Growing Up Jamaican

The Song My Mother Sang

One Saturday afternoon, I’m standing in the doorway, waiting on a telephone technician to show up. The welder guy is at the front making adjustments to some grillwork. The mason, who is by the back wall with my neighbour, stops his construction project to douse a duck ant’s nest with oil. I’m marveling at the monstrosity of the nest while admiring the mason’s craftsmanship in building a twin, concrete washtub from scratch.

100% Jamaican-made washtub.
100% Jamaican-made washtub.

As we watch the nest go up in flames, we’re relaying termite-infestation horror stories of crumbling cabinets and collapsing dressers and doing it with the same intensity as we would politics, the economy or West Indies cricket. My neighbour’s very neighbourly four-year-old daughter spots me in the doorway. She decides to pay a visit. This would be her third.

Before moving to this new place, it had been years since I conversed with a four year old. But, as she marches through my apartment and I chase after her, we manage to conduct a decent exchange which is weirdly identical to our first two conversations.

“You live here?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer.
“This is your fridge?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer
“This is your bed?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer
“This is your dolly?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer.
“What’s her name?” she asks.
“Renee,” I say proudly.
“She’s pretty.” She picks up Renee by her pigtails and swings her.
“I think so too.” I’m cringing. Poor Renee.
“You comb her hair?”
“No, the person who made her combed her hair. . . Let’s put her back on the pillow. She’s sleeping.”
“But her eyes open.”
“Yes, that’s how she sleeps.”

My Dolly, Renee.

I stare at the precocious lass with hair plaited in three and ends neatly tucked under. I smile internally. My brain is flooding with memories of the days Mom used to haul me and my sister off to the country, i.e. St. Elizabeth, every chance she got despite our protests.

Finding playmates in the country was easy. Remember that child who always ready to play di minute cock put on him drawers? Maybe you were that child. As soon as day light, you’d be searching unda di bed or inside di brown barrel pack up wid ole clothes for a half-naked dolly; small, bouncy ball from your jacks set; mangy tennis ball to play cricket; or an empty juice box turn racing car which you were convinced needed more mechanical work on the front wheels. You’d then park yourself out in your friend’s yard and wait for him to finish eat breakfast and brush him teet.

Maybe you and your rural companions weren’t too keen on toys. Maybe you used to climb trees and run through nuff bush an’ macka an’ ting. Maybe your little dry-foot posse used to go to the river and catch janga (a.k.a. cray fish). Maybe you used to fight, like a real-life fight, where two of you push each other in the chest, all over the place, to see who going drop first. Maybe you used to pick rose apples and eat them straight—no rinsing with tap water like you habitually do these days, since yuh get civilized.

In contrast to holidays in the country, my sister and I didn’t get to ramp with reckless abandon in town, i.e. the suburbs of St. Andrew. Cultured city mothers didn’t allow their girls to run the city streets like leggo beast. We were kept within the confines of our yard, except to go to school or, as we got older, trips to the plazas to buy music magazines and love books.

Being in a townhouse all day meant one thing: our mother couldn’t get us out of her craw. The stairs, the living room, the bedrooms and bathroom became our playground. And her name was on our lips every hour and every minute because we were always hungry or had a question.

“Mummy?” we whisper. (There’s a half pack of Cheese Krunchies we’ve been eyeing in the fridge.)
“Why you two don’t let mi ears eat grass?” she asks without looking up from the newspaper.
“Mummy?” we whisper.
“Why you two don’t leave me in peace?” she begs.
“But Mummy. . .”
She begins singing “Hear O Lord”.
“Cho, man, Mummy, man!”
“Hear O Lord” reaches a crescendo. My sister and I get vex and shut up.

You know what I’m talking about, my fellow Jamaicans. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the days when you wouldn’t stop nengeh-nengeh in yuh mother ears for permission to turn on the TV, so you could watch Tom and Jerry because it soon start; or to have cornflakes and milk because you didn’t feel for the pea soup cooking on the stove; or to have the biscuits your brother brought back home from school in him lunch pan because you ask him already and him seh ‘it’s okay’.

Perhaps your mother sang a different song from the hymnal or an original composition—a chorus of lah de dahs or nah nah nahs–but it was the ammunition Jamaican mothers used to hush you up when you wouldn’t quit buzzing in their ears and hugging and sweeting them up like you and them in love.

Catch yuh next week.

Love and peace.



1. Renee dolls are manufactured by Island Dolls Plus Collections and are available in souvenir shops across Jamaica.
2. Cheese Krunchies are cheese crackers manufactured by the Jamaica Biscuit Company and are available in supermarkets and shops across Jamaica.


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