Grandma’s traditional Jamaican wake brought me closer to the Windrush generation

Courtesy of | By Guilia Rhodes | Originally Published 05.05.2018 | Posted 06.20.2018

The ‘nine night’ ritual of gathering to eat, drink and swap stories helped Natasha Gordon connect with her family’s past – and inspired her first play.

three-week boat voyage undertaken by thousands of their compatriots – in the late 1950s. Her mother, then 16, joined them in 1963, finding work, a Jamaican-born husband and a reassuringly familiar West Indian community.

As she grew up in 70s and 80s north London, the language, music and food of Natasha’s family life were steeped in the Caribbean island culture. “The first sound on a Saturday morning was pan lids. By 11.30am, the weekend’s food – mutton soup with dumplings, curry goat – was ready,” she says. Home had two meanings, she realised early on. “For my mum, ‘home’ – Jamaica – involved a different sense of identity and connection to the earth than ‘home’ – London.”

So when Natasha’s grandmother, Louisa, died four years ago, it was to the rituals of Jamaica that her family turned. “Someone just said, ‘Oh, we must do a nine night, and there was no more discussion. We had to honour her and do it the right way,” Natasha, 42, recalls.

The traditional Jamaican wake, the nine night, sees family and friends gather over nine consecutive evenings to swap stories, eat and drink. Overseeing proceedings is the departing spirit until, on the final night, it is ready to leave home for ancestral roots in Africa and eternal peace. “I had heard people say they were going to a nine. I’d probably been to them when I was little, but wasn’t really aware of it,” Natasha says. Like many children of immigrants, she realised, she knew neither what was expected nor what to expect.

“We were supposed to understand it all, but how? For my grandparents and my mum, far from home, these traditions just made sense: they were comforting. But my generation lost touch with the rituals. Nobody had time to explain. They were busy just surviving, and we wanted to be the same as everyone else anyway. It can take a long time to appreciate your heritage.”

Now Natasha, an actor and writer, has turned the “exhausting, intense” experience of her grandmother’s send-off – and the cultural and generational conflicts it highlighted – into Nine Night, her first play, a poignant comedy currently on at the National Theatre, London.

Plot twists have been added (“It’s not my family on the stage”) but the inspiration for the characters, language and setting is clear. “I gave the designers a photo of my grandparents’ front room: religious icons, crocheted placemats, ornaments everywhere. For visitors to look at, not for us to play with. And there it all is, recreated on set.”

Looking on, she can almost hear her childhood. “The sound system was next to the television. Grandad always had his music playing. Grandma always had her soaps on. It would be Coronation Street with dub bass underneath.”

When her grandmother died, her grandfather put away his sound system. “The house became deathly quiet,” she says. “Music would have been totally inappropriate to him. He had lost his wife of 50 years. He was in shock. I remember him standing in the kitchen looking lost, as though he was trying to locate Grandma somewhere.”

Practicalities fell to Natasha and her siblings, and, in common with several characters in her play, they set about organising their grandmother’s nine night more out of duty than conviction. “We just got on with it. ‘Who’s cooking the rice and peas? Who’s getting the drinks?’ And somehow all these people came.”

They refused, a decision Natasha subsequently regretted. “It was so important to Mum, but we couldn’t see why. I have never felt more western than in that moment.”

The disagreement marked a turning point. “We hadn’t realised Mum had such clear ideas about what mattered to her. My generation disconnected from this tradition, but I realised then that I needed to be open and curious, to step out of my British bubble.”

Natasha began to reassess her childhood, to talk to her mother. “I had known Mum was quite spiritual, but I had always found her stories spooky. I couldn’t go into school and tell my white friends that my great-grandfather went into a trance and flew into a tree, so I shut her down a bit.”

She had learned to hide minor ailments. “If you coughed, Mum was straight out in the garden with her scissors – I have no idea what she was growing – and boiling you up some revolting brew.” Now, she accepts, the cures always seemed to work.

The recent revelation of deportation threats experienced by many of her grandparents’ Windrush generation has fuelled Natasha’s determination to learn more about the difficulties they faced. Arriving in Britain, she says, her grandfather was shocked to learn that many landlords had raised rents to price out immigrants. “He has dementia now but if he could make sense of this situation, he wouldn’t be surprised,” she says.

With two children of her own, aged 11 and eight, Natasha’s desire to connect them with their heritage is strong. They attended the nine night and now love to hear their grandma Ruby’s stories. “They find Mum hilarious. She is funny, but Jamaican humour is direct. It can be cutting,” she laughs. Her mother’s voice features heavily in the play, Natasha says, but she has no reason to fear a telling off.

Each year, she books flights for her mother’s trip to Jamaica. “There’s that pull to where she belongs,” Natasha says. “This time she asked me to arrange her return in August. I pointed out my play would have finished its run by then. ‘Ah yes,’ she said. ‘Well, just get me a programme.’”

Invitation was by word of mouth. “I don’t remember making any calls. People kept turning up. I would pick up the phone: ‘Ya hear Louisa dead? Ah is it? Me a go come.’”

People began arriving around 3pm, bearing drinks, maybe a dish – “saltfish fritters, plantain. By the last night, it was like a wedding feast” – Natasha says. “They might stay all evening. It was not at all like a neighbour popping in for a quick cup of tea. You had to feed them. If people had made their way from south London to north London, they were there for the innings.”

The catering, the sense of show and the endless conversation were physically and emotionally draining. “There were people from Grandma’s church, the allotment, Grandad’s pub visits, various jobs, all those 50s and 60s immigrants with so much shared experience. Women who last saw me years ago were annoyed that I didn’t have a clue who they were, protesting, ‘But I’m Joyce!’”

The stories, some half-remembered from childhood, many new, were the highlight of the evenings. “I heard about them swimming in Jamaica, the jobs they did there, how they met, going to parties here, walking home because no cab driver would take them. It was stuff I had never asked about, the things we would have been told were ‘big people’s business’,” Natasha says. “I understood them as more than my strict grandparents. I could see them in Jamaica, or as young people, kicking about London as I would.”

The differences between traditional British and Jamaican rituals around death, Natasha soon realised, were striking. “I had been to cremations and thought, ‘Oh, it’s over already. I haven’t worked up to tears yet.’ This is supposed to overwhelm. The emotion of grief is heightened so you can let it out. It’s like all your senses are being stimulated.”

As the nights progressed, Natasha came to see that the process held different significance for each of Louisa’s relatives. “I was there for Grandad and my mum, but the nine night is as much about the spirit of the person passing well as it is about picking up the bereaved. Sometimes those needs seem to be conflicting.”

When Natasha and her siblings were asked by their mother to rearrange the bedroom – a scene that, adapted, features in the play – they were horrified. In fact, they came to learn, nine night tradition dictates that furniture be moved, the spirit’s subsequent disorientation encouraging them to depart. “We were just looking at Mum. ‘Are you serious? Grandad has lost his wife and you want us to start shifting his bed around!’”


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