In Death, we live far more richly than we do in life. Our lives are pale, prosaic shadows in which we are preoccupied with the business of living – paying bills, doing jobs, suckling children, loving lovers and befriending friends. In Death we truly live. We take on nuance and colour. We loom large as myth. We seep through floorboards of houses, spread out and nestle there. We whistle through windows, laugh like breeze and inhabit the minds and memories of others. There we become crystallized, embossed jewels that are forever alive, forever perfect. We take on a resonance that only memory provides. We become deities. We become ancestors.
My Great Grandmother, Lily, became an ancestor at thirty years old when her last son cried into the world. My Grandmother Yolande was seven years old. Many mothers died in those days while giving birth. It was a commonplace thing, an everyday tragedy. Her last work, a son, was never named. He remained ‘Baby’ and on his birth certificate he was given his father’s name. He is known as Baby still. We call him Uncle Baby – a beautiful round-faced, grey-haired, smiling man who, in his seventies, looks like a baby still. Oh, the power of names!
The few details of her life that have been passed down reveal her as Lily the loved. Lily the beautiful. Lily whose shoes her husband ‘Pal’ (Pa Elliot) took care to polish till they shone. Lily of the Queen’s Park Savannah walks. Lily outlived by her mother, her husband and her seven children. Lily of the grave. People said of her children, “Poor little orphans raised by their father and grandmother“. They shook their heads as they walked by.
Little did they know, Lily had risen unseen from the birthing table and sat in her nearby favourite chair. You see, Lily lived as a ghost. A spirit, a shade, an eternal mother, a spectre who never left her children. Their lives were punctuated by her presence: Lily on the chair, Lily in the doorway, Lily watching them as they ate. Yolande saw her most often for Garma always said she had the gift of Sight. She told us her mother could not leave them, could not bear knowing that she had left a nameless infant.
Lily would appear for years around the house in commonplace situations – in the kitchen, at a bedside, in the street as they played. She was always watching. They would visit her grave, seven dutiful children paying homage to a mother that they knew full well was not in the grave at all but in the house waiting for them to return.
I wonder what kind of woman she was – more real to us in death than she was in life. Was she happy? What did she think of the world when she lived in it? What did she think of it as she looked upon it for years after, long-seeing like a Sybil? Ironically, it is with her that our family photographs began and her image remains in the house her last daughter built. Fitting that it shows her forever young, just as she would have looked before she passed over, the woman who raised her children even in death. Impossible to know what she would have become in life, she is luminous and deified in death – Lily of the grave.