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A Memoir by Elizabeth Brooks: "An Empty Chair at the Table"

An Empty Chair at the Table

Cosmopolitan Trinidad and Tobago, my homeland, had achieved a milestone and became an Independent nation. That transition labeled us a Third World country instead of a British Colony. It was a time of hope, promise and possibilities. Opportunity was ripe for those who had an education but the unemployment rate was still very high. Many citizens intended to emigrate. It was a painful process to obtain a passport in Trinidad and Tobago to pursue the challenge of emigrating. Money and favors might have been traded. Many people wanted to obtain a visa of any type to migrate to the States; which meant showing a large bank account. The passport office had very long lines and people had to return several times, after standing in line all day, so I have heard. Before daybreak, people assembled in line at the United States embassy daily, with hopes of securing a visa. Unlike many around me, obtaining a passport to emigrate from Trinidad was not in my cerebral hemisphere. Life for me was joyous and happy, living day to day.

An intelligent child, at the top of her class became a teenage mother and high school drop-out, (because I was noticeably pregnant I could not sit my final exams). My life had become stagnant. My prospects were dim. But I had the joy and love of a close family, my baby, my parents, siblings, lots of close cousins and friends. But my life was unfolding. There is always a turning point “He brought me forth also into a large place: He delivered me, because He delighted in me” II Samuel 22-20 (KJV). God showed me that he would always provide for me. Miraculously, one of my older cousins who lived in the States, dialed a wrong number, and she was asked if she knew anyone who was looking for work. God put my name on my cousin’s tongue. She gave the prospective employer my name and address in Trinidad. There were other cousins’ names that she could have given, her peers, but she didn’t. Like manna from heaven. I received a letter from my prospective employer and was advised to take it to the US Embassy, immediately. I was going to America to work, to be a Foreign Maid in Long Island, New York. I was informed that I would have to work at least eight months or a year to obtain my green card. I left my close knit family and beautiful two year old baby, everything I knew and loved and made me who I was, to come to a strange and foreign land. That decision to migrate came out of a desperate need to have a future. I embraced the opportunity so that I could provide for me and my tribe. I became the hope and the dream.

Within a few short months, my travel documents were finalized. I stayed in Diego Martin, the edge of the city, during that time; my eldest sister who had returned home on a visit from England, my baby and me. We had a friend who owned a car and was instrumental in driving us around from the various government offices to save time, money and contain the excitement and reduce stress. He had a great sense of humor. Raj worked at a newspaper publication in the city. God spoke to my storm. I never encountered any incredibly long lines at the passport office or US Embassy. I went about my business, smoothly. Of all the people in my world who had intentions to emigrate and spoke about their prospects, suddenly, I was the first one who left home to migrate to the States. My sister decided to travel with me on her return to England, to give me moral support. Seven years prior, she had gone through the throes of uncertainty and anxiety when she migrated to England, leaving two babies behind. The positive lining in her walk of faith was that she went to join the love of her life.

During my departure at Piarco Airport, there was a lot of distraction. Several people came to say goodbye. Meanwhile, my heart was throbbing. My sister suspected my turmoil and my friend Raj knew what was going on deep within. I had vocalized to him that I don't think I could get on that plane to leave my baby behind. I said that throughout the entire process of paperwork. Now, it was time to board the plane and one of my sisters proceeded to walk towards the gate, with my baby. She got beyond certain checkpoints. The challenge was to stand at the top of the stairs of the plane and wave goodbye or bolt. I kept thinking of the disappointment that would be to my Dad; the prohibitive cost and loss to him; he would be distraught and disappointed in me. Then I replayed in my head, what he had always said, since I was a little girl, “you are my horse and I am betting on you.”

Time to climb the steps of the plane and my friend climbed sister and I were so confused...He was still escorting us, holding on to my carryon luggage. Climbing the stairs, I was now in crisis mode, descend or wave. We found out then, that Raj had a plane ticket to Barbados, the first leg of my flight and we were ushered in quickly. What friendship! He knew how difficult my choice was. He was brilliant and had such sensitivity and insight for a young man. He was only 21. Raj did that to distract me, to secure my future. “God is my strength and power: and He maketh my way perfect. He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet: and setteth me upon my high places” II Samuel 22:33-34 (KJV) Raj and I corresponded with each other for almost two years, but I never saw him again.

I arrived in New York City in the grips of a cold March 30th, at JFK Airport. My cousins met me with a winter coat and we took a taxi to my new residence in Washington Heights. I wanted to write instead I gazed out of the window of the plane. The city was sprawling and spiraling. Nothing was familiar and everything looked as cold as it felt. We spoke about getting acclimated my first week, riding the subway and the Long Island Railroad.. Then I would call my employer to let her know that I had arrived and was ready for work. On day two, my cousin handed me my first piece of mail. Everyone was stunned when I opened it. This was a gift from God, a miracle: my green card. On April 4th, just a few days after my arrival, we witnessed in shock, the horror on television of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Violence, riots, and fear erupted in cities and I listened over and over to his “I Have a Dream” speech as tears rolled down my face. My world had changed forever.

Two weeks later, I called my prospective employer and told her that I had arrived. She gave me directions how to travel by the LIRR and said she would pick me up at the train station. I met Mrs. S who greeted me very warmly, but she was taken aback because I looked so young. I arrived at her beautiful ranch home, and she introduced me to her husband and daughter. She gave me a tour of the house, told me that she had prepared my room,; and added that I must remember that I am part of the family. My cousins had advised me to travel very lightly. I arrived in my cold room in the dimly lit basement and noted the bathroom was on the opposite side.

We had already discussed my chores: cleaning the house daily and doing laundry. In my country, my family paid someone to do laundry and cook for our family. My experience in ironing was to iron the pleats on my school uniform skirt nightly. When I returned upstairs for dinner, Mrs. S served me a plate and I ate at the kitchen counter while her family ate at the kitchen table. I was eating at the counter even though there was an empty chair at the table. Then she gave me a pile of linen to change my bedding. Hadn’t she said she’d prepared the room for me? After doing dishes, I returned to the not-very-lit basement, took a shower, and shivered as I changed my linen and proceeded to go to bed. There was a radio in my room; it was the first time I remember hearing the hit song, "Cry Like a Baby." And that’s what I did. That song played every night and I filled America, this country that seemed so cold, with more of my warm tears. I wondered what my baby was doing. What was she thinking happened to me? Where was my Mommy? This was a gigantic sacrifice. I fell asleep when I became numb and empty.

Cleaning was my specialty. I love a clean house. My sisters used to say I had obsessive behavior in cleaning. Even though it was the first time I’d used spray starch, the result was professional. My employer was pleased with my work. During dinner, Mrs. S could not contain her excitement about Thanksgiving; she wanted her friends to meet me. I felt safe during the day, though I’d never been alone before.. By the end of the first week, Mr. S had come into my room after 10 o'clock at night to retrieve a file from his filing cabinet. That was very disconcerting. I was terrified, and afraid to sleep that night. This reeked of familiarity of my cousins’ stories. Based on their experiences, “travel lightly” was code for you may have to run and leave your belongings behind.

After my first week, Mrs. S paid me less than agreed upon. I was stunned. She claimed she ran short of money, but informed me that she had to deduct some money to put into a fund in the event I became ill. It was for my protection, she explained. The next two weeks she claimed she was short of money again. My family determined that she could not afford a foreign maid. She had breached her contract. My green card was already delivered before my arrival in the US, at my residence (for such a time as this). God gave me an opportunity and He made sure no one could take that away from me. He also gave us free will. Mrs. S wanted cheap labor even cheaper. That was the status quo, exploitative. She treated me like I was undeserving. This was injustice and white advantage. Her actions were tainted. Wasn’t that the reason for Dr. King’s message, lifting up the poor?

Fortunately, I have choices, look at me. I am somebody. My stint of employment was no longer than three weeks. I never returned to her home and she never called to inquire about me. Probably it was her intention to drive me away. Her husband had continued to come to my room once a week to retrieve documents, past my bedtime, invading my privacy. I did not have to make compromises, God had honored my sacrifice. My situation was unique because generally the green card went to the employer’s residence and was held as a bargaining chip, sometimes. At moments when I might have been fearful or doubtful, I prayed a prayer my mother taught us all, The Magnificat which magnified the presence of the Lord; I knew then that all would be well. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and a sound mind.” II Timothy 1:7 (KJV)

Immediately, I was hired by a brokerage firm, on Wall Street. I had a solid educational background and good work ethic. I was always at the top of my class, as a result, I always assumed positions of responsibility at work. My cousin was the instrument God used to challenge the system to light my path. In the midst of the emptiness, culture shock and assimilation, I arrived at a status which enabled me to build structure for my family. I am an active American citizen. My entire family calls beloved America home. My baby, my parents, my sisters, my nephews and niece all migrated to America and we continued to contribute to our adopted home, as productive citizens. We have a rich heritage and know that we can be competitive on a world stage, given the opportunity. We are fortunate enough to recognize the value and the privilege of diversity.

Twenty years later, after my children were grown (I also had a son after I got married) I went to college and was placed in the scholar’s program, at my university. I graduated with high honors and went on to graduate school. Empowering others and providing them with access to information for the public good, that is my cause. I believe deep within my bones that not one of us is disposable. My job is to celebrate life while pleading for justice, for all humanity, knowing full well that justice is essential to peace, law and order; without empathy it is difficult to have unity.

“Thou hast enlarged mine steps under me; so that my feet did not slip “ II Samuel 22:37 (KJV).

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