Authors: Nikki Woods
“Cha na man, Stewart, you stay glued to that chair any longer, your backside's gonna take root!” She'd suck her teeth lovingly before shoving a rake in his hand and sending him off to pick ackee.
The double doors that led from the verandah to the front room were thrown open; the sun gleaming through the antique stained-glass windows in the doors. The woodwork framing them had been done by hand. Uncle Winston disappeared through them heading to the kitchen for “
something to cool down my throat,” he explained over his shoulder. He didn't offer me a thing. So I stood there, looking up. The house still overwhelmed me; architecturally magnificent from the wide sweeping verandah made up of red tile, to the high arched doors trimmed in light yellow. The body of the house itself was made of white limestone. A carport extended from the left side and held decades of junk but had never actually sheltered a car.
Inside, the ceilings stretched more than fifteen feet high, peaking to almost eighteen in the center of each room, creating a dramatic diamond effect. In the front sitting room and living room, ornate chandeliers hung, reminiscent of the 20's. Drapes yellowed from the constant humidity of the island cascaded in ripples from windows just as tall that lined three of the walls in the front room. The hardwood-planked floor still shined with polish and was covered in spots with fluffy oriental rugs tossed every which way. The interior decoration had been done haphazardly; each year new pictures, souvenirs and handmade drawings were added. No two things matched; and so my godmother, Aunt Jelly, had dubbed Mama Grace as the queen of brica-brac. Aunt Jelly was my mom's best friend and second only to Mama Grace in the knick-knack department.
I walked slowly into my favorite roomâthe room where I slept, the room where Mama Grace birthed my mother with the help of a next-door neighbor. I used to hold my ears and scream, “Yuck!” whenever my mom would tell the storyâall that blood and gook. Now that I was thirty and wanted babies, being in that room made my uterus jump with longing.
“It's only one step.” This was what I told myself. “One little bitty step.” But it was a big step, and I knew it. One step would take me inside that room and reality would kick me right in the butt. Until then, I could still pretend that my grandmother was sitting on my bedâsmelling like lilac and gingerâwaiting to enfold me in her arms. My mouth watered thinking of the freshly baked coconut tarts and hand-squeezed limeade sweetened with brown sugar that Mama Grace would then thrust into my hand before sitting me down. I stepped over the threshold. Nothing. No kisses, no tarts, no catching up. Nothing but dust and silence.
I cradled my face in my hands and wept.
After throwing my suitcases on the bed, I changed into shorts and a tank top, pinned my hair up, then tied it down with a scarf. The first thing on my agenda: cleaning. My grandmother kept a meticulous house and would be mortified at the way they had let her home go. Mama Grace employed a woman from down the way to come in daily to cook, wash clothes, and clean. It was typical with most middle-class Jamaican families being that labor was much cheaper on the island than in the states. Just the same, every day just like clockwork, one would find my grandmother scrubbing, washing, and disinfecting. If inventing “something else to do” were an art, my grandmother would be Picasso. She always said, “A nasty house is owned by a person wid' a nastier backside!”
I looked first in the kitchen, then in the dining room. Nothing was there. Nothing. Word traveled fast on this island when someone died. I couldn't help but wonder why the stream of family members who would normally visit when a loved one passed was drier than the parted Red Sea. No steaming home-cooked dishes sat on the dining room table. No Tupperware dishes filled with peppered rice and peas or steaming pots of curried goat. No fragrant pies covered in foil. Friends and neighbors would be by after the funeral. They always waited a respectable amount of time before converging upon the bereaved. Family was supposed to come first. They should be here now.
Uncle Winston had fallen asleep on the chaise in the back room; empty Red Stripe bottle sitting on the floor, mouth slack, and strange noises wafting from his nose. Toy was asleep as well, content in the knowledge that this nap would go uninterrupted. Mama Grace was no longer here to swat her outside with the broom.
Cleaning only took an hour and that included watering the plants. My grandmother certainly didn't pass on her meticulous genes to me. For the most part, I just dusted, scrubbed, or mopped dirt visible to the eye.
Mama Grace's room was last. Everything was exactly as it was when she was livingâas if she had just run across the street to the neighbor to borrow some cho cho and would soon be back.
The steel-frame twin beds were neatly made, her many French perfumes and scented powders arranged in alphabetical order on the oak dresser. One lonely dress was flung carelessly over the door as if my grandmother had returned late from a cocktail party and was too tired or too tipsy to hang the floral creation in the closet. I spun and looked in the opposite direction. The armoire consumed an entire wall. I ran my hand over the intricate detail of the dark stained wood, and peeked inside at the impossibly small space where I played hide and seek as a child. My Uncle Peter built and fashioned it inside the bedroom as his final project for carpentry school two weeks before he was shot and killed in a robbery gone wrong.
Even years later, Mama Grace's chest would puff with pride when telling the story. It was his most inspired and only finished piece. The armoire now belonged to me, but I'd have to take it apart piece by piece to get it out of the house. I guess like me, Uncle Peter, thought Mama
Grace would be around forever and there would be no need to remove the armoire from her space.
Finally, I made it to the desk. Pa-pa spent much of his days and nights sitting at this desk reviewing invoices, scratching off number after number, and adding them up again until the totals were correct. Some of the grooves and indentations, reminders of his frustration, were fat enough to hold my ring finger. A cubbyhole was added later and each compartment held a myriad of office necessities: paperclips, rubber bands, and erasers.
An old quill pen rested next to a dried pot of black ink faded to a dark gray. My grandfather wrote his first letter with that pen. My mom said it took him two days to get one paragraph on paper and frustrated him so much he never wrote another letter. I opened the top desk drawer and then slammed it shut. Guiltily, I glanced over my shoulder, feeling like a five-year-old in danger of being caught stealing.
It was too damn quiet, almost eerie; so I turned on the old radio that had kept my grandfather company every day. It was still propped up on three yellowing Perry Mason novels. He must have gotten it at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was still set to the same news station.
As expected, all of my grandmother's papers were in order: bills, receipts, tax information, all filed according to the date. A manila envelope lay on top of the desk and with shaky fingers, I pulled out the letter and unfolded it carefully as if it might disintegrate if handled too roughly. The familiar scrawl tugged at my heart.
Did she use Pa-pa's quill pen or just grab a regular, everyday ballpoint? I really wanted to believe she used the quill pen. The letter was dated more than a year earlier.
November 1, 2010
My Dearest Kingston, First let me apologize if this letter is hard to read. The worse thing about getting old is you don
t have control over things anymore. My hands are shaking. I can
t get my eyes to focus, but I
m not complaining. I
ve lived a good life.
Kingston, I know that I
m dying. The doctor says it
s cancer. I
m not sure how long I have to live so I want to start taking care of my affairs now.
I have chosen you; and though I know that you don
t quite understand why as yet, I hope as you look through my papers and read my instructions, it all will be made clear. Know that I have every faith that you will execute my wishes fairly, wisely, and with love.
My attorney has my Last Will and Testament and is to contact you immediately following my burial. Many of my closest friends and family, including my children will be vexed with me at first. But then, Kingston, they will be vexed with you because you will have the power. They
re just looking for a handout and I
m not going to be the one to give it to them. They have done nothing to deserve it. They
re going to feel slighted. It
s human nature, I guess; and you will have to be strong. Ya
hear me, girl! If they try to fight it, fight back. Stand your ground, Kingston. I remember when you were three. You were such a stubborn little thing, following your Pa-pa everywhere and for the life of you, just could not understand why he wouldn
t let you drink out
his favorite cup. You asked once and he told you no. So you watched and waited. The first time he turned his back
there you were. I have never seen a three-year-old so drunk up before. You got so sick and then you never looked at the cup again. Kingston, I need you to be that stubborn now.
I did the best I could, Kingston, but my family has not turned out quite the way I thought they would. I had high hopes for each of my children. Your mother is the only one that didn
t disappoint me. I think God was punishing me by taking her away so early. I think he was vexed because I did not do as well with my other children. In turn, they did a poor job with their own children. I love all my children dearly, Kingston, despite their faults, but I don
t like them very much. If I could do it all over again, I would be much sterner, try to give them some backbone. But I guess that is just the foolish wish of an old woman. I can only try to make my wrongs right in the best way I know how.
re going to hear many stories. Some of them will be true, but most of them will be lies. It
ll be hard for you, but remember who you are. What people say can never change that. You have strong blood running through your veins, Pickney. There is one thing though that I want you to hear from me. All the whispers you
ve heard about your Pa-pa
s other women and illegitimate children are true. It
s true, but it
s okay. I loved your Pa-pa with all my heart and he loved me. I have no doubt about that. He was a good man that took care of his family. And
Kingston, he loved you more than anything in this world. Don
t let the mistakes of a simple man change how you feel about him. He was a man of integrity.
I am going to close this letter. Thank you for indulging an old woman
Kingston, I will always be with you. If you need me, just look to the sky.
My love always,
I was absolutely still. I re-read the letter, waited, then read it again, my shoulders sagging at the thought of what lay ahead. If I didn't love my grandmother as much as I did, I would have left right then, gone back to Chicago. If the trouble to come was only half of what my grandmother predicted, things were gonna get ugly.
Uncle Winston snored loud enough this time to wake himself up. He stood up and stretched, then walked in the kitchen and rumbled through the refrigerator, Toy skipping at his heels. I stuffed most of the papers still scattered on top of the desk back into the drawer and tucked the letter in the back pocket of my shorts.
“I'll have to send Queenie to the store. Nothing in here to eat attall'.” What Uncle Winston really meant was that all the Red Stripe was gone.
“Don't worry about me. I'll manage,” I said with more gusto than I actually felt.
“I'll still have her pick up some things. We can't have you starving, now can we?” Uncle Winston shoved on his baseball cap and hiked up his pants. “You sure you and Bianca going to be okay here by yourselves? Maybe Queenie can sleep over âtill after de' burial just to keep you company.”
“No, really, we'll be fine.” I followed him to the front door.
“All right then. Queenie'll be here in the morning and will still come every day to take care of things until we figure out what's gonna happen to the house. If ya' need anything else just let her know. We'll settle up with her when you leave.” Just like him to put someone offâto not even consider that Queenie might need her money now.
“Have all the arrangements been made for Mama Grace's funeral?” I asked suddenly.
“Yah. Mama had taken care of everything long before she got sick, y'know. Paid for it and everything. They just followed her instructions at the funeral parlor. The burial is the day after tomorrow.” Uncle Winston jiggled his keys in his pocket and started down the steps. “All right then, Kingston, I'll check on you tomorrow; going to head up the hill now, don't wanna vex your auntie by being late for dinner.” And with that, he was gone.
I turned and went inside the house, never feeling more alone.
After I unpacked my bags, not much was left to do but wait for Bianca. I left a message for Mama Grace's attorney before plugging up my laptop and making sure my cell phone was on the charger. Sitting on the verandah, I prayed for a cool breeze and tried to concentrate on reading my book again, but even James Patterson couldn't capture my attention. Too many thoughts parlayed back and forth inside my head. I checked on the dogs, then wandered aimlessly around the garden. After a few minutes I gave in and headed back inside with purposeful strides, Toy right on my heels. Work was the only thing that could possibly help.