This post continues on from the last, ‘Capturing memories‘.
The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.
My mum would often talk about her mum with deep, and glistening-eyed love. I have always been proud that I was named after her: she was Theresa Ann, I am Ann Theresa. When my mum was born, Theresa’s husband had been dead 6 years. On his death my granny was left to bring up her 4 children (and 2 children who followed), alone. My mum said with pride that her mum was a hard worker, and my uncle caught fish from a boat, which granny would sell at the fish market. They had very little (mum never describes this as poor) but Theresa would do anything for anybody, and was liked and loved in her small community.
When I was very young I asked about who my grandad was and my mum would say “He died before I was born”. I had a tall but increasingly stooped, rather elusive white grandad, who much preferred the company of his garden to talking to us on our Sunday visits. I can remember thinking that I was not always sure he really liked us. Looking back I wonder if we were a visual reminder of the choice my dad had made in marrying someone so visibly different, and what that forced the whole wider family to confront from then on. However, he was my family, the only grandad I had, and I often wondered whether I had a brown one somewhere. My mum’s answer that he had died before she was born stilled the younger me, but did not equate in my teenage brain. I asked again who my grandad was. This time the answer differed, “I don’t know.” It seemed a strange reply and without thinking I blurted out “why not?” That elusive shared memory fled from the scene and I got the self-same answer “I just don’t know.” End of. Conversation closed.
I am not sure when it happened that we had a conversation about a job that mum had in a local long-established grocery store, as a teenager on the island. I can remember her describing how the bell would ring, and in would come a man, looking carefully around him to see who was about. If the coast was clear he would approach and surreptitiously put money into her hand, and ask my mum to put it in a particular jar behind the counter. She explained that these men were paying money towards the upkeep of their children…children whose mothers those men were not married to. I can remember her laughing at the memory, but embarrassed at that St Helenian voluntary child maintenance system. I cannot picture the telling in my mind’s eye, but I can feel a sense of shame that sits within my memory… but not from me. When I was growing up my mum always decried that girls who got pregnant before they were married were “no better than they should be”. When I was a teenager and spoke of girls I knew that were pregnant, she would cross her arms, and shake her head disapprovingly. She had learned that in Britain this was not the done thing, and I now wonder how conflicted she must have been…what was accepted in her home (or at least a blind eye turned), was seen as unacceptable in her new one. She wanted to fit in. Perhaps she adopted the British way in order to be seen as good and cultured, rather than perceived as the uncouth immoral black person. When telling her story of the men and the jars, she explained that women would sometimes choose a partner, someone different than their spouse, or that young women sometimes had ‘a bit of fun’ which resulted in a baby. Now, this is an approximation of what she said. I cannot remember the exact words now. However, I can remember that I was elated and almost prideful in my ignorant teenage head. I pictured strong women, making their choice of partner and who they laid with and the freedom. My perception came from the brave new world of contraception and sexual freedom in the late 1970s. This was worlds apart from life on a remote island where a baby meant an extra mouth to feed when times were already tough.
My mum had a dear friend from St Helena who came to work in the same large house as my mother, several months after she arrived in the UK. They married men who were related, and so we would see that ‘aunty’ often. I loved it when I listened to them talking, as my mum would slip into a different way of talking, adopting more like the accent and patois of St Helena. She would seem younger and more carefree as they laughed together. After one such meeting, and sometime after the ‘men and the jar’ revelation, I decided that as she was in such a good mood, I would try my luck to ask again about who her dad was. She took a deep breath, “I don’t know. Your ‘aunty’ says the person who people said was my father always said he was an African prince and teased me that I must be an African princess. But I really don’t know.” It shut me up. The pain evident on her face, and I never asked again, although I often wondered whether he paid his maintenance for my mum, into a jar.
Other memories came sporadically throughout my childhood. My mum’s embarrassment at her own childhood without shoes most of the time. Her pride at doing well at school particularly at writing stories and poems, her education in St Helena following the same sort of pattern as Britain but without the same final examinations at that time. The paucity of particular foods until the mail ship arrived and the celebration when it did arrive, with the queues of people waiting in the shop to buy what they had long-missed. The use of donkeys to get around the steep streets and rough roads. The fact that despite living on a small island she couldn’t swim. She would go with friends for picnics next to the sea, but never venture into the water. There were small revelations, more like a starter than a main course, and memories weren’t often shared.
Last Christmas I searched for a gift for my mother that was different to my normal choice – her needs and wants have been less as she has become older and often I feel I buy for the sake of gift-giving. I decided, with a flash of inspiration, that I wanted to cook some St Helena food for her. I had heard her talk of particular foods ‘plo and fish cakes cooked by her mum were often spoken of, so I started my search online to find some recipes. After searching I decided that I wanted to attempt ‘plo ( a rice-based one pot dish), fish cakes, coconut fingers, coconut ice, and ‘bread ‘n’ dance’. Bread ‘n’ dance intrigued me, and I loved the story that it was a tomato paste, spread on sandwiches served at picnics and dances, hence bread and dance! So I set to cooking, feeling the stress at having so many new things to cook, and decisions to make about the order in which to prepare things. As I cooked I tried to imagine my St Helena granny, my namesake, tasting and cooking, with no need of a recipe. When everything was finished I looked at the food with dissatisfaction. Who was I kidding, these were foods I’d seldom tried, how on earth could I replicate them?
My husband and I drove to my mum’s. I had telephoned first knowing how hard she finds it if the unexpected happens, giving her the menu and explaining that it was a present for Christmas. She was not long out of hospital after an ‘episode’ and the telephone conversation revealed her distracted state. The car smelled of curry and fish as we drove along the winding roads. My stomach was churning from the smell permeating the car, concerns about how she would be, but mostly how she would judge my take on the food from her home, food which I had never really experienced. I rang the bell, and she buzzed us in.
She was pleased to see us, but her mood seemed low. We are used to the depression that has accompanied the squeezing grip that the Alzheimers has had on my mum’s mind and body. I busied myself with the last minute cooking of fish cakes and ‘plo, all the while wondering why I had taken on the task and expecting her to be disappointed. I set the plate in front of her. She turned to my husband “She thinks she’s made food from home… What’s that dark stuff?”
I took a silent breath in, I had half expected this reaction. The younger mum, the mum before the diagnosis would have first of all thanked me for my thoughtfulness and effort, but now, no holds barred, she says it like it is. I explained the ingredients, and the fact I had found the recipe online from a 1950s cook book someone had shared, emphasising that I knew it would be different to her mum’s recipe. She ate it with relish and then smiled “It was lovely. Tasty. It was just like I remember. I loved fish cakes and ‘plo.” And then it began, the sharing of some memories starting with some I’d heard before about how her mum worked so hard, and worked in the fish market. I asked about who caught the fish, and she explained that my uncle went out in the boat everyday and her mum would meet him at the harbour side to get his catch. And then she laughed with a memory…
There was a lady who would always meet the tourist boats when they arrived. She was old, but ‘dressed to the nines’. She liked to pick up men to take them ‘home’, “if you know what I mean”. She laughed with a cheeky look in her eye, the look that revealed that the young mum was still in that old body. “She had done that all her life, and was still doing it as an old lady”. We laughed together the three of us. She paused in her memorising, I didn’t want to lose her. I explained that I had also made ‘bread ‘n’ dance. “What’s that?”. I took a deep breath…I didn’t want to break the sharing of memories of her home that so rarely happened. I explained that it was tomato paste that the website said was spread on bread for picnics and dances. “Oh tomato paste, I loved that…I remember having picnics with my friends. There was a gang of us that used to play together too. Girls and boys. We used to walk down passed ‘the run’” Now I’d heard about ‘the run’ before. It is a channeled water-course that runs from one of the peaks up ‘in the country’, through Jamestown (behind the house where my mum lived) and out to sea. “Now there was a little old lady. She was no bigger than one of the boys. So tiny. She was always so smartly dressed with her hat and a basket on her arm. She was walking past the run, and suddenly she slipped into the water. Whoops. There she was, the water taking her. Bloomers showing. We were all shouting “Catch her! Catch her before she goes out to sea”. And they caught her just in time.. by the harbour. Oh we laughed”. By this time she was crying with laughter “it was so funny. So funny. Such a little lady. Off she went” We couldn’t help but laugh with her and picture the lady, legs in the air, bloomers showing, being swept along like she was on some kind of water-park ride. I loved to hear that laughter and how my mum’s face lit up with that child-like pleasure that adults get when remembering a ‘naughty’ childhood memory. I offered her a cup of tea and some coconut ice. “My mum made us coconut ice…and devil chicken…and ‘plo. She was a good cook…like you. I remember when she made jelly. Your uncle lived in the room next door, and mum had laid out all the jelly by the window to set, for a party it was. It was sitting there by the open window, and I just thought I’d take a little from every bowl. Then I knew she would notice so I topped them all up with water. She could never understand why that jelly wouldn’t set…’D’ (mum’s sister) got blamed for that and I never let on.” She was on a roll by then, memories flowing. “You know I won a prize. When I was very young. There was a big competition, with the service men. People had to sing something. I don’t know why I put my hand up but I did. I was wearing a hat like the soldiers. I sang and they loved it. I got the vote, so I won. Everyone was laughing at my hat, but I won.” Her voice petered out, recalling done. I got up to make the tea, happy that the food had provoked her memories to flow. For weeks after that she said how much she’d enjoyed that food, that it had reminded her of home. It was a good Christmas present for her, and me.
When I was a small child I loved to try and capture butterflies. My dad’s beautiful garden, full of colourful roses, chrysanthemums, stocks and dahlias, was a haven for all sorts of beautiful butterflies. Well, at least it was a haven before a small child was bought a net, and found a jam jar with a lid which her daddy dutifully punched holes into. I spent hours tripping over my rather big feet, trying to catch those butterflies, tongue sticking out as I tiptoed towards the flowers where they had landed. Swipe. Flower caught, butterfly not. I soon discovered that success was had when trying to catch the cabbage whites on the vegetable plants, and that success was rewarded not just by having a prisoner in my jar, but the smile on my dad’s face that his vegetables had been saved from his perceived pest. I remember having two butterflies in my jar and a caterpillar I had found. I was, I thought, a kind jailor, I had watched them for a few days, and pushed leaves into the jar to feed them. Inside of the jar condensation had started to form, and caterpillar poo was stuck to the bottom. When I lifted the lid carefully to give them fresh leaves, there was a smell that made my nose wrinkle. I felt a shadow over me, my dad was watching silently as he often did, “You can’t keep them sweetheart. You’re going to have to set them free.” This reminds me of the memories I capture here that I have held close, held inside of me for a long time. It’s time to set them free.
When I look back at this record of her memories I realise how little has been shared, how little I know of the small island my mum called home, before she came to a bigger island hundreds and hundreds of miles away. There may yet be an opportunity to hear more of her memories, (and family we must talk of what she has shared with you), but if I really want to understand St Helena which is part of my heritage, I will need to go there myself. One day I will – I must, as I have made a promise to her that one day I will take part of her back home. When the time comes I will need to set that last butterfly free.