For Stephanie, until we meet again…
Last year my nanny died. She was in end-stage Alzheimer’s, and her decline was slow. And fast. For years she pottered around in a kind of deluded fantasy-world, which if it wasn’t for the terminal illness part, was often quite entertaining. But at the end the decline was rapid, and it wasn’t entertaining at all. In the last few weeks of her life she lost so much weight, because she didn’t eat. If you put an apple in front of her she’d stare at you blankly, not because she couldn’t remember the word for ‘apple’, but because she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do with it.
As she lay dying in her hospital bed, all her internal organs shutting down one by one, I sat with her, through the nights and days and I read her Psalm 23, and I sang her Amazing Grace, and I took my iPod into the hospital and played her Calypso songs, which seemed a curiously upbeat soundtrack to the last hours of someone’s life. For anyone that didn’t know her anyway. But I knew her. And she was Guyanese. She hailed from the only South American country to be considered part of the West Indies. And she loved Calypso, and Soca, and doing the limbo.
She would regale me with tales about growing up in Guyana, having a monkey for a pet that would plait her hair for school, his name was Niko. Her brothers and sisters, the heat, the parties. Uncle Francis, the prankster, who threw her in the Demerara River as a girl to teach her to swim, filled her fiancés pockets with ice cubes on the morning of her wedding, put chicken foul in the wedding sandwiches and named all 12 of his children with names beginning with ‘Z’.
Auntie Nellie who had the ear of God and even years after she left Guyana and settled in Canada would still send a portion of her wages back to Father Rose at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Georgetown to help in the upkeep of the church. Carmen, her big sister with a huge heart and many children who all adored her, and Jean, Miss Guyana, she’d fallen in love with an American businessman who swept her off to California. I’ve still got photographs of a young Jean, all blond hair and curves.
Those stories fired my imagination and I knew everything about each of her siblings as if they were my own. I could see the streets of Georgetown when I shut my eyes, her wooden slatted house on stilts, her papa, Anthony, sitting on the porch smoking, and riding around Georgetown on his bicycle with my infant mother in his basket. Her beloved mother Ursula standing over the stove making pepperpot and cook-up rice, the palm trees swaying in the tropical electrical storms, and the coconuts that fell to the ground that they, as children, would run out and gather up, to drink the milk from for breakfast before school.
She worked as a waitress at the Brown Betty restaurant, and rode her bike home for dinner before starting her second job each evening. I can see the family elders sitting on upturned liquor crates playing cards and drinking rum in the scorching tropical heat, while the women tended the children, or ‘picknies’ as she called them. And I also remember her telling me that though her mother had borne 14 children, only seven of them had lived. She used to weep about Elaine, the youngest, who had died at 7 years old, leaving the space as baby of the family for my nanny to occupy.
And when she cried about Elaine, I had a sense of the tragedies her family had faced, as well as the triumphs. The hardship, when at Christmas time, as the smallest, she would receive one parcel, wrapped in brown paper, and it would be the hand-me-down clothing of her sisters. Once she got a pair of shoes that had been Jean’s, and before that, Nellie’s, and they had holes in, but she had been so proud to, finally, be able to fill her big sisters’ shoes.
She loved tropical fruit, and sometimes she’d show me how to make dolls with the mango stone. She put salt on oranges, had a bouffant that never went down, and would drink only the finest Demerara rum. When I got a little older she’d let me stay up late and we’d sit together and watch L.A. Law or Hart to Hart, and if it was the holidays I’d be allowed to watch Dallas, both of us munching Turkish Delights and guava cheese.
She wore tiny gold bangles that jangled when she walked, and she never took them off. Not in the entire 37 years I knew her. She would shout at the TV, especially when it was the news, in that fast Caribbean creole of hers. The news made her cross. I remember in the 1980s seeing news footage of the famine in Ethiopia and she’d would cry and say “ah me goodness, look at the poor picknies”. I guess she understood a little about life in a third world country, and the fragility of young life.
But as I grew, I also came to understand her heartache, and the heavy price she paid for travelling so far from her motherland to a country, which in 1961, was not welcoming to foreigners. This England, which she had heard so much about in school, did not have streets paved with gold, it had right-wingers like Enoch Powell comparing the scourge of immigration to the “river Tiber foaming with much blood”.
I don’t know what she expected really, maybe she thought that she’d come to live in a castle and know a better life than the poverty of Guyana. But landing in Liverpool, she wasn’t prepared for the reality of life in a tough northern city, and she learned pretty quickly about a different kind of poverty. About the scarcity of social capital.
I have experienced the maddening loneliness that immigration can bring, but I can only imagine what it felt like for her then, before the age of digital communication and without even the passage home, trapped on the other side of the world, and in a climate colder than she ever thought possible. She had never been so cold in her life, she told me, even the hottest summer days in England were colder than the coldest winter days in Guyana.
She couldn’t get a job because no one could understand her Caribbean accent, they laughed at the way she spoke, even going into a shop to buy something was a lesson in alienation. I can only imagine the immense sense of dislocation she felt, she told me that she cried herself to sleep every night for years after her arrival and kept a suitcase packed and hidden on top of the wardrobe, in case she could ever find a way to get home to Guyana, and her family.
It took me many years to realise that in her flat, which always had the heating turned up to 30 degrees and was filled with tropical plants, she had created a miniature version of Guyana, and over the years she retreated from the outside world which was so foreign to her, and sought sanctuary in it. In the inner world she had made for herself.
And yet the nanny that I knew, so often full of sorrow, reclusive and lonely, just did not correspond with the stories of her youth, or of the animated, smiling woman I saw in photographs decades later when she was finally able to visit her family for holidays. In those photographs I saw a soul at peace, in the bosom of her family, laughing and dancing. In those photographs I saw a woman that felt that she belonged.
I wish it had been better for her. I wish that the new life she came to full of hope had turned out the way she dreamed it would. I wish that so often she hadn’t felt that her life did not matter, because it mattered to me. And of course if she hadn’t made that brave voyage then we would never have had the time that we did. She wouldn’t be etched so deeply through the grains of my childhood, my nanny, my friend of 37 years.
It’s funny, when you’re young you spend half the time at family gatherings plotting your escape and figuring how you’ll do it all differently. You place no value on those times, and when you get older and life happens you get slack in visiting. Awareness almost always comes too late. It is only afterwards, after the pallbearers have carried in a coffin smaller than you ever remember the person, that the realisation of how important others are in the narrative of one’s life finally dawns.
Because they are the keepers of our memories, the ones that shaped our formative years. My nanny knew this – that is why she painted those pictures so vividly for me. When she would bring me warm milk and a spoonful of sugar and a new tale about her young life in the West Indies. Her narrative was one of colour and noise, and the harsh light of English day hurt her eyes until she could no longer see for the tears, until the sound of those steel drums stilled. Perhaps that is why, in the end, her autographical memory waned, because it was just too painful to remember.
Without others to reflect your story back at you, you lose your way, you forget what the plot is meant to be. Family is the frame that shapes our view of the world. And those people, that we are unable or unwilling to see as we age, they are what anchor us to our history, they are the ones who made those memories, and are able to reflect them back at us. Family is all you start out with, and all, when your time comes, that you are left with. Family is everything.
And that is why I know that playing her those calypso tunes in her final hours mattered. Unable to speak any longer, she squeezed my hand when the sounds of her youth filled the room. And I knew that she remembered. That is the thing about losing one’s mind. Sometimes you need someone to hold that space for you when you are no longer able to fill the shadows yourself. Sometimes you need someone who loves you to hold your place in the world. To hold your memories and give them back to you when the time comes.
Sometimes I still cannot quite believe that my nanny is no longer in the world. That I will never hear her Guyanese lilt again, that I have heard the jingle-jangle of her bangles for the very last time. But I am also peaceful that she has finally been reunited with her big brothers and sister. That her papa and mama, her brothers Charlie, Eddie, and Francis, and her big sister Carmen were waiting for her, and that finally, after all those years, she got to make her journey home.
© Laury Jeanneret, 2015.