My Father, Norman Stewart

 

My first memory of Norman Stewart, my father, is of a six-foot-tall, slim, well-dressed, bald, black man in his late fifties. He was always proud of his full mouth of white teeth. He would tell me that he brushed his teeth with salt and encouraged me to do the same. Norman was a well-educated man who managed the typesetting department of Jamaica's Daily Gleaner, the leading newspaper in Kingston. But Norman had an eye for the ladies. It seemed that women liked him too because he was married with five children when my mother, Griselda, delivered me, his sixth child, at age fifty. I knew very little about Norman's family except for his brother, a tailor who made me a suit every Christmas. I never liked the clothes his brother made because the styles were old-fashioned and somehow never fit me, unlike the ones I received from my mother in New York. Growing up, I never met his wife or any of his children and never went to his home. Norman was a mystery to me. He would show up at 7 pm and leave at 9 pm like clockwork almost every night for years. He was my two-hour-a-night father who gave me five shillings a week for pocket money and would whip me with his belt if he heard that I misbehaved.

When my mother left for New York, Norman, the "good soldier," which is how he often characterized himself, promised her that he would pay for my boarding and watch out for me. I think my father offered to have me stay with him at his home with his family, but my mother didn't want that; she worried that I might be mistreated. Norman was my only support in Jamaica; he knew it and took the job seriously at first. We would sit in the living room or the front yard of my boarding house and discuss various topics. As a young child, Norman was my hero. He had style and intelligence, he was thoughtful and articulate, and everyone respected him. I wanted to be like him. As I grew older, I would anxiously await his evening visits, standing on my fence in the front yard, looking to see his felt hat bobbing up on the crowded Victoria Avenue. How could he visit me every day for years since he had a responsible job, a wife, and children?

Despite my father's insistence that I stay home, the second he left, I would climb through my window to roam the streets at night with my friends. Maybe I was bored. Nevertheless, I would not stay home. Eventually, my father caught on to my scheme and tried to stop me. On one occasion, he pretended to leave. When I went running to meet my friends at the top of Cloverly Road, I saw my father strolling up, to my astonishment. Without saying a word, he took me by the hand, walked me back to my house, closed the gate behind me, and said, "Stay home." On most Sunday nights, my father would take me to the movies. We enjoyed watching Westerns together. I vividly remember watching the movie Shane, starring Alan Ladd, with my dad. I was so inspired by Alan Ladd, who played the character Shane and identified with the little boy who ran after him crying, "Shane, Shane!" I later named my favorite stray dog in the area Shane. These were bonding moments with my dad that I'll never forget.

However, his weakness for women would eventually supplant his commitment to me. After a few years, my father became sexually involved with Mrs. Irene Maxwell, the woman who managed the boarding house where I lived. I never liked Mrs. Maxwell because I didn't feel she wanted me in her care. We had a relationship of convenience and duty. I was part of her labor force, who rubbed the butter and sugar together when she made Christmas cakes. I was part of her delivery service that took lunch to people at the factories nearby. I fed her chickens and occasionally killed chickens for Sunday dinner. As a young boy, I feared and resented Mrs. Maxwell. I was heartbroken when I noticed that my father began to disappear into her room at night, staying there for what seemed like hours instead of visiting with me. I had lost time with him and detested Mrs. Maxwell for that. One night after my dad entered her room; I needed to ask him a question. So, I went to her door and knocked softly. The door was not shut entirely, and a small space allowed me to see what the mirror behind the door reflected. My father was busy pulling down Mrs. Maxwell's dress as he sat at the side of her bed. I asked my question without a response when I entered, but after I left, the image stayed with me.  

This first-hand knowledge of his affair felt like a betrayal. He was sleeping with my enemy. When I had a chance to talk to him, I told him I wanted to move to another boarding house, but he refused to consider this option. He doubled down on his position by saying that if I were to leave Mrs. Maxwell's home, he would never come to see me wherever I went. This was a massive threat since he knew he was my only support. But late one night, I packed my few belongings, and with the help of my best friend Ronnie, I tip-toed out of Mrs. Maxwell's house and never returned. My father never revisited me. He kept his word, as he said he would. Later in life, when I reflect on that moment, I am shocked that a fourteen-year-old child could run away from home, and no one came looking for him even though he went to school every day only two blocks away. No matter our disagreement, I can not imagine doing that to my children.

I left Victoria Avenue to live with Ronnie's family, the McLeans, in a beautiful middle-class neighborhood in Vineyard Town. His loving parents, brothers, and sister became my surrogate family. Running away to live with them improved my life, but I still needed to pay for room and board. So, once a month, I would hide outside Mrs. Maxwell's house and intercept my father on the street to get the money I needed to cover my living expenses. When we met, he never asked me how I was doing. He would hand over the money and leave. Even when I was migrating to the U.S. to live with my mother, he did not come to say goodbye. His decision was final, and it hurt me because I still loved him. I wrote to him a few times from the States but soon stopped because I felt so much anger and resentment from his rejection.

I went to the States, completed my undergraduate and graduate studies, and got a job at IBM. It was a little past my 30th birthday when I next visited Jamaica to spend time with my favorite mathematics teacher and mentor, Althea Young (another surrogate mother of mine). Althea has been a guiding force in my life since she taught me mathematics during my secondary education. I was always a welcome guest at her house on Jack's Hill overlooking Kingston, a stone's throw from Bob Marley's home on the same hill. During this trip, Althea suggested that I call my father and try to visit him. I was surprised by her suggestion, but this was Althea speaking, and I knew that her insights were usually very beneficial to me. I went to get a phone book, looked up his phone number, and called him. Norman answered the phone, and without thinking, I said, "This is Baron. Can I come over?" I had never called him before, and he didn't know I was in Jamaica because I hadn't written him in years, but without hesitation, he responded, "Of course, Baron, come over." I later found out that he readily invited me over because he had a close friend named Baron, who he believed was the one who had called him.

Nevertheless, without this knowledge, I jumped in Althea's two-seater sports car, and we took off for East Street in Greenwich Town, where my father lived. As we drove across Kingston, Althea and I chatted about what this moment meant for me. The plan was for her to drop me off at his house so I could spend the evening with him. We finally arrived and knocked on the metal house number with a stone. Before long, the front door opened, and Norman stepped out. He was shocked but happy to see me. "Baron!" Norman shouted at the top of his voice. I still had yet to realize that he was not expecting me. I turned and introduced Althea as my math teacher. The news made him even more excited. He continued, "This calls for a drink of White Rum!" This was Jamaican overproof white rum, recommended for very experienced drinkers. I had never seen my father drink, much less drink white rum. I was used to interacting with his calm, calculated demeanor, not this more lax, drinking persona. But another person stepped through the door before he could get the rum. It was his wife. He turned to her and said, "It doesn't matter now, but this is my son." The woman's jaw dropped. I extended my hand to shake hers, but she refused to shake my hand. My father grabbed her hand and pushed it to meet mine, and I shook her lifeless hand. At that moment, I realized that coming to visit was a bad idea and said so. Althea and I turned and left without another word.

Later on another trip to Jamaica, I contacted my father again, and we connected. We planned an outing together. Norman came to meet Joyce McLean and her daughter Nancy, and we drove to Dunns River Falls, a popular tourist spot on Jamaica's north coast. During that trip, my father explained to me that he had a friend named Baron, and when he received my call, he thought it was from this friend. He said he wondered why Baron had called to ask permission to visit, given that he came to stay at his house regularly. However, we did not discuss his wife and her reaction to me, a topic I preferred to avoid.

After returning to New York, I did not maintain regular communication with Norman, but one night I received a letter from Sybil, whom I didn't know. Sybil said in the letter that her father had recently died, and while going through his belongings at his house, she found a collection of letters from me in her father's drawers. She read them and realized her father was communicating with another of his sons. Many of the letters she found were over ten years old, and she realized that the letters must have been necessary to her father for him to have kept them for such a long time. After this discovery, she wrote to let me know that she was my sister and that our father had died.

I was cold and without emotions. I did not cry. I wrote Sybil and thanked her for her letter and promised that if I were ever in Jamaica, I would come to visit her. I never did. I walked around with this letter in my wallet for years, and whenever I returned to Jamaica, I would struggle with myself, trying to decide if I should visit her. One voice said that I should meet my sister, but the other voice remembered her mother's rejection, and I convinced myself that I had survived this far without them and I didn't need them now. To this day, I have never met anyone from my father's family. I regret that decision today.