Praise me neutrally or inanimately … nah. Give it to me real!

Perhaps it is the Caribbean in me or more precisely the Barbados in me, but when someone publicly hails me up as beautiful, I smile a ‘thank you”. Here, in my region, we don’t seek a thigh gap to be beautiful; our role models of beauty are not yet prescribed by a man-made industry but are varied. The determination of beauty is very much in the eyes of the beholder.

So why should I be offended by such a comment focusing on physical beauty?  It seems that in the United States, this is a source of annoyance. Yet that is a country where the fashion and movie industries push beauty in a sea of reckless materialism. Are their comments the manifestation of an effort to pull back one side by unwittingly decimating it? An all out tug-a-war of two sides, is it?

On two recent occasions, United States President Barack Obama was ridiculed for referring to feminine beauty, both times, intelligence and beauty were part of his comment,  directly or implied. When the President said California Attorney General Kamala Harris happed to be the best-looking AG ever, an avalanche of verbal spears flew in the same way they did when he said his daughter had grown into” strong, smart, beautiful young women.”

I asked myself: was the outcry encouraged by those who cannot subtly or directly stomach black beauty and black intelligence. Is it a fear thing? No, they say it is a feminist thing. Then why are these women wearing make-up and why are they not merely going to the store and taking an outfit based only on size and price?

How can calling a woman beautiful subtract from her intelligence? Aren’t the two mutually exclusive? Why should a black woman’s beauty be muffled or muzzled?

I imagine their perfect world, where (even in bed ) the only compliments will be ‘you have a sharp brain’ . Ouch, that would be degrading, a touch too close to the physical. You’d have to give her /him a side look. Nah, that would parallel flirting and be condemned as sexual harassment.

I suspect that only acceptable comments would be: ‘that project or paper or garden bed etc. was well done.” Let’s get on with the inanimate praising.

Why concern myself about the US behaviour, I’ve asked myself.  I do so because in this era where digital communications facilitates cultural penetration at a higher speed than previously, this template of neutralism would soon be transmitted into Caribbean Community cultural.

I love that we can say: “he is so sexy and so bright” (if we believe it) and men can say “you go it” whether they mean beauty, brains, a winning personality or whatever appeals to their fancy. But in the US, keep your mouth close, don’t look, walk with eyes in the air and if in bed, do only a body jump.

I am stumped here, so I’m asking just to be politically correct with my US friends, can I say to a parent, your baby is cute? Or is the correct compliment in this genre: “he’s talking, that brain is developing”?

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Mouthing off over a big hole

“US$25.6 million?  To redo Harrison’s Cave? That money should go to developing projects to ease poverty; like building factory shells to attract investors and bring jobs, unemployment over 10 per cent.”

“Maude, hush, the cave attracts tourists and bring in money to spend on all those things.”

“Tourists, what?   First, you have to spend money encouraging them here. Things tight in the big countries too, so you have to give them discounted holidays. Before we recoup that repair bill, we will have to repair again.”

“Girl, you ain’t no economist or financial analyst, you didn’t even go to college. You think our Prime Minister’s stupid; we’re getting tourist dollars including entry fees to the cave. They buy from souvenirs from the shop that covers the cave’s mouth, too.”

“Spend money? Not these tourists nowadays. I don’t have letters after my name but as a hotel maid, I know what’s going on upfront before the analysts. They look at the picture afterwards as figures; I talk to tourists as people. Visitors ain’t spending, they aren’t even buying a postcard not when it is cheaper to take pictures as souvenirs; they don’t have to buy or develop film no more. Souvenirs? Most of the trinkets at that shop are marked “Made in China.”

“Maude, you’re behaving like an opposition politician, and they aren’t so negative about this.”

“Only Saying, the tourists don’t buy a lot from us … they’re into circulating their own money. We buy food and everything else from their countries so they can get what is familiar when they get here. Tourism is the reason we import 75 per cent of what we use in this country.”

“So if you’re against tourism, why you don’t find another job?”

“I’m speaking facts, I’m not against them. I’m saying a developing country CAN’T AFFORD TO spend thousands for tourists to go down a glorified hole to see the earth’s guts.”

(Postscript: This was written for Trifecta competition which asked bloggers to produce a post including the word ‘mouth’  defined  as:

3: something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as

Related articles:

How Long To Pay Back $51 Million Barbados “Investment” In Harrison’s Cave?

Harrison’s Cave Reopens ( Barbados Government Information Service)

Letting Go

From 20 feet away, I saw her looking out her front window, as usual, with folded arms resting on the sill and cradling her head.

I exhaled. Ella was asleep, so I moved stealthily. Good morning“, I heard as soon as I was within her line of vision.

“Good morning Miss Ella,” I replied muttering under my breath, “you have inbuilt motion sensors?”

“What?” she asked.

“I was saying, ‘everyone is fine at home, thank you.” I’d planned to add that to my greeting since she normally asked about my family and while I was replying, she would search for another topic to lengthen our conversation.

I quickened my pace hoping to be out of earshot before her 89-year old brain could react but she was fast.

“Not going to church this morning? I will tell the priest you are off to do the devil’s business,” she chuckled.

“No service this morning,” I replied. Time was ticking on my full schedule while her only chore was trapping passers-by into long conversations but I couldn’t ignore a lonely old lady dressed in her Sunday best on Tuesday.

“Senility isn’t wrecking my brain; it’s loneliness,” she said “old age is a bitch. Eat, drink, look out this window; that’s who I’ve become. No one to chat with, unless someone like you pass by and spare a minute with an old bird.”

My head dropped in shame. I left an hour later, my soul at peace but my schedule wrecked and my heart broken from looking deep inside old age.

She’d spoken with pride about being able, as a single mother, to pay her children’s fare so they could migrate to jobs in London during the 1950’s. They send me money now but I need to feel loved, she’d said, her eyes filled with tears.

“Was I right to let them go? ”

P.S. I wrote this partially true story for the trifecta which challenged writers to produce a story of between 33 and 333 words using the word ‘bitch’ defined as “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant”. 

Should I have cut my story at three paragraphs before the end and add more words conveying feeling earlier? Or would that be over done? Please tell me?

Sex on the first date, anyone? What about if I gave you a gift?

Film poster for Casual Sex? - Copyright 1988, ...

Today’s Jamaica Observer on-line forced me to recall a discussion which years ago kept several of my friends locked in discussion for many months. It seemed then that the conversations in every group – no matter the permutation- would reach the point where someone would ask: “Why women can’t have sex on the first date without someone bashing them?”

The ‘with-it’ women argued against “old-fashioned sexist ideals’ as they agitated for equal rights with men. “We are working for ourselves; we are in careers similar to men, we are independent, why can’t we screw men on the first date if it feels right.”

Those taking the moral high ground would quote the Bible only to be slapped down by others citing the very Bible as support by using the story of David and Bathsheba or other Bible heroes who had concubines.  It was usual for this Bible discussion to be doused by someone who would simply say: “Why intellectualise, if he looks hot, and I feel hot why not out each other fires.”

Of course, comments about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies would be thrown around and these would lock horns with arguments about condoms. A winner could never be declared but this was never, I think, the point of the debates.

Dr. Sandra KnightThose views roamed through my brain as I read the passionate plea of the chairman of Jamaica’s National Family Planning Board (NFPB), Dr Sandra Knight: “… for sex to become a part of a context where it’s not a man-meet-woman-and-go-to-bed situation …
“where (Jamaicans) are thinking about (their) families, and thinking about a mate with which to have a family.”

I asked myself, how many people having casual sex are thinking about a life partner? Aren’t they either satisfying an urge or having sex for transactional reasons? To find an answer, I tried hard to remember the details of those past fierce and friendly debates that revolved around the right time to have sex. This mental search produced flashes of friends and acquaintances, who bravely confessed with smug smiles to enjoying sex-at-first encounter with someone they didn’t care to see again. It was just satisfying a primal desire.

Today, some of them are married with children and are now preaching from that moral high ground. They even scorn the ‘third date rule’ which media reports suggest that western cultures use to determine the ‘sex date’ or the appropriate time for a new couple to ‘go all the way’.

I agree that anyone who took a path, they later recognised as dangerous, is likely to encourage others to avoid that route but I believe such guidance should be laced with empathy, or it is likely to be rejected.

I can’t help but wonder whether we are too self-righteous in our approaches, to reap the full potential of our programmes.

To me, the Gleaner story is not only a Jamaica story but a Barbados story, a Caribbean story. Therefore I look at the many messages promoted by my mother’s and grandmother’s generations which were aimed at taming the sexual behaviour of the then  ‘wuffless (worthless) young people.’

These elders dished out condemnation and advice although the village held many examples of a man having two or more families at the same time: one at the house where he slept with his wife or recognised partner and one or two more in homes where he did not spend a whole night but was the chief financial and sex provider  as well as the father of several children. The ages of these children bore evidence that as one woman was hugely pregnant, he was doing his best to impregnate  one or two others.

Seeing this, the message from those older folk was hypocritical and I wondered if that affected its potency? All these things, I pondered.

In Jamaica, the 2012 HIV/AIDS Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviour Survey showed that 53 per cent males and 23 per cent females surveyed had sex for money or gifts since the last survey in 2008.

Poverty has encouraged transactional sex; a woman would give someone ‘a piece’ in exchange for money, food or some favour needed to properly provide for her children.  I do not know the Jamaica situation intimately but in Barbados, there are now some cases of young people -boys and girls selling their bodies to buy the latest gadgets; popular brand shoes and bags. The buyers are not people of their own age but older men and women, some in church and others in dance halls. Our messages are usual towards the sellers but what about the buyers? A market need both supply and demand to flourish.

Is it about poverty? To me it is about the definition of poverty. The United Nation Development Propgramme defines poverty by income per day but under peer pressure, poor is seen as not having those things that are owned by the ‘average’ person. It is somewhere entangled in that mess of  “longing to belong” and thrives in our materialistic world, where overpriced brands and unnecessary show pieces can be used to judge a person’s worth.

We therefore need to relook our message to ensure that they are compatible with today’s realities; that when we speak we do so with sincerity and empathy.

This sincerity must lead us to target men in our programmes with as much vigour as we target women rather than to behave as if women are the only gatekeepers of our countries’ morals. I say so I note Dr. Knight’s concern that more Jamaican young women were lowering their standards to sleep with multiple males in exchange for material possessions. This statement in light of figures that show 23 per cent of women compared with 53 per cent males were having transactional sex.

Go to France!

My desire to speak French at a comfortable level is overwhelming. I don’t dream about speaking French only, it is constantly in my thoughts, though at different ranges on the scale.

theatre

Cinémathèque Française

At the high end are the many occasions when thoughts of chatting, sipping wine and eating in a French restaurant after enjoying a French play or the offerings at Cinémathèque Française are as upfront and vivid as reality.

At the lower end are the oddest of occasions when randomly and unasked the few French phrases I know hop out of my head and into my mouth. Then there are the in-between moments when I have flashes that remind me that French is lurking in my sub-conscious.

I love the cadence of language but now the needed inflexions are afraid to emerge in my voice for fear of being hacked to death by my uncultured tongue. I would therefore jump at an occasion to study there. Immersion in the home of my dream foreign language is what I desire and at my matured age it is the best way forward.

Learning a language; sniffing the French culture, indulging in the delights of that romantic city called Paris, who could ask for more. Not me.

CIMG0554But I don’t want to be stationed in Paris; Ferney-Voltaire is where I want to call home for the year. The country-side setting with the cows ringing their bells in the distance as I walk to the hypermarket will provide enough of the town-country mix that would ensure that I, a rural dweller from 21 by 16 mile Barbados don’t feel homesick.

Statue of Voltaire, Ferney-Voltaire, France.

Statue of Voltaire, Ferney-Voltaire, France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ferney-Voltaire puts me on the border with Switzerland. From there I can commute to the cosmopolitan city of Geneva with its snow-capped Alps; learn about French cuisine or complete my studies in international trade and yet have access to cities where fashion, food, art are the hallmark. Get me that year of study, please.

Posing in Old Geneva

Posing in Old Geneva

Why sweeten the sweet?

A pedestrian walks along a remote road lined w...

A pedestrian walks along a remote road lined with sugar cane. Saint Philip, Barbados. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dark, I had to talk to you. It is about this sugar thing, I don’t mean diabetes but brown sugar, de type my daddy used to boil down at Three Houses factory; de type dat you tell me my great grandfather, Judge Maynard used to help mek by stoking fire at Three Houses. Every way I go I finding muff, muff sugar.

It is like Bajans recognise that sugar is no longer king here and they want to restore it back to prominence. Or perhaps they heard the Minister of Agriculture say that we are not selling anymore sugar to Europe but will use our production for local consumption, so out of patritoism they feel they have to consume all in one mouthful.

But Dark, they misunderstand the Minister because it isn’t like Barbados has lots of choices. It is costing us more to produce one tonne of sugar than the price the international market is willing to pay but the Europeans were doing us a favour. They know they exploited their former colonies excessively, so they owe us, and were buying our sugar expensive when they could get it elsewhere at a cheap price.

Anyway, the rest of countries quarrel and threaten them so the Europeans agree that they will soon be paying us whatever pittance is the going rate on the world market. But that is another story and yes, I was ‘peeping under myself’ I should’ve said the Agriculture Minister played a public relations trick on Barbadians but it is general elections time so I am holding those thoughts close to my chest. I will tell you about our sugar policy in another post, but I want to tell you about misusing sugar, now.

Dark, I know you will say it serves me right because by example and by word you taught me not to buy already cooked food but I was supporting a cause, so I bought two stew dumplings and you know how I love them. I ate one; a single one.

Dark, it gave a belly ache out of this world; I was rolling up on the ground, crying long water out my eyes. Rashidi took pity and gave me a dose of black pepper in hot water but I was bawling so he handed me some peppermint essence to wash down the black pepper tea and then he went outside searching for gully root to boil so I could get lasting relief.

Those stew dumplings were really conkies because they contained more sugar than corn; more sugar than pumpkin; more sugar than coconut. You know what else had my stomachin an uproar? I know this one will shock you so I will whisper.

“The fish cakes had in sugar. As God is my judge that is the truth!”

I will never lie to you about something so serious. It was tantamount to being sacrilegious. It was blasphemy in fishcake town, if ‘fishcakians’ petition the Director of Public Prosecutions to start a trial against the fishcake maker, I will testify.

I wanted to tell you about something else long ago but I know I was disappointing you so I zipped my mouth but I am confessing now. Earlier this year, I went from church fair to church fair and bought pudding and souse. Good thing, I don’t eat pudding stuffed in pig belly strands instead I choose the one cooked in a pie dish.

Nowadays, they washing the ‘pig guts’ with soap powder or blue soap; you used natural water, lime and salt or a tip of vinegar. Not these new fashioned folks! I saw them with the soap and my friend tasted the soapy flavour but I don’t eat strands so it is the sugar in the mixture that got me.

Today’s pudding sweet, sweet, like sugar cake and brown like chocolate; at every fair I attended that is the going flavour and look. Sweet and savour like Chinese food but I am a West Indian, I want all savour even if it contains lots of pepper. I threw away many dollars in pudding. Oh how,  I miss your cooking!

This sugar trend is a serious matter though, not only because of my wasted money but Barbados has many cases of diabetes.

Remember Joe Muggs, well his son, Donville is Minister of Health. You know Joe (for me, Mr. Inniss) is dead. You must know because you must have heard him over there by now, Joe don’t keep his mouth quiet. Donville is like Joe. Donville speaks his mind although being a politician will push him to bend the truth, but  like a loyal Philippian (from the parish of St. Philip), he speaks the truth generally, so I will let you read the Government Information Service story which quotes him.

While noting that the prevalence of diabetes in adults in Barbados stood at 16.4%, Trinidad and Tobago 12.7%, Jamaica 12.6% and Belize 12.4%, he (Donville) said, “Our region, and Barbados in particular, has the highest prevalence rate in the Americas.”

The Health Minister also gave some startling figures on the disease … pointing out that it was the third leading cause of blindness here; that major and minor lower limb amputations averaged almost 200 per year, with Barbados being regarded, over the years, as the amputation capital of world.

He added that 40% of persons on dialysis had some kind of diabetic-related kidney disease, and … the average length of stay for a diabetic patient at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was 17 days, whereas the overall average stay was 6 1/2 days.

So you see the situation is bad. Many organisations, including work places and churches have started health promotion campaigns;  Government too. The television station carried infomercials about living healthy including the merits of keeping fit and the dangers  of the high salt content in processed foods but not a word about sugar use.

We make it so like rum, we have to use it excessively; that seems to be the ethos.Bathsheba, St. Joseph

Sweet Barbados as shown by this scene at Bathsheba, St. Joseph. Compliments: JProject2k2 Production Presents

Barbados is sweet already, so why sweetened the sweet? Anyway, I will talk to you later, I am waiting to hear what everybody else has to say but your comment will reign supreme. Love ya, Dark, the real brown sugar.

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Conkies or stew dumplings- take your pick

Many, many years, ago when I was at secondary school, I heard a group of children talking about conkies. They were not just any children; they were the trend setters, the popular set. They came to school daily by car; travelled overseas almost every school vacation and had the latest brand of bags, shoes you name it.

As I heard them describing the feasts which their cooks laid out for them on Independence Day, I conjured up images of conkies as an exotic main course served at big mahogany tables dressed with white linen and all the necessary cutlery and crockery.

A few weeks later, I got a big surprise. Conkies were on the list of items to be sold at the school’s fundraising cake sale. I was not financially able to buy one but was fortunate enough to get a smell and a mouth-watering glimpse as one of my peers ate hers.

Credit: Hndrsn Marshall, mNm Photography & Video

“Wait!” I said to myself after spotting the bright yellow conkie that was revealed when my classmate pulled back the steamed banana leaf that covered it. The conkie was like the stew dumpling, my grandmother cooked in a large saucepan over a big wood fire in the backyard. It was smaller though; in fact, about half the size of a stew dumpling; and contained red and dark brown bits.

As my friend licked her lips, she picked out one of the red bits, threw it in the bin and said; “I don’t eat cherries.” It was then that I got it and immediately screamed with delight at my discovery.

Conkies are stew dumplings but ‘poor great’ people add cherries and raisins to the recipe so they wouldn’t be eating poor people food,” I concluded. That knowledge made me laugh so hard, I rolled on the ground with tears flooding my cheeks. The mental image of people eating enhanced stew dumplings with knife and fork at a large table pulled hard at my funny bones. For me, formality and stew dumplings don’t mix.

Stew dumplings have been part of Barbados’ culture, for many years, especially during November.  Neighbours brought them to your house; you took those made at your house to theirs.  It was a sharing, tasting, mouth-smacking time when people would remark without ridicule, good-naturedly as a matter of fact, on whose stew dumplings were best that year.

I remember the days of stew dumpling making at my house. My grandmother would get up early to pick, clean and singe banana leaves; peel and grate coconut, sweet potatoes and pumpkin.  Long neck pumpkin (garden pumpkin) was her choice for this task. She swore that its texture, taste and bright colour made it a must have if you wanted to make the perfect stew dumpling.

A pinch of salt, vanilla essence, some sugar and spices – nutmeg, stick spice, cinnamon – were added to the grated mixture and, of course, the main ingredient, Indian corn (maize) plus a dust of flour. When this was well mixed and tasty, she would wrap portions into singed pieces of banana leaf, fold them securely and place them into a large sauce pan containing some water and a snip of cinnamon to boil. No boiling was done on the stove to waste the kerosene oil or later gas, they were cooked outside the house over a bright blazing wood fire.

We, the grandchildren, would gather dry branches mainly clammy cherry sticks for the fire. Pine wood was not allowed, no matter how much we could get from people who were discarding bits after house repairs. My grandmother was strict about this. “Pine gives off a strong scent dat stick to the stew dumplings and spoil their taste,” she would say every time we set off to gather wood.

Afterwards, we would sit listening intently to the pot boilinWrapped conkieg, scarcely able to wait for the stew dumplings to cook furthermore cool afterwards. My mouth would water for a taste. I would pray that one or two would burst because Darkey would take these out of the pot and before the real sharing time, she gave them to us as an early reward. We were the helpers, weren’t we? The remainder would be placed in a container to cool before they were distributed to family members (including us), neighbours and friends.

A few decades earlier, stew dumpling were a must on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The older folk said the village would come together from dust to prepare for the celebrations. Tires to be burnt would be stacked up and children would gather around waiting excitedly for the adults to start the ‘fete’.

My grandfather, Jack, was in his element then, for of all the men in the district who came to the ‘do’ armed with their homemade fireworks, he was king. His bombs were the best. They never ‘fibbed’ but exploded the loudest. Older children and adults would applaud loudly and call for more but younger children would scream and jump into their mothers’ arms.

Everyone would be merry, though, setting off fireworks; washing down stew dumplings with mauby, ginger beer, lemonade; singing songs, telling jokes and playing games like ‘hiddy-biddy shut up yuh lap lap tight tight’. That game involved someone searching around in the other players’ laps looking for treasure. The older folk admit that such a game would raise suspicion today but warned that people didn’t have their minds in the gutter then, and that I was great fun.

Like that game, Guy Fawkes Day is no longer on Barbados’  entertainment agenda. The Day was banned by government and fireworks are now on a restricted list and not generally available to the public. But November is a big celebration time, here. Our country’s Independence is on the thirtieth and stew dumplings and their first cousins, conkies are on most menus.

No, they are cousins, not fraternal twin snacks as some people suggest. Many differences exist between the two; not the rich-poor scenario, I painted in my salad years, but ingredients-wise and method-wise. Folk-lore commentator Mark Williams sided with my theory that adding fruits (imported cherries and raisins) to stew dumplings results in conkies. In addition, you can also cook conkies in foil and greased-proof paper but stew dumplings can only be cooked in banana leaves if not the true flavour is off and they can’t wear the label.

Flag of Barbados See also: List of Barbados flags

So this Independence Day, take your pick, conkies or stew dumplings, but for me it will be stew dumplings; they are 100 per cent Bajan (Barbadian).

Related page:

http://bizzz.com/caribbeanrecipes/barbados-conkies-2/

Halved by blood, divided by water

A stab of jealousy penetrated my heart as I noticed how securely my dad held their hands; Mary’s right, John’s left. How complete a family they were, a lonely sick feeling boiled in my stomach. That was 30 years ago.

This morning, as I looked at that photo, my feelings of disconnect returned with as much strength as they did the first time I saw it. Excitedly, I had torn open the envelope with my Dad’s familiar scrawl hoping to find a plane ticket, so I could join him in Britain, but instead found that picture.

I stared expectantly at their faces. I didn’t understand why. Now, I know why. Pictures always meant a lot to me, I believed if you have your picture taken to send to a love one, the depth of that love will bounce off the photo. I know now that was the reason why my eyes shifted frantically from face to face as I held that photo in my hands, 30 years ago. I was searching for the key which would unlock an intimacy between us, though we were miles apart, separated by an ocean.

My heart yearned to feel a connection which I believed would radiate from their body language. I longed to capture a spark of the closeness, which my school friends’ stories led me to think existed between siblings. But that did not bounce off the photo.

What I read from my sister and brother’s expression was childhood boredom and the fight to stay still as they posed with our dad. Perhaps my stepmother was trying in vain to get them to say ‘cheese’, but why did she not ask someone to use the camera so she could be included? Was it because she did not see me as a factor in her life? If she wanted to remain so faceless, so absent from the photo, it meant she did not want me present in their family.

I felt left out and my 13-year-old brain told me if only I could join them in England, then I would prove to be a true sister. But my grandmother said that was impossible; that I would never be thought of as a real sister in England; that people like me who shared only one parent with another person is called a half. Half-brother or half-sister!

“It isn’t like Barbados,” she said, “when everyone is whole; blood is blood. We don’t measure blood but people in big countries, do. Mary and John will call you half-sister.”

That night, I sobbed uncontrollably. I knew I would never be whole.

Like many other young adults of the 1960s, my parents had left Barbados seeking a better life in England. My mum went away when I was two; that was the year after my father left to join the London Transport. She hoped to rekindle their relationship and promised to send for me so we could be a real family. That did not happen and eleven years later I was still living in the Caribbean with my grandmother and had discovered that I would always be a half-sister.

Half in Surrey, where my mum had a new daughter and husband; half in Birmingham, where my dad had two new children and wife. That night, I sobbed uncontrollably, repeating: “Half in Surrey, half in Birmingham; half in Surrey, half in Birmingham.”

Half Siblings

Half Siblings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I vowed then never to look at other picture of my half-families or to be the first to open a letter with an English stamp especially if it carried my father’s tell-tale scrawl or my mother’s cursive writing. From that day, my grandmother opened my letters, removed and kept all the photographs and gave me the dry notes to read. I didn’t know she had stored them in my granddad’s old trunk which she kept next to her bed and which was never opened after she passed away about ten years ago.
Today, I was forced to open the trunk. Wood ants had attacked it viciously and I was salvaging mementoes from its contents when I came across an album filled with pictures chronicling the lives of my two half-families. I thought about burning it, erasing them forever. We were no longer in touch since my grandmother’s death their letters had remained unopened and unanswered, eventually the letters no longer came.

Perhaps, I had a hidden desire for a cathartic experience, so I compelled myself to look at the photographs. Immediately I was transported back to that 13 year-old who had bragged to her school friends that her dad or mum would send for her in England only to realise she was a half no matter which family took her. The pain of that discovery was too much to bear, even for a 43-year-old.

I closed the album but as I about to drop it into the bin, the picture of Dad, John and Mary fell out. Again, I stared at their faces, my sister and brother looked afraid of the sun and of my dad, a stiff military-looking character. I saw no active love between them. If it was hidden in their bosoms, it was not reflecting like the love my grandmother and I shared and was so unafraid and unashamed to show the world. If we were the subject of that photo, we would have been hugging, I thought. She would have bent down so her face could be close to mine or she would have sat on the wall with me on her lap.

A bright warm neighbourhood in Barbados

Suddenly I didn’t envy them and for the first time, I dared to look beyond their faces. I saw the ‘brown-ness’ of their surroundings. Outside looked drab and uninviting, I could not imagine a childhood here. It would mean saying ‘goodbye’ to my neighbourhood with its brightly coloured chattel houses, trees, and nearby seaside. I would miss the adults whom we all called ‘aunty, grand, mum dad, pap, brother…’ for we lived as one family; blood or no blood. I was lucky that I didn’t have to trade the warmth of Barbados for the cold of England.
Why did I envy John and Mary when my life was filled with brightness, adventure and love? Why did I not see that I was whole, mended by my grandmother’s sure and lasting love and an embracing neighbourhood?
I put that picture to rest and started to write letters, one each to my two families.

Squarely overworked & overused

“Picture-square?  Pic-ture-squ-are?”  He dragged out the word.

“I can’t believe it!” he added. I was dumbstruck.

Holding a photo aloft, he cried: “Look at this; you surely can’t miss the vibrant colours, the sharp reds, browns and oranges that spell the variety that mark the clay soils of the Scotland District?”  He moved his head slowly from side to side, sighing at measured intervals, and suddenly exclaimed, “This is it; this is it!”

The ‘it’ was a close-up photo of one of the fruit laden trees that grew along the District. A yellow-breasted robin sucking on a large fully ripen orange-red mango brought alive the photo.

“Check out, that rich juice running down this mango and escaping that bird, I can taste and smell the sweetness of the fruit, by just looking at it?

“Can’t you? Then why do you describe my scenes as picture-square, every week. My photos are graphic in their story-telling and they aren’t even square.” he exploded in belly shaking laughter at his own lame joke.

I was relieved.  My confusion over ‘picture-square’ was cleared and the tirade ended but the lessons remain today. I, a junior reporter then, had failed to complement his pictoral portrayal of Barbados’ countryside with energetic writing. Instead I had opted for laziness, for overworking words and phrases.

My colleague died many years ago, but thinking of him now, reminds me of his speeches about cliché behaviour. Any overused activity or notion was enough for him to reach for a soapbox.  I recall him speaking to me about the Barbadian view that workmates often pay you tearful tributes at your funeral but almost immediately afterwards, wipe you from their memories. That is a myth, he said.  I know because I remember Charlie, sometimes when I see a large dog, for these animals starred in his life; and when writing an article, that demands painting a scene with my words, his playful chiding comes into sharp focus.

As I recall that day, I note too that stereotyping is clique-ish at the core. It is a sign of laziness that we do not seek an adequate knowledge of someone, but rather blanket him/her under standardized group and expect him to behaviour in a prescribed manner. Thus we say: he lives in  ‘x’ neighbourhood therefore he is involved in crime or will be involved in crime; she is from a certain race, so she is a lady.

Nothing is wrong with using well-placed cliches, or regular phrases, but it takes skill to do so with impact.

I have pet phrases though, like telling people that “I will not peep under myself” when they urge me to do something I consider as second guessing myself.  I feel no other words can snap the images I want to send, with the precision that this phrase does.  In any case, my pet phrases are part of my informal signature that also vividly conveys my feelings to my friends.  However, I will not be tempted to say these expressions are also picturesque; I am fighting my addiction with that word.