The moment still brings Lauren Francis-Sharma to tears, ruining her mascara in front of company, darn it. Sitting in the kitchen of her bright and airy home in Kensington, Md., she is seeing in her mind’s eye the hospital bed and her grandmother laying there after having had a stroke. As she looked at the ailing Trinidadian woman she called “Ma,” Francis-Sharma felt immediate regret.
“I did not know her story,” the 42-year-old says between sips of green tea.
That moment led Francis-Sharma, an unhappy corporate mergers and acquisition attorney turned stay-at-home mom, to her first novel. The thin threads of the little she knew of her grandmother’s life were woven into “ ’Til the Well Runs Dry,” a recently released tale that turns on a West Indian woman’s secrets.
Francis-Sharma’s grandmother, Jane DeGannes, immigrated to the United States alone from rural Trinidad, fleeing an unhappy marriage and leaving her children temporarily behind, and built a life from scratch. As a child, Francis-Sharma thought of “Ma” as mysterious and terse. Children were to be quiet, lest the racket bother the neighbors below Ma’s Flatbush apartment. Children were to be squeaky clean, bathed nightly and forbidden from sitting on DeGannes’s bed with “outside” clothes on.
Francis-Sharma longed for the outwardly loving Southern black grandmothers she had grown up around in Baltimore, the kind of women who enveloped children in big hugs and sweetly said, “Hey, baby.”
DeGannes did not offer hugs, and Francis-Sharma and her grandmother sometimes hardly understood each other — one with proper American-accented English, the other mixing her English with Creole patois and Trinidadian sayings, such as “You wouldn’t learn until you burn” and “Grass have ears,” meaning watch what you say.
But DeGannes’s stroke in 2008 began a journey of intense curiosity for Francis-Sharma. Why had “Ma” fled Maryland for New York after immigrating? What had it felt like to leave her children behind in Trinidad?
Francis-Sharma, a wife and mother of two daughters, was angry with herself, feeling that she had lost an opportunity to ask the questions. Had she asked DeGannes, she would likely have been shooed away, she says. “It’s unfair. People have to tell their stories before they go. It’s important to know your history — your specific history.”
Writing the novel, over two years, was a way of filling in the details.
Like DeGannes, the book’s main character Marcia (Mah-SEE-ah) is from Blanchisseuse, a rural seaside village in the north of Trinidad, where in the 1940s people “were still dragging their bare heels along hot dirt roads, growing their own produce and sweating to keep their one or two underfed fowls from straying into a greedy neighbor’s yard,” Francis-Sharma writes. When she visited the town as a teenager, there were outhouses.
Francis-Sharma imagines her grandmother’s challenging marriage and the confusion, cruelty and kindness she likely encountered in the United States. And she paints the limited opportunities for women in Trinidad during her grandmother’s era, when poor women were relegated to sewing, cooking or pressing shirts in a factory.
She includes the Calypso music that echoed through her grandmother’s apartment and the traditional Caribbean food and drink, such as sorrel and roast bake, a flatbread dripping with butter, that her grandmother often made.
Marcia’s tough-love relationship with her children also stems from Francis-Sharma’s observations of “Ma,” who would speak French patois with her friends but never taught the dialect to her children and grandchildren because she believed there were conversations to which only adults should be privy. Likewise, Marcia does not tell her children she is leaving for America until days before her departure, but it is clear why she is emigrating.
“I didn’t see her as who she was until writing the book,” Francis-Sharma says of her grandmother, her eyes again filling with tears. “It’s easy for those of us who have settled and who have been settled for a generation or two to forget what it feels like to want to open an opportunity for your children.”
Women’s magazines from Elle to Oprah Winfrey’s O have praised Francis-Sharma’s novel, and it was recently the centerpiece of a small book festival in Washington during Caribbean Heritage Month, a celebration in its ninth year that occurs each June and is usually dominated by boisterous parades and festivals. The D.C. Carnival is June 28, and the preceding week is National Caribbean Restaurant Week.
But beneath all of that Carnival flair and celebration are stories and sometimes secrets, Francis-Sharma says. The notes she receives from other West Indians who have read her book include messages such as “My mother didn’t tell us either.”
In Francis-Sharma’s novel, the children hear the truth of Marcia’s story. It is a scene, you can tell, that Francis-Sharma wishes was real.