Caribbean Mother’s Day: I always marvel at mothers like my maternal grandmother Violet Chan Keong, who arrived in Harlem from Trinidad. She was newly divorced and travelling with three small children, including my mother. She left behind three older children.
It would take more than a decade before they would reunite. Once settled in Harlem, my grandmother worked day, night, and weekends taking care of other people’s children and cleaning other people’s homes. She was very resourceful. Grandma came here to work. Her side businesses included work as a seamstress, tailor, caterer and special events planner, especially Caribbean weddings. She taught me how to cook, clean, garden, sew, knit, crochet, manage events and read palms.
Like thousands of Caribbean mothers, Grandma Violet was motivated by the American dream. She saved every penny so she could send for her children and provide for the ones living with her. She did not worry about her daughters back home because they lived with our extended Caribbean family. Grandmother belonged to a unique network of tough West Indian mothers who learned by trial and error how to hold everything together in their cold new world.
Grandmother participated in a sou-sou, an old-fashioned Caribbean savings cooperative similar to a lottery. A group of people deposited an equal amount of money for a period of time (monthly or bi-weekly) with a trusted banker in the circle. After that time was up, each person in the circle got a turn to keep the full pot.
Grandmother’s sou-sou and her extra jobs provided for all of the family’s needs—a new home, trips back to Trinidad and raising the children who lived with her. Her generation did not believe in banks, loans or credit cards. Everything was about sacrifice and integrity! There were lots of letters and barrels sent back and forth between Trinidad, “BG”-British Guyana and New York. Articles such as clothing, fabric, sewing supplies, toiletries, books, magazines and traditional food and religious items were shipped on a regular basis. My elders shared everything in their tight-knit Caribbean community, especially precious news, letters and photos from back home. I inherited quite a collection of exotic postal stamps, news clips and photos from that time.
Most importantly, I learned about my family’s cultural history —from our mother and grandmother’s stories. With each barrel sent and each new arrival from the old country, there were stories, photos and new chapters about Trinidad and Guyana’s independence. I was a teen when my Aunt Elaine, my mother’s oldest sister, arrived in NY. I was given her name as my middle name. Aunt Elaine’s son William lived with us in Brooklyn while he attended Howard University. I can recall the scene. There they were, sisters meeting for the first time–laughing and crying tears of joy. Circumstances, family drama, post-colonial politics and immigration laws were some of the reasons for this belated reunion. So, on Mother’s Day, I give a special salute to Caribbean mothers everywhere for your courage and sacrifices to start a new life. Check out how Mother’s Day is celebrated around the world: http://time.com/94286/mothers-day-2014-world/