Growing up, money was always scarce. My father worked in the bauxite industry and in restrospect, probably made good money but he had about 40 children (or eventually did) with about five baby mommas. My mother had eight with him. He left her bed one morning, went missing for about a week, and came back married. And, in her folly, she forgave him.
We were bright, and school was compulsory. But many days, we just couldn’t go for many different reasons, chief of which was that the little money he gave her kept running out, and so didn’t have enough to feed and send all of us to school. Sometimes the older ones got to go, either because they may be in higher grades or were preparing for crucial exams, and so she had to juggle the decision as to who went and who stayed home. For many years, especially after she left my father, she did one day washing and domestic help work and used those minimum wages to send us to school. It was never enough. For a long time, my angry father refused to support us after he lost us to the church.
Feeding eight children was a task when you have children for a man who would not provide enough and who would disappear for weeks on end. But my mother was resourceful. And when we leaned on her cool, soft arms crying for hunger, she cried too, but it seemed she had wheels in her mind that was always whirling.
She always seemed to find a solution.
Soon after, she would wipe her tears, shake us off her, send one of us for a pencil and a bit of paper and she would scratch a note to a shopkeeper in our village. We knew what that meant. She was sending to ‘trust’ food. ‘Trusting’ food in Jamaica means taking things from a shopkeeper on credit, with the promise to pay at the end of the week or the next pay day. I hated it.
Some of my other siblings did it with joy but I was mortified when I was asked to do it. Worst if it was a Saturday night when the shop was packed. I would try to wait until everybody in the shop had finished their business before, head down, I would approach the shopkeeper. Then because my mother was a repeat truster at the shop, some shopkeepers knew what I was about the minute they saw me and I swear, they would grumble under their breath and scowl even deeper, especially if my mom had not paid the last bill as yet.
The shame was worse when I was a self-conscious teenager in high school, ’cause I had to look out for any girls who attended the same school as I who would go back to school and ‘disgrace’ me by telling the other kids I was poor and that we trusted food.
As I approached the shopkeeper, I would glance furtively around to see if anyone was watching and listening. Sometimes, there was an adult standing there engaging in conversation with the shopkeeper who just would not leave. I would push the note over the counter into the shopkeeper’s hand and say nothing, while praying that she would not shout out what was written on the paper. As she placed each item on the paper on the counter she would cross off what she did not have, sometimes saying aloud, “Me nuh have no saltfish,” or “Tell her rice short, she can only get one pound.” As I stood there, the shop may start to fill again, and I felt like I wanted the earth to open and take me in. When she finally packaged the groceries, I would grab the bag and head still down, say ‘thanks’ and made my walk of shame from the shop.
I believe the trauma of these shop credits took its toll on me, and today, I do not, but for exceptional circumstances like hire purchases on furniture, indulge in borrowing or crediting. I have never had a credit card. If I do have to borrow money from anyone, a rarity, they can expect to get it back as soon as I receive any income. And I will not take loans for anything unless I know where the money will come from to repay. School loans, car loans? I pass.
But my prelude here is not to lament my childhood poverty. My purpose here is to highlight my mother’s faith as well as her follies, and the lessons, skill sets and values she taught me.
When she couldn’t ‘trust’, she knew very well how to, what we call in my country, ‘turn her hand and make fashion’. She could make food it seemed from any bits and pieces she found.
She was also a kind woman who would give even out of her small means to those worse than us, and in those days, in my eyes, we were the poorest. But nobody came to her door and said they were hungry and did not get a portion of our dinner, much to our annoyance, I recall. As I got older, I learnt to admire and respect her selflessness.
True to what she always told us when we complained about her giving away our food or going to bathe or clean up an old person’s messy home: ‘Nuh mind, God will bless me. God will provide.’ He always seemed to do so. As she gave; so did she also receive.
People in the district referred to her as the woman with the nuff pickney (plenty children).
We lived in the countryside, which I realise now was a blessing. For she could always get a hand of banana or plantain or a breadfruit or ground provisions from persons who farmed their properties, often people she had been kind to. She never went ‘walking’ and didn’t come back with food for us. Sometimes it was a bag full of stuff. And always she was thanking God and blessing the person who had listened to her tale of distress and given to her whether a parcel of yam or a bag of groceries, enough to keep hunger at bay for a few days. And we had a variety of fruits when they came into season, like avocado pear, mangoes and ackee, which is one part of Jamaica’s national dish. I could eat ackee with anything, even today.Back then we had it plenty once it was in season: ackee and white rice, ackee with dumplings, ackee with bread. God blessed the ackee trees in our yard; they didn’t get much rest the minute they bloomed. We would even stand under the ackee tree and grin at the closed ackee pods so they would open; an old wives tale, but it seemed to work. They opened for us.
A sacrificial mom, I only ever saw my mother eat from the pot, which after she had shared our dinners could have more gravy than food in it.
She was a wonderful cook, and so on those empty-cupboard days, breakfast could constitute fried sliced green bananas or fried pressed and salted green plantains (which I hated at the time, moreso because I would choke on it). This could be served alone or with eggs donated by a church elder who had a chicken farm and who would often send home cracked eggs with my teenaged brother who was working with him after school and on weekends. One week we had boiled, eggs, scrambled eggs, fried eggs and egg omelettes, so much eggs that I never had eggs for a long time after that.
I believe she made the best ‘turned cornmeal’ around, a one pot dish made from cornmeal, water, salt and spices to season which was very flavourful by turned cornmeal standards. (And it can be very bland.) When she had milk, she would also make cornmeal porridge, which we had with crackers. I abhorred cornmeal for many years after I left home for college, and have only now as an adult come to appreciate these dishes, which I eat with relish on occasion. On a good week day, we enjoyed fried chicken back pieces with white flour dumplings, my favourite. Anything with the word soup in it I hated, except for thick red peas soup when she put coconut milk in it, sweet potatoes and salted beef.
She was a baker. So if she put her hand on a coconut, we would be treated to coconut drops or grater cake; she made jams from guavas and marmalade from seville oranges, and when it was in season, tamarind balls were were a Jamaican kid’s ambrosia. With cornmeal and coconut she could turned out a sweet pone wrapped in banana leaves and tied, which we call in my culture, Blue Drawers or Blue draws.
When we lived where she could plant the land, she planted cassava and cocos and bananas. She would grate and dry the sweet cassava to make bammy, and used the juice to starch clothes.
When I was 10 and we joined a Sabbath-keeping church, every Friday evening, the sweet woody aroma of potato pudding baked on a coal stove or open wood fire would assail our senses and set us salivating, and we would set on her with our best pleading faces and lines so that by nightfall she often capitulated under the pressure of eight pickneys and had to cut us slices although she insisted it would not be cut until Sabbath lunch, 12 hours away.
I hated seasoned rice, another one pot meal she prepared with rice and tomatoes, skellions, and horrible onions, and sometimes added ackee or saltfish to when she had it, instead I would fight my siblings to get the burnt bottom which we called the ‘scrape-scrape’. So I would leave the seasoned rice in the plate and eat the delicious burnt rice and nothing else, until she took out the belt; then, only then, would I eat this hated meal, now mixed with snort and tears.
The traditional Sunday breakfast and dinner in my country are when the biggest and most lavish meals of the entire week are served. When things were good and money was plentiful, breakfast would be ripe banana fritters (which made me dance with excitement), fried liver or steamed calaloo from the ‘calaloo man’ who rode past my gate every Sunday morning on his bicycle, yelling in sing-song voice, “Calaloo, callaloo, ca-a-laloo”, or if if he was a Rastafarian, he would say, “ilaloo, ilaloo.” This would be served with fried dumplings or buttered hardough bread and served with chocolate, cocoa or bush tea.
We didn’t get lunch on a Sunday. Sunday dinner back then was ready by 2:00 p.m., earlier in some other parts of the country. It consisted of Fricaseed chicken with rice and peas, stewed beef or beef pot roast with rice and peas. When we discovered that she was making what we called French-fried chicken, which she floured so it came out crispy like KFC, we would kinpuppalik (dialect for somersaults) with uncontained childish glee in the yard or our beds.
Our Sunday dinner was washed down with freshly squeezed soursop or carrot juice, the latter flavoured with nutmeg and vanilla. The only packaged juice they had then was kool-aid. Everything we drank was freshly made.When my father around, we were treated to a Sunday evening ride into town for ice cream, which he loves to this day, and Mr Foster’s ‘flaw-flaw’ cake, so called because of the abundant and delicious icing he served up on his cakes, and because were just silly- happy to be out of the house and savouring this marvelous fare.
I’ll tell you in another post about how the annual mango season saved us on hungry days.
To see what some of the Jamaican foods I’ve mentioned look like, head over to jamaicans.com.
I share these stories about my heritage to pay tribute to my mother, but to also share the lessons I learnt from her about living happy with lesser comforts and by faith in spite of adversity, living for others and making sacrifices for your children. Another thing she taught me was that that poverty didn’t mean that you kept your home dirty. Whether the floors were humbly boarded or tiled, she cleaned it until we could see our faces in it. And when we were old enough to do it, she would send us to re-polish many a lustreless floor with our coconut brush and old rag we used then, until it shone.
My father too hated a dirty yard, and when he was home which as I said before was not often, all eight of us were set to work with our bush brooms and we set our dirt yard clean of dirt as was possible. Pit latrines got equal treatment. Buckets of fire ashes poured into the pit kept noxious odours down and the seat and floor of that place also had to be swept or red yoked. Red yoke was a natural red stain ‘polish’ made by community people from a locally grown plant and sold in the markets When used, every one knew you had red yoke floors, for you’d emerge stained with red soles and fingernails and it took many hard scrubs to get the stain off. We didn’t like red yolk.
Later when I became a single mother and hit a patch of hardship, I found that I had within me the same resourcefulness as my mother to ‘turn my hand and mek fashion’ so my baby daughter could eat. As a wife, I can stretch a meal for my husband on days when the pantry only has odds and ends. Thank God, my parents enabled me to get a college education so I didn’t have to live in the abject poverty I suffered as a child, but I am pretty sure with the life skills she has taught me. I could survive in a palace just as well as a pauper’s hut.
There are other legacies I inherited from her that I wish I didn’t though, like my folly in choosing men. That’s partly my father’s legacy too, as he failed to provide me with a good example as a young woman. I have become trapped in the psychological cycle which has been passed on and it has patterned my life, nevertheless, I will not knock them for her mistakes. Had I not had her mental strength and stamina, I would have succumbed to the trauma of my life, so I am grateful not so much that she passed on to me the psyche, but her woman’s resilience and strength to withstand adversity, her generosity and her infallible faith in God. Her Job-like faith still confuses and amazes me even today. Although life has pressed her to the ground, she doubles back each time, and each time she is shouting praises to her God. Her perseverance I find daunting.
Life is still hard. And hardship and experience has etched their stories into her body. At 72, she refuses to dye her silver curls or come into the 21st century despite our chidings for her to get a make-over. She is beautiful and her only ‘vice’, if it can be called that, is that she loves money in her hand. Understandable, if you haven’t had much all your life.
Her face has lines in them, her cheeks have fallen, her eyes gaunt, and illness has taken much of her body mass, but in these I see the battle scars of a Jamaican warrior who has overcome, who has fought her battles with her head held high and her Bible in hand, who have braved stormy weather and with the help of God has kept her sails around her vessel.
Her voice is still strident in the hymns she lifts up to God without fail each morning and evening. Her walk is still purposeful and brisk. Religiously, she opens the doors of her church and wait for others to join her in worshipping the only Husband she has ever known. Her energy has not receded with her years.
The house is now empty of children’s laughter, and she cries when we take too long to call. Loneliness is her greatest challenge now, but her fierce independence, discipline and standards sometimes makes her difficult to live with (You can’t come into her home on a Sabbath evening after sunset, or have a boyfriend stay too late at night). She is happiest when we visit, and will cook up a storm. Her joy is in her children, and the years have not changed that.
She has not changed, She is set in her ways, and I am happy that she remains the woman I have known these 43 years. My mama is a treasure I would never trade for a billion dollars. I am a legacy of her everything she is; her faith and her follies; her woman-ness is the model I live by, even with my education, and all it means: the pains, the tears, the laughter, the dreams, the sacrifices, the faith. Hers is the faith and folly story I will repeatedly share with my grandchildren long after she’s gone.