My Grandpa Speaks

Quite by coincidence I planned to post this during November….turns out to be good timing since my Grandpa is a prostate cancer survivor and November is really Movember aka prostate cancer awareness month.  But more on that disease later…

At graduation last year.

About 6 years ago Grandpa had surgery that left him unable to speak without covering the hole in his throat.  His voice box had been removed…cancer strikes again.  Now, he doesn’t speak nearly as often though so when he makes the effort, I pay attention because I know that it is important.  I cherish the phone calls, voice mails, and birthday greetings.  Prostate cancer struck a few years after he had this surgery but he had radiation therapy and the cancer is in remission…he still complains about pains in his hip though.  But he’s alive and doing well for 82, guaranteed to still snooze in the settee in front of the TV.

A few years ago while I was visiting Jamaica, Grandpa just opened up about some of his time in England.  I think he spoke for about an hour (with breaks to gather himself and ease the strain on his throat).  In my 29 years this is the only time that Grandpa has voluntarily or otherwise spoken about living in England.  Grandma would mention living in England from time to time and my mother (very fondly, she wanted to stay) and uncle did as well, but Grandpa never spoke about England except to refer to coming to back to Jamaica from England.  He brought the family back to Jamaica in the mid-1970s, presumably to now contribute to the country that he had left years before.  And he did contribute to Jamaica.   To my knowledge he has never returned to England; the rest of the family has, however.  I wonder if Mr. Starkey could explain that…

When Grandpa decided to talk and tell some of the story of when he moved to England and the adjustments that he had to make, I listened and made some notes afterward.  All of the grandchildren – 5 girls, worries – were present.  I did not want to forget.  I thought about his story after I blogged about that man David Starkey.  I know that my Grandpa didn’t intrude upon anyone’s country…he may not be perfect but, quite simply, he went to a place to make a better life for himself and for the family he and Grandma were beginning to raise.  He endured cold, taunting, low wages…and earned enough to have the means to do his own business.  And enough to return home to his country to continue working, and to build his own successful business.  He left school before he was a teenager, I believe, but he more than “made something of himself.”  We were and are not rich but there was nothing that we needed that we did not get.  My Grandpa worked hard, Mr. Starkey.  If anything, it is you and your people who intruded upon us….you know, that whole empire and colonialism thing.  O, and that racisim thing too…

Grandpa told us that he and Grandma travelled by sea to England.  They stopped in Haiti (probably Port-au-Prince, he did not specify) and Lisbon, Portugal.  Grandpa told us that he is not fond of sea travel so he kept his behind on the ship, but Grandma disembarked in both places.  Imagine, my Grandma had been to Haiti and Portugal.  It was in Portugal that she bought a small woven basket with a bright pink flower on top…that basket held all her hand sewing and crochet things.  I know the basket well; we still have it.  I did not know where she bought it…and I never thought to ask.  I first learned about Portugal from a Nancy Drew book.  So I’m glad that my Grandpa spoke.

With the youngest grandchildren at his 75th Birthday celebration.

When they first arrived in England, they stayed with family.  Grandma got work immediately but Grandpa – a black man in England in the 1960s, heh – found the going a little rougher.  Grandma found work in a factory making airplane motors, 5 days per week.  After 2 weeks Grandpa was disheartened – here he was willing and able to work and coming from a place where he had already worked for much of his life yet he was now in a place where he couldn’t find work, sometimes because he was black.  Where he eventually endured taunts of “Blackbird, blackbird go back to where you come from…

After 3 weeks and being chased by geese while he walked around looking for work, he was about to give up and, perhaps, go back home…but he found work in a lumber yard: 24 shillings of which 4 shillings was tax.  My Grandpa spoke about these details very clearly.  Soon he got an introduction to a machine yard where he worked on Sundays sweeping.  Soon he was working 7 days in a foundry (I think this was the same place that Grandma worked)…and at one point had to “lay down the law with the foreman” who was less than respectful toward Grandma.  I am glad to know that he was not cowed by the oppressiveness of 1960s Jolly Ol’ England.

Oddly, my Grandpa spoke about how he realized that good handwriting was important.  Don’t know why.  But I do remember Grandma telling me offhand a few times that her white coworkers often remarked on her penmanship and good diction…they couldn’t believe that someone “like her” had such command of these skills…

Maybe this is why I haven’t been able finish “Small Island” by Andrea Levy…it stirs up too much in me to read it…

Grandpa and Me, rolling in Bluebird (the Cortina)

My Grandpa spoke about eventually applying to the bus corporation to drive those historic red double-decker buses.  Nine months later he passed that test and, at first, worked as a conductor to learn the routes.  Then it was on to driving school to learn how to drive the trolley and the double-deckers.  He drove buses for 10 years…but the hours were long, sometimes 18 hours each day of the week.  He did not get a chance to spend time with his family, which now included my mother (who’d moved to England from Jamaica) and my uncle (who was born in England).  By now too the family had settled into its own home, after moving 6 times.  My Grandpa spoke about leaving the bus corporation and buying his own truck and beginning a haulage business.  My Grandpa proudly spoke about dropping his wife, Grandma, and his children off on the way to work.  This was his first real foray into entrepreneurship I believe.  And I know the truck well – a red and blue Ford that he shipped home to Jamaica (along with the Cortina) when they moved back in the mid-1970s.  That truck was the foundation for his work at Seprod and for the business that he later began with a friend (side note: don’t start businesses with your friends…or know them really well).  I looked & listened out for the truck every evening and sometimes directed his reversing into the parking spot outside the house that they bought upon return to Jamaica…riding in that truck was fun, jiggly and hot but it was fun to be up there, driving around with Grandpa.  

Even though his voice is damaged and strained when he talks and he doesn’t talk as much, it makes me really happy to hear when Grandpa speaks.  His eyes still twinkle when he’s up to mischief.  I try not to waste time kicking myself over the questions I was not bold enough to ask when he could speak more freely and when Grandma was alive…I am simply glad when he speaks now and the memories that I have and the new ones that we are creating.

So, as I read about and listened to David Starkey, I thought that, perhaps, he needed to hear my Grandpa speak.

6 Responses to “My Grandpa Speaks”
  1. simone keize says:

    Beautiful 🙂

  2. mamachel says:

    Lawd you always waah mek mi bawl. So sweet

  3. Camille Bryan says:

    I read “Small Island”, and I appreciated the story as an immigrant myself, and that I am now benefitting from the struggles of that time. Reading about your grandparents experiences brings the book to life, because it is real.

    Thanks Ren.

  4. Shumpy says:

    Ren, tis so important to tell stories and write them down. I have failed at this once and need to try again. Thank you for sharing – beautiful 🙂

  5. Ms. Nikks says:

    Before I even got to your mention of “Small Island” that’s what came to mind. I did not read the book, but I saw the movie.

    I know you are proud of who you came from and you ought to be! Some people have such an opinion of us Black folks, especially Jamaicans, I’m glad your grandfather proved them wrong. I am also proud of my own grandfather who went through so much suffering, but worked himself near to death to provide for all his children and his wife. Bless them.

    You make me want to go home (Jamaica) and just question my grandma until she says, “Awright, gwan a yuh bed now!”

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  1. […] My Grandpa Speaks (November) – Well, I always talk about Grandma so it was nice for Grandpa to get some shine. […]

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