A Letter To My Nana Who Taught Me How To Be Unapologetically Myself

You've never diluted your true essence or your power of expression. So, why should I?
Nana and some of her 16 grandchildren – including Nadine, her brother Ishmael, and cousins Jordan and Ezra.
Nana and some of her 16 grandchildren – including Nadine, her brother Ishmael, and cousins Jordan and Ezra.

You’re reading our series The Women Who Came Before Us. At a time when the generations can seem more divided than ever, HuffPost UK writers thank women in their family – or chosen family – who paved the way for the lives they lead today. Read more letters here.

Dear Nana,

For as long as I can remember, it has been you and me, my love. Along with your 16 other grandchildren, I grew up in your hand. But there was always something between us; a spark that has endured and grown stronger over the years.

I’ve learned so much from you, my darling. There’s the practical lessons: how to steam cabbage to go with the boiled dumpling, yam, pumpkin and banana; or how to properly prepare a cup of tea, sew, bath. And you’ve also taught me how to throw back my head and laugh from my core; you embody joie de vivre even after going through so much pain.

You migrated from Jamaica as a young woman in 1962, just before independence, with a daughter in tow and still grieving the tragic loss of your infant son who had died suddenly months before.

Life was quite comfortable in Jamaica, you’ve told me. You lived on land we own, which happens to be a former slave plantation. You – queen of that quaint district of Mocho, Clarendon – left all that you knew to forge your own path in life, wielding sweet freedom and autonomy – something our foreparents could only dream of doing while shackled and chained.

Like many of the other Windrush generation pioneers, you were met with hostility and suspicion from racists who weren’t happy about Black people’s arrival in Britain – even if it was to help rebuild their mash up, war-torn country. Even after World War II had ended, Black people were battling for survival and dignity on Britain’s streets, treated as the enemy, at times fearing for their lives.

When the time came for you to enter the workplace, you rolled up your sleeves and did what you had to, to put food on the table and clothes on your children’s backs – cleaning jobs, seamstress work – and in true Nana fashion, anything you did was to the very best of your ability.

You got divorced in the 1970s when ending a marriage was still considered taboo. Once again, as you did years before, you dared to strike out on your own. You showed me it was okay to leave situations which for one reason or another no longer serve you.

I have forged my own path as a woman through that example. Lately, I’ve enjoyed practical relationship advice from you; the kind a millennial woman can only glean from someone like you. After all, you’ve worn the t-shirt, honey.

You were never limited by your circumstances. By all means, you were a poor migrant woman with six children but, by God, you had ambition, dignity and pride! Your clothes were clean, beloved; skirting boards immaculate and children well behaved.

Brixton market in the 1970s.
Brixton market in the 1970s.

I love that you trained my mum and aunties to take care of themselves and be self-sufficient, lessons they’ve passed down to their children.

On a Saturday, you would wake them up early to go to Brixton market for grocery shopping and send one kid back home – mid-shop – with ingredients to start boiling the soup for the rest of the family, ahead of your arrival. That spirit of collaboration, togetherness, love and service to others continues to define us as a family and it is a part of the fabric of my being.

You taught me how to be myself – to dance like nobody’s watching, to belch when I need to and cry “excuse me”. To bawl if I must. Even after living in Britain for more than 50 years, your Jamaican accent remains as crisp and clear as day, no matter who you’re talking to. You have never diluted your true essence, Nana. So, “why should I?”, I often remind myself.

“Even after living in Britain for more than 50 years, your Jamaican accent remains as crisp and clear as day.”

Through you, I learned the importance of discipline. I’ve long been a bit of a rebel, a self-defined, righteous disruptor for the greater good, but the regard for boundaries you’ve instilled in me holds firm.

“To everything there is a season,” your beloved Bible says. And we’ve had our time for mourning, Nana. I listened to your heart shatter into a million pieces when, yet again, you had to bury another son in 2004. I heard you quietly beg him to stay with you as he lay sick in hospital. I watched you weep at his graveside in the rain, helpless and hurting. A mother burying her own child; does any other pain compare?

Woman, you possess the strength of ten thousand men, unyielding and true!

Nana and Nadine, on her first birthday.
Nana and Nadine, on her first birthday.

I can remember, as a child, when none of us – not me, nor my siblings or cousins – would be allowed to leave the kitchen table until we’d finished our cereal at breakfast. Our “wheat” as you call it. Or the callalloo and saltfish for dinner. Every last scrap to be devoured. “Mi seh fi eat it!,” you’d warn, sternly looking on. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt!

Oftentimes, during my childhood, I’d hear you humming Christian hymns while undertaking chores around the house. You still do it to this day. I thought it to be light entertainment but recently realised it’s your act of resistance, particularly in the face of life’s trials, tribulations and, lately, its debilitating aches and pains.

Those songs are soothing to your soul and mine; something like the spiritual refrains our ancestors would quietly croon on the fields – or the intent, reassuring melody of crickets as a few would learn to read by candlelight under cover of dusk. Those choruses herald safety. And, so, you’ve taught me how to hum, Nanny, and nurse my blues in times of adversity. You’ve taught me about the power of expression and the might of the word.

To that end, you generally cannot be told. You put the ‘s’ in ‘stubborn’ but even that’s beautiful. Through this, you’ve taught me the importance of cleaving to your principles as a woman and standing up for what you believe in. We all have flaws but you have always done what you could with what you had, where you were.

As I write this, know that I am smiling absentmindedly and blinking away tears of joy because I’m truly fortunate to know a love like this. It has stood the test of time and this is perhaps the most important lesson of all that I will carry in my spirit for all eternity: how to love without condition.

Sincerely yours, forever and ever,

Nadine

Nadine's Nana.
Nadine's Nana.