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I Thought I Wouldn't Tell It
A Memoir of Hard Life and Hope
By Deloris Dallas
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Deloris Dallas
All rights reserved.
My Jamaica is of the senses, filled with mango, guinep, breadfruit, banana, plantain, and ackee trees, just to name a few. The air is fresh with the tang of ripening fruit and lush foliage. Wind makes the tall grasses dance, and trees wave hello to all who take time to watch. In Mount James, where I am from, my people go back and forth along a dirt road to the fields, planting, harvesting, and caring for animals. Some donkeys are ridden, but all the other animals stay in the fields at least a mile from anyone's home. Everyone prepares to sell at the market in Kingston over the weekend. There is a buzz and a sense in the districts (what we call our towns) as market days approach. Market days are a time to get dressed and I mean really dressed. Women wear beautiful colors of green, orange, and blue and great hair ties, and carry big, beautiful baskets. Men wear khakis and water boots. All the people gossip as they mount the truck to head for town.
Town is where things happen.
Saint Andrew Parish is located northeast of Kingston; Mount James is a beautiful rural district within it. This is where my story begins, much of it recounted to me by my grandmother, Susan, affectionately known as Mum.
Mount James is a hilly district whose sloped landscape has abundant vegetation. Up a bank, a huge mango tree grows, its roots twisting and winding in full view. The breeze picks up its leaves and carries them into the air. An older woman sits on a nearby veranda, smoking a wooden pipe. She gazes up the bank and sees her daughter, a striking twenty-one-year-old, standing there holding a baby. She is a beauty to behold, with brown skin; long, black, plaited hair; and a curvy figure. She stands next to a slender black gentleman on a big white horse with a brown spot in the center of its face. The man looks distinguished, with strong features and rich, curly hair.
But these two handsome people did not meet here on this January day to explore their love for one another or discuss their future as a family as they raise their child. No, this meeting is dark and exposes an emotional rawness as they spar to get what they want and need. The child, the purest of the three, is unaware of the impact the next moments will have on her future.
That child is me.
As Mum recalled, the two of them were arguing about something, but she wasn't sure what. As the exchange grew heated, my mother put me on the side of the road and lunged at my father, who was attempting to leave. I later learned the two were arguing about my care and financial support and about how my father did not want to help my mother. During the scuffle, I cried and squirmed and began to roll. Aunt Valsie and Mum watched with concern because there was a precipice at the road's edge. Aunt Valsie ran to catch me before I fell. Then she stood to the side as my folks continued to argue. Suddenly, my mother lifted me from my aunt's arms and shoved me at my father. He rode off, holding me, more out of frustration than anything else. You see, Papa was a married man with children of his own. I was his indiscretion, the bastard child my mother forced him to deal with—much like he had forced my conception upon her.
My name is Deloris. I share my story, including its ugly parts, to help myself and others know the whole of my personhood, to understand why I act and think the way I do. I am not an end product; none of us are. We evolve, and my goal is to offer hope that positive change does come, and things do get better, regardless of one's beginnings. As you persevere and discover your purpose, you will become much more than those mean early circumstances might portend.CHAPTER 2
Unwanted from the Start
I was born to Mavis Aspfall and Zedekiah Barclay at 10:00 a.m. on November 27, 1949, a scorching-hot Sunday morning. They called me Deloris. Deloris Barclay. Mama was in her teens when she met my dad and twenty-one when I was born. She worked in my father's second home as his maid. In his first home, which was in the Dallas district of Saint Andrew Parish, lived his wife, four sons, and daughter. After Mama became pregnant, my father wanted nothing more to do with her, or me, and left Mama to raise me on her own. The day when she handed me to my papa, I was three months old, and a cycle of abandonment began. Mama thought she was doing her best for me, but maybe it was what was best for her as well. Her fifth-grade education limited her ability to earn and provide. In her mind, her best course was to give me away.
As Mum told me about my mother, I wondered if she'd cared that the horse could have trampled me while they argued. It seemed as though she put me by the side of the road as if I were a dead animal, to be eaten by buzzards, which in Jamaica are no joke at all. We call them John crows, and they are much bigger than American buzzards with red beaks. They come down in swarms and can devour an animal in minutes. I couldn't fathom why she hated me so much. It's taken me more than sixty years to find out.
In some ways, I draw comfort from similarities my story has with the biblical tale of Moses, but there's a difference: his life was in danger and his mother had no choice. Egyptian guards would have killed him if she hadn't let him go. So she put Moses in a basket made of papyrus straw and mud and placed him among the river bulrushes where he could be rescued. Pharaoh's daughter found him and raised him to rule Egypt. I was raised to feel insecure, threatened continuously by the sting of abandonment, and passed around during the first year of my life as Papa tried to hide my existence.
Papa on his horse that day, holding me in his arms, could have represented a tender moment between father and daughter, one that would be celebrated on family holidays and cherished in memory books. But that was the only time he ever held me or even noticed I was there.
Papa worked as a public health inspector and was respected by young and old. He was a slender, tall, handsome black man who was educated and well spoken. He resided in his second house during the workweek. He could have stashed me in that house and hired someone to care for me. After all, it was where I was conceived. But I was a bastard child, and he would not rear, parent, or love me at all. I was unwelcome in his home and life. For about six months, he pawned me off on neighbors or one or another of his girlfriends.
Then he sent me to the Jonases and a permanent home.CHAPTER 3
I FIND A NEW FAMILY
The Jonas Clan
Percival and Mary Jonas Raised twenty-two children of their own in the district of Halls Delight, in the Parish of Saint Andrew, who now have kids of their own. Percival would meet my father in the town square on Friday evenings to throw back a few drinks. one day, my father got into a fight with a client who didn't like his health report on the state of the man's toilets, and Percival saved his life. His wife, Mary, had a son named Louis from another marriage, and the attack happened in front of his house. (We called him Uncle Parky because his last name was Parks.) Uncle Parky and his son, Calvin, came to my father's aid, and when Percival got wind of things, he also came to help. He took Papa home and laid him down on his own bed. Blood soaked clear through the mattress. Nobody knew whether Zedekiah Barclay was dead or alive. Percival nursed Papa back to life. On the strength of this, they became fast friends, and later, Percival agreed to take me in.
My father relinquished me, nine months old at the time, at the doorstep of the Jonases' home. Percival and Mary became my grandma and grandpa, and their children my aunts, uncles, and cousins. The younger ones played a role in my life as I grew up; the others, not so much. Some made positive impressions; others didn't. But, good or bad, they were my new family.
Grandma and Grandpa cared for me but did as they were instructed by their daughter Daisy. If they were the car, Daisy was the steering wheel. Since Percival and Mary were in their early sixties, Aunt Daisy was more of a mother figure to me; she was very strict, but kind. She made sure I was healthy and had what I needed. Every Saturday, I waited excitedly for her arrival, though I was also a little on edge because she was obsessive-compulsive, nervous and picky, and wanted everything just so. And I was sad to see her go on Monday mornings. She called me Girly, and I liked that because back then I was a girly girl. She taught me to do domestic things like cleaning house, washing clothes, and cleaning myself. She always made sure I had clothes and shoes to wear.
Aunt Daisy was in her late thirties and worked as a cook for the doctors, nurses, and other staff at a training hospital. She always brought delicious treats when she visited, and I couldn't wait to see what the surprise would be each week. Aunt Daisy never married or bore any children. Like Grandma and Grandpa, she wasn't overly affectionate; in her case, I think that was due to her upbringing and a trail of abusive men who had branded her with their cruelty. At times, I overheard her tell a friend about how badly the men in her life had treated her. I didn't completely understand what we now call verbal abuse, but I knew what she was describing wasn't right.
One of my favorite memories from that time is my Uncle Isaac's wedding. He was in his late twenties and chose me to be a flower girl. On Sundays he used to take me up to the farm in the bush to pick fruit, and he brought sandwiches and fish because fish was cheap. I was a hardworking child and felt happy and safe in his presence. That was not true of the other men in the house. As we sat and ate lunch, Uncle Isaac talked to me like a big brother. But if I did something wrong, he became a disciplinarian and bent me over his knee and spanked me. The youngest of the twenty-two children, Uncle Isaac was playful, fun, and knew how to make me laugh. He picked out nicknames just for me. They were uplifting and made me feel special. My favorite was Miss World. He called me that because I was pretty with long hair, wore nice clothes, and was clean and tidy. I guess he thought I was going places. Uncle Isaac's girlfriend was of Indian and Syrian descent and gorgeous. Her name was Jacqueline but we called her Miss J for short. She let me play with her long, silky hair and was like a big sister to me. I was honored when they invited me to be in their wedding and bought me pretty dresses. Jacqueline's family had a big house in Kingston, and I felt like a fairy princess, even though I was just a little country girl, a pickney as we say in Jamaica. To me, a wedding is like an outing you don't want to end. Uncle Isaac's took place at a spectacular mansion with lots of flowers. More than 250 people attended. Jacqueline had a big, beautiful family, and several children were there. We played merry-go-round and square-danced, chased butterflies, and did all the little kid things.
Grandma and Grandpa had a mentally challenged son, their firstborn. They called him Jonas, just Jonas. He was the only child, besides me, still living at home. Jonas pretty much fended for himself, and to play with him was to play with fire because he didn't know right from wrong. I kept my distance from him because there was no way to tell what he'd do, which way his wind would blow, or if he would turn into a hurricane and wipe out everyone and everything in his path. I wondered, but never asked, why he was named Jonas when that was also his last name. Aunt Daisy called him Bobby, but she was the only person who ever called him something other than Jonas. Perhaps, with that name, he was doomed from the start. He was hard of hearing, illiterate, and almost always alone in his comings and goings. He never ate with the family and instead sat under a tree outside. Neighborhood kids seized every opportunity to tease and throw things at him, but his siblings were protective and kept him from harm. Jonas was responsible for herding the cows in at night so they could be milked, and then he took them back to the fields. I would sometimes catch him in the kitchen and watch him cook. He always shared with me. My favorite was ackee and salted fish with white flour dumpling and yellow yam. Yum. I can still taste it and see him standing there, cooking. As I got older, though, Grandma would yell to me to come out of the kitchen. I think she was concerned that Jonas, kind as he was, had no boundaries and could consider me available for sex. Did he ever ask me for sex? Yes, and he even knew enough to want to exchange shillings for it. Sometimes while being playful he would get real giggly, and I always knew to run from him when he was like that. When not doing chores he traveled the streets, visiting the houses of other family members.
The Jonases' place was not like a regular house. It was more of a hut, made of sticks, mud, and bamboo. The process of weaving sticks over and under to create the frame and walls of a house is called wattle and daub. Mud fortified with straw-like grass and water creates mortar that seals the walls, provides shelter, and keeps the house cool. The roof was made from zinc and grass. Cedar from our own trees was used to create wood floors. We were lucky to have a nice, smooth floor on which to walk; other houses had dirt floors. The rugs and mats we wiped our feet on were just old clothes or woven mats of straw. We used broom weed, plant stalks tied to a stick, to sweep the house.
We had three bedrooms and a living area that included a dining table. The beds weren't like ones you'd buy at a store, and only the adults had them. The frames were cedar, and we ripped out bulrushes from the riverbank and beat them into straw for the mattresses. I slept at the foot of Grandma and Grandpa's bed on a burlap bag stuffed with straw, using old clothes for sheets and blankets.
Our light sources were glass or brass kerosene lamps, and storm lanterns kept the wind from extinguishing the flame during hurricane weather. We also had what we called a "kitchen bitch" to use outside; it was made from a condensed milk can, a cloth wick, and oil. There was no indoor plumbing. During the day, we used an outhouse, and at night a large pot with a handle called a "chimmey." It was kept under Grandma and Grandpa's bed and used by everyone. Nobody went to the outhouse at night because of the cockroaches and bullfrogs. During the day, we used a lit newspaper to singe around the edge of the toilet so they would go away, then dropped the newspaper into the pit. At night, everyone used the same pot and hoped it wouldn't fill up. In the morning, I'd take it to the outhouse and empty it. Then I washed the pot, turned it over to dry, and brought it back into the house at night. As a child, I had chores I had to do, and this was one of them. (The last time I saw one of those pots was in Leavenworth, Washington, while I was on vacation. People were popping corn in it, and my son said, "Mom, they're using a pisspot to make popcorn!")
This is how we lived; this was my normal. Even cleaning the chimmey was normal, as disgusting as that seems to me now.
Excerpted from I Thought I Wouldn't Tell It by Deloris Dallas. Copyright © 2014 Deloris Dallas. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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