Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Legacy of Mae Phillips

Mama Mae

Her name is Mae Phillips but I call her Mama Mae. She's 96 years old and barely weighs 100 pounds but I still am in awe of this woman who is my grandmother.

While in Ocho Rios, Jamaica last week to celebrate my __ birthday and 3rd wedding anniversary I made the trek to Kingston - the capital of Jamaica - to spend the day with Mama Mae because at 96 years of age, well, you just never know ...

Despite the terrible road conditions, the ride was easy and the length of the trip seemed shortened because the driver I had hired was personable depsite his strong political views on the declining state of his country. The weather was in our favor - no rain in sight - but I still entered Kingston with a heavy feeling in my stomach.

Kingston is a world unto itself and hard to describe to anyone who has never been. The high crime rate and increasing levels of poverty are bad enough, but add in the heat (that most days is unbearable enough to be described as smothering) and the congestion (that could make the most social of people feel like a claustrophobic weenie) and you've got less than a tourist attraction. Yes, it is steeped in culture and history and is the location where Bob Marley recorded some of his best stuff, but to ME it's about as close to hell as you can get.

BUT Kingston is where my grandmother lives and for whatever reason the need to see her on this visit was so strong, I would have dueled with the devil himself if he had tried to keep me from going.

I think she felt the same way; she began crying when she heard my voice and hailed my visit as a sign. I didn't understand the gravity of her statement considering this is the same woman who for the past five years has described the Thanksgiving holiday as her last supper but as the day wore on - and got hotter - I knew our time spent together was indeed special.

For four hours she talked about her favorite memories of me. The long summers that she stayed with my family, teaching me to bake plantain tarts, beef patties and coconut cookies. How she kept my mother from knocking me out (too many times to count) when my mouth was at its smartest. How she thought I would put her on a plane back to Kingston when she accidentally let my dog escape from the house and how hurt I'd be when my cousin David would come for the summer because my daddy's attention would inevitably be taken away from me. She spoke in amazing detail about the summer trips we took in the family station wagon, criss-crossing the United States and Canada. She was the reason I got married in Jamaica, her traveling days long since gone and I couldn't imagine taking my vows without her. I cried tears of joy when she pressed a hanky in my hand and told me I looked fat in my wedding dress.

But then she also told me that she was proud of the woman that I had become.

The more she talked, the more I laughed, realizing how many of my best childhood memories are shared with her. I also realized how large of a hand she's had in shaping who I am today and I realized how very much I love her.

And Kingston. Because it is my heritage. It is the place where my grandmother taught me to wash clothes by hand, how to pick ackee then sautee it with saltfish. Kingston is where I learned how to properly suck my teeth and say "me soon come" in a proper Jamaican accent and eat Mangoes right from the tree.

Yes, I am the legacy of Mae Phillps. But I call her Mama Mae and she is my grandmother.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Introducing Lady N.

Natalia Davida

As I did with my oldest niece, Jordan, last week I wrapped my three-month old niece in a pink blanket with lavender stitching, packed her in the car and drove to the nearest mall to get her ears pierced. It's become a tradition of sorts and I treasure it. This is more than likely my last shot at this particular bonding experience. As the mother of two boys, I vow never to be the one that carts them off to the mall to get a lobe pierced. But that's another blog entirely.

Jordan is now 9 (soon to be 10) and with the passing of time I had forgotten how emotionally wrenching this "tradition" could actually be, for me and the baby. Probably the reason my sister handed it off to me in the first place. Well, it all came rushing back when I saw Natalia's sweet little face twist and turn a ghastly reddish purple when the piercing gun popped first the right lobe then the left. And I started thinking, WHO IN THE WORLD started this ritual of poking holes in babies? They must have had a really good reason and I was determined to find out what it was. So when I got home, I did some research.

During my google search, several explanations popped up. One article explained that ears were probably first pierced for magical purposes and because of the ease with which it can be pierced. Many primitive tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear, because demons and spirits are supposed to be repelled by metal, ear-piercing prevents them entering the body. Another surmised that children born into ancient sailing families used to have an ear pierced to improve eyesight, and if the bodies washed up somewhere it would pay for a Christian burial. I also learned that in many societies ear piercing is done as a puberty ritual. That in Borneo the Mother and Father each pierce one ear as a symbol of the child's dependence on their parents. BUT my favorite: in Roman society ear piercing symbolized wealth and prosperity. The more elaborate the piercing and the younger the baby: the richer the family.

A little Tylenol helped both of us with the pain and now when I see her little sparkly ears, I can't help but smile and send up prayers for Lady N. But not in a material sense. I wish her -- and every other baby wrapped in pink embroidered blankets -- a life full of health and happiness, one rich in love and prosperous in true friendship, an existence entrenched in wealth of character and self-awareness. In short, I want for them every good thing. Growing up a girl ain't no easy thing. Just remember your Auntie Na-Na loves you.

PS. Can't help but add that I was not responsible for this picture. My older sister, Lady N's proud mama, snapped it. If you look REALLY close, you may be able to see the earring. Thanks, Sis!