I was used to playing outside and creating things out of nothing. I made dolls out of sticks, leaves and flowers because I never had any, I’d only seen the ones hanging in the market stalls when I went on shopping trips with my Mama. We only had enough for essentials like rice, coconut oil, salted cod fish, fresh ackees, hard dough bread. Mama never bought anything for herself and was often wearing the same old shirts that she washed, starched and kept exceptionally clean under her full aprons that she wore every day.
There was only the elephant my father had made for me out of gray flannel, hand-stitched on an old Singer sewing machine. I adored them so much and took such great care of them. I handled it carefully and always put it away carefully when I was not playing with it. Unfortunately, when I came from Jamaica to Canada to meet my parents, it had already been decided what I’d bring on the plane. I had only met my real mother a few days ago and already she was taking away my gray elephant; I had to leave it behind as there were lots and lots of toys to be found in the place where I was going. I cried about the gray elephant, but Mama told me that I had to wipe my tears and be the brave little girl that she knew I was.
One day in 1964 my mother brought home a very eccentric lady for dinner. She always brought all sorts of interesting people home and this woman was named Mary Joan. She was a white woman who wore blue cat eyeglasses and her blonde hair in a curly 1960’s flip. She turned out to be my constant companion over the years, an unofficial nanny figure and my best friend just because she wanted to. She loved me and always gave me bug hugs and kisses and little treats. She often had me over to her little apartment which was a half floor on the top of a little, old, white house. It was an interesting little place full of magic, and stories, tea, cookies, pink elephants and teddy bears. It didn’t matter that the elephants were pink or that the teddy bears were different colours, just as skin color didn’t matter to Mary Joan; things were simply perfect.
We always had beautiful tea parties with tiny little bone china tea cups with pretty flowers on them. There were tiny tea pots, plates and tiny platters for cookies. Mary Joan baked homemade oatmeal cookies with raisins and walnuts and she loved to serve buttery short bread and pound cake. The cookies she made were magically delicious as I had never eaten homemade cookies before. Hers were the first homemade cookies I had ever seen or eaten. In the Islands we never ate these kinds of cookies or had these kinds of tea parties; tea time was a regular thing for the upper classes in the British colonies, but not for us. I had only read about the Mad Hatter’s tea party in the story of “Alice in Wonderland,” before I was ever invited to one myself. Mary Joan talked to the pink elephants, the teddy bears and me while we chewed on our cookies. Every pink elephant and every teddy bear had a name and she allowed me to touch them all and play with them. I remember talking with our little family for hours until my mother would come to pick me up.
Mary Joan lived a very ultra-conscious life; her imagination was so vivid that it came alive and covered some of the scars of her otherwise sad life. So many things had happened to this beautiful soul. She had a baby taken away from her when she was but a teenager and she never got over the shock of it. She developed mental illness from the pain she endured. She barely made it through life and my Mother found her one day and made her part of the family. We were so blessed to have this little white woman as part of our lives. She enriched it so much and certainly enriched mine. Whenever she did not have a home she knew that she had one with us wherever we lived. In those early days she would often stay over at our little apartment on Balmoral Street and we shared my double bed. She always wanted the side near the window and I always had the side that looked into the tiny kitchen. My room was really a little dining room that my mother had curtained off from the living room converting it into a second bedroom as the apartment had only one bedroom. But we were all so very happy and we had more than enough.
Sometimes when I don’t quite feel like myself I revert back to 1964 and tea time with Mary Joan the pink elephants and the teddy bears and suddenly we are sitting at her little table looking through the window chatting, talking, laughing and smiling together in a magical world. I have only to imagine a bone china teacup, or see an elephant, or a teddy bear and I can go there and actually be there. It was the place where I was no longer a chocolate face or an “n.” I knew I was not going to be stoned, choked or beaten that day. It was going to be the most wonderful day and I was going to be Mary Joan’s precious little girl. It is not escapism, as there is not escape from the reality which is life. It is more of a time out that allows you to think more clearly when you emerge from a positive and happy place because the wonderful thoughts do not die immediately as you emerge from them. They continue on and turn hopelessness into hope. They preserve the innocence of a little girl for moments in time, moments that seem to stand still; because as we know very well time stops for no one. As I am much older now I see how short life really is that there may be little time to spare. It is a common phrase that there is no promise of tomorrow so you must do what you have to do to live for today. Perhaps that involves living an ultra-conscious life and being grateful for all that you have.