Last Saturday I visited a local church cemetery 2 miles from my home town Old Harbour, Jamaica to see the tombs of my 2 aunts and an uncle. The visit turned into a spiritual journey down memory lane.
The cemetery is part of the St Dorothy’s Anglican Church situated in a district ironically called Church Pen. St Dorothy’s was built in 1681 and is one of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere.
The cemetery has expanded over the centuries and provides a microcosm of Old Harbour’s class and culture. Those tombs much closer to the church building were mainly from the 18th century to the mid 20th century and from the surnames you could tell they were of a certain status in Jamaican society. But further out Jamaican of all races were now buried there from the 1950s onwards.
I soon realised that I had more close friends buried there than of those that are still alive in Old Harbour. Buried there include a nephew, cousins, former neighbours, school mates, friends and acquaintances.
What also struck me was that a number of those persons buried there had played a significant part in my personal development from the moment I first lived Jamaica as a 6 year old in April 1974. It left me quite humble, reflective, grateful and wishing for some the deceased there to have being alive today for me to say thank you. Or to say sorry.
Take Roderick Gleaston Murray. Roderick was a close class mate at Old Harbour Primary School between 1974 & 1978 before he moved on to secondary school at Clarendon College in 1978 and I to Glenmuir High a year later. In the summer of 1979 Roderick drowned. His death still influences my life. Roderick was the first friend I knew that died. Up to then I never knew children could pass away that soon. But from the minute myself and the 5 other classmates rested Roderick’s coffin at the cemetery I was never scared of anything; not even death. I always felt a sense of guilt that Roderick never had a chance to live out his teenage or adult life. Roderick’s death became an anchor for me to take risks without fear.
“Miss Kelly” is also buried there. Her real name was Sibblone Watson. Miss Kelly used to sell cheese trix, kisko pop, drops, sky juice etc by the front gates Old Harbour Primary school. In those early school days I was often picked on for food and money by some of the older school kids and some adults who loitered outside the school. They assumed because I was born in England that my family were money rich. But Miss Kelly would always come to my defence and she chased those bullies and beggars away in her. She was also a class mate of my dad at the same Old Harbour Primary school in the 1930s (only found out this year). I had the fortune to spend a lot of time with Miss Kelly whenever I came on holiday to Jamaica over 20 year period. She passed away a week after I returned to London in 2008. But I was grateful that I had many moments with Miss Kelly to thank you and big her up.
Aunty Ruby Lewis was equally influential. She died aged 91 last year following a short illness. Up until her 90th birthday Aunty Ruby was very active in the church and her local community. Aunty Ruby had lived in the UK for some time before returning in the early 1980s. Aunty Ruby had class and she was always immaculately dressed. She had a passion for photography which has rubbed off on to me. Never one to forget her roots Aunty Ruby always visited her childhood district of Davis in St Catherine and offered support and assistance there.
Roger Michael Antonio Lewis was my nephew who was born in England in early 1974 and left us in 2010. I mention Roger’s full name as I provided all 3 forenames. Roger’s influence on me came after his untimely death in the US. I learnt the importance in making peace and building (as best as you can) cordial relationships with relatives. I missed out many years not knowing Roger much better and acting a proper uncle and friend should behave.
Then there is Miss Linda Spence who in the late 1970s played a pivotal part in my love for reading. Miss Spence was the librarian at Old Harbour Library. She was highly regarded and respected by all in the community. We all loved Miss Spence. She supported my interest for reading and whenever I came to the library she would go through some of the new books available on the shelf.
Miss Spence always addressed me as “Mr Lewis”. For a child that made me feel important, dignified and boosted a young ego even further. Miss Spence used to reserve for me the latest Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. It sounds bizarre in today’s society – but being the first to read one of the 60 plus books in the Hardy Boys series gave you credibility amongst your school mates.
Miss Spence also developed my interest in non-fiction books especially on history and current affairs. She encouraged me to read adult type non-fiction books at that early age. If I was not at the library at least once a fortnight Miss Spence would send out a search party to my home. I thank Miss Spence for her support as even today I am still passionate about reading and in London I can never walk pass a bookshop without going in there.
The whole cemetery experience reminded how vital it is to display gratitude to those who supported me throughout my life. The experience reaffirmed my decision earlier this year to research my parents’ ancestral roots whilst on my indefinite sabbatical from England.
My biggest regret was that I never asked some of those that are resting peacefully in Church Pen the simplest of questions when they were alive. E.g.
- What was school like for them?
- What was my dad like at school? (Miss Kelly),
- What was my paternal grandfather like? (he died in October 1923 6 months after my dad was born),
- Where did my grandmothers originate from?
Simple but relevant questions that I am pursuing with some of those in the community who are still us today.