So often our oral history is lost because we take for granted each other’s presence, willingness to share and mental alacrity. In my early days after relocating to the Bahamas, I enjoyed sharing the recollection of Helen Hall, my adopted Bahamian Grandmother who continues to give without reservations the details of her life that defines who she has become. Her intimate disclosures helped to make this foreign land home-away-from-home. Below is just one compilations of our many warm conversations.
Mother’s Left Leg
Tell me a story
Make it true
Some tale of me
But mostly ‘bout you
Of life and living
Of caring and giving
Tell me that story
The way only you do.
One of the many things mother did well was to tell stories; she had everything that made it just right. She had a memory like that of an elephant that stored with accuracy all the details of the simplest happenings. She also had the most exciting vocabulary that in turn made your imagination super active, and simultaneously used all your senses. When she was done, you had to struggle to remind yourself that in fact you were not actually present at the scene of the story many years before. Then her voice, gentle enough to massage your mind so you think of nothing else but the unfolding saga, but all the time undulating in tone, pitch and intensity to hold you captive until it was all over. There is no such thing as a brief visit with mother, being enchanted by her life tales was an inevitable treat.
Allow me to transport you to the world of Mother in just four of the many stories which live in her body and soul. Today she told me about her left foot. Though a little pudgy from recent heart complications and fluid retention, mother had many stories literally inscribed on her left leg.
The first story was inscribed on the sole of her foot when she was only six years old; a round dark scar marked the spot. Running around barefooted was not a sign of poverty but rather a fleeting childhood privilege. Children were fortunate to be one with the earth, toes unbridled by fancy shoes as they scampered across the spacious outdoors. Before today, danger never seemed to lie lurking on the familiar terrain but that was soon to change. The land was being cleared for planting new crops, shrubs and weeds were plucked up, the larger trees were chopped down and the wood burnt. Stumps that remained from the cut trees were burnt so as to prevent anyone tripping.
Helen, the name mother was given at birth, made her way around the yard as she had done on countless occasions but this time with heightened excitement at the sight of a wider expanse of cleared yard. There were chickens to be chased and adults to amuse. Then cutting the stillness of the midmorning air was a shriek of panic, which soon became an inconsolable wail. Baby Helen had stepped on a smoldering tree stump that burnt through the tender skin on the sole of her left foot. Of course she doesn’t remember much more details of that unfortunate incident but that scare seals the trace remnants of memory and so begun the tales on mother’s left leg.
The second story was marked by an interesting semi circular scar etched on the inner side just above the instep, again on the left foot. Helen was growing up, she was now half way between her ninth and tenth birthday. With the perceived restrictions of ladylike demeanor looming a few years in the distance she relished the freedom that came with rambunctious playing and climbing trees. Her favorite trees for climbing were sea grape trees with its relatively smooth bark and many low branches. With no thorns to encounter, swinging from branch to branch made her feel powerful and free; almost as if she was in charge of the world. On this fateful day, however her older sister, Doris, joined her for this climbing adventure. All went well for a while as the echoes of laughter that seemed to envelope the whole yard, marked the fun. Then without warning the peels of laughter was replaced firstly by, a loud thud followed by one groan, then another then a gasping scream for help. Of the many available sea grape trees, only one seemed to beckon the girls, of the numerous limbs that spread out from that sea grape tree only one held inescapable allure. Doris had chosen the very same tree and the very same limb that Helen had chosen, a limb that chose not to support both their weights; it snapped and they both came crashing down. There were no broken bones but wait, there was blood and more blood!
The deceptious carpet of leaves beneath the tree had concealed the top of a broken Coco Cola bottle, which sliced through Helens foot and remained stuck there. This was no ordinary cut and necessitated a visit to the Royal Air Force medical station. There was triple fear resident in little Helens heart, she was afraid of the uniformed gentlemen, she was afraid of the doctor with his strange tools and she was afraid of pain. Whatever transpired passed as a blur amid all that fear, but again, there left behind as if to autograph the end of yet another story was an indelible reminder, another mark on Mother’s left leg.
The Day The Dogs Dug In
Many years passed, with other interesting occurrences but not inscribed on mothers left leg. There were marks on her hands, on her head, on her right leg but the left leg seemed to have been on retirement for a little over twenty years. Helen was now a grown woman with responsibilities of her own. Her legs had by now rocked several babies to sleep, they had taken her down the isle to meet the debonair John William Hall, they had stood for hours as she worked to keep the family business going and they made many a mini skirts the talk of the town. Then one afternoon in June, as she rode her bicycle to attend to business a little distance from home, a new tale was written.
The noonday sun was warm enough to make you break a sweat but the light, crisp summer breeze kept the heat at bay. Riding, the most common mode of commute, offered the additional advantage of exercise and so many young ladies embraced the invitation for toned and sexy legs. Helen was lost in thought as she casually rode down the dirt path that joined her community to the next. With the wind playfully teasing her hair she smiled as an idle butterfly interrupted her daydream. The silence of the afternoon was suddenly broken by sharp barking. At first, it sounded like idle dogs in search of attention, but their incessant barking seemed not to fade as she rode on her way. In fact it seemed to be following her and not at a comfortable distant either. Now she not only heard the barks but she could hear panting between the barks; this seemed serious, they were gaining on her. Before she had time to look around, she could feel the hot air, from their exaggerated breathing, on her heels. Her palms grew wet and her knees felt fluid, her heart raced as she pedaled like never before. She did not have to look back now to see the ravenous canine; they had just about surrounded her.
Until today nobody knows whether, it was the dogs that actually charged into the bicycle causing it to overturn, or it was panic resulting in loss of balance. One thing is for sure, Helen not only fell to the ground, bruising her body all over but she received an indelible keepsake, again on her left leg. On the upper side of her left leg a few inches from the ankle, sits the whole story “The Day the Dogs Dug In”.
A Scar for Life
The final story to date is somewhat different from all the others. This was no accident, it was deliberate, it was not against her will it was voluntary, this was not outdoors but behind heavy steel doors this time it did not threaten to take her life but rather to restore it.
After years of hard work and compromised health, mother complained of not feeling her best; in fact she had suffered a stroke. Myriads of medical investigations revealed that Helen’s heart was failing, she would need to do an evasive heart surgery. No time, effort or resources were spared to get her the best medical attention possible. This was indeed a long and formidable trip, from the tranquil island of New Providence Bahamas to the chaotic yet technologically advanced country of North America. Her granddaughter Phyllis stayed by her side as far as was possible, she could not however go beyond those heavy steel doors which led into the operating theatre. It was there that her latest story was penned or do I say cut! Way up, from the soft of her left groin all the way down to the middle of her shin the scar remains to tell the tale, of the vein that was removed to preserve her life. She now laughs at the fact that the scare is more obvious where it is not readily seen (above her knee) and neatly disguised by a mole on her shin.
The real story
As I listened to mother recapture the causalities of her left leg, I did not hear the whimpering voice of a victim but rather the celebrations of a victor, she didn’t struggle with a sense of pity but basked in radiant pride, I didn’t hear the hallow echo of regret but rather the pulsating rhythm of a life lived without hesitation. I am inspired to embrace my own scrapes and scars as the defining marks of my unique experience, capturing in color the journey of my own life so that I too can recount in years to come the road I traveled.
To some it may be a passing statement but Helen Hall knows the meaning “to cost an arm and a leg” if only but a left leg! A lifetime of experiences, marked by flesh and blood, all on mother’s left leg.
Copyright Patrice Williams-Gordon 2007