Some might say that dysfunctional would be an appropriate word to describe my mother’s family, but I prefer the word colourful! Mum had described her family to me as high Catholics, a phrase I have never understood the meaning of, but she would say it with such pride and a complete lack of irony, which amused me, particularly when I heard about some of the things the family got up to and which went completely against the teachings of the Catholic Church.
For example they practiced Obeah – a form of witchcraft which was illegal and, if found guilty of practising it the penalty was flogging and/or imprisonment.
Some of them were involved in an illegal gaming club where prominent Jamaican men could be entertained by women in private rooms upstairs in the Den of Inequity – isn’t that called a brothel?
My Aunt Vivie was having an affair.
My Aunt Chickie had an illegitimate son called Maurice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that illegitimacy was the norm in Jamaica at that time, but it certainly wasn’t as frowned upon in Jamaican society as it was in England where the stigma attached to unmarried mothers was huge.
My Aunt Gwennie had a very unpleasant boyfriend, Keith Rousseau, who used to beat her up and ended up in Court on a charge of causing her bodily harm. The Daily Gleaner reported that he was fined £15, which I thought was a huge amount in those days – early 1930s. His mitigating circumstances were that he had had too much to drink and couldn’t help himself!
There were to be many more revelations in store for me on this journey discovering my Mum’s past – some not good at all, but some great, like hearing from Mum about my grandfather Henry, or Pops as she called him. My grandfather was a bit of a rogue, by all accounts, and I have no idea whether we bore any similarities. However, we did have two things in common. We both had the same hero – Marcus Garvey and we both disliked my Great Aunt Martha, my grandmother’s (Becky) sister.
Olga’s Diary (Continued)
Pops: My Pops lives in one roomed shack behind the meat market now that he doesn’t live with us any more. Mammie threw him out because of his womanising ways and drinking. He has a meat stall in the Victoria Market down on the harbour side and every Saturday morning, regular as clockwork, I have to go down there and collect the meat for the weekend.
We always have a little talk before he hands over our meat. You see, that’s Pop’s way of contributing to the family. He always asks after Mammie. I feel sorry for him, he’s all alone and I think he still loves Mammie.
My brothers and sister don’t often see him. I think it’s because he’s black. To be honest, I don’t like being seen with him really either, but he is my Pops and I do it because Mammie asks me to.
In spite of his drinking, Pops is a proud and dignified, but lonely man who collects his memories in a big thick scrapbook; things that have a special meaning, like the letters Mammie wrote to him before they were married. He says when he reads them they remind him of how much they were in love and how they thought they could break down the colour prejudice barriers that there were because a black man and a white woman “had the temerity” to marry. “
“That was what people said” he’d tell me. Pops likes to mimic the posh British accent.
“Mammie and I had the temerity to marry, Olga, isn’t it simply awful, my dear”. He can be very funny sometimes.
Pops has a big stamp collection as well and, do you know, I have no idea where he gets those stamps from because the only people I know who live abroad are my sister, Birdie and Aunt Martha and I know Birdie doesn’t write to him and Aunt Martha and Pops don’t even speak to each other let alone write, they hate each other so. Pops knows I want to go to England for six months so I can study at the same dance school as Birdie and Mammie will only agree to my going if I stay with Aunt Martha.
It was my Pops who first called Aunt Martha the “White Witch of Paddington” hinting that she was like Annie Palmer, a well known, but evil woman, from Jamaica’s past.
Annie Palmer was known as the “White Witch of Rose Hall” and married John Palmer who owned a Great House, called Rose Hall, which had been built at great expense on a hillside overlooking their vast plantation and the Caribbean.
Annie Palmer practised Obeah, smoked ganja, drank heavily and was often seen dancing naked in the moonlight. She also tortured her slaves, murdered three previous husbands – poisoning one, stabbing another and then, if that wasn’t enough, poured boiling oil into his ears, and she strangled the third husband. Eventually one of her slaves murdered her in her bed.
I didn’t think there was that much similarity between Aunt Martha and Annie Palmer, except maybe their height, Annie Palmer was 4’ 11” and Aunt Martha’s not much more, but Pops said if I was ever unlucky enough to get to know Aunt Martha better, I’d be able to work out for myself the similarities between them.
“Don’t trust her, particularly if she’s being nice, because she’s bound to be plotting something” he once told me.
On the front cover of Pops scrapbook are photographs of all of us at various stages in our lives, usually to do with a religious occasion.
There’s one of Birdie being confirmed, Chickie cradling her son, Maurice, after he had been baptised, and a separate one of Dolly, Ruby, Pearl and me, after we’d made our First Holy Communion wearing our long white dresses with wreaths in our hair, and a beautiful wedding photograph of Boysie and Minah and all the family outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral. But in pride of place, right in the middle of us all is a cutting from the London Evening News.
Pops’ hero is Marcus Garvey. He gets his cuttings from the supply of old newspapers he keeps to wrap the meat in that he sells.
“….you can enslave as you did for 300 years the bodies of men, you can shackle the hands of men, you can shackle the feet of men, you can imprison the bodies of men, but you cannot shackle or imprison the minds of men. No race has the last word on culture and on civilisation. You do not know what the black man is capable of; you do not know what he is thinking and therefore you do not know what the oppressed and suppressed Negro, by virtue of his condition and circumstance, may give to the world as a surprise”
We all know Marcus Garvey. He’s a bit of a troublemaker. Mad as a hatter going round preaching and stirring up trouble. The first time I heard his name was a few years ago and I’d gone down to the market to pick up our meat. Wherever I looked on the docks there were hundreds of red, black and green flags tied to everything and anything, all waving in the wind. Pops told me that all the decoration and bunting was for a “glorious man” The Hon. Marcus Garvey, D.C.L. who was arriving from the United States. When I asked him what D.C.L. stood for he said “Distinguished Coloured Leader”.
Garvey is Jamaican and from a big family too. His parents were poor and as a child he knew about hunger and colour prejudice and some people say that’s why Garvey hates white people. But he says what he hates is the system in Jamaica which keeps the poor man down and the poor are mostly black people.
Pops says black people lack self-esteem and Garvey wants them to have sense of pride in their race, colour and country. Garvey encourages them to “study hard and go into business and unite and help each other and become independent of white Jamaican society who have created two Jamaicas, one white or near white and wealthy and the other black and poor”.
Sydney hates Garvey and says he’s a troublemaker, a swindler, a crook only wanting to get rich quickly and Vivie says he practises Obeah.
Well, honestly, doesn’t everybody?
Garvey holds political gatherings in Edelweiss Park where he puts on entertainment, shows, dance contests, musical presentations, plays and boxing for the benefit of the black people in Kingston. Ruby, Dolly and I were forbidden to go to his rallies, but in true Jamaican tradition, we go in secret.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider letting your friends know or leave a comment or subscribing to the feed to have future artices delivered