On first December 1934, Keliah Hall-Williamson had her last child. The day was a Saturday and “Kizzie” was a widow. Her husband having died three years before, Kizzie was then a single mother with five hungry mouths to feed. Life had suddenly become dramatically more difficult for Mrs Williamson. She was only thirty-six and had been thirty-two when her young husband died, leaving her with a large house in the parish of Saint Mary and East Indian servants she could no longer afford.
Born at John’s Hall in the parish of Saint James, the darkest and eldest child of middle-class Jamaican parents, Kizzie went to live with her childless aunt in Bonnie Gate, Saint Mary, at the tender age of eight. Later, her mother, father and seven siblings went to the Americas – Cuba, then Panama – and wanted to take Kizzie with them, but her aunt refused to let her go.
She went to my school at Jackson and enjoyed a regal lifestyle; so I am told. At sixteen, the end of elementary school, she took her exams there and after ‘passing out’ with honours went on to Miss Gertie’s Finishing School to learn the niceties of being a lady. While there, she fell in love with the Headmaster and got pregnant. He called on her aunt to ask for Kizzie’s hand, but she would not hear of it, and got her dog to chase him away saying, she would take care of the child.
“He was not good enough. He could not be trusted, and in no way should he have taken advantage of an innocent young girl in his care.”
Mother eventually married a gentleman from Saint Ann, a Mr Williamson, who adopted my eldest half-brother, Stratford, and for whom she bore four more children, Gladys, Eugenie, Owen and Lloyd. After Williamson died, many prominent men in the Saint Mary community wanted to marry my mother, but she was still in mourning and refused them all. Then in 1934, after a brief affair with a local farmer, Prince Bennett, she gave birth to her final child – a baby girl whom they named Verona.
My father was delighted at the news of my imminent birth. In thirteen years of marriage to his wife, Ann-Amanda, she had never once conceived. So when he broke the news to her that Mrs Williamson was pregnant with his child, she was, of course, disappointed in her husband’s continued infidelity. However, she was surprised and shocked, too, because they all knew my mother in Albany and respected her, but she was also secretly pleased and asked if she could have the baby after it was born.
At just three months old, days before my christening, Ann-Amanda removed every mirror in the house, chartered her cousin’s car, and came to collect her little bundle of joy. Since hers was a new face to me, and to give my mum a break, she also took my sister Eugenie who stayed at ‘Castlemine’ with me for a year. Many more children came in and out of my stepmother’s house, which we always referred to as Castlemine. She had her stepson Newton, who was actually her sister’s child, along with several of my father’s nieces and nephews, who helped to ensure that my life was never too lonely.
I grew up quickly and was very bright. By age nine, I was in the sixth form, four years above my peers. My parents adored me. To them both, I was a priceless little treasure, and nothing was ever too good for their “Girlie.” A request for a horse produced Black Knight in record time with riding boots hand-made by Albert Hermit of Jackson. Since my dad was no stranger to the local bigwigs in town, I received regular check-ups from the doctors at Bonnie Gate, who cured my sight defect at thirteen with free medication donated by the propertied Mr Tomlinson, who was a prominent Pharmacist in Port Maria.
Here was a happy, thoughtful, sensitive child, loved by both parents and strangers alike. Some children at school said they heard that one of my parents wasn’t actually my real parent, but they didn’t seem to know which one and it didn’t bother me at first. Since I’d never seen my reflection in a mirror or checked the contours of my face in a photograph, I had no idea what to be looking out for in the form of my features.
I could remember that from time to time when I was small, Mama would take me by tramcar to Constant Spring, bringing along with us Mrs Brenda Macintosh and her daughter, Vignette. Mrs Macintosh was a very dark-skinned woman married to a pale complexioned man, and Vignette was the lightest of the day. As Mama was light-skinned and me dark, it worried me terribly that anyone who saw us four together would automatically think that I was Mrs Macintosh’s child and that Vignette belonged to Mama.
I began to have nightmares thinking about it over-and-over in my mind. In one such dream, a bird of prey hovered above my head, and when it finally swooped, I caught it by the beak, ripped it apart and threw away the carcass. I remember that dream still as if it were only yesterday. Then just before my baptism on Easter Sunday, 1950, a strange wasting illness took its toll on my health. My father was forced to sell almost everything – property, land, and animals, too – just about anything to settle his only daughter’s rising medical bills. At the end of it all, I was almost back to strength, but susceptible to all manner of new illnesses. My parents, however, were financially ruined.
Finally, at sixteen, at the end of the school year, Mama sat me down and told me the terrible truth. We were going to meet my real mother. I was devastated. I did not want to know. Nor did I want to go. I cried as if my heart would snap. But Mama convinced me, eventually. She said it was best that I knew. That it was about time I went to meet my real mother, spend some time with her, and be back at school, where I was going to become a Probationary Teacher in the new academic year.
When I’d got used to the idea, Mama packed a donkey with enough food to feed a small army for weeks, and we set off for Clonmel where my mother lived with my eldest sister Eugenie. As Head Housekeeper for one of the wealthy Delisser family members, my mother was a first-rate governess for the girls and a trusted employee who could get just about any kind of favour. She had asked her employers for four weeks off to entertain her estranged daughter, and they were only too pleased to comply.
I met my mother, a stern handsome woman, as well as my brothers and sisters, and was especially delighted to spend some time with Gladys and Owen, whom I liked the best. My eldest brother, Stratford, the Headmaster’s son, was an out and out snob who didn’t like me at all because he felt my dad wasn’t good enough for his mother. In fact, he told me that he didn’t think Prince Bennett was my father at all, he thought it was a man named Brown. If I had been more aware at the time, I would have asked him “why?” Since, by all accounts, Mr Brown was a light-skinned gentleman, and I admired Stratford for his high intelligence, I just put it down to one of his many puns. However, it bothered me.
In Jamaica then, one’s colour meant everything. I knew my father’s mother was the child of a white man, and Grandpa David was of high-colour like our Uncle Alfred, but since the other family members I met were a rich honey-brown, it would hardly be surprising if one child should turn out a darker throw-back to distant blood in the past. You just could never tell. My sister, Gladys was a gorgeous black woman, but what made me so pleasantly surprised on seeing her, was her hair. Gladys had the best head of hair I have ever seen on any woman, and it made me green with envy. My grandmother Elizabeth had soft curly hair that I used to comb for her at nights, and ask if she could leave it to me in her will as a joke. But Gladys didn’t look mixed and with all that hair, she was simply stunning.
She was also an extremely nice person. She loved Mama for taking me and treating Eugenie so well, and my dad, for being so good to them after their father died. Owen too was the same. I always remember just how sweet those two were. I met Lloyd as well, and Eugenie, but she was not a nice person. She tried to introduce me to a chap who was a chauffeur, but I was not in the least interested. She was upset and said it was about time I took over “responsibility for my mother,” but I have always been too quick to say just what I feel, so I told her to “go to hell,” and left to stay with Gladys. She came down and threatened to poison me, to which Gladys replied, “Over my dead body!” and I have never seen Eugenie again since.
Lloyd at the time was a famous local singer with a good impersonation of Nat King Cole and Brooke Benton. He taught me a few songs, amongst them “When I Fall in Love” and some “Enchanted Evening.” At the end of the four weeks, I went back to Mama and Jackson. I couldn’t have been any more delighted to show off my new talents at a concert in town. My mother had given me a dress she had saved for me she said, and I wore it to the concert where I sang “Some Enchanted Evening” in front of a distinguished audience.
I had decided to go back to school because Mrs Young had told me that since I had passed my exam so young, I could take it over three times to try for free entry to college. But even free tuition would now work out too expensive for my parents as my father had given up work and Mama did not go out to work. It was my half-brother who was employed by the public works department in Albany who offered to help finance my schooling.
Our minister of religion was fond of me, too, and so he went to the Education Department to convince them that the school needed another teacher. People said that he fancied me, but I simply could not entertain such a thought. Call me naive, but he had three lovely daughters, one my age, Molly, and a young son. I was certain that he would not like to think that my father had any designs on his daughter, so I of course dismissed the notion. I was sixteen, however, and I had thoughts of getting away.
My dad and I had gone to Guys Hill on business, and a Pharmacist there liked my sharp tongue and quick brain. She offered me a job and training, and for personal reasons, I decided to accept. When I got there, however, her white husband decided that I was fanciable. He lost his way to their bedroom on the second week I was there and ‘accidentally’ found himself at my door. I pointed him in not too polite a tone in the direction of his wife’s bed, and the next day, I was back home. By then, the reverend had received an answer from the Education Department, and he called me in one day.
“You know, Leila,” he said, “she’s been working here for nothing for a very long time. While you know, Verona, I would love to give you the job. It looks like as if you’re going to have to job share with her.”
And that we did, but as they say, everything in life has its price, and this too had a cost that I was not prepared to pay. You would have thought that a young girl of sixteen might be safe from the clutches of grown men, but you couldn’t even trust your priest in those days.
I started looking around for work again. A good friend of mine heard that her sister’s school in Enfield was looking for a teacher. I interviewed for the post and got it. I was only too pleased to inform my benefactor that I was leaving the area. It was the same year that Thomas Pettigrew returned to the region. He had sold his grocery shop in Kingston and decided to come back home to country living for a while. He was a real big noise in that part of Saint Mary where he had opened a shop selling handmade shoes. He lived in the family home in Mile Gully with his Alsatian dog, Rex, and from the moment he saw me, he was fascinated, telling all and sundry that I was going to be his queen. Everybody knew that Thomas Pettigrew was going to England eventually, and he had the cheek to asked me if I wanted to come with him. I laughed my head off, right there and then in front of his face because he was just not my type. I mean, who was this dimwit of an old man – as tall and handsome as he was – to think that I would want to be his wife? He said that he wanted to ask my mum for my hand in marriage, but knowing Mama, I advised him against it. He went off to England and I went to Enfield and I completely forgot all about him.
Mama became poorly, and I brought her to live with me, partly to help take care of her but mainly as a chaperon to ward off irritable nuisances, and there were many of those. Our Headmaster at Enfield became smitten with me, and he was a man of integrity, not at all a hypocrite as so many others. He wrote me lovely little notes in that beautiful handwriting of his, and he was the best friend a girl could have, but he was still not what I wanted in a lover or husband. I thanked my lucky star when Mama arrived, and he met his Waterloo by making the mistake of taking me for granted. By then, he had left Enfield to become the headmaster at Annotto Bay, and some time later, returned to visit friends. If he had called on me early, I would have seen him and introduced him to Mama, but he left it too late, and that was a serious error.
He drove his car, parked it at my gate, and came knocking on my door. Mama called out, “Who is that?”
The voice said, “Me!”
“And who the hell is – me?”
“Sorry, ma’am. But my name is Johnson. Arthur Johnson. Is Miss Verona not there?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes ma’am, it’s around eight o’clock.”
“Quite! So what do you think you’re doing calling on a young lady at this time of night?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s just that the time escaped me.”
“So you should be sorry, and what’s more, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Get back in your car and turn back down the road.”
The Headmaster went back through the gate, and a few seconds later, we heard his car drive off. Mama looked at me with that critical gaze, as if to say, “This is all your fault, but now that I’m here, things are going to be different.” I only breathed a sigh of relief, and she said nothing further. It was soon after this that Mama received a letter from Tom. It took him 21 years to find me, he said, and when he did, I told him to write to Mama and not my dad. I needed to get away, to get married, and I said “Yes” to the first man who asked me. Plus with the added attraction of England and further education, I decided that that would be my best course of action.