At 60, I still have much to learn about love

A work in progress

I remember a diary entry I made a few years ago which said something like “I’m not sure I learned how to love.” It is a statement that only an older person can make, having had decades to observe and decide what real love “looks like” and what love “can do”. I have learned and am still learning about love. My education feels all the more urgent now that I am a grandparent intent on contributing to the emotional and spiritual well being of my grandson. There are many things I want to pass on, and things that I absolutely know I won’t.

Little ones have big emotions, in fact, they experience all the emotions that adults have without the language needed to express and navigate this oftentimes confusing terrain. I want all children to learn that feelings are neither good nor bad and that we all have them. At the end of this post I share four of my favorite books for children on this topic.

Washbelly

At age seventeen, my parents, at my mother’s insistence, adopted a 6 month old boy. Until then, I had been the youngest of seven, the washbelly, of an aspiring middle class Jamaican family, with two sisters and four brothers. As soon as I became aware of family dynamics, I realized that my mother was intent on breaking any alliances that formed between her children—divide and conquer was her modus operandi.

As the baby, my siblings, when they could, did their best to protect and help me process the stormy waters of my childhood. I have strong memories of these tumultuous years, as well as proof in the form of over 200 letters written to me beginning at around age ten, from my much older siblings who were then studying overseas.

Later, letters were sent to me as I became a wife and mother with a growing family in the United States. Some are emotionally difficult to read, even now, but I cherish these harsh and beautiful stories that make up the foundation of who I am.

Growing up, the tiled floors of our house were carpeted in eggshells, and as long as our mother was home, we all walked about tentatively, expecting a surprise attack at any moment.

“Any other man would have left long time!” my sister would shout in the middle of one of the frequent arguments, “You’re lucky you got the perfect husband!” And she had.

There were years when I thought of my father as weak, until I understood that his gentle style was the cooling element needed to balance her fire, that his apparent passivity gave our lives stability. I came to understand that if our father had abandoned us to our mercurial mother, our lives would have taken a devastating and possibly dangerous turn.

I could not call my mother a loving person although she did loving things. It might seem odd, then, that I’ve included her so firmly in this post that is about love. M. Scott Peck writes that “The principal form that the work of love takes is attention” and this is what I learned from my mother who showed that love is less of a feeling and more of an action. This forms the basis for the following writing piece.


Visiting Aunties

We were not churchgoers and most of the religious education I received was in college. My mother believed in a God but held most religious folk in disdain, except for her father, a pastor in a country church, whom she adored and who was “the only person who ever loved her.” She often spoke of men who “attended church on Sundays and then turned around and beat their wives the rest of the week” and it didn’t take much for her to hold you guilty by association.  My father kneeled on his side of the king-sized bed every night to pray. But, there was no church for us, except on Christmas morning to sing the carols we all loved.

Instead, Sundays were for visiting the elderly and the shut-ins and we regularly made the half hour trip to visit my dad’s two sisters. Dressed neatly, with faces washed, we piled into the backseat of the old faded pink Jaguar—one of the two my mother owned (the other was green), tired examples of the sleek British cars she loved. They broke down regularly which is why she’d imported two, hoping that together they made one good car.

Since my father had been blinded in one eye as a young man, he had never learned to drive, and once he could afford it, hired a driver, which is how I came to be chauffeur driven all through my childhood.

“I want the window seat, it’s my turn!” I complained, not whining because that was never tolerated. No one liked the middle seat. There were no seatbelts and my mother drove her Jaguars adeptly but aggressively, rounding corners confidently, as if her cars were sporty rather than staid.

Left to my father, Florence and Doris (Aunts Flo and Dor to us), would have lived markedly lonelier lives were it not for my mother’s attention and these near weekly visits. Neither one having married, they lived together, Flo caring for Dor, who had been crippled at a young age by polio and spent her last 10 years in a wheelchair.

Containers were packed: tender fricassee chicken, rice and peas, fried plantain, steamed cabbage, a cake or pudding for dessert. Sometimes my mother would take some new gadget to make their day to day life a little easier or more interesting. 

As I grew into the teenage years these visits became intolerable. Being trapped in the car with Mama made you a direct target and I would do anything to avoid these rides. Less and less able to maintain their home and personal hygiene, my mother never stopped visiting and caring for them as she did so many others.//

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Speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become.

- Brooke Hampton