Grenadians and Barbadians walk like African peoples. Trinidadians do not.
When I visited Grenada I saw the root of my mother’s powers walking through the streets. I thought, this is the country of my foremothers, my forebearing mothers, those Black island women who defined themselves by what they did. “Island women make good wives; whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.” There is a softer edge of African sharpness upon these women, and they swing through the rain-warm streets with an arrogant gentleness that I remember in strength and vulnerability.
My mother and father came to this country in 1924, when she was twenty-seven years old and he was twenty-six. They had been married a year. She lied about her age in immigration because her sisters who were here already had written her that americans wanted strong young women to work for them, and Linda was afraid she was too old to get work. Wasn’t she already an old maid at home when she had finally gotten married?
My father got a job as a laborer in the old Waldorf Astoria, on the site where the Empire State Building now stands, and my mother worked there as a chambermaid. The hotel closed for demolition, and she went to work as a scullery maid in a teashop on Columbus Avenue and 99th Street. She went to work before dawn, and worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off. The owner told my mother that she ought to be glad to have the job, since ordinarily the establishment didn’t hire “spanish” girls. Had the owner known Linda was Black, she would never have been hired at all. In the winter of 1928, my mother developed pleurisy and almost died. While my mother was still sick, my father went to collect her uniforms from the teahouse to wash them. When the owner saw him, he realized my mother was Black and fired her on the spot.
In October 1929, the first baby came and the stockmarket fell, and my parents’ dream of going home receded into the background. Little secret sparks of it were kept alive for years by my mother’s search for tropical fruits “under the bridge,” and her burning of kerosene lamps, by her treadle-machine and her fried bananas and her love of fish and the sea. Trapped. There was so little that she really knew about the stranger’s country. How the electricity worked. The nearest church. Where the Free Milk Fund for Babies handouts occurred, and at what time—even though we were not allowed to drink charity.She knew about bundling up against the wicked cold.
She knew about Paradise Plums—hard, oval candies, cherry-red on one side, pineapple-yellow on the other. She knew which West Indian markets along Lenox Avenue carried them in tilt-back glass jars on the countertops. She knew how desirable Paradise Plums were to sweet-starved little children, and how important in maintaining discipline on long shopping journeys. She knew exactly how many of the imported goodies could be sucked and rolled around in the mouth before the wicked gum arabic with its acidic british teeth cut through the tongue’s pink coat and raised little red pimples.
She knew about mixing oils for bruises and rashes, and about disposing of all toenail clippings and hair from the comb. About burning candles before All Souls Day to keep the soucoyants away, lest they suck the blood of her babies. She knew about blessing the food and yourself before eating, and about saying prayers before going to sleep.
She taught us one to the mother that I never learned in school.Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who
fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or
sought thy intercession, was ever left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence I fly unto
thee now, oh my sweet mother, to thee I
come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
Oh mother of the word incarnate,
despise not my petitions but in thy clemency
and mercy oh hear and answer me now.
As a child, I remember often hearing my mother mouth these words softly, just below her breath, as she faced some new crisis or disaster—the icebox door breaking, the electricity being shut off, my sister gashing open her mouth on borrowed skates.
My child’s ears heard the words and pondered the mysteries of this mother to whom my solid and austere mother could whisper such beautiful words.
And finally, my mother knew how to frighten children into behaving in public. She knew how to pretend that the only food left in the house was actually a meal of choice, carefully planned.
She knew how to make virtues out of necessities.
Linda missed the bashing of the waves against the sea-wall at the foot of Noel’s Hill, the humped and mysterious slope of Marquis Island rising up from the water a half-mile off-shore. She missed the swift-flying bananaquits and the trees and the rank smell of the tree-ferns lining the road downhill into Grenville Town. She missed the music that did not have to be listened to because it was always around. Most of all, she missed the Sunday-long boat trips that took her to Aunt Anni’s in Carriacou.
Everybody in Grenada had a song for everything. There was a song for the tobacco shop which was part of the general store, which Linda had managed from the time she was seventeen.
3/4 of a cross
and a circle complete
2 semi-circles and a perpendicular meet…
A jingle serving to identify the store for those who could not read TOBACCO.
The songs were all about, there was even one about them, the Belmar girls, who always carried their noses in the air. And you never talked your business too loud in the street, otherwise you were liable to hear your name broadcast in a song on the corner the very next day. At home, she learned from Sister Lou to disapprove of the endless casual song-making as a disreputable and common habit, beneath the notice of a decent girl.
But now, in this cold and raucous country called america, Linda missed the music. She even missed the annoyance of the early Saturday morning customers with their loose talk and slurred rhythms, warbling home from the rumshop.
She knew about food. But of what use was that to these crazy people she lived among, who cooked leg of lamb without washing the meat, and roasted even the toughest beef without water and a cover? Pumpkin was only a child’s decoration to them, and they treated their husbands better than they cared for their children.
She did not know her way in and out of the galleries of the Museum of Natural History, but she did know that it was a good place to take children if you wanted them to grow up smart. It frightened her when she took her children there, and she would pinch each one of us girls on the fleshy part of our upper arms at one time or another all afternoon. Supposedly, it was because we wouldn’t behave, but actually, it was because beneath the neat visor of the museum guard’s cap, she could see pale blue eyes staring at her and her children as if we were a bad smell, and this frightened her. This
was a situation she couldn’t control.
Copyright © 1982 by Audre Lorde. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.