She lived at #357 Back Street when I first moved to Gurnon’s Estate. I was in #352, a few houses down the road on the opposite side of hers. Never did get her full name. Funny how you can live on the same street as someone, yet never know them, not really. We’d spoken a few times, twice at the bus stop and once when I helped carry her bags to her home. She was a small woman, short, couldn’t have been more than 5’ 4” on her best day and, even though the years bent her and shrunk her you could tell she had flesh on that wiry frame at some point.
I remember getting a glimpse of the pictures on the piano in her living room – that one time I was in her house before she left. It was covered in pictures, of family presumably, but none of them new, none recent. Her pictures looked weather beaten and aged, like her, and told tales from a time that no longer existed. The one my eyes wouldn’t let go of was of a man and a woman, standing, posing, on block steps. He was a giant, towering over her, long and lean; looked like he was more legs than anything else. He wore dark colored pants, perfectly fitted, a shirt that could have been white on the day it was worn but was more comfortable being tan on the day I saw it. The shirt’s sleeves stopped half way between his shoulder and elbow and every hole was buttoned. His hair, cut low with a part off center, completed the look. He was clean. Smooth. And his lean, with left arm on the stone handrail made him look debonair.
The woman was petite and stood as close to him as possible without touching him. She wore a patterned sun-dress but it’s vibrant colors were silenced in the black and white of the image. The dress stayed close to her frame tastefully; the sleeves were short and the white collar rested comfortably on her collarbone. The dress’ skirt fell from her hips in soft pleats that neatly hid her knees. She stood, with right hand propped on her slender hip looking directly at the camera. Her eyes, full and bright, her lips curled into a slight smirk (her version of a smile). She didn’t seem the type given to wild abandon, deep throat laughter and carefree living. She was sensible, reliable, the one who was shown her place in the world and stayed there unquestioningly. I saw a bit of my reflection in those unsuspecting eyes and felt a little sad.
There were words scribbled in neat cursive on the picture but I could only make out the words “Seaview Methodist Church”, “East Street”, and “1935”.
“I see you like Mr. Henry” she said as she turned in her chair to look at me squarely.
“Oh… um… no, ma’am. I mean… um… I was just looking… well the entire picture really. Not just the man…um… I’m sorry”, I mumbled.
“Oh never mind an old lady’s teasing, child. I’m much accustomed to young women stealing glances at my husband. In 34 years of marriage there wasn’t a year that went by where Mr. Henry’s charm didn’t reel in a new, young, pretty face”. She smiled politely as she paused, showing sad wrinkles at the corner of her eyes.
“He was my one and only love”, she said wistfully, “and we were married for 34 years, 5 months and 14 days… before he was killed. I never remarried, of course. I just couldn’t bring myself to it, even though I had my share of suitors, mind you. Just look at me there…”, she said pointing to the picture. “You can tell I was sight for sore eyes in my day, can’t you?”
“Yes ma’am”, I agreed and took a bite of the coconut bread she had offered me after I helped her unpack her groceries. The bread was hard and dry and the Maraschino cherry topping it was shriveled and depressed looking.
She exhaled forcefully from her nose as if trying to blow out a wayward mosquito that got lost up there and continued. “That picture was taken on our 5 year marriage anniversary. Are you married, young lady? You look like you should be married but I don’t see a ring on your finger. I know how you young people today are… independent and want to work instead of stay at home to mind your family, so I have to ask, you see.” The word independent slithered out of her mouth like something foreign, alien, and therefore needing extra energy just to come out.
I smiled, not offended in the least at her grandmotherly presumptuousness and gave enough of my life story to balance the scales of sharing. In the end she knew I wasn’t married, was orphaned at 11, and had recently started teaching at Sunnydale Primary School on Jonas Road.
“Ahhhh a teacher! I knew you had to be an upstanding woman! From the first I saw you, I knew it!” she exclaimed as her eyes, those pools of secrets hiding under a veil of listlessness, became alive and sparkled. “I was a teacher myself! Yeeeess, I taught for fifteen years, nine before Freddie and I got married and six after. Hyacinth, our first, was born in ’37 you see, August 1937. So I had to stop teaching and be a mother.” She paused as if observing a moment of silence in memory of the time, then said,
“Oh that’s so lovely! A teacher!”
She seemed so genuinely pleased at my proof of being an “upstanding woman” that I smiled. She may have had a mild heart attack to know the scandal that brought me to Gurnon’s estate to begin with; or, more accurately, the scandal that pushed me out of Briggins.
The rest of our time together that day was passed in pleasant-enough conversation and it occurred to me that ma’am simply wanted, or needed, the monotony of her loneliness shaken, just a bit. She needed to talk and smile and offer coconut bread and brebrice and hear “yes ma’am”; and I needed to forget, even if only for a few minutes.
And so there we were – me, the “upstanding” teacher with disgrace in her belly, hair high in a picked out afro looking like a thousand black-power fist in defiant salute, green polyester bell bottoms and yellow, off-the-shoulder smock top, loose enough to be considered respectable; the elder impeccable and charming, carefully ironed hair neatly controlled in a head-mistress bun, motherly warmth with chilled undertones of colonial aloofness, in a house of mahogany furniture, worn and covered in homemade doilies and embroidery stitch-work of “God Bless This Home”. She told me something of her dutiful marriage to Freddie and her pride at once being a woman who worked, as a teacher no less. And when she spoke of her children and losing them, all three of them, before they became adults, before they had a chance to “smell themselves” as she put it, it was brief, clipped. I felt a rising sorrow in her words and looked away politely as she sighed that she was “all alone now, you see, waiting for the Lord to send for me”.
© November 2016