By Janine Fondon
With the warmth of the rising sun, Nanny rose to her own highest expectation of getting the pots going and igniting the flame that would heat them. She was a God-fearing woman who had lived through many tragedies on many shores, always moving forward with the hope of God’s tomorrow. Long before her hand touched the big spoon, Nanny’s faith was already stirring the simmering pot. “Remember that God is in control,” she used to say. Everything happens in God’s time and with God’s grace.”
Born and raised in Jamaica, West Indies, Nanny, also known as Miriam Kirkaldy, emigrated to the U.S. in 1917 via Ellis Island and settled in New York City. Over the years, she traveled back and forth to Jamaica, visiting her beloved birthplace whenever she could. There, her great yard of fruit trees and herbs became a sacred garden where God’s instructions for living, working, loving, and praying were cultivated and harvested. Nanny was my grandmother; her birth home became my home, too, during school vacations and as often I was allowed to go there. I loved Nanny, and I loved spending time with her in Jamaica.
She summoned us at about 6 a.m., and she didn’t have to utter a word to make us rise with the will to love and help others. When the fragrance of cooked peppers, onions, and spices reached our noses, we ran from our small bedroom, where several of us slept on thick mats with light blankets in rooms filled with open-air screened windows. We joined Nanny on the open side porch eagerly, ready for our breakfast porridge and prayer.
Nanny had a strong, yet loving face, honey-brown with eyes that changed color with the sky. As she prepared the table before us, her spirit showed us that work was love if you really wanted to do it for people you care about. She watched us eat with loving intent and felt joy knowing that we entered the day with God’s favor. When it was time to begin our chores, she let us know with few words, much respect, and high expectation. Then she would return to her pots, her hands seeming to carry God’s grace as she managed the flame, stirred with precision, and occasionally stood back to enjoy the fragrance of root vegetables or stew meat, blended with other mouth-watering ingredients like coconut milk, callaloo, stewed okra, tomato, onions and pepper, everything blended carefully with special healing herbs.
I stayed close to Nanny to learn how to stir the pot like she did. She squatted near her outdoor coal stove, which looked like a campfire, tending a cast iron Dutch pot filled with the fixins of brown stew meat and a mix of seasonings, herbs, and vegetables. Her stew pot reminded me of a skillet, but it was way deeper and had a lid on it. I watched as the flickers of the flame seemed to calm with my grandmother’s eye and her steady hand. The cast iron pot retained the seasonings from each meal, so the smell of peppers and onions only grew stronger over time.
While she never said the word work, Nanny silently inspired us to handle our responsibilities. The way she stirred her pot was a rhythmic reminder to stay focused with precision and maintain the beat of warrior’s drum. Even when I wasn’t beside her, I could see and feel her stirring that pot, no matter where I was in the yard or on the porch. To me, the pot seemed like the center of the collaborating universe. She was attentive to the pot as we were attentive to whatever we were doing. When I was younger, she set me up with a little pot that I stirred and cooked alongside her. Working together, we were synchronized in joy, faith, and productivity.
I studied my grandmother intently and listened to her every word, never tiring of her ways and spirit. I watched and listened as friends and neighbors found themselves on Nanny’s porch for spirit-filled conversations. In tradition, Nanny welcomed them to stay for an hour or stay for the day, and, if inclined, they were invited to join us in whatever we were doing. She was known as an ambassador because she was so welcoming. Through the day, visitors felt honored to help her with what she called her “piece work,” small tasks like laundry and sewing for others, sometimes cooking, gardening, fixing things and cleaning. Just like we did, her visitors wanted to be close to her.
Nanny stirred something in anyone who was around her. Her hands of discipline and purpose taught lessons as she shelled peas, swept up outside, tidied the living room, said prayers, weeded the garden, picked fruit, washed the dishes, greeted guests, prepared the lunch table, hand-washed all the clothes, and looked after us. She had conversations with friends, family, and passersby talking about everything from family matters to politics, and everyone felt better thanks to her ongoing chatter, laughter, and understanding. Nanny would say, “Keep your house and heart clean by helping others so that you can welcome all that is good with God.” All her stirring made me see that the workplace was a house like any other, that needed to be in order. Her words became my DNA.
The lessons I learned from Nanny are embedded in my soul. I can’t stir a pot without thinking of something she taught me. Thanks to her, I walk into every workplace like it is a spiritual experience and a test of faith, where you enter feeling that the Lord is trying to show you something, and you leave hoping that your God-given talents have been put to good use.
Nanny united family and friends in a circle of love that moved us to get things done. We felt like we mattered to her and God, as we took on our intuitive, yet ordained, responsibility to help others with care, respect, and love. As she stirred her pot, we listened to her words: “God provides, and the spirits guide us. We live for the spirit, not the penny, and we rise to do good – not evil. The Lord puts us where we need to be.”
At supper time, about 4:30 pm, we washed up at the water pipe outside the back of the house and cleaned up for dinner and put on our dinner clothes—nothing fancy, but relaxing and clean—to eat together and share stories of what happened during our day. There was no TV, radio, telephone, or drama. The dinner table was as simple as a table and bench with others sitting on the floor if there wasn’t room. We sat with gratitude for making it through the day and finding peace as we rested under a big shade tree at the back of the house before returning to finish up our chores. Nanny blessed everyone who joined us, and laid hands on each of us with the food she served from the big pot on the stove. With each bite of the pepper pot soup, we were healed with love and filled with faith and God’s cheer. I always thought of the pot as magical because it fed everyone and then some—and we were always filled from our stomachs to our spirits.
Best of all, the meal Nanny prepared came with remembrances of her mother, who, according to family lore, came to Jamaica from Sierra Leone, Africa. Nanny’s mama was as beautiful as Nanny, with a spirit that came from God. She did just what Nanny did with us. She began the day with a meal on the stove, and inspired everyone to do their work with joy. Nanny said her mother was a “maroon” who lived with the Arawak Indians in the mountains. We never knew whether Nanny’s mother named her after the great maroon leader of legend named Nanny. But our Nanny was a special kind of leader, too.
Nanny’s mama used to stir like the waves of the ocean that brought her to Jamaica and she prepared root vegetables like her mama in Africa did. Nanny’s mama believed the waves were God’s way of teaching us that we are resilient with the hope of a new day, with a new pot at every daybreak to sustain us. Like Nanny’s mama did for her, Nanny inspired all of us to get up like the ocean waves that reach the shore with purpose, returning to the ocean for restoration, only to come to shore again, with God’s grace. She stirred the pot so the seasonings would go through even the neckbone. She stirred the pot to feel the healing broth hit her sweaty brow in a motion that cleansed the heart and mind. We learned from Nanny, and Nanny’s mama. We felt the waves all the way from Africa to Jamaica in the smells and swells from the pot as it emerged from the flames.
Nanny knew that I would stir the pot one day, and teach my children to do the same. She inspired the discipline of stirring and sharing with others, serving joy, healing, and hope. I stir my pots with love and think of the ocean and waves that connect me to Nanny and her mama. Their healing culinary traditions help me remain balanced in a world of upheaval. My daughter awakens to a fragrant blend each day, and we eat breakfast together. We pray for God’s grace. Moving into our workplaces, we seek calm and not caution, we pray for peace before protocol, and we hope to be awakened by pleasant aromas of productivity, never adding airs of arrogance. I feel the spirit and wisdom of past generations and appreciate the waves of pepper pots that enable me to stand in Nanny’s shoes as intuitive leader, healer, grandmother, and mother. She stirred the pot, and now, so do I.
Janine Fondon is a writer, speaker, consultant, media producer, and chair of the communications department at Bay Path University. She is a frequent contributor to the news site MassLive, where she writes about social justice, women’s issues, education, and the business community. She recently curated and produced an exhibit and series of public events at the Springfield Museums: “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” In 2018, Fondon was named one of the top African American female professors by the AAFPA (African American Female Professors Association).
Photo of Nanny, courtesy of the author