April 12, 2009

While visiting Mom in Kailua last week, I found and transcribed some of her essays, and will publish them here, because they describe daily life in a far different place and time. This is an essay Mom wrote for a class she was taking at the Windward Community College. I think it was a biography writing class.

Old Nana

With great affection I recall old “nana”, a black woman who had been nursemaid to my aunts and uncles and my mother. In the British Colonial West Indies of the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds such family servants closely bonded with their employers for a familial affectionate relationship.

When I knew Nana she was confined to her room by the infirmities of age. Her room was part of a barracks for the servants on my Grandfather's estate, Richmond Penn. As a child of about seven or eight years I enjoyed visiting with her, and felt important that I was able to read her Bible to her.

Nana's room was furnished simply – a small cot, a plain table on which she kept her Bible and some religious pictures, as well as her comb, some ointments, and a ewer and basin for washing. She was always sitting in an old, well worn rocking chair. She could not read, but enjoyed singing hymns, and visiting with the other servants. It was the custom of the women servants to paste over the bare walls of their rooms colorful pictures cut out from Mail Order Catalogs. I used to enjoy helping old Nana with this, using home-made paste of flour and water.

Before I was too much older Nana died. My first experience with death, I was more curious than upset. I remember visiting her for the last time when women from her church were preparing her body for burial. She was laid out on her cot dressed in a white cotton gown, and seemed in pleasant sleep. But then, they commenced to comb her hair. Her short, frizzy white hair was carefully parted into small sections, and neatly and tightly braided into short plaits. As they pulled and plaited, I was disturbed to see how her head was jerked about. But soon it was all done, and Nana was again still, her head now elaborately wound about by a white cloth.

That afternoon there was a great gathering at the women's quarters. All the estate servants and laborers, and the Minister and congregation from her Church. I stood on the verandah of the big house and listened to the glorious rise and fall, the rich instinctive harmonies, of all those voices.
All the history of these people, their sorrows, their tragedies, their patient endurance, colored their hymns in a heart-rending way. Nana was properly mourned.

It was their custom, nine days after death, to come together again and celebrate the liberation of the soul - “nine-Night”. This was a joyous occasion and food and rum were plentiful. The singing was now vigorous and accompanied by foot-stomping and hand-clapping. The bodies jerked and swayed, the happy faces sweated, and all sorrow was forgotten for that night.

Fay Schulmeister
August 1990

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