(Excerpt from novel)
“Faith is a funny thing,” say Pastor Ulysses, straightening his purple robe and dabbing his head with a white kerchief.
Mama, Aunt Joycie, and Uncle Jeffery nod in agreement. Almost every bench in the church full up with women in big hats, girls in pretty dresses and men and boys in dress pants and white shirts. Cousin Icey leaning ‘gainst Aunt Joycie, fighting to keep her eyes open. I leaning ‘gainst Mama cool arm flipping through the cartoon Bible story from Sunday school trying my best to listen to Pastor Ulysses, even though I don’t understand all the big words he using. I wearing my white dress with the blue ribbon ‘round the waist. Aunt Joycie put blue ribbons in my hair to match the ones on my dress and today I get to wear my shiny black shoes with the buckles. I only get to wear them on Sundays. If Mama let me, I wear them every day.
“When times good Faith is in abundance,” continue Pastor Ulysses.
“That’s right,” say Miss Vita, her big yellow hat flopping up and down as she nod.
“When times good, we thank Jesus and call on the name of the Father,” say Pastor Ulysses, holding on to the podium with both hands and leaning his body forward. “We recognize and celebrate his abundance.”
“Praise be,” say Miss Patsy sitting next to Miss Vita.
“When times good,” say Pastor Ulysses, moving his body from side to side, like he listening to some music that only he can hear, “we feel God working His miracles and we have no doubts of His presence and His power.”
“He is present!” shout Miss Vita, standing and waiving one hand in the air, a wet spot under her arm. “Praise his name!”
Mama and Aunt Joycie nodding their heads, eyes shut.
“But when times not so good…” Pastor Ulysses stop swaying his body and look from one side of the room to the next. The only sound the congregation fanning themselves. “When times not so good,” he say again, moving his body from side to side like the music in his head start to play again, “our faith is the first thing to go.” He lean forward gainst the podium and look close at the congregation “Isn’t that right Brothers and Sisters?”
“That’s right Pastor!” shout Aunt Joycie, jolting Cousin Icey from her sleep. Her eyes fly open and she look round confused.
“The first thing to go,” say Miss Vita turning round to look at me and Mama.
“The first thing to go,” say Mama nodding her head, the corners of her mouth turn down.
“Yes, when times not so good,” Pastor Ulysses voice begin to get louder, “we start to ask: ‘Where are you God? Why have you forsaken me?’”
I don’t know what ‘forsaken’ mean but it sound like is not something good. I start to play with the blue ribbon on the waist of my white dress.
“But is we forsake Him!” somebody call from the front benches.
“Yes, is we forsake Him,” somebody else agree.
“Yes, Brothers and Sisters is we forsake Him!” Pastor Ulysses shout, a finger pointing in the air. “For He is always with us, we have only to call His name.”
“Call his name!” shout Miss Vita.
“Heavenly Father!” shout Miss Blossom.
“Call his sweet name,” say Miss Patsy.
“God will never leave his flock,” continue Pastor Ulysses “all we have to do is pray and he will answer our prayers.”
“Thank you Jesus,” say Mama.
“Let us open our books to Hymn number forty-five,” say Pastor Ulysses.
I take out the cloth covered hymn book from the little shelf on the back of the bench and lift it up so me and Mama can share. Mama don’t really need it though. She already know all the words to most of the songs we sing every Sunday.
Brother Winston rub a feathery looking brush over the top of one drum and a shimmery sound, like ice shaking in a glass, fill up the Church. He press his foot down on a pedal and the two cymbals crash together. The noise reach up to the ceiling. Deacon Bartholomew twist the bumps on the handle of his shiny, brown guitar like how Aunt Joycie twist and tighten Cousin Icey hair into Chiney bumps. Sister Bernice long fingers stand stiff on the piano keys, her back straight and her head still, as she wait for Pastor Ulysses to start.
Pastor Ulysses stretch his arms out in front of him and raise them slow. A rustling sound go through the church as people put down their Bibles and purses and take little children off their laps as they stand up. At the front of the church the choir rise to their feet behind Pastor Ulysses; their purple gowns moving side to side look like purple flowers blowing in the breeze in the yard. Some shake tambourines over their heads, their purple sleeves falling down showing their brown skin and shiny bangles. Pastor Ulysses start to sing in his deep voice:
“I’ve been redeemed…”
“I’ve been redeemed,” sing the congregation
“By the Blood of the Lamb,” sing Pastor Ulysses
“By the blood of the Lamb,” sing the congregation
“I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, filled with the Holy Ghost I am. All my sins are washed away, I’ve been redeemed,” sings everybody.
People get up from their seats and follow behind Pastor Ulysses, down one aisle and up the other singing, dancing and clapping. Miss Vita singing louder than anybody else, her eyes shut and her face dripping with sweat, turn up to the ceiling. Brother Winston foot pressing down on the pedal, his hands almost flying over the drums. Deacon Bartholomew bouncing slow and Sister Bernice whole body shaking as she play piano. The choir dancing too, some jumping, some swaying their tambourines knocking ‘gainst hands and hips, bangles jingling adding to the sound of the tambourines.
“And that’s not all,” sing Pastor Ulysses walking down one aisle of the church.
“And that’s not all,” sing the congregation.
“There’s more besides,” sing Pastor Ulysses.
“There’s more besides,” sing the congregation.
“I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptized. All my sins are washed away I’ve been redeemed.”
Pastor Ulysses start walking up the aisle to the front of the church.
Brother Winston rub the feathery looking brush over his drum and the shimmery sound like ice shaking in a glass fill up the room again, Sister Bernice bow her head, fold her hands and rest them in her lap; the tambourines jingle softer and Deacon Bartholomew open his eyes and stop tickling his guitar strings. Everybody back in our seats now, Mama take a white kerchief out of her purse and wipe her forehead.
“I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptized, yes, all my sins are washed away, I’ve been redeemed. I’ve been redeemed. I’ve been redeemed,” say pastor Ulysses climbing the stairs to the altar. He rest his hands on the side of the podium and look over the congregation:
“Let us pray.”
Everybody bow their head and shut their eyes.
“Heavenly Father, bless this congregation. Bless the children and sustain them in all that they do this coming week.”
“Bless the children,” murmur Miss Patsy.
“Bless the parents. For you know how they struggle sometimes to feed the bodies and nourish the souls of your precious flock.”
“Bless the parents,” repeat Miss Blossom
“And this week we also pray for Sister Evette as she continues to recover from her surgery.” “Yes, bless Sister Evette,” murmur many voices.
“We pray that you will strengthen her body and keep her spirit strong so that she may return to worship in your house when she is able.”
“We also send out prayers to Sister Hyacinth’s big daughter,” continue Pastor Ulysses.
I perk up my ears — he talking ‘bout Miss Theresa!
“We pray for her safe travel back to Jamaica next Saturday.”
I feel a hand pat me on my head. Many voices say, “Bless Sister Hyacinth family.”
I open one eye and sneak a peek at Mama face. Her eyes still shut. She have one hand on her chest and one hand in the air, her lips moving like she making a promise to God.
“Father may you guide her plane with your steady hand and deliver her to her beloved family in health and strength…”
I barely hear the rest of what Pastor Ulysses saying. My head start to fill up with questions ‘bout Miss Theresa: will she talk slow and soft like Mama or will she be loud and have a big woman laugh like Aunt Joycie?
“All of this, in your holy name we pray, Amen.”
“Amen,” say the congregation.
“Amen,” say Mama.
Brother Winston, Sister Bernice and Deacon Bartholomew start to play again. The choir start to hum. Everybody get up from the benches. I hold Mama hand so I don’t lose her in the crowd. Many people talking to Mama.
“Yes, is this week she coming!” I hear Mama say.
“I keep Theresa in my prayers this week Hyacinth, don’t you fret,” say Miss Vita leaning her head ‘gainst Mama.
“But is not just the other day you tell me Theresa buy plane ticket for the little girl? How the time go so fast?” ask Miss Patsy resting her hand on Mama shoulder.
“So you going to Foreign to live with your mommy and daddy! Don’t forget ‘bout we eh?” say Miss Blossom patting me on the head.
“It seem like just the other day the little girl get christen. Now she grow big and leaving us to go to Foreign!” say somebody else.
By the time we reach the door my head so full of noise that it feel like Brother Winston drums still playing and two cymbals still crashing.
Pastor Ulysses and his wife Sister Rose standing at the door of the church; the neck of Pastor Ulysses’ robe dark with sweat. Mama reach out her hand, “Thank you for your prayers Pastor.”
“God bless you and your family Sister Hyacinth,” say Pastor Ulysses holding Mama hand in his two hands. Me, Cousin Icey, Aunt Joycie, and Uncle Jeffery smile and wait.
Sister Rose hold Mama other hand. “I’m sure you long to see your big daughter,” she say.
Mama blink her eyes and nod her head slow.
“And the two of you must long to see your sister,” she say turning to Aunt Joycie and Uncle Jeffery.
“I miss her every day,” say Aunt Joycie.
“I miss Auntie Theresa too,” say Cousin Icey — forgetting that she never even meet her yet!
Sister Rose bend down and put her hand on the side of my face, she smell like lime and just press clothes. “And I sure she especially long to see you sweetheart,” she say looking at me with her head crook to one side. Her eyelashes long and curly, like Cousin Icey eyelashes when she just a small baby. I don’t know what to say, so I just give her a big smile.
“See you next Sunday. God willing,” say Mama.
“God willing,” say Pastor Ulysses and Sister Rose.
Everybody talking ‘bout Miss Theresa; Cousin Icey want to know what she bringing her from Foreign, Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Joycie have big grins on their faces all week. Uncle Jeffrey clean the toilet and the chicken coop without Mama asking. He clear out all the trash from the yard and pick up all the overripe mangoes that fall off the tree. He burn all the leaf, old tree branches, and rotten fruit in the fire pit. The sweet smelling smoke curl into the sky. Me and Aunt Joycie use old rags to wash the floor and the tough bristle brush to rub the lemon smelling polish in the wood. When we finish my knees sore and Aunt Joycie back paining her, but we can almost see our face in the shine.
At school Teacher ask me to stand beside my desk — all the children eyes on me. Teacher smiling like when I get all my spelling words correct. Lucy and Sweetie smiling too, they already know that I leaving for Foreign soon. Darren not smiling. He probably surprise that Teacher ask me to stand beside my desk, cause he usually the one that get asked. Teacher ask him to stand beside his desk when he do perfect in spelling, when he get excellent in penmanship and when he the first to memorize his times tables. Darren have a leather school bag with two straps that go round it like a belt. Even Teacher don’t have a bag like that. He wear the same khaki pants and shirt as the rest of the boys, but his uniform always look like it just wash and press. He wear shiny shoes with buckles. Shoes that need polishing every morning. I have shoes with buckles that need polishing, but Mama only let me wear them to church. The children sit quiet, looking at Teacher waiting for the announcement. She tell the whole class that Miss Theresa coming to Jamaica on Saturday, and that she going to take me back to Foreign when she leave. I stand as straight as I can, and puff out my chest, just like I see Darren do all the time when Teacher call his name.
At recess all the children gather round. Cutie give me piece of her bulla cake, Sweetie ask me if I want a bite of her patty — everybody want to know what Foreign like. I don’t know nothing bout Foreign, but I tell them what I think is true: that Foreign have plenty pretty things, that the buildings big and tall, that there’s nuff more people than in Jamaica. They all listen like how they listen when Teacher talk. Even Darren.
Mama the only one that not talking ‘bout Miss Theresa all week. Sometimes when we on the veranda or eating at the table, I see her looking at me but she don’t saying nothing. Sometimes it look like she looking at something far away. I follow her eyes but I don’t see anything where she looking. When I ask her if everything alright she blink hard like she just waking from a dream and tell me not to mind her, she just have plenty things on her mind.
Mama sitting on the edge of the bed with that far away look in her eyes. She pull the yellow sheet up to my chin and fuss with the kerchief covering my hair. Every time she move, her shadow move on the wall behind her. Is like I have two Mamas in the room with me.
“You coming to bed Mama?” She rub her hand over one part of the sheet like she trying to press out a crease.
“No honey, I still have plenty things to do before this night done.”
Maybe is the dim light but it look like something glistening in Mama eyes.
“You alright Mama?”
She shake her head again like she waking from a dream.
“Yes honey, I quite alright. Don’t you fret ‘bout Mama. You go sleep now. You have a big day tomorrow.”
She bend down to kiss me goodnight, and I reach up and wrap my arms tight round her neck. Her small cross press ‘gainst my cheek and my nose fill up with the smell of wood smoke and cooking oil.
That night I dream Queen Elizabeth come to our street. I don’t know anything ’bout Queen Elizabeth. I just see her in the big pictures in the buildings where me and Mama go to answer questions and fill out papers. In my dream, the whole street standing on the road waiting for Queen Elizabeth to pass by: Miss Blossom, Miss Vita, Miss Patsy, Miss Ulalee, Maas Dudley, even Lucy, Sweetie, and Teacher from school. Everybody waving a Jamaican flag. It look like plenty black, green and gold birds flying over my head.
“Your Majesty, Queen Elizabeth!” shout Miss Blossom as Queen Elizabeth carriage pass by.
“Greetings from your loyal subjects,” shout Miss Patsy.
“But look how her hair pretty!” say Aunt Joycie.
I only see the back of her head. She twisting her hand from side to side. She wearing long white gloves almost reach her elbows. As she get closer, she turn her head and it feel like my breath get knock out of me — is Miss Theresa in the carriage!
“Good afternoon, Miss Jemela!” she say looking right at me.
When I turn ‘round to tell Mama that is Miss Theresa and not Queen Elizabeth in the carriage, I wake up.
When I open my eyes Mama not in the bed beside me. I hear pots and pans clanging in the kitchen, and Mama and Aunt Joycie talking.
“I can’t believe the day finally come!” say Aunt Joycie. “It feel like we waiting a long time to see Theresa.”
“Too long,” say Mama.
“How come Auntie Theresa don’t come see us before?” I surprised to hear Cousin Icey voice. If she wide awake it must mean I must have really sleep a long time.
“Your Auntie come back before. But you never meet her cause you was still in my belly when she come,” explain Aunt Joycie. “Mama you remember how Jemela did kick and fuss and hold on tight to your neck when you try to bring her to Tessie that first day?”
“I remember,” say Mama. “Poor thing frighten.”
I don’t remember that! I feel bad for fighting Mama.
“How come Jemela don’t want to go to her mommy?” Cousin Icey ask. It feel funny to hear Cousin Icey call Miss Theresa my mommy. Is true but Mama the one that been raising me since I can remember.
“Is not that she don’t want to go to her mommy,” say Aunt Joycie “Is that she don’t remember her. Mama how old Jemela when Theresa leave for Foreign?”
“If memory serve me correctly, Jemela barely three months old when Theresa leave.”
When I try and remember Miss Theresa, everything fuzzy and feel far away like Mama calling me from a dream.
I get out of bed and go to the back kitchen. Mama and Aunt Joycie grating sweet potatoes; Cousin Icey helping too. I remember Mama say she was going to make Miss Theresa favourite sweet potato pudding. Uncle Jeffrey must have already leave to go and borrow his friend Carlton truck to pick up Miss Theresa from the airport. After I eat my piece of hard-dough bread and drink my tea, Aunt Joycie comb my hair and help me put on clothes that Mama leave out on the sewing table. Aunt Joycie say I must look presentable for when Miss Theresa reach. When Mama see me she say to make sure I don’t dirty up my clothes or root up my hair before Miss Theresa reach. I go out to the yard and turn over a wash bucket and sit down. The long flies with the pretty green and blue wings zip round the yard, and two land on the clothesline in front of me. Their wings shimmer in the sunlight. I wonder if they have blue and green wing flies in Foreign. My school uniform on the clothes line: my white blouse and brown dress, stiff with starch, three pairs of Uncle Jeffrey socks, six of his briefs, two of Mama slips and four of her aprons on the line too. Aunt Joycie must have already take down her and Cousin Icey clothes. I wonder if Miss Theresa live in Jamaica if she take down mine and her clothes off the clothesline when it dry. I wonder if she blow my soup if it too hot. I wonder if she would comb my hair for school and never comb it too tight. When I come home afterschool I wonder if she ask me ‘bout school. I wonder if she sleep next to me at night. I wonder if in the morning she make my breakfast just how I like it and don’t force me to eat soft boil eggs.
I don’t notice when Cousin Icey come outside until she turn over a bucket and sit down beside me. She wearing her home clothes and her hair not comb nice like mine. I guess she don’t have to look presentable for Miss Theresa.
“How long you think it take Auntie Theresa to fly from Foreign?” she ask.
I know it must take long take a long time to fly from Foreign, ‘cause when anybody come from Foreign people say how long they wait to see them. “I think it take as much days as school last,” I tell Cousin Icey. That seem like a long time.
“How much people you think can carry in one plane?” she ask.
I never see a plane before but I know it must hold plenty people and plenty things, because the barrel that Miss Theresa send seem too big to carry on just a small plane.
“Nuff people can carry in one plane. Maybe even all of Clarkstown,” I say.
“How much plane you think can fly in the sky one time?” Cousin Icey looking at me, eyes wide waiting for an answer.
I close my eyes and see a picture in my mind with one plane behind another plane like how cars line up one behind the other on the road.
“As much plane can fly in the sky as cars can drive on the road,” I explain.
Cousin Icey nod her head. I think maybe she see the picture in her mind of one plane behind the other just like I see in my mind.
“But they have to watch out for birds and wasps and mosquitoes in the sky,” I explain, “just like cars have to watch out for goats and donkeys and stray dogs on the road.”
“What if Auntie Theresa plane fly through heaven?”
I see Jesus in his long white robe, rope belt and leather sandals with his hand stretched out to Miss Theresa plane.
A sound like an old man coughing and pots and pans knocking together block out Cousin Icey next question.
“Auntie Theresa reach!” she shout jumping up, and knocking over the bucket she sitting on. The she run past the chicken coop on her way to the front of the house and the chickens squawk and fly up in the air.
“Praise the Lord, Theresa finally reach!” I hear Aunt Joycie shout from in the house.
“Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” shout Mama.
My heart beating hard ‘gainst my chest. Miss Theresa reach. Miss Theresa, who everybody talking ‘bout all week. Miss Theresa, who send the barrel at Christmas and when school start. Miss Theresa, who take the picture where everybody have bright eyes except me. Miss Theresa, who taking me back to Foreign with her when she leave.
I walk slow through the back kitchen, through the front room and out the front door to the veranda. Mama standing on the veranda wiping her hands on her apron, saying over and over again, “Thank you Jesus!” I stand beside her and put my two hands on my belly. My belly feel warm and trembley like fireflies flitting ‘round inside. My belly feel like that the first day of Infant School. That morning Mama dress me in my new uniform, plait my hair in two, and tie two brown ribbons in my hair to match my uniform. When we reach the school, Mama hug and kiss me and tell me she come back for me when school finish. When I realize she leaving me is when the fireflies start to fly really fast in my belly. Before I know what happen I throw up my hard dough bread and tea all over the lace up shoes Miss Theresa send me. But I not going to throw up today ‘cause Mama right beside me.
Carlton truck shake and tremble and give one loud cough before it finally stop. Uncle Jeffrey jump down from the driver seat, walk round to the other side of the truck and open the door. The first thing I see is a broad beige hat drape over a face, and a gold hoop earring sparkling in the sun light. Then I see a foot in a beige sandal touch the ground, the other foot barely touch the ground before Aunt Joycie loud voice fill up the air.
“Tessie you reach, you reach, you finally reach!” She grab one of Miss Theresa bags out of her hand.
“Is all right Joycie I can manage!” say Miss Theresa.
“Stop you foolishness you been travelling since morning!”
“Welcome home Auntie!” say Cousin Icey, pulling on the leg of Miss Theresa pantsuit. A smile brighten Miss Theresa face, and she pat Cousin Icey on the head.
“Thank you sweetheart,” she say.
Miss Theresa gold bangles slide down her arm and make a tinkling sound as she wave at me and Mama on the veranda. Even from the veranda, I can see the gap between her two front teeth. I pass my tongue over my front teeth to see if I can feel a gap. Mama laugh and wave back. I not sure what to do or say, so I just lean ‘gainst Mama. Then I feel Mama hand on my back. I hear her say, “Jemela go give you mother a hug.”
I look up in her face, her brown eyes look right into mine. I want to say, “Can I stay here with you?”
Mama smile down at me; “Is alright honey, I right here.” She push me closer to the steps.
I walk slow down the first step. Uncle Jeffrey pass by. He breathing hard. He pat me on the head even though he struggling with Miss Theresa bags. I wonder if she get mad if one drop in the dirt by mistake. Aunt Joycie big woman laugh fill up my ears as I step down the second step. If I lift my head I know I see her laughing with her head back and her mouth open so wide that I see her pink gums where her back teeth missing. I hear the creek of Maas Dudley rocking chair when I reach the last step. My foot feel heavy, like how people must feel after they get baptise, their white baptising clothes soak with river water. I know I reach Miss Theresa ‘cause I can see gold paint toenails in beige sandals. I try to lift my head but it won’t lift. I know Mama watching from the veranda. The sun hot ‘gainst the back of my neck. I feel a hand, under my chin, soft like tissue paper, lifting up my head. Shiny eyes blink at me behind long lashes, gold dust sprinkle on the eyebrows and cheeks a little bit of gold coloured lipstick smear on the front teeth. Miss Theresa smiling at me like how Mama smile when a neighbour comes to the gate that she don’t see in a long time.
“Good Morning Miss Jemela,” she say in a soft voice that sound like a younger Mama. She pull me ‘gainst her and wrap her arms tight round my body. A sharp, flowery perfume tickle my nose. The buckle from her belt feel cool ‘gainst my cheek. Her hands feel warm on my back. Is this what it like to have my own mother?
Anchor image: Adele Todd. Pomerac Needles.
Dianah Smith is her ancestors’ harvest, the manifestation of their unrelinquished hopes, dreams and desires. A Jamaican born, Ottawa raised, writer, teacher and arts educator based in Toronto; she has had the honour of being mentored by fellow Jamaican’s including Olive Senior, Martin Mordecai and Karen Lee. Her writing has been published in anthologies, high school textbooks, online and print magazines. Noticing an absence in safe and supportive writing spaces for non-mainstream writes, Dianah created a reading series/ incubator, ‘A’ is for Orange’ for queer and trans emerging writers of Caribbean descent. She has been the recipient of numerous writing and professional development grants and has been a jury member for local and provincial arts funding organizations.