I’ve said it before; how much an influence my mother Zepherina, born at Hague as I was, had on me. Like most scenarios where influence is taking place, it was not a formal ‘sit down’ kind of thing. Looking back on it, there were occasions like that, yes, but most of the time it was not something I was consciously absorbing. I was obviously noticing her various behaviours, reactions, decisions, situations in our circle, and with other persons outside it, so that over time I received all of this instruction without me being conscious it was happening.
I was a grown man, living in Toronto and setting out on a musical career, before it gradually dawned on me that some of things I would get compliments for had been implanted in me in those years growing up in Hague and later Vreed-en-Hoop from Zepherina’s example. I recognised the process as beginning in those early days in West Demerara, and I also noticed (for the first time in Canada) that many of the things that became pivotal for me, for David, (my mother never called me “Dave”) had come from things I had heard casually emerging from her in the course of everyday conversations. Apart from one sit-down encounter when I was attending Sacred Heart School in Main Street, to buckle down on my school work, my mother never really ‘preached’ to me. Her guidance on this contentious point or that never came after some incident. She was wise enough to know that was the wrong time for such talk. She would raise an eyebrow but say nothing, and I would assume that I was okay, but many days later, and always when we were alone, often in a time when I had completely forgotten about it, and with no reference to the incident at all, she would give me one of her life lessons that pertained.
For instance: next door to us in Vreed-en-Hoop was the Bowen family. I was a young upstart at the time (the traditional spoiled only-boy) and the lady next door had sent over some food item (she and my mother would sometimes share their cooking) which I didn’t find too palatable and I said so. I had seen ‘the look’ from my mother, but no comment came, not a word. Several days later, as we were picking peas in the kitchen, she brought up an incident that had happened on the Vreed-en-Hoop ferry boat where a farmer going to town with provisions had got into an argument with his wife and he had chucked the woman hard, causing her to fall. It was a sudden, angry explosion, the woman was clearly terrified, and the man had to be restrained. She mentioned the incident to say something to me that became one of her life lessons. “You must always respect a woman, because she is the giver of life. Even if it’s a bad woman in town (that was her euphemism for ‘prostitute’). Sometimes women have to make do to provide for a family with no husband.” I noticed she never mentioned my Mrs Bowen criticism, but I got the point she was making with no big discussion.
The thing about these one-on-one chats with her is that she was quite strategic about them. They would come in one of those quiet spells so common in country life in those days, with few distractions. It would not be anything like a formal advice or gaff, they would come in a normal conversation about nothing in particular, and she would deliver these gems on me. Some of them came frequently, particularly the ones about manners and relations with others. She may not have said it precisely in the words I’m using here, but her point was always very clear. In no particular order of importance, here are some of my mother’s mantras I remember:
- “Don’t make unreasonable demands on people, and always show good manners. Don’t make yourself a nuisance.” She would often condense this into two words: “Behave yourself.
- “Always be honest in your dealings; even if it’s only a few cents. If it’s not yours, you don’t keep it. No exceptions.” I would see it in the various vendors (fish, vegetables, shrimp, etc) who would come by our yard at Hague and later Vreed-en-Hoop. She would be very particular about the transaction, carefully counting out the money, and asking the vendor, “Is that right?” She was aware of how important those earnings were to those people.
- “Keep your surroundings in order. Don’t just throw your shoes in a corner, or leave your bike where it can fall. Be careful with the things you own; they cost money.”
- “Be concerned about the people close to you. Where are they? When they need help, offer it. Don’t wait for them to ask.”
- “Show respect for your elders, even the ones outside your family; even strangers.
- “Don’t be late. Don’t keep people waiting on you. It’s bad manners.” (Manners was always a huge deal with her.)
Incidentally, in the few times I made an attempt to thank her for her various guidances, she would laugh it off, somewhat embarrassed, with a wave of the hand.
While I’m not sure about this, I suspect that many persons growing up in that time, and perhaps even some today, may recognise a parent, or relative, of their own very much like mother, giving similar rules for living. I didn’t wonder then how that inclination was born in her (she had lived a very sheltered life before she married Joseph Martins), but I suppose it was from her own parents.
I had tried several times to write a song about her, and nothing worked, but some years after she died, the song finally came. It’s called ‘Angel Wings’, but I can’t sing it in public – there is too much emotion there. As Guyanese would say, “She was a true true angel.”
Late in her life, I often took time to tell her how much she meant to me, but in my own senior years one of my regrets is that I didn’t tell her more. My only advice to persons reading this is don’t leave yourself having a similar regret. Open up to the ones who guide or inspire you.