Ollie Walter: A Memoir
"There are answers you will never receive, wonders you'll never explore, there is lineage you will never touch and bread you'll never break."
November 2, 2020
This memoir is meant to focus on how stories are passed down from generation to generation, and how a woman can find her place in the world. I used stories told to me from two of my parents to explain how these experiences affect my family and I, and how these stories are passed down as lessons through literal centuries. I chose to write in second person because I find it to be the best way to truly have the reader understand where I, as a writer, am coming from. I think first person and third would make readers feel that they are looking in on my life and experiences, whereas I want my readers to be one with me.
It’s the turn of the century in London, England, when your grandfather is born into the world. In January of 1900, the world was shifting in many ways, but anti-Semitism more or less stayed the same. He was Jewish, more religious than your grandmother, who was born seventeen years later in London as well. It wasn’t long before her birth that her family had moved to England, escaping pogroms that had erupted once more following World War I. You don’t learn a lot about these, no specifics at least, but you know the soldiers of their own country are the ones inciting this murder. You know many men were killed, and many women were raped, and you can only feel gratitude knowing your family made it out.
A few years later, in 1925, your grandmother emigrated to Canada. Close to a hundred years later, you still look at her papers and laugh. The way they had identified her amused you—under the “race” column was written “Jewish,” and under religion was “Hebrew.” You can only wonder what she felt, what it was like to move from country to country, and somehow end up in Brooklyn, New York. It isn’t entirely clear when they’d met; all you know is that at some point, your grandparents married, and eventually, near the end of the Holocaust in 1944, your father was brought into the world, and once again, you’re met with the uncertainty of truth. You know your grandfather spoke one of the few Jewish languages, Yiddish, but out of the protection of your father and his siblings’ lives, the language is never taught and therefore lost. And some years later, you try to learn, but by then, you are too American, and the language falls short on your lips in protection of your identity, and somewhere along the line, you lose it, too. With too many holes in stories and an overrun amount of unanswered questions, you come to accept that there are many things you’ll never know.
Sometime later, on the small island of Jamaica in 1978, a young girl, just fourteen years old, becomes pregnant much too soon while living with a mother who was unfortunately unforgiving and is left with nothing but her mind and unborn infant. You envision the panic she must feel, the desperation for someone to come and save her, and yet there’s no one. She seeks out her grandparents, staying under their care until her child, your mother, is born in 1979, and then she leaves to continue her life and leaves the fate of yours without care. Years later, you listen to your mother tell you her challenges. In 1984, when your mother is five, your great-grandfather is killed in an accident, and not long after in 1986, the country continues to be plagued with cases of rape and murder, and sadly the great-grandmother you’ll never meet falls victim to these horrors. And still, all you have is a memory that is not your own of these hardships. Your mother tells you that the losses are hard, but nothing she isn’t already used to, and you listen intently with the pity you know she doesn’t need.
You listen when she tells you how her mother did come back, taking her children to Montego Bay, where she cleans at hotels and your mother, who is the eldest of her siblings, takes care of the home. You listen when she tells you that for most of her childhood, she grew up with strangers who decided to watch over these children, and you wonder if your mother ever allowed herself to break. Her mother leaves for London in 1998 and never returns. With a heavy heart, you continue to listen to her incomprehensible strength, but also to the miles she walks for water to bring home. You listen to the 10-20-mile-long trek she and many others had taken just to go to school that eventually she could not afford, the tyrannical police brutality that left dead people in the streets, and constant violence, these stories reside with you as you do what feels so simple in your everyday life.
And then, in April 1997, these worlds collide, and your mother and father meet during your father’s trip to Jamaica. You enjoy this story, you could hear it over and over, and you hold it within you as you travel through life. Your father had rented a car in Jamaica. At the time, the roads were nothing to boast about, and just outside of Montego Bay in Coral Gardens he had gotten a flat tire. A local offered to help by taking the tire to get it fixed, although he ended up just taking the tire for himself. Nonetheless, your father spends his time waiting near the small fishing areas with a few businesses and meets a girl who had come to buy something in one of the shops. She said she was a dancer at a nearby club. He was curious, and was looking to meet locals anyway, so he invited her to lunch. A while later the car was fixed, and the next day he had gone to pick her up. The place turned out to be a strip club, and the girls lived in the back of it. It was then your mother caught his eye, and he suggested she join them.
Your father was fifty-six at the time and hadn’t so much as closely befriended a person of color, let alone date one. He brought your mother to lunch and, just as you did years later, he listened. He listened to her hardships, her struggles, her hopes and her dreams. Eventually, he found himself back in the U.S, specifically the embassy, and argued consistently for the ability to bring your mother here for a chance at an education. Your father is stubborn, and not unfamiliar with arrogance. But so are immigration laws, that only allowed your mother to be granted access into the country through marriage. And so, for a sole statement, your father flew back to Jamaica and formally married the woman who would soon be your mother. It was the talk of Montego Bay. A few years later, your sister is born. Your father awaits your mother’s admission to the U.S patiently, frequenting Jamaica every few months to see her. Not long after, you’re born in the States, guaranteeing your future. Your mother and sister don’t come until 2009, and still, two of your other siblings are left in Jamaica for another seven years. She comes, hoping for a better life, more opportunities for herself and children, paths of choice that aren’t available on the island we call our home. For me, these are stories, but for her, they were reality.
You grow swallowing these stories whole in search of an identity. You do your best to find parts of you in the history of her life and hold on the best you can to your parents’ culture. In a way, you struggle with their struggles too. You take on the impact of these hardships all at once, dealing with your own identities that intersect with one another with force, searching for answers in places unavailable to you. The place in the world reserved for you is no shining light, with no clear path or direction. These stories, these memories, are embroidered in your skin and flow through your bloodstream like DNA, clawing in the back of your mind constantly. Because they aren’t just stories. They are a reality, consistent and raw, that only reframe themselves as centuries pass. Your place in the world is nothing short of invisible if you look dead-on, you realize eventually that you must look behind you to see where you must go. There are answers you will never receive, wonders you’ll never explore, there is lineage you will never touch and bread you’ll never break. Still, you move forward. Your embedded memories aren’t ones to shed, but rather deeper layers that protect you against the wind of the harsh challenges you will face, and you can only hope that you will leave the mark of these experiences for someone else to find.