The Woman in the Silver Picture Frame
“Your great grandmother was an exceptional woman.”
I could hear the aging mind rolling back the clock. Her memories have this way of idling on a particular event, almost like she is savoring it, then she would rattle off story after story in an excitable way. Her childhood, something so far in the past is a spluttering of treasured events, funny conversations, and tales of trying to survive poverty. Mom has this way she could spin a yarn, so I must remember to always keep her on point.
“Did you know her well?”
“She was the head of the home. Everyone knew her.”
Ivy Fernandes –
My Great Grandmother
“Ivy always treated us like we were the most important people in her life.”
Ivy Fernandes was my great grandmother. The only image I have of her, and apparently the only image any of my siblings knew of her as well, was the one in the silver picture frame. It was one of those rare heirlooms that you never touched in the house, occupying a choice spot on the dressing table.
“She was always busy. A very petite woman, with long black hair that dipped just below her buttocks. She would wear it in pig tails or in a bun. It was unmanageable.”
“What do you remember most about her?”
“She loved music. Her husband would always play mas for carnival or launch a carnival band and she would write songs for him. She enjoyed singing. She would always take us to see the mas during carnival.”
“Did you know your grandfather?”
“No. He was long gone by the time I came along.”
Carnival is something my mother never participated in. To hear her speak of her grandparents as being heavily involved in the annual celebration was interesting. Mom considered, or considers it a heathen festival, and good Christians should know better. But it is so integral to our culture, that sometimes when I was a child, she would allow us to at least watch the parade of the bands. Perhaps it reminded her of Ivy.
“What type of songs did she write?”
“She was a melancholic soul. She was always humming a sad melody. But she did write a lot to my father when he was away. Sometimes just lyrics to a song or poetry. She was quite good at it.”
“Is that where you got your love for story telling?”
“Perhaps. Ma Ivy taught me how to read. She insisted that it was something I needed to learn and learn well. Of course, her accent ensured that some things needed to be corrected by the time I went to school. But the basics were there.”
“What was wrong with her accent?”
“She was Portuguese and from the island of St Vincent. The vernacular is different from ours as you know.” She laughs. A memory was triggered.
“What about her children?”
“Ma Ivy had ten children.”
It seems that a lot of the women back then spent a lot of time in the maternity wards. My mother had twelve kids. Her excuse is that she started early, and just kept the streak going. There was nothing else to do.
“Yes. But only two survived. The others were still-born.”
That would explain her melancholy.
“Did you ever meet your aunt or uncle?”
“No. Auntie Marie, as Ma Ivy called her, didn’t survive long either. She died at the age of two. Your grandfather was her only surviving child. She was fiercely protective of him.”
Infant mortality rates in third world countries in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was very high. Many parents would delay naming their children until they were nearly a year old because many didn’t survive. But to lose 9 children?
“She must have been a very strong woman emotionally and mentally?”
“She was a firestick…But only at home. In public she was the picture of decency.”
Now I know where the rumors of my mother’s hot hand came from. My siblings would always tell me that mum was a disciplinarian. She would smack you faster than you could blink. I was lucky to be the last child, as her enthusiasm for a prompt spanking to curb future transgressions, had waned by the time I came along.
“Was she a praying woman?” I was curious, since my mother spends the first hour after she wakes on her knees in prayer.
“She was Anglican. Prayer was part of my upbringing. Church, not so much. But Ivy taught us how to pray.”
“How old were you when she died?”
“I was nine years old. The war was intensifying, as the older folks were talking about rockets hitting London. The news on the radio was always about the war, and we would all be gathered around listening most evenings. But she had contracted Malaria and was in bed recovering.”
“She died from Malaria?”
“Perhaps. Malaria was rampant back in those days. I remember her being bedridden and asking to be stripped down to her half-slip. She had been running a temperature. We were all sat around the radio listening to the news. It was the next morning before anyone had realized she had died.”
“When you think of her now, what do you believe to be her biggest impact on your life?”
“That I persevere no matter what horrible things life throw at me. That you get up every morning, place yourself in God’s hands, and do what you must do. Things will work out in the end.”
“Do you think she influenced the way you raised your own children?”
“Ivy always treated us like we were the most important people in her life. She prayed over us daily, she would do her best to protect us, and ensured we were fed and clothed. It grieved her a lot when we had to miss school because our clothes were tattered and worn, or we had no shoes. I have always tried to give you all the best chance at living a full life. So yes, she had a huge impact on me as a mother.”
Ivy Fernandes died in her late fifties in the fall of 1944. Mom doesn’t know her exact date of birth, but reckons it was the late 1880’s as she remembers her celebrating her 52nd birthday. She knew her for only nine years.
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