The Autobiography of My Mother

BOOK: The Autobiography of My Mother
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Also by Jamaica Kincaid


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My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind. I could not have known at the beginning of my life that this would be so; I only came to know this in the middle of my life, just at the time when I was no longer young and realized that I had less of some of the things I used to have in abundance and more of some of the things I had scarcely had at all. And this realization of loss and gain made me look backward and forward: at my beginning was this woman whose face I had never seen, but at my end was nothing, no one between me and the black room of the world. I came to feel that for my whole life I had been standing on a precipice, that my loss had made me vulnerable, hard, and helpless; on knowing this I became overwhelmed with sadness and shame and pity for myself.

When my mother died, leaving me a small child vulnerable to all the world, my father took me and placed me in the care of the same woman he paid to wash his clothes. It is possible that he emphasized to her the difference between the two bundles: one was his child, not his only child in the world but the only child he had with the only woman he had married so far; the other was his soiled clothes. He would have handled one more gently than the other, he would have given more careful instructions for the care of one over the other, he would have expected better care for one than the other, but which one I do not know, because he was a very vain man, his appearance was very important to him. That I was a burden to him, I know; that his soiled clothes were a burden to him, I know; that he did not know how to take care of me by himself, or how to clean his own clothes himself, I know.

He had lived in a very small house with my mother. He was poor, but it was not because he was good; he had not done enough bad things yet to get rich. This house was on a hill and he had walked down the hill balancing in one hand his child, in the other his clothes, and he had given them, bundle and child, to a woman. She was not a relative of his or of my mother's; her name was Eunice Paul, and she had six children already, the last one was still a baby. That was why she still had some milk in her breast to give to me, but in my mouth it tasted sour and I would not drink it. She lived in a house that was far from other houses, and from it there was a broad view of the sea and the mountains, and when I was irritable and unable to console myself, she would prop me up on pieces of old cloth and place me in the shade of a tree, and at the sight of that sea and those mountains, so unpitying, I would exhaust myself in tears.

Ma Eunice was not unkind: she treated me just the way she treated her own children—but this is not to say she was kind to her own children. In a place like this, brutality is the only real inheritance and cruelty is sometimes the only thing freely given. I did not like her, and I missed the face I had never seen; I looked over my shoulder to see if someone was coming, as if I were expecting someone to come, and Ma Eunice would ask me what I was looking for, at first as a joke, but when, after a time, I did not stop doing it, she thought it meant I could see spirits. I could not see spirits at all, I was just looking for that face, the face I would never see, even if I lived forever.

I never grew to love this woman my father left me with, this woman who was not unkind to me but who could not be kind because she did not know how—and perhaps I could not love her because I, too, did not know how. She fed me food forced through a sieve when I would not drink her milk and did not yet have teeth; when I grew teeth, the first thing I did was to sink them into her hand as she fed me. A small sound escaped her mouth then, more from surprise than from pain, and she knew this for what it was—my first act of ingratitude—and it put her on her guard against me for the rest of the time we knew each other.

Until I was four I did not speak. This did not cause anyone to lose a minute of happiness; there was no one who would have worried about it in any case. I knew I could speak, but I did not want to. I saw my father every fortnight, when he came to get his clean clothes. I never thought of him as coming to visit me; I thought of him as coming to pick up his clean clothes. When he came, I was brought to him and he would ask me how I was, but it was a formality; he would never touch me or look into my eyes. What was there to see in my eyes? Eunice washed, ironed, and folded his clothes; they were wrapped up like a gift in two pieces of clean nankeen cloth and placed on a table, the only table in the house, waiting for him to come and pick them up. His visits were quite regular, and so when he did not appear as he usually did, I noticed it. I said, “Where is my father?”

I said it in English—not French patois or English patois, but plain English—and that should have been the surprise: not that I spoke, but that I spoke English, a language I had never heard anyone speak. Ma Eunice and her children spoke the language of Dominica, which is French patois, and my father when he spoke to me spoke that language also, not because he disrespected me, but because he thought I understood nothing else. But no one noticed; they only marveled at the fact that I had finally spoken and inquired about the absence of my father. That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain.

I was then four years old and saw the world as a series of soft lines joined together, a sketch in charcoal; and so when my father would come and take his clothes away I saw only that he suddenly appeared on the small path that led from the main road to the door of the house in which I lived and then, after completing his mission, disappeared as he turned onto the road where it met the path. I did not know what lay beyond the path, I did not know if after he passed from my sight he remained my father or dissolved into something altogether different and I would never see him again in the form of my father. I would have accepted this. I would have come to believe that this is the way of the world. I did not talk and I would not talk.

*   *   *

One day, without meaning to, I broke a plate, the only plate of its kind that Eunice had ever owned, a plate made of bone china, and the words “I am sorry” would not pass my lips. The sadness she expressed over this loss fascinated me; it was so thick with grief, so overwhelming, so deep, as if the death of a loved one had occurred. She grabbed the thick pouch that was her stomach, she pulled at her hair, she pounded her bosom; large tears rolled out of her eyes and down her cheeks, and they came in such profusion that if a new source of water had sprung up from them, as in a myth or a fairy tale, my small self would not have been surprised. I had been warned repeatedly by her not to touch this plate, for she had seen me look at it with an obsessive curiosity. I would look at it and wonder about the picture painted on its surface, a picture of a wide-open field filled with grass and flowers in the most tender shades of yellow, pink, blue, and green; the sky had a sun in it that shone but did not burn bright; the clouds were thin and scattered about like a decoration, not thick and banked up, not harbingers of doom. This picture was nothing but a field full of grass and flowers on a sunny day, but it had an atmosphere of secret abundance, happiness, and tranquillity; underneath it was written in gold letters the one word
Of course it was not a picture of heaven at all; it was a picture of the English countryside idealized, but I did not know that, I did not know that such a thing as the English countryside existed. And neither did Eunice; she thought that this picture was a picture of heaven, offering as it did a secret promise of a life without worry or care or want.

When I broke the china plate on which this picture was painted and caused Ma Eunice to cry so, I did not immediately feel sorry, I did not feel sorry shortly after, I felt sorry only long afterward, and by then it was too late to tell her so, she had died; perhaps she went to heaven and it fulfilled the promise on that plate. When I broke the plate and would not say that I was sorry, she cursed my dead mother, she cursed my father, she cursed me. The words she used were without meaning; I understood them but they did not hurt me, for I did not love her. And she did not love me. She made me kneel down on her stone heap, which as it should be was situated in a spot that got direct sun all day long, with my hands raised high above my head and with a large stone in each hand. She meant to keep me in this position until I said the words “I am sorry,” but I would not say them, I could not say them. It was beyond my own will; those words could not pass my lips. I stayed like that until she exhausted herself cursing me and all whom I came from.

Why should this punishment have made a lasting impression on me, redolent as it was in every way of the relationship between captor and captive, master and slave, with its motif of the big and the small, the powerful and the powerless, the strong and the weak, and against a background of earth, sea, and sky, and Eunice standing over me, metamorphosing into a succession of things furious and not human with each syllable that passed her lips—with her dress of a thin, badly woven cotton, the bodice of a color and pattern contrary to the skirt, her hair, uncombed, unwashed for many months, wrapped in a piece of old cloth that had been unwashed for longer than her hair? The dress again—it had once been new and clean, and dirt had made it old, but dirt had made it new again by giving it shadings it did not have before, and dirt would finally cause it to disintegrate altogether, though she was not a dirty woman, she washed her feet every night.

The day was clear, it was not the rainy time, some men were on the sea casting nets for fish, but they would not catch too many because it was a clear day; and three of her children were eating bread and they rolled up the inside of the bread into small pebble-like shapes and threw them at me as I knelt there, and laughed at me; and the sky was without a cloud and there was not a breeze; a fly flew back and forth across my face, sometimes landing on a corner of my mouth; an overripe breadfruit fell off its tree, and that sound was like a fist meeting the soft, fleshy part of a body. All this, all this I can remember—why should it have made a lasting impression on me?

As I was kneeling there I saw three land turtles crawling in and out of the small space under the house, and I fell in love with them, I wanted to have them near me, I wanted to speak only to them each day for the rest of my life. Long after my ordeal was over—resolved in a way that did not please Ma Eunice, for I did not say I was sorry—I took all three turtles and placed them in an enclosed area where they could not come and go as they pleased and so were completely dependent on me for their existence. I would bring to them the leaves of vegetables and water in small seashells. I thought them beautiful, their shells dark gray with faint yellow circles, their long necks, their unjudging eyes, the slow deliberateness of their crawl. But they would withdraw into their shells when I did not want them to, and when I called them, they would not come out. To teach them a lesson, I took some mud from the riverbed and covered up the small hole from which each neck would emerge, and I allowed it to dry up. I covered over the place where they lived with stones, and for many days afterward I forgot about them. When they came into my mind again, I went to take a look at them in the place where I had left them. They were by then all dead.

BOOK: The Autobiography of My Mother
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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