Ganna’s Burden

This story by Conliffe Wilmot-Simpson won the prize for the best single story in the Jamaica Observer Art Awards, 2000

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

I wanted to speak to her again. At Christmas she’d appeared to be so much older; her face deeply wrinkled, her voice low and halting, and the plaits below the ever-present headtie totally white. They told me at the airport. She had died the night before.

Ganna had been my guardian. I remembered struggling with the concept at school. Others had parents; some lived with aunts and uncles. I was an orphan and the only one with a guardian. Ganna never knew my parents, and, as far as she was aware, I had no known relatives. I realised early that it didn’t make a difference. Ganna loved me as much as any mother could, and I shared the lot of the others of my age: the painful school morning ritual of the combing and plaiting of hair, the unexplained exhortation to keep away from boys, and the embarrassed looks and befuddling explanations to our questions on the frightening changes that took place in our bodies when we got to 12.

Despite the years, the room was not changed much; floral curtains at the single window, Bible and vase on the night table, various vials of fragrances and jars of talcum powder and the wardrobe with the large mirror, on top of which were stacked her church hats. For some strange reason I remembered her notebook, which she kept hidden below the hats. It was large and blue and kept her stamps and air letters and the addresses of various relatives and important people. There was a single envelope in it, yellow with age, and addressed in Ganna’s handwriting to Georgia, her younger sister, at a London address. The flap yielded easily.

At Home

April 15, 1988

My Dear Gigi,

This is a short note to assure you that everything went well. Stop worrying about not being here. Mama was laid to rest at Somerset, just as she requested. Despite the rain, she got a huge turnout. Pastor Evans was sedate: of course we had begged him; no fire and brimstone, no screaming and shouting. Mama wouldn’t have liked it. It will take many pages to fill you in on all that happened during her last days. Now is not the time. There is much to be done. Suffice to say, Mama left peacefully. I was with her to the very end. There is so much she wanted to say, but talking was difficult. She kept asking for Derrick. He never came. He never even came to the funeral.

Perhaps he was ashamed. If there is anything human left in him, it must have kept reminding him. Reminding him of the pain he put his family through for so many years. Perhaps he thought Mama would have rebuked him. He would have been so wrong. Mama had long lost her harsh words. “I am too old to hate,” she kept saying, “I can only forgive.” Not seeing Derrick may have been her dying regret.

There is something I have not previously told you, Gigi. I will only mention in passing here. By an amazing coincidence — sure hand of the Lord, Mama would have said — I have found myself making daily restitution for one of Derrick’s misdeeds. I never told Mama.

Gigi, I shall not linger. There is still much to be done. I will write as soon as there is more time. Do continue to take good care of yourself. May the Lord continue to bless you.

Your dear sister,



It was quite unlike Ganna to write and not mail a letter. She must have looked at it many times in the past 12 years, and decided not to destroy it either. I wondered what her restitution had been.

I knew much of Ganna’s story. She was born in 1930, six years after Derrick. They grew up in the heart of the city. Derrick was wayward and was not changed by the merciless beatings of his father. He was first in trouble with the police at 14. He caused a major family crisis in 1939, when he was accused of stabbing the son of an “area leader” to death. The family was no longer welcomed in the community. A mob started to dismantle their house while they tried to retrieve their sparse belongings. It stopped briefly when the police came, but they were helpless against the mob, and the house was razed.

Ganna was always sad when she spoke of it. It had been a school morning. She remembered being lifted onto the back of the police truck. Her father was sombre, her mother in tears. They rumbled off amidst jeers and rocks. She remembered the great feeling of shame when the truck went by the school, and she held her head below the sideboard, not wanting to be seen by any of her friends.

That had not been the last of Derrick. Out of reform school, he rejoined the family and behaved well for years. However, he was impatient with the pace of life and joined a gang. He was constantly in trouble and lived between the prison and the streets. Rumor linked him with some of the most heinous crimes of the 1940s and 50s. He was not seen for years at a time and was reputed to have travelled to London and New York.

I excused myself from the after-funeral activities and walked up the hill to Ganna’s small cottage. There I packed my suitcase, then sat on the verandah. The valley was quiet, except for the occasional sound of the slam of a domino from the celebration below. I thought of Ganna and my early life with her, and of this district where she had spent her last 20 years. I thought of my own children and whether, if I had the misfortune to die early, they would be fortunate to have a good guardian. Across the valley the mist was starting to form on the hilltops. Soon it would be dark.

The questions were many. With Ganna gone, would there ever be a reason for me to return? What had happened to Derrick? Who would take care of Ganna’s house?

I met Miss Doreth each time I visited Ganna. She shuffled up the hill. “I must tell you,” she said, “I must tell you before you leave. Ganna wanted to tell you, but she just never thought the time was right. But she was going to tell you one day.

“She got you at the nursing home on Heywood Street,” Miss Doreth continued. “Strangers had taken you in. You did not have a name. No one knew your story. But Ganna, then nearly 40 and without a child, had been visiting the home regularly with the thought of adopting. She took an instant liking to you and was not worried that nothing was known about you.

“It was over a year later that she found out. Your parents had been killed — stabbed to death in their house during a political clearing of an area. Their neighbours fled and assumed you were killed in the fire that was set to the house. The enforcer on that job was no other than Ganna’s own brother, Derrick.”

Miss Doreth looked at my face in the fading light. “I hope you can forgive her for not telling you. She wanted to do it herself. She may be angry, and I hope, wherever she is, she forgives me too.” Before I could reply she had descended the steps and was making her way slowly down the hill.

I studied the pictures by the light of the candle. The aging wooden frames were starting to open and the glass had spots of insect droppings. One was of Ganna, mid-30s, bespectacled, elegant in a flowing dress, taken with a school building in the background. I replaced it on the bookshelf. The other, taken in a studio, was of Ganna, about 14, ribbons in her hair, and holding the hand of Derrick, tall with short pants, a loose fitting shirt and bow tie.

I wiped it clean and placed in between my stacked blouses. I asked myself the question again. Would there ever be a reason to return?

This time the answer was not easy.


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