I am the German representative for Guyana in next year’s World Day of Prayer, which focuses on my homeland. Here’s a little piece I wrote for my German presentation:
Two Grannies: a childhood in Guyana
Like most children I had two Grannies. One was fat and soft, and lived in Lamaha Street: Granny Mirrie. The other was thin and bony, and lived in Crown Street: Granny Winnie.
I loved them both, but Granny Mirrie was my favourite. She spent most f her day in the worn-out Berbice chair next to the window. A Berbice chair is, I think, an original Guianese design; probably conceived by rich British plantation owners for lazy evenings drinking Rum Sizzlers on the veranda. It’s a wide, comfortable armchair, whose wooden armrests have extensions that fold out into leg-and-footrests. The backrest is adjustable so that the whole chair can be laid back almost horizontal – a chair to doze in.
The cushions in Granny’s Berbice chair were so worn down they were flat and hard, for Granny sat there all day every day; but that didn’t matter to me because Granny herself was so soft. I loved nothing better than to curl up on her lap, reading a book or simply dreaming of far off lands and adventures to come. Granny never spoke much; she made herself useful by shelling peas, cleaning rice, grating coconut and other such mundane household duties, but most of all she watched the street.
Lamaha Street, Georgetown’s most northerly main street, ran parallel to the Atlantic coast and formed a busy vein through between town and country; much of the traffic coming down from the East Coast Demerara into central Georgetown passed our house. Back then the traffic was mostly bicycles and dray carts, small ones pulled by donkeys, long ones pulled by horses. Schoolchildren rode past on bicycles; Queen’s College was just around the corner, Bishops’ High School around another corner, and my own primary school, St Margaret’s, around yet another corner.
Our house, like most Georgetown houses of the time, was of wood, painted white. It was a typical old Dutch Colonial residence, a five-bedroomed, many-windowed house on high pillars, with an outside staircase leading up to the front door, and the “bottom house” space providing a garage and storage rooms. The front veranda was nothing but window, alternating glass and wooden louvers, while traditional Demerara windows, known to us as “coolers”, opened up the house sides and the top story. Demerara windows were ornately carved, open-topped wooden boxes jutting out from the house, closed off by slanting wooden shutters. In the old days, before electric fans took over, people placed big blocks of ice in the boxes to cool the incoming breeze – an ingenious and simple method of air-conditioning.
Mummy and I lived in an upstairs room in the two-story house; at least, when my mother was there at all. For a few years she lived and worked in Trinidad, leaving me behind in a big house full of grown-ups: Granny, Uncle Archie with his room full of rifles, sweet little old Aunt Amy who spent her time crocheting doilies for the Society for the Blind; and the formidable Aunt Leila, head of the household.
Aunt Leila was Mummy’s elder sister. We thought of her as a spinster aunt, but in fact she had once been married and widowed young, without children. She was pious; she went to her church “Meetings” several times a week, and I see her now sitting on the edge of her bed, eyes closed, meditating. She was also superstitious. On the first day of every month she repeated “White Rabbit” ten times; for good luck, she said.
Aunt Leila was scary: very strict, though fair – a good balance to Mummy who always spoilt me. Aunt Leila was the one who laid down the rules, and she didn’t much care for noisy children. But I had no one to be noisy with anyway; it was animals, big and small, that fascinated me. In particular: ants.
Ants were as much at home in Lamaha Street as humans. Nobody thought to kill them or even that they should not be there; they lived their life, we ours, and as long as they did not infringe on our territory the motto was “live and let live”. We knew to keep all things that ants loved in ant-resistant containers; no sugar bowls open on the table, cakes and biscuits tightly sealed in ant-resistant tins.
But I fed ants. They fascinated me. I loved to place a chunk of something sweet somewhere any-free, and watch and wait until they came. I would watch while they swarmed around and all over a piece of pink-and-white sugar-cake, attacking it from all sides, and carrying it away in chunks sometimes several times larger than themselves. I watched them march away with their sweet loads carried aloft, single file up the walls and along the ledge that ran at window-height along all walls, followed them back to their nest. I wanted to know what it was like inside an ant-nest, and so kept ants in closed jars filled with slightly moist sand; they had no option but to build their nests along the sides of the jars under my watchful and fascinated eye. I fed them sweet crumbs from above, and when I tired of them I set them free again.
Empty jam jars were, beside animals, my favourite playthings; you could do so much with them. Line a jar with blotting paper, put a little water into it and place seeds between the paper and the glass, and you could watch a plant grow. I collected little fish from the gutters that ran in front and in back of our house – drains that carried off Georgetown’s superfluous rainwater - and kept them in jars, or tadpoles, and watched them grow legs and arms and climb on to the chunks of cork I provided.
In Lamaha Street I was a solitary child. I knew how to occupy myself, and boredom never had a chance; nature provided umpteen miracles in the huge backyard, and books provided adventures galore. I hated dolls and anything “girly”; once, my mother gave me a huge baby-doll for a birthday, and I was so offended I never even touched it. I can’t remember having any store-bought toys at all, and Guyana did not have TV back then. We had a radio and a record-player, and I listened to Children’s Hour and American comedies and played records till I knew the songs off by heart: Three Coins in a Fountain, Wooden Heart, How Much is that Doggie in the Window. I had my own cat, Fluffy, and a dog, Frisky.
And just a short walk away, beyond the Lamaha Street Canal, the Eve Leary Mounted Police Headquarters with the stable full of horses; beautiful, sell-groomed, well-trained horses as opposed to the skinny nags that pulled the dray carts. They knew me well at Eve Leary; I came to hug and stroke and brush the horses. I was allowed to feed them, and once they let me name a foal. the horses you could visit and hug and stroke and feed.
In the rainy season the waters rose and Georgetown stood under water for several weeks; but we were always high and dry in our houses on stilts. I made rafts and played boat with friends, and the thunder of rain on the corrugated iron roof is a sound I’ll never forget – rainfall so heavy it sounded like an ocean poured upon the roof. And sometimes I sat at my little desk in my upstairs room and filled one exercise book after the other with stories: stories of children going off on an adventure, children with horses and dogs. My imagined children found buried treasure and brought thieves and evil kidnappers to justice; they always lived in England (my inspiration were the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton) and their skin was always white, like all the children in all the books I read. Thus I was never lonely, never bored: I created my own worlds and my own friends, and that’s what made life in a house full of adults quite tolerable.
Granny Winnie’s house was the exact opposite of the Lamaha Street house. The Crown Street house– until my father converted downstairs into a flat for his new family - was only one story, and it was always full of children; always had been. Granny Winnie had eight sons. The walls of her house were covered with photos of eight tall young soldiers smiling into the camera, proud and handsome in their uniforms; sometimes single portraits, sometimes groups of two or three, or all eight lined up, light-skinned, dark-skinned, eight brothers eager to defend a Motherland far across the ocean. All of them enlisted in the Second World War; all of them volunteered for the British Army. Two of them never returned.
What must it be like for a mother to send eight sons off to fight a war half a world away? I only know that one day she and her husband George were at lunch when a crash made her jump to her feet and rush into the living-room. The photo of Uncle Douglas had fallen off the wall. “Douglas is dead!” wailed Granny Winnie, and it was true. That very day, Uncle Douglas’s warship was bombed by the Japanese off the coast of Singapore. There’s a war memorial in Singapore that bears his name.
Another of her sons, Donald, married in England and never returned to Guyana. All the rest came home, and with one exception married and had children. Uncle Rupert’s wife was killed by a train just weeks after the birth of her last child, so he and his five children moved into the tiny Crown Street house. It swarmed constantly with uncles, aunts and, mostly, cousins, and I was never short of entertainment, provided mostly by Uncle Dennis, the one unmarried uncle who also lived in Crown Street.
Uncle Dennis was a clown and a curiosity. He was the one who never married, and he didn’t need children because he had all of us, a horde of nieces and nephews; at least twenty of us from the smallest baby up to Ronald, our eldest and at twenty years already an adult. Brilliant and wayward and a thorn in the sides of his brothers, Uncle Dennis himself stayed a child all his life.
For us he was the absolute hero. No-one else had an uncle who could wiggle his ears, and had such a never-ending flow of jokes and funny anecdotes at his disposal. No-one else had an uncle who would lie on the floor and blow up his tummy into a trampoline for tiny feet. Uncle Dennis made children laugh – but made them work, as well. The only job he ever had was as private after-school teacher, in just about every subject, for Uncle Dennis knew everything, and what he didn’t know he taught himself, including German. Trouble was, he never took any money for those lessons, and all his life remained dependent on his parents or his brothers. He roamed the streets of Georgetown on his rusty old bicycle, stopping to talk to people and telling them jokes, and everyone knew Uncle Dennis; he was the town comedian. Yet he was the one who took care of Granny Winnie when she grew old and senile.
Two things I remember most about Granny Winnie: she played the violin, and she knitted, two very unusual hobbies for a Guianese woman. Knitting, especially: who needed warm socks and pullovers? Yet later, when most of her sons emigrated to cooler climates, those socks and jumpers were most in demand. As Granny’s memory failed, so did her grasp of names. The names of al her sons would roll off her tongue as she tried to find the right one: “Dennis-David-Donald-Douglas-Rupert-Patrick-Leonard-Rory!”
Today when I recall Granny Winnie's face it is always a face distorted by grief. When I was just six, tragic death struck again. My 13-year-old cousin Wayne – one of the half-orphans Granny was raising – loved experimenting with chemicals in a downstairs room. One day I returned from the playground to see Wayne running around the corner of the house, clutching his chest. Blood poured from behind his fingers. It was my father who drove Wayne to the hospital, now in the arms of his father. By the time they arrived he was dead. He and a friend had tried to make a pipe-bomb, and he had held it the wrong way around, so that it went off into his heart.
I will never forget Grannie's face the day they brought Wayne home and laid him there in the front room, cold and stiff and pale.
One after the other, Granny's sons emigrated, taking their families with them. The Crown Street house grew empty. The only brothers who remained were Uncle Dennis and my father. The Westmaas family, once a close-knit family unit with a well-known name in Georgetown, scattered across two continents. We sought the greener fields of Britain, Canada and the US. We are a living example of Guyana's diminishment; for as her people left, so did innovation, inspiration and progress. Those who remained looked back to our small days, golden days of abundance and magic.
And yet, and yet.
When Cheddi Jagan, after 30 years as Opposition leader, finally was elected President in 1992, my Uncle Rory – as prize-winning architect the most successful of the eight Westmaas brothers – returned to the old family home. So did two of his sons, one an engineer, the other a lawyer. So did other Guyanese, harbouring the seed of hope in their hearts. And maybe, so will I, someday. All over the world we who grew up there know: this is the land that nurtured us, the land of our grandmothers. Crumbing, ailing and lowly she may be, but we love this land. We must return, and give back what we can.