Almost all of us who grew up or lived in the Caribbean call their mother by many variations of “Mother”- including “Mummy”, “Mammy”, “Ma”, “Mooma” and, when the chips are down, out, and needing replenishment, there is “Mother Dearest”. Fathers are tougher creatures but the occasional “Dad”, “Daddy”, “Papa”, “Pa”, “Pop” and “Pappy” can always be heard. However, when things get bad and you need a little “theatre” (cinema) money, and you go to the rum-shop or workplace to look for him, he is elevated to heavenly status. It is “Oh God Dad, all the other boys and them going to theatre and I don’t have no money.” However, the one thing you, as his child, can’t call him is how he is described by your Mom, especially when serious matters are involved. He is “de chile fadder” (the child’s father).
If you take a quick look through the internet you will find in the Jamaican newspapers, “Woman for questioning re child’s father’s death…”; Catherine woman charged for killing child’s father…”; “A woman who knowingly names the wrong man as her child’s father on the birth certificate is seen as committing a breach of the Registration…”; and one that is common, not just in Jamaica but in other countries, is the complaint by mothers about the lack of interest by the fathers in their daughters. Margarette Macaulay, the Jamaican Commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (OAS), responding to a question by a mother in the Jamaica Observer on whether the court can force a dad to spend time with his daughter, said, “The lack of interest of your child’s father in seeing and spending time with his daughter is unnatural. It is also very cruel…”
The “child father” issues are not limited to Jamaica. A young woman who filmed herself “choking” her one-year-old daughter to get the attention of the father explained that “she was not trying to hurt the child; she just wanted attention from her daughter’s dad.” What is common in almost all the Caribbean countries, including Trinidad where I grew up, is like this one, “The prosecutor disclosed that the baby resided with her father…However, the man is also involved with another woman.” And my mind, remembering so many years on growing up, asked, “Only one other woman?” All too quickly, I got my answer in a Barbados Nation headline, “Upset child father threatens ex’s police boyfriend”.
In Trinidad, calypso singer/composer Pternsky composed and sang in 2017 the calypso “Dutty Child Father” which included, “Mind yuh business mind yuh little one,/ The dutty child father on the run,/ Mind youh daughter mind yuh little son./ The dutty child father on the run…”
When I was in “elementary” school in Trinidad, we had to read and memorise a poem by William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Not even Sherlock Holmes would have described this poem to his sidekick, Dr Watson, as “elementary” even though we were in “Elementary” school. Worse we had no idea what “piety” was. The headmaster’s son, whose lifestyle was a bit better than that of the rest of us, thought it was “pie and tea” until he got pestered with what kind of pie, whether “alloo” (potato) or saltfish, and if “it was green tea he does drink”. But that was not the worst of it. What struck me and a couple of the other boys was this thing about “The child is father of the man.” Hansey was first, “He have to be mad! I eh even know who my father is so how I could be his father. But if I was really his father ah wouldah kill him with licks for what he do my mother.” Another one, Bascombe I think, was frightened by the poem. “He does beat me so bad, even worse than the headmaster Mr. Forde. You think I would ever want to tell him I is his father?” I sympathised because I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Forde who had put me to lie on my stomach over a desk, hit me thirty-three lashes with a leather strap, and when out of sheer bravado I came up laughing, he threw me back and struck me another thirty-three. Worse, when I went home my father was ready for me. One of the children had told my mother who felt that my father needed to intervene, not with the school but my already burning and bleeding rear end.
Years later I realised that one interpretation of the poem is that “man is the product of habits and behaviour developed in youth.” In other words, our childhoods shape our adulthood and the character we form as children stay with us into our adult life.
I can live with that, understand it, but it makes me even more worried. One of my teaching colleagues sent me a WhatsApp question last week that may have got this particular ball rolling. He asked, “Hey Tony do you remember those school jokes that went like this. You’d say one cup, then your friend would say two cup etc. until you got to four cup. Or a similar one that begins one “q” until you got to four “q”. Or conjugating the Latin verb “iamano”, “iamanass” etc. until you got to “iamanant”. Or the Christmas greeting “May the season bless and greet you, with sores upon your feet, and crabs as big as lobsters, hang on your balls and eat, and when the whole world turns against you, and your life is a total wreck, make a flip through your a**hole, and break your f****ing neck.”
I thought if those children (and given my love of language, jokes and puns, that included me), are father to any man, the whole world is doomed. But then I figured that if at 77 I haven’t destroyed the world as yet, maybe it is either that the Almighty doesn’t mind a dirty joke or two, especially by kids who don’t know better, or my “X-rated” old-talk is overwhelmed and defeated by good kids who are not just the father but also the mother of those who father the man instead of being nothing more than “the child father”. In that same school I attended, there was a kidnapping. The teacher woke up the boy and sent him to Mr. Forde. My Dad didn’t come home for two weeks, so I went to the police station and complained, “I can’t find my father.” “What’s he like?” the policeman asked. I replied, “Overproof rum and women.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen sharing the story of the little boy who boldly told his dad he didn’t seem to know what it meant to be a father. The father said he thought it was apparent.