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85 years of doing the right thing

Published October 22, 2006


My grandmother turns 85 on Tuesday. I'm going to see her, to celebrate.

There is much to be happy for, not just her longevity.

This trip will also mark the first time in more than 30 years that my sister, mother, grandmother and I will be together in one place. The last time we all were together, my sister and I lived with my grandmother, and my mom was visiting from London. Now the tables have turned. My mother and grandmother live together in their native Montserrat. My sister lives nearby. I'm traveling 1,000 miles from Tampa. For my grandmother, it's worth it.

Her name is Margaret, but her friends call her Peggy; I call her Mama. At 85, she has lived to see four generations of offspring. She has one daughter, two grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

My grandmother gave birth to a daughter but has raised more boys and girls including my sister and me than can be counted on two hands. Others felt comfortable leaving their children in her care. People came and stayed for a while, then emigrated overseas. Most to England, some to America.

As the oldest child in her family, she raised her siblings. When England opened its doors to West Indian immigrants in the 1950s, she paid their passage so they could seek a better life.

She was a natural lefty whom teachers forced to write with her right hand. Even though her penmanship wasn't elegant and sometimes hard to read, she always wrote letters; it's an example I try to follow.

Her schooling was sporadic at best. Yet she learned to read and write. She understood the value of an education and passed it on. My grandmother never progressed beyond the third grade. But her grandchildren attended college and her great-grandchildren have followed suit.

She always made sure there was food on the table. That's because she had faith and she knew how to make a living, whether it was growing cotton or tomatoes. I separated the cotton from the seeds by hand, because sorted cotton fetched more from the government. She baked bread and buns for sale. She roasted peanuts in a stone oven.

Each December, she'd buy American apples and make homemade ice cream to sell at carnival events in the park. It was my job to turn the tub until the ice cream was smooth and ready, with all that coconut milk, custard and almond essence. The money from the ice cream and apple sales paid the bills in difficult January. When my grandfather died in 1976, my grandmother went to work cleaning offices.

She gave all she had, but she was equally demanding. During summer vacation, an occasional game of marbles would be interrupted by a warning from my friends, "Andrew!" There was barely enough time to escape my grandmother and the menacing broom in her left hand. I had wandered off without completing my chores.

If I went to bed without washing the dishes, her voice would awaken me the next morning. It struck fear in my heart. It was a healthy fear. It made me want to do the right thing. It still does. It makes me want to celebrate her more.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified October 21, 2006, 18:48:27]

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