Nonfiction by Andrew J. Skerritt
Tasting Life Twice - Desire
by Andrew J. Skerritt
It’s Sunday afternoon on Mercer Street in Jubilee Town. It’s the time of the week when the sweet strains of sleep nip at my eyes. Even the brown feathered doves and sparrows nap on the electric wires that connect the street lamps that chase the darkness each night in my grandparents’ house. The birds hush their chatter as if recognizing my observance of the Christian Sabbath.
I sit at a scratched beige Formica dining room table. I grip a blue ballpoint pen between my thumb and index finger on my left hand. Sky blue, unlined airmail paper lies flat on the brittle surface before me. The blank page feels like a mountain I must climb. I am eight years old. I am trying to write a letter to my mother.
I was born in London. Before I could walk or talk, my mother put me on a boat with my paternal grandparents. In the middle of the worst British winter she shipped me home to the West Indies to be raised by her mother and father on the tiny island of Montserrat. It has become my home. To me, my mother is a name only. She’s a woman of whom I have no memory. No framed black and white pictures of her decorate the cream cinder block walls that surround me. I wouldn’t have recognized her if she knocked on the glass louvered front door and invited herself in. I know her only by the too tight leather shoes that come by post each December. The scent of new socks and shirts arriving in the post are my substitute for the aroma of her favorite perfume. The one-page letters she writes to me and my sister every few months are our only means of communication. In every letter, she describes the London weather: cold and rainy – it always seemed to be. I marvel at her genius for saying nothing. I want to hear and know so much more about her.
The tick tock of the clock sounds like punishment. Each strike is as a whip against my back. It chronicles my lack of progress. The first step, said Willa Cather, is the hardest. I wrack my brain. I try to find something interesting to say. I try to say something that would interest a mother whose interests I do not know. I sit for one hour and then the next. I jot down tentative lines:
“Dear Mother. How are you? I hope fine.”
Each line takes me one line further in my struggle to fill a page. In slanted, left-handed penmanship I hope my mother will understand, I write about Wesley School. It is the same one-room Methodist Church-run school my mother once attended to seventh grade. I write to tell her about the games of cricket I play each afternoon after I walk home from school. Our cricket pitch is my narrow neighborhood asphalt street just a few yards away from where I am writing that Sunday afternoon.
I don’t tell my mother about the neighbor’s glass louvers my friends and I broke with the cricket ball. Neither do I tell her about the day our ball nicked the edge of someone’s bat. That day it didn’t break our louvers. It struck my beloved grandfather on his nose as he sat on the front porch. I had no words to describe the blood smeared on my grandfather’s white vest or the fear I felt for the only man I’ve ever loved. I don’t tell her of my dreams to become a great cricketer. I want to be the next Gary Sobers. The Barbadian cricketer once scored three hundred and sixty-five runs in one inning. Other than Sobers’ gap-tooth smile, we share little in common. I may write left-handed, but I am right-handed batsman. It would be silly to tell my mother about my impossible dream.
Instead I tell her of the sports meet at school. I tell her how fast I ran in the one hundred-yard dash. It doesn’t matter if I won or lost. I share the joy of touching the white tape first. I tell her of what it feels like to win. But I say nothing of my disappointment, the emptiness in a cup of joy, at not having her in the crowded pavilion to cheer him on. Of course, I make no mention of how the starter’s pistol scares me. It makes me shake from the starting blocks to the finish line and every blade of the grass track in between.
I do not have the words or the language to explain to my mother about all that goes on inside our home. Sometimes when I am alone, I go into my grandmother’s closet and try on her clothes. I put on her sleeveless floral dress and her lipstick and her wig and her clip-on earrings and her pumps. How do tell my mother that when my grandmother returns home and sees me dressed up in her clothes, she fusses at me. It makes her uncomfortable to see me looking like the “Annie” she sometimes affectionately called me.
“Me no want no macko man in my house,” my grandmother scolds me. Her words of disapproval are a rebuke for my failure to respect the strict lines of gender and sexuality, of men and women, of boys and girls. How could I tell that to my mother?
Looking back, even as I write this almost half a century later, I can only wonder if my desire to wear my grandmother’s clothes was the expression of a boy crudely trying to connect with a mother whom I would never quite know. Was it the normal sexual confusion inherent in prepubescent boys? Or was it merely child’s play? As a father and a husband, I can only speculate. What I do know for sure is that memory remains buried among the cobwebs where checkered history mostly resides. It is dormant until it is pried open, as if my writing is an excavation.
Seated at home in Jubilee Town overlooking Plymouth, the capital of my pear-shaped ancestral homeland, I tell my mother everything I could think of. Yet the page is only half filled. As I pause between mini-bursts of blue ink on blue paper, I listen to the old time Gospel music that fills the air. Radio Paradise. The fifty-thousand-watt evangelical Christian station broadcasts from Basseterre. The capital of Saint Kitts sits fifty-three miles to the northwest. Radio Paradise plays the songs of Jim Reeves and George Beverly Shea. The words from ‘How Great Thou Art’ are convicting and convincing. For me, Billy Graham’s favorite bass baritone’s voice is just one distraction. Several times an hour, my grandmother, Miss Peggy, emerges from her bedroom to check on me. She hides my lack of progress. “You better not waste my paper,” she scolds me. “You’re the last class I ever come across.”
Those Sunday afternoons were a prelude to my dream, to be a writer. In time, after my older cousin emigrated to America in the late seventies, I took over his old workshop. I replaced his electronic equipment with bookshelves and books and a borrowed, portable Corona typewriter and my head full of aspiration.
“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind,” wrote Joan Didion. “It’s an aggressive hostile act.”
I agree wholeheartedly. Looking back at my juvenile efforts through the lens of all the books I’ve read, the lectures I’ve heard and the life I’ve lived, I understand now why it was vital for me to write to my mother. Even if my grandmother had assigned the chore as a way of teaching me gratitude. Even if she merely wanted to inculcate a sense of obligation when none existed. Either way, a compulsory exercise became my compulsion. Those blue air letter forms became my first mirror. That irregularly shaped unlined piece of paper was the place where I first saw myself. It was where the notion of who I was and what I wanted to be first emerged. On that blue paper, a reflection formed that was so much clearer than anything that looked back at me from the cracked dresser mirror in my grandmother’s bedroom.
Writing is the one essential thing. I cannot live without it. And when I write, the detritus of everyday life, the self-doubt, the conjoined fears of abandonment and betrayal, matter far less. To write, I know now, isn’t just to convince others to see it my way. It is to see me, period. It’s not so much to change anyone’s mind. It is to remind myself I have a mind of my own; I always did.
As a writer, aggression and hostility are fraternal twins born of desperation; it’s a hostility that flows from the inside out, top to bottom; an aggression that is less a reaction to what happens on the outside than an instinctive yearning within that will not be easily quenched. I began to write as a way of breaking the silence, initiating then maintaining that essential mother-son conversation that fate tried to rob me of. And having started, I could not stop.
My mother sailed to England in 1960 in the middle of an unprecedented mass migration from West Indian colonies to the Mother Country. Villages and neighborhoods were left half empty as more than three thousand Montserrat islanders, a fourth of the population, boarded passenger ships as part of the post-World War II invasion of the United Kingdom. She left behind a one-year-old daughter and an ex-lover who was engaged to another woman. The next year, she was expecting a second child. Her new lover was my father, a man with a wife, two sons and a daughter, and a fourth child on the way.
For years, in places like Hackney, and Stoke-Newington, London, my mother toiled in textile factories. When she returned home at night, there was no son to nurse. I and my sister were being raised under the same roof by grandparents. I didn’t know my mother enough to miss her. Yet, in retrospect, I wrote to grab and hold her attention. Was writing my way of saying, “Look at me. See my life. My days and nights are all I have. They matter to me. They should matter to you, too?”
To write was my primordial yell to be heard and to be understood. It was my vain attempt to connect time and distance, past and present, mother and son. It was the only way I knew how to establish an emotional bond with my mother. Writing was my true umbilical cord. It formed the one unbroken link between my mother and me. I began to write for it was my only option. It was my substitute for silence. It was an illegitimate son’s first act of legitimacy. It said that I am, I was, and I will be. It was my first recording. It became an indelible line in the volcanic soil of my ancestral homeland. It was my sworn statement that I existed. It was a reminder to my mother of the life I lived. I inhabited a parallel universe from hers. Hers was England. Mine was Montserrat. We occupied two islands separated by a vast gulf wider than the frigid Atlantic Ocean. The distance between us is measured in yearning and regrets and guilt and recrimination. Writing was my first authentication of my existence. It became flesh on the bones of my bubbling consciousness. It served as living proof that I was more than just my mother’s memory.
Andrew J. Skerritt is author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South (Lawrence Hill Books). A graduate of the University of Tampa MFA program, his essays have appeared in the Caribbean Quarterly, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Brooklyn Vol. 1, the Tampa Bay Times, The Root and elsewhere. "Writing As Desire" is from Tales of a Lost Son, a collection in progress. He lives and works in Tallahassee, Florida.