ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
I first started thinking about the idea of home when I was a child growing up in the house in Orange Grove. I was still quite young when the idea that I was to one day have a home of my own grew large in my mind, and I frequently occupied myself by dreaming about what this home would be like. To be clear, I did not think about a house, which is a quite different thing. I did not think about rooms and furniture, or even trees and yards. Rather, as a child, I thought of home as a boundary beyond which the world lay with all its rules. Within the boundary however, was my world where my rules held fast. It was the idea of home as a world ruled by me, as a kingdom whose laws I alone made up, that held sway over my imagination.
A lot of my thinking about home had to do with my mother. I was still a child when I made up my mind that I was to do things differently from her. At Orange Grove, it was my mother who oversaw our world and so everything I hated about life growing up in that house, I blamed on her. I blamed her especially for sending my father away, something I had seen her do with my own eyes. I was not happy in the kingdom of my mother’s making, and in that sense, I felt she had greatly failed me.
I remember one afternoon a strange man visited our house. He had been sent by his wife to collect a rum cake from my mother. My mother and the man sat in the living room across from each other and made small talk. My mother, I knew, did not know the man that well; she was on friendlier terms with the wife. I fully expected to have a husband one day and this whole matter of sending one’s husband to collect things interested me, so I was listening closely to see how it went.
From my place across the room, sitting with my drawing book at the dining room table, I noticed the man kept interrupting my mother. Again and again, he raised his voice above my mother’s in a way I found very rude and always, my mother’s voice trailed off, squashed flat by the man’s. I was very surprised; I did not know my mother to be a consenting woman. When the man had departed, I confronted my mother about it.
“Why did you let that man keep talking over you?”
My mother, who always spoke to me quite plainly as if I was an adult, replied in oblique fashion. “I suppose it has something to do with how small island men are.” The man and his wife were from Grenada. My mother then qualified her idea of small island men with a single word: “dominant.” I understood this word because I had once read a book in which a crippled English boy was described as using his “dominant hand” and I had looked up the word in The Oxford English Dictionary.
It was yet another thing that my mother had allowed in her world that I would never permit in mine. No man would ever enter my home and talk down to me like I was a little girl.
When I was ten years old, another strange man entered our house, a tall, big man with an inscrutable presence. This man it turned out had come to stay; I soon found out he was to be my stepfather.
I do not recall the course of events by which my stepfather became a part of our world. I do not remember suitcases or boxes or anything like that. There was no discussion at all about the matter, certainly none that involved me. I only recall that all of a sudden my stepfather was a part of our lives. He was driving the car my father used to drive, and sleeping in my parents’ bedroom. The Morris chair where my father used to sit now became his chair. My mother asked me to call him ‘Uncle’.
I soon discovered that my stepfather was from St. Lucia. In my Longman Caribbean School Atlas, there was a map of the Caribbean. On the map, I found St. Lucia, above Trinidad, and not that far from it. It was quite small. I had not forgotten my mother’s opinion of small island men, and it surprised me to no end that she had chosen one of these same men to be her new husband. Looking at the map, I was astonished to discover that Trinidad was not so great either. As far as I could see, all of the Caribbean islands were small. I felt sorry about all of these small islands full of dominant men, and I especially felt sorry for the women who put up with their rudeness.
My stepfather must have been aware that he had a reputation to live up to, because he soon proved himself to be quite thoughtless. I first began to suspect he was thoughtless when I showed him a picture I had drawn. I remember he was sprawling in the Morris chair in the living room with a bowl of mangoes between his legs when I ran to him.
“Look at my picture!” I said proudly, holding up my drawing book for him to see. But he did not seem to want to look because he did not even take the drawing book from me right away. Rather, he took up a mango and sunk his teeth into the skin. It was only when he had ripped all the skin off and had begun to suck on the soft flesh inside, that he acknowledged me. “What’s that?” he said gruffly, glancing at my drawing, not even a proper look.
This was an unusual reception for me; I was used to the warm attentiveness of my parents whenever I showed them anything I had done. All of a sudden, I felt rather timid.
“It’s the seaside,” I said, puzzled. Couldn’t he see it was the seaside? I looked down at my drawing to make sure that I had put in everything a seaside should have. I had drawn the sand, the sea, the sky with clouds and birds, some coconut trees, and a ship far out on the water. It was the kind of drawing that would have earned me a gold star sticker at school.
“Oh,” he said. “But you only used blue for the sea. You don’t know the sea looks a little green?”
He had spoken so sternly that I was surprised. And I was very disappointed with myself. It entered my mind then and there that maybe I could not draw so well after all since I had gotten the sea all wrong. My stepfather did not have a job and whenever I had to miss school for some reason, I was usually left at home with him while my mother went to work. For the rest of the afternoon, I stayed in my room and colored in my coloring book, trying to erase my stepfather’s frown from my mind.
Later, when my mother came home, I showed her my drawing. “Oh, what a beautiful picture!” my mother said, taking me onto her lap. I snuggled against her cool body and breathed in her nice after-work smell, a mixture of leather high heels and belts and the air conditioning freshness that still clung to her clothes.
“That’s the sky, and the sea,” I explained, the way I used to when I was little. “This is the sand. And that’s me and you in the water.”
My mother smiled. “Yes I can see that!” she said playfully. “You are such a good artist. But where is Uncle?”
She was smiling down at me, waiting for an answer it seemed, but now I did not want to talk about my drawing anymore. I wriggled off her lap and she must have thought I was being funny because she laughed.
“Okay my big girl,” she said, swatting me lightly on my behind. “Enough babying up.” Then she laughed again. But there was something very strange and hollow in her laugh.
Before my mother had sent him away, my father had begun to build me a doll house. It was not an ordinary dollhouse. It was a life-size dollhouse, for my father was making it large enough for me to fit inside. I had read a storybook which had pictures of a merry little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who owned just such a dollhouse. When I had shown it to my father he had agreed to build me one exactly like it. When my father was sent away, the dollhouse was half-finished. It had three walls and a roof, but the fourth wall and the rooms inside were missing. Yet you could tell it would have been a very beautiful dollhouse. It stood in the garage against the wall and unfinished as it was, I loved to play with it. I would go inside the house that was just the right size for my life, and the hours would pass as I played house with my dolls. The smell of the sawdust on the floor reminded me of my father.
A few years before my stepfather came to live with us in the house in Orange Grove, there was a long period when I was not attending school. I remember that at first I thought nothing of it. I was only six years old then; I did not have a good appreciation of time or of the consequences of missing school, indeed I did not know that missing so much of it was unusual for a child to do. I simply thought that my mother wanted me to herself because during that time when I was taken out of school for weeks on end, my mother took me to work with her.
Afterwards, I came to understand that I had been taken out of school because my parents had been unable to pay the school fee. I went to a private school and the fee was high. My father had a seasonal job fixing things on the docks downtown and there were times when he was out of work. Then, my parents could not afford to buy the things I liked, like sweet KLIM milk to go with my corn flakes, or a toy that I wanted. Whenever this happened, my mother quarrelled at my father. He would hang his head and say nothing until my mother relented. Soon after, I would not see my father for a few days, even weeks. Always though, before he left, my father called me to sit on his lap. He would tickle my ribs and tell me not to be horrid to my mother. Then he would lightly tug each of the corkscrew curls my mother had twisted with Dax pomade in a fringe across my forehead, and recite the rhyme I came to know so well:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
My father did this to tease me and it always made me laugh. I would give my father a big kiss and hug, and my mother would smile at us, a strange, tight smile that made me think she was only pretending to be pleased. At those times, I tried my best to believe my parents would never argue again.
During that time when I was not going to school, as I said, my mother took me with her to the university where she worked. There was a small, unused office connected to hers, with a desk that my mother let me pretend was mine. I would sit in the cold, tiny room by myself and write important messages on the crisp squares of delicious-smelling paper my mother gave me. She gave me her ink pad and rotating stamp as well, the kind used to stamp the date, and I would stamp my messages on the back and front to make them extra important.
My mother had also given me one of those beige Northern Telecom rotary phones to amuse myself with, and when I was not writing messages or stamping, I talked to imaginary callers. Most of my make-believe letters and calls were to my father who had left us again and gone off somewhere on one of his long trips. The mornings passed this way until my mother brought my lunch or sent me to fetch it from the campus parlor.
I very much liked going to the parlor by myself. It was a short walk away and the parlor lady always knew I was coming. Always, when she saw me, she would smile and say, “And how you going today little miss lady?” in a way that made me feel very grown-up. Then she would give me a KC dinner mint that I did not have to pay for and one for my mother as well.
I also liked it when my mother sent me to deliver envelopes to the librarian upstairs, or to collect them from another pleasant lady in an adjoining block of buildings. Then, I was happy to leave the tiny, cold office and go out into the warm day. To get to the other block of buildings, I had to walk under the pomerac trees that grew in the campus parking lot where I could smell the very redness of the fruit that had fallen onto the hot asphalt. If I was lucky, I would find a perfectly good pomerac that had fallen without bruising, and this would be mine to wash and eat. I would always come back from these errands feeling proud and like I had been on an adventure.
Sometimes, on my way back, I would be tempted by the rock gardens. They were just across the way from my mother’s office, and I liked them because they seemed like a kind of playground with winding paths to follow, a pond of fish to look at, and a small cave to explore. The ground of the rock gardens was covered with tiny, white pebbles and I liked to stomp around in them, swishing them around with my shoes. I also liked the rock cave because there was something slightly sinister about it, the way a haunted house is foreboding but fun. I would imagine I was a giant and the rock cave was my house.
But I could never play in the rock house too long, because my mother would soon appear in the doorway looking for me. She did not like to leave me alone in the rock gardens while she worked. Only at the end of the day, when people were walking slowly toward the parking lot, or standing in the doorways making old talk, would it be okay for me to stomp around in the pebbles a bit until it was time to get into our white Lancer and drive home.
But mostly, I was in the tiny, cold room all day. I could always hear my mother’s voice as she talked on the phone next door, or laughed and joked with her boss Mr. Duncan, a tall, handsome man who frequently stopped by to do nothing but talk about funny things with my mother. But even with all my stamping and message-writing, I was often very lonely.
When I turned twelve, we were still living in the house in Orange Grove, my stepfather, mother, and I. Shortly before my thirteenth birthday, I began to keep a written catalogue of my mother’s mistakes. Carefully, I wrote each mistake down in a copybook as soon as it occurred. I knew that I would have my own world to govern one day, and I wanted to be prepared. I did not want to repeat my mother’s mistakes when I had my own home. I did not want to make the mistake of shouting at my child, making my daughter press her hair─I was deathly afraid of the hot comb─or letting my husband tell me how I should wear my clothes.
I kept the Book of Mistakes underneath my mattress where I thought no one would ever find it. But it turned out this was not a very good hiding place because one evening, I ran upstairs to my room to find my mother standing over my bed. I had been playing hopscotch with the girl my age who lived next door, and I had won the game so I was feeling very fine and jubilant, but I quickly forgot about all of that when I saw my mother standing there. She did not move at first, and her back was turned toward me so I could not see her face or what she was doing. Yet I knew from way my mattress looked that she had found the copybook and had been sitting on my bed reading it.
Finally, my mother turned and looked at me. I thought that maybe she would be angry, but she only looked very sad, and this was even worse. Her face, which I always found unbelievably beautiful, now looked pinched and dull. She held out the copybook for me to take. It was a thin book with yellow covers, and it had the multiplication tables and the name of the publisher―The Jag Clarke Company Limited of 37 Gretna Green Avenue, Kingston―printed on the back cover. I was about to take it from her when she suddenly changed her mind and withdrew her hand. So I ended up clutching at the air between us, the heavy, silent air.
She left the room then, taking the copybook with her. I sat on my bed for a long time, feeling very sick and gloomy until it got late. I heard the opening song of the Panorama news broadcast on the television downstairs, and shortly after that my stepfather came home. Then I could hear him and my mother talking, although I could not make out the words. I thought that maybe they were talking about me, that my mother was telling him about the Book of Mistakes. I imagined them downstairs, the book between them, reading everything I had written. This thought made me feel even more sickened.
When I finally went downstairs for my dinner, my mother did not look at me, in fact, she did not even talk to me at all. But I was very surprised when, later, she did not come to tuck me into bed, something she had done every night since I was a baby. This was the worst punishment of all for what I had done because for the first time in my life, I felt that my mother did not love me.
One Sunday, a few weeks later, I was lying on the floor of my room reading a Famous Five book when my mother entered. She was wearing her crinkle dress, the one that was the deep red color of a ripe cerise, and she looked very pretty and fresh. “I’m going to the market in a little while,” she said briskly. I immediately jumped up to change my clothes, but my mother motioned for me to stop. “No. Don’t bother,” she said lightly. “You will stay home with Uncle.” I was too stunned to say a word. Up until then, I had been accustomed to going everywhere with my mother; it seemed quite unthinkable that she was not taking me to Macoya market with her as usual.
My mother straightened a crooked corner of my bedspread, then left. I lay back down on the carpet and tried to read my book, but for some reason I could not. Staring at the words on the page, suddenly I could make no sense of them. I felt slightly dazed and thought that maybe it was from lying in the rectangle of sunlight that the window made on the carpet. I repositioned myself out of the sun’s rays but it did not seem to help.
After a while, I got up from the floor and lay down on my bed. That is when I heard the shower running. My stepfather must have been bathing all along, because almost as soon as I became aware of the noise, it stopped. After that, the house seemed too quiet. I heard my stepfather’s heavy footsteps along the landing; he was a big, heavy man. Then the floor in my room shook a little as the door to my parents’ room slammed shut.
I was feeling quite strange. My mother had closed the door behind her and the room felt stuffy and hot. I realized then that I was thirsty and decided I would get a glass of water. As soon as I opened my bedroom door, I heard it: strange noises coming from the other end of the landing. They were the kind of noises that I had never heard before, a sound like someone was being slapped over and over again, and also, a sound as if someone was crying. I froze. I couldn’t move, for suddenly, I was frightened.
My parents’ room was at the other end of the landing. I gathered all my courage, and very quietly, walking on the balls of my feet, I inched toward the door. As I did this, I had the odd sensation that it was not me tiptoeing across the landing at all, but another girl entirely. By the time I looked through the keyhole, it was if I had left my body altogether.
He had my mother against the wall. All I could see were two legs flailing about, the way I had once seen a little baby in its crib kicking. From time to time, my mother’s head rolled to the side like she was about to be sick, and it looked like she was crying. She seemed to be in pain, yet she did not tell him to stop what he was doing to her. He was turned away from me, so I could not see his face, only his bare back, and his big, black bottom moving vigorously, glistening with drops of water.
I now felt completely sick, and yet in a strange way, I was also excited. I felt hot and cold at the same time. I wanted to run away and yet I could not. It was only when my mother gave a muffled cry that I turned and fled as silently as I could. When I got back to my room, all I could see was my mother’s feet twisting around, like her ankles were broken and the feet themselves had grown loose.
A little while after that, my mother came into my room again. I was surprised to see that she looked quite as bright and fresh as ever, and I could not believe she was this way after what I had just seen.
“I’m leaving now baby,” my mother said, smiling at me.
I kept pretending to read my book and did not answer. This must have made her anxious, because she came over to me and asked if I was okay. She put a hand on my forehead and I shifted my body away.
“Yes,” I said coldly. “I’m reading.”
“Well,” she went on quickly, “it looks like I’m going with Uncle after all. Will you be okay here by yourself?”
After my mother had sent my father away, and before my stepfather came to live with us, she had occasionally had cause to leave me by myself. I had always hated it, but now I was glad; I did not want to be alone in the house with that man.
My mother did not kiss me goodbye. She simply stared at me for a moment and then left. Soon I heard the car start up in the garage and pull out of the driveway.
Sometime shortly after my stepfather had come to live with us in the house in Orange Grove, I came home from school one day to find my dollhouse destroyed. My stepfather had broken it up to make a kennel for the dog and there was only a pile of wood lying in the corner of the garage. He was not even at home then and my mother was still at work. I did not know whom to ask for an explanation of this ruin. So I walked around the house and climbed through the back window. I went to my bedroom, changed out of my school clothes, and lay down on my bed. And I wept.
Summer Edward, M.Ed. grew up as a third culture kid in Trinidad and the USA. An alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Columbia Review, Horn Book Magazine, The Missing Slate, and many more. She divides her time between her adopted hometown, Philly, and her Caribbean homeland, Trinidad. Read more of her work at summeredward.com