Updated: Sep 21, 2019
Both of my grandmothers were immigrants from the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. My paternal grandmother, Margaret Caines James, whom we called Grandma James, is in the formal portrait on the left. The photograph was probably taken in the 1920s. She is holding uncle Vincent on her lap. Ursula Woodley O’Loughlin, my maternal grandmother, Mama, is portrayed in the more casual photograph on the right. This was probably taken in the 1940s and the baby is my mother’s eldest niece, Alva.
Like many other Kittitians in New Jersey, my family lived in Newark’s North Ward. When I was born, Grandma was already widowed; my grandfather passed away in his sixties. Grandma had three sons and two daughters living when I was born. She was active in church and ladies’ clubs. Mama, though divorced, raised four amazing daughters, including my mother. Not one liked to go out very much, but Mama’s door was always open to friends and family alike. Many relatives lived with her until they could “get on their feet” when they emigrated from St. Kitts to the United States.
Until I was two years old, my family lived on the first floor of Grandma’s two-family house. At different times, my aunts and uncles lived in the third-floor apartment. Since my father was a college graduate and an accountant, he helped many people in the Kittitian community with their finances. Family was always close by. Because of this, both homes were always filled with chatter, laughter, and love!
My grandmothers’ houses were near each other; their backyards were separated by only an old chain link fence. I could easily slip out from our first-floor apartment and go visit Mama. To the quiet despair of my mother (she had to find the baby), I did this pretty often—it was fun! I squeezed through the small hole in the fence, crossed the backyard, and entered Mama’s house. I climbed the stairs one at a time calling, “Mama, are you home?” She was always home, and I am sure she saw me coming from her window on the second floor. Mama loved to look out and survey the backyard where she could see her garden and the cherry and peach trees that yielded the sweetest fruit ever. She was happy to see me and usually responded, “I’m right here, Bummy,” which was the nickname for the youngest child in the family. Often when I visited, Mama held me in her big strong arms and we looked out the window together.
When our family moved away from that neighborhood, we continued visiting both grandmothers every Sunday after church. First, we visited Grandma, who made the tastiest Johnny cakes (Caribbean fried doughnuts) as well as pigeon peas and rice. After spending time with her, she usually gave us a sack of Johnny cakes to carry home. We then went to Mama’s where we feasted on yeast rolls and/or homemade cake. We usually brought some of that food home as well. Both houses always smelled of something delicious cooking! It was during these visits that I developed my love for cooking and baking.
Mama had several grandchildren and not much money to buy birthday presents; instead she baked our birthday cakes. It was a win for everyone: Mama did not have to buy gifts; our parents saved money on cakes; and we received something special, made from scratch and with love. Everyone could choose either one of Mama’s specialties: strawberry shortcake made with real whipped cream and fresh strawberries, or coconut cake made with fresh grated coconut. For me, this tradition continued until I went away to college. When I could not receive a cake for my birthday in October, Mama offered to bake one for me during the Christmas break when I visited home.
My sister says that I have inherited a “cooking gene” from our grandmothers. She might be right in that after a long week of work, I often relax in my kitchen. It is a form of therapy for me to cook or bake something from scratch. Most importantly, when I became a grandmother, I decided to revive Mama’s tradition. As she did before me, I now offer my grandkids a choice of homemade cake for their birthdays. The first one I made was very simple—yellow cake with chocolate icing. But now my grandchildren know that they can challenge me with their most creative ideas from “Lightening McQueen,” to sharks in the ocean, to snakes in the grass.
I hope that someday one of my grandchildren will continue this tradition after me. I have always loved, respected, and honored my grandmothers. Keeping their tradition by doing what they enjoyed so much, for me is the best way to keep their memory and my heritage alive.