Sunday, February 12, 2012

I Am A Motherless Child

Basil Waine Kong

I am feeling sad and lost. I awoke this morning to the news of my mother’s passing. My feelings are great sadness of this significant loss but mixed with the celebration of a long meaningful life. My mother would have been ninety on her next birthday in December and we had promised her a big party as something to anticipate. In my last visit with her last week before I left for Jamaica, my Uncle Ronnie marveled at how she perked up and engaged me in a wonderful conversation. As was my custom, I would enter her home with a thunderous: “Whe mi Mumma Dey?” “Mi Daya”

Even though I have been physically separated from my mother for long periods, I have never been a motherless child. My mother has been my anchor, my lifeline and the force that shaped my life. When she was nineteen years old, she delivered me at Kingston Jubilee Hospital, where I fell to the floor as none of the nurses or doctors responded to my mother's repeated cries for help. While I survived the fall, it was nonetheless a rude awakening! She named me for Basil Rathbone, an English movie actor and I was off to see the world.

My brother Earl joined us a year later and we lived together in a house at 15 Jacques Road in the Mountain View section of Kingston until I was four years old. When she migrated to the United States, she left us in the care of her mother (the greatest Grand Mother the world has ever known) in Woodlands District (St. Elizabeth) and we saw our mother infrequently over the next ten years. During this time, however, we wrote to each other often. Her letters assured us of her love and inquired about our health and well being. We, in turn, would just beg her to send us something or other. In her absence, I adopted and regarded all my Aunts as my mothers and all my uncles as fathers.

We were, however, never out of her thoughts. She sent a $50 money order each and every month and a parcel with clothes and toys about six times per year. The members of the community would see us carrying these packages from the Springfield Post Office and jealously comment that more "bregede" had arrived. One of the exciting items in one of the parcels was a gramophone. It was a marvel that attracted a great deal of attention as people wondered how the musicians got into the box to make the sound. One day, my brother’s curiosity got the better of him and he broke it looking for the people inside. That was the end of our musical interludes.

I remember my granny marking our feet on paper, cutting and sending the imprint to my mother so that she could send shoes. When the shoes came, if they were too big, I would stuff them with paper until I grew into them. If they were too small, we would fill them with dry corn and dipped them in water. As the corn expanded, so did the shoes. Not many people had shoes and those who did often carried them until they got to church before putting them on. The remittances my mother sent for our care also went a long way to support the community as well.

I left the people I loved most and the village that raised me to go to 'merica on April 3, 1959. The day we arrived in New York via Avianca Airways, it was cold and snowing. Meeting my new father and brothers for the first time signaled that there were going to be a lot of adjustments in our thinking and experience. Our other brothers (Robbie and Kevin Johnson) had to get used to sharing Mom, their rooms, toys and clothes. At least for the first three months, Mom was extremely attentive and showered us with her time, her cooking, her guidance, and tutoring. In addition to all the ice-cream, Jell-O and cakes we could eat, movies and bowling, she tended to the concerted cultivation of our skills and talents.

I ate in a restaurant for the first time when she took us to see, hear and feel the pulse of New York City including seeing it from the Empire State Building. This was both exciting and intimidating. Our necks ached as we could not stop looking up at the tall buildings. I was impressed by the lights on Broadway, the man smoking camel cigarettes, the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel and the number of automobiles reminded me of an ant's nest. I had come a long way from Woodlands.

When we started attending Morristown High School, we only spoke deep country patois that no one understood and we obviously could not decipher what Americans said either. We became exhausted having to repeat ourselves to no avail as people continually asked: “What did you say?” and we responded: "a wa yu a say?" One of my teachers asked me if I believed everything I read and I said yes. Why would they write something that wasn't true? I reflected on my experience at the Denbeigh Show when I watched a weight lifter with the body of Adonis reached a weight that he could not handle but after he went to a Guinness booth and heartily drank a stout, he returned to easily hoist the stubborn weight over his head to great applause. I have been trying to get that magic strength ever since by consuming lots of Guinness. I remember that an argument could be easily won by just showing your opponent that it was written in the Gleaner or the Bible. In fact, I believed the Gleaner was the Bible.

My mother recognized our severe educational deficits and hired a language teacher, a piano teacher, a math teacher and a writing teacher---we were kept busy. She even sent us to a Psychiatrist to help us with our adjustment when wata come a wi eye and we both demanded to be sent back to the idyllic life we remembered in Jamaica. What we missed most were a community of people who cared. Other than our immediate family, we felt like no one else in America cared.

In the mornings, we got dressed, went to school, participated in sports after school and then to a tutor before coming home, eating, doing the dishes and our homework and going to sleep exhausted. Mom's strategy was to keep us busy and out of trouble. She was a constant presence at our athletic contests especially wrestling. She sometimes brought fried scallops in paper bags for the entire team. The wrestlers described what they were eating as pieces of meat that tasted like fish. Mom told me that the scallop is a shellfish that looked like the Shell Gasoline symbol. Having to starve ourselves before these wrestling meets, we welcomed this treat. Even now, when I run into one of my old team mates, they always recall the scallops and my mother's kindness.

We went to the YMCA often and learned to swim, do gymnastics, play basketball and play with other children. I once fell on my head doing the rings in Gymnastics class---no problem. I have been developing a hard head from the moment I was born and from the school of hard knocks. While I was otherwise a talented athlete, I never got the knack of basketball or football. However, there was never a time when I was not involved in varsity sports. I lettered and excelled in track (set a 400 meter school record in 50.3 seconds), soccer, cross country and especially wrestling. The Kong brothers were both district champion wrestlers. I wrestled at the 122 weight class and my brother Earl weighed 114 pounds at the time. I have gained one pound each year since then.

When my sixteenth birthday approached, she learned that I never had a birthday party. So, she decided that she would give me a special party. The problem was that I had just arrived and did not know anyone other than family and the few neighbors on our block. So, I invited everybody I encountered at my high school. On the night of the party, hundreds of kids showed up and she had to bar the door and only allowed 20 people to come at a time while very upset kids who were asking for the free food I promised and lingered in the street in front of our house. On that memorable birthday I received my first ever birthday presents: a briefcase, a Webcore tape recorder and a Phillips transistor radio.

Mom was active in the civil rights movement. In addition to supporting the movement, she worked with a group to integrate rental properties. She even invited me to speak up in these living room gatherings. The Black women would try to rent homes and was told that it was rented but when the white women applied, they were accepted and offered the same appartment. Their activities lead to equal housing legislation in New Jersey.

My mother personally taught us to drive her 1957 Chevrolet and took us to caddy at Springbrook Country Club on week-ends. We had to save everything we earned. I learned to play golf at sixteen when a member gave me an old set of clubs and we were allowed to play on caddy day (Mondays). I now play regularly to a 14 handicap. I am frustrated that after playing golf for fifty years, this is as good as I get. I am told in Jamaica that "golf doesn't live in any body's yard".

My step-father, Arthur Johnson, worked for Ford Motor Company, had a generous heart and always drove the latest model Cadillac. He took us fishing, to the race track, taught us to pitch horse shoes and a baseball. He played poker with us and we often enjoyed a beer together. To my mother's disgust, he would never ask for directions and we were always lost in our travels but he was good at fixing cars and appliances. He regaled us daily with his World War 11 stories and reminded us about how we could achieve great things in America if we put our minds and hearts into whatever we wanted to do. He wanted me to play professional baseball as he once played in the Negro baseball league.

Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement was in full swing when my mother was born on December 16, 1922 to William and Rosella McKenzie. In the eyes of all who knew her in her later years, she was no longer the little meaga gal from Woodlands. “She big shot”, “Big Stuff”, “Big cheese”, “Big Mama”, “Big Heart”. At 89 years old, she was in reasonably good health, owned her own house and managed her own affairs. Independence was important to her. So, while she made me her guardian, I never interfered with her decisions as her mind is like a steel trap that could recall everything.

She had strong opinions and was regarded as the mother of our extended family. Newlyweds or the recently arrived from Jamaica or England furnished their homes from the abundance of furniture, appliances and utensils from her house. And she enjoyed the love showered on her by family and friends and she in turn, adored her brothers (John, Randall, Keith, Ronnie and Elton) and worshiped her sisters (Myrtle, Elva, Madge, Edna, Sylvia and Myra). I called the sisters the “Black Widows” as all of their husbands died many years ago. She is devoted to her children (Basil, Earl, Robbie and Kevin); especially love her grandchildren (Roberto, Ricardo, Christopher, Jill, Melanie, Freddie, Aleron, Devin, Aaron, Keisha and Tiffany); And love, love, love, love her sweet, beautiful great grand pickny dem (Jessica, Tina, Mackenzie, Audrey Violet, Kevin, Maurice, Books, Vincent, Kai, Hailie and more coming). She lived a successful life. There is nothing that her daughters-in law, Stephanie, Carol and Toshimi wouldn't do for her and she was pampered by her nieces and nephews Patty, Carla, Yvonne, Hugh, Neville and Babs.

In 1938, after leaving Springfield School, she was sent to Kingston to live with her Sister Myrtle and find work so she could help support her siblings after her father (William McKenzie) died suddenly. She soon buck upon Chan Kong with whom she had two children. When Chan unexpectedly returned to China, she had to "turn hand and make fashion". She took her two boys to live with her mother and went off to the United States. When a gentleman in Kingston found out that she was going to America, he gave her a bottle of Appleton over-proof rum to give to his friend who lived in New Jersey. Soon after arriving in New York, she diligently made her way to New Jersey and delivered the rum.

Upon their meeting, Mr. Arthur Johnson immediately became intoxicated by her beauty. They fell in love and in a world wind of activity, were married ten days later on May 26, 1948. The union produced two more boys (Robbie and Kevin). Arthur and Vie lived happily together for 50 years. Unfortunately, because Arthur was a heavy smoker, (a habit he picked up from receiving free cigarettes as a soldier in Uncle Sam’s Army during World War II), he died from lung cancer in 1997. When he was asked if he knew how to play Bid Whist, he is fondly remembered as saying: “Who do you think put the bid in Whist?”

When I was graduating from Dickinson Law School, My mother's comment was: “Son, you know how proud I am for all you have done with your life, but aren’t you concerned that lawyers can’t go to Heaven?”

My brother Earl studied architecture in New York for two years after high school but ended up joining the United States Air force and served in Taiwan for two years. He married Carol Gatchell from the Willamette Valley region of Oregon. He graduated from Oregon State with a degree in Forestry and after a successful career as a Forester with the State of Washington, retired in 2008. He authored a book and now works as a consultant. Earl is a philosopher, poet, a superb nature artist, knows the names and uses of all the trees, flowers, berries and stones one would encounter in the forest. He fights forest fires and can fix everything. While I didn’t pay too much attention, Earl had apprenticed with Arthur Johnson and is now a great brother, son, husband, father and grandfather. As a consultant to the Eskimos on the management of their forests, he allowed my wife (Stephanie) and me to accompany them to Alaska to see the running of the salmon, the eagles, the whales, the black bears, the sea lions, eat smoked salmon and caviar, as well as to fish for 100 pound halibut and meet the people. It was an incredible.

In addition to the gift of gab, Robbie was magnificent on the trumpet, played in a swing band and was nicknamed “Sugar Lips Johnson.” He went on to start and manage several successful small businesses including used cars. Unfortunately, due to smoking, uncontrolled high blood pressure and stress, he suffered a stroke at fifty years of age and still making adjustments. He has three sons who are all absolutely dedicated to him.

In addition to his great intellect and oriental cooking skills, Kevin was the tall, handsome athlete who was a football and basketball star in High School. He married his childhood sweetheart (Shuggie) immediately after graduating from high school and joined the Air Force. After his discharge, he moved to Seattle and worked for the State of Washington developing business opportunities in the Far East for Washington based business interests. He can speak and write Japanese fluently and received the equivalent of an MBA studying in Japan. He has a black belt in Karate. His talents are deep as he can beat us all in everything, pool, tennis, ping pong and basketball. He has two children and two grand children and currently works for the State of Oregon in Portland. His current wife is Toshimi.

When Mom's nephew from Mile Gully, Manchester (Errol McKenzie), wanted to study in the United States, she took him to her friend, Congressman Frelinghuysen, who got Errol a student Visa. She also encouraged me, as I was an Assistant Professor at the University of the District of Columbia to help. Errol went on to earn a master’s degree in Business Administration and subsequently became Senior Vice President at “Sagicor”---a strapping success!

I am a great advocate for organ transplantation and talked my mother into signing her driver’s license authorizing doctors to harvest her organs if and when she died. While she eventually agreed, her initial response was that it is clearly un-Christian to be buried without all your organs. "What if", she said, "Lazarus had donated his organs when he died and the Lord came and commanded: 'Lazarus, raise come!' Lazarus would have fi say: 'mi can't come you know sah. What mi fi do? They take everything.' And the Lord would have fi say: 'Dog nam yu supper Lazarus. Sorry fi you'"

Whether it was the house on Carlton Street, Spring Street, Phoenix Avenue, Mt. Freedom in New Jersey or Lawrenceville, Georgia, my mother always has a welcome mat out. When someone called to inquire about her health, her typical response was: “Me still above the ground and taking nourishment.” If you wanted to hear a good joke or catch up on what was going on with the extended family, she was the person to call. If you wanted really great food, she made the best crab dip, pea soup, curry chicken, rice and peas and escovitched fish. She also gave good hugs. I will miss that very much. Because I was always encouraging her to exercise, she once invited me to walk with her around the block. She then produced a one inch child’s block and placed it on the floor and them said: “Let’s go!” She was very pleased with her wit. When the phone rang at night she often used a Man’s voice to discourage unwanted guests.

My mother has truly been blessed by God because her “Big Heart” that overflowed with love for her children, family and friends. She has been trying to bring a little bit of Heaven to earth because those of us who are lawyers may never get there. Through her aches and pains, she found time to attend church, laugh and to enjoy special moments with friends and family. At her funeral,one by one, those who came to celebrate her life told of our mother's kind heart, dedication to family and, of course, her sharp mind. Many of these recollections drew howls of laughter from the crowd.

Thank you Mom. God is pleased with you. So, have a blessed rest. You can sit down happy.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tragedy - 2 students drown on school trip

Tragedy - 2 students drown on school trip

I am upset and angry to learn this morning that two more yuths and a bus driver drowned yesterday. Everytime I hear or read about children drowning in Jamaica (and it is a frequent occurence) I beg the Minister of Education to please, please, please make swimming part of the curriculum. In a country of wood and water, ninety percent of our citizens cannot swim. It is a tragedy waiting to repeat itself. All my children and grand children could swim by the time they were three years old. Almost everyone can learn to swim in 30 minutes! This should be part of our literacy program.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Our Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2011

Another year has passed and I am blessed to say that Stephanie and I are well and enjoying my retirement, our children and grandchildren! Stephanie and I were delighted to host Thanksgiving and were joined by Melanie, Don, Audrey and Vincent from Portland Oregon; Freddie, Tracie, Kai and Hailie from Orlando as well as Aleron, Great Grandmother Violet, Uncle Ronnie and several of Aleron's friends.

This year has been full of travels, golf, reading and writing, help the Association of Black Cardiologists with our annual banquet, and to work with the People’s National Party (PNP) contributing what I can to develop a New Vision for a New World Reality for Jamaica. I am putting the final touches on my first novel, “The Bad Boy From Country” which conveys a lot of my recollections and life lessons. My bIog, continues to be a source of sharing my thoughts, I have now read “The Complete Works of Mark Twain” (100,000 Kindle pages). In addition to being a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha, I became a Master Mason and enjoy unraveling the mysteries.

Stephanie continues to grow her consulting business as well as her skills as a practicing pediatrician. 2012 will be the year we will start her private practice. She plans to invest 5 years helping sick children get better. She delights in all her grandchildren and is still able to travel to Jamaica with me. She continues to chronicle her spiritual journey at her blog and my love and appreciation grows for her daily. We are enjoying this time of our lives very much and I thank God that we delight in each other’s presence. As long as we have our Kindles, we are good to go!

Jill has a thriving immigration practice in Phoenix and she and Brian continue to stimulate the lives of her two gifted children. Mackenzie has enrolled in a Science High School and has found her niche. She rubs elbows with children that have curious minds on a daily basis and has a cadre of friends with similar interests. She adopted a vegetarian lifestyle and found her voice for social causes and Amnesty International. She has committed herself to learn every word in the English language. Her brother Brooks continues to excel as a Little Leaguer and has taken up Taekwondo. He has earned his green belt. Both Mackenzie and Brooks spent some time with us this summer in Orlando and Atlanta. Brian is very involved in the lives of his children and can be found on Saturdays carting Brooks to games, Mackenzie to violin practice and joining Mackenzie during her protests. To our amazement, both Kenz and Brooks were able to swim 60 laps in an Olympic size pool without stopping.

We thought 2011 would be the year Freddy and his family relocated to Atlanta but as fate would have it the company gave him a promotion and he was able to stay in Orlando which as it turns out in this down economy was a blessing as it would have been a challenge to sell their home. Stephanie and I were so looking forward to having a set of our grandchildren nearby! Kai is a blossoming three year old and continues to delight both Stephanie and I. He is a very loving grandson, son and big brother to Hailie. Hailie is a little Stephanie; a whirlwind of energy that can light up a room with her smile. She has two speeds, fast and faster and has already declared her love of dolls and frilly dresses. Tracy continues to be Freddie’s anchor as she juggles a career and two active children. They are in a good place in their lives.

Melanie has 16 employees and is a Small Business owner! Her business “Play Connections” has taken off and she has tripled the number of children benefitting from the services she offers. There is a waiting list of parents who want their children to receive the personal care that her company provides to children with Autism Spectrum disorders; check out her web-site Audrey has blossomed into a beautiful young lady and on a recent trip to Atlanta went shopping with Nana which delighted Stephanie to no end. As it turns out Melanie and Don have a fashionista on their hands. Vincent is five and is very BIG on negotiating everything. He is a bundle of joy with thick brown wavy hair and OPINIONS. The Great Northwest has been very good to them!

Aleron is a 2nd year Internal Medicine resident at Grady Memorial Hospital which keeps him busy and sleep deprived. He continues to build his life as a physician and has settled into his chosen field. He has a VERY active social life and Stephanie and I continue to be amazed at how this young man has matured and found his calling. We are truly blessed.

My mother Violet will be 90 next year and still lives in her own home and delights in being able to manage her own affairs. Although she suffered some strokes in 2019 and 2010, she is fully recovered and get around on her walker. Stephanie and I are able to have Sunday dinners with her and I am able to regularly get spoiled by her lunches and jokes.

Although we didn’t usher in any grandbabies, weddings or graduations this year it was still very FULL as we are continually blessed to have our health, celebrate the health of our children and grandchildren and to have you as friends and family. Best wishes for a wonderful new year.