This has been a frenetic time in my life. I have experienced many transitions in my job, my school work and in my private life. One of the most painful of these is the fact that I have lost yet another of my beloved relatives. My Uncle Astley has died. This happened on Tuesday, 17 June, and he will be remembered today in a memorial service that I am sure will be beautiful to behold, but painful for me to experience.
As I think about him now, I have mixed feelings: he was ill, and I am happy that he is no longer so, but I will miss him for he was the coolest man whom I have ever known. His wit was dry sometimes, like my father’s, but he could manage raucous in a way that daddy didn’t do, and which was truly amusing to me as a child.
I was asked to prepare a reading of some Maya Angelou poems to honour Uncle Astley at his memorial service today, and I did. However, I have looked at the programme and I do not see them there, so I will use my reflections about him here. First, I chose two poems, one by Dr. Angelou and the other by the great Langston Hughe,s because of two memories that leapt out at me.
I chose the Million Man March Poem because I remember on one trip to the beach when he took all of us: Aunt Daisy, his wife; his sons Lanre and Nantwi; and the son of a family friend, Gerald Alcindor; my sister, Dianne, and me. Uncle Astley and I were sitting on the sand chatting, and Aunt Daisy and Di were swimming along the beach, but the boys were swimming out to sea, trying to make it to some island that we could see out along the coast.
Uncle Astley got very angry, and he was comparing the older men on the beach with the boys: their wisdom in swimming along the beach versus the boys in swimming out to sea. And, he ended his rant with the words “… and it will be my job to drive them back to Kingston, stiff!” I remember being startled and looking at him and realising in that moment exactly how much he loved his children. All the taking us out on road trips, and he did a LOT of that; the daily interaction of fathering that so many young men lack, the fact that he told me that no matter where I was in Jamaica, and no matter what time it was, if I ever went somewhere and needed him to come for me, to take me home because I felt uncomfortable there, then I needed only to call him and he would come for me; all of that was crystallised into the moment when he let slip how deeply it would affect him if anything bad were to happen to his boys…
I have another memory too that this poem elicits. It was the one when he told me of the day when he was walking down the road in London where he had been sent by my grandparents to pursue the dream of a better life, and he was surrounded by a group of young men and they spat in his face and insulted him; and he stood there and thought about the fact that he couldn’t take on all six of them, and so he just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and walked away.
Just a few metres down the road, a little old Jewish man called to him and said, “Son, I saw what happened; I know your pain. You sit here in my shop until you calm down again. Your parents wouldn’t want to stay wherever they are and hear that you got killed by the likes of them.” It was such a poignant story, because in our family there are stories of a Jewish heritage that stands along with our African histories. This story, as painful as it is to recall, spoke to me again of the reasons for Uncle Astley’s rage and his pride and his strength and his unyielding posture of resistance to discrimination of any kind.
It is a brave and startling truth for many of the members of my family that Uncle Astley held humanist values that spoke of his desire for a peaceful co-existence with the people around him rather than overtly Christian principles. As an example of this is the fact that he hosted Christmas parties at his offices on Lyndhurst Road for YEARS! These were a major feature of my childhood, as along with Aunt Daisy, Lanre and Nantwi, my sister, Dianne and I went to help him serve his community for many, many years.
My cousin, Carol’s poem for Uncle Astley is among the most beautiful words that I have read. Carol didn’t feel that she would be able to make it through to the end of an oral tribute to Uncle Astley, and so she sent her words to me, to ask if I would do it. Obviously it is still her tribute to him, but I think that the rest of us in the family should hitch our wagons here also:
Listening with your ears is rudimentary, seeing with your eyes pale.
Behold the glistening of the spirit, the oneness of the breath that stretches from my lungs to your cloud. I wonder if you can remember the way dirt feels or how a cigar smells?
I wonder if you see with your heart and feel with your soul, if the brightness hurts your beautifully healed eyes and if the fullness pushes against the frame that spans eternity?
I’m glad to know you bask in joy and travel with light beneath your feet,
that danger is a distant memory and life a Divine understanding.
Thank you for leaving me with a hint of what’s to come,
with a knowing of true bliss and a simple understanding of kindness, truth and bright, bright colors!
I will sit and listen with my soul and hope to see you through the trees, the ocean, the clouds and the smiles of those you’ve loved.