(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)
IT was the 1950s, and in Trinidad, the British West Indies, Winston Rama's mother believed in soucouyant, spirits who left their skins and flew about in the night sky clad only in raw pink flesh. She kept a pan of salt under her bed to throw on them if they came to steal her breath away.
Winston's mother had many remedies, many rituals.
If you had an enemy, you put his name on a piece of paper and placed it in your shoe, so that you walked on him all day.
To get children, in addition to prayers to Mary, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Francis, she had done special penance on her knees, and, for good measure, had her mother, Nenin, prepare rich foods for her to eat -- breadfruit and cassava, pepper-pot stew with oxtail, calf's foot, pork, and chicken, all flavored with boiled and sweetened cassava.
To stop having babies, after Margaret and Winston, Mrs. Rama drank a bitter brew concocted by the obeah man, the ancient magic man who lived in the hills.
A piece of bread behind the image of the Sacred Heart above her bed ensured food in the house at all times.
If you dreamed of losing teeth, that was very bad.
Spiders were good. If you fell and cut yourself, you could put a spider web over the cut to heal it.
Everything had to be done just so. Monday was washday, and when Winston came home from school, the clothes would be spread on stones in the yard to dry. Tuesday his mother did her mending and darning, with a solid wooden ball that had been in her family for generations for the toes of the socks, and she made Margaret's dresses, using the treadle Singer sewing machine in the front room, feet plying forward, back, forward, back, her whole body moving with the effort. Wednesday, Mrs. Rama rode the country bus to visit her mother and sisters and their families, bringing them city things -- silver-paper pinwheels for the children, big bars of soap for laundry washing, scented talcum powder in tin cans, which sprinkled out from little holes at the top like a metal shower nozzle. And for the men razor blades wrapped in thin paper, orange and white, a tiny picture of two swords crossed, and also Player's cigarettes, already made and lined up in a perfect little box, which later held pins, needles, matches, or ground coriander or ginger. Thursday, Mrs. Rama cleaned the parish church with other women, and Friday was the day the house was done top to bottom, although dust would have sifted up between the floorboards and in through the front door and windows by evening of the very same day.
Breakfast was tea and fried biscuits, sometimes a piece of cheese. Lunch was the same, the biscuits wrapped in brown paper, and Winston had tea sweetened with a drop of canned condensed milk when he came home. At dinner, if he was lucky, his mother prepared pelau -- rice and pigeon peas, rice and salt pork, or rice with curried eggplant. At Christmas the treat was dark fruitcake saturated with rum, pastelles wrapped in banana leaf, ginger beer, and roti with curried chicken.
After finishing his homework, Winston would walk up to the Queen's Park Savannah, laze with the other boys under a cannonball tree, and drink coconut water from the coconut truck -- the driver took one whack with his machete to crack a coconut open. Little fire stands circling the savannah signaled roasting corn. Margaret, because she was a girl, was not allowed to go out of the house at night, and instead would listen to the BBC on her father's big Telefunken radio if he was not home, snapping it off quickly when she heard his step. She also liked to play tea party with her two dolls, pink rubber babies with eyes that opened and shut and painted-on hair like a brown cap. She was very good in school, and her mother spoke of her going to convent, becoming a nun. At that Margaret would roll her eyes upward, give Winston a conspiratorial look, and silently mouth the word never.
During soccer season Winston played with a ball he had made of rags wrapped around a stone; in cricket season he used a stick and a can. In kite season he made kites from strips of young bamboo, thin tissue paper begged from the Syrian store owner on the corner, paste of flour and water, and string saved from his mother's packages. He celebrated Carnival with calypso and costume, Christmas with Spanish parang, Boxing Day, the Queen's Birthday.
Of course, every day, until he lost his job, Mr. Rama went to work in the accounting department of Texaco Oil. A Calcutta Indian, descended from grandparents who had come to Trinidad after slavery to work the land, Mr. Rama was the only father on the street who wore a white shirt and a tie. He could add up numbers in his head as fast as Mrs. Rama could say her rosary. And he would give the children a shilling every week for candy, putting his hands behind his back, asking them to guess -- which one? When they were little babies, Mrs. Rama told her children, their father would be so eager to see his family that he ran the last block home.