Ethelyn Richards came to us out of necessity—hers and ours. She was “imported” from Jamaica to Brooklyn to care for my ailing aunt.
I tried to get Ethelyn to call me Cathy, but she insisted on “Miss Cathy.” So, I called her “Miss Lyn.” Still do.
She slowly adjusted to life in Brooklyn, and was delighted to learn that it had a large Caribbean population. She even found a church she loved. Miss Lyn soon became part of our family too.
Our toddler took an immediate liking to Miss Lyn. Watching her patience and quiet joy with David, I couldn’t help but think of the five children she’d left behind with her sisters in the Kildare District. She nicknamed our little guy “King David,” which she calls him to this day.
By November, Aunt Eve was too ill to come to our house for Thanksgiving. My husband Peter and I heaped plates with leftovers and ladled home-made turkey soup into plastic containers. We took shopping bags of food to Aunt Eve’s place—at least Miss Lyn wouldn’t have to cook for a few days.
Her first and only winter up north was the coldest weather she’d ever encountered. Aunt Eve’s elderly friends pooled their resources and bought Miss Lyn a warm winter coat, a hat, scarf and gloves as an early Christmas present. She was well outfitted when she saw and felt her first snow.
Late December, Aunt Eve was admitted to the hospital. Miss Lyn stayed all day tending to her needs. With Christmas fast approaching, I worried that she would spend the holidays in a strange country, alone.
The big night for our family is Christmas Eve. My Aunt Lucy makes a dizzying array of dishes we look forward to the entire year. Sheepishly, I asked if she wouldn’t mind us bringing Miss Lyn to supper. Instead of being annoyed, Aunt Lucy was glad to welcome someone so far from home to her table. “That’s what Christmas is all about,” she said.
When Peter and I pulled up at Aunt Eve’s place, Miss Lyn was waiting for us outside, all bundled up in her new coat. Underneath, she wore her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. She looked lovely and was very grateful to have a place to go.
I don’t think Miss Lyn was prepared for the bounty that is an Italian-Cuban Christmas. She took her seat at the table, beautifully set with gleaming china, gilded utensils and gold-rimmed goblets. Literally covered with platters of fried shrimp, bowls of pasta with crab sauce, fritto misto and filet mignon, it could probably feed Miss Lyn’s entire village.
As we washed plates between courses, we insisted that Miss Lyn sit and relax. I don’t think she felt comfortable being doted on; she was used to doing the caretaking. But Miss Lyn worked so hard taking care of Aunt Eve, we wanted to pamper her. Even though she said she was full, she managed to sample Grandma Rachel’s flan, some Christmas cookies and other sweets.
When it came time to exchange presents, one by one, my family gave Miss Lyn gifts: boxes of candy, pretty baskets of soap, fragrant lotions. She was moved almost to tears as she accepted the presents quietly and graciously. I was touched by my family’s generosity, especially on such short notice. Inviting a virtual stranger to your holiday table is one thing; showering them with gifts is quite another.
On the drive home, I slipped Miss Lyn an envelope. At first, she refused it but I reminded her of the barrel filled with clothes (a tiny suit for her son, flowered dresses for her girls), waiting to be shipped to Jamaica. Now she could afford to send it.
In the new year, Aunt Eve was in and out of the hospital. She died quietly on July 4, 2001, amid a flurry of fireworks. Miss Lyn was whisked away soon after.
Fifteen years later, Miss Lyn and I still keep in touch. We are older, in our 50s, with gray salting our dark hair. We exchange letters and Christmas cards, hers in elegant longhand with sweeping curves which ask, “How are you keeping?” There has been good news and bad: of her children’s achievements, of her husband’s passing, of my breast cancer. She calls several times a year: on our birthdays, on our wedding anniversary. Whenever I hear her lilting voice and shy giggle, I can’t help but smile.