Of Islands and Other Mothers

nonstopAbout this time last year, I spent some time with an extraordinary woman who lost her daughter in the Twin Towers. Her story closes the essay I wrote for Nonstop Metropolis, the anthology about NYC out in October; it’s a feminist essay about the role and number of women among Caribbean immigrants to New York City providing one bridge across race, religion, language and national origin. On this day, I thought I’d offer Mother Myrtle’s story:

“It was mid-September 2015 when a Spiritual Baptist I had met at a Flatbush church a week earlier returned my call. Mother Myrtle declined lunch, a little gruffly, explaining that every year around September 11, she would lose her temper at the slightest provocation and even her own family left her alone. Fourteen years after the terror attacks, this time of year still found her a recluse. I apologized for disturbing her. The sixty-eight-year-old great-grandmother repeated that she did not want to talk. I told her that I respected that and prepared to say goodbye. But she didn’t hang up. Instead, for the next ninety minutes, she talked and I listened, in silent awe at the size of her grief. I held the phone to my ear gingerly, poised on the edge with her as she told me, with careening momentum, about her daughter Shevonne. Shevonne, who was left behind in Guyana when Myrtle came to America. Shevonne, who had nonetheless managed, running a grocery and taxi service by herself at seventeen. Shevonne, who ultimately made her way to New York too. Shevonne, who studied evenings at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Shevonne, who was at her job in the World Trade Center when the planes hit on September 11, 2001.
That morning, mother and daughter had ridden the subway to work together. Three times, Myrtle heard a voice say: “Admire your daughter.” At first, Myrtle thought it was the person sitting next to her. From girlhood, she had had visions, and spirits spoke to her, but there, in that everyday commuter crush to Manhattan, she thought the source of the command more earthbound. When she realized it wasn’t, she was confused. Why should she admire Shevonne? She saw her every day. The third time the spirit spoke, it was roughly, admonishingly. So Myrtle obeyed. She registered every detail of her twenty-five-year-old daughter: neat office clothes, hair pulled back tight, glasses on her nose, reading her Daily Word prayer book. Mother Myrtle tapped Shevonne on the knee, smiled goodbye, and got off to change trains.
An hour later at Beth Israel Hospital, where she worked as a nurse’s aide, she fainted when saw the towers collapse on television. A fifth of the casualties were foreign-born, and Guyanese suffered one of the highest losses, with twenty-five dead. Shevonne was among them. For Mother Myrtle, the months that followed were a blur of her own near-madness. She stopped eating and had to be put on an intravenous drip. Her hair went completely gray. She heard voices, which told her to strip and run down the street or jump out the window. She would wander in a trance and end up at the World Trade Center site and not know her way home. When ultimately she reclaimed her senses, it was through prayer and her church. “If I didn’t know God,” she told me, “I’d be one of the crazy ones.”
She has found her God at St. Gabriel’s for almost two decades. The day I met Mother Myrtle, about fifty congregants were there, almost all of them middle-aged or elderly black women from Guyana. I knew their accents. I could easily place their villages on a map. I was clearly an outsider, the only one there visibly Indian, but they acted like reproving mothers to me. Several shot me disapproving looks as my veil dropped; one, in a gold pontiff’s hat, a bishop in the church hierarchy, snapped at me for taking notes on my phone. Another reached back repeatedly to uncross my legs: “Why you lock yourself up so?” she asked. I had come before the Lord, and I needed to open to Him.
St. Gabriel’s allows its followers to approach Jesus through different lineages. Mother Myrtle approached through Hinduism. And as our phone call ended, she grunted, then cried out, apparently as a medium for the Mother—that is to say Kali. The goddess had possessed her. Speaking in Guyanese creole, she prophesied for me a Hindu wedding and a child in white. Then this matriarch from my home country told me that she also saw “flag work.” (By this, she meant the involved worship rituals that the prismatic flags in Little Guyana commemorate.) I would not be the one to perform the prayer ceremony; my mother would, she said. There seemed, in all this, a certain pattern. My mother would pray for me, as Myrtle still grieves in memory of Shevonne, as Tisha’s mother had engineered her exodus to New York City. From one woman acting on behalf of a daughter to the next, had maternal fierceness somehow forged a chain to connect us across the divisive waters of race and religion and history? Was this then, at last, our Caribbean archipelago?”
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