My mother Griselda

 
 
 
My mother, Griselda Appleby, was born March 16, 1918, in Portland, the easternmost parish of Jamaica, the granddaughter of a wealthy English landowner and a poor Jamaican woman. Griselda was uneducated and dirt poor despite the stories that she and her cousins could inherit the thousands of acres of Appleby land the Jamaican government stole. Griselda, a full-bodied, 5 foot 2, light brown-skinned woman with high cheekbones and short shiny black hair, fled her poverty in rural Portland to Kingston, where she believed she could survive financially. When she made it to Kingston, she sold food from a cart on the streets, which is how she met my father, Norman Stewart. Norman regularly bought lunch from her outside his office at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's leading newspaper. Griselda named me Baron Appleby because she wanted me to have the Appleby name just in case her father, Charles Appleby, won his case in court to get the land willed to him. After many years of costly struggle, I lost interest in the case and didn't know its outcome.  

Griselda was protective and proud of her only child and was over the moon when my kindergarten teacher told her that I was bright. Yet, however intelligent I was, I had an incredible fear of spelling. I ran from elementary school when my teacher announced we would have a spelling class after recess. I ran home about a mile away and told my mother that school was over. She said, "Already? It is only 10 am," calmly took me by the hand and walked me back to school. Despite my antics, I don't remember my mother being harsh with me as a child or young adult. But she would always worry that I would get hurt. I remembered her warning me, "Don't climb trees." That was all The encouragement I needed, so one day, I did. Up and up I went with the certainty that comes with little knowledge. As I climbed the tree in my yard on Fleet Street, I accidentally squashed a lizard with my hand as I grabbed for a higher branch. I pulled back with disgust when I felt the reptile's cold body beneath my fingers, and that sudden action sent me flying down toward the ground. I fell, breaking small branches as I went. The land came quickly, leaving me bleeding and scratched all over. "What happened to you?" she asked. "The neighborhood kids beat me with a stick." I lied. I was too afraid of the consequences. My mother investigated the situation with a policeman friend of hers, but nothing came of it, even though he questioned the local kids.

In 1951, the year before Griselda migrated to the United States, my mother, Kenneth Rodgers (a twenty-four-year-old man she had raised since his mother died as a child), and I, her 4-year-old son, lived in a tenement yard on Bendas Lane in downtown Kingston. Tenement yards, often memorialized in Reggae songs, are multi-family housing arrangements consisting of many substandard dwellings packed closely together on a single land plot. Most of my mother's friends lived in the same tenement yard or nearby in similar housing. Bendas Lane and East Queen Street were where Griselda lived her life. She sold her food from her pushcart on High Holborn Street, occasionally attended Sunday services at the East Queen Street Baptist Church, and sent me to Calabar Elementary School just behind the church.
Just after my birthday on August 6, my mother heard talk of a hurricane forming in the Eastern Caribbean near Barbados. Jamaicans are used to storms because the island is threatened by as many as ten cyclones yearly. Before hurricane Charlie in the 1951 hurricane season, hurricanes Able and Baker caused minor damage to the island. But around August 15, the island realized that Charlie could be unique. On August 17, Charlie hit the island as a category four hurricane with wind gusts as high as 150 miles per hour.

The country had reinforced its windows and doors, but most tenement houses were poorly constructed and had vulnerable zinc roofs that were no match for this force of nature. The storm started with buckets of rain. It came down so hard that the yard was flooded in minutes, with water going into the house. As the winds howled, the room swayed, and pots and pans kept falling everywhere, I watched my mother and Kenneth mop up water and plug leaks all night. Even though our situation was horrible, some of our friends had it worse. Many had to run from their houses after their zinc roofs had been blown off. There was a huge mango tree on one side of the house, and I saw the tree waving back and forth. Parts of the tree came crashing down on our zinc roof, scaring me with its loud uproar. My mother and Kenneth ran helter-skelter with pots and pans, catching water as it poured through holes in the ceiling. During this panic, I heard my mother cry, "Put the baby on the dresser. It's the only dry place in the house." Those words were etched in my brain because I realized my mother was trying to keep me safe even under intense pressure.  

The first years after my mother left, she sent pictures, telephoned occasionally, and always sent me a box of clothes at Christmas. My Christmas clothes were essential to me because that is how I let my friends know I had a mother in New York. Nobody else in my neighborhood received fancy American clothes at Christmas time. So, I would proudly wear whatever she sent without consideration for matching colors or patterns. One Christmas box brought blue pants, a yellow shirt, a green jacket, and brown shoes. On Christmas day, I put on everything I received. As I pranced in my front yard so everyone could see my fancy American clothes, my neighbor looked out her window and said, "Wow! You look like a Christmas tree." My brown, blue, yellow, and green color scheme did not make the impression I wanted. This criticism is what happens to a child without good guidance. Even when you think that you are winning, you lose.

The longer I didn't see my mother, the more she became a concept to me rather than a person. She was the source of my Christmas boxes, but I had no feelings of being a family with her. So when I heard that my mother fell asleep while cooking one night and burned down her apartment building in Harlem, I did not have the emotional response one might expect from a child whose mother was in such danger. I was cold and indifferent. Fortunately, she had escaped unharmed, but the indifference I experienced then signified a lifelong theme in my relationship with my mother. Today, I am very focused on connecting with my children because I know the pain I felt from lacking that foundational relationship.

Finally, in 1964 when I was17 years old, Griselda invited me to visit her in New York for the summer. It had been twelve years since I last saw my mother. Maybe her life was now more stable, and she finally had the emotional bandwidth to have a first-hand relationship with me, or possibly the fact that the World's Fair was currently in New York served as motivation for her invitation. No matter the reason, I was excited and eager to go. I invited my best friend, Ronnie, to come along to be a friendly face and safe harbor for my meeting. Ronnie and I were going to travel on a plane for the first time, see all those sky scrappers we saw on television and visit the World Fair. It was going to be an exciting summer. However, I was nervous about seeing my mother again because I no longer felt any connection to her. I was excited to come because I wanted the adventure in New York but not because I was missing my mother. I had lost the emotional connection to the only family I had, and I did not care.

When I arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York, Ronnie and I looked to see who would pick us up. After a few minutes, a woman I did not recognize tapped me on my shoulder and said, "I am your mother." She was 57 years old and appeared older than all the pictures I had of her. After a brief obligatory hug, Ronnie and  I went with her. Griselda was excited, bubbling with love for her only son. "You are so skinny," she said. But I will fatten you up:" As I walked with her, I noticed that instead of being happy, I was ultimately repelled by what I yearned for and was now receiving felt awful. I pulled away and tried to keep my distance because I was not used to all this attention and affection. I grew up alone and had gotten used to my solitude.

Griselda introduced me to Mr. Brown, her live-in boyfriend, who drove us from the airport to Rosedale Avenue on the edge of the Parkchester area of the Bronx. Parkchester was a primarily white neighborhood with very few black families on its borders. Griselda and Mr. Brown lived in a large three-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a two-story brick building. Her apartment was nicely furnished except for the plastic that covered the living room sofas. My room at the back of the condo was cozy. Having a space for the first time felt good because I always shared a bed in someone else's house.

Mr. Bown, a heavy-set man with a big smile, drove a taxi in the city, and before long, he showed us the highlights of Manhattan and the Bronx and took us to the World's Fair. I liked Mr. Brown. He was friendly and warm. Griselda worked three jobs. She cleaned a doctor's office at first light before going to her full-time job as a hotel maid at the Berkshire Hotel in Manhattan. She ended her day cleaning another office before coming home to cook dinner. Griselda was busy. But, before leaving for work each morning, she would come to my room to give me a glass of orange juice mixed with a raw egg. I was now on her "fatten me up" program. Then she would leave with the obligatory kiss goodbye. I did not enjoy the affection and told her so many times. However, she was not deterred. She continued her morning routine and expanded it to include some delightful dinners, especially on Sundays when she had time to do it right.

Ronnie and I began exploring and got some unexpected reactions from people. One night, as we walked home from a movie in Parkchester, we ran into some white boys in a car. Before we knew what was happening, one of the white boys shouted, "Niggers! What are you doing around here." They started the car and began to chase us. We had heard about things like this, but we had never experienced it before. We ran for our lives. We ran down one street and up another with the guile of an escaping animal. They tried but could not catch us, and we were able to return to the relative safety of my mother's house.

Before I could return to Jamaica to graduate from high school, I got sick with a nasty head cold. My mother became very concerned and decided to take me to see a doctor at one of the offices she cleaned. The doctor's office was on Park Ave near 59th Street in Manhattan. I showed up, and the doctor reviewed my symptoms and told my mother that she should take me to see a specialist. He referred us to a specialist at the Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic on Third Ave near 59th Street. My mother thanked the doctor for his referral, and we went to the clinic. When we arrived, we checked in and sat waiting to be called.
Finally, a nurse showed up and asked if we were there to see the ear, nose, and throat specialist. My mother answered in the affirmative and indicated that I was very sick and a primary care doctor in the neighborhood referred us to him. The nurse left without another word, and we returned to our seats and waited for another 30 minutes. At last, the attendant called my name, and we took the elevator to the third floor to meet the doctor. As the elevator door opened, we saw someone waiting in the shadows. It was the specialist. He shouted at us angrily, "Where did you get my name?" My mother panicked immediately and explained that she was referred to him by the doctor she worked for on Park Ave. He became even more furious that someone had referred black people to his practice to get rid of us as quickly as possible; he turned to me and snarled, "Let me see your ear." I showed him, and he glanced into my ear without any instrument and concluded that I was fine and we should leave immediately. We got back on the elevator and left the clinic.

I learned from this trip to New York that my mother still loved me and was doing her best with her limited resources to provide for me. Despite all this evidence, she was patient and kind, but I could not find a way to love her. My feelings of betrayal stayed with me throughout my adult life, and it was not until a year before she died that I could reconcile this bad feeling.

Why my mother never returned to Jamaica is still a mystery to me. As a kid, I believed she had forgotten about me and had created a new family in America. I later speculated that maybe if she had overstayed her visa guidelines, she wouldn't have been able to return without some penalty. Still, that theory fell apart when I found out that she had gotten married to an American man to obtain a permanent visa. Yet, still, she did not return. I once asked her why and she told me that she didn't feel she could meet the expectations that everyone had of her. To Jamaicans, people in America were supposed to be rich, and anyone who knew her would expect gifts or money. Griselda said she was overwhelmed by this prospect and decided not to face it. Griselda died without ever returning to Jamaica.