Archives For grandchildren

Passing, and Not

August 28, 2021 — 11 Comments

Reading at the moment takes place in spurts – paragraphs interrupted by the demands of my granddaughters. Interruptions to which I am happy to cater, such is the treat of seeing them after two and half years. 

I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country reopened in mid July to returning nationals, and those non-citizens who are fully vaccinated, yet still under a State of Emergency (SOE) which has recently been extended until the end of November. Masks are mandated everywhere, even in the privacy of your own car, for everyone over the age of eight. And yet, and yet, the Delta variant has spread its tentacles. At the moment confined but we’ve been lulled into false security in other parts of the world. 

Bella da Costa Greene

Aside from the vagaries of COVID, my willingness to put down my book was severely tested whilst reading The Personal Librarian, brilliantly written by a new partnership of two authors, Maria Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book that tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, a young Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. The woman who became personal librarian to J P Morgan, who travelled to Europe on manuscript buying trips and who controlled his library for over forty years. Belle rubbed shoulders with the rich and very rich whilst living a dual life. I can only imagine the sheer exhaustion invoked by having a public persona so different to that of her private one. It puts the much-touted travails of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, rather in perspective.

The lure of The Personal Librarian nudged me to pick the book up each time moments of grand-parenting respite loomed. My knowledge, I would not presume to say understanding or the emotional toll, of Black passing as white has increased a hundredfold.

Josephine Baker

The book reminded me of a recent headline on BBC.co.uk – “Josephine Baker to be first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon.” The mausoleum in Paris, where she will be inducted in  November, is where those deemed French icons are honoured. Her neighbours will be luminaries like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. A Black American woman who fled her segregated home country to be recognised for bravery as a spy and resistance worker during World War II in her adopted country, France. That’s quite a story for the baby born to a washerwoman in St Louis, Missouri, who helped support her siblings by cleaning houses from the age of eight before running away at thirteen to work as a waitress. As the French embraced American jazz, they embraced Josephine Baker – as ironically did fellow Americans, Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings. As fame came to the girl born Freda Josephine McDonald, so did an insistence that every contract signed contain both a nondiscrimination clause and assurances her audiences be integrated.

Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of the inequities, along with slavery, that darken American history that prompted me to read more fully another snippet spotted in the news – “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Who, I wondered are the Harlem Hellfighters? And why are they being recognised?

Again France plays a role.

Harlem Hellfighters

Against the backdrop of Jim Crow’s America during the First World War many white servicemen would not bear arms with Black men and so the 2000 men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, 70% of whom came from Harlem, were assigned to the French Army. They  wore the US army uniform but their weapons were French. As a fighting unit they spent longer than any other US military regiment in the field of combat during the War – 191 days, and were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. At the Second Battle of Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, the 369th Regiment suffered huge casualties, with 144 killed. 

With the end of the War, and only a month after armistice, and in recognition of the Harlem Hellfighters pivotal role in Europe, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, with a citation for the same award being presented to the entire unit. Two members, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were singled out for courage beyond the call of duty and were awarded the Croix de Guerre with “a special citation for extraordinary valour.”

It took the United States many years to recognize the tenacity and bravery of these two men in particular, finally posthumously awarding them the Purple Heart. In 2002 Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which in 2015 was upgraded by President Obama to the Medal of Honor.

In August 2021 President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a long overdue recognition of an incredible fighting force known variously as: Black Rattlers, due to the rattlesnake insignia; Men in Bronze, the name given them by their French comrades; Bloodthirsty Black Men which was how German soldiers saw them which morphed in the Hellfighters. 

The Harlem Hellfighter motto, “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go,” is perhaps also a fitting adage for Belle da Costa Greene and Josephine Baker. And in another touch of irony, it was the Harlem Hellfighters who introduced jazz to France.

As I read to my bi-racial grandchildren each evening, savouring the time I have with them, I hope the love of the written word will lead them, when they are older, to follow tidbits of news from which they can learn of the true heroics of people often overlooked, or looked down upon, by their own countries. To stir their curiosity to better understand that courage comes in all colours.

The Day That Was!

June 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

The monsoon season has made itself felt on and off all day and the frog song and cricket chorale are in full voice. They are the sounds of my childhood and transport me back to Africa and Asia. Tonight though I am in Trinidad. I am revelling in the symphony that surrounds me, interspersed with the occasional car being driven as if it is the circuit at Le Mans and not a narrow road meandering through Cascade, Port of Spain,

It has been a long day. It started at 5:30 with a warm little body snuggling up to me. My granddaughter likes her morning snuggles. We have reached an accord. I will cuddle but will not budge from bed until 6, when her little tummy sounds the alarm for breakfast. Who needs reveille? My other granddaughter meanwhile was glued to the iPad watching Jessie, a fairly innocuous program about a Texan nanny, a butler, and various children of different ethnicities all living in a penthouse in New York. I have yet to figure out where the parents are.

Which brings me to my granddaughter’s mother. My daughter, Kate. She is in London finessing the art of pole fitness in preparation for teaching it, along with classical ballet and Pilates – once her residency status is confirmed. Hopefully a rubber stamp as she is married to a Trinidadian. I am therefore helping out with the children so my son-in-law can earn a daily crust.

But I was telling you about my long day.

Not only am I responsible for two little beings. Getting them to school and nursery, along with packed lunches, water bottles, homework for one and any other seemingly extraneous necessity by 8 each morning, I am also playing Gigi to two dogs, a cat and a goldfish. I managed to kill the other goldfish, though in my defense little Johnny did not look well when I arrived.

Now I love animals and am a firm believer in children growing up with them. Responsibility and respect is taught, not to mention the sheer joy of pets. I was prepared for two grandchildren, one dog, one cat and two goldfish. The puppy was an unintended addition. Kate is a soft touch for waifs and strays – and days before my arrival they found an orphan pot hound on a trash heap at Cedros, in the south of the island. He was injured, riddled with worms and starving. She would not be my daughter had she left him to die.

The puppy, of indeterminate parenthood, is sweet natured. Their elderly Staffordshire is a dear and loving dog with humans and, strangely, the family cat, but any other dog, or gecko, or balloon, or kite is an anathema to his doggy psyche. This being the case, two days of a newly energetic and irritating puppy was enough to make him snap. Fortunately Buddy did not go for the jugular but rather a firm bite to the belly, puncturing the puppy’s little abdomen.

A tearful daughter on the phone before I left Houston, and she left Port of Spain, and I  found myself calming her down with the words, “I’ll take him. He can come and live in Houston with Bonnie.” I should add here that Bonnie is a deaf kitten I rescued from certain drowning off the Boardwalk in St Croix.

In order to keep the peace, and the vet’s bills to a minimum, we – my long-suffering son-in-law, the children and I – have had to come up with a system of separation. One dog in, one dog out. One dog in the loo, one in the kitchen. Meal times are tricky. Both dogs love cat food and loiter with intent if they have managed to avoid capture and / or expulsion, whenever the cat, Jax, tries to eat his kibble. Meanwhile Lilly swims in solitary circles waiting for fish fodder.

By 7 am this morning, I had brokered a peace treaty between feuding granddaughters, cleaned up the cat’s vomit and the puppy’s poo from the welcome mat. I did mention it is the monsoon season and this puppy from the rubbish dump, in a matter of weeks, has rejected rough living and will not perform his ablutions in the rain.

The school run was accomplished with little fuss, both girls loving their respective places of learning and, as I waited for the gate securing me from the perils of Port of Spain to click shut, I decided I had earned a cup of coffee on the verandah.

It is my favourite spot in my daughter’s house – it’s where I’m sitting now – and as I sank into a chair with my steaming café au lait and the last of the brownies, I patted myself on the proverbial shoulder at a morning managed.

I phoned a friend. Our conversation was though abruptly cut off and the reason for the vomitting cat became clear. The other half of the ingested fledgling was clenched, vise-like, between the puppy’s needle-sharp teeth. Refusing to play ‘pull ‘with poor mangled creature, I tossed a squeaky toy and distracted Clyde long enough to retrieve the remains.

Twelve hours after this last incident, I am enjoying a large bourbon and water, listening to the timbre of the tropics and thinking how lucky I am. Between bodily functions and dead birds, we have painted plant pots, played pairs, flipped omelettes for supper and read The Little Mermaid.

It has been a long day, but messy details aside, a truly lovely day!

Christmas Winds!

December 21, 2016 — 11 Comments

The Christmas winds, barreling east from Africa, are bringing squalls and as I dodge great splodges of rain I hope for calmer weather when Jake’s Place fills with visitors in a few days. Christmas in the Caribbean sounds exotic, and much of it is, but whilst we don’t have to worry about hurricanes, or polar vortexes, at this time of year, we do want sunshine for friends who have chosen to share the festivities with us.

The last few days have been spent gussying the house up, making the tree and reminiscing as I hang ornaments reminding me of past Christmases. Camels, monkeys and elephants share branch space with more traditional baubles.

Not having children present this year, I have not put out the elf on whose blackboard the days are marked down until Santa magically appears. Not down the chimney but instead, as I explained to my grandchildren last year, on top of the gallery where he ties the reindeer to the defunct satellite dish so they don’t blow away in the aforementioned winds. That jolly fellow in the red suit then shimmies down and clambers in the open window to deposits his goodies. Spending just enough time to swig the rum, this is the Caribbean afterall, munch a mince pie, of course remembering to take the carrots aloft for the patiently waiting Rudolph and his cohorts.

As I listen to carols and sip sherry – another family tradition – I think that Christmas can be a strangely complicated time for many of us. Whether home or abroad. A nostalgic time. A time when thoughts drift back to childhood, either our own or our children’s. And when those children are grown and not sharing the season with us, whether due to distance, work or commitments to others, it is easy to fall into a malaise longing for things past.

A sentimental time – perhaps especially for those not spending it in their home country for the first time. The unfamiliar jostling the familiar. Perhaps the first warm Christmas, or conversely the first laden with snow – finally one that fits cards showing winterscapes with Breughel-like scenes.

Nostalgia though can be confused with homesickness. I think the trick to Christmas either spent abroad or away from home for the first time, for whatever reason, is to start new traditions. – whether we are the ones away or the ones still at home. Create new norms to each new situation. It doesn’t mean turning our backs on the old forever, it just requires a little adaptability. A different take on a familiar event. Watching, sometimes from afar, grown children with their own family merging traditions as well as forging new ones, gives me real joy.

More often than not, I ‘dress’ the house alone now, so when my husband or guests arrive on island all is ready, and as I listen to my favourite carolers I feel a sense of freedom. I have no one to answer too, to cajole into helping me. No eye-rolling teenager, or spouse grumpy because the lights wont work.

Nonetheless, there is a poignancy to the preparations. We relocated internationally a number of times when our children were young, with each place requiring slight adaptations, and of course assurances Santa would find them in their new abode – whether he had to row along a klong, find us in a high-rise or squeeze down a chimney. Memories pop up with each ornament. The elephant decorations came from Thailand, the monkeys from West Africa. The slightly wonky Santa face was the first decoration my son made, oh so many years ago. It has travelled many miles.

When both my grown children were with us last year, with their respective partners and our grandchildren, we reverted to their childhood traditions – though with Mimosas instead of OJ. My daughter took her usual position at the tree doling out presents. My son pretended indifference, except when watching his nieces, but actually enjoyed the roles into which we all naturally fell.

This year will be different again. And that, to me, is what makes Christmas such fun. Old and new customs melding to add to the memories – the odd culinary disaster becoming ever enlarged as it is recounted year after year.

So for those having a different kind of Christmas this year, remember wherever you are is home for the time being, and revel in the newness rather than succumbing to saccharine sentimentality. Santa will find you.

And now I must go and rehang the camel – those darn Trade Winds! May your day be filled with warmth of both hearth and heart as you recall old memories and create new ones.

Merry Christmas!