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Born to Tell
By Jennifer Lewis
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Jennifer Lewis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis is a test of faith, love and affection, and proof that the heart can heal on its own through forgiveness. The sickness that festers in some lives boils like anger and is ready to erupt, damaging the souls, hearts, minds, and lives of everyone affected. To gain control of my life, to live the life I was born to live to the fullest, I had to heal my broken heart. I had to forgive the unforgivable and learn how to live all over again.
It is a miracle I survived to tell my story about the duppies and the obeah and the horrible beatings and threats of what would happen to me if I did not do what I was told to do even when I knew it was not right. Living with the duppies and the obeah and the beatings was like living in hell. I had to endure pain while I pretended to the world that all was great when I was dying inside.
Those were not beatings. I remember calling them "murderations," because the blows were so deadly and I felt like I was not going to make it through the episode. Once I was beaten so badly that I had what felt like an out-of-body experience. It was as if I was watching someone else getting the beating and not me. I had stopped feeling the blows.
From generation to generation, beatings were all our parents knew. That was their idea of how to discipline us and help us grow, thereby carving us into their perception of what they considered good and acceptable to society. That perception continues to ruin lives and scars our bodies and our minds.
The beatings involved belts, tree limbs, ropes made from tree vines, electric wires, hoses, stones, and whatever could be found to use as a weapon to inflict pain on us. The beatings were what Mother knew best; she had endured and survived them too.
Once she did the unthinkable during a rage. I was crying and watching my sister Julie undergoing a horrible murderation one night when there was nothing I could do to prevent it.
When it was supposed to be over, after what seemed like hours of physical abuse and did not seem satisfying enough for her punishment, Mother did something almost unconceivable. She pulled her ratchet knife and opened it and slashed my sister, who was trying to shelter the blows by hiding under the table. Mother got her straight in the face with her knife right under the table.
There was blood everywhere. I was terrified and screaming like crazy. Mother was foaming at the mouth, the spitting image of the devil. She asked me if I wanted some too, if I wouldn't shut up. I was shaking because of what I had just witnessed. Of course I didn't want some too! I wanted someone to come and rescue me and to save us. I wanted her to send me to Germany to the couple Mother had heard was looking for a little girl to adopt. I was hanging on to that hope. It was all I had.
She kicked my sister Julie out of the house that night, bleeding. I could not sleep all night. I could hear Julie under the cellar all night. I knew she needed medical attention, but I was so scared and could not do anything to help her. I had to protect myself first by staying quiet and invisible and cautious in the one room so as not to get Mother's frustrations any higher so that she might turn on me.
I was also terrified of the rats, spiders, scorpions, and other creepy crawlers that lived under that dark and cold cellar, and especially afraid of the ghosts lurking around our house; Julie had to be outside with them and injured. I did not realize that that night was to prepare me for a future of how much more heartless my siblings would become.
As daylight came, I was the first one to go outside to check on my sister. Everyone else carried on with their normal lives as if nothing had happened. My sister Paula was not moved by what had happened to Julie.
In fact she was quite pleased and walked around with a chip on her shoulder and felt that Julie had deserved the chop in her face and the beating because Julie had stolen her school fees and then spent some of the money to buy food for herself and her friends.
I was deeply affected by my family's insensitivity and the insanity and was in a daze. I wondered what would become of me and if I would survive to become an adult.
The dog had just had its puppies in an old empty barrel that was lying underneath the squalid cellar. Julie had removed the dog and its puppies from the barrel and taken refuge in it; that's where she had spent the night.
The worst part is that after the beatings, you did not dare to tell anyone about them or the injuries that resulted from them. You'd go to school the next day and think of a good lie to tell your teacher or anyone who asked you about them, because we were warned that if we ever told anyone that our parents or guardians had harmed us, the consequences would be dire.
Sometimes the explanation we gave for the cuts and bruises were bizarre and did not explain our injuries. It was common to see a student in class looking like he or she had had a rough night. It made me feel like I was not alone and that it was normal and not in my family alone.
It was the silent norm for parents to beat their children mercilessly, and it was not talked about. Otherwise it could create huge conflicts between the parent and anyone else who got involved. It could sometimes become deadly if a neighbor interfered with a parent who was disciplining his or her child. Most times injuries got covered up and healed externally. Internally we were scarred for life.
The heart learns to deal with the pain of the past. We shared our secrets only with our closest friends who were also going through the same thing in their homes.
Sometimes we would see our friends in the mornings, and we were all pitchy patchy. Sometimes all that was left for us to do was compare our bruises and wipe our tears away.
I always knew if I was going to get a beating in the night or if it would be someone else in my house. Sometimes we would sell each other out to save our own skin. Even now that we are adults, resentments still have a hold on us and we remain divided as we grow from the pains of the past.
On the night of a beating, Mother always slept with the hose or stick or the electric wire or the tamarind whip or whatever she planned to use in her pillowcase or on the floor underneath the bed beside the chimmy (chamber pot). There was no escaping a beating if you were promised one. There was nowhere to go and nowhere to run to.
Mother, my siblings and I lived in a one-room house with one exit and outdoor facilities. At night we would have to bring in the white enamel chimmy and place it under the bed so we could use it during the night. It was advisable never to go outside at nights or you could get hit by a duppy (ghost) that could leave you dumb or deaf or very sick. Your family would be unable to find a cure for you.
Getting hit by a duppy could cause you sudden and unexplainable sicknesses, paralysis, and even death. The doctors thought a girl I knew had cerebral palsy, but her family obeah man insisted that she was possessed with evil spirits because her mother was hit by a duppy while she was pregnant. Her middle-class family became poverty stricken after spending their entire earnings and lost properties on obeah men and obeah women whom they hoped would heal their daughter. She was never healed.
It was my job to take out the chimmy every morning and empty it and clean it and get it ready for the next night. If I forgot to bring the chimmy in, I would be awakened and told to go outside and get it. At that age, it felt like the worst job on the planet, but I had no other choice. I had to do it willingly for fear of being beaten. I always felt that it was a chore that should be shared and not left to one individual since all of us were emptying our bladders in the same piss pot at nights.
My mother and I and my sisters Julie and Paula shared the same bed. Mother was not fair to Julie, who had to wash the sheets every morning before school even if it had not been her who had wet the bed during the night.
Madonna, my eldest sister, was back from preaching the word of God all over the Caribbean Islands and was pregnant by the gardener at the church she was stationed at in Mobay (Montego Bay). While visiting on vacation I would watch my sister band her pregnant belly before going into the church and pulpit to preach and clap and sing like a bird to the congregation who did not know what she was hiding. I knew the secret was not right, but I had to keep quiet for fear I would be beaten or snuffed out. I wondered what God was thinking, and I would hide my face.
As time went by, Madonna's belly became noticeable and she had to resign. The church could not have an unmarried pregnant woman preaching from its pulpit. Madonna had to come home with a baby from the Rastafarian man who did not want to marry her. That was the end of her preaching career and the beginning of the cycle of single parenthood in our family.
Rock is my elder brother and was permanently given away in the country to a woman named Miss Veggie and her husband, Mass Vintent, who lived deep in the cockpits of Jamaica. One day Mother brought me to the country to meet Rock for the first time. I remembered how scary, high, narrow, and slippery the mountainside was with the precipice below leading up to the board house on the pinnacle of the mountain through the bushes.
Mother said that the couple had wanted a baby but had fertility problems. They were "as poor as church mice" and could offer only a life of hard work in the fields for his food. Mother insisted that whenever she gave us away it was for the best.
Most nights we could not sleep because it was someone's turn to get a beating from Mother. Rock and Owen, my eldest brother, and my eldest sister, Madonna, had escaped some of that madness when they were shipped off.
Jules, Paula, and I would be up for hours and unable to sleep, even though we might have school in the morning. The thought of going to get a beating in the night made it difficult to fall asleep.
My mother would beat us just after we fell asleep, or if she dozed off before us, it would be in the wee hours of the morning just before daybreak, when we were finally sleeping deeply. We would be awakened by the blows on our skin.
Everyone would be awakened from the screams and the frenzy of whoever was getting the lashes. With sleep in our eyes and almost overpowering us, we cowered in the corners of the room, fearful we would get hit accidentally because the room was so small.
For years I was terrified of falling asleep. Even when I became an adult and was living on my own, I was haunted by the memories of being beaten during the night. Many nights I awoke from nightmares with my hands in the air to defend myself from my mother's lashes only to find out that I was just having another nightmare. The beatings were the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep at nights.
I was born in Allman Town, Regent Street, Kingston, Jamaica, in 1967, about a block from National Heroes Circle, where my favorite national hero and founder of the Jamaica Labor Party, Sir Alexander Bustamante, is buried. Busta, as he was affectionately called, was also the first prime minister of Jamaica after we gained independence in 1962.
I was very fortunate to have attended his funeral by accident. I was running away from my grandmother's home that day because Fayette, my cousin, had given me a beating for not wanting to go back to the shop after I had already been there ten times for one meal.
I soon realized that the bus was not running and the streets were blocked. I was caught up in the crowd and the excitement and celebration of the day of Sir Alexander Bustamante's funeral. At the end of the day I had to return home to Fayette, who grabbed my ears and almost wrung them off, causing them to hurt me for several days.
Mr. Gerald Lewis, the man with the donkeys and cart who delivered ice throughout the community seven days a week and who had had a drink with every man in the community, was my father, and I loved him with all my heart.
I was nearly five years old when my mother decided to leave my father and steal us away one day when he was at work. I remember the day when a big truck came to the house. I did not want to go. Even at that young age I knew something was terribly wrong.
I wanted Papa to come home and catch them, but he did not. I still imagine the heartache and the devastation he must have felt when he came home to an empty house—no wife, no kids, no furniture—and his future destroyed.
I had objected to the conspiracy to leave my father in such a heartless manner, especially after my mother had proclaimed how much he had helped her and Madonna and given them a break to live in the city. He had enabled Mother to escape her father's brutal regime. Her own father had stopped her from going to school and made her work in the fields because he claimed she was now able to read.
Having had seven children (two passed away at childbirth), she met my father. She said in those days that when a woman was ready to have her baby, she usually prepared the room and delivered the baby by herself.
She said that a woman would be lucky to have a midwife present if one was living nearby. She said that two of my siblings did not survive childbirth because she tried to deliver them herself.
The first time my mother visited Kingston, some friends who lived in the capital introduced her to my father as a possible prospect. My father fell in love with her, but she saw him only as an opportunity. She accepted his commitment, a life and future together, but did so without a hint of love or sincerity.
According to my mother he was perfect for her because he had his own place, he was well known in the community, and he had a job. All she had to do was to move in.
She got rid of my brothers Owen and Rock and kept Madonna and moved into my father's house. Paula and Julie were born a few years later.
After being with my father for almost fifteen years, my mother decided to stage an elaborate wedding and spend everything my father had saved. Two years later I was born of this "special" love.
Julie always called me "Daddy's girl." She was envious, so the one thing that made me feel good about myself also made me feel bad. Julie taunted me every step of the way in my life.
I grew distant from my siblings and was never given a chance to bond with them. None of them ever said to me, "Honey, you made a mistake." It was always a bitch lick from them, a slap or a blow that sometimes made me see stars. I was never hugged or told I was loved by my mother until I was nearly thirty years old. It wasn't that she did not want to; it was because she did not know how to.
It was not until I became an adult and realized that I had not received the love I deserved that I made a point of giving myself the love I never had. I also reached out to my friends to obtain the love and affection missing in my life so I would never be alone again. In the meantime, my siblings became carbon copies of my mother.
After the truck drove off, our lives were never the same. The resentment toward each other grew, preventing healing as my mother and my sibling's hearts turned into stone. There was nothing my father could do or say to make them forgive him for what they claimed he did.
My father suffered depression and spiraled into an even deeper depression because of what my mother had done to him. He had to be hospitalized. In spite of his efforts to make peace with his wife and family, he died with a broken heart.
When my mother heard the news that he had died, her reaction was, "He should have been dead a long time ago." Her callousness hurt me more than his actual passing, and I will never know what he had to be sorry for, since he was the one who did what was good. He was the one whose heart was broken.
My mother got what she came to Kingston for—a better life and a new start. That was all she wanted. Now she and my siblings could make it on their own. My father became dispensable and suddenly acquired faults. Ungrateful, they forgot where they had come from and chose to use and hurt the only man who cared for them.
My mother claimed to have fallen out of love with my father. She began to dislike everything about him: his walk, the way he talked, even the way he chewed his food. She began to plan how she would take us away to spite him. She had already started to build a new life herself and had moved her own mother the sixty-six miles from Trelawny to a few houses away from us in Kingston.
Excerpted from Born to Tell by Jennifer Lewis Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Lewis. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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