Carole McDonnell
Essayist, Reviewer, Novelist


That Smile



That Smile
by Carole McDonnell


     When I was seven or eight, I sat at the top of a flight of steps, looking over into the next-door neighbor's yard. The door behind me opened: and when I turned round, I saw a tall dark-skinned Black man in a three-piece suit.
     "Carole," the tall dark-skinned Black man said. "Where's your mother?"
     "At work."
     "Do you remember me?"
     "No."
     "I'm your father."
     "Hello, Daddy."
     "What're you doing?"
     "Sitting."
     "You don't have any work to do?"
     "No, Daddy."
     "No cleaning? No reading? No homework?"
     "I'm finished, Daddy."
     "When you're finished with one thing, you must find something else to do," the tall dark-skinned Black man who said he was my Daddy said.
     "But I am doing something. Mama said to sit here and watch the people next-door; I have to tell her everything I see or hear."
     "That's gossiping, Carole, and gossiping is wrong," he said. And this man whom I'd only just met, slowly slipped his belt out of the loop and raised it high, laying it quickly and powerfully across my leg. That's how I knew this man was my Father. He was so like my grandfather.
     When Mama got home, the tall dark-skinned Black man argued with her about the way she was bringing me up. She picked up the nearest thing handy --a glass Home Sweet Home lamp-- and smashed it across his face. This is my first memory of my father.
     The last time I saw Daddy --twelve years later-- my sister and I were 17 and 15 respectively. We were in the United States by then. And Daddy had deigned to visit my mother, sister and I out of the blue.
     Daddy came into the bedroom my mother sister and I shared. He had $4000 dollars in small bills in his hand which he offered to us. But we refused.
     "Daddy, we never see you. We don't want you to think we love you only for your money."
     "I spend my time doing what I love," he answered. "I make money doing what I love. Therefore this money is my love." It sounded like a bad scene in a movie. We didn't take the money. In fact we giggled.
     "You two are a couple of ninnies...just like your mother," he said.
     Then he proceeded to tell us about his annual visits to Denmark. "The women are all blonde, and they're in booths and you can choose anyone you want."
     My sister and I laughed nervously at this strange pitiful Jamaican man whose idea of happiness and making an impression on his daughters was to tell them about his ability to take Danish blonde prostitutes out of booths. He called us 'ninnies' again. My sister and I sat amazed at how unamazed he was at his own stupidity. Here was a man, so enslaved to the ideas of the world, whose mind was so tethered to the world's ideas of beauty and attainment -Wow!, I got a blonde white woman!-and here was this man, our father, proclaiming us 'ninnies.'
     The third memory is just a snippet, perhaps my earliest memory: my father had just returned from England to Jamaica. An hour's visit or less, and he was sitting in a chair by the door. He showed us his right hand: two watches, one silver one gold. One of the watches was set to Jamaican time, the other to British time. The idea that time could be different in two places fascinated us. What fascinated Daddy, however, and what he thought should fascinate us was that fact that he wore two expensive watches. My father thought we didn't get the idea of class and wealth. We got it. We just didn't care for it.
     I remember when we came to the United States. In Jamaica, in Endeavour, there was always someone around...some relative from up the street, some third cousin from Gibralter. and, even in Kingston, with my Uncle Bertie, my father's father. A preacher with a harsh hand. Always, always, there'd be someone around. At twilight, sitting in my grandmother's parlor and while our shadows rose and fell with the flickering of the lamp or candle flame, talking, singing, watching for visitors. The songs, the companion ditties.
     Let every good fellow now join in the song!
     Viva la Companie!
     Success to each other and pass it along!
     Viva la Companie!
     Viva la, Viva la, Viva l'amour!
     Viva la, Viva la, Viva l'amour!
     Viva l'amour! Viva l'amour!
     Viva la Companie!
     And after the stories, the songs, the riddles, we would make our way bed, lamp flickering. Through the parlor, through my cousin Conroy's room where the two large storage tables were kept. In the third and last room which held our large double bed made from banana and coconut leaves and old burlap flour sacks.
     Pitch black country darkness around us, our eyes closed tight for fear of ghosts. My cousin, Hazel, in the middle between my sister Novelette and me. Novelette and I faced the other direction on either side of her. Novelette was near the wall because she had a habit of falling off the bed at night. I remember the night she rolled off the bed --such a heavy sleeper, my sister- and landed squat into the chamber pot. She used to say she didn't mind the spiders crawling up and down the walls. Spiders were less terrifying than ghosts, and ghosts less terrifying than loneliness. At night, I would reach across Hazel's back and hold my sister's hand. Just in case, any ghost we'd been discussing might came floating by and try to drag her away. But, on a scorching Jamaican July day, my bare feet burning from the hot sand on the unpaved Jamaican country road, I stood in front of the Endeavour post office and ripped open the air mail letter from America while my sister, Novelette, and cousin, Hazel, watched.
     "I've got your visas and your green card," Mama wrote. "After six years, my daughters will be with me again."
     Hope had won out. Mama, in New York, was sending for us. We had waited for that day like the faithful waiting for the Messiah. Soon an Air Jamaica Boeing 747 would take us heavenward to our real home. We would finally have a home. I returned Mama's letter to the envelope. The small cardboard corrugated box she had sent from America overflowed with flour, rice, bread. I was indifferent to that feast, then. My sister's radiant face reflected mine. Joy, joy, joy, at last. No more shuttling between greedy relatives. No more beatings. No more "keeping in our place." We had our own place now.
     We started singing the spiritual Mama had taught us on one of her rare visits:
     "When I get to heaven, I 'm gonna sing and shout.
     There's nobody out there whose gonna turn me out.
     There are twelve gates to the city, Allelu!"
     The great August departure day arrived at last; a jet took us skyward, then landed us again. America of the clouds became America of the dust. My sister and I were greeted at Kennedy International Airport with balloons and dolls. There stood our mother... a woman whose vocabulary and face and accent we did not recognize but whom we took on faith as being our mother. She had left when we were five and three respectively. We hardly knew her.
     Chuck, my mother's Jewish boyfriend, was beside her. He was the first white person --airport personnel aside-- we would befriend. Chuck was a Danish Jew, twenty-six, medium height, medium built, with straight sandy brown hair. He was ten years younger than my mother and handsome and madly in love with her. What a guy to meet in one's pre-adolescence!
     Inside Chuck's car, Mama told us we'd be "integrating the block." Novelette and I looked at each other helplessly. Block? Integrating? American words. We needed a translator.
     Chuck opened the door to Mama's apartment and a new world of lemon cake with lemon icing and lemon ice cream greeted us. Among the large group of strangers, Chuck and his sister Janet were the only white faces in the room. Something I doubt Chuck noticed. Although, we would discover later, his sister noticed. We scanned the room, my sister and I, registered the faces of these happy strangers, all overflowing with love and joy at our arrival. Such sweet food. Such sweet people. And Chuck was so blonde, so fatherly, so white and so lovely.
     In school in Brooklyn, the MBKs --Mean Black Kids-- decided my sister and I were the enemy because we always got A's, spoke too white. They beat us up in the hallways and in the girl' bathroom. They were not our community. But neither were the whites.
     In my first American school year, I landed flat on my unassimilated tush in Mrs. Arbital's fifth grade class at PS 152. Mrs. Arbital was the first racist I met, the first white person I ever hated. Mrs. Arbital had a problem with my x's. She said they weren't x's. I wrote back-to-back, the way my educated-in-England Jamaican teachers had taught me, like two c's leaning on each other. I insisted my x's were, too, x's and my mother sent in several notes to validate them. But, Mrs. Arbital said my x's were Jamaican x's, not American x's and that as long as I wrote foreign language x's, she'd fail me in my spelling tests. Which she always spitefully did.
     Out of pure spite and isolation, one gets good grades. By the end of sixth grade, I had been tracked, placed in an experimental advanced mini-school, one hundred and twenty students, three of whom were African-Americans. I got along with everyone. (Outsiders know how to charm.) But few were my friends. Few were my ilk, my community. In the two years that our family had pioneered the integration of that formerly Jewish and Italian Brooklyn building, we got accustomed to being greeted with dog turd on our doormat.
     C.S. Lewis said that grief felt like a physical pain, a pressure on the lower chest. George Bernard Shaw said that a broken heart was not weeping but indifference. But no one ever told me that grief -in the case of my father-- could stay unfelt in the heart while it actively made and unmade our lives. Or that grief -in the case of the lost Jamaican days and t hose painful old school days-- could transmute itself into fear and neediness. But this is what I'm beginning to understand.
     It's strange to say that my father has never mattered to me. My other friends railed at their missing fathers, threw themselves into dizzying tasks to impress emotionally distant dads. Not I. I never tried missed or hated him. I never thought of "Daddy" at all. Sure there were signs of grief: Especially in my dating life. I dated whites, yellows, reds, browns. But no blacks. And with no obvious hatred in my heart, I simply was not attracted to them. But the men I dated always had large families which I kept hoping would adopt me. So the "effect" of the missing Dad was always there even if I didn't consciously feel the loss. Yet I always felt that this bereftness, this powerlessness, this isolation had more to do with the school-years and "group and cultural dynamics."
     This was the preamble, then to the angelic vision I received when I was only 16. I was studying the Bible. During those times, I had horrendous nightmares of being pursued by a "Godfather" type figure who seemed intent on harming me. C.S. Lewis wrote that many people don't believe in God simply because they do not want to have another Father. But then it hadn't occurred to me that my inability to trust in God was rooted in the fact that I had no real father. Nor did the fact that the nightmare "Godfather" might be the same Person I referred to in my prayers as "God, Father in Heaven."
     But there I was, reading the Bible and lying in bed when for no reason at all, I turned towards the wall. That was when I saw a being standing there. To say I was surprised is an understatement. The being whom I saw was a far cry from the typical angel one might see in greeting cards. There were no feathers, for instance, no wings. The being was plain and simply made up of light. It was as if someone had taken a fine-point pencil or chiseling tool and drawn a pencil sketch on the wall. Except that instead of dark still lines, what I saw was living moving light, a fine-featured being finely-etched like a drawing but quite real. The being wore a crown and except for a smile did not seem to move. And it is this smile that I will always remember.
     It was a smile that seemed to say he understood everything about me- good and bad- yet loved me anyway. I don't think I can adequately describe the feeling of intimacy and personal attachment that this person seemed to feel for me. It was as if we were old friends, as if he had always been there with me and would always be there with me. Here was a being to whom I was completely known and completely loved. A being with complete good humor and a sweet conspiratorial kindness in his eyes. All I could do was smile at him, as if to say, "Oh, it's you!".
     The funny thing was that this angel did not say anything. He didn't tell me any great spiritual truths about my life or the world. But his very presence showed me that there was a world where good and love and God existed. During the following years, I have endured several trials. During these times I have asked myself, "How could God allow this to happen to me if He still exists?" I have asked God to send his loving angel to me several times to comfort me. That request has not been granted and the angel has never reappeared. But, with the help of the Bible, this visitation has healed my past fatherlessness and has been a healing balm to the lovelessness of my earlier life. Whenever I am about to fail under the strain of the trials in my life, I remember the sweet sweet smile of that being from another country. The memory of a person I have yet to truly meet has stayed with me. And every thing in me longs for that wonderful loving country that is and has always been my Home.