Uncertainty by Opal Palmer Adisa: a story of family and longing


Well after Daddy had left, and the two police officers and all the domestic helpers had settled down and returned to their respective duties as did the gardeners, and even Ms. Sally, after what seemed like an inordinately long time of her craning her neck, right then left, scanning the entire street –Ms. Sally, the elderly neighbor whose backyard was adjacent to ours—reluctantly went home, after first insisting that Gertie keep Dawn and I inside the house and the door locked until our mother returned, not even allowing us to play on the back verandah,.

“Gertie, you hear what a telling you.  Your job is to make sure these children are safe and their father does not return to steal them away and break their mother’s heart.” Ms. Sally said, pointing her finger at Gertie, and speaking in the tone of a teacher scolding a recalcitrant child.

“Yes, Ma’am, Ms. Sally, Gertie said in a voice that sounded full of tears, as she pushed us behind her and locked the door. We trailed her to the front door and peered out the living-room window and watched as Ms. Sally exited the yard through the gate, which she carefully locked behind her, and called to a neighbor as she headed in the direction of her home.

Gertie turned from the window and almost stepped on our feet.

“Oonuh betta go inn de room and tek a nap.  You see me crosses.  Me not even oonuh moda maid. Me just helpin she out. Fi me head can’t tek all dis boderation.” Gertie shooed us ahead of her and pointed to the direction of the bedroom we shared with our mother in Aunt Norma’s house.  The room was stuffy and piled high with suitcases, boxes and some of our furniture, blocking air from circulating through one of the two windows.  The rest, and most of our belongs, were stacked on the back veranda since we moved out of the only home I could remember that we shared with our father, a large 2-bderoom house with the maids quarters in the backyard.  Dawn and I had a room all to ourselves, our single beds on either side of the room, and at nights when I was scared and wanted to climb into Dawn’s bed I was often afraid to make the long width from my bed to hers. It felt like miles even though she would tell me it’s only 12 steps, on foot in front of the other, and I should stop being a scary cat.  Now we sat confused on the bed which was not my mother’s mahogany bed, but which we shared with our mother at Aunty Norma’s house.

I wanted to run outside and was about to say something to Dawn when Gertie came in with a wash cloth, wiped our faces then feet, turned down the cover, and said, “Oonuh might as well sleep until oonuh moda come cause playin done fa de day.”  She used three fingers and gently pressed us back until our backs touched the bed.  “Sleep now, oonuh safe,” she said stepping lightly out the room as if we were babies.  Dawn immediately began to whimper and I snuggled close to her back and the next thing I knew Mommy was sitting on the bed kissing my forehead and I sprang into her arms.

Dawn was still sleeping soundly and Mommy kissed her on the cheeks, and with me in her arms, my fingers clutching her neck, Mommy walked with me to the back veranda.  She was still wearing her work uniform. Ms. Sally must have smelled us because almost immediately she was walking close to the fence that separated her yard from ours calling,

“In the house.  Everything alright in the house, Gertie?”

“Ms. Sally is Cathy, and everything all right.

“My dear you come.  I’m so glad. Now my heart can settle; it’s been half way up to my mouth since you husband come and demanded to take the little girl children. Imagine a man want to take little girl children from their own good mother. I am coming over to tell you what transpired. Soon come.  Soon come.”

Mommy walked back to the veranda and put me to sit on one of the chairs.  She called to Gertie.

“Gertie, what we have cool to drink?  Ms. Sally coming over. And there should be some biscuits in the cupboard. Fix up a little tray for me with 2 glasses with ice and a plate of biscuits, and a cup for Opi.  I smiled at Mommy whose face wore the same toothy grin like always.  She did not seem alarmed or worried.

“Mommy, Daddy says he’s coming to take us.” I said, unsure about what was going to happen to Dawn and I, afraid too Mommy might disappear again like she did before she came and moved us out of Daddy’s house.

“Over my dead body!” Mommy said laughing broadly and pinching my check. She must have observed the worry on my face for she added, “Not a living soul going to ever take you and Dawn from me ever, not even your father.” And she bent and hugged me to her.

Ms. Sally arrived with her tall tale of what transpired, calling Gertie every so often to collaborate her story, even shouting for the maid and gardener next door to add their sides to the story.  The gardener was very proud of himself and boasted across the fence.

“Ms. Palmer, ma’am is me block de gate so yu husband couldn’t leave wid you dawtas.” He shouted over the hedging.

Mommy thanked them all for protecting us, especially Ms. Sally, who was an old, old lady who taught my mother and Aunty Norma at

“Cathy, you will have to go to court to make sure Mr. Palmer doesn’t come and steal these precious girls from you,” declared Ms Sally, who had no children of her own, but whose house was always teeming with children, belonging to some relative or stranger from the country in need of shelter and further education. As I crept off the chair, then ventured off the veranda, Ms Sally made to call me back but Mommy said it was okay so I laughed and ran to play near the lime tree. I began doodling in the dirt, but after a while I looked and there was Dawn, rubbing sleep from her eyes, her cheeks still stained with salty tears.

“Come here my big girl,” Mommy said opening her arms into which Dawn ran. I dropped the stick and ran over to Dawn and Mommy and hugged Dawn from behind.

That evening when Aunt Norma returned from work at KPH, Kingston Public Hospital, where she was a nurse, my mother told her of the plans. Aunt Norma was fond of telling Dawn and I that she and Mommy were friends since they were ten years old, and even started nursing school together, but my mother dropped out after she became ill.  When Mommy was better, she decided that she didn’t like nursing and so was sent to business college, where she studied, bookkeeping, shorthand, stenograph, and other business classes, in all of which she excelled, graduating at the top of her class.  She was offered a job at the college immediately upon graduating, but after a year she decided she didn’t like teaching so went to seek other employment.

Although qualified, and passing all the required tests at every job site, Mommy had difficult finding employment.  Mommy says at that time in Jamaica, in Kingston in particular where she lived, dark-skinned women such as herself had a hard time finding employment in offices. Once, she related, one of the leading barristers in Kingston hired her after she passed the shorthand and other required tests, saying he had never seen anyone who was so proficient. However, she said just as she was about to sign her employment papers, her led her to a little room off his office, in which there was a cot, and pointing to the cot, he said, “keeping me happy comes with the job.” At which time Mommy said she kissed her teeth loudly and stormed out. “Such piece of factiness!’ She spat after relating the incident. I wasn’t quite sure what was so wrong about keeping her boss happy.

Mommy told Aunty Norma that she had gone to a second interview for a job today, and was told before she left that the job was hers. She said the pay was less than she wanted but the job, on a sugar estate just outside of Kingston, came with free housing, and other perks.  She said the manager wanted her to start immediately, but she had told him that she need to give her present job a two weeks notice.  Now however, since Daddy had found us, she was going to call tomorrow to see if the house would be ready next week, and if so she would take the new job, and leave the old with only a week’s notice.

Aunty Norma did not like the idea of Mommy moving so far away, not knowing anyone.  “And what if you don’t like the work, Cathy?” Aunt Norma asked. “I know you all too well.  If you don’t like something or someone fresh with you, you’ll pack your things and walk off, but you have two children to take care of now all by yourself.”

Mommy laughed, which was her response to most things, but Aunty Norma, who was not related to us, but was my sister’s godmother, and who delivered me at home birth, looked at Mommy and said.

“Norma, I know this job is right for me, and will allow me to get on my feet and provide for my children. The owner is from England, young and, married.  I can tell he is decent and fair. I’m starting now as his secretary and bookkeeper, but there is opportunity for growth. Besides, not having to worry about house and rent that’s a big relief and expense off my shoulder. We will manage and besides, it’s not that far that we won’t visit often.”

Somewhat assured, Aunty Norma said it was time for dinner.

For the remainder of the week and a half we lived with Aunty Norma all eyes were on us. Although Mommy told Gertie she did not have to keep us locked inside, Gertie did whenever she was cleaning the house and cooking, and so Dawn and I were left to play with our dolls, whose white head I popped from its body, whose blond hair, I plucked out strand-by-strand, whose clothes I pulled apart, and whose pale skin I washed and scrubbed until the plastic stripped, and no matter how long I left her in the sun, her skin never got dark like mine. After a few days I could not find her hands and one of her legs, and I pestered Gertie so much she finally relented, but not without first calling to the maid and gardener next door and across the street from us to keep a look out. So if I wandered to the side of the house near the driveway or went to lean on the locked front gate to peer out in the street I often heard voice I did not recognize shout,

“Little pickney go back in the back, yu want yu fada thief yu.” Or

“Don’t play out by de gate by yuself.  Whe you sista deh?” Or

“Gertie, de little fresh one out front a push pan de gate.  Yu best call her round back wid yu.” Or

“Look how de little pickney a play by sheself  unda de hot sun.  She womanish kyan done.” Or

“Gertie, girl, how you holding up? Me know yu heart heaby havin fi keep de little picknie dem safe.”

Almost every time we were outside, the talks of the maids over the fences was always about us. Sometimes Miss Sally would call and add to the stream of conversation from her backyard.

“Gertie, how are the little Ms. Palmers doing?” or “Gertie, bring a bench near the fence so the girls can sit down and I will read them a story.” Or “Gertie, the little Ms. Palmers are okay? You have not seen any strange cars driving up the road have you?”

And Gertie would answer all inquiries politely, but often she would mumble under her breath and kiss her teeth, and towards the end of the second week, she was often cross with me and would shout at me,

“Why yu kyan go sit down and play wid yu toys like yu sista?  Why yu always unda me foot everywhe me go? Why yu have fi run up and down like puppy? Gwane go sit down and stop follow-follow me. Yu givin me too much boderation.”

When we lived with Daddy, we had a big house and Dawn and I were not confined to our yard, which was larger than Aunty Norma’s. Everyone knew our parents so we could wander about the rambling sugar estate where my father was an overseer and chemist and in charge of converting the sugar into rum, and my mother managed the estate office.  We were never told to sit on the verandah all day.

Nothing was like it used to be when Mommy and Daddy and Dawn and I all lived together.  Dawn sometime whispered that she missed Daddy. I missed Daddy too but each day when Mommy left for work, I would wander to the front gate, hoping she would return and not leave again without telling or taking me.  The bridge of my nose often perspired and my stomach grumbled whenever I thought about Mommy and what she was doing all day, and hoping she did not forget about Dawn and Me.

When Daddy had come to steal us, he had asked Dawn and I if we wanted to live with him. I told him I only wanted to live with him, if Mommy could come. I did not want to leave Mommy, and I did not want Mommy to leave me again. Daddy said Mommy didn’t want to live with him anymore.  She was the one that left. He didn’t say why. I did not ask him, but I jumped down from his lap then. I remember waking up and searching for Mommy and everyone pretending as if she never existed.

Finally it was two days before we were to move. I know because Mommy said so and the night before at dinner, Mommy had announced to Aunty Norma that she was only working half day on Friday, as the house was ready and she had to go and inspect it, collect the key and make arrangements for a truck to come and get our things on Saturday.

Gertie only worked half day on Saturday and just before she left, my mother called her to the side, pressed an envelope into her hand and thanked her for taking care of us. Pointing to me Gertie said, “Ms. Palmer yu ave fi watch dat one.  She likkle and omanish bad, and busy-body too.”  Then Gertie patted me on the head and said, “Goodbye likkle Hopal. Don’t run off all ova de place like yu is puppy.”

I did not hug Gertie goodbye. I just opened and closed my left hand in a half wavy, said goodbye, then ran off to play.

The truck arrived shortly after Gertie left for the day, and just as we sat to have her afternoon soup for lunch.  Immediately my mother sprang up, ordered us to remain seated and drink our soup and began giving the driver directions about the things to load that had been stacked and covered on the back veranda.  We were still having lunch when he came into the kitchen where we seated and my mother offered him a bowl of soup. Although I did not recognize him, he smiled and greeted us like he knew us, and my Mommy reminded us that he was the same man who came and got us from Daddy’s house. His face was black and shinny and his felt hat was stained with perspiration.  When my mother put the bowl of soup before him, his eyes never wavered from the bowl, and it seemed even before he swallowed one spoon full of soup he had scooped another and heaved it into his mouth, and he was finish in lighting flash while Dawn and I who had much smaller bowls, were still half done.

Then Mommy kissed us on the top of our heads and said, “Behave yourselves and don’t give Aunt Norma any trouble. Simultaneously Dawn and I cried in unison,

“Mommy don’t leave. Take us!”

But she was already walking out the kitchen, heading to the verandah.  I sprang off the chair and followed her and when she clutched her handbag, I screamed, knowing she was leaving and thinking I would never see her again. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt as if someone was sitting on my chest.  Dawn was by my side and she was crying too.  Mommy came back and I could breathe again.  She bent down, wiped our tears with her hands and said.

“Don’t cry.  I promise a coming back.  A just have to get the house ready, then tomorrow we will move. Stop your crying. I will stop and get your ice-mint and paradise plum. True-true a coming back by evening.”

We were not convinced but we momentarily stopped crying and holding hands walked with Mommy to the front gate where we saw all out things piled in the truck.  Mommy got in front with the drive, who waved to us and honked his horn, and my resolved gave way. I screamed and bawled and when Aunty Norma tried to pry my hands from the gate, and keep me from dashing out and running after the truck and tried to take me inside, I kicked her.  The harder she tried the more I fought her and hollered that I wanted Mommy.  I could see several people gathering at their gates. Aunty Norma hollered for someone to go and get Ms. Sally as she pried my fingers loose, held me firmly before lifting me up as I sobbed and collapsed on her shoulder.

“Mommy coming back, she not leaving you,” she cooed but I refused to be consoled.  Convinced as I was that Mommy would never return, and I would never see her again, I screamed and cried at the top of my voice. Aunty Norma was still walking up and down the driving way, patting my back, and saying “Hush now, hush, Mommy coming back,” when Ms. Sally came and demanded that Aunt Norma turn me over to her.  She went and sat on the rocking chair on the front verandah, and Aunt Norma placed me in her lap. Ms. Sally’s voice was the sound of the breeze moving between the tamarind tree branches.  I hiccupped. Ms. Sally told Aunty Norma to mix me some sugar water that she coaxed me to drink. Then she began a tale about how Anansi sat one day alone under a coconut tree waiting for his friend Bre Frog.

I woke in the bed and the day was done. I did not see nor hear Mommy.  I knew she was never coming back so I closed my eyes and wondered what death felt like.  When next I woke still, full of tears, Mommy was on the bed, in the middle and Dawn on the other side, both sleeping. I sat up and was sure I was dreaming.  I touched Mommy’s face and she woke up.

“See I come back like I promised.”  She pulled me close to her and the tremor of my body stilled and although I tried to stay awake to make sure that Mommy would not leave again, pressing my body close to her, I must have fallen asleep because the next thing, Dawn was waking me, and she was already dressed.

“We moving today into our own house,” she announced hugging me. “Mommy says its nice but we won’t have our own rooms.  We have to share with her.” I couldn’t think of anything better.  Then she opened her hand and in her palm were two paradise plums, my favorite candy. “Mommy say you not to eat them before breakfast.”  Dawn opened her mouth to show me she was sucking on an icy-mint, her favorite candy. “I eat already.  You sleep the whole morning.”  Then she smiled at me and kissed my cheek. “Mommy didn’t leave us.” I sat up and hugged my sister tightly around the waist and never wanted to let go.

 Opal Palmer Adisa is a prolific poet, writer and artist, living in St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

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