I was lucky enough to know three of my grandparents when they were alive; the fourth I had only ever heard about, and he was never part of my family, having made my father’s mother pregnant as a teenager and then flown the coop, or at least run into hiding somewhere in the St. Mary hills. I asked about him when registering my father’s death in 2018 and my paternal aunt said he was “one likkle brukfoot man”.
The other three grands have fond places in my memories.
My maternal grandfather, Parnell Bennett, was a farmer in St. Elizabeth and the main stories I have of him and direct memories are that he was tall (and that came across notably in the sons he fathered among his 11 children). He had also gone to Cuba to work in the sugar industry; I assume as a cane cutter. He died in 1960, if my memory is right. Sadly, I have no pictures of him.
My maternal grandmother, Adina Bennett (née Bennett :)) was a mother of 11 children and the keeper of the house and the mistress of her outdoor kitchen, with its wood fires and coal pots and cassava pounding and pot cooking mannish water–true Jamaican cuisine, that still rules in rural Jamaica. She died in 1991, aged 85. Funnily, a cousin in St. Elizabeth sent me the picture below this morning, of Miss Dina and my mother sitting at the family homestead in ‘Senti’, with the old lady into her bible, as usual. I think the picture was taken in the late-1970s/early-1980s, when my mother was home for a visit from England.
My paternal grandmother, (Violet) Christine (‘Miss Chris’) Jones, died in her 60s, in England. She was the grandparent most prominent in my life, as she was there when we lived in Kingston, keeping house where I would often go to play or after school, while my parents were at work/studying. I loved her as a source of all good things from the kitchen, especially the bowl for mixing Christmas cake. She was the feeder of the body and soul of this child. The story is that after her teenage pregnancy, she had to leave school. After a few years of motherhood, she left rural Jamaica, St. Mary, to try to make a living in Kingston, first by selling charcoal, later as a housekeeper/cook, which is how I knew her. She looked after the household of a high-ranking civil servant and his music teacher wife, helping to raise their children as a live-in housekeeper. Some of my early childhood was also in and around that household.
She came back into my life when she was brought to England and live mainly with my parents and me in west London, and with her daughters in south London, arriving in the late-1960s. My endearing memories of her were that she never believed that I had had a decent meal at school: “Bwoy, look how yu mauger!” She would then prepare some great Jamaican dish and often a great dessert–her egg custard covered with pieces of bread and jam were THE BEST. She had no notion that English lunches at school were really filling and nice, with things like steak and kidney pie followed by apple pie and custard. I was never hungry and I grew! Fortunately, for me, I was an athlete and burned the fuel easily. When I think of how many immigrant children live their lives, it’s wonderful to think that I had a significant piece of family support holding me up in those early years, being fed and nurtured in a manner close to how I would have been had I never migrated. The housing conditions, initially, might not have been ideal but the love and nurturing were hard to beat.
The love one grandmother showered on me could have been equalled had I stayed in Jamaica, and more chances to spend time in the bush of St. Elizabeth.
My paternal great grandmother was also in the picture in my early years (though, honestly, I don’t have memories of that), and my cousins reminded me recently how we would go to St. Mary in the summer and have to have our regular ‘wash out’ (castor oil, etc.). They were such loving cousins and made sure that I had the mixture for all three of us, at the time, and was the only one that got a really good wash out! 🙂
My children have both had the chance to meet their grandparents, even though my mother died when my second daughter was just 7 months old, she’d had a chance to be held in her paternal grandmother’s arms. My second-horn’s maternal grandparents lived through 2018, when my wife’s father died in the summer; her maternal grandmother lives and is with us as I write, hunkered down during the COVID19 pandemic and telling stories and sharing her cooking with us all. My father also died in late-2018, but his second grandchild can look back to times when she knew him lovingly (as seen in the picture below). My first-born grew up knowing both sets of grandparents most of her life. Her maternal grandparents are both still alive in England, and she tries to visit them often, even though she lives in the USA. She now does not have her paternal grandparents, but her memories of them are full.
Both of my children have trees planted for them at my parents’ house in Mandeville (a mango tree for the first, and two coconut trees for the second–both trees are badly suited to the cool Manchester climate, but they’re what the girls wanted). This tradition of burying the ‘navel string’ (umbilical cord) and marking it with a tree is a part of Jamaican (and other) folk lore that is important to preserve, to help both girls stay grounded, literally, in their Jamaican heritage.
My 1st-born with my father in Mandeville, 1988.
No one in my immediate family knows what it’s like to grow up without grandparents; we’re blessed, in that sense. No one in my immediate family grew up where their parents’ were born. To handle the stresses that dislocation can create, it’s often the extended family that has to come into play. When we talk about our past, so much of it is laden with stories of how grandparents carried enormous amounts of weight in keeping families going, whether it was really as parents or grandparents or both. I’ve touch on how that extended family, including aunts and uncles, has been really import to me, but is also significant for many. That sense of belonging to a body of people directly connected to you is of immeasurable value.
As we hunker down in self-isolation, during the spreading COVID19 pandemic, we are fortunate to be home with one daughter and my wife’s mother and aunt. Our mutual support system is strong. Our two older girls, live alone in the USA, and it’s great to try to keep them connected with the aid of modern technology, like Zoom video conferencing, but I know they’d really appreciate just a few seconds of real hugs from anyone of their family.
It’s often said you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I know our family understands that fully every moment that we cannot find ourselves close to each other.