England, 2016. This is an essay about grief and love and space/time. I am the narrator. The main character is Veronica, my grandmother. Veronica is dead.
November 2014. We’re in London, where it is raining and grey. If this were not England, where it is always raining, this might be pathetic fallacy because I wake up in the middle of the night and start to cry. I am grieving. For Jamaica, where my late maternal grandmother was born. For my grandmother herself, who is now dead for the second time.
September 2014. Know that Veronica dies for the first time in early autumn, and I do not cry when I am told. Veronica is my grandmother on my mother’s side and I have not seen her in six years. I remember her in a purple dress because in her last Facebook profile picture she is wearing a purple blouse. I do not remember what perfume she wears, if any, nor the way she smiles. In my memory, she rarely smiles. Her last profile picture is a rare occasion. She wears a small smile, wide lips dimpling at the corners, a little shy, tired. It is likely that someone said, “Veronica, smile.” I remember her voice only in a right-brain way: how deep, how slow, how Jamaican.
Her death closes the road to Jamaica, to a dreamy geography which I imagined mapped the road to my own personal El Dorado of a lost Creole girlhood. Understand that she is both the gold city in my imagination and its queen, and that her death signifies the end of that dream. I am not emotionally equipped even now to deal with such a loss of land and love.
My mother and I are close; I answer her phone calls religiously. But one Sunday, I am tired too tired to observe religion. Lying down to rest in the afternoon, I sleep through to the next day, waking briefly to ignore a phone call. It is my mother calling. The wall is blue-lit by the glow of the phone’s screen. I think it better to call her back in the morning. I let it ring. Approx. 3,554 miles away, Veronica is dying. And so, in the morning, my mother emails me.
This is the first time Veronica dies. I wake up on a cold, bright Monday morning, sit up in bed, and unlock my phone to see who has been thinking about me and maybe loving me while I was asleep. The sun is white and the morning is promising, and it is the kind of poetic waking up scene that makes you feel like you will do something good that day. Clear winter mornings are good luck, I believe, south of the Thames, because traffic is always low when it’s cold and sunny outside. The street is quiet.
I am excited to hear the sound a smartphone makes when its email client talks to a distant server and pushes notifications through webspace. For a long time afterwards, this genre of notification-alert sound makes me very anxious and I don’t even know why until I wake up crying two months later in November, holding my breast through my pyjama shirt as if trying to get at my heart. The subject line of my mother’s email reads: Grandma Veronica.
I think, Oh, this is it. Veronica is dead.
I do not read the body of the email.
At the funeral in Toronto, a cousin wails and beats the earth with her fists; she didn’t know, did not believe that Veronica would die.
July 2014. Veronica has cancer. For how long and what kind of cancer, we do not know. Nobody knows, because she will not tell. I worry about this, re: what to tell my doctor about my family’s medical history. Well, cancer is killing my grandmother. But I don’t know what kind.
Veronica is stubborn and proud and very quiet about things that she feels would threaten her pride. Like, she will instruct her husband to drive across the city to a hospital where no one will recognise her. She works as a nurse. I imagine she must feel that it would injure her in some way for the rest of us to know that she is sick, that she is dying, that she is human. I imagine . . . but then I feel like I’m overthinking it or making poetry out of something that should be left alone.
Her stubbornness is a fault, a problem. Her silence makes my mother’s life very difficult in the summer. We think it is “Cancer, probably.” is unquestionably sick. But what can we do? My mother is tired. She cannot reasonably manage her mother’s affairs with an ocean and Veronica’s pride sitting in the way.
August 2014. When my mother realises that her mother is sick really bad, she asks if Veronica will give her power of attorney. Memory is fallible; later I learn that my mother didn’t say this. Mother becomes executor of Veronica’s estate, inevitably, and at the time I think this news poetic and sad, that her mother would be so needlessly stubborn to deny her daughter that security of mind when it was in her will all along. I wonder now why the thought came to me like that, when it was not so. Still, for me, this is a defining moment of that last summer, one of my last memories of Veronica.
Months later, my mother informs me that I am misremembering the day she suggested a twenty-four-hour care facility. At the time, this suggestion is not well received at Veronica’s condominium in Toronto. We are worried something will happen to her, like death, although we don’t say it because we are hopeful. And I don’t really believe in death, not for this woman. I do not believe that my grandmother, for what little I know of her, is anything like the kind of person who would die. My mother, who is wise, warns me to steel my heart.
Apparently, my grandmother does not believe in it either. So insulted is Veronica by the insinuation that her health is failing, that she might give in to the same fate as everybody else who has ever lived, that she goes radio silent.
Veronica does not speak to my mother for three weeks. Then she dies.
Jamaica, 19–. Veronica, maiden name Forrester, is born in 1943, maybe, to Albert and Beatrice. We don’t know very much about her childhood in her Jamaica, her teenage years, her romance with my grandfather before the two leave Kingston for Goderich, Ontario with the little girl who will become my mother. Like Jamaica, even the names and whereabouts of most of her surviving family members, beyond her children and their issue, are lost to years of secrecy and safeguarding. Her year of birth is debatable, too, because she so liked to shroud herself in mystery.
Canada, 2008. We eat lunch at my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Toronto. While Veronica cooks the food, I drop a blue snow ice cone on the wood-finish floor by accident. Eagerly, my cousins call our grandmother and wait to see her get angry. She doesn’t, because her eldest daughter and her two English granddaughters visiting is a rare and precious thing. Veronica simply says one of her lovely, long Oh’s in a way that communicates her love and fatigue.
This is the last day I will see Veronica.
In my memory of this day, Veronica is wearing a purple blouse. Only, she isn’t wearing a purple blouse. I have likely filled in this blank with the image from her old Facebook profile.
Here are things I remember clearly: her hair is worn curly, her nails are long and painted, her palms are rough from years of manual labour. At lunch, she likes that I eat everything and ask for seconds. She says, “Good girl,” when I go for a second serving of ackee and saltfish.
Things I do not remember clearly: her blouse, her questions—probably, “Do you like England?”—and her wallpaper. Faded and floral, I think.
And this is the single lasting memory of my grandmother that I have not forgotten or unconsciously altered: we are sitting in her reception room and we are so hot. “We” are cousins and aunts and my sister and my mother and I. Veronica is cooking, the kitchen radio is on, a cousin is watching TV in the front room. So many live voices are strange to me; at home we are relatively lonely. The air in the room is hot and still. We are sweating. All the doors are open to welcome a summer wind. There’s a small air-conditioning grate in the corner of the room, but we’re helpless to the heat. We complain to Veronica. All she says, at first, is a long “Oh.”
Veronica will not let my aunts draw the curtains. The curtains are dark red, a deep bloody colour, and thick velvet with a synthetic fabric lining. There is a screen door behind them. My mother’s youngest sister says something like, “Mum, it’s really hot! The curtains are keeping all the heat in. Mum, can we open the curtains? We’ll leave the screen door.”
Veronica says something like, “No, I am cooking, there will be flies,” and returns to the kitchen to tend the steaming yellow yams. Her authority is final. We will sweat all through lunch.
This is why I have a snow cone.
The evening is happy and after we wash dishes, I walk with my aunt and admire suburbia, the way the houses are all the same and the way Toronto’s skyscrapers rise above the rooftops. I like this new calm atmosphere. Let me tell you, London’s grey cityscapes operate on levels of anxiety. In Toronto, you can always see the sky.
As we walk, my aunt and I try to mathematically deduce my grandmother’s exact birth date based on her age when she gave birth to her first child: my mother. She was nineteen. We calculate, triumphantly. Later, we discover that Veronica possibly—probably—lied about her age when my mother was born. Her secrecy defeats us.
Maybe we are naïve and a little mean to believe that Veronica liked secrets. I imagine she learned to like them out of necessity, because she did not appear to take great joy in keeping herself closed off. Her past life in Jamaica was out-of-bounds, I imagine, for good reason. Many older generations of immigrants keep secrets; is it not a rite of passage for the second- or third-generation immigrant baby to wonder, sadly, at all the past lives your elders will not tell you about at bedtime? Immigrants’ histories take shape in the imaginations of later generations as dark, fluid objects casting shadows on the wall. My mother discovers, after her mother’s death, that Veronica had nine secret siblings, some still living. Her late father, my grandfather, knew.
When my mother tells me this, I see an image of her parents in a dark room, whispering in cahoots, and think that there must be more secrets about Jamaica that the two kept safe for each other, even in the years after Veronica had left her children in fear of her life and her husband’s violence.
September 2014. We’re in London, still, and we’re flying out of Heathrow airport. Terminal five is big and modern, all white and glass with fancy places to eat things like sushi and health juices. It is raining.
We fly to Toronto, and we drive out to Goderich, the salt mine capital of the world, where my step-grandmother and opa live in my mother’s childhood home. We visit our paternal grandmother near Savannah, Georgia. Originally, the itinerary included a visit to Jamaica, too, by way of a soft interview with Veronica. I wanted to be familiar with Jamaica in the same way that I wanted know my father’s native Georgia, because I am afflicted with a kind of ancestral longing customary in the diaspora. Only, Veronica died two weeks before we crossed the Atlantic.
I book flights to Toronto for late September. In the summer, when the flights are all paid for and we know Veronica is sick, I daydream that I will sit with her in her hospital room and we will talk awkwardly the way you do with close yet estranged relatives. I will pretend to understand what she says when she code-switches into Jamaican Patois, feeling too shy to request a Standard English translation. We will carry on like this for the duration of my visit and she will recover, not because her prodigal granddaughter has returned, but because she is young—relative to the Earth and the Sun and that old woman in the news who attributed her 109 years to “staying away from men” and eating porridge. [N.B.: This old woman is since dead, too.] And because, I think, why would a higher power kill Veronica when we both know that as soon as she gets to heaven she will fight God?
I don’t cry on the airplane, and instead make friends with the elderly French-Chinese woman sitting next to me to pass the time. She passes me her and her husband’s complimentary glasses of wine and teaches me French words I learned in school. She points at the clouds. “Do you know what that is?” I say, “La neige,” and she giggles. “No, les nuages. Clouds, see?” She is warm and small and not like any memory of my grandmother, but I miss my old lady all the same and think of her sadly, with fondness, until we land at Pearson International Airport.
November 2014. Crying in November becomes about not knowing my grandmother, after I had firmly believed with a religious conviction that I would cross the world to meet her and we would grow to a mutual understanding and friendship. My tears are about the way her face swims in my memory, as dark and nebulous as the image of her mother country. I am grieving her memory, or what small tokens I have collected: her velvet curtains in the reception room of her old house, immovable even in a Canadian heat wave; her reserved laughter at my dry English humor; her history, mysterious and beautiful as I am sure it was, now lost forever.
November will be a lonely, crying month; I will listen to old Negro spirituals for a week straight. I will haunt residential roads of working-class Victorian row houses thinking about that last day with Veronica under Toronto’s blue sky in July 2008. Grief for my grandmother’s memory will be terrible and I will miss her badly. Worst of all, I will miss her strange voice, and I will wake up in tears knowing that we will never talk again.
Wales, 2003-12. During this time, I talk with Veronica on the telephone once in a blue moon. I sit in terror and patience as I watch my mother dial Canada’s country code followed by my grandmother’s phone number. And then I eavesdrop on the dial tone until there’s a soft click and my mother says, her voice rising like music to the memory of her Canadian accent, “Hi Mum, it’s me.”
After, “She’s here. Do you want to speak to her?” I am handed the telephone, and I take the call begrudgingly because I would rather be reading the Encyclopedia or daydreaming or playing The Sims.
Sometimes, I will be interrupted in the middle of something like that with “Grandma Veronica’s on the phone, do you want to talk to her?” and most times I will sigh deeply and take the receiver. Sometimes, I will say no, defiant, but I will relent soon after.
We talk like this:
“Hello, Grandma Veronica.”
A pause: there is always a satellite delay.
And then, she will say, “Hi,” in a sugary, private way that is kinder than sweet and makes you cower with the knowledge that there is something she is holding back, her voice low and heavy and opaque.
One time, in one of these calls, I ask her what Jamaica was like. Veronica says, “Oh,” for like two whole seconds, a grand, single syllable riding an out-breath for a strangely and astonishingly long time. Veronica is thinking deeply. Then she says, “Hot.”
I am young enough for that one word to impress upon my brain a lasting image. A reclaimed ancestral imaginary, a memory informed only by the sound-image of the word hot and the aural quality of my grandmother’s voice when she says it, wistful and secretive, and whatever real memory in her archive makes her vocal chords play a note like that. For me, this memory is only a faint impression, a ghost. “Hot,” colouring my vision of Jamaica for the next ten years.
Jamaica, 1958. Veronica in her youth and sundress, walking down a dry dirt road in white leather flats and pink socks, flanked by impressive green philodendrons, humming a popular radio song; “Volare,” maybe. Heat coming off the path. Jamaica was hot.