BACKGROUND: Medals for ‘Maman’
The colourful bougainvillea and hibiscus plants have their feet firmly planted at the edge of the slope above our family home. In diverse seasons - hot or cold, dry or wet, mother’s flowers have hardly withered. Blooming, as if it sits on an ever-nurturing spring, our timeless home garden testifies of a vigilant gardener and a well-rounded mother.
My mother, Bertha Francis, better known as ‘Vina’, was the eldest of thirteen children born to my grandmother Merona and grandfather, Dear Medard of Lamaze, Choiseul. Choiseul is a countryside district named after a French duke during one of the seven episodes of French control of St. Lucia. Formerly named Anse Citron (Bay of limes), the district is nestled in the southernmost part of Saint Lucia, and is bordered by pulsing seas. Choiseul is well-known for its warm people, farming and fishing trade, art work, and mastery of the French creole dialect.
My mother bore six children of whom I am the youngest. A lover of arithmetic and language, mom dabbled in poetry and storytelling, recounting fables and poems under brightly-lit candles or the family lamp. Her favourite, or perhaps my favourite, was the fable of “The Princess of Ever” – an incomparably beautiful princess who sailed the oceans, and sailed and sailed to an uncertain destination. Mom related that story with so much bubbling energy, and luminous joy, that I never doubted the actual existence of that princess. It took me years to know it was just a fable. By then, it was too late to undo the welcoming damage – that I came to have a wild imagination and faith in the improbable – that I too am my kind of princess who can sail the oceans seeking adventure, uncaring about the destination, enjoying the journey.
The poem of “The Spider and the Fly” had equal potency for me. “Will you walk into my parlour?” said a spider to a fly. “Tis the most beautiful parlour that you eeeeeeeeever did….” the words I could never fully remember, letting my then 60-something-old melodramatic mother outshine me with her photographic memory. Why she was so love-struck by Mary Howitt’s 1829 poem, I may never know. The spider’s power of persuasion, mirrored her personality so well as she relayed its words with the confidence of an eye witness, “Tis the most beautiful parlour one ever did spy.”
Maybe story telling compensated for all of the accolades my mother would have gotten if she had attended school as much as four times a week. She often lamented the fact that, as the eldest child, she was obliged to assume the responsibility of doing the laundry at the community river twice a week in order to assist her mother who had younger children. She might have even been a successful nurse had she accepted an opportunity she was offered, for her intelligence, despite her limited schooling, was quite sharp. Yet, mom was a happy lady. She made lemonade out of her lemons. Many times, she said that mothering us, her children, was her greatest joy. If she had pursued any profession seriously, she wouldn’t have had us or given us quality time, and she couldn’t imagine her life without her “six beautiful children”. Of course, in response, I let her know that she had her degree in motherhood from the university of life. And no one could have done it any better.
While mom lauded motherhood, she held education in high esteem. “Little black girl, go to school and learn; little black boy, education is the key,” she used to sing. When she was not singing that song, which I eventually gravitated towards, she was informing the ‘naysayers’, the despisers of children, that “the girls of today will be women of tomorrow” and “the boys of today will be men of tomorrow.” At other times, she would sit in student-style and posture on the balcony chair: her flared skirt flirting with her ankles, her left palm sitting squarely under her chin, and her head bent sideways. She would be smiling, and listening to me reading “Andy and Rose.” It didn’t matter that she was the one who had taught me to read it in the first place. So, mom had not only taught me to read; she taught me that my voice mattered enough to gain her undivided and humble attention.
Mom was many things. She was a mother and she was a worker. The greatest evidence of her support for her children’s educational dreams was her early risings followed by forks and pans colliding, shattering the quiet of the dawn; fried tuna and bakes, prepared on either coal pot or stove top, shot flavourful scents into my impressionable half-awaken brain. If the scents and boisterous kitchen sounds failed to wake me, I would inevitably hear hastened footsteps and a ‘pòk, pòk, pòk’ on the door. Two or three claps would top the performance as mom would hover into my room, only upper body visible, singing: “Wake up my people, wake up, sing and shout” – the first lines of a song in a Roman Catholic hymnal we had. Grouchy or not, my eyes would open to this ceremonial greeting to behold the orange streak of light emanating from the gap at the top of my bedroom door.
Mom had no clear job description. She moved with alacrity: from preparing cocoa tea for us or soursop leaves tea, to packing our lunch bags, to sweeping the house, to weeding the kitchen garden. ‘Indefatigable’ – that’s how I would describe her. I would leave her vigorously chopping green seasoning or breaking a coconut and return to find her sitting on the front steps still engaged in something, anything – peeling pigeon peas, pounding cocoa beans or grating manioc. The gentle way she would smile at me told me that bringing her work to the steps was her happy way of anticipating her children’s arrival. Her smile, as soft as butter, said it all – a smile which belied the labour involved in harvesting the hundreds of carrots, cabbages and yams piled up in the yard. Mother was gracious and tough. She oozed love through the meals that she always had waiting for us, her children, at the end of the school day.
Where the planting of flowers were concerned, mom had a golden touch, not exactly like the one possessed by King Midas – a character in one of her school stories from Greek mythology who, for love of gold, prayed that everything he touched turn to gold. In mom’s case, she would be planting, and sprinkling love on her flowers, and after one month, tender green shoots would make their appearance. Some flowers even hung from pots in the balcony, crawling up the wire waists of vases, making captivating designs. Mom loved ‘beauty’. She loved a clean house. Everyone knew that the same Ms. Vina, who would give them even her eyeballs to eat, did not like children jumping up on her sofas. She was unapologetically who she was. She believed in respect and discipline and would make that clear to anyone who was oblivious.
My mother’s confidence was solid, in a way, that put our former wooden country home to shame. It was no wonder that she toiled tirelessly with my father to build a wall house, perhaps to make sure that her home rose to meet her standards. I was amazed that she made herself feel at home wherever she was and moved doggedly toward her desire, whether it was to march down the La Fargue road to sell ripe plantains; speak at a community meeting or enunciate newly learnt words from her creole New Testament. Once, I asked her whether she was ever afraid. “No, why do you have to be afraid?” she responded. “You must be bold, child. Open your mouth and speak.” Her confidence also spoke through her choice of, and love for, beautiful clothes. Colour-blocking, with red and blue, was her favourite. A matching bow or hat complemented her attire; her stockings barely visible. Tall in stature, she walked with a deliberate sway of her shrinking hips, and when she wasn’t singing the alto part of a song, and referring to herself as, “time and tune”, she would be saying flippantly “…I’m stepping in style, style and fashion.” She told me that after she looked at herself in the mirror and told herself that she was beautiful, no one else’s opinion mattered. I, sometimes, wondered how someone could come from such a modest and humble background and yet be so self-assured.
Mom was flexible in both a humorous and a radical way. Having been raised at a time when the wearing of pants by women was taboo, she was a strict proponent of wearing skirts; “Wear your skirts to make you look like a lady,” she would tell the women in the community. But I was dumbfounded once, at the age of 9, standing in a neighbour’s balcony I saw someone who looked like my mother – wide hips and firm strides – charging up the main road with my father’s stained khaki trousers on, a plantain in her right hand, a cutlass in the left, breathing heavily and exclaiming, “Ohh djodi-a, Mwen ki nomn; nomn paka fè twava’y yo, enben na-y fè’y…”For my mother to go against her treasured norm, to make such a statement, “Today, I am the man; the men are not doing their job so I will do it,” was and remains remarkable to me up to this day. It taught me to be careful in my judgement of others as context and circumstances can crack our most rigid ideals; in time, we embrace our own personal revolutions.
Mom had high standards and, to this day, she remains my great example in life. She was not perfect and did not care to be. She spoke her mind and was a bit impulsive, I used to think, saying what she wished and afterwards having no ill-feelings about it. My attempt to curb this tendency could not work. She thought that she had the right to say what was in her heart, because if she didn’t it would choke her. Those who eventually got to know her realized that her loving, motherly nature overrode any quirks in her personality.
My mother loved people and making friends too quickly and too deeply was her major weakness. Something or someone would always break her heart, “Sa kwazé tjè mwen,” she would say in our creole dialect; and it was precisely because she gave too much and, in turn, expected too much from persons who did not play the role of givers in her life. She would pick up her phone every now and then. “My phone is not ringing? Ok, well, let me call my friend, Miss this, or Brother that. This Friday, I’ll bake a cake,” she would say. “Saturday, I have to give piece to Brother Jack, and Pastor Joe…” As for her love for her children, it knew no bounds. She took the two-hour trek from Choiseul to Castries in a flash, to take care of any major family related situation. Her accompanying side bag was always full of goodies; her love was complete. Whichever of her children she spoke of, you would think that one was her favourite. Her eldest son occupied a special place in her heart; so did her second, and her third, and her fourth. The boys represented strength and honour and pride; so did her girls. My sister and I were never raised to feel or be less. Everybody mattered. Yes, when it came to her children, she could say something that she wasn’t happy about, but we had to be careful when adding our supporting opinions on each other.
Did I say mom was fearless? She was neither afraid to live fully, nor afraid to die. She would iron four dresses for whatever event she had to attend – be it funeral, church, or out in Choiseul village, yes, to buy fish. When I expressed amazement, she would claim, “Who will wear them when I die?” The most haunting one was when we sat on the big living-room sofa, combing our hair, and I was talking about my plan to take her to visit a foreign country in three years’ time, and she said, “twa lanné? An an, na’y la an twa lanné? ma ka’y la an twa lanné; mwen twòp las.” And there she was, peacefully twisting her short, soft, sparse hair, a smirk on her face, as if her remark about being too tired to survive another three years meant nothing disruptive. In hindsight, I guess she was teaching me to be brave and unflinching in the face of adversity. Yet, in the face of loss, to be brave or not to be, remains a daily gamble