Another Mother: Ross Urken’s Wistful Memoir Belongs to his Jamaican Nanny


This book is about to be officially launched! Long Island, New York on October 21 will be the first celebration. I am looking forward to a 2020 launch with Ross Kenneth Urken present! Meanwhile, here is an invitation, in the author’s words:

I have many events in the works — from Toronto, to London, to the Caribbean — but I’m starting my tour stateside in the Tri-State area. It would mean the world to me to have my community at some of the readings. At each event, we’ll have rum, Urk’s jerk chicken, books…

If you are in the United States or Canada, I do hope you will be able to join Ross at one of these reading events. Make a note of these dates:

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Those who attend these events will be invited to donate to the Trench Town Reading Centre in Kingston. You can keep up to date with the Centre on their Facebook page. Ross comments: “I am encouraging people to give in honor of their mother or “other mother” — a nanny, coach, teacher, or mentor who had a positive impact on their life.”

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Ross Urken with the co-founder of TrenchTown Reading Centre Roslyn Ellison, somewhere in the wilds of New York. (Photo: Friends of TrenchTown Reading Centre Facebook page)

Love spills out from the pages of this book.

The subtitle is: A Jamaican Woman, the Jewish Boy She Raised and His Quest for Her Secret History. It is Ross Kenneth Urken’s first book.It is termed a Memoir; but whose memoir is it, really? There are several life stories here, intertwined: the author’s own memories of his childhood in Princeton, quite clear in every detail; the story (lived, relived and pieced together) of his live-in Jamaican nanny, Dezna); and fragments of Dezna’s family’s lives – a family as scattered as fallen leaves.

I believe that Dezna Sanderson, the “Other Mother,” can rightfully claim this memoir as her own. As Ross tells it, Dezna arrived in somewhat dramatic fashion during a snowstorm, on his family’s doorstep. She remained with them for twelve years – critical ones for Ross, who lived with his sister Nicole and their quarrelsome parents (a bipolar mother who lived in “ALL CAPS” and a heavy-drinking father who was “skilled in the dark arts of passive-aggressiveness”).

As we enter the house in New Jersey in the first chapter, young Ross is quietly finishing his homework at the kitchen table on an autumn evening, with a hovering Dezna cooking potatoes and dispensing one of her Jamaican pearls of wisdom. With the parents’ arrival home, the mood swerves abruptly. Slammed doors and shouting matches are, eventually, followed by the children’s consoling retreat to the predictability of television game shows with Dezna.

How and why was Dezna so important in the boy’s life? Amidst the turmoil of his parents’ relationship (they married and divorced twice) she was a “referee,” instructing the warring couple to “count to ten” during their rows. This woman, a Seventh Day Adventist from Mahogany Hill, St. Elizabeth, provided comfort. An injured wrist is soothed with “sinkle bible” (aloe vera) and a cup of cerasee tea. Ross was an anxious child, obsessively washing his hands, and his panic attacks grew worse after Dezna left the household. Until that day, she offered friendship like no other – a “guiding force amid choppy seas.” With considerable skill, she kept the household on an even keel. Without her presence, they might all have sunk beneath the waves of discord during his childhood.

There is much more to this book, however, than a nostalgic look back at childhood days . While it never descends into sentimentality, a wistful mood, a feeling of having missed something prevails. It is because Ross knew very little about the person he calls his best childhood friend until after she died in 2010. Although she played a pivotal role in the home, an impregnable veil hung over Dezna’s past (and present) – her family, her children, her loves, her hopes, her ambitions. That veil could never be drawn back and was made of thick, heavy material. Dezna “deflected all personal curiosities.” This was accepted by all; it is the way things work with immigrants who work in other people’s houses in the U.S. and other countries, too.

 As a writer (so eloquent and fluent) Ross is fascinated by language. He points out wryly: “Unlike most Jewish boys from New Jersey, I have a Jamaican accent.” Spending his formative years from infancy with Dezna meant that he acquired the inflections and intonations of Jamaica. On his way to Mahogany Hill he reflects, “Language – as a writer, a human being – has best defined who I am, and Dezna is a part of me in that respect.” Ross certainly has a good grasp of Jamaican patois, as well as the island’s culture, and there are a lot of amusing examples of this. At times, though, he is confused by what he calls his “bifurcated upbringing” – Jewish and Jamaican – as it expresses himself in a hybrid language. However, his “Jamaican side,” he believes, has helped to strengthen him.

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Ross Urken in the distance, measuring! (My photo)

I met Ross when he accompanied a non-profit group of Jewish volunteers from the U.S., whom I had been meeting up with for a few days every January. I have written about the Caribbean Volunteer Expedition a few times in this blog. The group visited Jamaica annually to diligently search for, and painstakingly document Jewish cemeteries. They traversed the island over those few years. They did not come this year, because their task was complete. At Elletson Road cemetery, we took a sandwich break under the deep shade of a lignum vitae tree. Ross helped out with measuring tapes.

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Ross Urken (right) with another Jewish volunteer David London, doing some measuring at Elletson Road cemetery in Kingston in January, 2018. (My photo)

During this time, Ross took a detour in deep rural St. Elizabeth to find Dezna’s roots, and to write about them. She knew everything about his family, but he knew so little about hers. As it turned out, Dezna’s journey through life followed what sometimes seems to be a familiar pattern for Jamaican women: one of determination, negotiating discouraging circumstances, resignation, disappointment. At the same time, it is a life of finding a way, no matter what, to survive. At age 24, Dezna found herself caring for a sick mother, three siblings and three children, while studying to be a nurse. Life was simply hard work, and over in New Jersey Dezna impressed this on young Ross, too.

I will not provide any more details here, because I want you to learn more about her for yourself, from the pages of this book. However, there were hopeful moments, and defeated ones too. The narrative is not chronological, but that does not matter. Through the author’s own experiences, meetings and conversations with Dezna’s family, all interlaced with his own recollections, we gradually acquire an understanding of Dezna’s life in stages, bit by bit. The author pieces them together, although gaps will remain and will likely never be filled. We travel with him on this journey of discovery.

Meanwhile, the descriptions of rural life, the vivid light and landscapes, imaginings of the young Dezna dreaming of romance and happy-ever-after, are enchanting. The humidity of Mahogany Hill and its fields of pineapples contrast with the life she lived for a while in pre-Independence Montego Bay, where sea breezes blew, celebrities behaved badly, socialites drank cocktails and Jamaicans like Dezna served and waited on them.

The story also touches on the theme of change, including the dramatically changing political and social landscape of Jamaica that Dezna lived through. The author notes that about ten percent of the population migrated during the 1980s, mostly women – when in Ross’s view the CIA had a “chokehold” on the country and after Michael Manley was “essentially ousted from office.” After her husband’s death, Dezna left two teenage daughters behind in Jamaica, to manage as best they could. Just like she had to manage.

I mentioned that the author felt he had missed something. Indeed, he found some answers, pushed open a few tightly closed doors (sometimes with considerable effort), and reached a deeper understanding of Dezna’s life. He also met and talked with many of those who knew her, including her scattered family – some in the diaspora, some back home. Ross confides, “I went just in search of her and found an entirely new family,” and this is a consolation to him. It works both ways: “Tell us a story about Mum,” says her son, who works as a janitor in a New Jersey hospital. There are gaps in everyone’s lives.

There is the sense, however, that it was all too late. In other words – if only he had known these things when Dezna was still in this world. This gives this book its added poignancy. One wonders how she felt about Ross and the family she lived with for twelve eventful years. We will never know exactly, but I am quite sure that love was there.

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“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a novel of the Harlem Renaissance, written by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Her work is really worth exploring. “Tell My Horse” focuses on Haiti and Jamaica. “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo” is based on her 1927 interviews with the last survivor of the Middle Passage. They are available free online.

This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God prefaces the book:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Beyond wistfulness, the book reflects on that sadness at the passing of time that can never be returned to us. The Japanese might call it “mono no aware.” It is about all the things one would have liked to have said – if one had known. It is about searching for faces in old photographs, gazing at small, inanimate objects. It is also about “tripping on the roots of memory” along the way, as the author puts it. What better way than to stretch those memories like spun threads, intertwine them with the thoughts and words of others, however random – and write down the result, even if not perfectly woven together in the eyes of the author?

“I am the humble courier of her tale,” writes Ross. In gratitude, he feels that is the least he can do.

Her tale is also, ultimately, an expression of love.

Another Mother is published by/available from Ian Randle Publishers in Jamaica. You will find it in their catalogue here. It is also available on Amazon in hardcover.

About the author (from his website): I am an American writer who has published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington PostNew York, The Paris ReviewThe New Republic, The Atlantic, VICE, Tablet, Slate, TENNIS, EsquireSports Illustrated, National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Scientific AmericanBBC Travel, The Guardian, DeparturesESPN, Bloomberg Businessweek, Bloomberg PursuitsForbes, Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, The NationL’Uomo Vogue, Town & Country, and Nautilus. Born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in comparative literature and now live with my wife in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Manhattan.


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