Had she lived, my grandmother, Lurey Curry Albury, would have celebrated her 95th birthday today.
Sadly, she passed away on March 1, 2010. But not a single day passes that I don’t think of her and thank her for the stories she shared about her life and our family history.
More than anything or anyone else, my grandmother inspired my love of Green Turtle Cay and Fish Hooks, and as such, she’s the reason this blog exists.
Though Ma left us a couple of years before Tom and I bought Fish Hooks, I like to think she would approve of our efforts to preserve and restore the little house where she and her sisters grew up.
To commemorate my grandmother’s birthday, and to give you an understanding of who she was and why we loved her so, I thought I’d share the eulogy I delivered at her funeral:
“When I was asked to say a few words about Ma, it was difficult to know where to start. So many different memories came to mind.
Ma was kind of a quiet person. She didn’t like having her picture taken, and she hated being in the spotlight. She was very shy about meeting new people. Unless, they happened to be stealing fruit in the neighbour’s yard. Then, she wasn’t shy at all.
Now some people might call Ma nosy. I prefer to think of her as the originator of the neighbourhood watch program. Either way, Miss Lurey ruled Winchester Street. She knew who came and went and how often.
Whether all you neighbours knew it, she kept track of when you left for work and when you arrived home. She knew when your children were sick, because she didn’t see them leave with you on school mornings. And she knew which of your relatives were in town. And, you know that if she knew it, the rest of our family knew it, too!
But Ma didn’t just watch her neighbours, she watched out for them. One summer, when I was about 15, and visiting from Canada, I was doing something in the back bedroom. Ma and Jeanette were in the back yard. I heard Ma call, “Mandy!”
“Get the gun! Get the gun!”
“But we don’t have a gun,” I called back.
It was quiet for a minute. “Mandy!”
“Call the police!!”
“What’s the number?”
Turns out there was a man in one of the neighbours’ fruit trees. Ma chased him away all right, but I can’t help thinking he was probably laughing to himself as he ran off.
We all warned her, “Ma, do not confront people like that.” But she had lived in that neighbourhood for sixty years and nobody was going to get away with anything. Not on her watch.
My grandmother was the most honest person I ever met. Now normally, that’s a compliment. But I have to wonder whether the occasional white lie really would have hurt anyone.
I remember one year before Christmas – I must have been 4 or 5. And I must have been misbehaving, because she warned me that if I didn’t smarten up, she would call Santa and tell him I’d been bad. Apparently the behaviour continued, because the next thing I knew she was dialing the phone.
“Hello?” She listened for a minute. “Santa? I have a little girl here who’s been very naughty.” She listened a bit more, then handed me the receiver. “He wants to talk to you.”
I took the phone. A gruff voice at the other end said, “Your grandmother says you’ve been bad. No presents for you!”
I hung up and threw myself on the floor beside the dining table, screaming and crying. Eventually, I guess she realized she hadn’t solved the problem of my behaviour. She’d only made it worse.
“Oh, cut it out,” she muttered. “Get up.” Then she told me the facts about Santa Claus. Out of respect for the children here today, I won’t share the details. But like I said, Ma was honest. To a fault.
She felt obligated to tell you that you looked tired, or you looked too thin. And if you had put on weight, she’d be sure to let you know that as well. I thought it was especially unfair for her to comment on our weight, since she did so much to contribute to it.
When we were younger, there was always a huge pot of something cooking on the stove. Stewed whelks, crab and rice, fried fish and stewed guavas. My grandmother made the best fried chicken, potato salad and guava duff.
At one point, I asked her to teach me how to cook some of these dishes. She taught me how to bake and dress a ham, how to make potato salad and banana pudding. It was always a challenge, though, because like many Bahamian cooks, she measured nothing.
I’d ask her, “How much flour do I need to put in?”
“I don’t know,” she’d say. “Just a little.”
“How much is that?” I’d ask. “A quarter teaspoon? A quarter cup?”
She’d just shrug her shoulders.
Eventually, I’d just scoop up some flour. “This much?”
She’d think about it. “Yeah,” she would say. “Well, maybe just a little more.”
If you knew my grandmother, you know she was a worrier. In fairness, it wasn’t her fault. It was genetic. She inherited it from her mother. Ma worried about everything.
One afternoon, I came home to find her sitting in the front room. Her eyes were red.
“What happened?” I asked, thinking she must have received some terrible news.
“I heard an ambulance,” she started to cry. “I thought you had been in an accident.”
Ma was usually pretty serious. But once in a while, when you wouldn’t expect it, she’d crack you up. On the very last day I spent with her, we were sitting at the breakfast table.
“What’s today?” she asked. “Is it Sunday?”
“All day,” I said.
She was quiet for a minute, and then she looked up at me and smiled. “Unless it rains.”
Above everything, I’ll remember Ma’s stories. Even when her mind began to fail, her memories remained clear. She might not remember what she had for lunch or whether she had taken her medicine, but she could describe every detail of the white straw hat with blue crepe paper flowers she made as a teenager to wear to church. And she could recite the mailing address of Molly Mayberry, her English pen pal from the 1930s.
Ma’s early life wasn’t easy. There were no telephones or cars, no electricity or even indoor plumbing. When she wasn’t in school, she helped her father farm, plaited straw for her mother to make hats with, and collected shells to send to souvenir makers in Nassau.
She would tell me how sometimes, they couldn’t afford sugar, and they had to grind up cane for the syrup. Other times, they’d have to search the house for enough money to buy a tuppence worth of lard. And, on the days when there was no money to be found, they’d fry down fish to get enough oil to cook with. And yet, she’d rock in that squeaky chair in the porch and say, “Those were good times. People were happier then.”
Before she was even a teenager, Ma had lost a sister and a brother. She watched the only home she had ever known destroyed by a hurricane. By her mid-twenties, she had lost two babies of her own. Her father died from cancer fairly early on, and at just sixty, her husband passed unexpectedly. Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that the sound of an ambulance could make her cry.
These days, a lot of people measure success in terms of career or possessions. My grandmother’s successes were more personal. She was a loving and devoted wife. She raised four children, and had a hand in raising most of her grandchildren. And she taught us many life lessons.
Ma taught us generosity. She would do anything for anybody. Many times, I’ve seen her send money, clothes or food to people who needed it. When she would cook, she made enough for all of us, children and grandchildren.
If anyone here ever brought her a bunch of bananas or a bag of mangoes, there’s a good chance she split them up and sent a couple for each grandchild. We loved it when Ma and Pa would go to Miami. They’d come back with suitcases overflowing with peppermints and bubble gum and strips of lollipops longer than we were tall.
Ma taught us to live by our values and she led by example. She was a Christian woman, and she walked the walk better than anyone else I know. She lived her values – honesty, decency, empathy, forgiveness, love – every single day of her life.
Ma taught us the importance of family. A few times over the years, I helped update her address book. It was filled with names I didn’t recognize. When I’d ask her who this person was, or that one, she’d explain the family connection. That’s so-and-so’s mother’s uncle’s wife. Family, however distant, was important to Ma, and she made an effort to keep in touch with relatives from far and wide.
Ma took pride in her children, her grandchildren and her great grands. Although she worked briefly as an assistant housekeeper at the Montague Hotel, she and Pa decided early on that, even though times were tough, it was more important for her to stay home with the children.
When the grandchildren came along, Pa told her, “Don’t bother making me a hot lunch. I’d rather have just a sandwich or something, so you can spend time with the grandchildren.”
I can remember many days after school, Ma would have three or four of us there. I’ll never forget the sound of her back screen door slamming again and again as we ran outside, then inside and back out. And over all the racket, Ma would be yelling, “Jesus Saviour, pilot old people,” before she threatened to take a switch to us.
For most of my life, Ma and Pa’s house has been the center of my world. We spent so many afternoons out on the patio, playing house in that huge wooden crate, climbing the guava tree and swinging from the clothes line rods.
Ma always had a treat for us – banana pudding or pound cake or Milky Way bars. Even once she stopped cooking, she made sure there were sodas and Honey Buns around for the great grands.
More than once, as a child, I remember packing up my tiny white suitcase, planning to run away to Ma and Pa’s house. And even when I was grown up, when I was sick, all I wanted was my Ma.
The day after she passed, I dialed Ma’s number, hoping to speak with my mom. As the phone rang twice, three times, four times, I thought to myself, “No big deal. It sometimes takes Ma a while to get to the phone.” But the phone just kept ringing and that’s when it hit me. For the first time I could ever remember, I had called Ma’s house and nobody answered.
Ma used to tell us, “I love all of you the same.” But the person she loved most was Pa. They met when they were both six years old. Pa’s mother brought him to Green Turtle Cay for conference meetings, and he and Ma spent the weekend shooting marbles and fishing on the rocks.
They met again and married in their early 20s. It was difficult for Pa to find work and they spent long stretches of time apart as he traveled back and forth from Haiti, hauling bananas on a freight boat. At one point, they moved back to Green Turtle Cay so he and Pa Herman could try sharking. Eventually, they came back to Nassau and Pa worked as a carpenter.
They had many difficult times. But they were happy. If you ever saw them together, you knew it. Their love was plain to see. They were content just to sit together in the afternoon shade, drinking iced tea, enjoying the cool breeze and watching the grandchildren play.
When any of the granddaughters got married, Ma gave us the same advice. Hug and kiss him every day. Always tell him you love him. Ask about his day. Never go to bed angry. I’ve never forgotten the things she said – how can you argue with success?
In her last days, Ma’s memory began to fail. She started to ask for Pa. She would ask her children or caregivers, “Where’s Lionel? Why won’t he come to see me?”
At first, they tried making excuses. They told her he was working. But Ma kept asking, and eventually my Mom sat with her and told her Pa had died. Ma got tears in her eyes and her pain seemed as fresh as the day it had happened. Thirty years later, she loved him every bit as much.
There’s a passage from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, that has given me comfort over the past week:
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires, lies your secret knowledge of the beyond.
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
For what is it to die, but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides,
that it may rise and expand and seek God, unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence, shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
Now Ma wasn’t big on dancing. But I’d like to think that somewhere, she’s sitting with Pa on that mountaintop, drinking iced tea, enjoying the cool breeze and watching us all.