This is my grandfather, Paul Lawrence – the start of the Lawrence line as I know it. There were generations of Lawrences before, but I know so little about them. I was born in Brighton, England, brought up in Sussex by my mother. Her parents, seven sisters and three brothers lived in Trinidad and for many years, the family stories and intrigues rarely made it to my ears. As I look at this picture now, what so i see? A bit of me. Alot of my mum. And – grief – are those my daughter’s eyes?
My grandfather died when I was six. The first time my mother returned to Trinidad after coming to England in the mid-60s was to go to his funeral, taking me with her. It was a time when banks were reluctant to lend money to women, so a black, single mother, underpaid nurse was hardly going to tick their boxes. My mum borrowed money somehow; I borrowed summer clothes from my best friend – and we were off.
Forty years or so, I still hold strong memories. There’s the scary stuff – the enormous flying cockroaches and their plump, shuffling larvae. There was the long drop latrines – which I’ve heard are making a comeback at festivals. (Seriously?) I refused to use one until my mother described a colostomy in graphic, buttock-clenching detail; that was apparently my fate unless I let it all go. (Why let that nursing training waste, huh?)
I also remember the plane door opening after an eternally long flight and the hot, scented air. And the moment I threw open my grandma’s door on to the rush of morning green. Massive mango trees, banana trees, sugar cane, palms, avocado, a forest of fruit I’d never seen before. Add in one mangy cockerel and chicks that bobbed away on spindly legs when I chased them – oh, yes.
The strongest memory, though, is meeting my grandfather. He was in his coffin, in my grandma’s front room. Apparently, I wasn’t phased. My mum says I thought he looked like a nice man.
That was a recurring theme – he was a nice man. I know only fragments of his life, but my mum and her siblings talk of him with great affection. I believe he was one of nine children and his father disappeared. There is a story that my great-grandfather and his brother may have rowed a boat down a south American river. There is also a story that drugs were involved with great-grandfather Lawrence’s disappearance. Of course, I wish those stories are true. I’m a writer.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve been shown the land we used to own but got lost in family feuds. In the Palm House at Kew Gardens, my 80-year-old Aunty over for her visit to the UK pointed out the ‘red fig’ tree. My grandfather used it to pound flour when rations were tight during the Second World War. I think now how he lived through two world wars, Trinidad independence, the migration of many people from the Caribbean to the UK and US. I wonder if his life became easier or harder. Unlike many in the Caribbean, other than my mother, his family wasn’t scattered between lands. Three of my aunties still live on the land where his house was. No relatives of mine were on the SS Windrush and only one followed afterwards.
My Aunty sent this photograph for me and I am grateful. As a second generation black British woman, I have sometimes felt caught between two cultures. I am not a Trini, no matter how many Kitch lyrics I can quote. Growing up in the UK, there are many times I have not felt I’m the right kind of British. But I am lucky. I know my heritage. And it is many of those stories passed down to me that now inspire me to write.