Edith White In Her Bedroom. Robin Farquharson Photos
In 1925 when me was seven years old, a fiery sermon bout “Doing God’s Will No Matter What” rose up inside Bush Town Redemption Tabernacle in Portland. I was sitting in the congregation with my brothers and sisters. It was a logwood church with zinc rooftop, dirt floor for the congregation, wooden rostrum for the preacherman and him family and for the choir of ten, and a wooden altar laden with pillows filled or leaking with cloth trimmings for every knee——bout fifty in all.
The dirt floor was mixed with sand since we were streets away from the sea. O Sea! O mighty Sea! Sea with stalls with fried bammy, festival, lobster, fried fish on every day except this yah day! O mighty long Sea where boats watched other boats leave, come, sell, “Fish! Fresh Fish for sale!” to those forcing them dollar bills at fishermen and complaining, “Me was the first one in a the line! How come everybody else a get serve before me!” But this day was Sunday. Sea was peace. Sea was still. Sea was listening to the Holy Ghost bangarang up the road, judging who was God. O Sea with me-story!
Mummy’s powerhouse voice led the choir in a fast rendition of Search me O God and know my heart I pray. Miss Mattie turned the tambourine in her hand, held it tighter, beat it faster, harder. Few of her seven hungry belly pickneys sucked them fingers while rolling their hair. They removed the sour fingers, balled them into fists and musically hammered at the wooden benches. Miss Mattie paused the tambourine to slap one a them pon him ears. She glanced around to verify that church folks saw how she disciplined her own. Mass Gussy was dressed like puss in him Sunday best. Grey jacket. White pants too short. White socks hiding his grey hairy leg. White shoes bottom lifting off and the glue in-between the shoes heel and shoe bottom looking like vampire teeth. Yet he kicked his foot and blew into the mouth organ in a rhythm of joy unspeakable full of glory.
The trio——Sister Annie-May, Sister Sue and Mother Dinah——hippity hopped like bunny rabbits at the front of the church. Only them the spirit told what young person fornicated and who needed to fast and pray. Bush Town knew Sister Sue hated young girls cause she was old and Jesus never gave her a husband. And Mother Dinah’s sinner-husband boxed and kicked her all the time even while she commandingly pointed at him and rebuked, “The blood of Jesus is against you devil from the pit of hell!” Bush Town knew Sister Annie-May had quietly sent away her twelve-year-old daughter to an auntie in Balaclava-St Elizabeth. The gal belly was getting bigger than Miss Mattie’s cow named Sheba. Gal told preacherman say evil spirit touched her belly when she was asleep. She then asked the church to pray for her in Jeezas name. The church prayed and AMEN-ed, but the evil wouldn’t stop growing her belly. Soon everybody discovered that the evil spirit was the big cocky belonging to preacherman’s son. Boy continued to play the drums on the rostrum while him daddy bawled and beg sinners like Dappa-dapa, Cutlass and Busta to walk to the altar. Not a soul said a word. Him was preachman’s pickney afterall.
Bush Town had its say bout me too. Me was young and too ripe, Me had no manners to older folks, Me mouth stink with feistiness and needed a gallon a bleach, Too much of my Grandmada was in me, Mummy must not spear the rod and spoil the pickney, She must box me to ground even if it means I would have to wear prescription teeth for the rest of my life.
A white mongrel——scared above its right ear, a front leg gone, fleas glistening pon the tail——strolled in like it owned the church. It dropped its ass at the entrance between the doors. Now all it needed was Peacherman’s robe and Sister Sue’s songbook. Its head turned round and around to account for the stares. Miss Mattie’s pickney them looked jittery. They could no longer focus pon singing the part that said, See if there be some wicked ways in me. One of them rushed out the bench. Another one grabbed him before he could reach the door and kick the dog in the belly to make it holler and bolt way. The dog seemed comfortable and assured that the church belonged to its heavenly creator. So like a cotton tree planted by the rivers of waters, it shall not be moved.
Embolden by the liberty given to the dog or rushing from lightening and rain, flies with fat white eyes suddenly made an entrance. They carried buzzes to tell the congregation they had a musical rendition, and like all there, they too wanted a cleansing from above. The congregation refused to have them there. They hit at them with bibles, hymnals and with bible leaves ripped out and fashioned into fans.
Mummy later told we that “two a them came pon the microphone when I was singing.” And a church brother said “a thick one with a fat behind kissed Pastor’s lips while him did a speak tongues.” Another one said “Few danced underneath Mother Dinah’s skirt. That was why she had jumped and screamed out, ‘in the name of Jesus! Blood a Jesus is against you Lucifer from the pit of hell!’”
Flies went inside Miss Mattie’s baby mouth when the poor hungry thing was crying, sinner mouths had said. This yah baby here was no joke! Baby chewed and chewed like it was the Last Supper. Baby gave a thunder belch. Baby mumma frightened. Baby mumma fling way tambourine. Baby mumma picked up pickney to hush it. She was shocked to see her pickney was already belly full and fast asleep.
“All a you behaving like say you never see flies and bugs before,” Preacherman said in the midst of nature’s madness. “What you expect? Go back in your seats. If your mind’s on God, you not suppose to be noticing flies and bugs.”
“Amen!” Miss Mattie shook the same tambourine she had thrown away.
“Halleluuuuuuuujah!” Sister Annie-May walked in a circle, with lifted hands, close to the altar
“Thank yoooou Jesusssss!” Mummy took time from her singing to say. “You’re wonderful savior. Search me and cleanse, see if there be any wicked way in me. Glory-glory!”
“That’s right!” Mother Dinah shouted. “Search har!”
“Yes Lord yes!” Sister Sue added. “Search and cleanse. None of your servants are perfect Lord. None!”
“It is well with my soul Lord!” Mummy said. “It is well!”
“Search and cleanse Lord!” Sister Sue said. “We can’t be the judge of our lives. You Lord, you search and cleanse! Take us out of our denials. Hallelujah!”
“Glory glory!” Mother Dinah shouted. “Have thine own way, Lord! Thou art the potter, we are the clay!”
Mummy began marching, thighs raised high but feet did not move forward or backward. Her head rolled. Her hat flew and hit the spectacles off preacherman son’s face. Guitar playing stopped for a while as son searched for him eyes. Choir members fanned mummy with Made-in-China fans. They tried to put the hat back pon her head. The hat flew under one of the back benches. This time none a the choir members were going to bend them tired back or stress them arthritis knees to fetch the hat. The microphone fell from her hands. It amplified a bang on the rostrum. People later said it sounded like gunshot.
Soon the flies left. Rain ceased. Dog disappeared. A john-crow watched everything from a Julie mango tree even though there wasn’t any stinking dead meat in a the church. The spirit left Mother Dinah. She sat down, lifted her dress and scratched her knees. A choir member started a chorus. Fire fire fire, fire fall on me, On the day of Pentecost fire fall on me. If real fire had fallen upon anyone, it was my mother. Fire was shut up and blazing in her bones. Fire was commanding her to take the flames outside the church. Fire told her to set Bush Town on fire.
Me mother who never lap shirt and sus-sus with Bush Town people, who attended every Sunday service——Mondays’ bible studies, Tuesdays’ prayer meetings, Wednesdays’ ladies fellowships, Thursdays’ choir rehearsals and Saturdays’ church cleaning for Sunday. Mummy who called her four gals and two bwoys rascals when she upset but no one else coulda dare call we that. Mummy who took orange juice box, stuffed it with gleaner to make a ball, beat the edges against stone to soften it from hurting us, threw it at us in a dandy shandy ring where me jumped in the air, ball raced between me legs, and me rejoice “You miss me Mummy! Kack up is a ten!” Mummy who found time to axe wood from tree, saw it, call it cricket bat, bat ball in we yard, and purposely made us win. Who even rolled in the grass and pretended to bawl like she was sorrowful from losing. Who made we got carried away and rolled in the grass beside her, then we jumped for we hear her mouth, “Uh-nuh get outta the grass! Who gwine pay for soap to wash uh-nuh clothes? Who gwine wash them? Me?”
For this is me same mother who never budged to take slippers from off her foot, grab cook spoon from out a pudding pot, or scoop up ice water in calabash bowl, anything her hand caught, she flung at we. And when Sister Annie-May or Mother Dinah was passing we house, them said, “Praise the Lord Sister Ramsey!” and asked “The children them behaving themselves today?”
Then Mummy would roll her eyes, “Them yah things here——behaving?” and laughed “Them pickney yah lazy and ungrateful. Them will not rest, Sister Anne-May, them will not rest one bit till them eat me out a house and land,” and sighed, “Mother Dinah, if I don’t keep praying, the devil will make them drive me in the grave,” and when Papa wasn’t around she said to us, “No conscience like uh-nuh puppa.” Mummy who afterwards glanced at us quietly to make sure she hadn’t hurt we, but would never told we that was why she looked. Instead, “A should have broken a collarbone” was her favorite line.
But not when Grandma visited our house, cause Grandma would straighten out Mummy. “A won’t sit around and watch nobody whip me grand-pickney them like them is slaves. A never once laid me hands pon you. Where the hell you get this slavery mentality from?” Mummy who came to church, sang, clap and shout, but no——never before——jumped about like crazy somebody. Them——Portland, Bush Town, Bush Town Redemption Tabernacle——said it was spiritual fire that pulled me mother’s eyes out a the church and set it pon backra Big House.
Every pickney and dog knew that an English man and him wife owned the Big House. Bush Town nicknamed it Big House not only because it was big. Everything was Big as long as people who carried a certain skin had a thing in some of it. Grandma’s house was big but it was no Big House. And just as Mr. Thompson didn’t know he was called Big Backra Thompson, him had no idea he was the Big House owner. And him never knew say emancipation had long come and gone but he and his big-pussy-Lady wife owned Bush Town and all the naegah people who everyday bust them ass on him canefields. Them break them hipbone in him coco valleys. Wasp sting them hood pon him coconut farms. Macka juck them pussy and duppy lick them down in him lime fields. Them slip pon banana bark, broke them back pon backra banana plantation. And how Big Backra Thompson work and work them, and at the end of the week pay them enough to afford a piece of chicken gizzard, a sprinkle of curried powder and few pimento seeds.
That same Sunday before Preacherman called the benediction, Mummy marched out a the church with the weight of fire in her footsteps and eyes. For the first time in Bush Town history, Preacherman, the choir, saints and sinners marched behind Mummy, with their clapping and tongue talking and Search-Me-O-God chorus. No one knew to where Mummy was leading, but them knew Jesus was at the head of this army. Mother Dinah held my hand and one of my brothers. My other siblings walked beside sister Annie-May.
Mr. Sun was bright now, light, welcoming. Rain had stopped but canefields held the raindrops and blew them pon the passing congregation.
“Hallelujah!” Sister Sue she shouted. “Showers of blessing, showers of blessing we need! Jesus is on this journey! He speaks in the wind after the rain! Hallelujah!”
Just after saying so, canefields blew again and Mummy’s frock lifted, and the Sunday school pickney them laughed and said “Sister Geraldine’s girdle is white.”
“The devil is a liar!” Sister Sue shouted.
Without Mummy doing a thing, the wind lowered her frock and danced with the hem. Raindrops within the green grass sparkled like twinkling stars under the sun’s eyelashes. The grass lay widely and in some spots made a narrow carpet in the road. So sometimes the congregation had to walk in a line to avoid stepping in mud. Even after walking carefully, Mummy’s spike heels and many others drilled cones in a the mud. The next rainfall would fill these holes with waters, then earth would rush in, and all footprints would vanish. Not a soul gwine remember that once upon a time earth had borne the pain and pleasures of these shoeprints. Earth alone would endure the sweetness or haunting of these everlasting scars. Only those who commune with earth would be told these minute histories. Oh Obeah!
Soon Mummy stood at the gates of the Big House where Papa worked. Papa had promised to visit church but at the last moment told Mummy say Mrs. Thompson needed him for the day. Every Bush Town tongue tasted sus-sus coming. People would get something to lap them dresses about, sit on neighbors’ verandahs, slurp pepper-pot soup, sip sweet-sweet lemonade beside a plate of boiled dumplings and butter, slam dominoes on street corner with ganja and rum, and giggle with sighs bout this yah Sunday bacchanal yah. For Mummy stood in front picket fence at the Big House telling the Big Lady “Good morning Mam. I come to get my husband, Mam. Him have things to finish up at our house, Mam.”
Church members stepped back to show them was no longer in one accord with Sister Geraldine Ramsey for whatever Sister Geraldine was up to, it was not of God. The gathering had become bigger than the initial congregation. It included barefooted women with babies cradled in them hands sucking titties. And women passing by who remained mounted atop donkeys saddled with crocus bags a plantains, yams, potatoes, and a machete somewhere. And women akimbo with loaded baskets sitting on cotta pon them head.
“What’s this all about?” Mrs Thompson said. “Pastor Graham, you didn’t inform me there was to be an open-air service at my gate?”
“Mrs. Thompson——,“ Preacherman began.
“Pastor, you never came to Mrs. Thompson, I did,” Mummy cut off Preacherman and turned back to face Mrs. Thompson. “Mam, I’m the one talking to you!”
“Excuse me!” Mrs. Thompson said. “Geraldine, you sound like you’re losing your place, very disrespectful, indeed!”
“Sister Geraldine,” Preacherman said, “I think we should return to church. The devil is out yah with we.
“Pastor, this is church,” Mummy said. “We still at church.”
“That’s right hallelujah!” Mother Dinah said to everyone’s surprise. “Where two are three are gathered, Jesus is in the midst to bless.”
Sister Sue and Sister Annie-May kept quiet for they had families who worked for Mrs Thompson.
“Mam, I didn’t come to make trouble. I only came to get my husband.” And without another word Mummy unbolted the gate, pushed Mrs. Thompson out the way and walked towards the house.
Folks gasped that hands had pushed Bush Town’s only English lady. Mrs. Thompson fell to gain sympathy. Folks rushed and lowered hands so Mrs. Thompson could rise and walk again to stop mad Geraldine from doing whatever crazy thing she was up to. Because most a Bush Town served the Big House in some way, Mummy knew the house inside out like everybody, just like she knew Mr and Mrs Thompson slept on separate sides of the house. She opened and closed Mrs Thompson’s bedroom but the shame refused to leave her eyeballs. What a shame that was!
“Craches filled with salt from the Dead Sea! Old pussy without shame! Haven for iniquity! Stink white pussyhole determined to wreck black family more than it had for the last hundreds a years!” That was how Grandma summed it up after Mummy later told her that a fan was blowing and blowing. Blowing so much that it forced the white cotton curtain outside a Mrs Thompson’s bedroom. Cotton curtain couldn’t stomach the nasty deeds inside, so cotton curtain hitched on to the window rod but trembled outside like kite. If cotton curtain couldn’t, then how could she Geraldine bear to see her sixteen-year-old pickney naked like roast chicken on an old English woman’s bed, sleeping.