An ancient Temene Proverb acknowledges that in order to know where you are going, you need to first know where you have been. In my case, most of the information I gleaned about my past came from female family members. It appears that in caring for and raising children, we can also nurture their identities through oral history.
Calling our grandmothers by the names their children have given them is a tradition in our family which has passed down through four generations.
My mother and her siblings, following their mother’s lead, called their grandmother (Amelia Sealy - my great-grandmother), Mama.
In turn, I (as with my siblings and cousins) called my grandmother, Mother, the term that had been used by my mother to refer to her mother.
I vaguely remember Mama, she shared an upstairs bedroom with my grandmother and me, for what seemed like a long period of time, but what in reality, was no longer than a few months. My memories of her are painful and filled with trauma.
I had no recollection of her, prior to her coming to live with us. She came because she was old and dying from the complications of lymphatic filariasis. She could no longer walk and needed to be cared for by her daughter.
As a young child confronted with a dying stranger, I spent most of my time being afraid of Mama and avoiding her calls for assistance. If I had to go upstairs and she called me, I would run past the bedroom door with my hands over my ears, pretending that I couldn’t hear her. Her dying groans traumatized me so much that to this day, whenever someone is in pain and suffering, I am transported back to that time; a time of confusion and helplessness.
It was not until I did my research, that my great-grandmother became real to me. She had traveled from Barbados with two of her brothers (the only girl in a family of sixteen boys), and settled in the Georgetown area of Guyana, in the 1890’s. She worked as a cook and a cleaner for white people and was able to secure that position because whites preferred to hire those with a lighter complexion to work in their homes. Her ability to cook appears to have been passed on to me and I once catered for 120 people entirely on my own.
My memories of Mother, named "Brown Skin Maud", by her friends, come from the mind of a seven year old child. She was my guardian for nearly two years, prior to my joining my parents in England. I’ve been told that I was the favourite grandchild by the older cousin (Cheryl) who replaced me in her affections after I left. But, while I was there, I had no idea that I’d held such a favoured status.
A few things come to my mind about my interactions with my grandmother. Her sense of hospitality, a quality that has rubbed off on me. Her willingness to share, which was demonstrated the day I brought home a tramp, believing that he was Jesus. I took him home and as I washed his feet, I begged my grandmother to give him a plate of food, which she did.
Another memory I recall with great amusement was seeking refuge from my grandmother, after some non-descript childhood misdemeanor. In my haste, I ran for protection amongst the boxes under our large double bed, assuming that due to old age, she wouldn’t be able to bend down. Under normal circumstances, a healthy fear of spiders and lizards would have kept me from this particular place. But, when confronted with the choice between that or an exhaustive whipping, I decided to take my chances among the spiders and lizards. I hadn’t bargained on her being smarter than me. A long handled broom, thrust into my side, face or back, was all that was needed to poke me out of my hiding place and into the arms of a harsher punishment.
Cheryl though, remembers a different person: "Mother was an early pioneer for women’s rights; she wanted to be in charge of her own money, stressed education as a means of getting out of poverty and refused to accept the cultural norms of women being treated like chattel, abused or treated as second class citizens".
Most of her 40 or so grandson’s would give a completely different opinion of her. Most, disliked her with a passion; in them, she seemed to evoke deep feelings of frustration and anger. In their minds, she was tough and seemed to get more than the normal pleasure in administering discipline.
Nonetheless, in many ways, she was revolutionary in her thinking; at a time when people were psychologically brainwashed into believing that lighter skin was better, she favoured darker skin tones.
Mother was a major campaigner in the Campbellville area of Georgetown for two of her younger cousin’s, who later became the prime minister and the president of Guyana, following elections in the 1960’s. During this period, Cheryl remembers being driven around the local area in a state car.
Mother was very independent, qualities that I see in myself and also in my own mother. She also played a major role in the lives of her grandchildren and has been an inspiration to many of her women-folk.
Looking back has helped me to forge my identity as part of a kinship, "to know where you are going, you need to first know where you have been".
Read Part Two
© Scherin Barlow Massay, July 2009 (all rights reserved)