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Grandpa Harry

My maternal grandfather’s real name was Samuel. I only recently discovered this after my daughter Charmaine uncovered his death certificate while doing genealogical research on our family. My whole life I knew him by another name, Harry. I was never told how he acquired that name. But everyone I knew growing up in Jamaica had two names, the real one displayed on identity documents, and the one by which they were known. So, I guess I should not be too surprised that this practice also applied to my grandfather.

Harry was the only child of my Jamaican great grandmother Isabel Brown and a father named Samuel Nelson who had African and Indian heritage. That side of my family was in part descended from indentured servants from India who arrived in Jamaica in the nineteenth century after the British abolished slavery in 1834. I never met my great grandfather because he died, supposedly in his fifties, before I was born. In stark contrast, great grandma Isabel lived to be 93 years old. I still have vivid memories of her. She was skinny as a rake and walked everywhere, often covering many miles at a time. In those days, feet were the surest form of transportation for poor Jamaicans, much like our enslaved ancestors before us.

Grandpa Harry (who I called Yaya) lived with his common law spouse, my grandmother Gertrude. Together they had several children including my Aunts Amy and Louise, my Uncles Herbert and Earnest (who we called Dennis), and my mother Hilda. The contrast between my grandmother and grandfather was stark. While Harry was easy-going, kind, and loving, Gertrude seemed mean-spirited and consistently miserable. I was often witness to their bickering and Gertrude’s sharp tongue which was often directed at my grandfather. Although through a child’s eyes I saw Harry as the victim of Gertrude’s temper, I realize now that my child’s mind could not fully understand the complex dimensions of their relationship. Nevertheless, in all of my time with my grandfather, I never once saw him angry. He remained poised, calm, and content, even in the midst of Gertrude’s tongue lashings.

Like his mother, Harry was skinny and muscular. His work, manual labour, was a large part of why he looked as he did. Harry worked very hard to support our family. He was employed by the richest man in our small town, Mr. Silvera, a wealthy landowner with hundreds of acres. Like the enslaved penkeepers of the past, my grandfather was skilled in the care of livestock and tended to Silvera’s mules, donkeys, and cattle. Silvera noted my grandfather’s loyalty and came to care for him beyond the typical employer-employee relationship. In the custom of Jamaican enslavers, Silvera “lent” my grandfather land on which he was allowed to raise crops for his own use. In the past, the land upon which enslavers forced the enslaved to cultivate their own food was known as provision grounds. Although the harsh racial and class divisions between the haves and have nots in Jamaica allowed these practices to continue long after slavery, Silvera’s generosity to my grandfather also allowed my family to supplement our food at a time when money was scarce, and opportunities were hard to come by.

My grandfather was nothing if not industrious. Besides his work for Silvera, he also loaded bananas onto cargo ships headed to England and partook in night fishing with his best friend who I knew as Mr. Smith. Night fishing was best done on calm seas of course.

As for entertainment, the only thing that passed as fun in my grandfather’s life was drinking at the local bar with Smith on Thursday nights, pay day. His favourite drink was overproof white rum and water. Once I was old enough to understand the effects of alcohol I marvelled that his late night drinking seemed to have no impact on his schedule or work ethic. Up he’d get on Friday morning at 5:00am or 5:30am the next day and head to work, seemingly with no hangover.

My memories of Grandpa Harry are of his kindness and generosity. He often gave me money or treated me to lunch on Tuesdays when I visited him during my school lunch break. Armed with a threepence, he would direct me to the female food vendors where I would purchase their freshly made fried dumplings and codfish fritters. Harry loved me and introduced me proudly to everyone as his grandson.

Harry was also loved by his boss Silvera. In a move that was absolutely unheard of at the time, when Harry retired, Silvera left him a pension of one British pound per month. Not wanting to divide the estate that he intended to bequeath to his children, Silvera also directed Harry to find a plot of land in the neighbourhood and promised to buy it for him as a retirement gift. With the help of his cousin, Harry found a quarter acre lot and informed Silvera. Generously, Silvera informed my grandfather that the lot was smaller than he had expected and directed him to go and look for a larger piece of land. Unfortunately, Harry soon returned reporting that he could find no larger plots and Silvera honoured his wishes and purchased the small lot for him.

Looking back now, I realize how the scars of poverty shaped my grandfather’s consciousness, literally blinding him to the life-changing opportunity that Silvera had offered. That the offer had emerged because of Harry’s loyalty, dedication, and years of hard work was not enough to allow him to recognize and accept the gift he had been offered.

Unsurprisingly, Grandma Gertrude was none too pleased with Harry’s lack of ambition. By then though, they were living separate lives. I am sad to say that I lost touch with my grandfather when I moved from the countryside of Jamaica to the capital city, Kingston, to study at Mico Teachers College. Harry died while I was away at school. Tragically, no one in my family notified me of his passing until months later and so I did not get the opportunity to attend his funeral. I will always regret not being there for him in the last years of his life when he probably needed me the most.

Grandpa Harry was extremely intelligent and curious, but growing up impoverished in Jamaica he was denied a formal education. I learned some of my greatest life lessons from my grandfather and they have stayed with me throughout my life. Although he was more than deserving, his inability to accept the fullness of Silvera’s gratitude revealed the extent to which people are ruled by the limitations of their minds; limitations which are often imprinted upon us from childhood and which, without acknowledgement and effort, are extraordinarily difficult to challenge. But Harry also taught me, by example, to treat people with kindness and generosity. He showed me that pleasure and happiness were not about wealth or status. He demonstrated that joy was a choice, and that other people should never dictate your moods or behaviour. Harry was a treasure and a blessing. One of my favourite people, I hope he knows how much I loved and appreciated him.