No Trouble, for Pearline Donaldson

From the life of Pearline Donaldson

By Marta Guerreiro

Not all stories have a thread. Often, our life becomes easier to tell if we remember just some moments, pieces: a puzzle of loves and battles, which we preserve within us, in places that can be poetic – a treasure chest made of faith – but not always easy to describe with words.

Between laughter and expressions of concern, Pearline would grab my hand, or gently touch my leg while giggling; a giggle that lights up a room, leaving no dark corner unlit. This was her way – I imagine – of saying that she could not describe such an immensity of life, of love, of struggles and accomplishments without weeks of talking.

The things in her life that aren’t about connections seem to hold no weight for her. The things that are – parents, husband, kids, grandkids and the church every Sunday – make her eyes shine, like gold, so bright. She picks me up every Sunday, and we go to church together, she tells me about one of her daughters. Oh, I sing at the church, that is why I go there, to sing. There is no drama, no trouble, we are all friends. My daughter sings with me. Pearline won’t sing for me outside the church: with a shy look, and cheeks turning red, she says that I need to go to her church to hear her singing.

I can imagine that age brings us many things, taking other things away from us, the ones that hurt. However, here, with the sun hitting our heads as we talk, she doesn’t seems bothered by the times life made her fall: with a solid look in her eyes, she proves how strong she is.

A wave of joy hits me when I hear the way she tells me about the plans she makes. Oh, a family that does not forget that behind so many years of experience there is a woman, a mother, who fought for her children to study and have a life full of joy and achievements. They were all good students, they went to university, no trouble. Even my daughter who is in Jamaica, you know, she moved after she married, even she comes to visit me.

Jamaica seems to be emotionally far when Pearline talks about it, making it obvious that she misses it, but very certain that she wouldn’t change a thing about her decision. There, it is good – for holidays, not for living. My husband wanted to go back there at some point, so we went, but I got fed up. I was pregnant, I told him: I’m going to England again. So, I did, and I had my last child here, like I wanted. As soon my last child was born, I start working here and there. I needed money to buy the tickets for my other kids, back in Jamaica, to come back. I made it, and they returned to be near me.

Pearline laughs, as she realises she can’t recall how many grandchildren she has. So many. They visit me. All of them. Six daughters, two sons and grandchildren, no trouble.

There is so much about the present that she is passionate about, but the past isn’t much different. She emanates nothing but kindness when she talks about the chapters of her life.

I used to sew, to make clothes. She was seventeen when she started sewing children’s clothes. That was what I liked the most. Not even studying, that, was… so and so, she says as she laughs.

We talk in the garden flooded with sun, surrounded by the green and yellow of beautiful spring days. I ask about her friends and boyfriends. She only had one boyfriend before her husband, and makes it clear that she never had much patience for men. I met my husband in Jamaica, but I left him there and moved to England. We didn’t have a relationship back then. I thought, if he loved me, he would follow me – she giggles – and he did. He moved to England and we got married. She tells me it was love at first sight; he lived near her in Jamaica, and yes, it was love. Before him, she had already had her first kid when she was 20, but she didn’t know romantic love could be like this.  

We look at some old photos. Pearline surrounded with daughters and sons, a grandchild. Pearline the diva, with hair that would make anyone jealous, the posture of one who leads, who has the answers, who will provide safety. I ask her if she is a leader; she nods – yes, I am. With contagious laughter, she tells me about the photos. This house, this is the countryside. I lived in the countryside, here in England, before moving to London. London was just before, remember when I went to Jamaica because my husband wanted? So, when I return to England, I moved to London. But the country was before that.

They say that an image is worth more than a thousand words. Pearline describes all the photos in as much depth as she can. This is the daughter I live with now, and this is the one who takes me to church. These are my sons, old men now. However, most of the time she just stares at the photos and then gently smiles at me. Sometimes, silence is the best way to describe emotions – speechless – living within us: all the good times, the good memories. Sometimes, silence is our best friend, allowing us to hold hands with our most genuine self.

Pearline, a pearl, a diva of her time, a piece of art with a heart shinier than any jewel. My favourite gift in my entire life was my wedding ring, she told me while looking at her hands. My husband bought it. Gold, wedding rings must be gold, you know? But I don’t have it anymore. I was at the hospital, I needed to take rings off, and I’ve lost it. He didn’t like to take pictures, that is why he isn’t in photos, my husband, but I have photos of him at home.

The gifts she loved remain in her mind, like precious treasures. At Christmas, she told me, she goes shopping and buys her kids and grandkids clothes, or gives them money. They give her clothes too, and when they can’t all be together, they send the gifts to each other’s homes. Sometimes I go and stay with my other daughter. They all care about me. I live with one, but I stay with the others too. Pearline tells me how she loves to stay close to her family, oh, but she also loves to travel.

As she tells me that she has travelled the world with her daughter – no, not the one who takes me to the church, the one with whom I live – time seems to stop. Her eyes are no longer focused on me: instead, they seems to be turning inward to the places she does not know how to describe, only feel. Her silence is comfortable, her body is in peace and nothing interrupts the return of this beautiful soul to these cities she once visited. I go to relax, I usually go six weeks, to relax; if there is beach, even better. Like a diva, like a pearl – returning to the sea, laying her body under hot skies and allowing her soul to receive the energy it needs.

We come back into the present, interrupting the holidays she is reliving in her thoughts. In most cases, food is what takes us back to cherished places of our childhood that are now far from our body. Not in this case, the food does not matter. It’s my daughter who cooks, oh no, it’s not Jamaican food, it’s anything because it does not matter to me, as long as it is food. There is a brief pause until she tells me about the food in her church. On Thursdays we have this event where everybody goes to the church, we have food, but I don’t go because of that, I go because I like being with them. Pearline tells me that on Thursdays her daughter can’t take her. They pick me up, this lady, they are nice, they pick me up and take me back home. She didn’t go to this church when she was younger. My parents were religious, but not like this. They were kind and had rules. Oh, when I was young, I wouldn’t party, my father wasn’t happy with that. So, I never gave them trouble.

She tells me that she missed them every day, but they didn’t want to move to England, and she did.

When I moved here, I could only talk with them by letters, so I wrote a lot of letters. She explains that it wasn’t because she couldn’t afford a phone, but because back then there was not a way to make a call to that far. Money? Money was better back then, everything was cheaper, now it is difficult. Flight tickets to Jamaica were so cheap, now it is really expensive.

My parents died a long time ago, I couldn’t go there, I had my kids here.

This time, her look was focused, full of the pain of losing a father and a mother. I could not always be present. It is not the places, the colours and the smells which she attaches meaning to in her memory seemed to have no meaning in her memory; everything only led to a place, to the unconditional love of a family. I asked her:

“And your parents, were they together?”

Together? Always. All the time.

Even when sadness would hit Pearline during our conversations, she would rapidly change the subject or make very clear, through her facial expressions, that happy places were the ones where she wanted to be.  Soon, the talk would have moved on and there she was, giggling again, talking about her singing, or the photos she was holding. In life – I imagine – we can choose which directions we want to look at, or the paths we left behind; for Pearline, it seems like it’s  only worth looking at the joy, the fun and the magic of being alive, of being loved and able to love.

For me, it doesn’t matter that my kids have grown, I don’t think it was better when they were little, because they are my kids; doesn’t matter if grown or not, I love them all the same. Never gave me problems, and they call me all the time.

For Pearline, the past and the present are about emotions, feelings no one can describe. It is about connections and the amazing skill it takes to ¡raise a human being. The church, meaning friendship and freedom, with voices, singing, that can reach the sky. Her husband, too shy for photos but not too shy to follow her across the ocean. Golden rings, lost in some place, but never forgotten. Oh, and time – that word that can mean nothing but giggles, watery eyes, family photos, reunions, letters once written, and a world travelled.

No matter what we were talking about, Pearline would always go back eventually to the subject of her family. There weren’t special objects for Pearline, other than the ring. There weren’t regrets she could recall, just a family, a constellation that is getting bigger, with her leading presence right in the middle, shining like gold.

Not all stories have a thread. Often, our life becomes easier to tell if we remember just some moments, pieces: a puzzle of loves and battles, which we preserve within us, in places that can be poetic – a treasure chest made of faith – but not always easy to describe with words.

When I met with Pearline for the first time, I noticed her heartwarming giggle. God bless you, she told me.

The sun never left us while we were talking, but Pearline managed to shine brighter than it.

Like gold – like a pearl. Daughter of the sea – Diva of the earth.

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