I was amused to discover that one of the original recordings of the circa 1915 saccharine American song we all learned to parrot as children about the mother with the “heart of purest gold” and “eyes with lovelight shining” featured as its vocalist Eva Tanguay. Tanguay was a sexually suggestive Canadian vaudeville performer who made newspaper headlines for adultery, and took part in a cross-dressing marriage ceremony with fiancé #3.
Our enduring approach to primary education (to which Thursday’s annual waterboarding examination of the nation’s 11-year-olds is testimonial) made me memorise those verses rote with a class of tuneless, snotty brats at Miss Richie’s primary school, next door to the cemetery where my grandmother and premature brother lie buried.
The Mother’s Day we celebrate, a turn-of-the-last-century American invention, has turned into a soulless market for greeting cards, florists and restaurants, much like Lent here has for fast-food chains.
I have never been sentimental about motherhood. Least of all the wildly unCaribbean archetype of it those “M is for the million” lines imagine. I’ve written cynically here about the policy worthlessness of political rhetoric about motherhood; and most recently about the political use of a candidate’s mother and the mother of his child to attack his prime ministerial aspirations. I’ve been critical of mother Helen B. and the number of “times she tried to save” her daughter in the video she posted to the child’s Facebook page (if we use one version of the song’s T line), the “tears she shed to save” her daughter the daughter’s own (if we use another version of the same line). My own mother shows up uncharitably in my creative writing as a woman I struggled with around masculinity and sexuality, mutual embarrassment and self-assertion, through a childhood of being reminded
Sitting wedged between my mother’s knees
The fine toothed comb firmly anchored in my ample knotted mop
You have you father hard head
My writerly urge is to name things she would rather bury, hers a generation of respectable AfroCaribbean women who shame their daughters for transgressions entombed somewhere in their own histories.
I do not understand she said once
Why you have to tell everyone
The granddaughter of an AfroVenezuelan, a Scottish mulatto, a Martiniquan and a Tobagonian, my mother was born in Roxborough and grew up in San Fernando to win one of the handful of secondary school places (exhibitions) in her day, sat her Higher School Certificate (CAPE-equivalent) with the boys at Naparima College and, after flirting with pharmacy, accounting, and university at Legon (in Ghana where her uncle remained after his father was stationed there in the 1910s), flew to Jamaica in the 1950s (dockworkers were on strike) to join the likes of Derek Walcott, Rex Nettleford and George Alleyne in the first classes of the University of London’s new University College of the West Indies, UCWI, at a former WWII military camp at Mona. On her return, she married the son of Grenadian immigrants who had waited for her, and written every day. The marriage didn’t last nine years, and the separation was followed the next year by her mother’s death.
Mummy don’t cry
My nine year old big sister and I
Chant in unison
From the darkness of the back seat
All the way down the Beetham
After the after-school vigil
In the waning light in the two-door car
Parked beneath the window
Outside the sanitarium
So we could watch Granny wave
A faceless hand at us
Too young for others’ TB in the air
She inhales with the cancerous lung
Under her missing breast
This past month, as she herself has become more critically ill, and I have been called to greater tenderness, I have looked back with unprocessed emotion at my mother’s unusual life and the many gaps in its memory her repeated refusal to write it down leave me with.
On one hand, her generation is perhaps the one in human history to experience the most technological change—ever. On another, the plastic, saintly vision of motherhood the Theodore Morse & Howard Johnson tune celebrates, and inculcates to toddlers, does profound injustice to real-world Caribbean mothers I know—a group of complicated, flawed, resilient women who were both victims and challengers of the times in which they grew up. Women who raised children in periods of rapid change with inadequate and obsolete parenting tools, while battling their own demons; with a generous enough dose of caring, but moreover a firm sense of duty. It’s these last two, I believe, that produced reasonable results, not the various tools of emotional violence so many of them believed were good for children, nor the sense many of us cling to that hardship in itself breeds character.
I am desperate to make my mother whole and unromantic, to allow her space to unpack the many complexities of her own battles, against a series of moral stigmas and a backdrop of AfroSaxon expectations, to raise two children to both win open scholarships, become a notorious school principal, return to faith and teach theology to a number of people who have turned out to be priests, and cheat cancer for two decades. But I am silenced by filial respect.
Today, in the midst of an emotional soup of grief and guilt and fear, I am eager to jangle that jingle in which we have imprisoned motherhood, for things to be unsettled, to celebrate the messiness of motherhood.