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Thursday 21 November 2019
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Commentary

The nanny and the Jewish boy

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

A “PERFECT” book has a number of entry points, and this is why I found Dezna’s story in Another Mother: A Jamaican Woman, The Jewish Boy She Raised and His Quest for Her Secret History by Ross Kenneth Urken both gripping and important.

The author’s coming-of-age story and Dezna the nanny’s survival story as a Jamaican immigrant in the US both prove equally enticing. Themes of family dysfunction, love, loyalty and cultural awareness lure readers with the memoir’s rich descriptions.

Dezna often evoked images of the Vincentian and Trinidadian caregivers who worked tirelessly to support me as a single mother. I marvelled at their ability to instill a Caribbean identity in my children in a way I – an immigrant from the US – was incapable of doing. Those memories all came flooding back to me through Dezna’s story.

In Urken’s memoir, Dezna offers emotional stability in a dysfunctional family (as nannies, versed in life’s vicissitudes, often do), and her presence in his formative years from birth to age 12 provides dreams and a semblance of happiness.

The world unfolds through her presence. Most of all, she offers values that anchor children – values of respect, discipline, love and faith that become ignored when parents become consumed with their work.

Caregivers like Dezna provide a certain grounding for the middle and upper classes who have no contact with certain levels of society.

Most interesting is how Urken finds parallels between Dezna’s Seventh-day Adventist faith and his Jewish religion. Faith is a key component of the trust that permeates this story – and it is not just a religious faith. Children who live through the frustration of their parents’ financial struggles, addictions and lost dreams need faith and hope and Dezna provides it.

Urken’s wry sense of humour, perfectly timed anecdotes and crisp, concise personal history along with snippets of Jamaican history make this a finely nuanced memoir. His puns and allusions add colour. He writes: “All happy families are alike. But then you have the Urkens. My mother’s complaints became a policy of Absolutism – that is, driving my father to Absolut vodka.”

Urken has a knack for structuring a story to elevate the meaning. Never chronological, his story leads readers in the directions most important to themes he explores. He ties together loss and family. Dezna, who appears on the Urkens’ doorstep almost like Mary Poppins, must leave her Jamaican family; Urken must witness his family disintegrate into dysfunction.

One scene that struck me as almost too sad to process involved a description of his mother, Cindy, from Neptune, New Jersey, the daughter of a tomato farmer, who turns his business (which he names after Cindy) into a fortune, giving the family hope. Cindy is one year behind the future rock star Bruce Springsteen, who notices Cindy in school and helps to solidify the nickname of Cindy Tomato for her. Cindy settles for Urken’s father and his struggling hardware store.

I often marvelled at the author’s uncanny ability to constantly insert information, which evokes powerful imagery. Urken’s family lives on Hale Drive, named after Nathan Hale, the young man hung by the British during the Revolutionary War for being a spy. There are myriads of directions the mind can go with such tidbits.

And if all of this literary juggling in its most breathtaking form is not enough, Urken adds the mystery of unravelling Dezna’s secret life after she dies. Perhaps he has invented a new genre of the memoir mystery.

Another Mother is ultimately a story of perseverance, transcending boundaries and triumphing in cultural liaisons that can only fortify individuals struggling for a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and some semblance of happiness. It’s an immigration story that resonates in a world of displaced immigrants.

In many ways this is a third culture story. Dezna leaves Urken with a sense of a Jamaican identity, which is real and proudly owned in an age where everyone is quick to create boundaries and accusations of cultural appropriation. This is a book that quickly dispels many of the extreme interpretations of that emotionally charged, often misused term.

Urken’s generous peppering of Jamaican patois will raise interesting discussions of language. Dezna’s patois offers fresh, new images and hope, a bond that sustains Urken. It is a vital part of the language of love that he learns from his Jamaican nanny. Perhaps without intending to do so, he’s done more to elevate the much maligned Jamaican creole than any academic discussion can offer.

Another Mother makes readers think about the people in their lives they just might have taken for granted. It offers atonement for that sin.

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