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12 June 2024

In the Ground of Memory by Mica Montana Gray

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. In this life writing piece, Mica Montana Gray reconstructs family history through memories and stories, highlighting the importance of honouring and remembering one's past as a bridge to the present.

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024.  Read the full guidelines and submit your work.


It is 1949. March. Mi give birth to wi third child, another girl, 9 days after wi wedding anniversary. When she get older, wi will go ah Englan’, to where di streets pave with gold.

The grave sits at the end of the plot. It is covered in a blanket of thick grass, the headstone lit up in the afternoon sun but somehow still maintaining its grey. Artificial flowers sit beneath the engraved words of remembrance, yellow sunflowers facing to the left, white lilies to the right, stems pulled apart by the wind. There is a new plaque, a stone tablet that reads ‘the best mom’ that wasn’t here before. One of her children, my aunt’s or my father, must’ve brought it here as a birthday or mothers day gift, or both. In March, those two days are one.

He stands behind me awkwardly. The sun hangs high above us, resting heat on exposed necks as we look down towards the headstone, waiting for something to happen, a sign from the beyond, a bird to fly by, a whisper on the wind, me to cry. Nothing comes. I try to offer something, a connection, a conversation, a 'thank you, I’m here, I remember'. As soon as the whispered words meet air, memories arrive floating on the back of a breeze. I pull the hem of my white dress up and drop my knees into the soil, busying myself with rearranging the flowers as I let the memories wash over me. My grandmother and I, watching Eastenders, drinking matching cups of tea in the colonial tradition, surrounded by ornaments and trinkets that spoke of her world before this one, maps of the island in black, yellow and green. Mornings spent in the kitchen with her chopping cho-cho for soup, shaping dough into festivals, making ackee meet saltfish, me, stealing chunks of mutton out of the dutch pot, her voice traveling through every room asking who it is eating her out of house and home. Her cheekbones, high, drawing her lips up into a smile at Christmas, her face full of light and joy as we sat around the table, all of us food drunk and merry, pulling crackers and wearing paper hats. Her face, in my angry years, a mixture of disappointment and relief each time she’d let me in after I’d run away again, change from the bus money I stole from her purse jangling in my pockets. Her face, in the hospital bed, hollowed and drawn out, skin pulled back into itself by cancer.

I stand up, the flowers now erect, facing up towards the sun as if they could drink it in, as if dead things could be given life. I draw towards him standing behind me. His hand is rough in mine as we link fingers.

It is 1962. Jamaica finally ‘ave independence and di daughters weh mi leave in St Andrews will finally be here. Di boys dem come last year and soon, when di girls plane land, everyone ago be together. Wi will move inna a bigger place and dem will go ah school, get a good education. Den, one day, all wi will go back home.

My grandmother was one of seven. They came over to England during the windrush years between 1948 and 1971, the years when the English colonial office opened their borders to people of the commonwealth countries, asking them to come and help rebuild England after the war. Like most of that generation, they came here proudly, seeking opportunity in the ‘motherland’, until they got here and found her un-nurturing, met with cold weather and even colder stares. It’s been years since my grandmother passed but I still don’t know much about what her life was like before then. I knew that she’d been afraid of the sea, like me and that she’d at some point been a nurse, but not much more than that. She had died before I’d gotten the chance to ask her my own questions, before I had a chance to break out of the selfishness of youth and see her beyond myself, to see her not just as my grandmother but as the woman she was. I would’ve liked to find out what her dreams were, to know what filled her with joy, what it was like for her as a child to grow between city and mountains, to leave a life in pursuit of another, to know what she thought of as ‘home’.

It is 1958. January. Mi give birth fi di second time inna Englan’, wi ‘ave another girl.

We look for Auntie Violet next. It has only been a few months since she died so she doesn’t have a headstone which makes finding her hard. I try to bring her funeral to my mind, try to map out graveyard landmarks to help me find my way. To the left of the grave with the lanterns. Behind the grave with the candles. Infront of the footpath. He thinks he’s found it, but the mound he points to looks unfamiliar to me, an ankh stands at the head of it. 'When we buried her, we put in a cross', I say. 'That’s not it'. We walk up and down the plots until he says again 'Are you sure it’s not this one?' We pick at it to see if we can find certainty. I look for the Jamaican flag wreath that we set down on the day, forgetting that as with everything, time would’ve turned the flowers by now to dust. He finds something that boasts her name. 'Here, see?', he says. All the evidence points to where we are but the ankh feels out of place. I try to make it fit.

In ancient Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life. They believed life was a force that moved between things, a force that maintained and renewed existence through movement, through a constant ebb and flow. Night and day. Up and down. In and out. Hieroglyphics show images of the Gods and Goddesses holding the ankh in their hands, a symbol of how they controlled the tides of life. Some images show them offering the ankh to pharaohs, gifting them what only the God’s can give: eternity. After the spread of christianity, the ankh was adopted by the early churches as a version of the cross, a symbol of eternal life being given through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In modern days, the ankh is used to symbolize a different kind of eternity, the eternity of identity, the eternity that says, wherever we are, the African diaspora will always have in the ground of our memory the knowing of home. It’s become a way for the diaspora to reclaim what was stripped away, a way to remember that before we were colonized, enslaved, and brought to countries of wet and stone, we were a different people, a people rich in kingdoms and cultures and rituals long forgotten.

It is 1965. Englan’ pass a law gainst di color bar. Now di white people haffi employ us like everybody else, dem haffi let us use dem facilities like everybody else. Dem cyaan turn wi black and asian away or treat wi like second class citizens no more.

I wonder whether one of my cousins, my great-aunt Violet’s children, placed the ankh there in remembrance of all these things, of history, identity, eternity. Whether it was almost a prayer, that the great pharaoh of their lives, their mom, my father’s aunt, my grandmother's sister, would be given that gift that only God can give, the gift of continuing on in that eternal ebb and flow, swimming in the tides of life, alive still, somewhere.

'Let’s find Auntie Mallow', I say. He nods and waits patiently for guidance. I reach back into my mind again to find a memory of her burial so that I can locate her grave but the memories suddenly collapse into each other. Memories of tears, wailing relatives, crowds of people, upturned earth and doves released to the sky arrive with no distinction. 'Over here', I say, heading towards a section of graves ahead of us on the right, hoping muscle memory will guide. He takes one row, I take another. Him, forgetting superstition and treading air-forces directly over graves, reading tombstones as closely as he can. Me, careful not to stand on the edge of caskets, pink nail polish stark against the green rug beneath us, squinting from awkward angles to read the letters in front of me. The sun shifts from its place in the sky and climbs down to hang on our left as we read the names and the stories off the headstones. In the glow of golden hour we see how some graves are covered in grief, coloured with elaborate designs, pictures and items, artistic carvings and poems, as if the love for that person could find no place else to go but here. Other graves are simpler, grief held back by finance or circumstance - we don’t know which. We read the stories of those that offer themselves to us, nodding in acknowledgement of each lost life as a trend appears. 'All the West Indian people in Birmingham must be buried here', he says as we read name after name and find the islands buried around us.

I have been to this cemetery many times for funerals of family, friends, and friends of friends but I have never before made that connection, that we all seem to be buried here. The words cut in a way I don’t expect. To notice all of the West Indian, Caribbean people buried around us, is to notice the death of a generation, the death of a people who came to build this country, who came and built homes and dreams and castles out of sand, and now, just like the ocean pulling sand back to sea, time had started taking them back to itself, washing away what was left.

It is 2000. Mi nearing di end of mi life. Mi been inna Englan’ fi over tirty years. Mi husband here. Mi pickney here, dem pickney here. Mi even ‘ave great-grandpickney here. Wi never end up going back ah Jamaica except to visit, but mi nuh upset ‘bout it. Di life we did mek here is enough.

We make our way up and down the rows of the cemetery searching for Auntie Mallow. Him, trying to be supportive, sure that we’ll find her if we keep looking. Me, getting frustrated, feeling that forgetting where she lies is a sign of me forgetting myself, a confirmation of what I’ve been feeling for the past year, that my history, the culture I grew up in, is slipping further and further away from me, out of sight and out of mind.

 I spent most of my childhood weekends with my grandmother, my fathers mother, learning the foods and sounds and music of the island she came from, and then as I got older, I immersed myself in the cultures around me. I let my South Asian friends cover my arms in mehndi, learnt the lyrics of British pop punk songs, fried my hair straight and glued weaves to my scalp so that I could blend in more easily. I began to peel back the layers of my mothers estrangement and found myself inside of a wide family history crossing over Ghana and Nigeria. I was introduced to grandparents and aunties and cousins I’d never known. Jollof replaced rice and peas. Brown stew chicken swapped for tomato stew. Sorrel became zobo. ‘Black British, Caribbean' on the census forms became ‘Black British, African’. I look over at him, my best friend, my future, born of Nigeria and in this light, a symbol of loss and gain, a reminder of what is being left behind as I embrace all that he is, all that he and I, both are. I have gone through life feeling that I would always be connected to that little island in the Caribbean sea because there were people behind me, living proofs of my history, of my identity that I could go back to but they were all being taken by the sky. What would be of me, what of them will be left in me, when they all finally take flight?

The sun hangs low and the air starts to bite cold before we admit defeat. Regretfully, I stand in the middle of the cemetery, hoping that Auntie Mallow doesn’t feel left out, doesn’t feel forgotten. I offer an apology, a thanks, a 'I remember', a 'I will remember' into the air hoping it finds her. I look at him, his face soft and reassuring as he starts to hum a tune. We link fingers again as we head towards the exit. A slow wind passes between us and I wrap myself around his arm, drawing close to his warmth, smelling on him the comforting perfume of his grandmother's home.

 

 *

 

I ring the bell but no-one answers. Through the window I hear smooth reggae sounds and I realize he can’t hear me over the music. I call him to let him know I’m outside. My great-uncle opens the door, a smile lighting up his brown face. 'Come een come een', he says, his voice still carrying the sway of the islands despite the years he’s been here. He ushers me through the short corridor, past the pictures of family members I know only from memory. The reggae music playing from a stereo in the corner envelops me in a hug as I enter the living room. The space is small but inviting. I can’t remember if I’ve been here before but it feels familiar, like home. Around us the walls are covered in pictures of his pride; his family. There are images of all of us, his children, his grandchildren, his mom, his dad, his brothers, his sisters, nephews and nieces, all covering pale yellow walls.

My eyes are drawn to one image in particular. It’s a portrait of him and his siblings in a house I recognise that I’ve forgotten. Their faces speak of each other, the shape of their cheekbones revealing a shared identity. My eyes are fixed on my grandmother who sits in the middle. Somehow, he hears the question I don’t ask, the question that has been on my heart since I went to the cemetery: how will I remember if I don’t know?

He tells me about us, about himself, my grandmother, his sisters, the flowers of his life. He soaks me in their stories, waters the parts of me that had felt dry, reconnects me, to something. He brings out scrapbooks full of letters and memories and talks me through them one by one. He tells me of when they came here, how unlike those who came on the windrush boat, his parents had to pay for their fare. He talks about how old they were, how they made friends, where they lived and went to school. I feel myself unfolding as he speaks, roots unfurling and finding ground again. I turn the pages of the scrapbook and land at a picture of my great-grandmother, piercing eyes staring back at me. She looks like my auntie, my fathers sister, my grandmother's daughter. I say so and he agrees. He tells me about her, his mom. He tells me what he remembers and as he talks a picture of her grows in my mind and I see her clearly. It is 1954. Her bags are packed. She is leaving Jamaica and making her way to England, to the place where the streets are paved with gold. She is scared but determined, excited. In Jamaica she has been a hat maker, in England who knows what she will be. She will meet her brother when she lands, her husband will meet them next year and they will send for their five children later on. Like many others, she promises to come back one day, but life has other plans. In England her face will wrinkle and her bones will grow tired, she will raise her children and her children will raise theirs and their stories stretching over space and time. She will grow old with her husband and they will live together in a house that is always full of people passing through, always busy with great-grandchildren running over each other, making brothers and sisters out of cousins because they don’t know any distinction. In time they will forget the house, but they will remember its comfort, and they will feel it long after the house is sold and gone. For one of those great-grandchildren, time will numb the memories and she will grow up and worry that she’s lost the road to her beginning, but she will find it again, in the bonds of family, in her cheekbones when she looks in the mirror and if nowhere else, at the gravesites, in the ground of memories.


The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.

Featured image by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

Mica Montana Gray, a trainee psychologist and writer, passionately explores life’s diverse stories. Her writing can be found in ‘Postscript’, ‘The Color of madness’ anthology and her poetry collection ‘When Daisies Talk’ which explores her personal experiences of mental health. Presently, she curates a newsletter exploring faith, culture, and wellbeing.
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