In a filing cabinet in my bedroom, there is an old, battered, sweets tin filled with scented oils in miniature glass vials. I had collected the oils and other items from my mother’s flat just before she moved into residential care. Each bottle bore a fading typewritten label describing its contents: ‘Success Oil’, ‘Evil Away’ or just ‘Protection’, sacred oils my mother used in her shrine and her spiritual practice, during her daily prayers and religious rituals.
My rationale for keeping the oils was not clear. Was it memory? nostalgia? Were my motives archival? The oils remind me of the ever-present knowledge hidden within my childhood home. Not of pain or trauma, but of the need to protect my mother’s beliefs from the outside world’s misunderstandings and ignorance, fears that criminalised and punished her religious practice. For me, my mother’s spirituality was simply her prayers, indivisible from her, and my memory of her.
Over the years, every now and then, I open the container and the overpowering fragrance of the oils evokes memories of my mother before her dementia set in. Since her death during a COVID-19 lockdown, the oils have become a potent reminder of my mother and my loss.
My mother was a gentle, soft-spoken, attractive woman, short and slim, with modish outfits and a respectable appearance. A clerk all her working life in London, her self-fashioning outwardly contradicted racist fantasies evoking fear and ridicule of Caribbean spiritual practitioners as mad, loud, wild, flamboyant, unkempt, foul-smelling and dirty individuals.
We arrived in London as part of the Windrush migration. After a few years of living like nomads my mother bought our first family home — an old Victorian terraced house. The newfound privacy allowed my mother to construct her shrine in our shared bedroom. The shrine’s primary purpose was to ask our ancestors to provide protection against those who wanted to harm our family and to request ancestral guidance and blessings via our prayers and offerings.
Inside my mother’s bedroom, the always closed curtains gave the room a dark painterly, Antillean feel, contrasting starkly with the exterior lighting. This was our threshold, between the past, present and imagined futures. My grandfather and nennenn appeared almost nightly in my mother’s dreams, with messages and signs that guided her choices. My mother deciphered and interpreted their messages for other family members. Advising individuals to avoid certain situations or people; to seek out an opportunity; to guard children against the evil of others. My mother’s shrine allowed her to carve out her own space, distinct from her roles as a salaried worker and mother.
For me, the shrine always represented my maternal Indo-Caribbean grandfather, ever present, who raised my mother and her siblings single-handed. The shrine honoured my mother’s memories of his warm, soothing, fatherly presence. Over time, during my nightly prayers at the shrine, the image of my grandfather started taking the place of my absent father. My grandfather’s presence calmed my childish fears, giving me gentle assurances to face the challenges of each new day. I always experienced the shrine as a benign presence, a space of serenity, warmth and comfort; but for many others, I learnt as I grew older, the shrine represented evil and harm.
Following my mother, I learnt to guard the shrine, keeping her room locked when she was out, while always having access to the key. Visiting relatives and family friends’ houses, it soon became clear that an altar of ancestral images, icons, oils, charms and offerings was an unusual feature in West Indian homes. At social gatherings I witnessed my mother’s discomfort at people from ‘back home’ mocking her beliefs. Their mistrust of my mother’s rituals also coloured and informed their attitudes towards me. Maybe because of this, my mother consciously withheld the meaning of the rituals of the shrine from me. Not wishing to add to her pain, I learnt not to speak of my mother’s prayers outside of our home. Over time this silence around the shrine would create a rift between us. Without knowing the meaning of the shrine rituals, it became increasingly difficult for me, as a child, not to absorb the feelings of shame others directed toward her and her practice.
Once established, her shrine became a constant feature in our subsequent family homes. The shrine was always placed on a small wooden rectangle table, covered with a white plastic lace tablecloth, next to a petite, patterned, Formica-laminated bedside dressing table. At the centre was a small white enamel pudding bowl, filled with vegetable oil, tinged with brown and red sediments of the scented oils, and scattered perfume bottles. A miniature wooden crucifix, and a small ceramic plaque of Psalm 23, were placed in front of the bowl, even though her most recited text was the psalm of protection,Psalm 91.
Always placed under the bowl, were my mother’s self-composed handwritten prayers and seals, the only surviving picture of her beloved father, and photos, given by relatives seeking prayers and guidance. In the middle of the basin floating on top of the scented oil was her handmade cotton wick. Her oil burners were made of small pieces of cardboard covered with tin foil, with her wick at its centre. Her wick, which seemingly never went out, allowed the oils to burn slowly and release their sweet fragrance. To my childhood self, the basin always seemed to be full and alight. The light-patterned wallpaper of her bedrooms and the dressing table mirrors gradually browned from the oils, leaving a sticky residue, and the altar’s plastic doilies became caked with candle wax. Smoke blackened the ceilings. There were a few nights as a child when I awoke to the smell of smouldering paper, the result of spitting candle flames catching the papers within the shrine, instilling in me a life-long fear of naked flames.
The candles surrounding my mother’s shrine were bought from our neighbourhood goods store, usually red, green or black, or by necessity the easily-available white candle, placed on utilitarian candleholders. At our home my mother would inscribe the candles, with her prayers, in tiny writing, using thin dressmaker’s pins. At first my mother’s candles were sanctified by the local Catholic priest. Over time priests began to decline her requests, obliging her to seek out other healers, far from our house in the white suburbs of North London, in the distant corners of inner London’s growing spiritualist churches. As London’s global South diasporic communities swelled, my mother found blessed and prepared candles and oils, books on the preparation of ritual candles and seals, Orula beads and Orishas presented in the style of Catholic saints in esoteric shops.
For me, my mother’s prayers always operated on the sensory level of smell. The shrine’s fumes permeated all aspects of our homes and could be smelt as you neared our doorway. The aroma of home. It was the same rich earthy perfume that imbued my mother’s skin and hair, reassuring and comforting, as she held me close. Patchouli oil, verbena, lavender, clove oil, sweet almond oils, sprays, and tallow inhabited my childhood consciousness. I have always thought of my mother’s scented presence as part of her uniqueness. The separation between my mother and myself, was my own misrecognition. For her sweet odour must also have been mine. At weekly bath times, sweet, thick, dark sticky oils were sprinkled over my hair and body as my mother said her prayers, giving my hair a pleasant rich sheen. Herbs and bits of bread soaked in milk, were added to my bath water, covering my skin with a thin layer of organic debris that could never be properly washed off. I also carried an amulet imbued with her oils on my clothing, until my early adolescence. My growing teenager’s self-consciousness meant that I grew tired of having to hide my charms from prying eyes in the communal school changing rooms.
My mother’s seals, herbal remedies and prayers brought people to our house in times of distress, as the West Indians’ dreams of education and improvement struggled against the grain of indifference. They came speaking in whispered voices, after work, in the late afternoon, with tales of close and distant relatives, court appearances, teenagers caught in the widening net of racist policing, and growing lists of alignments and illnesses. My mother held their confidences, their humiliations and healed their bodies as they moved from youth into middle and old age, returning to an older knowledge, a forbidden belief and its rituals.
Without payment, my mother dispensed her prayers, ritual baths, herbal tonics, with strict instructions, to give troubled souls paths to ease their pain. Her prayers and herbal shopping lists were written on tiny scraps of paper, to be hidden in handbags or wallets. Sometimes our visitors would bring with them, on her instruction, a cotton pillowcase, or a personal item upon which she would inscribe invocations and instructions.
I overheard in our small flat, the late night phone calls, where my mother gave emotional support and a listening ear. Conversations detailing the twists and turns of a life interrupted or ruptured, giving rise to an intense intimacy between my mother and the callers. But, these moments were ultimately short-lived and transactional.
For the callers, my mother’s prayers were their last resort, for most, she remained jan gajé/ the witch, a figure to be scorned. For the callers to have publicly acknowledged their use of her prayers to other West Indians or more importantly their religious community, would have opened them up to the same derision and suspicion that my mother experienced. The callers separated their seeking out the power of my mother’s prayers, as distinct and autonomous from their understanding of a God. Their wariness and mistrust remained constant, weakening the power of her prayers. For my mother, her prayers and her Catholic faith were one, each existing within the other, even though during my childhood, our family were not regular attendees of Catholic mass. This all came later, along with my mother’s visits to a wide array of spiritualist churches and healers.
If my mother’s prayers and older ways of knowing played any part in the lessening of a sentence, the dropping of charges, the easing of pain, the speeding up of a recovery, or simply terrifying a young person into a new pathway, it was soon forgotten. We would see her callers at gatherings, eight-day mourning rituals and funerals. Other than a brief greeting, they appeared mortified that they had sought out the old ways. They were now big city people, respectable citizens, regular or pentecostalist Christians, and her ways from ‘back home’ were best forgotten.
Each time, my mother hoped for some recognition, but her supplicants’ shame that she knew their troubles, weaknesses, and misjudgments, meant she had to be quickly erased from their consciousness, leaving her puzzled at the unanswered phone calls, the withheld invitations to a wedding or a christening. Throughout these rejections, my mother’s heart remained open.
News of the power of my mother’s prayers and remedies slowly spread to England-born West Indians. Following in the steps of older migrants, not quite knowing what to expect, they arrived, bringing their study worries, illnesses and burdens, forging ties across the generations. But, along with this intergenerational transmission also came the suspicion and derision. I grew increasingly angry on her behalf, at the callers’ rejections, and their hypocrisy. When they came back with a new worry, my mother always responded with kindness and sympathy accompanied by prayers, tonics and rituals.
With the promise of our return ‘home’ to the Caribbean fading into a distant memory, my mother’s morning tonics, herbal remedies, prayers, shrine and amulets appeared out of sync with a hostile 1970s London that demanded our total assimilation into British life. But I was also becoming increasingly intolerant of the time my mother spent on her prayers and others, when I needed more parental input and guidance from her.
Growing up in a predominately white working-class neighbourhood, outside of my relatives, all my childhood friendships were framed by this need to protect my mother’s prayers. I had to make sure I never invited friends into our home or showed any signs of my mother’s prayers. This Isolated me from the local children. Her silences and denial extended into other areas she wished to shield me from — discussions around sex and sexuality, our family’s mocking of my shyness and teenage blunders, and their rigid ideas of what constituted femininity. These silences were further compounded by my mother’s, at times, contradictory parenting style, simultaneously conservative and liberal, obliging me to obey her instructions unquestioningly, but not her actions in relationship to her prayers. Yet, she spurned traditional physical punishment, never raising her hand to me, trusting me to develop my independent path without judgment and later embracing some of my left-wing ideas.
An early rift between us occurred when my mother conflated my teenage rejection of the repressive Christian education and formal religion provided by my predominately white school, with a denial of her prayers. A religious education that, mirroring my mother’s approach to her rituals, demanded unquestioning belief and adherence. I was presented with a binary choice: embrace her prayers and the Catholic Church without questioning or understanding or reject both and tacitly accept the shame others directed towards her and her prayers.
As a teenager, I longed for her to engage in a dialogue with me on how to navigate my own sense of Caribbean identity. For my mother, I was born in the West Indies, therefore I was West Indian and she could not understand the questions I had about identity. So I turned to to the wider British Caribbean community for answers to these questions only to find them imbued with their own narrow, conservative styles of Christianity and limiting definitions of who and what was Caribbean. Reproducing the silence around the spiritual rituals my mother practised, it was this growing sense of social isolation that partly informed my decision to leave our family home.
Emotionally unable to completely reject her prayers without feeling a sense of betrayal, during her life I continued to accept her rituals each time I moved home, changed jobs, or at the birth of my child. I called upon her extensive homoeopathic remedies whenever I fell ill, wearing her amulets, now disguised as jewellery or gifts. However, these transactions always revived the power relationships, silences and tensions of my childhood, creating new antagonisms.
Maybe it is those long-buried childhood memories of watching my mother prepare the oils, prayers and candles for her shrine, that motivated my refusal to throw away her sacred oils. Alas, the scented oils have little meaning without her prayers and ritual knowledge. My mother’s prayers have become to me, like her mother tongue, St. Lucian Kwéyòl, warmly familiar through its rhythms and intonations, but I struggle to sense the meaning. I am left wondering about my mother’s conscious choice not to speak Kwéyòl to me or allow me to understand or share her religious practices, making me a mute witness to a language and a religious tradition that the wider world places so little value on. Was this her way of protecting me, from the derision she faced all her life? I will never know. Her prayers and Kwéyòl remain part of my maternal lexicon, but without their grammar and ritual. The half-remembered prayers of my mother exist within me as an instinctual response, a sensory memory, at times of personal crisis surfacing as a sharp bodily pain, drawing me in, to renew within me the faith and belief I held as a child, in the ancestral powers.
It was to those half-remembered rituals I turned, when attempting to recreate her shrine after her death, using a facsimile of her rituals to ask our ancestors to guide her passage through the earthly realm into the spirit plain. I began by reciting the psalm of protection over her body shortly after her passing. At home, I placed photographs of the ancestors alongside her collection of oils, filling my house with the overpowering smell of her shrine, evoking her presence, burning candles on a table placed in the centre of my living room, throughout the eight-day mourning ritual.
After my mother’s death, I inherited her ornate glass drinks cabinet that once took pride of place in our home. It now stands in my front room. On this cabinet, at first unconsciously, I placed the pictures from the shrine, my mother, maternal grandfather and other deceased family members, and it is here that I present my offerings to them, ensuring that my mother’s prayers dwell within me always, as instinctual and fragmentary reminiscences.
Ultimately it was my own antipathy and internalised shame that transformed my mother’s religious practice from a living though intangible cultural heritage into a kitschy relic of oil bottles that will, with time, lose their pungent presence, making me an outsider to a spirituality and its links to ancestral knowledge, temporalities, and geographies, unable to honour or pass on the traditions of my forebears.
Dedicated to the memory of my mother and my daughter.
 St. Lucian patois/Kwéyòl for godmother (Nennenn, was also my mother’s maternal aunt).
 The psalm the prophet Moses composed, while ascending into the cloud hovering over Mount Sinai. Moses recited the words of the psalm as protection from the angels of destruction.
Photo credits: Janice Cheddie