When Lloyd was ten years old the Civil Service Credit Union, to which both Nigel and I belonged, had started a self-help project for members who had been able to save consistently over a period of time, to assist with loans to acquire housing. Having enjoyed rent-free accommodation in the family home for so many years, we considered it was time to look ahead to provide for our little family, and decided to take advantage of what was being offered.
For those who had access to a piece of land, it was proposed to provide technical help in the form of preparation of building plans, construction supervisors, earning discounts by purchasing material as a group in bulk, plus opportunities to consult with and obtain advice from Public Works personnel.
The family property consisted of a rectangular-shaped plot of land starting at the corner of a street running east to west, measuring sixty-five feet wide, stretching at right angles to the corner of a street running parallel to it – fronting on three streets, the longest side measuring a hundred and fifty feet. The house had been built facing the street going east to west and extending eighty feet back, a low fence separating the two areas – one with the house and the other an empty lot sixty-five by seventy feet.
As it was not in use, Nigel and I had asked my parents to sell us this empty area to enable us to participate in the proposed housing project; but had been overwhelmed by a generous counter-proposal from my parents. They said that the family house being too large for just the two of them, now that the rest of the children had all left home, the last one having been Linda, who had married a Mestizo fellow and gone to live up north in the same district as Robbie, they were proposing that we build a smaller house on that lot to which they would transfer when completed, leaving us in the family home. In other words, they were giving it to us in exchange for the payment of the construction cost of the new house. We could not do better than that!
And when Uncle Lito had heard of their generosity, it had been another opportunity for his famous misquoting of the Scriptures: “You hear what the Bible say? To him that hath more will be given; and him that hath not, even the little he hath will be taken away. That is how this country go! But it will be r— between me and them!” had been his comment.
Mama had said: “Pay Lito no mind! The country played no part in this arrangement and when he gained title to the whole of my mother’s property it was because I gave him my share; and he didn’t quote the Bible then. Besides, when I see him I will remind him that the Scriptures refer to God’s grace and not material goods, as he well knows!”
In fairness to Uncle Lito he did have a point that the powers-that-be tend to help those who were better off and neglect the poor and more needy. Taking our case as an example, the Credit Union was willing to offer generous assistance to those who had been able to save, and had access to a piece of land, while the majority of its members, who were in lower-paying jobs and could not afford to save as consistently, and certainly did not have any land, were left completely out of the picture.
We all knew that he was half-joking, because he liked to pretend that he was the underdog since he didn’t get to go to “college,” blaming his lack of financial success on that. Of course Mama did not let him get away with that either, reminding everyone about the large amounts of money he had acquired and squandered, being a jack-of-all-trades and a very resourceful and gifted individual.
Uncle Lito was an unusual character who suffered from an inferiority complex. He had followed our grandfather into a happy-go-lucky lifestyle, spending money freely among his drink companions and women. He had fallen in love at twenty-three with Miss Stella Franklin, the only daughter of a boat-owner, who made “good” money hauling barges, etc. in the stevedoring business. Unfortunately for the young lovers, Miss Stella was of too soft a nature, while her mother was an assertive woman, who had allegedly made the remark that my uncle was not up to their standard, not having gone to “college” presumably, (although she herself was only primary-schooled), and was knocking about from side to side drinking, gambling and womanizing. Around the time Miss Stella had got pregnant and Uncle Lito was planning on marriage, she had declared that her daughter “must could do better than Roland Parham.” And that remark had become an instant declaration of war between them, with Miss Stella being squeezed in the middle.
The relationship between the lovers had stalled and lost momentum, and when my little cousin Regina had been born, her maternal grandmother had refused permission for my uncle to visit the home to see her. Hurt pride had led to a deeper indulgence in a life of carousal from which he had slowed down at intervals but never departed completely.
Miss Stella had become friends with Mama and brought the baby to visit, allowing my uncle the opportunity to see his daughter and, eventually, the couple had renewed their friendship but not their relationship. Mama tried to advise Uncle Lito not to allow Mrs. Franklin’s enmity to triumph over his future with Miss Stella, convinced that they both felt the same about each other; advising him to renovate his mother’s house, to which he then had title, and offer Miss Stella the option of deciding for herself between continuing at her mother’s home or marrying and living with him.
Unfortunately for them both, he seemed unable to conquer his pride and hurt, and their relationship remained in limbo for a couple years until Baby Regina’s grandmother went on a visit to the United States. In the absence of pressure from her mother, Miss Stella openly visited my uncle at his home and became pregnant with twin boys by the time Mrs. Franklin returned.
Everyone thought that if there was disagreement before, there would now be fireworks when Mrs. Franklin learnt of the new development; but there were no reports of trouble in the Franklin household, Miss Stella taking the twins to full term; and, when she delivered, Uncle Lito was not only allowed but invited to come and visit them. People believed that Mr. Franklin had stepped in and cajoled or threatened his wife into more civil behaviour; but, whatever the reason, I think Mrs. Franklin came to realize that she had been defeated by her own daughter, who had persisted in continuing to see Uncle Lito.
After the birth of the twins, Errol and Keith, my uncle slowed down with his affairs, and Miss Stella used to bring the three children to his home where they all spent time with him on weekends; and he discouraged his lady friends from visiting him there, calling on them during the week wherever they lived if and when it suited him.
They continued in this way for several years until the twins reached their ninth birthday, when an unfortunate incident occurred. Uncle Lito had asked the boys what they wanted for their birthday and Errol, the more quiet of the two, had replied that he would be satisfied with whatever his father could afford. The other, however, had brashly declared that he wanted a bicycle or nothing, as he knew his father could afford it if he didn’t waste money on his women.
Stung by this accusation and criticism coming from such a source, Uncle Lito had taken off his belt, reached out and pulled the child towards him and menacingly inquired what he knew about his father’s finances? The frightened child, realizing that he had gone too far, had replied that his Grandma Franklin had provided the information about his earnings and how they were spent!
Miss Stella told Mama how things had gone downhill from there, with Uncle Lito giving Keith such a severe whipping that he had broken the flesh and left wales on his body for weeks afterwards, telling him to show them to his grandmother and let her know why!
She said how she had gone out to buy them food and had returned in time to see Keith running from the house; and when she had asked what had happened, Uncle Lito had coolly crossed his arms and given her the details of the action he had taken.
Miss Stella told my mother that that had been the last straw, as all through the years she had put him first, catering to his wishes in every possible way – and he had been very demanding – in the hope of proving her love for him; sacrificing her relationship with her parents and her peace of mind – all to no purpose, as she had never been able to do enough to satisfy him.
She and my uncle had had a running disagreement about corporal punishment since the birth of their first child. She had expressed to him her strong feelings against it, that her father had stopped her mother, a very hot-tempered person, from punishing her in that way, and that she felt capable of training her children without resorting to it. He had made her a promise never to beat them, had broken that promise, which she saw as a sign that he had no intention of honouring any arrangement between them that would inhibit the animosity between him and her mother. She realized that his action had not been to correct the child, but to reach her mother through him, and felt duty bound to remove her children from such a dangerous position.
Both his behaviour and that of her mother had clearly shown their preference for scoring points off each other before all other considerations, and had finally convinced her of the need to make her children her priority, before all other loyalties, since those so close to them could be so callous and indifferent to their welfare.
As she had collected and put together all their belongings at his home, he had coldly warned that he hoped she knew that if she left she could never come back, to which she had not condescended to reply but asked his permission to use his telephone to call a taxi. When it had arrived she had told Regina and Errol, who had still been in shock from witnessing the punishment of their brother, to tell their father that they were leaving, said goodbye to him herself, and had left the premises.
On their arrival home her mother had self-righteously declared: “Maybe now you’ll believe what I’ve always told you about that man. Just look at what he has done!” She said that she had turned to face her mother and, looking her straight in the eye, had replied that the man she referred to didn’t do what he did by himself, that he had had help; and that she had never referred to the incident again.
My uncle reverted to his old lifestyle ‘full blast,’ as his friends put it, with women coming and going as before; yet, with all his womanizing, he had had no other children than those three with Miss Stella.
Mamma had warned him that the day of reckoning would come, late or soon, for whatever you sowed you would reap; and that the sin of pride was a grievous one, for she was convinced that his refusal to forgive Mrs. Franklin’s criticism had been at the root of their problems, and Miss Stella and the children had paid the price.
The years went by with little contact between Uncle Lito and Miss Stella, while Regina and Errol had visited him regularly. Keith had stayed away, although my uncle had sent the bicycles for their birthday and continued to provide generously for the maintenance of all three children.
When her father had died about two years later Miss Stella had confided in Mama that, although her father had left them well fortified financially, she had decided to enter the working world now that he was not around to provide companionship, as she and her mother had little in common. Her father had encouraged her reading habit, so she was well-known to the Jubilee Library Staff; and when she had asked whether they had any vacancy for a part-time library assistant, she had had no difficulty in obtaining a beginner’s job in spite of her mature age. She had applied herself diligently to the training and, by the time Regina had graduated from high school at sixteen, she had become a permanent member of the clerical staff, opting not to study for the library science professional examinations until after she had finished raising her children and had the time to devote to it.
Regina, who aspired to become a librarian herself, had joined the staff at eighteen after graduating from Sixth Form; and mother and daughter often walked to work together when their duties coincided.
Miss Stella had once admitted to Mama that in spite of everything that had happened between them, she still had a soft spot in her heart for my uncle, but that it was too burdensome to be a jack-and-bowler between him and her mother while they indulged in their continuous hostilities.
When people marvelled that she continued in her single state although she was an attractive woman, she would refrain from public comment, only observing to Mama that nothing would possess her to expose her children to someone who was not their natural father when his own father could have been so cruel to her son.
One year after joining the Library Service, Regina and the younger of the two Deputy Librarians started going together and soon became serious enough to start what my uncle referred to as “marriage talk foolishness” when the girl was “just out of school and the fellow a big hard-back twenty-five.” It had been useless for Mama to remind him that he was himself twenty-five, and Miss Stella twenty-one, when Regina was born, as he seemed to believe that marriage partners should be the same age. He had responded that Miss Stella had been an adult then, whereas Regina was six years younger than her suitor. Mama had cited the many marriages where the male was four to six years older than the female, as in my case for instance, yet Uncle Lito had remained opposed to the match on the grounds of his daughter not being “of age” (twenty-one) yet.
He blamed Miss Stella for not paying close enough attention to the child’s upbringing, and was infuriated on hearing that she approved of his “under-age” daughter thinking of marriage to that grown man.
I think that his dilemma could best be described as poetic justice; and heard that some of his companions had remarked unfeelingly that it was a common thing for parents to be dissatisfied with their children’s choices, as in his case for instance, but that, as he should know by now, people should not pick for their children.
I have to admit feeling sympathetic towards Uncle Lito, even though I believe he deserved some of the pain he was suffering. But I had reason to feel relieved, on his behalf, that a greater calamity than he faced had been averted through the generosity and big-heartedness of my mother and Miss Stella.
Living next door to my parents, I often crossed the yard and entered their house through the back door; and, on the occasion I now refer to, I walked into my parents’ bedroom to find my mother sitting on her bed holding Regina’s hand, speaking to her earnestly as they sat next to each other.
As I entered, Regina rose to her feet and turned towards the door, and as I started to apologise for interrupting them, said she was just leaving. Mama held her hand and asked her not to do anything but to think over all that she had said and come back to see her again. She had agreed and hurried off, while Mama had signalled me to sit in the rocker while she accompanied her to the front door.
She had returned to the room shortly, shaking her head and sighing, remarking that the devil was busy, and related how Regina had come to ask her if she could hold her wedding reception at her house and if Uncle Rodney would give her away!
“You see my cross?” Mama had said. “Isn’t that enough to kill my poor brother? His one and only prize daughter keeping him out of her wedding? Lord in heaven! The things children can think up? I had to do some talking to get her to hold up with her plans until after we could speak again! According to her, Lito isn’t pleased with her choice of a husband, so she didn’t think she should ask him to give her away. I told her that there are some things you have to do regardless of what you think the result will be, and that she must give her father the opportunity to decide whether he will accept the honour or not. If he refuses, then Rodney will be happy to fit in, but she owed a duty to her father.”
“You see that Mrs. Franklin, she seems determined to ruin poor Roland! You know what she said? She told the child not to waste time with him, go ahead and ask her uncle, because she didn’t even grow up with him! One of Regina’s reasons for wanting to ask Rodney was that she wanted her fiancé to see an example of regular family life among her people. It was Stella who told her to ignore her grandmother and sent her to talk to me. What a disaster if Lito ever hears of this?”
My mother was not in the habit of speaking disparagingly of anyone, but, in this case I had to admit, frankly, that I itched to have some words with Mrs. Franklin myself. It seemed as if her malice had no limit and that she cared for no one else’s feelings but her own.
In the end she had attended the wedding “to please her granddaughter,” it was reported! My uncle had proudly escorted his daughter down the aisle, and, in spite of his earlier objections, had spoken civilly to the groom afterwards. Daddy, Mama, Miss Stella, her mother and the twins had sat in the front row on our side of the aisle; and Nigel, our children and I sat behind them, where we had been joined by Uncle Lito after performing his fatherly role.
And Regina had set her own example of family life by, along with her husband, renting a house and living apart from both father and mother, although there was plenty of space for them in either house, foregoing the financial advantage of saving on rent.
Thus, the constant wrangling between Regina’s father and maternal grandmother came to an end. Mama’s opinion was that her dear brother, having come to realize what it felt like to be a parent wanting the best for his child, must have now come to appreciate Mrs. Franklin’s position; while, on the other hand, that lady had attended the wedding in consideration of the feelings of someone other than herself, something new for her.
To end everything on a graceful note, Miss Stella had played the role of mother of the bride with calm dignity, even accepting Uncle Lito’s invitation to a dance; and Mama and I had been touched by her remark that one person in her family, at least, had been saved from parental obstruction to their happiness.
(Chapter 22 in next Tuesday’s Amandala.)