The yellow dress my Jamaican aunt sent from America was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen. It was not dowdy and stoic like the pink linen suit and brown plaid skirt with accordion pleats my mother had sent me from London. This dress was dream-like and yellow like the pale sun. No fussy laciness, made of the finest delicate cotton, with the crinoline sewn into the skirt. Not the kind of crinoline made from the membraneous fishnet-like material, which when washed became itchy from heavy starch. The dress my aunt sent me was as fashionable as I remember — mi neva even did affi wear aneda alf-slip wid de frak!
Aunts play a distinct role in the life of a child. Like a fairy godmother, they come and go at will. They do everything right, and my Aunt Peggy was no exception. Most Americans would describe Aunt Peggy as a half-sibling — a phrase I do not like. To me, that implies the option to be family. She and my mother shared the same father. Neither of their mothers was married to their father. But she was a full-blooded family to me.
Aunt Peggy was a surrogate, filling the void my mother left when she emigrated to England. When I was ten or eleven years old, I spent my summer holidays with Aunt Peggy. She lived in Priory in the parish of St. Ann, Jamaica. From her verandah, you could see the blue-green Caribbean Sea that made my aunt love her homeland. But I was too young — the adults too careful perhaps — to walk the short distance down the hill, across the road onto Altery Beach, and wade in the water and find seashells. Just as my friends did, whose fathers and brothers knew how to swim.
I adored my aunt; she was the light-hearted mother I did not have. Aunt Peggy’s life seemed enviable. I thought she was stylish, worldly-wise, and socially connected, having everything her heart desired. To me, her rules seemed few, the freedoms she gave me unlimited. And in childhood wonderment, I clung to that perception of my aunt. But I did not know her dreams of career, marriage, or children were ebbing away unfulfilled.
Aunt Peggy would leave me behind to emigrate, like my mother and another aunt had done a decade before. But her departure did not seem so permanent. I felt I would see her again — she had left memories with me. Not like my mother, who had left me as a toddler, and whom I did not remember.
My aunt emigrated to America just after my thirteenth birthday. When she got her visa to the United States, the application requirements and documentation were onerous. Many Jamaicans were still emigrating to the United States as guest workers at the invitation of corporations or close relatives who sponsored them for permanent residence. But Aunt Peggy had no one to shepherd her through immigration hurdles. Her only option was a Visitor’s Visa.
The preconditions for travelers like my aunt included evidence of strong financials such as secure employment, homeownership, and a healthy bank balance. These provided the assurance that she would return home when her visa expired. My Aunt Peggy met those conditions without difficulty and according to the American government, posed no risk of becoming “a ward-of-the-state.” In 1961 she received the enviable four-year multiple-entry Visitor’s Visa. It was the start of her dream for a better life for her infant daughter and extended family.
Although any American visa in the hands of a Jamaican was a golden parachute, Aunt Peggy’s Visa limited her to come and go to the United States within a stated duration. It did not grant permanent residence. She was not permitted to work. But achieving her “stay” in America must have been top of mind for my aunt, and I am sure she had a plan. It would be a difficult path to a permanent Visa. Although marrying an American would have allowed her to remain in the United States while her husband petitioned for a Permanent Resident Visa on her behalf. My aunt briefly married, some suspected for Visa convenience. But I never met my aunt’s husband, and I do not know how she changed her immigration status. Thirteen years after arriving, she became a permanent resident and sponsored her mother and twelve-year-old daughter to join her in America.
I emigrated to the United States eight years after my Aunt Peggy. My grandmother, at nearly seventy-five-years-old had struggled to pay my tuition for the first two years of college in Jamaica and could not assist me in the United States. I did not receive financial support from my church conference to study abroad nor from the Jamaican government. Both would have obligated me to return home but kept me more financially secure in the United States. Instead, I arrived in America on October 13, 1969, with a Permanent Resident Visa in hand and all the legal privileges of living and working without restrictions. It was a miracle.
Six weeks after classes began, and on a colder-than-I-had-ever-known October day, I called Aunt Peggy. I planned to visit her in New York City at Christmastime. But unbeknownst to me, she was living with a friend on the weekends, and on weekdays she worked and lived in the home of a wealthy family. In a moment, my safety net had evaporated.
I spent that Christmas with a cousin, my grandmother’s niece, the only other relative I knew in the United States. The car ride from Michigan to New York City was the longest I had ever taken. My college roommates, whom I knew from Jamaica, arranged the ride with a young man I only knew as a Trinidadian who grew up in America. Driving east from Michigan to New York, we were to arrive first in Manhattan. But as we approached, he told me I would be the last passenger he let off — my cousin lived in Manhattan. Though uncertain of his plan and not understanding the navigation of our route, and only somewhat worried about him, I acquiesced.
In the wee hours of the night, a fellow Caribbean — a gallant college senior — walked me to my cousin’s door. But before he walked away, he asked whether I would like to go with him to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Without knowing what a Rockette was, I said yes. It seemed an innocent gesture toward a just-off-the-boat Caribbean girl. And it was decades before I understood what it meant to attend the famed New York spectacular, where only a hand full of Black or colored people were in attendance. A moment that was at the tipping point of the Civil Rights Movement, something I knew little about, and did not notice the cues around me.
I withdrew from Andrews University at the end of the Spring term. I was penniless, with a twenty-five-hundred-dollar student loan debt. But although I had visited my guest worker cousin in New York City in her employer-provided housing, I could not live with her. And at the suggestion of my mentor I moved to Rochester, a city nearly the size of my entire island nation. It was March, before the winter snow had retreated and I had neither boots nor gloves and only a short furry coat, prettier than it was warm. The coat I had bought on a whim in the Miami airport.
My mentor, a man I would later marry, had secured a job for me beforehand. He had lived in the United States and Canada long before me and made living arrangements for me at a YWCA hostel. I was grateful, even if anxious, because it was a time when prospects were dim for cheap accommodations. Landlords lied to avoid renting to a colored who appeared at their door about a vacancy. Still. I found pockets of compassion and later when my stay at the Y expired, a white woman — a widow — rented me her back room with shared bathroom and kitchen privileges.
In Rochester, I went to a job sight unseen at the Aetna Insurance Company housed in the Sibley Building owned by the Sibley, Lindsey, and Curr department store. The store occupied four floors and a connecting tower housed corporate offices. I worked in the tower. I had never seen an escalator before and did not know how to get on or off. Shoppers and office workers entered the building through a revolving door. That door bewildered me. At first, I tried to get inside the pie-shaped wedge with someone in front of me. Imagine their befuddlement, a fright that might have worsened the fears of some people about their proximity to Black people. A phenomenon brought about by the repeal of Jim Crow laws that promised increasing access for Black people to share in public life.
My new job was not difficult, but it was tedious and seemed based on a manufacturing efficiency model. How many sheets were typed in an hour, in a day, in a week? How many errors? Below target and there would be demerits. Demerits added up and could jeopardize job security. But companies, at least those in northern cities, had begun to take safe bets on hiring more Black people to comply with the Civil Rights Act. As an immigrant with a strong personal recommendation, I was a safe bet, even if overqualified in the typing pool.
I did not see my aunt that first Christmas, nor for a long time afterward. After my divorce, I relocated to Albany, New York. The distance between my aunt and me narrowed to a mere two-hour Amtrak ride, and our relationship found its natural rhythm. Aunt Peggy became the voice of my elders, giving advice and cautions, even as my life and experiences differed from hers. Still, our stories had one familiar theme — a fierce survival instinct of women living life on their terms. We were never again distant from each other.
My family’s emigration journeys have crossed two continents for our eventual successes — financial stability and immense educational progress. But emigration disrupts and robs families of the wholeness they deserve. Families are disconnected because of the long absences between parents, spouses, and children, even as their long distance relationships are nourish by increased wealth. So it might be that what my aunt lost as a mother working overseas, fostered our special relationship because she embraced me as if I were her daughter. Perhaps she regretted the complicated relationship with her only child. Yet, she had achieved the epitome of the common belief described in Jamaican parlance, that you mus guh a farin fi betta yuhself.
My beloved Aunt Peggy died fifty-three years after emigrating to the United States. Those who gathered for her funeral — her daughter, nieces, sisters, brothers and friends — had come from London, Toronto, New York, Orlando, and several cities in-between. Even Jamaica. We were indeed successful citizens of the world, even if still separated by emigration.
I had long forgotten the yellow dress of my childhood until we were planning my aunt’s service — I had given it on to another girl in my neighborhood. Instead of a yellow dress, I wore an India-ink blue-black dress to her funeral. A faux wrap dress, the kind glamorized by Diane Von Furstenberg and a style well-suited to my body. Aunt Peggy would have approved. She never lost her sense of fashion and my cousin chose a purple-hued casket, nodding to her mother’s love of that color.
In that moment though, I wanted to be her favorite niece in the yellow dress of my fifteen-year-old self. Remembering her the way I knew her. Thinking only of her unbounded love for me. Oh, how she stood in the gap and shaped my life!
A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing.
She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination,
Prepared to be herself and only herself. (Maya Angelou)