She was placed in a shoebox when she was born. Helplessly, her father watched his wife fight infection on the bed. When it was decided her mother wouldn’t survive, the tiny baby was placed in the crook of her mother’s arm, so they could die together, for newborns could not survive without their mothers.
On April 8th,1943, that is how her life began on the island of St. Maarten. I imagine feeling this tiny newborn squirming beside her, gave her mother the fight needed to survive, and she did. The shoebox baby is my mother in law, Mireille Adams. My children call her Oma, which is Dutch for grandmother.
Last week, we returned Oma to her childhood home. Her eyes lit up as she tugged on my arm pointing at the crumbling three room house on the French side of St. Maarten.
“My father built it,” she explained. “This is the house I grew up in. There were only three rooms. All of the children slept in one…no indoor bathroom. We cooked outside mostly.”
While her mind joyfully returned to her childhood, my mind imagined hoodlums in the night, peering from the dark shadows of this shabby quarter. The smell of rotten fish and backed up sewage, followed us down the narrow alleyways. She was like a child with a spring in her step, taking us down the familiar stone path she walked everyday to school.
The long abandoned building still stood, I tried to imagine it filled with children, the aromas of freshly sharpened pencils and new books, but I knew, there were no such luxuries in this school.; albeit, she smiled as if it were filled with many happy memories regardless.
Christmas was meager for her and her siblings. A stick of gum under a chopped down shrub, created the same excitement on Christmas dawn as an X- Box 360 today. They went barefoot to school, and the only sweets were those plucked from the trees.
“Tammy, come take a picture!” She called from her balcony. I ran up from the beach and aimed my camera on a table filled with mangos, kin-nips, plantains, coconuts, tamarinds, and (believe it or not) stinky toes, just to name a few. The stinky toes were long and brown and looked more like stinky poo, if you ask me.
“When you cut it open,” she explained. “It releases an odor, but it taste so good.” I couldn’t imagine anything that ugly tasting good. The local cousins blessed us with the bounty of these fruits as a welcome gift.
There were many cousins still on the island. All with French names I found hard to pronounce. Many connected to Oma by the DNA of a rich white man, by the name of Fife’ Wells. He was a philandering husband who spread his seed thin, but never laid claim to the fruit.
One of his fruits happened to be Oma’s mother. She was a light skinned woman with bright green eyes. Her name was Germaine Denis.
“West Indians are a very proud people.” Oma explained. When Germaine’s mother could no longer hide her baby bulge, her parents put her out. She lived in a wooden box on the beach, and that is where Oma’s mother was born… in a box.
Oma pointed to the small Catholic church. “This is where my parents married. My mother wanted an evening wedding.” She went on to explain due to her illegitimate birth, some of the town was against her marrying, so they cut the lights out on the church to prevent it. Her mother’s brother found someone with a car, pulled the car up to the doors of the church, and turned on the headlights. She married in the glow of headlights.
Oma’s father worked building houses and her mother a talented seamstress embroidered and sewed. They stashed away every cent to give their children a better tomorrow in the United States. A place where they could receive an education and a future.
Eventually, They made the voyage over the sea, under the sponsorship of friends. They settled in New York and started a new life, filled with freshly sharpened pencils, new books, and shoes on their feet.
Today I am so grateful for Oma. Her history is haunting, as it is beautiful. I can’t help, but reflect on the day I met her. One Thanksgiving morning, on the drive to their house, Jay told me stories of how strict she was. How she would look his girlfriends up and down, and if she didn’t like them, she showed them the door.
As one can imagine I was nervous, not only was I white, but I had no idea if she would like me. What if she showed me the door?
She was getting dressed in the bedroom when we arrived. Jay left to pick something up at the market and she emerged from her room.
I extended a shaking hand. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of me,” I said. “but I’m a friend of your sons. My name is Tammy Carter.”
She glanced down at my hand before pulling me in her arms. “Welcome home child,” she said against my cheek.
Oma says the moment she saw me, she knew I was meant for Jay. I cannot express in words the relief I felt in her embrace, nor can I find the words to describe St. Maarten, for it was more than a tourist destination for me. For it was here, I realized a white Southern girl born with a silver spoon became tied to a black island girl born without shoes. This awareness made her acceptance of me that Thanksgiving morning an extraordinary gift, for the greatest of gifts sometimes come in an unwrapped box. Thank you Oma.