Taking Refuge at my Grandmother’s Feet

I rather enjoyed washing my
grandmother’s feet not only to
see the completely relaxed look on
her face but to set the ambience for her to
talk about our family.

The emotional scars were becoming fetid by then, and it seemed like there would be no end in sight to the beatings and emotional rejection. Some kind of cure for those childhood physical and emotional ills would almost never come during those years when we most needed to see it. Dreams of being adopted by other families would haunt me so much that the urge to run away was always present. However, the hated days spent in Spanish school would make Teacher Thomas’ Westindian School look more and more enticing, although it was still located not far from where we were living.

In fact, I could not wait to see those black students who had become a part of my day back when I was attending no school. I remember standing at the door of my parents’ room and just watching as the Black students exited school at lunch time and then again later in the evenings after attending Teacher Thomas’ Private School. On several occasions I had overheard some of the older Westindian boys in the neighborhood talk about what I knew was English school with Teacher Thomas. Still I had only glimpses of old Teacher Thomas since the year of 1940 when our ill fated family had moved so close to that neighborhood school.

But it was around1946 and I was in Spanish primary school when I was just about ten years old and in a third grade class that was boring me to death. The highlight of my day, in fact, became the moment in which I would meet my grandmother after work.

My grandmother, Fanny, who had been entrusted with our care by my father, was still employed at the Ancon Laundry, a huge plant-like Canal Zone operation. She’d been employed there since 1929, when my grandfather Joshua had died, doing everything related to the laundry of the people on the Zone.

Few people outside those who were ever connected to life on the Zone know that virtually free laundry service was one of the perks of living and working on the Canal Zone. It may not seem important to folks in any other point on the globe but, in the hot and humid tropical climate of Panama, having your laundry, and done usually for free, by an army of expert laundresses like my grandmother became a real attraction for any white woman whose husband was considering signing on to work on the Canal Zone.

I began finding myself over at that place that looked to me like a factory plant where mostly Black Westindian women were employed. By then, it seems, I was beginning to form an attachment to my father’s mother, our Mamí, as she was known to all of us. It would be my grandmother who would eventually be home with us, the pair of cast-offs whose mother had abandoned, since she was nearing her day of retirement. Most of the time we would be at home together, and it would be through her that I would get tidbits of what was going on in and around the people who called themselves Westindians and who had a community that extended into the United States Canal Zone in Panama.

I don’t remember when but at one point I determined that Friday’s would be the day of the week that I would make it my duty to try and get home before her or, by some means, get to her just before she would leave the big laundry for the day and walk home with her.

Since my grandmother was not what one might consider talkative on any special topic, on Friday evenings it was my time to corner her into conversations about our family history, a subject I was yearning to know more about. At first she acted as if she did not want to be reminded about those things, but I’d sit her down and start to take care of her feet, something that she was sorely in need of since she was on her feet at the laundry for most of the day.

She was in the pressing area of the laundry and that was practically all she did all day, iron the freshly laundered clothes from the big laundry area. I would place her feet in a bath of warm water, soaking and bathing them while she would read the only newspaper she ever read, The Panama Tribune, the only English paper in all of Panama expressly published for Westindian readers.

This story continues.


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