Meeting Mrs. Shearer

K drives down from the hillside, back into the chaos of downtown. She expertly manoeuvres past cars, around wayward pedestrians — and stops off at the hardware store run by one of my distant relatives.

The lady I’m about to meet is related to my mother’s father’s side of the family*, but everyone knows her as Mrs. Shearer.

She’s busy with the operations of her business — which I completely understand —  but she does make a little time for us.

She says she doesn’t have anything that say about my great-aunt Ellen – those are questions for Milda. (I don’t see it at the time, but my cousin says she makes a face at my mention of Milda’s name. Apparently Milda was quite the piece of work in her youthful days.)

Before leaving for my trip, my mother told me she thought that Mrs. Shearer would be glad to meet me and help. Now that I’m in her presence, I’m not so sure.

She makes an almost-dismissive comment (at least, to me) about “Canadians always asking about the family tree stuff”, and when I mention the gentleman who seems to have done the same thing I’m doing now, she says, “That’s him.” Apparently he’s due to come down to Jamaica for a family reunion (for more immediate members of his family) in August.

She tells me my great-grandfather was one of three brothers (her grandfather being one of the other brothers), and they were really close. (My mother has said the brothers had a bit of an unsavoury reputation in the community where they lived.)

They all had nicknames, so she isn’t sure of what their real names are. That doesn’t surprise me.  She makes a brief phone call to ask someone (I’m assuming another relative) if they can recall, but no dice.

Mrs. Shearer says she’ll try to consult the “book” (of family information, I presume) and get back to me. I would have to drop by and check with her.

Then it’s back on the road, going from errand to errand with K, before heading home for the evening.

It’s been a whirlwind past couple of days, and I’m still trying to process the bits and pieces I’ve learned. But it seems that this portion of my trip is done. We’ll see what else is in store.

*My great-grandfather (on my mother’s father’s side) and her grandfather (her mother’s father) were brothers … which I think makes me her second cousin, once removed? Genealogy experts, let me know if I’m remotely right. I had to look this up on the internet, and I’m still not sure.

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The Other Side of the Family

After leaving Aunt Milda, K and I drive to see another relative : my late father’s half-sister, Pat.

We pull up outside the gate of the house. It’s a large two-apartment building. The front yard is basically gravel, and several dogs of various sizes are either lying in the shade or roaming around.

K does NOT like dogs. By the looks of one of them in particular (a medium-sized, Rottweiler-looking SOB named Rex), I don’t blame her one iota.

Aunt Pat appears from the upper apartment. As she makes her way down the steps, she summons her two granddaughters to move the dogs to the back of the house so we can eventually come inside.

Pat opens the gate, comes to the car, and we exchange greetings.

“You look the same,” she says through the rolled-down car window. She immediately follows this up with, “Your belly’s getting fat,” and reaches into the car to run her hand over my belly, as if she’s smoothing out a wrinkle in my t-shirt.

I’m behaving today, so despite what I’m actually thinking, I let it slide.

Inside her apartment, we take a breather from the unrelenting heat.

She shares the apartment with my younger cousin — who’s at work when we visit — his wife and their two-year-old son. My older cousin – and his family live in the unit below. One of his daughters – who’s 13 – sits in one of the chairs at the far end of the living room, looking at me every so often.

My older cousin passes by the doorway for a moment to say hi, before disappearing again.

My aunt brings K and I up to speed on what she’s been dealing with. She mentions that she heard about the family research I’ve been doing (I guess my mother had asked her on my behalf, and I’d forgotten about it), but says she doesn’t really know much about her side of the family. She’s from a generation where relatives didn’t say much and, if you asked, told you to mind your own business.

She does give me a couple of scraps of information I wasn’t expecting – my grandmother’s middle name, where her father was from (St. Elizabeth parish), and she also suggests that the woman I’d been told was my father’s grandmother (with whom he was really close) may not have been his biological grandmother, but someone who looked after my grandmother.

(Did she mean, when my grandmother was a little girl? Or perhaps when she was pregnant with my father? It’s not clear.)

Aunt Pat mentions that my younger cousin has quite a collection of family photos, both originals and scanned images. She gets my older cousin’s daughter to fetch them so I can take a look.

A few of them are of my grandmother and her husband – taken when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old. Others include photos of my grandmother, aunt and cousins through the years — at social events, at church, at the boys’ weddings.

Pat says I can take some of them, if I want. I feel kind of weird about it – they are my cousin’s photos after all. But she insists that it’s okay. She even gets ahold of the photo collage my cousin’s put together, and removes a couple of photos for me to keep.

We’re given some guineps to take when we go – and we leave … eventually.

Milda Speaks.

I don’t see Milda at first, because the adult care nurse is trying to wake her up.

As K and I file into the room, we see this tiny woman, startled out of her morning nap, slowly sit up, blinking and and trying to get her bearings.

So this is the infamous Aunt Milda, I think, my mind shuffling through all the things – for better or for worse – that I’ve heard about this lady.

Aside from her wee, skinny frame, she’s dressed in a patterned housedress and a beige head-tie. She puts her hand on her forehead and pulls it upward, as if the gesture helps her to see more clearly.

We tell her our names, and who we are, by way of our mothers’ pet names.  It takes about several tries back and forth, but we think she eventually gets it. (As she tells us a bit later, she’s hard of hearing — but that tends to happen when you’re her age.)

I give her a scarf that my mom sent for her as a gift. She can’t use it in this heat, but hopefully she’ll make good use of it when the evenings get cooler.

I suddenly kind of lose my nerve and my brain briefly goes blank. What on earth do I ask her? Where do I start?

K kind of prompts me to start — we haven’t got all day — so I sort of stammer out my first question about her siblings …

The conversation’s not completely linear, but when Milda says something I recognize, I start jotting things down.

I ask (awkwardly) about Ellen and where she lived in Canada, and Milda mentions Montreal – she doesn’t mention any other place in our conversation – and that she died years ago. (This isn’t news to me.)

My cousin listening to my great-aunt.
My cousin listening to my great-aunt.

She mentions there were four sisters — which I presume includes Ellen and herself — and gives me the names of the others, who she says died in 1934 and 1936. (Close enough.)

She says Ellen returned to Jamaica in 1938, and that she actually had tried to send for Milda to come to Canada, but things didn’t pan out.* Her big sister suggested instead that she try going to live with her Uncle Jon in the United States. Sadly, that path never materialized either, as he died, and his widow returned to Jamaica.

Milda then mentions the names of her aunt — the sister of my great-grandmother, Jane Ann Clarke, who I’d found in records last November —  and another uncle, whose names I’d discovered around the same time, but couldn’t be too sure of … until now.  That’s one great-great-aunt and two great-great-uncles**!

She also reveals something else. In a low, almost mischievous tone, she proudly proclaims her age, and that she hasn’t told anyone – she’s not even sure her own children know how old she is! She says her 100th birthday will be next March.

After that, the conversation turns away from talk of family that’s passed, and she chatters about life in the home — how independent she is (and how she hopes to stay that way), perhaps even complaining about things, but she seems so happy as she speaks, it’s hard to tell.

She talks about the food and snacks she gets – I’m assuming they’re not exactly up to snuff – and K asks her what she would like Milda to bring her the next time she visits.

Without so much as batting an eyelash, she says, “I would really like some Kentucky Fried Chicken — it’s nice.” (I think it takes everything for either of us not to completely crack up.)

Before either of us forget, I snap a few photos on my smartphone. I can’t come all this way and not get a picture of the woman I’ve waited months to see!

When we ask, she pauses and — putting her hand to her forehead — says no … not until she can put on her wig. We smooth talk her into taking a photo just as she is, and voila.

2015-07-22 14.11.28I’m not sure how much time we spend there, but Milda chats for a very long time. K silently asks me whether we should go, and I say yes (a little reluctantly).

I leave with my cousin with a lot of unanswered questions.

I still don’t know why Ellen left, what kinds of things she might have seen living in Canada, or when she died (other than “many years ago”).

But I hope (selfishly) that if Milda’s lived for this long, that she gets to live another year – I’d like to see her reach 100, and I’d like to see her again.

Now that we know where she is (for the time being), I hope that my relatives drop in from time to time to check up on her.

(Photos are mine. Please do not use without permission.)


*THIS is new information.

**I’ve actually found three great-great uncles through records. Even though Milda didn’t mention the third – and oldest – by name, confirming the others lets me safely assume that he’s also from the Clarke branch of the family.

Searching For “The Lady”

2015-07-22 10.34.06

Wednesday, July 22nd.

I’m so tired from the day before, I sleep in until 9. I get up and apologize to K for oversleeping. She dismisses my apology, saying she understands.

Breakfast is a big plate of ackee, saltfish, roasted breadfruit, dumplings and banana (which didn’t have that taste I dislike) — filling and absolutely delicious!

Then, it’s out of the house and on the road. Today’s objective: finding our great-aunt Milda.

We know she’s in a nursing home (or “adult care” home, as they’re called down here) in the community of Mount Salem, which is just outside Montego Bay proper. We don’t know the name – just that there are a couple of homes, and she’s in one of them.

After stopping several times to ask for directions, we finally pull up in front of one. Looking beyond the front gate, we see a few people sitting out on the long “porch”.  To be honest, the place doesn’t look very home-y.

The gate’s a bit hard to open, and it doesn’t open very wide, but we manage to squeeze through. We approach a guy sitting at a desk just inside the building, give Milda’s name and ask if she’s there. He says no – apparently she had been there last year, but had been moved. They don’t know where she’s gone.

I’m not immediately discouraged. But I can literally see K’s shoulders slump. She’s already frustrated.

The prospect of searching for a nonagenarian in this sweltering heat isn’t appealing in the least. But we have to find her.

And, as we’re about to find out, there are more than two adult care homes in Mount Salem.

We’re directed to another one farther down on the same street. As soon as we pull up in front of it, I take one look at what lies behind the gates and know there’s no way Milda is here.

There are a couple of residents in sitting in wheelchairs. One of them looks like he’s barely awake. A young woman is sprawled out, stomach down, on a run-down couch.

Having heard about my great-aunt’s reputation for complaining, I know she wouldn’t put up with a place like this.  But still, we try.

We approach a worker standing in a nearby doorway and ask for our aunt. She says she doesn’t know and suggests we check with the front “office”, which was a closed door just behind us.

After knocking several times, the door opens a sliver. K asks the woman behind the door if our aunt is there. She says there are no Campbells there, and closes the door.

We’re walking back towards the front gate, when the worker gestures for us to come back. She says there are two other nursing homes a couple of streets over that we could try.

Back in the car, K calls our uncle to see if he knows the name of the adult care home where Milda’s living. He calls back several minutes later with the answer.

We pull up in front of the gate at home number 3. My t-shirt is starting to cling to my back, so I’m truly hoping this is the place.

The nurse in charge confirms that Milda is there, brings us inside and finds us places to sit while we wait. We’re under the impression that perhaps they’ll bring Milda out.

But 10 minutes pass. Then 15. Then 20 …

I look around. One resident keeps trying to wander into the kitchen. Another sits slack-jawed in a chair on the other side of the room. A little boy — around two years old — runs in and out of the house.

There’s a woman sitting adjacent to me. I presume she’s visiting her relative, who’s barely awake and sitting in the couch across from me.

She tells him she has to get to the bank and needs him to sign something. He’s practically comatose. She puts a pen into his immobile hand, wraps hers around it and literally guides it along the bank form.

I turn to K, and she suggests that perhaps Milda’s sleeping and that we should return later.

I’m reluctantly agree. What can we do? She’s sleeping, and we can’t sit here all day.

When the nurse re-appears, we tell her this.

“Oh!” she says. “I’m so sorry – I thought you were here to visit with her,” referring to the lady who basically just forged her relative’s signature. We shake our heads.

“This has been a complete misunderstanding. Please let me offer my apologies. I’ll take you to her,” she says.

But isn’t she’s SLEEPING? I’m thinking …

But we’re up on our feet. The nurse walks over to a room just off the main sitting area and opens the door …

(Photo taken above is mine. Please do not use without permission.)

Touchdown in Jamaica

Tuesday, July 21st.

Sangster International Airport.

I’ve been standing in the very long customs lineup for about a half-hour. It’s still relatively cool in the airport, so that’s a small mercy.

I chat with a man standing behind me. He’s Jamaican-born, for sure, but currently lives in Virginia. As we inch closer to the front of the line, he catches the eye of the customs officers at one of the kiosks. She’s apparently his cousin.

She unfastens the cordon to let him out of line and over to the nearest kiosk. He looks at me, and I nod — I get it. He’s got an in. But just before I turn to face the person in front of me, there’s some hesitation, and with some fleeting (non-verbal) reluctance, she does me a solid and lets me line-jump, too. He gives his cousin some money for the favour.

After exchanging some currency and finding my suitcase, I finally exit.

Outside, it’s a zoo. Taxi drivers trying to get business, people trying to collect their relatives. I scan the crowd and can’t see anyone I recognize. My cousin K spots me first and gets my attention. Thank goodness!

A lot’s changed in the 22 years since my previous trip. For starters, my cousin can now drive! (She’s had a licence for several years, but has only been driving since January.) So she’ll be putting on quite a few kilometres during my short week here.

First stop on the itinerary is our uncle Eucline’s house in the neighbourhood of Flanker. He’s lived there for many years. It’s been known in the past for being a bit of a rough place, but it’s gotten better.

K parks outside the front gate. We call his name and knock on the door. No answer. Folks across the street tell us he went into town, so we’ll have to check back later.

We then drive to another neighbourhood, where her older sister (my cousin living in Milwaukee) is building a house.

Right now, the site’s a concrete foundation (above ground – there’s no basement) with a flight of steps. Rebar is sticking out everywhere.

Behind the structure, a young, shirtless guy is standing in the doorway of a makeshift plywood shelter, chatting away on his cell phone. He calls himself Feather (which sounds like “Fedda” to my untrained Canadian ear). He’s picked a bunch of fruit, some of which K buys.

We walk next door to say hi to someone my mother apparently knows. K yells through the locked gate. The woman eventually answers from just inside the house … but she can’t come out. She’s apparently house-sitting while the rest of the family is away — seems that no one’s really supposed to know that no one’s at home, lest someone try to break in.

Next, K drives us over to the neighbourhood of Ironshore, where my Uncle Egton lives.

I’ve forgotten how big and colourful some of these houses are. Not that I’ve never seen mansions before (from a moving car), but some of them are breathtaking.

We turn onto the unpaved “road” that leads uphill to my uncle Egton’s house. At the top, K stops in front of the huge gate and calls out. He eventually emerges, walking slowly, aided by a cane (not from old age – he served in the British military and was shot in Ireland in the early 1970s) and opens the gate.

As K attempts to reverse park, I gaze at my uncle. He’s wearing glasses, but no shirt (because of the heat). I’m looking for any sort of recognition. He seems to be scowling, but it’s likely because of the sun’s glare.

I’m not sure he recognizes me.

We lock the car and walk over. We say hello. I get a good look at my uncle, smile, and give him a hug. I’m not sure what he might be thinking. Maybe that’s a good thing.

We walk through the house and out to the back porch. It’s enclosed with a white geometrically-patterned iron gate, and faces his empty in-ground pool. The interior paint job is chipped and faded. Beyond the pool and chain-linked fence, there’s a fantastic view of the water. Homes of various sizes dot the hillside.

Egton’s still the same quiet guy I vaguely remember from two decades ago, and is very pleasant. While we chat, I mention that I’m also in Jamaica to see Aunt Milda and do some family research.

I think that gets his attention. He smiles, and says that he’s been thinking about doing a family tree for some time. He also says that Aunt Milda isn’t necessarily the nicest person, that she likes to cuss people out.

K chimes in, saying she has a fiery personality. In fact, because of her reputation, K refers to her as “the lady”.

Also? Unlike my mom, Uncle Egton’s technologically inclined — he has two cell phones and a tablet! I get his contact information and promise to keep in touch.

We leave and drive back to Uncle Eucline’s house. This time he’s home, and I get a big hug from him. He’s still the same – but with one exception

Where’s the rest of you?” I ask. He’s lost a LOT of weight. K and Uncle Eucline laugh.

We all chat for a bit, and I take a few photos. I give him my mom’s gifts: a short-sleeved shirt, and a little outfit for his 8-month-old grandson.

After the visit, we stop for patties, then it’s over to my cousin’s home, in the neighbourhood of Irwin. It’s a very cute house, on a corner lot.

I don’t know how I wasn’t sweaty from all the moving around. But less than 10 minutes after walking through her front door, I just start sweating – profusely. It’s as if my pores just give way.

K makes me a cup of tea, and invites me to sit out on her front porch, where there’s a bit of a nice breeze.

But not for long. We’re out the door again, because it’s discount night at the movies. There’s a line at the multiplex, but we manage to get in and catch (three-quarters of) the new Terminator movie — complete with intermission.

By the time we leave the theatre and go over to a local fast-food joint for some jerk chicken, I can’t stop yawning. I’m ready to sleeeeeep.

K skillfully drives us home in the dark, and I’m all too happy to call it a night.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to track down Aunt Milda.

We’ll see what happens.

I’m Back!

Hey everyone!

Sorry for the radio silence. I’m now back from Jamaica, and trying to (a) re-adjust from the oppressive heat down there, to the humidity up here and (b) re-orient myself back into some sort of routine.

I’m also trying to collect my thoughts on what happened in my short week down there with family. So stay tuned – I should be cranking out entries within the next week or so. It’ll be part genealogical update, and part travelogue.

Have a great weekend – and for my Canadian breathren, happy August long weekend (if your neck of the woods observes it)!