Miss Ellie / gayle gonsalves

Ellie is surprised when her only child, Bridgette, throws down her doll and runs to her when she walks through the door with a globe. Bridgette’s small hands gleefully grab the spherical object and begin spinning it to the left, and then to the right; the colours of the land and water quickly swish before their eyes, blurring into each other, then slowing down so they can make out different land masses and bodies of water.

Ellie points to England, a land that is far from the Caribbean Sea, and smiles at her daughter, “This is where it all started.”

Before she can say anything more, Bridgette spins the globe and enthusiastically tells her mother, “I’m going to marry someone from another place.”

Mother and daughter live in Freetown, a sleepy, quaint village on the eastern coast of Antigua that’s not close to any stores, nightlife or even a gas station.  People don’t venture to this side of the island too often because there isn’t much to do or see; but on Sundays, the road gets a bit busier as cars drive on the winding road that leads to the village and make their way to Half Moon Bay’s stunning beach. Ellie finds comfort in the cool breeze that always keeps her home fresh and joy in the Methodist church she attends every Sunday. In the quiet hamlet of Freetown, everyone knows Ellie as a woman with a deep faith in God; she never misses Sunday mass and whenever Reverend Browne asks for help, she is always the first to volunteer.

Ellie loves the quaint, austere feel of her church that was built over a hundred years ago from large brown stones. The building isn’t big but it has a strong, enduring steeple that doesn’t overpower any of its architectural lines. The simple masonry work gives it a pleasing appearance, but those stones also give it a sense of permanency that reassures her it’ll never fall down.

As the years pass, Bridgette and her mother play with the globe. They become familiar with the different land masses. Bridgette’s dream solidifies and now she talks about marrying a man from America and living there. Ellie can’t imagine why she thinks that life beyond the sparkling aqua waters that border her island is so great. As far as she is concerned, her family has lived here for generations and she can’t fathom why Bridgette is so mesmerized by some big country – believing that life is better abroad.

Ellie watches the news on CNN, and the only thing that seems true to her is that black people are ”scrunting” and scrunting hard in that country – money nah easy dere.

She tells her daughter, “You don’t have to leave this beautiful island and go abroad to a place that doesn’t treat black people good. Don’t you see what’s on TV? Life is good here.”

Her daughter defiantly replies, “I will go to America ‘cause I want to take the train to work and live in a high rise building.”

Whenever Ellie looks at her daughter, she shakes her head in disbelief. While her fashionable daughter is a tall, long limbed woman with a beautiful, curvy body and large, almond shaped eyes, she is six inches shorter and truly comfortable in her mature body and formal frocks.  Trouble between them began when Bridgette was eight and she yelled on the church’s steps, “I hate this place. I don’t want to go.” Screaming defiantly in her frilly, yellow dress, Bridgette’s tantrum increased until everyone inside the church and on the street heard her. Standing there, the picture of respectability in her blue church dress, an embarrassed Ellie entered the church truly believing the little girl would follow her. To her amazement, Bridgette happily sat on the step and sang nursery rhymes until mass was over.

Ellie’s house never ages, it remains a bright pink colour with a lush garden, but when you step inside, you are only aware of an uneasy hush. The globe that mother and daughter once played with now lies in a corner with a film of dust. Although Ellie prays that their one word responses—”yes”, “no”—to each other will end, they don’t. The only person she confides in is Reverend Browne.

“Reverend, I don’t understand Bridgette,” she says.

Reverend Browne always addresses his parishioners with a formal salutation, “Miss Ellie, have patience, she will return to the church. This is what young people do.”

Ellie looks at him and says, “I don’t know. She’s not me.”

He smiles sweetly at her as he gently touches her hand, “Yes, Miss Ellie, you are truly special. No one can ever question your faith.”

As a woman in her forties, every time she sees Reverend Browne, who is also her age, Ellie casts her eyes downward because she finds him very attractive and wonders why he isn’t married.  Standing at well over six feet, the Reverend looks dignified and handsome with his deep brown skin contrasting against his white clerical collar. Every Sunday, she listens with pure awe as his deep voice booms from the pulpit about the path of righteousness.

It doesn’t surprise Ellie when Bridgette begins a relationship with a young man from America who was visiting the island. She anxiously watches their courtship, fearful this foreign man will break her daughter’s heart or abandon her if she gets pregnant.

When Bridgette insists she meet him, she is filled with trepidation because she thinks he’s going to be like the loud American black people she’s seen on TV. However she discovers that he is a polite, well-groomed young man with an excellent vocabulary. He’s dressed immaculately in a well-pressed shirt and khaki pants, just like the boys who go to church in the village. In fact, if he didn’t have a foreign accent, she’d assume he’s from Antigua. As she looks at them together, Ellie quickly notices the undeniable spark between them. They are seated close to each other, and their similar skin tone, a cup of rich coffee, allows them to blend into each other. During his four week holiday, she sees they are truly inseparable, like “batty and bench.”

With the sweet lingering taste of her daughter on his lips, when this foreign man leaves the island, he’s obsessed with her and quickly returns to Antigua.

Ellie is working in her garden, pruning a bougainvillea bush, when she hears a car drive along the road. She doesn’t bother to look up until it stops in front of her house. To her surprise, Richard is standing at the gate.

 She looks incredulously at him, “What are you doing here?”

He ignores her question and politely asks, “Can I come in?”

She nods.

“I know you didn’t expect me,” he begins.

“Yes, I’m truly surprised. How come you came back so quickly?”

“I need to talk with you.”

He’s nervous and speaks very quickly, “I know this is quick but I want to marry your daughter. I think about her all the time. I promise to make her happy, but I can’t marry her without your permission.” Beads of sweat run down his face.

Ellie is silent, “Young man, I can’t control my daughter. She loves her own way and will do what she wants, with or without my permission.”

His young face, full of innocence and love, looks desperately at her for approval, “She won’t leave unless you are okay with it.”

Ellie is surprised by his statement, and looks up at the dusty globe for a moment, “Bridgette has never left this island and doesn’t know anything about the outside world.”

“We love each other and that’s all that matters.”

“Young people always believe love answers everything.” She sees he is looking desperately at her for approval and finally answers his question, “Yes, you have my permission to marry my daughter. But there is one condition. I’m a Methodist and my wish is to see her married in my church.”

Richard’s eyes light up as he nods with relief. “Yes. We’ll do that.”

Ellie is still looking at the globe as she speaks. “God must always sanction a marriage. You will need Him when hard times hit. I will speak with Reverend Browne and arrange everything.”

Although Ellie is very anxious when Bridgette leaves the island with a stranger, she doesn’t plan on visiting America. Her fears deepen when Bridgette becomes pregnant six months after she marries, but Ellie reassures herself, “It will be fine. God will protect their marriage.”

With Bridgette gone, Reverend Browne visits her frequently, truly concerned that she’s alone in her home. Once again, she takes down the globe, removes the dust and spins it. He’s points out all the places he’d visited during his ministry. She confides in him about her desire to take service at Wesley Chapel in London, the first Methodist church ever built, and after mass, visit John Wesley’s home and The Museum of the Methodist.

He nods approvingly, “Miss Ellie, have faith. God will take you where you should be. Yours is a truly spiritual desire that should be fulfilled.”

With no one around to disturb them, they become closer. Soon, whenever he visits, she happily rests her head on his shoulder as he holds her hand.

Early one Sunday as she prepares for church, she receives a frantic phone call from her daughter, “Mom, can you come and stay with me for awhile? I need you so badly. Please come, please come quick quick. I need help with Troy, he’s a real difficult baby. He won’t sleep. He screams all the time. No babysitter will watch him ‘cause he’s so demanding. If you don’t come, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Richard and I are fighting all the time. Sometimes we don’t talk for weeks. I really need you. I’m so scared that I might lose Richard.”

Ellie hears her daughter’s distress and sighs very deeply. The truth is she doesn’t want to go to America. And for the first time in her life, she doesn’t listen to the sermon during the church service.

After Mass, she goes to Reverend Browne, “Can I have a few words with you?”

He quickly notices her distress and looks at her with concern.

“Reverend…” she begins.

He sees her loss for words and quietly asks, “Miss Ellie, What troubles you?”

“My daughter in America just called me. It seems she and her husband can’t manage their baby and need me to go there to help them. I fear this child is tearing at her marriage.”

He looks at the heavens before responding. “God sends us to those who need us.”

“Yes, Reverend, but a part of me doesn’t want to go. I’ve been saving to attend mass at the Wesley Church and meet my Methodist brethren in England. But if I go to her, I’ll use all the money I’ve saved.”

“If you go, you must do it with an open heart. God throws us challenges, and if you hold resentment when He does, it’s not good. When you return, you can start saving for the trip.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to go, Reverend. My daughter and I haven’t always seen eye to eye…” Ellie chokes up with emotion, and Reverend Browne puts a comforting arm on her shoulder.  “My heart is heavy and I just want to get rid of this burden.”

“Yes, Miss Ellie, I understand why this pains you, and I know that my words are just words. The Lord may close one door but He opens another one. You must keep your faith.”

Ellie prays for several days, and then arranges for a visitor’s visa to the United States. When she first arrives in America, she notices her daughter’s extreme weight loss, and comforts herself that she’s needed. The dark hallway that leads to her daughter’s apartment is filled with stale smells from other homes. Her stomach turns as she thinks, “Is this what I left Antigua for?”

Alone in her small room, Ellie pulls out her Bible and prays. That night she thinks the loud honking of the car horn is going to drive her crazy. All night long the constant “beep, beep” makes her head ache more and more. And it isn’t just the horns that are loud. There is the siren from the fire station that’s across from her daughter’s apartment building that seems to wail just as she is about to fall asleep. And every night, as she begins to drift off to sleep, the damn siren starts up again.

As the weeks pass, large circles form around Ellie’s eyes. Her deep mahogany colour loses its lustre as a grey pallor creeps into her skin. The few times she falls asleep, she dreams she’s sitting on her gallery in Antigua,  staring into the big, blue sky with Reverend Browne at her side. The hot, lazy breeze lulls her into a spell, and she begins to feel the aches in her body ease.  Her eyes get heavy, she rests her head on his shoulder and easily drifts into a soft slumber. Then she awakens, suddenly and abruptly, from some loud American noise.  She closes her eyes once more and quietly counts the days since she came to America.

Each morning, she looks out the window and sees a drab landscape—one window peers into another window—and thinks there is nothing magical about this place. She misses the fresh air and the pretty flowers in her garden. Her only salvation is her grandson, Troy. From the moment the baby rests in his grandmother’s arms, he quietens.

She feels a deep loneliness she never knew existed as her life revolves around watching her grandson. Her salvation is her weekly mass. She travels over an hour to sit at the altar of the United Methodist Church. On her first Sunday at that church, she introduces herself to the Reverend, and tells him she is a proud member of the Methodist church that was founded by Nathaniel Gilbert in Antigua. Then she explains that the former planter’s conversion made him a strong opponent to slavery and he was the first man to preach to the slaves in Antigua back in 1759, long before slavery was abolished, and that’s why she doesn’t go to any other church. He then informs her that Francis Asbury travelled across the Atlantic Ocean from England and spread the doctrine to America. “Abolitionists began this church. They believed that worshipping God was about faith and not skin colour. The earlier believers prayed for a more Godly society and were also actively involved in the Underground Railroad.” Ellie’s head nods with conviction and she tells him that she’ll have no problem bending her knees in supplication at its altar because she knows her people were always welcomed at this church.

Her daughter reluctantly agrees to Troy’s baptism, and Ellie truly believes God spoke to him because he quietens after the ceremony and becomes a more manageable child. Within a few months, her prayers are answered when she notices that the constant bickering between her daughter and husband subside, and she sees the loving glow she first saw in Antigua return.

Every week, she writes to Reverend Browne, and tells him that she’ll be coming home soon. He responds to her and she gets excited because on paper, he becomes more honest and confides how much he misses her. When her grandson is no longer in diapers, she begins to dream about the soft Antiguan breeze, placing her head on Reverend Browne’s shoulder and taking mass at her beloved church in Freetown. She realizes a new door is opening for her and she’s so caught up in her thoughts that she doesn’t notice her daughter’s weight gain, and is caught off-guard when Bridgette confides they are having twins. Ellie shuts her eyes; she truly wants to scream.

She goes to her room and prays. Then she slowly picks up a pen. “I’m not coming back.” she writes to Reverend Browne. “I don’t know when I’m coming back. My child needs me. I am a woman of deep faith and I have to believe that God sent me here for a reason.”

Knowing she won’t return to Freetown for a long time, Ellie asks Reverend Browne to look after her home. The years pass while he keeps her home safe; Ellie spends them looking after her grandchildren. She ensures they are christened in her church and attend regular church service. Despite having three grandchildren, Troy is her favourite and she is very pleased when she realizes he has a religious calling; he reminds her of Reverend Browne. To earn more money, she also watches the neighbour’s children and gets a reputation as an excellent caretaker. Letters continue between her and Reverend Browne, and each year, her dream of seeing the Reverend again, or visiting Wesley Chapel and walking the streets of London seems like a dream that will never happen. When she prays, she always thanks the Lord for her blessings. But she still awakens late at night, hearing the hum of the heating system, reminding her that she’s in a foreign land. Her mind often drifts to her home in Antigua and she thinks about everything that could have been, and when those thoughts creep into her mind, she reminds herself God had another path for her. But there are times when this does not offer any consolation.

Reverend Browne doesn’t marry, and they continue writing to each other. He’s the only person who knows what’s inside of her. She tells him that America is not all bad. Her new church gives her a sense of belonging and she’s made friends with several woman there. She also discovered that not all black people from America are loud vessels. Although the roads aren’t paved with gold, she recognizes there is opportunity and she’s truly happy that her daughter reaches for it through further education.

He learns that she is joyous when they all move from the cramped apartment into a larger home in a more affluent neighbourhood as her daughter and son-in-law progress in their careers.  But this place is still not Freetown. As much as she tries, she can’t seem to grow anything in the soil and she truly misses the bright, tropical flowers.

Each year, the family goes on holiday, and she’s with them. He hears about her travels to Florida where she meets Mickey Mouse. They take her to California where she sees the vines that make wine. She lets out a gasp of amazement when she sees Niagara Falls and she spends hours staring at the water as it rapidly falls over the precipice. The sound of the fast moving water is so sweet that she closes her eyes. It isn’t the waves breaking at Half Moon Bay, but it feels just as good. The one thing she omits telling him is that all of this would be so much nicer with him.

Ellie’s bones are not as flexible as they were when she first came to America, and she now has more gray than black hair. She tells her daughter, “It’s time for me to go home.”

Bridgette replies, “Mom, I knew you’d say this to me one day. I know you sacrificed a lot for my happiness, and I can’t thank you enough. The truth is that I don’t know if my marriage would have lasted if you didn’t come. But don’t go back and stay. I need you. The kids needs you. I honestly can’t do without you.”

Ellie finds herself on a plane fifteen years after she first left Antigua, returning to the place she swore she’d never leave. Her grandson, Troy, is seated next to her. She told Bridgette she wanted him to see her home. In her recent letter to Reverend Browne she told him that she’s coming home and she was excited to introduce her grandson to him.

When she finally sees her pink home again, she praises the Lord. She doesn’t care that the plants have grown awry or that there are large weeds, she’s just so happy to be home. The globe is still there, but it has a heavy layer of dust. She glances at it but doesn’t take it down from the shelf.

That night, she steps out onto her gallery and hears silence. There are no horns beeping and only the occasional car passes on the road. The silence hugs her tightly and she lets out a sigh. Impulsively, she walks to the church. The doors are open and she quietly stands there, inhaling the serenity. Then she steps onto the hard stone floor; her feet take her to the altar. The breeze blows through the open window. Everything feels like nothing has changed. Ellie quietly finds a seat in a pew.

Footsteps disturb her and she turns to see Reverend Browne’s smiling face, “Miss Ellie, how good it is to see you! I kept the doors opened late, hoping that you’d come.”

Even though so many years have passed, she can’t help but notice that he still makes a dashing figure in his white robes, but she doesn’t say anything because she is so choked up with emotions.

He puts his hand on hers and she feels his strong, calming energy. “I knew you’d come.”

“Reverend, yes, you’ve always understood me. Everything feels the same. You haven’t changed. It’s like time has stood still.”

“Oh, Miss Ellie, how I wish it did! Life is different, but I’m still the same person. And I know you are still a woman with deep faith.”

“It’s been questioned and challenged,” Ellie pauses for a moment and switches topic. “I didn’t want to stay away for so long. Nothing happened like I thought it would. “

“Are you okay with it?”

“Reverend, when I left, you told me the Lord closes one door and a new one opens. When I got to America, there was so much tension between Bridgette and her husband, but I helped them get over that period. But they were crazy young people who didn’t learn their lesson because she got pregnant with twins right after that. I stayed and raised my grandchildren, and ensured each one was christened in the church.”

His hands are on hers; he feels so comforting, and she continues, “Reverend, my biggest blessing is that I made peace with Bridgette, and learnt to accept her for who she is. But a door closed and I fear it will not reopen. It’s more than never seeing Wesley Chapel. You see, I would have made a good reverend’s wife. But God sent me to them because my grandson has a calling and I helped him find it.  This child needs to learn about the Methodist Church in Antigua. While I’m here, I’ll take him to Gilbert Memorial, where the first slaves took mass. I’m so excited that you will finally meet him.” Again she pauses as she looks earnestly at him, “I can’t fight God. I wish I could, but I can’t. I’ve learnt to be thankful for my blessings. But tonight, I’m just happy to finally see you again.”

She puts her head on his shoulder, and for the first time in fifteen years, she cries. And he softly touches her hair and says, “It’s okay, Miss Ellie. Everything will be okay.”

The next morning, the church bell tolls. The sleepy village begins to rise. People make their way to the stone building that’s been sitting there for over a century. The church becomes crowded. Ellie happily sits with her grandson at her side. The Reverend smiles endearingly at her before he goes to the pulpit. The doleful sound of the organ fills the chapel.

•••

Gayle Gonsalves’ first book, Painting Pictures and Other Stories, a collection of short stories, was published in 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Bluelight Corner, In the Black and So the Nailhead Bend, So the Story End. Gayle’s desire to write comes from her love of fiction and the stories that run through her imagination. Antigua and Barbuda plays a dominant role in her writing as plots and characters from there weave their way into her stories. 

12 comments

  1. Reply

    Thanks for posting this short story. I enjoyed reading about Miss Ellie and the Reverend. I was disappointed to learn it was a short story.

  2. Reply

    Wow! That was a wonderful story. I so enjoyed hearing about Miss Ellie. I’ve read Gayle’s short stories in her book “Painting Pictures and Other Stories” and she continues to impress me.

  3. Reply

    I so loved the story, it was so engaging. I was surprised when it ended, I was expecting and wanting more. A very good story. Thank you Gayle

  4. Reply

    I recently read a quote I love: “To keep your blessings, you must give it away”. As I read this story, I thought of this quote. This mother was so unselfish. She sacrificed so much of her own happiness to be there for her only child. Gayle is such an amazing writer. I got so caught up in the story; at times becoming very emotional. I am delighted that she shares this talent with us. Thank you sincerely Gayle. Please keep writing!

  5. Reply

    Gayle continues to a special writer to me. I connect with her work. I read “Painting Pictures and Other Stories” and was so inspired by her writing! She always impresses me. Thank you!

  6. Reply

    What an engaging piece of work! “Miss Ellie’s” visuals are vivid and the tone very soft and loving. Thank you for yet another lovely story, Gayle. I was just sad that the story had to end.

  7. Reply

    Painting Pictures has been my armchair companion for some time now and Miss Ellie left me thirsting for more. I anxiously await your next work of art GG, SZ

  8. Reply

    What a beautiful read Gayle! Thank you so much for allowing me to meet Miss Ellie and the gift of her faith .

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