My career took flight during the women’s movement in the late 80’s and kept moving.
Each job paid more, demanded more, involved more travel.
For the most part, my life was unlike my mother’s (she never traveled abroad till she was in her late forties). But, at times, my life was also strangely reminiscent of hers. For long periods, I got to work at home. Got to be there when the kids came home from school. Like my mother did.
I have two wonderful men to thank for that. My husband’s support allowed me to travel on business. My boss’ support allowed me to work at home often, in return for all that travel.
Support came from remarkable women. My own mother, who’d been denied the career she wanted, sometimes moved in temporarily when my job took me abroad. My husband’s mother often cooked the Jamaican dishes we loved (but weren’t good at making). My sister, who taught me to cook dishes my kids would like. And a very caring nanny; we lived very frugally so we could afford her and it was money very well spent.
And so, my proudest achievement – raising children who’ve become strong, decent adults — is something I’m not very confident about, had a lot of help with, and cannot claim as entirely my own.
Even with all that help and support, my husband and I worked hard at parenting our children, sometimes completely unsure whether we were doing the right thing. We got advice from our parents, but sometimes screwed up royally when we tried to apply that good counsel to our own family.
Looking back, we sometimes joke that the girls turned out alright,in spite of us. We’ve watched with pride, astonishment and awe as our daughters have grown up and made choices about their lives.
They’ve done well at school and work. They know when to “step up and stand up”: stepping up to help others going through tough times; standing up for what they consider to be right. They have strong values.
And – to my astonishment — each has a great sense of style, is a good cook and a great wit. These are talents which I’m sure come from their father and grandmothers, since no-one has ever accused me of any of those things.
Our daughters are strong, decent adults and I am proud of having had something to do with that outcome. But, more than that, I am thankful for having had the chance to parent them and watch them grow! As they have grown, my husband and I have also grown.
I’m thankful for my career. The doors it opened, the confidence it built, the money I earned. The people I met, the travel to foreign lands.
But when someone asks me about the proudest achievement of my life, there’s no debate: I’m proudest of raising children who have become strong, decent adults.
Dedicated to my daughters, my husband and our mothers, with thanks.
And to all those who, like us, learned parenting as they went along, and all the people who helped.
“Dah-ling?” she said in that lovely lilt that always reminds me of the women in that generation of our family. It’s as if they adopted an accent and made it their own.
“Hello, my dear Aunt Rose,” I replied.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Aunt Rose. Especially now that I’m talking to you. How are you?”
“I’m fine too, Dah-ling.”
Her voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone. “But why don’t you call? I can’t hear from you at all.”
Before I could defend myself, she continued: “At my age, I shouldn’t have to be the one calling all you young people all the time. You should be calling me.” Aunt Rose lives with her daughter and son-in-law in the U.S., but her relatives are all over the place: England, Jamaica, the US, Canada, and so on. We were obviously not keeping up with the person, who – by dint of both personality and seniority – has become the family matriarch.
“That’s so true, Aunt Rose”, I said. “You’re absolutely right.”
“If I’m so right, why don’t you call more often?”
“Aunt Rose, I do call. I left a message on your phone just last week. Did you not get it?’
She was not backing down. “No,” she said firmly. “I didn’t get any message.”
I tried a different tack.
“So how are you, my darling Aunt?”
Her voice softened. She recited a short litany of ailments. Followed, as usual, by: “But I’m still here, giving God thanks.”
Gratitude. It’s one of the many things I like about her. To Aunt Rose, every day is a gift.
Aunt Rose, centre, with nieces
She asked about my siblings, uncles, cousins. And my children. And, of course, her favorite person who lives in this house.
“How’s my boyfriend?” she asked, suddenly giggling like a schoolgirl.
“He’s fine,” I replied. “Always sends his love for you.”
“Well, you tell him I send my love for him too!”
My great-aunt has a crush on my husband, and she never lets me forget it.
She called one day while my husband, the real chef in our family, was cooking dinner. Aunt Rose had insisted that I relay her love to him while she was right there on the phone.
“Your favorite girlfriend sends you her love,” I yelled across the kitchen.
“Tell her I wish she were here,” he called back, laughing affectionately, a twinkle in his eyes.
Aunt Rose giggled happily. “You tell my boyfriend that if I was just a little bit younger, I’d give you a run for your money!”
I pretended to be completely shocked.
“Oh yeah?” my husband replied when I relayed this remark. “Ask her what’s ‘a little bit younger’ ”.
Aunt Rose’s laugh was louder now. “Well, maybe just 20 years or so. Not much.”
This time, I was speechless.
Aunt Rose, you see, is 107 years of age, and that conversation took place about a year ago. She was still feminine, still funny, still eloquent. Still vivacious. You should have seen her at her birthday party just a few years before. She danced all the younger women off the floor.
“I’m glad you’re twice my husband’s age and living in another country,” I always tease her. “I couldn’t stand the competition!”
I love Aunt Rose. Both my mother and grandmother have passed, and Aunt Rose has tried to fill a small part of the gap by telephoning me often from her home in the U.S. Over these years, we’ve talked about many different things, almost all of them related to our family’s history.
She remembers minute details. From decades, even a hundred years before.
Sometimes the memories come complete with dialogue, or tiny details such as the style of a dress or shoes that someone wore. Or the time her older sister (my grandmother) became famous as a small girl, for spotting a mistake in the textbook used to teach the subject in Britain and its colonies.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when…”
The moment I hear this, I grab pen and paper or whatever’s handy – journals, notebooks, the backs of envelopes, the sides of calendars, and, just once, a paper towel.
Aunt Rose nonchalantly admits that the past is easy to remember – it’s the present she has trouble with.
Some recent events, however, remain in her mind, even as her health has diminished and her voice weakened.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told me one day recently. “I just finished reading your book.”
Aunt Rose is mentioned twice in the book. Among other things, she helped perform the role of fact-checker for some of the family stories in it. But I know that her daughter True and other relatives had to read it to her once published. Aunt Rose was now weak and bedridden.
But something else was on her mind that day, as her life edged closer to its end. She was focused on the future of a great-niece whom she’d helped enlighten, comfort, and encourage in countless telephone calls over the last several years.
“It’s a very good book, you know, Dah-ling. But I want you to promise me something.”
“Yes, Aunt Rose?”
“Promise me you’ll write another one. You have to write a second book.”
I hesitated. Her voice was weak again, but I could hear her waiting on the other end of the line. The trouble is that I’ve never lied to Aunt Rose and I didn’t plan to start now. What if I never write another book? I’d have broken what’s likely my last promise to Aunt Rose.
“I’ll try, Aunt Rose.”
“No! That’s not good enough, Dah-ling.” Her voice suddenly got stronger. “You have a God-given talent. Trying is not good enough.” There it was, that firmness in her voice that I know so well.
“Okay, Aunt Rose,” I said. “I’ll do my best.” This sounded like a promise without technically being a promise.
Aunt Rose wasn’t fooled. But she laughed gently and said, “I know you will. My Dah-ling.”
Today Aunt Rose lies in bed, no longer eating, no longer speaking. We’ve been told she’s in her final days. We will miss her greatly , but we also know it’s time to say goodbye to this beloved woman.
Bon voyage, my Dah-ling Aunt Rose. Fare thee well. Thank you for so much. For your faith, grace and astonishingly clear memories that kept us connected to ‘home’. And — above all — for your remarkable love and patience with us younger ones. You occupy a special place in our hearts.