Memoirs of a Child
Caribbean Roots in Canadian Soil
Kellits, Clarendon, Jamaica
In the Sweet By and By
We will meet on that beautiful shore
Grandma died peacefully in her sleep overnight. So peacefully in fact, that I was unaware of her death though I slept in the same bed as Grandma. Sweetie, a neighbour, had come down the rock strewn path from her house to request that some alterations be done to a dress. She had crossed the street and had knocked at the door several times before I roused myself from the bed in which Grandma and I were sleeping to go to the door and answer.
Normally Grandma would have been awake long before and would already have made a pot of bitter bush tea which I was able to tolerate only because of the thick molasses Grandma would put into the tin cup with the tea. This morning no smell of bush tea flavoured the tiny one room wooden hut.
Sweetie leaned over Grandma’s bed questioningly. “Miss Mabel… Miss Mabel, you hear mi?” Then louder with apprehension, “Miss Mabel… Miss Mabel?” My grandmother seemed not to recognize her name for she kept right on sleeping. I jumped back into bed and began shaking her shoulder. I did not then realize that Grandma would not get up this morning, nor any other morning for that matter. Sweetie however seemed to realize, though as if unsure that Miss Mabel was indeed henceforth and forever without life, she hurried off to get some help, medical or otherwise. When she returned some time later I was still busy trying to rouse Grandma from a sleep which I did not know was permanent.
Shortly after Sweetie returned with a woman from the neighbourhood, death with its peculiar magnet began to attract attention to Mabel’s house. The first to arrive were children who set up outside the fence at the side of the road. Leaning on fence posts they waited in silence, anticipating something. Next came curious adult villagers, some talking solemnly among themselves. The daily routines had been suspended. Grandma’s death had broken the tedium of the village morning. A few of Mabel’s intimates came through the gate and entered the house. One of those who had entered came back through the gate to say something to an acquaintance outside the fence as if to confirm something to the group assembled outside the fence. The group then started to disperse. One of the departing bystanders pointed skyward as a flock of Red Headed Turkey Vultures circled expectantly. About Grandma, the village made a collective pronouncement to this effect: “In the midst of life we are in death. the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And that was that. I was left to fill in the blanks about life and death using the limited repertoire of experiences then available to me at four years of age.
Grandma, through ancestral or local practices, was sent to her great reward with a wake. The locals converged on her residence in the afternoon of the function to pay their respects to Mabel. The odour of rum permeated the tiny one room cabin where Grandma’s corpse lay as if in state. The music was loud. To communicate their respects for the dead the mourners had to elevate their voices above the music and in the din some people were crying, some laughing, some singing, some eating. I was somewhat confused myself, not quite knowing what to do at the wake, to cry, laugh, sing or eat. I cried a lot, ate a bit but could manage neither to laugh nor to sing.
The wake lasted far into the night as people trickled in after the labours of the day to share a few moments with Grandma’s corpse which dominated the small cabin laying in the central position on a makeshift table in the only room. My best recollection of the event was that it was a party such as would wake the dead. The sum of Grandma’s earthly fatigue however, was such that she was not disposed to wake. She remained quite dead even during and especially after the party. The kerosene lamp in Mabel’s hut was refilled before the last people left and the music died. I spent the night in Mabel’s presence on a cot. An Aunt slept in Mabel’s bed while Mabel spent the night in her coffin. Next day they buried Mabel in a plot outside the wooden cabin, about fifty feet from the house on one of the inevitable hillsides, the village itself being perched somewhat haphazardly on the side of a hill.
After Mabel’s death the village resumed its routines. The fabric of the community was only momentarily altered by the absence of the seamstress. Another mark was inscribed in another column in another book in another office of another tired and unmotivated clerk in the department of vital statistics in the Parish of Clarendon, Jamaica. But my world shifted noticeably on its axis after her passing.
Post Scriptum 2014: The death of Mabel Henry in Kellits in 1944 was the start of a decade long journey of the child. The next stop in the journey was Kingston, Jamaica. The Caribbean phase of the journey ended in 1955 when at 15 years of age, the young man emigrated to Canada with his then family, Lloyd and Gloria Akin and their 4 other sons.