The school year of 1951-52 would find me, a basically lonely adolescent boy, remembering to write down all the Westindian neighbors I had met upon arriving to live in Magnolia Building since 1943. That would be significant for me in more ways than one especially since I would suffer a dramatic change in the loss of my sister. She didn’t die but she might as well have since she ran away from our house where we lived with our paternal Aunts and my grandmother to go live with our mother in Colon.
She never really discussed this important move with me as she’d apparently kept all those years of abusive treatment and neglect bottled up inside and then one day she just couldn’t take anymore. I felt for her all the time since for a girl self esteem is sublimely important and the many times that I saw her being treated so cruelly and coldly by my youngest aunt who never stopped calling us “Bungo” children – a racially pejorative term meaning a crude, black, ignorant, boorish person- imported from Jamaica- gave her ample reason to run away.
Morning preparation for school had always been torture for her since my aunt would totally disregard her feelings when combing and tugging her hair pulling out her precious dignity, it seemed, along with her tangled hair as she cried and cried from pain and shame. She tried to keep a stiff upper lip but I cringed every time I’d hear her desperate whimpering as my aunt would bring the comb thundering down on her head for the crime of having “nappy” hair.
I always noticed that for some reason the nappier the hair the less respect a girl could expect unless she straightened it, fashioned it and styled it to look like “good” straight hair. It was an entire daily ritual around getting hair to look as straight as possible to offset the shame of one’s racial origins. Many of the products advertised in the paper aimed at Westindian folks evidenced this. For me and most boys, however, the problem could be solved with less trauma to your self worth since we usually had our hair closely cropped or shaved off.
I was dealing with a lot of other self esteem issues myself stemming particularly from my appearance which was rather “unattended” since from the age of about twelve my aunts had had to take me over to the public clinic in Calidonia to pull most of my front upper teeth.
Treatment for pyorrhea, they said, and there was no alternative treatment but to pull the teeth. No root canal work, no periodontal treatment, etc. This was a very common procedure in those days but it was especially devastating for me as I was approaching my early adolescence in this toothless condition with no hopes of having cosmetic restoration done to help my looks. Working over by Clyde’s dental clinic apparently gave me no edge either until one of my aunts produced the money to pay for a fixed bridge to dignify my smile some time later.
When my sister left it represented another great loss for me of what was probably the last shred of family life I had as we knew and remembered it from childhood. It triggered many changes in my life which resulted in my greatly missing her and my baby brother who were both now living with my mother in Colon.
I now turned to my new neighbors and all the old families that had seen me arrive and grow up with renewed feelings of appreciation since they became more than neighbors to me.
I was grateful for simply being a survivor; one that had survived abusive parents although I was still suffering neglect and cruelty at the hands of adults I hadn’t really chosen to live with. By this time I was essentially biding my time since my grandmother’s return from her trip to Jamaica. The numbers I continually hurried to purchase for her from the lottery vendors-numbers she faithfully played every week- had hit the grand prize for her. That coupled with a Susú windfall produced the money for her to take her long awaited trip back home. I remember her silent joy in making preparations for an epic trip back to the island of her birth.
I realized at this point that the family I had lived with after five years had never made attempts to really come to know me or understand me as a person but in my neighbors I seemed to find the sympathy I needed during this important time of development. I can genuinely say that there were some neighbors who tried to understand me, my mannerisms and my disposition as well as to really appreciate the quality of person that I was evolving into.
This story continues.