Janet Thorning’s essay about her grandmother appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail.
My grandmother, Linda May Fenton, was a beautiful person, and a great Canadian. She was born on March 30, 1921, in Manchester, Jamaica.
To say she was poor would be an understatement. There were times when she didn’t eat for days. Sometimes, she would drink handfuls of river water to lower the boiling pain in her stomach to a simmer.
When she was 10, her mother sent her to work for English settlers as a maid, to clean their houses and wash their clothes.
Sometimes, the families would send her to the market to buy food. In 1931, she didn’t have the luxury of a grocery cart – she carried food on her head in crudely made baskets that made her head blister and bleed and sent pain shooting through her arms like a raging fire. She told me there were days when she wanted to “give up the ghost,” meaning she wanted to die. My grandmother didn’t have a lot of time to be a little girl. She had moments. She spent them trying to catch a bird.
There is an old Jamaican saying she grew up with: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” At the time she interpreted it to mean if she caught a bird and whispered two wishes in its ear, then let it go, it would deliver her wishes to heaven.
One early morning, a bird as yellow as the sun flew into her shack and landed on the arm of an old wooden chair. It was a special chair – the only time she was allowed to sit in it was when she said her prayers. Without thinking, she closed her eyes and prayed for the bird to stay. When she opened them, the bird was fluttering close to her face, so close she said she could feel a cool breeze from its wings.
In her late teens, one of her wishes came true when she landed a job as a chamber maid in the Round Hill Hotel in Montego Bay. It was one of the most beautiful oceanfront hotels in Jamaica, and a popular playground for movie stars.
My grandmother loved working there. She loved talking about the movie stars and some of the lurid things she witnessed when the sky was dark and twinkling.
The star she talked about most was Grace Kelly, who had given her a necklace as a token of appreciation. For my grandmother, the necklace was proof that she was more than the colour of her skin; she was somebody.
In 1954, her second wish came true when her application to work as a domestic in Canada was approved.
When she arrived in Toronto she felt elated: It was the beginning of her better life.
In the early years, racism made things really hard for her. Canada was still in a dark womb in terms of racial equality, and my grandmother was told to sit at the back of the bus. There were times when shopkeepers wouldn’t let her into their stores, saying they didn’t want “her kind of business.”
One incident in particular she never forgot. She was walking downtown when a little boy holding his mother’s hand pointed at her and screamed, “Mommy, look at the monkey!”
My grandmother was beyond devastated. The little girl with the bird in her hand felt utterly broken. Later that day, when her employer (a wealthy Jewish woman) saw her sitting on her bed crying, she offered some wise words: “Every beginning is difficult.”
Despite these experiences, my grandmother was still proud to be a Canadian citizen. It was her new Canadian identity that opened her eyes to the fact that under the layers of pain she was a strong woman.
Her discovery, which she later called her awakening, led her to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, where she heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.
She was shocked to see so many white people holding signs that read End Segregation Now and Freedom for All. She was so moved, she began to cry. Then she felt someone touching her shoulder and heard the words, “Don’t worry, sister, everything is going to be okay.” She turned to see a rabbi smiling at her.
A few years later, and after a battle with breast cancer, my grandmother became an activist for racial equality, but not in a traditional way. She quit her job as a domestic and went to work in a cafeteria. Eventually, she saved enough money to buy a house, which was unheard of in the early 1960s for a single woman, let alone a single black woman. And she knowingly moved into a predominately white (mostly Italian) neighbourhood.
When she moved in, many people welcomed her with smiles and homemade cannoli. But others spoke to her only with glares.
Several years later, she bought a house in upscale High Park, where she was the only black resident. She was excited about how she might help future generations break racial barriers.
However, her neighbours did not feel the same way and expressed this by whatever means they could. They threw garbage on her lawn, rang her doorbell at night, left letters in her mailbox addressed to “monkey.” She was afraid, but not deterred.
In 2008, my grandmother had the first of two strokes. After the second, the family moved her into a nursing home. To see her bedridden and unhappy was too much for me to bear, and I didn’t visit as often as I should have.
A week before she died I went to see her. We didn’t exchange a lot of words. Instead, she asked me to take her down to the lobby. She wanted to look at the birds in the cage. She looked at them for a long time, then smiled at me. One week later, on June 24, 2010, when my phone rang at 8 in the morning, I knew before I answered that she was gone. Linda May Fenton, my grandmother whom I loved and adored, who fought her way out of poverty, landed in “the true North strong and free” and fought for racial equality in her own way, had flown away and left me.