The Set Up
The yard was filled with people. The King Selena sound boxes stood tall, playing melancholy church hymns about death and reuniting with God. The house was vibrating. Usually when my uncle and his sound system were hosting an event, Grandma would spend the night at my aunt’s nearby to avoid the noise. She experienced a lifetime of noise with a house full of children and a husband who was a part-time deejay. She deserved quiet in her later years. Cars filled the abandoned lot across from The Humble Cottage. The overflow parked on the street, taking up one of two lanes on the narrow country road. A dewy mist blanketed the night. The hills of King Weston, St. Andrew were alive with the sound of the music of the dead. I waited in vain for the sound of Grandma’s footsteps on the veranda, asking my uncle to turn the music down and, “Stop mek noise ah mi head.” You can’t attend your own burial party.
At this homecoming to God, Grandma’s life was the focus of the afterlife celebration. The church music my uncle played was a departure from the usual dancehall or reggae at parties and family events. If you didn’t know Grandma as Miss Ett, you knew her as Mummy, Sister Ett, Ett, Grandma or some other version of her name. Few knew her by the name on her birth certificate: Edith Etheline Davidson. Besides her family, there were few things she loved as much as God. Sister Ett, before she got sick, attended church almost every Sunday. Women adorned in turbans and elaborate church hats passed her house calling out, “Sister Ett, you coming?”
“Soon come,” she’d respond, in the midst of putting on her church frock. Sometimes she’d walk there with her church sisters, or she’d ask my uncles or mom for a ride. She would praise God from morning till evening, coming home just in time for Sunday dinner. In the mornings, before the sun greeted the horizon, she sat on the veranda tapping her foot to the rhythm of a hymn. The melody of her humming broke the night’s fast, indulging in the sweet and heavenly sound of her voice. At night, she read Bible verses by candlelight while reciting prayers of thanksgiving. At family gatherings, her sons affectionately handed her the microphone, saying “Tune, tune,” prompting her to sing one of her favourite hymns. Though she was absent from the microphone at the Set Up, friends and well-wishers filled the gap.
The night of the Set Up replayed in my mind like stills from a black and white movie, I remembered everything in pieces. I saw myself standing on the veranda, trying to be as present as my mind would allow. A woman who had only heard of Grandma’s death a few hours prior to the Set Up took the microphone. She did a touching tribute to Mama Ett, talking about her being a kind woman of virtue and grace. I listened to the woman who travelled by bus for hours to honor Grandma. Old men — who my mind sketched as caricatures of her childhood — stood lopsidedly close by. They overindulged in the open bar manned by one of my uncles. They staggered rather than danced, occasionally flashing toothless smiles in my direction. Family friends and distant relatives sat on the veranda, taking in the spectacle that unfolded on the makeshift dance floor in the concrete yard. As the night melted into the early hours of the day of the funeral, sleeping bodies filled the house. Slumped bodies slumbered in veranda seats, on the couch, or occupied whatever space wasn’t already occupied by dreamers.
In the kitchen, Mummy assumed Grandma’s previous role as alchemist. Pots atop charcoal fires were overflowing with soups and stews and accompanied by serving trays of late-night dinners on their way to the stomachs of mourners. Outside the kitchen in the yard, rows of tables and chairs mimicked a dimly lit pop-up restaurant. Light from the moon and candles revealed a combination of Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery littering the floor. I meandered through rows of relatives. It was hard to dodge obligatory questions like “Whoffa pickney you is?” questioning where I fell in the line of seemingly endless grandchildren. I made my way across the street to the parking lot, back to my post with my cousins. My voice was hoarse from kissing the night air. Grandma would never have let me stay outside this late. She really was gone.
Edith Etheline Davidson was born on January 12, 1937 in the district of King Weston, St. Andrew. King Weston is a small, rural community in the hills of St. Andrew. Around 2,000 people call this community home. Few families leave and fewer join the community. Everyone knows everyone but not always by their birth name. Nicknames are usually an iteration of a person’s profession, a shortened version of their legal name or based on an embarrassing childhood story. Most people lived there all their lives. The man who drove by on weekends selling ice-cream from a cooler attached to his motorcycle was Creamy. My grandma’s cousin who never had a smile absent from his face was Happy. My mom who was born in the morning and whose first name is Donna, was Dawn. I was usually Dawn’s daughter or Miss Ett’s granpickney. I didn’t live there long enough to be dubbed.
The Humble Cottage
In King Weston, it was hard not to see the same faces more than twice a day. My grandma’s house is The Humble Cottage, the house amid the hills right beside a road that connects one half of the community to the other. The Humble Cottage is an unofficial rest stop. Because most people in King Weston were unofficially related (most people are someone’s second cousin twice removed), everyone knew Miss Ett. “Hailing” or shouting a greeting while walking by a neighbour’s house was an unspoken obligation most people adhered to. If Grandma wasn’t on the veranda, passersby would hear a faint reply from inside her house, addressing the greeter by name and returning the greeting. She knew who was talking to her without seeing their faces.
In King Weston, there were no newspaper deliveries. You heard the news from the daily ‘sous,’ where passersby would often stop at the fence separating the concrete yard from the road and deliver the community’s gossip. On the days when news was slow, Grandma would walk the length of the community; stopping at friends’ houses along the way she would check up on family affairs, upcoming weddings, newborns etc. After her paper route, she’d return home and complain about her arthritis. “Di old foot ah hot mi,” she called out, cueing me to get her “old bone cream.” Everyone has their occupational hazards; aching bones after a hard day’s work was hers. Elders in the community could trace someone’s genealogy with the mention of their last name. History was passed down through stories told on nights when the power was out, over a Sunday dinner, or relayed through the latest gossip. Most of it was never written down. A lot of my family history died with Grandma.
It was almost impossible to leave Miss Ett’s house empty handed, whether you were a family member or someone who stopped to have a short conversation. If someone hailed her between mouthfuls of her dinner on her veranda, she’d ask if they’d like something to eat, too. School children knew they couldn’t walk by Grandma’s house without a bag juice or whichever sweetie was in her collection that day. It was common practice for strangers to show up unannounced to check up on her, walking through the familiar living room and bedrooms to find her in the kitchen. The house had an open-door policy, all were welcome. One of my uncles joked that Grandma’s purse also had an open zipper policy. Her money was never only hers to spend; it was for the stray dog that needed food, neighbours who needed a loan before their payday cheques could be cashed, or the little girl sheepishly walking by as she cried about losing her lunch money.
Grandma loved children. One day, I was on my way to my mother’s grade six classroom, where I played the role of her unofficial teacher’s assistant. Her school was an hour’s drive from King Weston in Constant Spring. A little girl I had seen occasionally around the school boldly approached me.
“Are you Miss Ett’s granddaughter?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, slightly confused about how she knew my grandmother.
“My cousin Angel and I were walking by her house and she gave us bag juice and lunch money,” she said. Angel lived in my grandmother’s community.
I was stunned. Not because of this gesture that wasn’t uncommon for my grandma but by how much her act of kindness impacted this little girl. She beamed when she retold the story about her weekend spent with her cousin in King Weston and the trip to my grandma’s house. It’s comforting to know Miss Ett transcended the limits of death, living on through the memories of family, community members and perfect strangers.
The Nicholson Family
Just like the inside of Grandma’s house, most things in King Weston came in pairs: there were two shops, two bars and two churches. The other half of my grandma’s pair was her late husband, Roy Nicholson. The two met when she was sixteen and he was twenty during a church youth group’s bible study. Soon, they were pregnant with the first of fourteen Nicholson children (one was stillborn). My grandpa named their home in between the hills The Humble Cottage, etching the name into two columns at the front of the house. It had five bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, and separate living quarters downstairs. A large lychee tree provided shade in the paved yard. Two rusted gates attached to a long fence connected two columns and the upper yard. A small garden was downstairs beside the separate living quarters, with cacti and small plants occupying the space near the lychee tree. The veranda and its metal chairs looked out onto the yard. The house bore witness to various moments of my family’s history and it will continue to, long after my generation’s story ends.
Grandma was a seamstress and Grandpa worked at the National Water Commission. His station was responsible for pumping water throughout the district of King Weston, a job one of my uncles would later have. Grandpa also had a sound system called King Selena Sound. The sound system included five-foot speaker boxes, piled atop of each other, in the street or venue of the event where he was playing. They were responsible for playing his musical selections during his deejay set.
Grandpa died a few months before I was born. My memories of him are through the lens of his children and wife. One afternoon, my cousin and I sat on Grandma’s veranda pestering her to tell us stories about her youth. She told us that one night when Grandpa was playing his sound system at a nearby community, Grandma accompanied him. While he was playing his deejay set at the dance, a woman approached Grandma, ready to fight her. The woman was interested in Grandpa and thought she could fight Grandma to gain his affection. Grandma twirled the gold wedding band on her left hand while she reminisced on the days of her youth. I stared at her, trying to picture a younger version of her fighting, or even attending a dance. All I could see was our similar facial features and the possibility of what I would look like in my older years. It was hard to picture the life she lived before “Mummy” or “Grandma.”
Two days before the funeral, we painted Grandma’s house. The exterior had faded into a pale shade of orange and disintegrated into flakes of peach on the veranda. I stood there for a while before entering the door that led to her bedroom. The house was quiet. I waited to hear her call my name, but the stillness of silence occupied the sound where her voice was usually. I walked into her living room next.
Grandma was an unintentional hoarder. Not the kind whose possessions formed a maze she couldn’t navigate, but a collector of sorts. Sometimes I thought of her house as Noah’s Ark, where she collected things in pairs. A lot of her treasures (or junk as my mom called them) came in the form of gifts from her children, family heirlooms, or pieces she inherited when her friends died. She had two fridges, one she used and one that served as a backup in case the other broke down. She also had two microwaves — a broken one that became a stand for the new one. Two couches were squeezed into a space too small to hold them. Her most recent acquisition before her first stroke was a second whatnot and breakfront to compliment the ones already in her living room. Her house was a museum of stories only she knew how to retell. When we decided who would keep the various things in breakfronts and whatnots, I tried to formulate which stories of her I would attach to each of them.
It rained on the day of the funeral. Not a sprinkling or a drizzle, a loud and thunderous rain beat down on the roof of the church a few moments after the ceremony started. In some cultures, rain on the day of a funeral means a virtuous person has died and they will be admitted into heaven. God cried tears of joy in honor of His reunion with one of his most beloved angels. My mom and I joked about my grandma wanting to make a grand entrance into heaven for her homecoming.
I didn’t know how to deal with death. On the day of the funeral, I struggled to process everything and couldn’t come to terms with burying Grandma. I refused to view the body because I wanted to preserve the version of her that was alive in my memory. Before the funeral, family members gathered at The Humble Cottage. Women crowded in Grandma’s room, primping and plucking. I sloppily tied my hair into its usual topknot. I mimicked my cousins’ makeup application, smearing on shadows and creams, unsure of what I was doing. I was in a daze. None of it felt real. As the hearse drove, my cousins and I joined the procession of cars en route to the funeral. The funeral was my first time inside Grandma’s church. I had seen it from the outside countless times — like when my mom would give my grandma a ride to her Sunday service. I promised myself I would attend a service with her during one of my annual visits to Jamaica. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to.
The exterior of Mount Caramel Apostolic Church reminded me of a house. The cross protruding from the roof was the only indication that it was a church. As the crowd of mourners slowly doubled in size, my family and I made our way inside. I was in awe. The interior was painted turquoise — a shade similar to one we painted the outside of Grandma’s house. I wondered if this is what inspired the paint colour. Hand painted murals of brightly coloured flowers and crosses covered the walls. Two floors of pews slowly filled with familiar and unfamiliar faces. As is customary in Jamaica, a person’s workplace will send a few representatives to accompany their employee to their loved one’s funeral. Soldiers, policemen, and teachers came to support my uncles and aunts. I sat in the second row beside my twin cousin, a title we created after years of using our similar facial features to trick people into thinking we were fraternal twins.
A large, bulky brown casket was a few feet away from me. It was hard to picture the velvety interior of the box as the home Grandma would live in forever. How could that be Grandma’s house without her trinkets, or soap operas, or me? Where would I call home now that Grandma’s heart had stopped beating? The pastor stood at the podium and said a few opening words. “This really is the end,” I thought to myself. I tried to cry tears that wouldn’t come to my eyes. So instead I sat there, waiting for my turn to honour her.
Writing was always a way for me to speak without stuttering. Growing up, I was a painfully shy introvert, and stuttering didn’t help my plight. Luckily, there was always a loud-talker who saved me from my awkwardness and befriended me. In grade three, that person was Gabrielle. We spent hours running up my home phone bill talking about the school day’s events. Eventually, we started writing poems together. My love affair with words and poetry outlasted our friendship. Before Grandma got sick, I shared a poem I wrote about her with my mom. She asked me to read it at the funeral and I asked my twin cousin to join me. My grandma knew of my love for writing and books. I spent hours perched on her sofa curled up writing or reading stories. Though I never had the chance to share them with her, I was honoured to pay tribute to her through my work.
I expected myself to cry while my cousin and I recited the poem. Instead, looking up from my paper, I occasionally made eye contact with no one in particular in the sea of mourners. My cousin and I returned to the pew. Her mom consoled my uncle a few feet away. The tears didn’t come when Grandma’s best friend delivered a touching recollection of their decades of friendship and strong bond. The tears didn’t come when my cousin broke down halfway through his saxophone tribute and his mom had to help him off the stage. The second time my name was called during the service, it was to help my mom honour Grandma through song. She had tried and failed to get one of King Weston’s accomplished musicians who frequented Grandma’s house to attend the funeral, so she settled for me.
“Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood was the song my mom chose to honour Grandma’s pilgrimage to the Lord. I had long ago abandoned my dreams of being a singer. One of the last times I sang publicly was on Grandma’s veranda, to the audience of my grandma, uncles and cousin when I was in grade seven. Almost a decade later, I was singing at her funeral. I made it through the first verse and chorus, with minor mistakes and kept my nerves at bay. Then the tears came. At first a stream, and then a river poured out of me. I hiccupped and hyperventilated my way to the end of the song.
The rain stopped right before it was time to take the casket to the grave. The dirt road meandering through the lush hills and flora was not accessible by car. We traded our heels for flats, linking arms while trying to navigate the slippery mud. I had walked down this trek once before on our Nicholson Family Fun Walk. Our parents had the idea to take my cousins and me along the dirt roads and tracks they frequented as children. As we carefully walked down the hill, the melancholy sound of Grandma’s church sisters singing one of her favourite hymns filled the afternoon air. A freshly built tomb lay beside Grandpa’s grave. After over twenty years of separation, their bodies were reunited. “The old man finally get some company,” my uncle said in his thick Jamaica accent.
The grave felt like one of those Russian dolls I played with as a child where the smaller ones fit into the bigger ones. It was made of concrete, in the shape of a box. The casket was placed inside the concrete- shaped box and inside the casket was Grandma. Men lowered the casket into the tomb, slowly sealing the grave with cement. The pastor led the church congregation in songs I heard Grandma humming after returning from a funeral. I hummed along, remembering the melodies she tapped her foot to, on the veranda. I held my twin cousin’s hand. I stood on a patch of dry grass, surveying the scene. My mom stood with her husband closer to the graveside, with a few of her siblings around her. One of my little cousins was playing in the mud a few feet away from us. Soon, his dad discovered him, and was scolded for tarnishing his shoes and clothes. It was the first time I had laughed in a while. I felt wrong to be happy during that moment. The second the laugh escaped my throat, I sent an alert to my brain to have it resume the somber look on my face.
After my grandmother was buried, I stood and watched my mom looking at the grave. The picture of her and my older cousin staring at Grandma’s tomb will forever be etched in my mind. I turned and linked arms with my twin cousin, preparing myself for our walk up the hill. The air was still fresh with the smell of rain. I always loved the rain. That day, I felt the celebration of Grandma joining my ancestors. They rained down silent prayers blessing the new homes we were forced to make outside of Miss Ett.
Renee Ashley (@reneeashallen) is a Jamaican writer who loudly and proudly calls Scarborough home. Her work focuses on all things longform, lifestyle and pop culture criticism. Her writing appears in Thought Catalog, Zora and This Magazine (Forthcoming). She’s currently a Master of Teaching candidate at the University of Toronto, with a book collection that keeps outgrowing her bookcase.