Until I got married and had my own family there was only ever my mother and me. I knew very little about my mother’s family or past because of her reluctance to talk about my father or her family in Jamaica. Consequently, growing up in Brighton, a seaside town on the south-east coast of England, I had a great sense of “not belonging” which for years caused me to feel insecure and become dysfunctional.
Although Mum couldn’t afford it she was adamant that I had a good education and so sent me to private Catholic convents and to pay for my education she worked as a cook in two restaurants.
I was not typical of the other girls in my school because I didn’t have their family status nor a proper home. My home was one small shabby, dreary room with basic furniture which had seen better days on the top floor of a four storey boarding house. Just outside the room on a small landing was a one ring gas stove for cooking which we shared with our neighbour, an Irish labourer, whose room was next door to us. Both the bathroom and toilet were on the first floor.
Status counted for a lot at my school, the Blessed Sacrament Convent and great emphasis was put on religious instruction, being pure of mind and body, good manners and deportment and of course behaving like a lady. Because Mum was coloured my skin was darker than the other girls and I attracted a lot of attention and questions from them. When asked where I came from I always replied Jamaica because it sounded so much more exotic than Brighton. I liked their attention but what I desperately wanted was their lifestyle, their parents, their home and all the material things they had.
As time went on I found it difficult to adjust between my two environments, school and home. Mum was having difficulty keeping me under her control and we rowed constantly. Because her wages went on me and my education Mum spent nothing on herself but at 16 I didn’t appreciate that and would criticise her for neglecting her appearance. I wanted her to look and dress like the other girls’ mothers.
When I wasn’t at school, and so that I didn’t have to stay in our room alone while Mum worked, I would spend weekends and school holidays at the cinema often going to two different cinemas in one day. One afternoon I went to see Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life. It was to be a defining moment in my life.
Imitation of Life is the story of a coloured woman, Annie Johnson and her daughter Sarah Jane, who are down on their luck and looking for a decent place to live. Annie meets a white woman, Lora, who has a daughter called Susie, and Annie offers to work for Lora as her maid in exchange for food and lodging for herself and Sarah Jane. As Sarah Jane grows up her relationship with her mother deteriorates because she is ashamed of her mother’s colour and tries to pass herself off as white. Within half an hour of watching the film I had to leave the cinema because I recognised myself in Sarah Jane.
Eventually, I went back to see the complete film. It was uncomfortable sitting in the cinema watching someone on a screen that was so similar to me. Two daughters, one fictional and one real, living similar lives in very similar circumstances, with similar mothers and both daughters feeling the same way about their mothers.
Because I saw Mum in Annie it gave me some insight as to how life was for Mum and although my rebellious behaviour didn’t change for sometime, a seed was planted in that little area of the brain where feelings of guilt sit bubbling away to evolve and play havoc with your life later on. Imitation of Life had a profound effect on me and its ending haunted me for years.
Eventually, the day came when I decided to find out the truth about Mum’s past and who my father. What I discovered filled me with such admiration for her that I wanted to record her story for future generations of my family to read, so that they would know about this remarkable woman whose greatest gift to me was her unconditional love. That’s why I wrote Olga – A Daughter’s Tale.