When I was 7, my mother said, “I’m going to America to give us a better life.”
“Why?” I asked.
In Jamaica, my dad worked for a gas company and owned a shop attached to our house where we sold basic items like bread, light bulbs, and combs. On Saturdays we sold patties, a kind of pastry made with various fillings and spices, baked inside a golden shell. Early in the morning, the aromaspread throughout the house and crept under my bedroom door to wake me. It was a simple life, but I thought we had everything we needed.
We had fewer struggles than others in the neighborhood. But for my mom and other immigrants, America represented a place with more opportunities, most notably a good college education and a career beyond selling cheap goods.
So my mother went to the U.S. My father stayed behind with us and ran his business, and we waited for our mom to make enough money to bring us over.
An Unsure Move to America
Almost six years later, one month before I turned 13, my mother called. She sounded sweet, but I knew something was wrong.
“Mommy baby, ya alright?” she asked in patois, her voice sounding unsure.
I replied, “Yes,” but the hairs on my skin rose.
“Yo re-eady fi come liv-ve wid me?” She stumbled over her words.
“Yea but sumin happen?” I asked.
“Yo know say when yo come here, it’s one room right, if yo no wa badda come is alright, make me know from now.” She was giving me a chance to say that if I didn’t want to live with her in a one-room home, I didn’t have to.
I took the phone from my ear and stared down at the bright red “end-call” button. But I didn’t hang up, and we rambled on about the long-awaited journey. I ignored my instincts to stay behind in Jamaica because I missed her so much.
When my brother, sister, and I arrived at JFK airport, the first thing I noticed was how cold it was. I thought the air conditioners were going crazy. Suddenly, I saw her. When she recognized me, I dropped my bag and lunged into her arms. I remembered her sweet vanilla perfume and I wanted to stay in that moment forever.
At our new home in Saint Albans, Queens, there was a single hallway that led to a tiny kitchen, and on the left was a door that said “only for visitors.” It was off limits to us. There were two more small rooms and a bathroom to the left. My mother nervously jammed her key into the lock of our room door in the middle. She turned to face us, and her expression seemed to say what I was thinking: Had she brought us to a life that was worse than what we had left behind?
To make us comfortable on our first night, my mother slept on the floor while my two siblings and I enjoyed the luxury of the bed. As time went on, though, my brother slept on the floor on an air mattress and my mother, sister, and I slept on the lone bed.
Over the next few months we started to get acclimated to life here and I enrolled in school, but the tight spaces soon created tension with my mother—us arguing over not cleaning the room, or washing the dishes, or making dinner when I had homework to do.
“Parris!” she yelled, my name ringing through our tiny hallway.
“Yeah?” I snapped back.
If I dared to roll my eyes or suck my teeth, stinging patois wordserupted out of her like a machine gun firing. “Mi hate yo ways!” she’d yell. Then I’d hear her mumbling under her breath about leaving her big house only to bring us “spoiled kids” here. This annoyed me.
I observed the good mother-daughter relationships my friends had. I wondered if my relationship with my mother would have been different if we had stayed in Jamaica.
During the scorching summer, our tight quarters became even more unbearable. Sharing the same bed with my mom and sister, our skin glued to each other because our landlord wouldn’t turn on the air conditioning.
I started waking up at night to write about how I felt about our disintegrating relationship. I felt she had ripped me away from a place of bliss and brought me to a place where all she did was argue with me. I wrote until I finally fell asleep.
What Will I Do?
For the almost four years that I’ve lived here, I’ve believed that college is my one way out of our small apartment. Getting a college education is why my mother brought us here in the first place.
But if I don’t get a full scholarship it feels unlikely I can go. Our financial situation hasn’t improved. My mother already struggles to pay for my older sister and brother’s college tuition.
Early in my junior year, I really felt this pressure. I didn’t want to let my mother down, but she already expected me to have a career path. I didn’t think I should have to know yet, but she pestered me saying, “I need to know now.”
For a while, I thought about becoming a book editor, but when I brought up becoming a writer or editor, it led to her questioning if it’s a stable job that pays enough. I was frustrated by seemingly not being able to pursue what I loved.
We’re More Similar Than I Ever Knew
One day this spring, I was sitting in the kitchen finishing up some homework. My mom walked in and I knew what was about to come.
“Have you thought about what you want to do for a career yet?” Mom asked. “I don’t know,” I shot back. My usual reply.
After some silence, I mentioned again how I enjoyed writing and hoped to be in a field involving creating stories. I told her I had just had my first ever story published.
Her eyes grew wide as she recalled her own love for writing. I was surprised, but excited to know that we were more connected than I thought. She shared that teachers bragged about her work and talent, instilling hope in her that one day her words would be read by millions.
Reality took over when she started growing up, having kids and raising a family. She didn’t have the opportunities that I have right now, the right people to support and challenge her. Instead, she had to care for us and find a different path that was more stable.
Now I understand why she is so hard on me about choosing a stable career. I no longer resent her now that she’s shared how much she’s given up for my siblings and me. I am better able to see her affection. Even though we don’t have all the money in the world, she’ll find a way to buy us name-brand stuff sometimes, even as the bill rises on her card. She works long shifts and overtime, treats us to dinners on special occasions, and is always trying her best to make sure we’re comfortable. I recognize the bright smile on her face when my teachers call to say I’m doing well in school and how her arm automatically swings over to hold me back in my seat when our car jerks.
Pretty soon, she read my first story for Youth Communication. She was hurt by some of my words, but nevertheless was proud of me. She cried and I tried to comfort her. She thought she had failed me. She was pained by the story at first, but loved it at the same time. Soon, she kept complimenting me on how good my story was and how beautifully it was told. She even went on to brag to her friends that, “There’s a writer in the family.” Her biggest criticism was knowing I was hurting alone, and that I should have spoken up. Now I am.