Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Sunday, May 9, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - Mother's Day

Child & Family
Letters to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Love is like young rice: transplanted, still it grows. (Africa)

Aunt Ettie and me in the 1980s

Dear Zayda,

Aunt Ettie, your great-grandaunt was a legend inside and outside of our family. I am proud to be her child and to celebrate her on Mother’s Day.

I was eight years old when I was reborn as her daughter. Just as you must feel tossed out of the comfort of your mom’s womb, I also felt torn from all that was familiar to me when I first joined my new mom. But any new birth has moments of pain, and sometimes the labour pangs linger on.

When I left my birth parents home that December morning, I fully expected to return. I was accustomed to visiting my grandparents and other members of my extended family. For example, before I started school, I would spend long periods with my grandmothers in Bellas Gate and Healthy Hill. But after I started school, these visits were always just for the holidays. So I expected to be back home in time for Christmas, and definitely in time to return to classes at my primary school in Linstead. In those days the school year started in January, so I was looking forward to having a new teacher, and to boasting to my classmates about the time I spent in Kingston. Some of them had visited Kingston, but none would have stayed with an aunt as rich as mine.

The Black people I knew as a child were mostly farmers, teachers, policemen, or post office workers. Some were pastors, but rarely of mainstream churches where the leaders still needed to be white. Business persons were always white or brown-skinned men, the kinds of persons who could qualify for bank loans.

Aunt Ettie was a Black woman who set up her own business in the 1940s. For 15 years before that, she worked as a chemist at P.A Benjamin’s, a manufacturing business that still exists today. I have no idea how she financed her own business – perhaps from her savings and from whatever funds her siblings could spare to lend her.

When I went to live with her, she manufactured wine, syrup, bay rum, and vanilla flavouring on the back verandah of her home. She had two employees – Mrs Mendez and Victoria (whom I named Queenie) - who had moved with her from P.A. Benjamin’s.

The night before I left my birth parents’ home I was sharing a bed and a bedroom in the rented half of a house in a country town. Less than twelve hours later I had my own bed and my own bedroom in a house my aunt owned. The wide roads, trimmed lawns sculpted hedges, homes set well away from the street, gardens with roses and poinsettia, all spoke of wealth such as I had never before seen in my life.

I discovered that a meal was not just a way of putting food in the stomach; it was a ritual. Until that first night in my aunt’s house, I thought knives and forks and plates were just means to an end. Now I had to make my way around spoons for soup and for dessert, forks for main meal and for dessert, knives for cutting and knives for spreading, plates for food and plates for bread or bones. This was my first experience of a live-in maid (or a maid of any kind) who arrived at the table at the tinkle of a bell, serving from the left and clearing from the right. In addition, I had to decide how and when to unfurl and use the white napkin that was tucked inside the napkin ring. I also had decide how and when to tip my soup plate. Still, I looked forward to telling my friends at school about my city adventure when my new school year started in Linstead.

But, Zayda, I didn’t return to Linstead. No one ever fully explained why I needed to be re-born as Aunt Ettie’s daughter, and for years I tried to unravel that mystery. Today I know that all questions do not need to be answered in the head, because the answers were written long ago in the heart.

From my heart, Aunt Ettie, I accept your mother love.

Honour to all the mothers, by birth or not.

Your shangazi


Hilaire Sobers said...

Happy Mothers' Day, Ma! And Happy Mothers' Day to the spirit of Aunt Ettie my aunt-grandmother.

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Thanks a lot, Hilaire. And all honour to the spirit of Aunt Ettie.


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at