I was twelve when my mother turned forty and started to disappoint me. There is nothing more painful in this life than disillusionment, but it happens to everyone and usually starts with parents. Up until I was twelve, though, my mother was everything. I can still feel her tender kisses on my cheeks, the press of her hand as she led me through traffic, the feel of her fingers drop curling my hair with a fine tooth comb and a bowl of ice water. She was strength and softness, tempered by intelligence and independence.
In my pre-twelve little girl eyes, my mother was everything I wanted to be. My memory paints pictures of my mother in swimming watercolor, like the paintings she’d made when she was a girl. Paintings that had been hung in Jamaica’s Devon House, a prominent government building where she had worked in the gift shop long before I entered her imagination. When I picture her in the early days of my childhood, I see a hard-working, determined student and superb mathematician studying by the singular circle of light thrown on the dining table from the lamp above. (Photo: my mother the Jamaican Beauty)
Tendrils of cigarette smoke clambering, full of motion, moved about her face and lovely dark hair. Beads of sweat clung to her upper lip, the tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her closed mouth the way it does when she is concentrating, a trait both of my sons carry.
Beyond a student, my mother was a self-reliant grease monkey who banged away under the hood of her car, fixing things her mechanic father had taught her to fix. She would stand fearlessly on a ladder changing light bulbs, changing fuses, putting together bookshelves, installing appliances. Too, she could be an elegant, stately hostess in flowing pink silk, her hair carefully curled and in its proper place. On those occasions, she stood before extravagant meals, hosting dinner parties. She had a raucous, shameless laugh, irrepressible and contagious for her guests.
When I was about six years old, my grandmother showed me a photograph of my mother that had appeared in a Jamaica Tourist Board’s brochure. “She was eighteen,” was my grandmother’s only remark as she carefully removed the rubber band that held the tattered and faded brochure together. It was a small headshot, a profile of her striking young face. Her huge doe eyes were turned toward the camera, framed by the dark, heavy arcs of her eyebrows. Her flawless cinnamon-colored skin was accented by high wide cheekbones, the gift my grandmother passed on to all of her children. Silken black curls had escaped the upsweep of her hair and hung loosely about her face. From the one visible ear hung a ceramic “bunch of banana” earring the photographer had asked her to model for a catalog. She had agreed, she told me later, only because he’d promised her face would not appear. The photo turned up in the brochure months later, along with the caption “Jamaican Beauty.”
Monday: Sometimes parents teach us what not to do. Part 2 of A Jamaican Beauty