My first reading of the book left me with a headache and swollen eyes but I just could not put it down. Since then, I have read it a couple more times. According to Wikipedia, “Things Fall Apart is a post-colonial novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1958. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the first to receive global critical acclaim.”
The country of my birth is Jamaica and the trajectory of my journey so far is different in many ways from that of the Nigerian protagonist Okonkwo. Yet, we share one important thing – a parent with a reputation whose life choices affected ours in profound ways.
Deciding to republish this series as an illustration of the seven deadly sins and counterpart virtues a few weeks ago, I was not sure where it would lead. That was the same feeling that I had back in 2005 when the series was shared on my former blog. They are part of the larger story of my life and as I said then, it is an unfinished tale. You can catch up on the Introduction, Part Two – Naked Before God and Part Three – The Tender Years.
When Things Fall Apart
This week’s installment was originally entitled “Upside Down,” and it is the last written part of my story, relevant to our conversation on the seven deadly sins. Republishing it now, Things Will Fall Apart felt more in keeping with the events. As I promised almost 11 years ago, I will continue the story, writing it from my memories and sharing it with you as it comes along.
In the meantime, I invite you to pick up where we left off last week and along with quotations, allow these words to open your heart to your own story. How the sins (mistakes) of others, namely your parents and adult influencers, and their virtues affected your life? Are you impacting a younger soul with your own mistakes today? How do you cope when things fall apart in your life? It is my hope that one day some of you might share your stories with me, joining those who already have, either in person or here.
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The following quotes are shared with you from a variety of sources and are dedicated to Truth and to what is holy in our experiences as human beings:
“…Suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary.” Dorothy Allison from “Women’s Words: The Columbia Book of Quotations by Women”
“…Money trials are not the hardest, and somehow or the other, they are always overcome.” Amelia E. Barr (1831 – 1919, U.S. author)
Mama’s marriage was falling apart.
From the little I understood, the problem stemmed from her husband’s inability to keep a job and bring home a steady income. He had many income-generating ideas, including using our home as the venue for what was then called ‘paid sessions’. Not to be confused with psychotherapy, these sessions, although therapeutic in their own ways, had nothing to do with deep analysis. Music and enjoying life is at the being of every Jamaican and Mr. Howard decided to capitalize on this in our community. Our house became the monthly venue for a dance session, with patrons paying to enter our ‘yard’ and living room to party the night away.
Loud playing speakers, a room lit only by a low-watt blue bulb and couples in close embrace against the walls, Mama at the back of the house selling beers, malt, rum punch and other hard liquor, plated meals of curried goat on a bed of hot, white rice and Mr. Howard at the turntable, disc jockey for the night, was the scene at my house one Saturday night every month.
This too passed, however, when the landlord got wind of what was going on at his property, particularly the fact of the frequent brawls and breaking of bottles when somebody’s lover got a little too plastered.
With this ‘career’ ended, Mr. Howard would later, with a loan from Mama’s savings and from what he managed to scrape together, become an ‘agricultural marketer’ of sorts. He journeyed weekly to his home town, in St. Thomas, which was back then a dry and seemingly barren parish in eastern Jamaica.
St. Thomas was most popular for the power and potency of its obeah men. Obeah or vodoo (as it is called in Haiti) was and still is practised in Jamaica and many balm yards can be found across the island. However, Mr. Howard’s trip to St. Thomas was for a different purpose. He bought pig meat and other agricultural products including yams, potatoes and pumpkins and brought them to Kingston and sold them to families in the community and at his former workplace.
This venture also brought some food to our own table and for this my mother was happy and grateful. You knew Mama was happy when she was singing certain songs and serving Mr. Howard the choice cuts of the meat, baked potatoes, rice and peas and vegetable salad – all in the best serving dishes and bowls. I always wondered why Mama only set the table and laid out a spread for Mr. Howard. I was later to learn that that is how a woman should treat her man, showing respect if not love.
All the singing and merriment soon ended. To me, it seemed as if a whirlwind had hit our house and took with it all the songs, pig meat, set table and Mama’s good dishes. Things began to fall apart.
Mama was sick and admitted to the Spanish Town Hospital – in a private room of course. I overheard the adults saying she was going to have a “growth cut out.” Children were not allowed in the ward or so the explanation went why I could not visit but this was fine with me as I got to stay with a close friend of my mother’s and her family.
Glory day came when my Daddy turned up with his wife and took me to visit Mama. Until that day, I had not known he was in touch with Mama, worse yet that “the woman,” as Mama referred to her, actually lived and breathed. The day turned out to be even more glorious when I got to the hospital and Mama was served her dinner and I got to eat the imported grapes and jello!
I told everyone who would listen about my visit – not seeing Mama but the food I ate and the television in the room. No one could convince me that I had not visited heaven. Someone had to explain though why a few weeks later, I arrived home for lunch to find an empty house.
The Bottom Fell Out
I always considered myself lucky living a stone’s throw away from school. I did not have to rise with the chickens to get ready for school in the mornings nor did I have to journey too far to get my lunch. On that fateful day, however, I wished my house was somewhere else than on the main access street to Pembroke Hall Primary School.
The school bell had rung some thirty minutes or so earlier but for some reason unbeknownst to me now, I delayed leaving the compound for lunch that day. I casually passed through the main chain-link gates of the school, not feeling overly anxious to get home and even stranger feeling of gloom overcame me. My intuition was alive from those days, it would however take years for me to learn to be aware of and access those sensations I would have about a person or situation.
Kicking a pebble, I exited the compound and with my head hanging down, I slowly passed the vendors on the sidewalks totally uninterested in their wares. As I made my way up Potosi Avenue, two girls approached me coming from the opposite direction. I recognised one of them as being in my class. Her name was Sharon and she was a short, fair-skinned girl with waist-long, black, straight hair. She was of South Asian descent and to most children in my class that fact, coupled with her skin colour, made her special.
“Claudette, you moving?” she shouted to me from across the way.
“But me see a moving truck a’ your house,” she informed me.
I did not want to hear any more. I was no athlete and track and field was not my favourite, but somehow I made the fifteen-minutes distance in probably five seconds and surely enough there was a big open back truck, laden with our furniture pulling away out of the driveway.
“Mama, Mama!” I was shouting as I entered the front door, which was swinging in the wake of whoever had just exited. Were we robbed? Had Mama moved out and left me? But why?
These were the questions filling up my head, as I wandered through the two bedroom house, noting that the television set was missing. The Phillips radio, the stove, the refrigerator, the sofa set and anything large and of value were gone. Only the two beds and the wardrobes were left.
“Mamaaa!” I wailed. No response.
I was trembling uncontrollably, worse than the time Dr. Jone’s nurse gave me the wrong injection for the chicken pox.
“Mamaa, Missa Howard!” I screamed. No answer.
Choking now on my coughs and screams, I huddled in a corner with my knees pulled up to my chin and waited.
How long I sat there God alone knows but when my eyes opened, puffy and hurting, I heard Mama’s voice. “Mama,” I shouted.
“Cutie, you inside?” she called back to me. “Come here child.”
My mother’s embrace never felt warmer and I would have stayed there until the frightening day was over. “Me think you gone lef’ me,” I said to her.
“You crazy pickni’,” she admonished. “Me come and realise what happen and go back out through the door and didn’t realise you in the bedroom.”
“So where is the furniture?” I asked, still clutching her legs, not wanting to let go, scared that she might go missing too.
“Mister Williams sent bailiff pon’ me,” she explained. “Them take the furniture dem’ until me clear off the how much month back rent.”
This was all way above my head and as if sensing this, Mama filled me in. “Howard nuh pay di’ rent from before me go into hospital,” she informed me. “Is over seven months rent nuh pay.”
According to her, her business started to slow down long before she fell ill and she was planning to close the shop, with the hopes that “the worthless man would help out.” She was relating this story to me as if she would to one of her woman friends. “I know that we were behind, but never realise that a so much owe!” she told me with tears of embarrassment flowing down her cheeks. Her next words had me joining in her crying.
“Howard eat out the money and gone. Him lef’ me!”
That was how I was informed that Mr. Howard was out of our lives and a show down in the divorce courts was pending. Fall apart does not begin to describe what came over the next many years. It was also the first stage in our downward spiral.
Editing this story brought hot tears to my eyes. The memory of the sins (mistakes) my mother committed, the choices she made and those of the men she loved can still do that. It took many years for “the sins of the father” to be erased from my consciousness and for the healing to begin.