The voice on the other end of the line was female but it was neither family nor familiar. And without so much as a perfunctory greeting, she got right to the heart of the matter.
“Mr Best, yuh eh have no mudder?”
“I beg your pardon?” I said, taken aback.
“Doh be sorry,” she said. “I jest find yuh eh say nutten bout yuh mudder. Or yuh wife. Or yuh sisters… Yuh have something against woman or what?”
For a brief moment, I thought of sharing with her my views on monogamy, which are relevant, and what, if I could have my druthers, I would have against women. But I quickly decided against that unseemly response.
“Send me a selfie,” I began, “and…”
As brief as it was, the pause had been too long; she was in no mood to listen. She was off again.
“Well, yuh write what, four articles, with what, mussee bout four thousand words? It have the CJ (sic) and what, four odder woman in it? Serena and Venus, Shaparova (sic) and the Nadia gyurl from gymnastics? Daiz it?”
Actually, there are five named women—Tennis Australia’s Jane Hardlycka’s in there as well—but the point is well taken; my four-part episode had been a would-be comprehensive tale of a life well-lived but women had been les grandes absentes. They have not, however, been absent from this life. At right at the centre of it was Mrs Best.
The Best mother was a miracle worker who successfully raised a dozen children—and then some!—on very modest earnings. Elsewhere, I have compared it to the feat of feeding the multitude with a few loaves of bread and even fewer fishes. But what I remember best about that peerless parent was her prescription for successfully raising confident children.
“Let them win often on the little things,” she recommended, “and sometimes on the big things.”
And in a chance conversation with the late Keith Smith, I discovered something else, the importance of which is, I think, hugely underestimated nowadays. In all the years that I lived as a child in my mother’s house along with a half-dozen siblings, all girls, and a handful of nieces and nephews, I can think of not one single day when I did not know where she was.
She never left home without telling us where she was going—and that included occasions when she was expecting to be out of the house while we were at school, even if she expected to be back home before we arrived.
In the run-up to the turn of the century, there were tens of thousands of children, all born after 1974, who had an entirely different experience of psychological security. With oil money flowing and fathers increasingly absent from the household, separation anxiety assumed epidemic proportions.
Social and economic pressures began to drive mothers en masse out into the wide world of work, forcing them to abandon their children to the supervision of if not strangers, at least non-mothers and, perhaps more perniciously, television.
“Do you know where your children are?” became the standard inquiry. Perhaps, however, we should have been asking the children, “Do you know where your mother is?”
Not quite good enough to make the cut for the national cricket team, I was selected to represent Trinidad ‘B’ for what was then the annual match against Tobago. The details aren’t necessary but when God closes one door, he always opens at least a window of opportunity.
So suffice it to say that, instead of hiring professionals to serve lunch and tea, the hosts conscripted the teenage daughters of the members of their Executive. Poking my head through God’s little window, I ended up with a second Best mother. And wife.
“My wife” and “my sister,” my close friends often remind me, are not names. Before the former moved into my life, my “little sister” was my best friend for at least the first dozen years of her life and remains among my best friends to this day. No apologies, therefore, for the name substitutes.
“My wife” was not yet my wife when I found myself defending her—and till-death-do-us-part marriage—in French class at The UWI. In Le père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac, that fine French exponent of the “slice of life” novel, wrote about “un vieux couple qui n’ont plus rien à se dire (an old couple who have nothing more to say to each other).”
When M Barthes observed that this was “un tableau des plus tristes, (a sad, sad picture),” I immediately countered that he might be misrepresenting Balzac’s message.
How can you be sure, I asked him, that he’s not saying that this is an old couple who no longer have to say anything to each other?
“Are you married?” he responded. I said I wasn’t—not yet!
“Well,” he responded, “I am.” Case closed.
My daughters belong to the post-1974 generation and grew up—ask Ella Andall—with television and walkmans and ipods and earphones and exploding media, conventional and social. And 1990, when the younger one, just over four at the time, learned what it feels like to have a soldier’s loaded SLR mere inches from her face.
Their mother had to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk so much to them, that there’s really nothing else to say here—except that both ended up as lawyers. No surprise there, right?
Moreover, there is a sense in which they are automatically disqualified since all the females featured here have names beginning with C Knoelle, the middle one of my three granddaughters, is similarly disqualified.
At 12, Carlotita—her birth certificate says Charlotte—is the oldest of the three. She lives in Virginia, spends her summers in T&T with her maternal grandparents and aspires to be, if not the next Nadia Comaneci, at least the next Gabby Douglas. She’s turning somersaults all over the house all day, practising her floor routine and walking on imaginary balance beams whenever and wherever she can find a convenient spot. And real balance beams two or three times per week
If maternal or matrilineal support counted for anything, she would have been on the topmost rung of the gymnastics podium in Rio. But good things come to those who wait so reserve your seat in front of the TV for Tokyo. And remember the name.
A second name to remember is Chloe, who’s not quite five. One day, she comes running to me in tears. Her brother, just turned six, has claimed the crayon that she would have liked to use.
“So what do you want me to do about that?” I ask.
“Well, I want you to under-arrest him.”
Out of the mouth of babes… I immediately understood why the detection rate in T&T remains so low; it’s clearly because the Police Service has for a long time been under-arresting our criminals!
Chloe, I think, shares her grandfather’s interest in the media. One day, she asks me to put the record player on so and play her favourite nursery rhymes. I push the ON/OFF button and i95.5 comes on. I keep my finger in place but do not immediately switch to PHONO.
“Seriously, grandpa?” she inquires, giving me the stare. “You’re not really going to listen to that man, are you?”
Yes, you’ve guessed it. It is Thursday evening and the Unfair One is on the radio.
LISTEN AND LEARN: Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams. Would he learn a thing or two about the TTPS’ problems if he were humble enough to lend an ear to the voice of today’s young people?
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)
“But that’s the same man,” she protests, her contempt undisguised, “who says ‘Tursday’ and ‘tree’ and ‘trute;’ I told you that the last time.”
So, like Chloe, the Best future looks bright. And even if we Best fathers are wont to beat our chests and claim the credit for such success as our children have had, the truth is inescapable: we would all have amounted to considerably less if the Best mothers had not been savvy enough to let us win often on the little things and sometimes on the big.