For as long as I can remember, my excitement about Christmas revolved around receiving barrels packed with a variety of material love from my absentee mother. As a barrel child, the gathering of family to celebrate the festive season had become foreign.
I met many girls who were just like me, all children of mothers who had migrated to the United States, England and Canada in search of a better life. The plan for all of us, was that our mothers would send for us once they were ‘sorted out’. For some girls, their mothers sent for them in record time, both legally and illegal; for other girls and myself our mothers ‘luck’ did not materialize.
In 1989, when we took our mother to the airport, I cried as I did every time she would go away. At the time, the Normal Manley International Airport had its waving gallery where persons leaving would turn and give that last wave goodbye before walking into the Love Bird that was Air Jamaica. For many children, this was the last time they would ever see their parent(s). On that day, I did not think that I would become one of those children. I had been to the airport before to see my mother off, usually in June, but she would always come home for Christmas.
That year in 1989, my brother, sister and I decorated our Christmas tree as we always did in anticipation of her return. Our father watched as we decorated and planned, I wonder to this day why he did not prepare us. On Christmas Eve, we waited, usually she would surprise us. We fell asleep and rose early Christmas morning eagerly anticipating that voice, the laughter and that warm hug. It was then, that we were told, that our mother would not be coming home; she had ‘run off’. We sat that day huddle around the Christmas tree, crying, because there was nothing else to do. That year marked the beginning of my life as a barrel child.
‘Running off’ in the US, Canada or England connotes different things based on who you ask. Many family members encourage young parents to ‘run off’ once they get a visa as ‘no opportunity no de a yaad’. Many eagerly volunteer to take the children as parents promise to send money every pay period to send the children to school, to buy their food and to pay the caretaker. While some parents who ‘run’, find employment and have good experiences, many others who ‘run off’ encounter homelessness, hunger, abuse and longstanding adverse conditions. Thus, they cannot help the children they have left behind and most of these children become homeless, hungry, abused and experience longstanding adverse conditions.
For me, being a barrel child, meant I had every material thing a child could want. I had clothing, toys and money. My mother would also send us pocket money in letters filled with words like ‘miss you’, ‘behave yourself’ and ‘love you’; after a while I no longer read the words, I opened the letters for the money. Not because I didn’t love her or wanted to hear from her but what good were those words to me. I remember everyone used to say we were so lucky. But how lucky were we?
When I had my first period, I played in the blood-soaked shorts for the entire day, because I thought it was from sitting on the floor that was polished with red oak dye and no one paid enough attention to me to notice that I was bleeding. I passed my common entrance, C.X.C, A Level’s, graduated from primary and high school and the only memory I have of those events was the fact that my mother was not there. I did not attend my University graduation as by this time my father had migrated too.
As I grew older, I rationalized that my mother could have been dead and thus the self-pity I felt, subsided. As I went through high school I met other barrel girls and saw that in some ways I was lucky. I became friends with a girl named Natalee, whose mother had recently migrated to England. Natalee was left with her mother’s friend and her little sister was left in the care of a neighbor. As a barrel child, there was no one waiting for you to come home, so we sat in the school yard watching, as the other girls were being picked up by their mothers and fathers who seemed genuinely happy to see them. As the campus started to empty out, Natalee told me that she had nowhere to go. Her mother had been gone for close to three months and was yet to find work, so she had not sent any money, in addition, her mother’s friend boyfriend made her feel uncomfortable and now the friend needed her gone. She needed somewhere to stay that night. We concocted a story to tell my aunt and she spent the night, I don’t know where she slept after that.
After University, I started teaching and met other barrel children. I understood exactly, the anger, frustration, hurt and lack of respect that these children demonstrated to me, other members of staff, their peers and caregivers. I met Alexia, a beautiful smart young lady who ran away from her grandparents. When they came to school, the grandmother kept saying, “we gave her everything, there is nothing that she wants or needs that she does not have”. When we called Alexia to the office and found out that she ran away to stay with her sister. When asked, what was the problem, through tears she said, “when my mother left me at my grandmother’s house, she said she would be back by my birthday and today marks 11 months since my birthday passed”. She was 14 and her sister was 16 they had never been away from their mother before.
No one really understands or even cares about the impact that migration has on children, especially illegal migration. Our loved ones leave with all these grand dreams, but most are entering unknown conditions. The sacrifices and near death experiences that are encountered to get the green, black or yellow cards leaves all of us battered, some permanently damaged.
Looking back, I would have preferred not to have all the material things and have my mother home. I would have preferred those hugs, the trips to the market, being told by mother to clean my room. I would have preferred those memories of going to the country for Christmas and waking up without presents but with her. I wanted that memory of being accepted into University and having my biggest cheerleader there in person. I would have loved the memory of having a fight because I wanted to go to a party and she did not let me go. I don’t think we gained anything more or less, had she stayed. As an adult, I find that I do not possess the ability to value or love anything. Relationships are hard for me; you want to give and get the kind of love that cherishes and compromises all at once, but what does that love even mean or feel like.
In some respects, I fared better than other barrel children, so many were abandoned, some have grown into barrel adults, others were orphaned. My mother left me when I was 9 years old, we reunited when I turned 34. Now, instead of missing her and wanting to be with her, I find myself feeling so much pity for her. This ‘run off’ place gets cold and lonely, I think about how hard it must have been for her to leave three small children, to miss all those birthdays, all those holidays and all those firsts.
She is obsessed with barrels, packing them and sending them. It seems to bring her so much joy.