Book Review | A story deserving our attention
Book: ‘Another Mother’ by Ross Kenneth Urken
“Meaningful figures are mere silhouettes. But suddenly, at some point after the persons left us, we want the truth,” Ross K. Urken
Ross Kenneth Urken’s Another Mother is a relentless search for purposefulness amid the din of daily living. Authentic and deftly written, Urken’s narrative revolves around a woman named Dezna Sanderson, a woman who overwhelmingly impacted his formative years. Dezna, the family’s nanny, was his anchor, the rudder in a Jewish household splitting at the seams. She was Jamaican, a glue-like figure for the Urkens. Written with attentive wistfulness, the author scours for details, for nuances in his upbringing and that of the woman who reared him. It is her biography but very much his story; such was the bond they shared.
But retracing her life proves challenging. Dezna’s sister and brother are reluctant – mores and boundaries must be respected. Urken is undaunted, though. He delves deeper, journeying to Jamaica, a vicarious redemption ever so close.
Interestingly, Another Mother offers a summative conclusion on Jamaica’s Jewish roots – strange bedfellows Columbus and Morgan kept – brothers-in-arms they are with Jewish explorers, pirates, and privateers. For a while, Urken presses on. His suppositions on Rastafari intrigue, although an overreach, some might argue.
He does not go the mile with his transcultural referencing, avoiding certain derailment, mindful that his was never a hermeneutical mission.
There is no reason to second-guess Urken’s ‘glasnost’. To Dezna, long deceased, he pens his deepest sentiments. “You were a stranger at first. You became another mother. I have been to Mahogany Hill and run my fingers along your home’s sideboards, trying to absorb some of your energy, attempting to understand you. I have met your children and searched for your face in their features ... . I have explored your path through the 1940s, and ’50s, and ’60s, and ’70s and ’80s. And I spelunked through the corners of my memory to access our cherished time together and record it ...”.
In many respects, Urken’s work is a celebration of cultural assimilation and coexistence. Of the latter, there are parallels between Dezna’s Seventh-day Adventist faith and Judaism. Circumstances bring the two together, seemingly rubbing shoulders but still allowing individual space.
Bloody political past
Another Mother tangentially explores Jamaica’s bloody political past; bloody years that forced many nationals to flee for safer and greener pastures.
“The elongated calm of uneventful years vanishing,” Urken pens. “The once-even tempo surrendering to an existence of uncertainty. It became hard to find the right beat amid the discord. The political chaos increased and washed away their halcyon years.”
A proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union was played out in Jamaica with catastrophic results.
“The CIA’s plan involves a complicated and stealthy operation: assassinations, the funnelling of money to the JLP (Jamaican Labour Party) and arms distribution to PNP (People’s National Party) enemies ... the CIA has to wreck the economy from the inside out, as Communist fear remained pervasive. The whole scheme hit agricultural exports hard, particularly pineapples, dealing Dezna’s family a blow.”
Against this perilous backdrop, Jamaicans fled – a providential turn of events for young Urken and his family.
Urken leans emotionally on Dezna. She redefines his Jewish identity seamlessly as he adopts her distinctive argot. His peculiar upbringing marked by a Jewish-Jamaican encoding produced a cultural oddity – a white Jewish boy with a vernacular that spewed ‘Jamaican’.
“Although I appeared a distinct outside, I knew I could reveal our surprising shared indenting simply by opening my mouth,” he recalls. “Because unlike most Jewish boys from New Jersey, I have a Jamaica accent. His was the singsong lilt of the West Indies, the humdrum of Jamaican hillside chatter, the modulated thump of reggae. But that’s the honest-to-goodness truth, and it all started with Dezna.”
Dezna maintained order in a dysfunctional setting, “one plagued by addiction and mental illness.” He recalls, “smashed doors [serving] as the cacophonous codas to my parents’ arguments ... . My mother expressed her disappointment in bipolar rage episodes, which certainly did not lessen my father’s desire to seek therapeutic comfort to drink.”
He speaks of his Jamaican nanny in hagiographic terms – “her warmth, her honey tympanic voice, wholesome food, and healing abilities” .
Urken’s handwashing, his “go-to-refuge”, was a result of a turbulent household. This ritualised behaviour was his way [of making] order out of entropy, his ego defence.
Another Mother, though, is more than an encomium.
Urken, haunted by memories of his ‘other mother’, finds meaning in Jamaica. Some memories are stored deep within, ever resurfacing. They can wreak havoc or become the reservoir of healing. Urken experiences the latter, a salve for his (psychological) splitting.
It is in the entrails of Jamaica that Urken finds his poise and inner tranquillity. It is at Dezna’s grave site and among friends, ‘family’, and community that he soars, at last experiencing a kind of Confucian transcendence.
Unpretentiously soulful, Another Mother speaks to our filial piety. Urken’s psychoanalytic recount is unsettling. He lays bare his neuroses rooted in a fractured self. His becomes an enduring search for an identity beyond culture, and Dezna, emerges as the cornerstone of this transformative journey. Conjuring Victor Frankl’s ‘will to meaning’, Urken reconciles his binary existence, finding wholeness, finally.
‘Another Mother’ by Ross Kenneth Urken
© 2019 Ross Kenneth Urken
Publisher: Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston and Miami
Available on Amazon
Ratings: Highly recommended