I will start off by saying that compared to the other letters I’ve written, this letter has been the hardest so far. I’ve started a couple of times but then stopped to post other things, which is something I normally don’t do. I may even end up drastically editing the post after I’ve already published it. Also something I never do. Maybe writing this is so hard, because I don’t think that you would have liked this post or this series. Like not at all. And you definitely wouldn’t have liked your picture blasted on this thing called the internet, considering you refused to ever have your picture taken. ‘Pictures capture your soul‘, you would say, stating with that your superstitious belief that a photograph would literally capture your soul, and prevent it from having peace in the afterlife. If that’s how you felt than why did you have your son, your only child who you treated like your demigod, have his picture taken as a child? I never understood that. But I am forever grateful to the photographer who sneaked around to take this picture, while you were sitting at your regular spot at the windowsill, thinking he was photographing your grandchildren. If it wasn’t for him, I would have never been able to put a face to all the anecdotes.
And there are plenty of anecdotes. Those who were fortunate enough to have known you all agreed that you had a very sharp tongue. Your daughter-in-law didn’t seem too fond of you, but considering the circumstances, I can’t really blame her. I was told that she would lament to her children and say that if her mother would have still been alive, they would have had a really sweet grandmother. But my mother doesn’t remember you as necessarily being mean to them. However, what she did tell me, made you sound like the mother-in- law from hell. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I wouldn’t want to have been married to your son. First, you moved in with your son and his new bride shortly after they were married, I remember hearing a week after? And to this day it’s not really clear if that was something that was discussed and agreed upon before the wedding. After all, you had your own place! Your son moved out because he got married, and you just followed him a week after?! My mother told me that years after, many years after when she herself was already a teen, your nephew brought over some furniture and other knickknacks from the house that you hadn’t been staying at, but apparently had still been paying rent at? Like..what? Why? One of those family mysteries that will probably stay unsolved.
And sometimes you would wake your daughter-in-law up early in the morning, as in 5 or 6 am, because you wanted her to prepare God knows what for your son, before he headed off to work. Her sister said years later, that you and your son brought her in alive, and carried her out death. Did I already say you were the mother-in-law from hell? Well, let’s hope you can appreciate my bluntness, considering you were known to be very blunt as well.
When I study your picture, I can definitely see your maternal family’s features in your face. Every generation, be it either the same as yours, or several after yours, just look like each other. Someone up in the family line had some strong DNA! I hope those features, those eyes, came from your grandmother. Did you know that she was born in Africa, as part of the Domakuku ethnic group? Some people place that ethnic group somewhere in present day Angola, Cameroon and Congo, others who claim to also be of Surinamese Domakuku descent, say they are from Dahomey. I have googled, and have also asked around but so far I wasn’t able to confirm either theory. She was however the first ancestor I was able to trace back to Africa. It was written on her death-certificate, ‘born in Africa‘. At first, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I had an ancestor this relatively close to my generation who came directly from the continent. And I still am, but after looking at her age and doing the math, I also became somewhat sad. This, because I realized that she must have been a child when she was torn away from her community and forcibly shipped off.
She died before you were born, but even though you didn’t get to know her personally, you were still upholding custom that were forced upon her, and that she must have passed on to her family. You see, she was a cook for a family with Jewish ancestry, and you, one hundred years after her passing, were still adhering to a somewhat kosher kitchen by having separate pots to cook meat in, and separate pots to cook dairy in. I’ve always felt both impressed and sad by this: impressed that slavery didn’t stop your grandmother and then her daughter, your mother from passing on customs and tradition they deemed important, and many years after you were still upholding these. And sad because these customs and traditions were forced upon them because of this same slavery, and were not their own.
Do you know what else I was able to trace? Who your father was…! My mother told me you weren’t the kind to open up to them… Like not at all. Once, she overheard you speaking to yourself and mumbling that ‘…a langa koeliman*1 di ben kon na mi ma, mi denk dat ben de mi pa…/…that tall Indian man who used to visit my mother, I think he was my father’, suggesting that one, you weren’t sure who your father was, and two, it might have been a very sensitive topic for you. Well, I’m not sure if it’s the man you saw, but I’m about ninety nine percent sure that I know who your father was. You see, he was the one who registered the birth and was also living at the same address as your mother at the time. On the birth certificate was also noted that ‘the registrar was present at the time of birth‘. I’ve seen that remark on birth certificates before, and even though it was sometimes placed for people that I knew were not the father, I think in this case he was indeed your father. And than there are also the following clues. It seems like you were named after his mother and sister! Your first name is the same as his mother’s and you share the same middle name as his sister. That can’t be a coincidence. And he also registered your sister’s birth. And he was also a witness at your uncle’s wedding. So yes, I’m about ninety nine percent sure he was your father.
My mother told me that the only nursery rhyme you taught them was ‘Mini- mini kon nyan…!’, the folk-song about the enslaved mother calling all her children, except for Koprokanu, the copper haired child conceived through rape by her ‘master’ , to come and eat. I’m always amazed at how completely age inappropriate Surinamese nursery rhymes really are, but that’s what we would sing in school! Just eight, nine, ten year olds, singing in class and in choirs about systemic rape, and other atrocities of slavery. It’s crazy, even sinister when you think about it. I should do a post about all these inappropriate Surinamese nursery rhymes. But I digress. Why did you teach them this particular song? Did you like the melody? Or did the song remind you of the circumstances surrounding the conception of your only child? Because no one can convince me that it all happened completely of your own volition. You, a laundress, getting pregnant by then one of the richest men in the country, who also happened to be the owner and landlord of the tiny rowhouse you lived in with your mother and other family members, across from his mansion, adding to his many, many other children? No. It may not have been categorized as rape back in the 1920-tees, but I will never believe that you laid down with that man voluntarily. Nope.
The difference between you and the mother in the nursery rhyme, is that you didn’t treat your child like the red-headed stepchild. No, quite the contrary. We still have a receipt for the golden cufflinks you bought for your then one year old baby, for a price that would have been at least three months salary back then. And your grandchildren all agree that you treated your son like he was God’s favorite little brother. You were relatively old when you had him, your only child. Sometimes I think that you may have suffered miscarriages before you had him, and even though the circumstances surrounding his conception weren’t ideal, you were just extremely grateful to have him? I guess we’ll never know. You did make sure that he carried your last name even though the father wanted to acknowledge him. And considering that this was a man who not only acknowledged all his other children, but made sure that most also received (a name derived from) his first name, I can admire the fact that you stood your ground and made sure that this didn’t happen for your child. You son later said that he was happy that he didn’t carry his father’s “rich man’s” name, because otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to get the blue collar job he worked at for many years.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened with you sanity if you had lived a little longer, and had witnessed all these technological advances. I mean, even grasping the concept of television was a lot for you! I laugh every time I think about the time you were watching that beer commercial, where a man went swinging from a rope from one bank of the river to another, just to get a beer or something. You remarked: ‘Yu nanga a komedi di y’e prey ala neti…wakti, m’i o s’don lek’ dya, da tey koti!/ You and that stunt your pulling every night,… I’m going to sit right here, when that rope breaks!’. That’s hilarious! And you also didn’t believe that we had landed on the moon. You just refused to believe it, and thought that everybody was pranking you. Well, you may have been on to something, because conspiracy theorist these days also think that it all didn’t happen. The video imagery of it all was definitely doctored, so who knows?! Maybe you were right all a long.
My mother also told me about your, should I say “ability” to send messages from beyond the grave. There’s no other way to put it. A week after you died the ironer came rushing to your family in a taxi, which in those days wasn’t a common way of transportation and definitely not used just to pay a regular visit. She barched in saying that she had dreamed about you and that you had complained to her that: ‘Den p’kin e trowe ala mi sani!/ The children are trowing away all my stuff!‘. How else would she have known, that your grandchildren were indeed trowing away some of your belongings, which they had deemed useless crap? Well, you got your wish, because your grandchildren immediately stopped doing that! My mother also said that both she and her siblings could still hear you continuing your routine weeks after you had passed. They could hear the rustle of the newspapers you would burn in the backyard, followed by the creaks of your ascend up the stairs. There are two stories that truly make me believe that there is something more beyond death, and my mother still being able to hear you after you died, is one of them.
Or maybe it’s not just superstition and you were right? You’re not at peace and your soul is forever captured in this picture? Well, let’s hope for all our sake, that this is not the case. I hope you are at peace.
With kind regards,
Your great granddaughter
*1 koeliman= now considered derogatory name for Indian man.
For more in this letter series, see: