By the time Christmas trees are imported into Jamaica, they are well on their way to dying. Brutally expensive, they occupy the center of Caribbean homes like cheerful corpses. My mother gets one every year.
My mother loves Christmas and any other kind of fairy tale. Unable to throw anything away, she has collected boxes of tangled, half working, multi-coloured strings of lights over the years. These she throws haphazardly at the tree unintentionally creating a modern art piece. And tinsel — lots of tinsel. The tree looks like a disco ball threw up on itself, its bioluminescent sick dripping from each branch, until you can’t see that the tree’s leaves were brown and dead because you can’t see them at all.
Relatives tell me my mother always tended to nervousness, but after my father died she was overcome by anxiety. The fairytale she told herself to keep moving forward was that obsessive scheduling and organization could ward off the heartbreak that life guarantees. I found her approach stifling until I started having my own troubles. Now, anxiety is something that we share, connecting us the way an umbilical cord once did.
Rail thin with an explosion of tight blonde curls, my mother has eyes she thinks are green and which I believe are blue and are sometimes deeply sad. Like many Jamaican women, my mother is a single mother. Unlike most Jamaican women, I am her only child (and possibly the single only child on the island). She raised me in a treehouse just outside of Montego Bay, cocooned in a lush green bubble in a place called Kempshot, a name that is a nod to the country’s colonial past and violent present. I say treehouse because I am a romantic, but what I mean is an oddly constructed board house built into the side of a cliff. This feature is not an architectural quirk but a function of a terrible piece of land and it is the only way the house will not drop off of the cliff.
My mother is not the type of person who is a baby mother for a reformed ganja smuggler with a thirty year crack-cocaine habit. She is the kind of woman who packs for a trip a month in advance. She is cautious — she likes rainy days and is great at saving for them. She changes the subject whenever “unpleasant things” come up. In the ‘80s when she was starting law school at UWI, my father was somewhere on the south coast packing a shipment for Florida. She said he was like a hurricane every time he walked into a room. And she, a shy and sheltered girl, wanted to be hit by lightning.
But her taste for adventure didn’t last long. Shortly after she met him, she bought the treehouse in Kempshot and was ready to settle down. She painted everything in the house in optimistic pastel colours, until the cottage looked like the set of a colonial Willy Wonka. She padded it with random junk like the nest of a bird preparing for a storm. My father instead chose to put in a Scarface-type bathtub the size of a small swimming pool, which there was never enough water to fill up.
I was six months old when my father drove into an oncoming truck and died. I believe dating my father was my mother’s dipping her toe into the messier side of life. When life did not reward her for her curiosity, she decided to tap out of the game completely and retreated into Kempshot like a snail into its shell. There she could control everything, it was the ideal location. It was an hour away from any kind of civilization. There was no cable television, often no electricity, and certainly no WiFi. We had nothing and nobody but each other
My mother’s schedule is very tight. It cannot be altered for anything less than nuclear war, and even then. She wakes at 5:40 am, and takes her tea for an hour and ten minutes. She uses one tea bag to make 16-18 cups of tea (less caffeine), stretching the tea bag as far as my patience. She eats as if she is conserving for a natural disaster, buttering each blackened cracker and then scraping the butter back off (3 ½ crackers.) She eats a piece of fish the size of a fingernail (protein in the morning kills the appetite) with sheets of paper-thin sliced cassava chips (Total calories 150.)
She exercises once in the morning and once in the afternoon. She may be available for an emotional conversation 15 minutes prior to her evening workout. She swims twice a week for 6.5 miles. Every morning she comes back from the beach she tells me that there is a barracuda that follows her every morning, slowly plotting her demise. And yes, this morning she is sure she saw it coming for her out of the corner of her eye.
Each evening after her brisk exercise routine, we retreated to the safety of Kempshot. We had to make sure to drive up before dark because the road was too dangerous at night. On our only television channel we watched the 7:00 pm news followed by the soap opera The Young and the Restless. The two shows didn’t feel that different from each other. Both had murders and high tensions and jilted lovers. These were distant problems as we sat in the damp air of Kempshot, neither the tough reality of everyday Jamaican life nor the drama of relationships could affect us here.
In Jamaica, politicians run the parliament and chaos runs everywhere else. Every day there was something else that threatened to throw my mother’s schedule into disarray. In the dry season, we sometimes waited hours for a truck to bring water, making me late for school. The National Water Commission [NWC] didn’t run pipes that far up in the bush, so instead we caught rain on the roof and stored it in a tank. It seemed like every day the tank had a new leak. We measured the water by pushing a long stick with several markings into the tank’s belly. If the water line was above the first mark, then we were “okay.” But if the water line was below it meant we were “in problems.” We were usually in problems.
Several times a year, the ganja farmers who lived below us lit the fields to clear them for sowing their crops. Often the fires ran up the hill and threatened to burn our board house down. My mother would watch helplessly as the smoke came closer, knowing that we did not have enough water in the tank to do anything about it. One time, we even called the fire truck. It took six hours to come, then fell off the cliff, and we had to leave our house to go and help pull it out the gully, as the flames came closer and closer to our front door.
Yet every night at 8:30 pm sharp, my mother would tuck me into bed and read me a fairytale in the tiny room under the stairs where I slept. The room barely fit a twin-sized bed but I slept there every night like a knock-off version of Harry Potter because the spare room upstairs didn’t have burglar bars, and the stairs were right next to my mother’s bedroom. She wanted to keep me close. I loved falling asleep to the sound of her voice as she told me about trickster spiders, detectives, and magic spells.
I watched as she attempted to control every detail of life like it was the antidote to the abyss that forever seems to be lurking like the barracuda at the corner of her vision, waiting for a moment to pounce. I despised this fairytale she told her herself, finding her method stifling and controlling. Or I did, until I started to suffer from my own anxieties and started seeing barracudas coming from the corner of my vision.
Because every second of her life was scheduled, naturally every part of mine received the same treatment. Of course, being young I couldn’t realize how good it actually was for me and I despised it. From I woke up until I went to bed everything in my life was strictly controlled. Every calorie I consumed was precalculated and preplanned. I was allowed one piece of a Milky Way bar cut into 5 sections every night and I took forever to choose the one soda I was allowed every other weekend. I would smile and take my healthy snacks and then trade them for Big Foot and candy at school. I learned that having an emotional conversation needed to be fit into the 15 minutes before her work out class when one day I was crying about school yard woes and she got up abruptly to go to tennis. I couldn’t understand it when she went into a panicked rage if even one pillow was out of place in the house. Now I understand that it was so much more than a pillow, it was the one part of her life where she felt in control and I was now threatening that.
Irritated with her constant scheduling, I purposefully cultivated a personality that was the opposite of my mother’s. She could be the uptight one, I would be laid back, nonchalant and free spirited. I would tease her endlessly about packing for a vacation three weeks in advance. Meanwhile, I was known for going to a party and returning barefoot, having left my shoes behind. This habit would make my mother furious. An aunt once told me “you know she only gets mad because she used to do the same thing, right?” Maybe my mother’s greatest fear was not that I would turn into my father, but that I would turn into her.
It wasn’t long before my sole purpose in life became breaking out of the bubble she had so carefully created. I began researching scholarships and plotting my escape for boarding school. I pictured a quaint boarding school right outside New York City which I could visit every weekend with my new glamourous friends. Instead I got an experimental, Uber hippie, socialist, school in a castle in the middle of a sheep farm in Wales. I was right back in the middle of nowhere.
At the school, I would burn through calling card after calling card to telephone her after class to tell her how depressed I was. It was an academically competitive environment with some of the brightest people from all over the world. I had never been anything but first and now I was struggling to keep up. At home, I had extra lessons after school every day. Here, I put Jack Daniels in a coffee mug and carried it to my evening classes. That was when I actually did make it to class. Mostly I just stayed in bed for weeks at a time, paralyzed with anxiety and sadness, smoking weed and watching Entourage and playing Plants vs Zombies with my friends. Now I had my own barracudas lurking in the corner of my vision. Life felt like it was spinning completely out of control, as if it was constantly on the verge of an implosion that could only be prevented with careful planning and constant anxiety.
When I called my mother and spoke about how sad I was, (the PG-13 version of course) she changed the topic from these “unpleasant things.” For Jamaican parents things like mental health, and depression, and therapy are dirty foreign words. Instead she would tell me that the new kitten she had gotten was fighting with the old cat and did I know the poinciana trees were blooming? I didn’t care about the poinciana trees.
It was the first time I had lived outside the carefully concocted bubble she had made for us, and I was floundering. Yet at Christmas when I returned home, the tree-house felt like it had contracted and I no longer fit. I began to lean in harder into becoming the opposite version of my mother. Nothing filled me with greater panic than the thought of a schedule. I dropped out of college and moved into a Hare Krishna commune. I worked as a yoga teacher in Peru spending my free time in ayahuasca ceremonies. I did a surgical internship in a hospital in Buenos Aires, watching as the surgeons pulled bullets out through patient’s cheekbones. I worked on a scuba diving boat and every Sandals property in the vicinity of Montego Bay. When I eventually went back to school, I switched from pre-med to painting and transferred from LA to New York. I dyed my hair pink and then blue and then grey and then it went green and fell out. I worked in the closet at Vanity Fair, and for a while life played like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada. I moved back to Jamaica via Cayman and back to New York again. I equated settling down with settling.
When I was growing up my mother would often say “you’re just like your father.” She usually meant it as a compliment, whenever I was cracking jokes or chatting with the security guards. Now when she said it it felt less like a compliment and more like her deepest fears had been realised.
My mother could not understand what this American “finding your passion” business was all about. “Life is not about being happy,” she told me, “You just pick something and then you get on with it.” Her dating advice was similar: “Go and find the most stable man you can.” I always thought my mother was worried I would turn into my father, but maybe she was just worried I would turn out like her. She didn’t want me to take a chance on life and get hurt the way she had.
Pride & Prejudice
One of my fondest memories of my mother was the time we both had the flu and didn’t leave Kempshot for two days. We cast our feverish gaze on the glorious original version of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and for six hours we watched Lizzie and Mr. Darcy tramping through the English countryside. This was unheard of for my mother who thought it was lazy and indulgent to watch more than 30 minutes of television at a time. I suspect life plays like a period drama narrated by Jane Austen in my mother’s head — where everything adds up and some good mountain air could cure you and Prince Charming is always just en route. I thought she resembled the fretful Mrs. Bennett.
I don’t think the reality of single motherhood matched my mother’s expectations of parenting. I was a loud and opinionated child who demanded attention and she was an extreme introvert. The treehouse became not just a physical place, it was a place she retreated to in her head. I desperately wanted to be let into it.
We took turns scaring off her potential suitors. She, by inviting them on the 45-minute drive of one-lane roads often consisting more of pothole than asphalt. On one side of the road was the 90-degree mountain face, on the other was the hundred-foot precipice which ate small vehicles for breakfast. During my turn to discourage her suitors, I would put dishwashing liquid in their rum and sodas and serenade their candle-lit dinners with choruses of “YOU ARE NOT MY FATHER.”
I was 12 at their wedding, and the maid of honor. She was a 40-year-old bride and the groom wore a kilt as homage to his Scottish roots. I imagine it must have been difficult for some onlookers to process seeing a man in a skirt getting married to a woman. I found it equally difficult to countenance. I refused to take any pictures. Then I stole champagne at the reception and cried in the mangroves.
Their relationship was the ultimate betrayal. I felt that she had lied to me. She had led me to assume that the place she retreated to in her head was a place where no one else was allowed. But here was this strange Scottish man, eating the food in my kitchen, with full access to the person I wanted to reach most. When I saw them together I saw glimpses of the woman she was behind the wall, not the frail opinionless person she projected. It would have been easier to accept if there had been nothing behind those walls at all.
Nat King Cole
Now I live in the country that produces the trees my mother so desires, the ones that are dead by the time they reach our doorstep. In my backpack are tea bags and measured out containers of peanut butter. For breakfast I eat ½ a cup of oatmeal (100 calories), with 1.5 spoons of peanut butter (150 calories) 4-6 cups of decaf coffee (less caffeine) I go for a run, on the exact same path on the East River every single morning. I arrive at the airport three to four hours in advance, having spent the night before counting all the ways in which I could miss the flight. I drive my roomates crazy with the need for every spoon to go precisely in its place. My mother’s carefully measured portions and impeccably organized suitcases seem more and more understandable, if not absolutely necessary.
In New York my worries are slightly different than my mother’s. I don’t have to wake up early to take the shortcut through the cane piece because the protesters have shut down the road. Nor do I have to worry about being late because there was a shootout in front of us when gunmen held up a Brinks van. My worries in New York are more an existential fear of missing out, where my entire self-worth is attached to my ‘success’. I worry I am behind in my career. I worry that if I miss an event, it might have been the one opportunity to be propelled forward. I am worried that if I close my eyes for a second, the city will forget about me and my career will be over before it has even started. I am worried that if I do not make it in New York, I will have to go home to Jamaica and show everyone that I have failed.
I can now understand why my mother’s carefully measured portions are a band aid against the terror of the unknown future. I understand constructing tree houses, physically and mentally, so as not to fall over the precipice completely. I understand that fairytales are for people who are scared of the dark.
When my mother visited me in New York, I took her to see the massive art sculptures at Storm King. She thought they were getting in the way of the view of the trees. When I switched from pre-med to painting in undergrad, not surprisingly, my traditional Jamaican mother hadn’t been thrilled. She confessed to me that she thought art was stupid. She didn’t say it dismissively or as an insult, she said it apologetically. The words she used were “I just don’t get it.” What I think she meant was “I’m sorry that I can’t understand.” I think that just as it took me sometime to understand her fairytales, maybe it will take her sometime to understand mine.
Next time when she blasts the Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey in early September, I will turn the volume up and sing along instead of changing the station. I will help her get out the boxes of half working lights and throw fistful after fistful of tinsel onto to the tree until we can no longer see that it is dead. When it is done, we will sit and watch the lights blink and tell each other stories.
Images provided by author.
Summer Eldemire is a Jamaican journalist currently based in New York. She writes about crime and culture — and also music, ganja, strippers, cults, and aliens — and her work has appeared on the FADER, Complex UK, the BBC, the Intercept and Face Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @sum.lion and Twitter @summereldemire