Humans of Riverside: GRACE’s Story

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“My grandmother was fearless, or so it seemed, when she had a lot to be fearful of. She always found a way. Born left-handed, she learned to write beautifully with her right hand when she was punished at school for being a leftie.”

Grace Cameron

Locally-based Writer and Editor & part-time employee of RTCC in Riverside

Her Story:

I think about her often.

There’s not a day that goes by that my grandmother, Melitta Elizabeth Johnson, isn’t on my mind. Gran, as we called her, was fearless, or so it seemed, when she had a lot to be fearful of. She always found a way. Born left-handed, she learned to write beautifully with her right hand when she was punished at school for being a leftie. I used to marvel at her meticulous handwriting. The perfect, slanted penmanship was a far cry from my own sloppy scribbling which I developed as a result of taking notes while interviewing others for stories.

Born an only child in the Jamaican countryside and raised in the capital city of Kingston, her father was a butcher and her mother a housewife. She took on the role of mother to me and my younger brother when our parents migrated to the UK to make a better life for us all. We received the occasional parcels and packages from England, but the plane tickets to join our parents never materialized.

Her daughter’s (my mother) betrayal broke her heart, I later learned. But back then I only knew that no matter what, Gran hustled to ensure that we ate three meals a day, our school uniforms were clean and intact and at the end of every August, she took us to the bookstore in downtown Kingston to buy textbooks and school supplies. At 12, when I passed the national exam to attend a prestigious high school, she cleaned houses during the week and sold lottery tickets in smoky bars on weekends to ensure the school fees were paid and that come the first day of school I was decked out in new shoes, proper uniform, new school bag and all the textbooks that were on the lengthy booklist. She was determined that I should hold my own amongst the rich kids and the smart kids.

She endured many indignities but maintained her dignity and integrity. I was about 10 when I overheard her telling her best friend that she took a short cut on the way home from work after buying two loaves of bread with her earnings. She ran into a man who raped her and stole the rest of her money. But, she noted, he never got to take the bread because she used them as a sort of pillow so that he would not notice and steal those as well. The bread was the only food she had for me and my brother.

She didn’t realize that I overheard, and I’ll never forget that day. My heart ached.

It’s funny, I never asked about her dreams, but I don’t think migrating to Canada was on her bucket list. She made the move to give me and my brother a better life. I can only imagine how daunting that must have been. But even in the ‘strange’ new world of Toronto, Gran spoke up, spoke out and represented herself well. When I tried to retreat into my bookish world, she challenged me to get out and make friends. ‘You go to that (school) party,’ she would say, ‘and don’t be a wallflower. I don’t want to hear that you hid against the wall and didn’t speak to anyone.’

She supported my dreams, even when she couldn’t imagine where they might lead. And when the going got tough, Gran would always remind me: ‘It may be long, but it ain’t forever.

Keep going.’

Making Space: Art by Bareket Kezwer and Yshmael Cabana accompanying Grace's story on the window at 700 Queen Street East

Making Space: Art by Bareket Kezwer and Yshmael Cabana accompanying Grace’s story on the window at 700 Queen Street East

About the Humans of Riverside: Giving Voice and Making Space for BIPOC” Storytelling Series:

The Riverside BIA – located along Toronto’s Queen Street East from the iconic bridge over the Don River to just past De Grassi St – is proud to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness with this story-telling series.

The project launched in summer 2020 as part of the Main Street Art Challenge and collaborated with writer and editor Grace Cameron, artists Bareket Kezwer ( @bkez ) and Yshmael Cabana (@_yshyshysh) to bring public art and launch this story-telling series in partnership with local businesses in the Riverside BIA. This project is supported by @STEPSInitiative as part of their Main Street Art Challenge. The story-telling project gives physical space in storefront windows for BIPOC artists, and gives voice to stories from local BIPOC community members in Riverside. Each piece of art and each story shared has a bigger meaning that connects to the local business/window and to the BIPOC community member by sharing a link/QR code to their full story online. The Main Street Art Challenge brings this new and ongoing storytelling series to life, and the art produced for the challenge will continue to live virtually beyond the Main Street Art Challenge as part of the ongoing ‘Humans of Riverside‘ storytelling initiative.

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