An excerpt from How to Be UnMothered: A Trini Memoir.
Come now. Peer through the fancy blocks in the walls’ top. And watch. Three little girls in a semicircle. One perched on the edge of the couch. Not sitting back comfortable. Looking on at the tableau, troubled. That’s me.
Pan next to the other daughter sitting fold up in an armchair. Let your gaze rest there. See her caramel fingers fidgeting in her lap. See a smile flickering in and out of focus to reveal the gap where her permanent canine is still playing shy. That’s Ericka, who can’t seem to keep her lips stretched. Benign. In a smile. Nor can she keep the crease from her 10-year-old forehead. That practiced line. Ericka, who can’t seem to keep a fun expression. She’s overdone. And, doesn’t know now, in the third act, what is the Mummy-required emotion.
Scan now to see the last daughter leaning back against the plush, comforting cushion in her own armchair. Look at her skinny, seven-year-old self swallowed up there. Take in the muteness as Sherrie observes this mother who two minutes ago was crying. This mother who is now standing. This mother in the middle of the living room holding court for her daughters with the center table push to the side to allow her to fling her legs wide. This mother for the stage’s spotlight vying.
Zoom in now on this mother’s smile. You see it? Adorning the lit-up face on which the tears all done dry. You catch it? That special sparkle in this mother’s eyes. As she letting loose a good belly giggle. Watch she in she element. Now, wriggle and press your ears to the carved holes in the blocks and listen closely.
“Oh gawd, ha. I en play Ah giddem, oui,” laughs Mummy.
She positively beams as she launches into her story.
“Ah bring out de Louisa fuh dem. When Ah tell yuh, when Tanty Louisa get vex, de whole uh Chantimelle coulda hear she mout. All uh Grenada know my aunt. Hahaha. Yuh know what she used tuh do?”
“What?” asks Ericka. Stultifyingly.
“Huh, chile, Louisa used tuh ban she belly like so.” Mummy mimes tying a scarf around her waist. “And when yuh see dat, yuh know trouble coming.”
“Why?” puts in Sherrie. Dazedly.
Mummy in her glee. She loves talking about her cantankerous maternal aunt. Repeatedly. The aunt who everybody in their village still fraid. Louisa, who used to make Mummy, her siblings, her mother, her neighbors, and anybody whose business Louisa make it a point to know, feel shame.
“Why? Well, baby, when yuh see Louisa done tie she waist, de next ting is she used tuh puff up she face and brace she legs wide like so.” Mummy adopts a shot-putter’s stance. “She used tuh stand up like a man. And Louisa had some strong leg and dem. Yuh could see all de muscles in her thighs. Calves hard like stone. So yuh know she wasn’t falling down or sitting anytime soon.”
Mummy laughs again, enjoying having a rapt audience to entertain. Enjoying unscrolling this history I’ve heard before. Me, familiar with this refrain. “Den when she done set up she self, Louisa used tuh trow she head back and bawl. When Ah tell yuh bawl? Bawl. She used tuh leggo one bawl like somebody killing she. Everybody would run out dey house and know something upset Louisa.”
“And what she would do after?” Ericka ventures. Ericka who offers no censure to Mummy’s behavior. Ericka who adjusts, excuses, accepts, condones. Ericka who goes back to her Mummy’s arms regardless of cruel fits she throws. Ericka who continues seeking to quench the thirst to be the one her mother loves above all her discarded daughters and puts first. Then, now, always, there is nothing Ericka disavows as her mother behaves worse and worse.
Mummy replies, continuing her tale. Mummy who again have words. Those she was dispossessed of when not an hour ago she spit and curse.
“Huh, den Louisa used tuh put all yuh business on de road. All who tief. All who have chile fuh somebody man. If yuh wearing a buss-up panty yuh doh want Louisa tuh know because she making sure she tell everybody de color.”
Ericka gasps. Fulfilling her part. Sherrie sucks her tongue and remains lapsed into dumb silence. I watch Mummy. Animated, enlivened. Emanating light while recounting her aunt’s verbal and emotional violence.
“So she wutless,” Mummy beams. Pride suffuses her face. Amusement sparkles in her eyes in which tears retain no trace. “Tanty Louisa had everybody fraid tuh cross she. When Ah tell yuh she used to get on bad and put water in yuh eye. When she done so yuh cyah hold up yuh head fuh weeks. Shame? Shame? Huh, Louisa used tuh destroy yuh name in Chantimelle.”
I feel a tug. An undercurrent ripple through me from Mummy’s disquieting story.
“Was she mad?” This is my query.
“No, just bad she bad,” is Mummy’s answer to me.
Mummy scrapes off any encroaching rusted edges along her gilded memory. Brushes off my incorrigible question of insanity. Ignores any unease at the shame she endured from her own tanty. And resumes her unflinchingly jolly mood. Mummy brings her comparative narrative to a close. Mummy snorts a laugh and crows, “Allyuh grandmother must be fraid me now, eh, hahaha?”
Ericka and Sherrie chorus the uncomfortable laugh Mummy’s pause prompts. I don’t laugh. I ask, “why you flip out like that?” This is the insight that I want.
Mummy’s gaze switches to me and dons a mask to mime the seriousness in the inquisition launch. She wades in, reply tremulous and staunch. “I doh know. I doh know, Uricka. Maybe I having a nervous breakdown. I doh know what tuh tell yuh. I can’t take this much more. The embassy, I just . . . and I had to send and ask yuh Aunty Ann for money again to pay fuh de . . . and I worried about allyuh.”
At this, Mummy adopts an attitude that reflects I-am-sombre. She deflates her breastbone and drops her shoulders. “What gonna happen to allyuh when I leave? Who going tuh take care of allyuh?” She says this directly to me, quietly. Entreating me to relate on a special, grown-up level of intimacy. She can’t say too much in front of Sherrie. Her youngest baby. Who doesn’t yet know her mummy is forging a plan to leave.
Mummy drops to her knees in front of me, whispering. “Promise me you’ll keep yuh sisters safe for me. And that you’ll write me all the time. I going to buy a stack of writing pads, envelopes, and stamps and put them up fuh when I get through. Yuh know I going to have to leave right after de embassy finally give me de green card, right?”
Mummy holds my hands tight, still talking low, “And you’ll remember everything I teach yuh? No, I not worried. You don’t forget anything.”
Indeed. I, Camille, forget nothing.
Mummy’s engagement and wedding rings dig into my palm. She repeats, “No, I not worried. I know you’ll take good care of my babies.” I nod. My throat burns and bobs. I don’t want Mummy’s green card to come through yet. I don’t want to be left. But Mummy speaks like she’ll get through in the coming weeks. Like her green card should have been issued already. And she getting antsy at the suspense.
My sisters watch from their chairs. Out of focus of this lens. They look on as Mummy hugs me, sniffling. Her eyes are full. Her voice trembling. Mummy now crying. Mummy now earnest in quantifying. “I know is juss for a little while. We’ll be apart only for a little while. But we’ll talk on de phone all de time. I’ll buy phone cards. And we’ll send letters and pictures, right? Allyuh will be alright,” Mummy says to me. Looking at her Bambi eyes, I blink rapidly. And nod once more as Mummy’s entreaty implores.
She sprinkles salt in my heart’s sore. “And allyuh have allyuh whole family around here. They mightn’t like me too much right now. But daz still allyuh grandmother and aunts. Juss, juss hold on fuh me.”
Hold on to the family Mummy make sure and cuss out. Before she leave.
And, lastly, into my ear, separately, my mother whispers her mantra, “Keep the faith.” The refrain Mummy always states. The phrase to my weary, seeking-love heart she always donates. The secret declaration with which she always placates, always consolidates my soul. The one she breaks. To pieces.
“Keep the faith,” Mummy says to me. The phrase I’ll hold on to for seven years. Till Mummy finally for us sends. Seven years till my sisters and I get our secret green cards processed. Though Mummy’s Brooklyn father applied for all of us at the same time. But Mummy didn’t think us all leaving was for the best. Seven years before I’ll put that phrase to rest.
Seven years. From a child to an adult. From thirteen years old to twenty. Head of the household my mother left to me, her not-first daughter. The first daughter of my mother is her first child she deserted long ago in Grenada.
Seven years. Through humiliations and cellulitis infections and hospitalisations and my digging for money in town-people’s dirt under increasing desperation. And my being tardy at school and developing a don’t-care reputation. And my partying and being solicited by big hard-back men seeking a child with no home supervision.
Seven years. Of cut phone lines and Mummy saying I working hard in Brooklyn, writing does take too much time. And us children pleading When, Mummy, when. Daddy only buy us two school uniform shirts again. And he not giving us money for groceries when he taking all his salary to party and spend. And daddy bringing in his girlfriends and their drinking, smoking, drugging family and them. And we have no home. And daddy telling us if we don’t like it we could go.
Seven years. Through which my mother reiterates, Keep the faith.
That useless, deceitful phrase of my mother’s that my writing down thirty years later dissolves me into a geyser flooding my carpet with tears. I was a child! my mascara-running reflection shares.
And, as a child, this phrase, uttered in the living room with Mummy kneeling before me, is one to which I adhere. This phrase Mummy knows I need to hear. The phrase with which I tuck myself into bed at night, convincing myself Mummy cares. As Mummy prepares to leave.
As my ripping soul grieves. As Mummy sings, “Kiss me and smile for me. Tell me that you’ll wait for me. Hold me like you’ll never let me go. ‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. . . . ”
This phrase my mother turns into a joke.
“Keep the faith” is the manipulative phrase with which Mummy punctuates the end of her private talks with me. For my sake. Togetherness to imitate. As she dumps and offloads. And buries her negativity in my throat.
As Mummy overshares and orates. As she talks about how much hates Daddy. Who her mind tell her not to marry. And talks about Daddy’s women and how he so cheap. And the woman who daily calling and the outside daughters Daddy does mind and keep. And talks about Daddy nasty hygiene. And talks about the violence in this man she choose to marry. And talks about Daddy’s every fault that requires her alone to flee. And talks with me about where our birth certificates and important documents are tucked away. And talks about how to mother her ten- and seven-year-old daughters when she boards her non-return flight on BWIA.
And talks, this mother, not about the concerns of her not-first daughter. About how my lymph vessels are already bursting under the strain. And how the tears my body cries have already begun to interiorly drain. Past their walls. Leaking fluid past the lymphatic channels of a vascular system that cannot hold them all. I am developing bilateral primary lymphedema. With no source medical professionals can glean as originator. Them not knowing the diagnosis that is the weariness of Atlas showing in a growing twelve-year-old girl. Who cannot shoulder the world.
That night. The night after the Mummy-cuss-Granny-and-take-a bite-outta-Tanty-Marilyn fight. For the first time ever in my life, I hear Mummy recite. I hear Mummy reel off words I had to discern from the lips of the child next to me in our primary school line. Watching and striving to learn to lip-read during our line-up assemblies. To fit in, please. These words, untaught to me, that Mummy now so easily release. Our father . . . thy kingdom come . . . thy will be done.
This night is the first time I ever see Mummy take a candle and kneel. And light this candle when current not even gone. T&TEC electricity bright. With candle in hand, tall, slim, and white, Mummy descends to the carpeted floor. Into the backroom where Mummy suddenly went to be alone, I peek. This Mummy who always want my company. While she sew, while she wash, while she cook. This Mummy who all of a sudden took a moment to withdraw. So my tumid feet tiptoe across the floor. To understand more. And there, kneeling, is another new Mummy I’d never seen before.
Her head is bowing. Her hair is covered with a head tie. A long skirt is tucked over her knees. A single trickle cries. Her dark face is illuminated in the black room by the candle flame. Her long nose and her Mr. Johnson-fed-up-with-Grover bulging eyes look the same. The tattered-pages book spread on the bed, winging like a dusty moth, is the unearthed King James.
Mummy’s lips move in chanting, singsong calling. Her torso rocks back and forth. Her heavy breaths and breasts rising and falling. A small palm comes to her heart. Short fingers refusing to be pried apart. Unlike the five daughters from whom this mother easily departs.
I stand quietly afraid to breathe too loudly. I don’t want to be discovered spying. I don’t want Mummy to hear me above her own quiet crying. This time she’s weeping genuinely.
At twelve, standing there, before a closed door and taking a peep through the hinge’s one-centimeter crease, I watch Mummy kneel. She who doh believe in dem church ting. For the first time in prayer. With the psalms. Asking: let the wicked be ashamed. And let them be silent in the grave. Vengeance Mummy craved. For her deliverance alone my mother prayed: let me be saved.
And it would take me tired decades to put away the lesson Mummy taught me that day. That when truly desperate to escape, call through flame. Call on gods by their dredged-up names. Kneel to darkness. Chant aloud your pain. Retreat. Lock the door. And conceal your shame.
Camille U. Adams is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She earned her MFA in Poetry from CUNY and is a current Ph.D. Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at FSU, where she has been awarded a McKnight Doctoral Fellowship and nominated for a teaching award. Camille is a 2022 Tin House alum, a 2023 Tin House summer workshop reader, and an inaugural 2023–24 Tin House Reading Fellow. She is a Kenyon Writers Workshop alum, was awarded an inaugural fellowship from Granta magazine for the 2023 Nature Workshop, and has received scholarships for attendance from Roots Wounds Words, Community of Writers, Kweli Literary Festival, Grubstreet, VONA, and others. Her work was longlisted in the 2022 Graywolf Press Creative Nonfiction Prize and selected as a finalist for The 2021 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction. Camille’s memoir writing has been featured in Passages North, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, XRAY Literary Magazine, Variant Literature, The Forge Literary Magazine, Kweli Magazine, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere. Camille is also an associate managing nonfiction editor at Variant Literature, an assistant nonfiction editor at The Account Magazine, a prose reader at Abode Press, and a memoir reader for Split Lip Magazine. When she isn’t writing and teaching, Camille can be found on Twitter at @Camille_U_Adams where she spends way too much time.