Hilda Ramkhelawan was 92 so this state of grief is not really acceptable. Hers was a long, full life and the end brought relief from incurable pain. We are told to be happy for her. The funeral was billed a Service of Thanksgiving in celebration of her life. I want to celebrate but I cannot. Not yet. Not today. My grandmother's death is the end for an extraordinary woman who was the glue that kept a dysfunctional family from shattering into tiny, unsustainable splinters. As her coffin disappeared beneath the shovelled earth my extended family were also quickly vanishing before my eyes. If this seems grandiose then you did not know the woman we called Ma.
So how did Ma keep us together? After all she was ordinary, educated only to primary school level. She fell in love with a married man and had two daughters and seven sons with him even though he never quite left his wife. When he died unexpectedly at the age of 50 she was plunged into caring for her kids – the youngest ones being four and three – completely on her own. I never heard her complain that life was hard and she never brought another suitor to her bed.
Instead Ma embraced life and swaddled her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in warmth and love. Growing up I did not realise we had little because her simple house was the embodiment of security and largesse. You could always find a bed for the night or an ear for your troubles. Couple this with a constant stream of the most delicious food and it was the prefect haven when life was overwhelming. Call in at breakfast time and you would be given hot Sada roti and pumpkin choka without reference to your affiliation with the household or state of hunger. Swing by to say hello anytime after noon and it might be curried channa and stewed chicken. No one could visit without having something to eat or at least a cold drink. And love was also personalised. Her son Denis believed in her fried chicken and always knew it would be left in a covered dish in the oven come Saturday afternoon not matter where he had spent the week. My childhood Sundays were marked by Ma’s return from the market with a little brown paper bag of warm rice cakes with my name on it. Steaming hot bowls of lentil soup would appear late morning and I cannot sample this soup anywhere in the world without silently comparing it (unfavourably) to her pot. Ma’s hand was sweet. Oh and I almost forgot to mention her sponge cake. For some reason she refused to make any other kind of cake and for some reason it remains my favourite.
While life took us in all directions there was something solid about the fact that Ma had been born at 70 Union Road, Marabella; had lived her whole life at 70 Union Road, Marabella and, after a brief hospital stay, was due to be taken back there on the day she took her last breath. Alexander Pope’s description of the happy man as someone “[C]ontent to breathe his native air, In his own ground” was Ma to the core of her being. Some of her sons have never left that home while others go back and forth with the vicissitudes of love and life. I never understood if she tied these adult men to the hem of her dress or if they stubbornly refused to quit the security she exuded. What I know is that even after not living in Trinidad for over thirty years it was her home, 70 Union Road, Marabella that was my True North.
There are a few things I should have learnt from Ma that I only appreciate now she is gone. I chose clothes without much thought and consider a lick of lipstick making an effort. Ma refused to be seen, even when bedridden, unless properly groomed. It was a matter of pride that the lustre of her hair was black without a hint grey. When asked about this feat she would cheekily reply,
“Dou-dou darling, you can’t see me hair is natural black?”
In her wardrobe were boxes of hair dye sent by a son in New York all labelled Natural Black. In the rush to attend her funeral I showed up with an inch of grey roots. Ma would never have allowed such slippage. It won’t happen again Ma – I promise. And of course it was her son Steve – the second to last of her babies – who faithfully did the root touch ups. I say of course because her sons were everything to her. They were her constant confidants, helpers and companions. Lovers and wives entered the lives of her sons fully conscious that they came second to Ma.
Ma’s bit of fun was the horses and like most small time gamblers she lost a little and won a little. Lady Luck once sent twenty five thousand dollars (then worth about $6000usd) her way with three winning horses in a major race. Being Ma she immediately shared her winnings among her children and a few lucky neighbours. The only point of having money, food or love was to pass it on to those without.
The deep well of her love meant that when her middle-aged son, the second-born, Hugh, died suddenly of a massive heart attack, she grieved so hard and for so long that her tear ducts were permanently damaged. Those were tough years for the family as no one could admit how depressed and withdrawn she had became. Our pillar of strength was cracking but yet again she somehow held herself and us together.
The memory of her I keep sacred is from the last time I saw her – laughing and smiling and repeating the same stories as if she had not just told them minutes before. She wanted me to know that life had been kind to her. When she needed help in the aftermath of my grandfather’s death a young neighbour filled in the forms and got her the meagre welfare she was entitled to. Ma also insisted that she was blessed because her children had been respectful, loving and devoted. And in case we had somehow forgotten she reminded us that her plot at the Marabella Cemetery had been bought over half a century earlier for the princely sum of $24.
Now that she is gone how will those who have held her at the centre of their world cope? These sons have lost their mother and best friend. Who will be the peacemaker when this brother say he don’t have nothing to say to that sister and was only talking to she for Ma sake? And will that other sister take any interest in her siblings now that Ma is gone? Will others who live far away come back to visit 70 Union Road? Will they be welcome? Ma, my generous, big-hearted grandmother, where is True North now that you are gone?
I have never cared much for Sunday. It harbours the threat that Monday is imminent. For a goodly majority of Bajans it is the highlight of the week as they head to church – men in sombre suits and ladies parading in elaborate hats and even white gloves. Church attendance might be declining world-wide but this rock is steady in its faith. That I have been an atheist since the cradle, and The Husband a humanist, makes us a distinct minority. It’s been an issue since we first arrived on island. The children’s school was not pleased with “humanist” on the entry form. Desperate to get them in we went from no religion to many regions. I explained that my mother was Catholic, father Anglican and The Husband’s parents Hindu. We also have Presbyterians and Jehovah Witnesses as kin. With so many religions at our disposal we had as yet failed to settle on just the one. Satisfied that between Jesus, Vishnu and Jehovah our souls would eventually be saved, a line was drawn through “Humanist”, “Christian” inserted and thus First and Second Born duly received a primary school education.
But on this rock religion is more than an entrance requirement for school. It is an entrance requirement into society. Sitting in a government office The Husband got chatting with an elderly gentleman who wanted the answer to two key questions - his name and what church he attended. When he said none the man assumed that he had simply not found one yet and proceeded to recommend several churches that might be suitable. It was unthinkable that anyone could be on the island for six months let alone six years and not be affiliated with an institution. And being full of island kindness he of course invited The Husband to his own humble church in St. Phillip.
The majority of churchgoers seem to have genuine faith. It is not uncommon for complete strangers to greet you with “a blessed good morning”. If you let someone in the queue ahead of you, or give someone a lift, they will usually respond with “the lord will bless you”. For a jaded Trini/Londoner this politeness from strangers is a delight and I would be happy if it that was the extent to which religion invaded my life. But on this rock most major meetings or conferences – private or public sector - cannot begin business without a prayer or formal blessing being proclaimed.
Most march off to church Sunday after Sunday in search of a bit of comfort from the slings and arrows of this old world and for this I am envious. In the space of 24 hours I managed to loose my no-claims bonus of a zillion years in not one but two car accidents. One car ploughed into my left side and by the next evening another car had matched the damage on the right side. None of the attending police (you must wait on the police for all traffic accidents – even the most trivial fender-bender) offered comfort from on high but I did notice that the accident involving a tourist was handled with greater decorum. Combined with family illness and general strife I wished there was someone watching over me who was going to kiss it all magically better. My helper had other thoughts.
‘I don’t know why but the devil working pon you steady these days,’ she stated seeing me hiding in a corner.
‘So what should I do?’ I asked.
‘I does pray hard for you and this family every night.’
‘I’m grateful,’ I said weakly.
She went off to peal a pineapple but returned quickly.
‘When was the last time you shine up yourself?’ she inquired.
I thought of my unwashed hair and jam-stained T-shirt.
‘I’ll go have a shower,’ I replied, slightly ashamed.
‘No girl. I mean when was the last time you shine yourself?’
Shine myself. Shine myself? What bit of self-love was she referring to exactly? Before my dirty mind strayed any further she interrupted.
‘Every time I go back Guyana I does go and get the blue and the lavender and the grass and a calabash. You don’t have to go by nobody to shine yourself up. You could buy everything and do it home.’
She smiled as recognition fell over my face. She was planning a bush bath to wash way the evil she perceived around me.
‘I going in town this week self and get what you need. Plus it have a calabash tree in The Belle. I going send a body to get one give me.’
While she is collecting an eye of newt or whatever else I will be required to immerse myself in I took to the Internet to establish the efficacy of this treatment and the main ingredients. Facebook friends knew of potential ingredients and some had even had a bush bath or two themselves. No one was completely sure if it had made a difference to their lives although my sister-in-law had seen a documentary about African babies learning to walk at eight months after a medicinal bath that, along with certain exercises, stimulated leg muscles.
From this collective wisdom of friends, and a calypso by David Rudder, it seems a decent bush bath should contain some or all of the following:
- Blue (used in laundry)
- red lavender
- Bois cano
- Black sage
- Chadon Beni
- Cousin Mahoe
- Soursop leaves
Option extras include a couple silver coins, holy water and soft candle.
I think there is a performance art work here begging to done. If you have any of these ingredients in your yard you know how to find me. I’m preparing for a bath that will clean the places other baths don't reach.
The Canadian Women’s Club – a super efficient, highly organised bunch, has, as one of its activities, a book club. With military precision they choose books well in advance and require participants to attend armed with thoughtful answers to pre-determined questions about the themes, characters and plot. Of course I’m not a member but it’s the kind of serious book club that in my fantasy life I might belong to.
But on this small rock I have drifted into a rather different establishment. The Infamous Book Club (IBC) to which I belong is a place where democracy has gone mad. We can never agree on when to meet, where to meet, what book to read, who should be in and who should be expelled. Every single blessed time we want to discuss a book these and other questions must be answered afresh. A date will be set only to be changed a minimum of three times. And somewhere along the way it is became written in stone that we should only gather on a Thursday. Assembling on say a Wednesday requires a unanimous vote – even of those with no intention of turning up.
A book is often suggested and even agreed upon. But this ought to be viewed as nothing more than a mere nomination. At our last meeting we agreed that Kerry Young’s Pao would be our next target. One month later (with no firm date to meet) the object of our focus has shifted to Juan Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. By the time we convene sometime later this year the chosen book is likely to be an entirely different one.
And then there are The Rules. It is a spouse-free space. No books written by your friends or family are permitted. Cheating with other book clubs and being brazen enough to come back with glowing reports about how the other half reads is grounds for expulsion or at least a suspension of membership. New members may be introduced but need to be pre-approved. Most will not last beyond the first session. One new comer when asked about a book said she did not like it because there were too many trees in it. At first this was mistaken for a mystical comment. Had the writer gathered themes in threes – something the rest of us had missed? But she put us right. The book got her thumbs-down because the author, having set her novel in the Caribbean, had put in too many trees – those tall things with branches and leaves. I went home and only returned to the IBC when she had safely quit the rock for good.
Many of the members are writers and/or editors. This might account for the brevity of discussions. If the book is atrocious we are usually done the demolition in under ten minutes. Then there are the quiet moments we sip wine and wonder wistfully at the magic of words. One brave soul decided that our haphazard approach needed to be curtailed and produced typed questions requiring our response a la the Canadians. I don’t remember what we did with said individual but the paper became planes.
Like most West Indian events food is key. Meetings at a certain house near Black Rock are particularly popular as analysis of the text is served up with freshly baked bread to rival the boulangeries of Paris. And while most book clubs are laced with wine few can boast the sublime seafood lasagne and moist chocolate brownies topped with vanilla ice-cream we were treated to at our last meeting.
But book clubs are about books and I am always interested in what others are reading. The Canadian book club recently zoned in on Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop The Carnival – a novel that is almost as old as my aging bones. Set on a fictional Caribbean island, it is the story of a New Yorker who escapes the rat race to run an island hotel. Instead of nirvana he finds that life in the tropics is a constant navigation of incompetence and skulduggery. My understanding is that the book club gave it rave reviews with most commenting that forty plus years on so much of what he wrote was still applicable to their experiences of island life. I had never read the book so set out to get a copy.
The book is awful. Prejudice is sprinkled like salt and pepper over the pages. We Caribbean people can dance because of something in our knees. Our overt sexuality is a constant weapon we use against the unsuspecting foreigner. We might have education but this is used to cheat others and besides we are best suited to being bartenders and maids. We speak the Queen’s language in funny accents that are incomprehensible, stilted or pretentious. The only people to suffer worse prejudice are homosexuals. Prejudice is prejudice no matter when it was written. The only difference is that with awareness and education we have legislated against such discrimination.
So what is the book’s enduring appeal that it still makes a serious book club’s list in 2013? Most reviews say it is a hilarious read. I didn’t laugh once. Every neurotransmitter in my body reported the outrage I felt at being a member of a region of people classed as amateurish, dishonest and lazy.
But as the days go by anger has given way to reflection. We are not the people Herman Wouk has reductively portrayed. Despite the substantial disadvantages in material resources, there are as many Nobel Laureates in the West Indies per capita as in Canada. Yet maybe we could do more to help perceptions of our character. We could try giving good service without the chip on our shoulder that this might be related to servitude. We could try being open for business rather than employing Business Prevention Officers who make everything from incorporating a company to buying a TV mammoth tasks. Our Minister of Industry, Donville Inniss warned that without a change in attitude to we might someday “wake up and realise that there are no more clients or customers and no more jobs either”.
While I have no time for those who enjoy the lifestyle of our small rock while passing the time bitching about the natives there are issues we need to address now. If there is any value in Herman Wouk’s novel it is as a cautionary tale of what our future might be if we don’t stop the carnival and get to work.
School sports day is something I avoided when it was mandatory and continue to avoid whenever possible. But The Husband agreed to go too so off we went to witness the sporting prowess of First and Second Born on land. Our stocky sailors with upper body strength did well in the discus and shot put. They excelled in hanging out, ignoring their parents and consuming the BBQ lunch. I can’t complain. Those mangoes didn’t fall far from the tree. We managed a discreet exit before moms and dads were obliged to make fun of themselves in the 100m sprint. But not everyone shares our dread. Many parents were dressed in House Colours and had come prepared with picnic spreads to rival Glyndebourne. Some had on running shoes and one person had running spikes. One mom however looked slightly glum so I inquired as to the source of misery.
‘We’re likely to be leaving the island soon,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. We were just getting to know you guys,’ I replied.
‘But I’m not ready,’ she said biting her lip. ‘I’m not ready for my island adventure to be over.’
For her, living in Bim, with the added perks of an expat package, had been a delicious sampling of the other. While I don’t doubt that it was a wonderful interlude it was only ever that - a temporary state of affairs. Real life, which lay elsewhere, was simply being postponed. It was in that moment I realised I was home. When I moved here six years ago it was reluctantly - sacrificing what little passed for a career - for First and Second Born to have a proper childhood. But slowly and steadily I have fallen hopelessly in love with this small rock.
It is not that life on the rock is easy. Our utility bills are higher here than in London. Groceries are my single largest expense and it isn’t exactly overflowing with diverse entertainment. And speaking of entertainment – the TV died last week. From one episode of Criminal Minds to the next it ceased to produce a visible picture. All that was left were a few fuzzy lines. Rufus, the handy man, claimed his friend Horsey could fix it. Forgive my prejudice but a man named Horsey should not be trusted near electronics. What did he do to earn a nickname like Horsey? Does he look like a horse? Does he love horses more than ahem… people? The assumption always is that his birth certificate attests to something more prosaic like Fred or Barry. But this is Bimshire and anything goes. Someone is listed in the phone book simply as Happy (433-0201). It’s a mere trot from Happy to Horsey.
Having done my online research I galloped to Courts to buy a 40” TV listed for $1399 ($700usd). Like I said – I love living here – but they don’t make it easy. My inquiry was met with a steups.
‘I never see that TV here.’
‘But it’s on your website.’
I showed her my ipad.
‘Oh, that’s a TV uses to have,’ she said turning away.
‘So why is it on the website?’
‘We had it but we ain’t have no more,’ she said now walking off.
I trailed behind her.
‘Are you getting anymore?’ I asked.
‘Do you have something similar?’
‘It go cost you $1799.’
‘But I don’t want to spend $1799.’
‘Well you can’t get the TV then.’
She had reached a desk and sat down admiring her sparkling blue, acrylic talons.
‘Do you have anything else?’ I pleaded.
‘We have the new model to the one you was looking at.’
‘How much is that?’
‘Can I get that then?’
‘I go have to check the warehouse.’
She looked around the store. About five store assistants were gathered around a nearby desk talking.
‘Miss Browne, any of them new 40” in the warehouse?’
‘Call and see,’ yelled Miss Browne turning ever so slightly in our direction.
Our assistant steupsed again and reluctantly dialled a number.
‘Dwayne, it have any of them 40” TV that come in last week? A lady want one.’
She put the phone down and looked at me challengingly.
‘It have three in the warehouse.’
I smiled and asked to purchase one. You would think that the transaction would now be nearly over but we were only at the midway point. She handed me a slip of paper with a number scrawled on it and pointed in the direction of the only cashier working.
‘Pay over there,’ she commanded.
The queue was seven people long including a lady returning a toaster and a juicer. Twenty minutes later I had finally handed over the cash.
Now for some this typical retail experience drives them quickly back to The Great North or wherever they came from. For us long-term, Bim lovers it is just another encounter with a Barbados Business Prevention Officer. They are everywhere and easily identified. Restaurants, government offices, stores and gas stations – no place is safe from the reach of a BPO.
It’s part of the price we pay for living in paradise. I drove my kids to school on roads dissecting cane fields and sit at a desk looking out at the sea touching the sky. I will eat my lunch outside wearing the flip-flops I live in year round surrounded by purple Petrea in full bloom. After school my kids will sail before doing homework and eating salad and vegetables we have grown in our garden. I’m not ready for this adventure to be over.