Tue | May 11, 2021

Carolyn Cooper | Giving thanks for the life of Shirley Richards McLean

Published:Friday | April 9, 2021 | 12:08 AM

In 1975, I went to teach English at Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. My sister, Donnette, came as a student. We had the great fortune to meet Shirley Richards McLean soon after we arrived. We had lost our mother just three short years before and Shirley helped to fill the huge gap in our lives. Born in Newmarket, St Elizabeth, Shirley grew up in a nurturing home. She knew, instinctively, that we needed mothering.

Family and carefully chosen friends were the centre of Shirley’s life. She had a lot of respect and love for her parents, Alice and William Richards. Her mother was an excellent seamstress and her father was an accomplished stonemason. Like so many adventurous men and women, William went to Panama to seek his fortune. With both pride and regret, Shirley told us his story. He excelled at his job and was promoted to management. But he could not handle the demanding paperwork. He was certainly literate but he did not go far enough in school in Jamaica to be able to confidently assume managerial responsibilities.

When William returned home, he became a prosperous farmer. He was well respected in his community and was called ‘Custos’. It was not an official appointment and that made it all the more authoritative. That Latin word, Custos, means guardian. I don’t know if Custos Richards was a monarchist. But he certainly guarded his family with great passion. After his humbling experience in Panama, Custos vowed that every one of his children would be educated to the highest level. And they all were. Outstanding among them was Kenneth, who became a distinguished surgeon.

Not all of Custos’ children immediately caught their father’s vision. One of his sons was sent to study at West Indies College, now Northern Caribbean University. In his first year, his academic performance was dismal. It turned out that, instead of doing serious academic work, he had been studying girls. His father took him out of college and sent him to work on the farm to teach him discipline. He returned to college with a new sense of purpose. He didn’t give up on the girls. But he knew better than to neglect his academic work.

PLAYING FOOL FI KETCH WISE

When I met Shirley, we were both working on our PhD. One Sabbath, we went to church in Hartford and were socialising long into the evening. All of a sudden, Shirley said we had to leave immediately because she needed to put in some work on her dissertation. The next morning she called and we had a very good laugh. We had forgotten that she’d finished the dissertation and graduated. That damned dissertation had been a part of her life for so long, it seemed like a besetting sin. I’ve used that story to motivate so many of my colleagues over the years who keep turning their dissertation into a noose.

I was always encouraging Shirley to write a book of practical wisdom. One of her many witticisms was, “You must finish with people and they don’t know.” She wasn’t advocating hypocrisy. Instead, she was affirming the folk wisdom of her Jamaican youth: Yu ha fi play fool fi ketch wise. When others do you wrong, you don’t have to confront them. You just quietly withdraw from their negative sphere of influence and they are none the wiser.

By the time I met Shirley, she had long parted company with her husband Alvin McLean, who had turned out to be a disappointment. I’m pretty sure he knew that she had finished with him. Sometimes you have to make an exception to your own rules. But, perhaps, Alvin didn’t quite know exactly when Shirley finished with him. I think he might have underestimated her judgement and her fortitude. Undaunted by divorce, Shirley joined the ranks of all those powerful women who bring up children on their own without the presumed benefit of a father in the home.

IMBUED WITH LOVE

One of the creative ways in which Shirley provided for herself and her children, Opal and Nyron, was by establishing a vegetable garden. As the daughter of a farmer, Shirley knew the value of agriculture. Like the biblical ant of Proverbs 6, Shirley planted seeds during the summer and her freezer was full for the entire winter. I’ve only quite recently started to do a little vegetable gardening and whenever I get tired of weeding and watering, I remember Shirley’s lush garden and it motivates me to keep going. I’ve been eating delicious broad beans and pumpkin from my garden.

Last February, when it became clear that Shirley was fading, Donnette and I planned to visit her in Minnesota where she was living close to her daughter and son-in-law. I remember her saying more than once that 91 felt far different from 90. It was as if she had a premonition of the illness that would claim her. Then came the deadly coronavirus and we couldn’t travel.

Donnette asked Opal to make sure Shirley wrapped herself in the quilt she had made for her. It was imbued with her love. Shirley joined the ancestors one year ago. There’s a West African proverb that gives us much comfort: “You never truly die until no one remembers you”.

For a longer version of this tribute, visit https://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.