I”ve spent years encouraging people to write their stories (A current funded residency is called Our Stories are Yours)
Now the tables are being turned on me and I have been challenged to do new things and push out of my comfort zone.
Consequently I will soon be telling a story in front of an audience in a theater along with younger and professional actors and writers. (Not without a great deal of premature angst!)
The theme is A Delicate Balance (and there is a strict word limit). Here is a glimpse of my unusual childhood.
I grew up on a sugar plantation on the banks of the Demerara River in Guiana. My father was hired to mechanize sugar-production, from clearing the wilderness for planting to transporting the ripe sugar-cane to the factory for transformation into sugar and very potent rum. Before that, most everything was done with manual labor and a few antiquated machines, so wild and beautiful nature was very close to us. Birds sneaked in the windows to plunder unguarded fruit-bowls; snakes, alligators, piranha lived in the nearby waterways; and resident house lizards kept the abundant insects at bay. In those early days, Dad’s “company car” was Tulip, a big Texas mule.
I was a curious child, to my parents’ chagrin, and often gave my nanny the slip to go climbing and exploring. The inevitable scrapes and stings were treated by Seamba, our gardener, with his magical potions from greens and spit. He taught me about the creatures and the plants we lived with and I moved through this glorious world watchfully. I surveyed trees before climbing and looked inside flowers before picking. I learned to see the patterns in our natural surroundings and how everything was connected and it all made sense. I didn’t notice anything strange about my childhood.
What confused me, however, were the different stories that adults told about the forces in the world. Each adult was convinced that their particular explanation was “The Only Way”. Some would warn me to avoid certain places because of the jumbies, or ghosts of the long-dead Dutch settlers. Others invoked different gods with many arms and goddesses festooned with human skulls for protection. However the nuns at my infant-school in town taught us (reinforced with canings) that there is only one stern Father-God with 3 different names. Then, we all prayed to a statue of a woman, a mother, and curiously the nuns were called “mother,” even though none had children.
Hearing the contradictions in the many “One Right Ways” I often turned to my parents – who weren’t much help. My father said that obeah and jumbies don’t work unless you believe them. At occasional meetings with his hundred employees, called after an epidemic of spells laid on big tractors and sometimes on his desk, he explained that the spells were a waste of their money because they didn’t affect him or the machines.
My mother, mildly interested in the different stories, preferred to read about Sikkhism, Baha’I and Buddhism, unlike the other mothers whose taste ran to romances. My parents told me that one day I’d find the right story for me. They didn’t go to church either, although we technically belonged to the High Church of England. I liked going with our cook, Mena, to her country church because of the enthusiastic singing and where sometimes people spoke “in tongues” and even fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, as politeness was the closest thing to religion in our house, I must listen respectfully and never take advantage of my white privilege (which they also explained in detail). Although I was encouraged to ask questions at home, I learned it was a terrible idea to bring these conflicting stories to the nuns at school. I discovered that agreeing with whichever adult was declaiming the “Truth” seemed to settle my confusion and worked well —until I was about 8.
That year, Guiana was chosen for a visit by Our Lady of Fatima, a very important Catholic icon. The whole religious community was aflame with excitement and festivities were planned all over Georgetown, the capital. The nuns were in a dither and couldn’t stop talking about it. Our Lady was being flown into the airport inland from Georgetown and would travel the road alongside our compound.
Her arrival-day dawned, the excitement was palpable. I swung between curiosity and anticipation at seeing the procession up close from our compound-gate. Hundreds of cars containing the faithful, horns honking, music blaring, escorted her from the airport along the dusty, potholed road.
Crowds of the curious and the reverent, dressed in their best, lined the road, sweating in the tropical sun. They cheered when news came that the motorcade had crossed the old draw-bridge by the factory, which regularly caused jams because it had to be opened and closed by hand-crank. In the compound, the mule-boys hurriedly tethered the huge animals by the gate and excitedly ran to see the spectacle. I ran behind them, searching for the best viewing place.
I heard the mule, rather than saw it, felt the impact as everything went black. Texas mules are built like cart-horses and the spooked animal trampled me face-first in the gravel. My limp, unconscious body was covered with a mixture of red dust and blood. People ran for my parents.
Several hundred yards down the one-laned road, my father was demonstrating to his drivers how to get the new bulldozer and its mighty blade out of a much narrower factory-gate. However, the halted motorcade now blocked the road. Dad, used to the Guyanese laissez-faire, settled in the driver’s seat to watch the noisy spectacle. Not for long!
People ran to him screaming and wailing that I was dead. “The mule done mash she! She na breathin’!”“Nooo, she gaspin’!” “She bleedin’ bad!” He realized that there’d been an accident and even though he knew the country people’s heightened sense of drama, he must hurry to see what really had happened. But he couldn’t leave the huge machine where it was.
He dashed to the cars blocking his exit, urgently explained to the drivers that his daughter had a serious accident and would they please move their cars so he could get through. The drivers, apparently imbued with a great sense of importance from Our Lady, and truthfully, probably tired and impatient at the many hold-ups, refused. Normally easy-going, my father yelled that he would give them 3 seconds and then he would “shift the bloody lot of you!” Later, he loved to describe how he jumped back on the machine and arms high, bellowed “three – two – ONE!” dropped the massive blade, revved the engine and roared forward. Screaming drivers and panicked bystanders scrambled to escape his fury!
When I came to later– Daddy, my hero – assured me that he would take me to hospital soon. Because he was worried that I would be incurably scarred by the infectious dust caking my wounds, Mum called SeaAmba in to apply his magic herbs. I faded peacefully away, protected by my parents and and reassured that SeaAmba would bring relief as he always had, even from scorching bites of angy marabuntahs.
Weeks later, with broken ribs mended and thrilled by my heroic father’s rescue, I returned to school. I felt excited and pleased to be back. I soon discovered that the nuns were furious. I was marched to the most feared nun of all, Mother de Sales. She informed me that Dad had dared to interrupt the Procession of Our Lady of Fatima. It was doubly insulting because he wasn’t a Catholic nor a churchgoer. She then announced that his soul would burn in everlasting Hell-Fires. Only I, with the nuns’ guidance, could save him.
I was terrified! I knew what Hell-Fires were like because every harvest, the cane-fields were set alight and I couldn’t help watching, mesmerized by a sea of flames from horizon to horizon. Horrified, I could hear the agonized shrieks of creatures caught in the fire. Even though Dad would reassure me that our house was safe, I couldn’t wait for the fires to end.
Now, I had to prevent that from happening to him – but how?
Mother de Sales explained how I must say special prayers for him, very often. I had to bring money to her for particular miraculous medals. These were to be hidden on and around him, BUT – I could never tell my parents or it wouldn’t work.
I carefully followed her instructions over the weeks with mounting anxiety. Had I prayed enough? Was it the right prayer at the right time? Did I put enough medals in his shoes, his pockets, his wallet? Should I have hidden more medals in his office? I was frantic. I stole money to buy more medals and lied when asked if I had planted them. The delicate balance of trying to appear normal while tortured by panic and fear, disintegrated..
I began to faint often- on the way to school,- when the school-bus was late, – if I hadn’t finished my homework. Finally my parents discovered the cause of my distress. They announced that I was going to have an extra-long summer vacation starting immediately.
That first vacation day, feeling lonely, I watched the school-bus leave without me. But the other kids were envious and Daddy emphasized that, not only did obeah not work on him, but he wasn’t going to Hell. Knowing that he could protect me from Mother de Sales and create a vacation in the middle of school, helped balance the internal see-sawing that had haunted me night and day.
After that, I contentedly waved the school-bus goodbye —-and went off for the day’s adventure.