An American Boy and His Jamaican Nanny: A Conversation with Ross Kenneth Urken
By Aaron ShulmanNovember 24, 2019
Throughout my life I have faced guffaws of incredulity and pshaws of dismissal when I explain my unusual inflection doesn’t reflect the influence of my native Princeton or the musicality of Torah tropes, but rather the singsong lilt of the West Indies, the hum-drum of Jamaican hillside chatter.
With parents consumed by mental illness, alcoholism, and explosive conflicts, Urken found a second mother in calm yet firm Dezna Sanderson, a woman who had to leave children of her own back home in Jamaica in order to make a living by raising someone else’s in the United States. Her loss was Urken’s gain, yet Dezna also found a son and daughter in Urken and his older sister. It is this uncomfortable equation of love, privilege, and sacrifice that drives this touching story.
Dezna died of diabetes-related complications when Urken was 23. Her death left him with an emotional hole, but also a narrative one. He writes, “She knew everything about the Urkens — too much, perhaps — and we knew entirely too little about her.” So he set out to correct this imbalance, trying to get to know, and understand, the woman who had been so instrumental in shaping him as a person. This takes him to Jamaica several times, back in time into the country’s tumultuous history, and also into the lives of many of Dezna’s children, who eventually embrace him as one of their own. If all photos are ultimately about the photographer as much as the subject, Another Mother operates under a similar rule, with earnest, heartwarming results, carried along by stylish writing. By learning so much about Dezna we learn perhaps even more about Urken, which only serves to reinforce the main theme of the book: as different as the nanny and her charges’ lives and experiences were from each other, they were and still are inseparable.
AARON SHULMAN: You write, wisely and correctly (I think), “The adults we idolize and idealize as kids are often historyless in our minds. They are simply sources of comfort and strength.” What (uncomfortable?) emotions did you go through researching and writing about Dezna’s history, which was full of adversity, disappointments, and painful sacrifices?
ROSS KENNETH URKEN: Before writing this book, I had no detailed knowledge of Dezna’s history, so indeed, I maintained a mere child’s view of her past. In unpacking the difficult parts of Dezna’s biography — the man who abandoned her when she was a young mother, her family’s economic struggles during the CIA’s infiltration of the island in the ’70s and ’80s, her husband’s sudden death — I found myself angry at the perpetrators of her sadness and felt vicarious heartache for her losses. As most charges, I had a relatively superficial view of my nanny’s life, and wandering the catacombs of her past required me to confront these uncomfortable moments she faced both with my own form of emotional Kevlar to withstand the blows but also a certain vulnerability to comprehend them. In addition, I became tearful when considering her ability to mask what she’d endured before she came to the United States when dealing with me and my sister. Dezna evinced a reginal quality throughout my childhood and clung to optimism and the belief that hard work always delivers a better future. With my knowledge of all she went through, I am moved by the pains she took to shield me from the struggles of her life and by the love she imbued in her every action.
Kids are prone to misbehavior, and though Dezna kept us pretty much in line, I do recount in Chapter 7 an anecdote about a playdate in which my schnooky nogoodnik preschool co-conspirator and I rebelled against her when she implored us to write on an easel. In light of her many sacrifices, I encountered intense remorse about my occasional youthful misbehavior when exploring that episode. I felt that way all the more so, because though most of her kids were grown when she moved to the United States, her two youngest, Carla and Fabi, were just 12 and 11 at the time; she gave up years with them to provide for them, a near-universal reality for immigrant nannies. When she left our house when I was 13 after my bar mitzvah, I internalized the loss as if having a parent move out. My exploration of the experiences Carla and Fabi had at that time clued me in to a holistic view of the family’s emotional reality during that era. In growing close with Dezna’s children and being accepted as a sibling, I have addressed with them personally and in the book all that she gave up. She managed to maintain meaningful relationships with her children throughout their lives, and perhaps as redemption, we have formed a bond together that continues the link between the two families, stitched together by our love for a shared mother.
I noticed that you idealize Dezna much more than you do your parents. In part this seems because she lent herself more readily to idealization than your mother and father, but I also wondered if it was too uncomfortable for you, or Dezna’s family, to get into her imperfections or flaws. Or was she really just one of these very unique and singular souls whose shortcomings leave no impression behind?
When I was first looking for an agent to represent me for this book, there was a fair amount of interest but inevitable pushback particularly related to Dezna’s inherent “goodness.” There was, in some sense, this belief that Dezna had to be “bad” to be interesting. “Was she maybe Bob Marley’s mistress?” “Was she selling ganja?” These are actual questions agents asked me. The narrative of the renegade nanny seemed more scintillating, I suppose. I realize that I have, to some extent, written a hagiography of Dezna given her role as a stabilizing force in my household. As I say in the book, “[H]er calm, contagious as a yawn, hovered over my childhood years like a protective buffer.”
Perhaps the fulcrum of my gratitude for Dezna hinges on her ability to create this equilibrium amid my parents’ more volatile tenor, so as far as scenes from my youth in Princeton are concerned, Dezna is essentially canonized a saint. My parents are lovely people, and it is my sincere hope that their idiosyncrasies and charisma come through in my portrayal of them, but, like all of us, they have flaws — flaws that combusted when combined. Spoiler alert: My parents got divorced from each other two separate times. So my presentation of Dezna as someone who seemingly can do no wrong is perhaps in contrast to that marital mishegoss, at least through the lens of myself at five years old, the initial perspective of the book. That said, the more I dug into Dezna’s life, though, the more I confirmed her magnanimity — whether it was this or that person in the hills of St. Elizabeth parish relating some feat of healing she performed as a nurse or her children’s praise for her ability to keep the family afloat, and dinner on the table, amid the mayhem Jamaica faced. So in short, yes, she really was, to an extent, one of those rare souls.
You recall a race you ran and won when you were a kid, pushing yourself harder than you ever had before because Dezna was watching. I can’t help but see an analogy there of the fortitude required to write a book. Did she — and this project — push you past what you thought your limits were as a writer?
Dezna instilled in me a particular persistence that certainly informs my resolve as a writer, both from a work-ethic standpoint and as a purveyor of tales to cut through the noise and withstand rejection. She impressed upon me the importance of Sitzfleisch — ass-in-chair — and the idea that you should get the work done to a level that meets your own high personal standards. The motto she drilled into me was: “Good, better, best / Never let it rest / Till your good becomes your better / And your better becomes your best.” The focus is not the end-goal but rather the incessant incremental improvements that help you achieve it. So many agents, and then so many publishing houses, told me no one would want to read a book about a Jamaican nanny, but I trusted the story and the process and clung to the fact that I was creating something meaningful that would resonate with an audience. I just kept writing, making passages cleaner. When Ian Randle Publishers, the largest press in the Caribbean, gave me a book deal, I was particularly excited to learn Another Mother would be distributed across 20 Caribbean nations, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and parts of Africa. Dezna’s lessons in determination — perhaps honed through her own life’s challenges — pushed me to keep going and to continue to improve the book.
Some of the scenes you recall from when you were four or five are incredibly rich in detail. You mention in passing that you have hyperthymesia, an ability to recall the past with abnormal vividness. Could you talk about this ability and how it played into your writing process?
First, I will say I am slightly envious of children growing up now, like my nephew, who have so many important moments held in amber on iCloud and social media along with dedicated Gmail accounts parents use specifically to chronicle amusing tidbits or milestones to be read in the future. Think of the organized granularity of detail the memoirists of the future will be able to draw on, even though it feels a bit unfair. The uptick in photography, in general, has helped us all retain past events all the more.
My memories, by contrast, were hard-won, or at least mostly seared into my brain organically. I unabashedly lean into my hyperthymesia, perhaps because I have so few natural gifts. But yes, classrooms decades old — I can picture where everyone sat. Obscure confessions people forgot they told me in the distant past — they remain in my watertight mind. Part of what helps cement vivid memories for me is my tendency to replay events over in my mind in the immediate aftermath — and then return to those recollections at a later date to secure them. I’d do this in preschool and still do it to this day. After, say, leaving dinner with another couple, my wife will nudge me: “Stop replaying it.” By nature, I mentally scan through a rerun of the evening, revisit the dumb jokes I’ve made, rehear the tone of voice a friend used when asking a particular question, recall the shape of the waitress’s necklace charm. That reinforcement has long been my method for processing my world and has left me with access to meaningful moments in my life.
Dezna, as I note in the book, worked on mnemonic techniques with me, and we played our fair share of The Original Memory Game together, a revelation that seems only fitting for someone who relied on memory to write this book. Some of the events I recall in such detail from an early age hinge, I think, on the intensity of my emotions — my remorse at disobeying Dezna with a preschool friend or my agony after fracturing my wrist — that can enhance the significance of an event’s lead-up and aftermath. I must confess, of course, some of the details that may be most impressive — recalling the exact date I fractured my wrist, the verbatim phrasing of the Jeopardy! clues, for example — come from calling my doctor’s office in Princeton to obtain medical records and from TV archival research based on the night before I got my cast. Memory got me a lot of the way there in portraying these scenes, but research of that kind can provide a lot — day of the week, exact temperature — that helped me to shade in the rest.
I’m not a scientist, but it is my understanding that the formation of memory emerges only with language acquisition, where we can put words to things and concepts and then form synaptic bridges to preserve, say, a particularly eventful evening with newfound ways to describe actions and emotions. What’s more, if language is the lifeblood of memory, I’d argue that the richness of Dezna’s patois and the Mid-Atlantic American English to which I was exposed tuned my ear to listen closely and retain the information.
What were your most interesting research experiences that didn't make it into the book?
I went to the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town to see if I could track down more color on St. Elizabeth, Dezna’s native parish, from her childhood. I discovered a treasure trove of letters that people near Dezna’s village had sent in to the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper during its solicitation of pre-independence memories from readers. There were no details I could find to work into the book directly, but I pored over those fragile documents for hours and enjoyed how the writers recounted their favorite folk songs or home-cooked dishes.
The history of Jewmaican pirates and my conservation work in Jewish Jamaican cemeteries feature prominently in the book, but I felt I had to cut much of what I had written in that vein to avoid taking away too much from the focus on Dezna. And besides, that attempt to find common ground between my heritage and its presence on Dezna’s island served only as a compromise. The true meaningful connection came in finding her story.
In terms of an avenue I began down but didn’t pursue, I thought about trying to track down the father of Dezna’s first child who abandoned her. He’s in his 90s now and has changed his name, so the task would have to be a trying one. His son, Winston, who features prominently in the book, doesn’t even know how to get in touch with him. Perhaps I could have learned more direct details about Dezna’s life, or maybe I could have berated him for what he did in some gallant defense of Dezna’s honor. But that felt divergent from the tone of the book, which centers on finding a confluence between people as a result of their love for this powerful woman.
What do you think Dezna would think about your book?
I know Dezna would be proud, but I know she would also be a little shy at seeing herself celebrated in this way before so many people. I considered this question actively while writing the book, and throughout the process to that end, I kept two contrasting images simultaneously in my mind: Dezna in 2009 during our last Thanksgiving together moved to tears when I shared a tribute essay to her (shards of which mosaic this book) and Dezna in 1999 at my bar mitzvah not so pleased to be lighting an honor candle in front of 200 people. Dezna was so bold in her life and attracted so much renown as a nurse in her part of Jamaica, but she was humble and did not exactly crave the limelight. The support her children gave me to pursue this story and write this book gave me the push and permission I felt was necessary to tell this tale. As I admit in the book, the ideal version of this book would have been Dezna’s autobiography, told with her skillful language strained through her brilliant worldview. That’s not a possibility, so I felt compelled to pay homage to her in this way and let the world know of this special woman — and perhaps, by extension, encourage people to rethink some of the meaningful relationships in their lives.
Part of this book is about your own search for identity. Did the process of writing it and connecting with Dezna’s family resolve lingering questions about who you are?
The book is certainly a quest for Dezna’s story, but, yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head: ultimately, given Dezna’s significant influence on my life, in seeking her history, I endeavored to find myself, or the parts of myself that came from her. I went to a shrink while writing this book — not foreign territory for me, as I saw many in my childhood to combat OCD, panic attacks, and a fear of flying. But after working through some memories in sessions and unpacking where I stood on certain relationships and memories, I found the whole writing process cathartic. Distilling my feelings, understanding the full history of Dezna’s past, and mapping the scatter plot of people’s emotions stateside and in Jamaica helped me compile a comprehensive understanding of who I was.
When I was a child, I used to make these paint-by-numbers-esque sand images. You peeled off a fragment to expose an adhesive layer and poured a particular color of sand to stick to the shape and fill it. When you did that enough times around an entire rectangular portrait, loose sand began to saturate the entire image without having any stickiness to cling to. In order to complete the image, you had to turn the page vertically and give the lower edge two or three solid knocks on the tabletop. The loose sand would fall away, and the portrait would emerge neatly with even layers of colored sand over the various adhesive snippets. Something like that occurred with this book. I poured everything on and then found a way to process it in a tidy manner. I don’t think I’m out of the woods. We’re all pretty complex. Trying to comprehend myself will be a lifelong struggle, but these freshly printed pages between a hard cover — they’ve been pretty tonic for the road thus far.
Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications.
Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications. A former Fulbright scholar in Guatemala, he spent a few years in Spain, and now lives in Los Angeles.
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