inside. Never had I felt so completely alone and unsure of my future. One night, I sobbed myself to sleep and, eventually, dreamed.
In my dream, I walked to my paternal grandmother’s house, through the gate she called to me from when I was a child, and through the back door. It was dark inside and she sat on a chair about ten feet into the house. The chair was against a wall in a narrow hallway. I walked in slowly, slumped on the ground at her feet and said “granny?”. She said “yes?” and I put my head in her lap and hugged her around her waist. She put her hand on my head, then my back, patting it in that slow, lovingly firm way grandmothers do easily and mother’s perfect over time. We stayed like that for the whole dream. No other words were spoken but the peaceful calm I felt when I woke told me she was with me, protecting, guiding, still loving me.
Over the years, through my father and some of his sisters I’ve managed to piece together an image of this granny, the type of woman she was, the things she liked, her personality. I’ve come to know her indirectly and love her intensely and, while the regret of not knowing her directly when she was here in the physical may never fully leave, through our spiritual connection, I can directly know her now in the most eternally beautiful way. I felt her approving presence when my husband called out to our benevolent ancestors in libation at our wedding last year and whenever life’s challenges seem more than I have strength for, I know the comfort of granny Melba’s lap and the steady, rhythmic pat-pat-patting of her hand on my back are only a dream away.