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The Legend of Aunt Amy

I wish that everyone was blessed with an Aunt Amy. Let me tell you why. My Aunt Amy exemplified the reality that wisdom was not a product of academic education, or something that one could buy, but a quality that was garnered over time through the trials and errors of living. My aunt had at best a grade five education, but she was one of the wisest people I have ever encountered. Why? Aunt Amy embodied the following qualities:

  • determination: once she started something, she saw it through to the end
  • a willingness to try new things
  • a strong sense of right and wrong
  • kindness and generosity
  • fearlessness
  • an entrepreneurial spirit

When I was just a boy of six years old, I had my first encounter with Aunt Amy’s brand of wisdom. In Jamaica where I was born, children were not admitted to public school until the age of seven. Fortunately, the Salvation Army in my town, Oracabesssa, operated a kindergarten for students aged four to six. My mother Hilda, Amy’s younger sister, enrolled me and I attended for two years. A very bright child, I quickly learned to read, write, and do arithmetic (as they called it back then) and once enrolled in public school at age seven, I was reading at a grade three level.

My mother was just a child herself when she had me. She was fifteen years old, had very little education, no sophisticated job skills, and worked as a house maid for a wealthy family in my town. Most of my early childhood was spent with my grandmother who was, it’s fair to say, neither a kind, nor an understanding person. Like many Jamaican (and Caribbean) children of my generation, I got quite a few “whoopings”.

Since my mother worked long hours and came home only a few nights a week, I spent a considerable amount of time at the Salvation Army. The local branch became a second home. The female officer who taught me, developed a deep affection for me and when she learned of her impending transfer to the capital city of Port Maria, she asked my mother if she could “have me” and my mother said yes. I was given away.

I should explain that, in Jamaica in the 1940’s and 50’s, children were routinely given away by poor people like kittens, or puppies. This was not because my mother did not love me. I am certain that she did. But like so many others, her abject poverty robbed her of the ability to envision a better future for us if I stayed in her care.

I was already on my way to the Salvation Army office before my Aunt Amy could make it home from work. When she returned and learned of my mother’s life changing decision, she walked the three miles in the dark (there were no such things as streetlights back then) to their headquarters where she told the captain in no uncertain terms that my mother had made a terrible mistake. Little Maxie was coming home with her.

She had come for me! Aunt Amy immediately took me and my few possessions to her home in Spring Head where I lived with her until the age of fourteen. My mother continued to support me as best she could, ensuring that I stayed in school until grade twelve although free education in Jamaica back then ended at grade nine.

It was during those years that Aunt Amy became a beloved second mother. Living with her, I saw her ingenuity and determination up close. She taught herself to sew, became an excellent seamstress and had many clients in the local community. With the help of a local mechanic, she converted a Singer hand-operated sewing machine, into one operated by foot to accelerate her ability to complete orders. Later in life she partnered with a tavern keeper. He sold the liquor, and she provided the food. After that, she teamed up with a local tailor to operate a joint dressmaking-tailor shop. In my own life, I’ve never been afraid to try my hand at various entrepreneurial endeavours and I know that I owe much of my drive, ambition, and fearlessness to the example that she set for me.

Aunt Amy was a survivor, she had to navigate the tough environment in which we lived.  My town was deeply segregated. The middle class practiced the principle of better than/worse than, superior/inferior. There were two major churches, the Methodist (Wesleyan) and the Baptist. While the well-to-do churchgoers attended the former, we poor and largely uneducated folks attended the latter. The churches were not safe from the biases of class, race, and complexion, and neither were the schools. While the teachers treated the children from wealthy families with kid gloves, the poor children were routinely beaten with leather straps and canes. The playing field was certainly not level.

This injustice was personal. When I was about thirteen years old, I had a childhood friend named Basil. Basil developed a fondness for me because I helped him with his schoolwork. I was a very bright and intelligent student and often ranked first in my classes. One day after school Basil and I got into a fist fight over a childhood game like marbles. Spotting us, the principal grabbed me and beat me on the spot. Basil was taken to his office. That night sleep eluded me as I wondered what fate had befallen Basil. The next day he revealed that he had only received a verbal reprimand. The beating was for me, the poor boy. Even Basil agreed that I had been treated unfairly. But in a world where children were to be seen and not heard, nobody asked our opinions. During my years at school, poor kids were often the target of a teacher’s rage.

When I was thirteen my principal – a tall, muscular man with a fiery temper – gave me a severe beating across my back with strap. Sixty-eight years later I still remember the excruciating pain. The beating left me bed-ridden for two weeks. Showing no signs of improvement, Aunt Amy decided to take me by bus to a doctor twelve miles away. I knew that I was terribly ill because in the Jamaica of the 1950’s, the poor people visited a doctor only when they were close to death. Everything else it seemed could supposedly be cured with a plant-based soup or tea. After a four hour wait, the doctor examined me, and prescribed medication. His prognosis? My liver had been bruised and damaged by the severity of the beating.

Amy was furious! She purchased my medicine and, despite her limited education, penned a strongly worded letter to the principal explaining how he had jeopardized my health and endangered my life. In it she threatened to report him to the police, the church, the minister of education, and the local member of parliament if he ever laid a hand on me again. He did not. Aunt Amy literally saved my life! Although a woman of little material means, deprived of a formal education, and living in an extraordinarily sexist culture, she stood up to the educated, middle class, male principal to protect me when I could not protect myself. I loved my Aunt Amy, but I also respected and admired her.

Aunt Amy was an entrepreneur and a warrior, but she was also a philosopher with an expression for every situation or event. Many of my most profound life lessons came from witnessing her tenacity and listening to her pearls of wisdom. I share with you a few:

  • The higher the monkey climbs, the more his ass is exposed. (The more success or importance you attain in life, the more you will become the target of scrutiny. Therefore, past weaknesses and poor behaviour may come back to haunt you.)
  • Time is longer than rope. (Be patient because you only acquire experience with time. The longer you live the more opportunities you have to gain knowledge and wisdom. Do not be in a hurry to go to that place called nowhere.)
  • Every day bucket a go a well, one day the bottom a go drop out. (Eventually your sins and bad deeds will catch up with you. While you may get away with something in the short term, eventually it’s going to catch up with you.)
  • You give me basket to carry water. (You have great expectations of me, but they are unrealistic because you haven’t given me all the tools that I need to achieve them.)
  • The donkey’s ass is round, but his shit is square. (Life is full of mysteries. The actual situation is often different from what it appears to be.)
  • You can’t plant corn and reap peas. (You reap what you sow.)
  • See and blind, hear and deaf. (Do not talk about everything you see or hear in the short term, because it could be dangerous for your survival.)
  • Pot calling the kettle black. (Don’t find fault with me when you have the same problem.)
  • All that glitters in not gold. (Sometimes appearances can be deceptive.)
  • One eye king in a blind man’s country. (It is easier for a con person to deceive people who are ignorant.)
  • There is no one so blind as the one who does not want to see. (People often live in denial by avoiding the truth that’s right in front of them, especially when the truth is painful.)
  • A still tongue keeps a wise head. (Sometimes you should say less than you know.)
  • Show me your company and I’ll tell you who you are. (Do not keep bad company. Like attracts like.)
  • Puss and dog don’t have the same luck. (Rewards and punishments are not necessarily distributed equally.)
  • You lie down with dogs, you catch fleas. (You get the consequences of your behaviour and your attitude, whether good or bad.)
  • He who feels it knows it. (You pay the price for your misadventures. You learn from your experience.)
  • If life was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live, and the poor would die. (The rich and well educated have advantages and privileges that poor, disadvantaged people do not. But thankfully, life cannot be purchased with money.)
  • You can kill two birds with one stone. (One action can have several consequences, good and bad.)
  • Today for me, tomorrow for you. (Patience is a wonderful thing. The results of actions do not necessarily manifest immediately. Roles can be reversed, so don’t gloat about my bad times, because tomorrow it may be your turn.)
  • Give away your ass and shit through your ribs. (You can be overly kind and generous to the point that you give away everything and nothing is left for you. Don’t let people take advantage of you.)

Everyone would benefit from the wisdom of an Aunt Amy. I don’t know where I would be today without her.