Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Retelling the story of my ‘Write Hand’

Published:Sunday | May 10, 2020 | 12:00 AMRae-Ann Smith - Contributor
Gran Gran with Austen, her first great-grandchild.
Naomi Emeline Augusta Renaud or Gran-Gran for Rae-Ann Smith (right) after graduating from nursing school. Photo on the left, she is standing with Rae-Ann’s parents on their wedding day.
Gran Gran with her two granddaughters.
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I should have begun from Monday, but she was really sick on Monday. Today, she looks so bright. She’s beginning to forget things. I wish I could stay longer to help her. She eats when I sit with her. I’m glad when she eats.

I learnt her middle name this morning – Augusta. And that her first name isn’t Emeline. Naomi Emeline Augusta Renaud, born in La Brea, Trinidad and Tobago on September 24, 1921, to Mignon Eunice Renaud. She struggled to remember her father’s name and couldn’t. I suspect he contributed very little to her life. Then it fell out of her brain and off her tongue. “Something Winter!” And he was a teacher. She quickly moved on to tell me that she knew Samuel Selvon; that they lived on the same street in San Fernando. “Selvon lived on the corner of Gomez Street and Mucurapo Street,” she said out the corner of her mouth. I didn’t press. I let her shield whatever she’s hiding.

She moved from La Brea at eight to go to Clarke Street, Lower Hillside, then to Gomez Street, then back to La Brea, then … She said they moved a lot because that’s what you did when you had children in those days. But I don’t believe her. I saw the way she looked at me when she said it hurriedly. She moved her hands that were clasped, like in prayer, between her pillow and her right cheek, and squinted at me. She knows I don’t believe that excuse one bit.

When her mother, a seamstress, died ,my grandmother was 28 and Auntie Clo, her only sister, was 26. But by then Gran-Gran had two daughters of her own, my mother being one of them. Her grandfather, Chas (I love his name), was born just after slavery in Antigua. He moved from Antigua to St Vincent to Barbados and finally to Trinidad. He carried with him a prayer book that remains in our family to this day, with names, births, and deaths recorded and passed down. She’s the sole proprietor of this book acquired sometime in the late 1800s. My name is in it and in her handwriting.

She told me about San Fernando. She said she and I went to the same primary school, but the school was different then. It was in a different location, with a different name, it was co-ed, and I suspect they also wore a different school uniform. But it was the same school. It evolved, I guess, like all things, with time.

She spoke to me of what San Fernando looked like and how much smaller it was back then, of where things were, of where people lived and although it was another age, it didn’t feel far away. It was still there when she spoke, like it was tangible.

Massive blob

Then her words rolled into one massive blob that at times, I swear, wasn’t in English. She interspersed with a few gasps for air. And her eyes sparkled, and her wrinkled grin lit up the room and it made me smile. She poured out her stories and I tried desperately to catch them all. She turned, lay on her back and tried to sit up, but it was too much for the both of us, so we gave up and she just contented herself to lie down. She spoke and spoke, and I missed half of what she said, but I was afraid of interrupting her and even more fearful of stopping her flow in case it ceased.

She reached age 11 by the time I started following again. She had left school and began working at Kangaroo’s, which is what it sounded like to me. She probably said the commercial school – Mr Goliath’s Commercial School where she taught typing and shorthand – her speech had slurred again. She was exhausted. And I had stopped writing in the black notebook that her youngest daughter gave me when she realised what was happening. Auntie Colette had given Gran-Gran this notebook months before the stroke in an attempt to get her to write all her stories. But Gran-Gran’s stories were in the telling, in the hand movements and facial expressions, in the dramatic pauses and inflections in the voice. Gran-Gran refused to write them down. It’s not that she couldn’t.

She once flirted with the idea of teaching English and entered the monitor system after leaving primary school to do so, but she never completed it. She became a nurse instead. Yet, she never lost her love of reading. She knew a good story and always had a constant turnover of books, with makeshift bookmarks, on her bed. And, she was a ‘best storyteller’. She would have you rolling on the floor with laughter, tears running down your cheeks if you weren’t careful. I loved watching my grandmother perform. I knew when she spoke, I was to listen. She was a character, a character of great complexity. It was from her that I learnt that complex characters are the most interesting of all.

Gran-Gran told an epic story, but now, it is sadly scrambled into piecemeal memories left with her progeny.

From her telling the story of her life, I can make sense of why I am the way that I am. I can see how names and places have meaning, how the world has evolved, how much of life is on a spin cycle of lather, rinse, repeat. But Gran-Gran, I think, didn’t believe her stories were valuable. They are! Our stories matter. They are powerful. They can teach us. They can move us. How dare the world not privilege stories of people who look like me and talk like me, with whom I can relate, whose experiences are like my own! West Indian life – history, philosophy, language, communication, and culture – is not to be marginalised. It is to be celebrated.

This is why I am a student of the humanities, why I am a writer and film-maker. There is value in the way I live my life. Our stories (lived or otherwise) must be told, studied, discussed, celebrated like any other masterpiece. It is our job in the arts and humanities to document the value and difference of our experience(s) in the world. But more than that, it is our imperative.

- Rae-Ann Smith is assistant lecturer, BFA in Film Production at the Caribbean School of Media and Communication (CARIMAC). This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Please send feedback to fhe@uwimona.edu.jm or raeann.smith@uwimona.edu.jm.