Mama Becca: The blessing that keeps on giving
A story of sacrifice, pain and sorrow turns to blossoming joy
Rebecca Hayle is the mother of five and grandmother of 12, but on any given Sunday morning at the Church of Pentecost in Kingston, it’s easy to believe all adults between 30 and 50 years are her children because they all call her “Mama Becca”.
It’s also easy to believe that all those under 30 years are her grandchildren as they endearing call her “Grandma”.
It’s also a safe bet that one or more church members, every Sunday, receive a gift from her. Whether it’s food, clothes, shoes, lunch money or just a little pocket money. They don’t ask, and neither does she, but Mama Becca has an uncanny way of knowing exactly who needs what.
Last week, the 76-year-old shared a heartbreaking story with The Sunday Gleaner of how she held on to her three girls while the State took her two boys. How she fought, endured hell, walked through treacherous terrains, and moved more times than she can count to be reunited with all her children and how hunger and homelessness became constant companions.
Rebecca did any job she could – mastering skills of dressmaking and shoemaking – and after years of struggles and desperate decisions, joy has finally come.
“I have been through the wringer. I have suffered a lot for my children, but I was never far from God. He has always been front and centre of my life and even when I was asking when is this going to end, I still trusted in Him to carry me through. I have to tell you, He has been true to His promises. Today I give Him thanks,” she said, often tearing up during the interview.
Born in Chester, St Ann, Rebecca was raised by her father but moved to Kingston with her uncle and his wife to have female influence as she came into womanhood. Her father was of a man of means and a young Rebecca was not in need. When she came to Kingston, she was also not in need as her uncle was a contractor with the Jamaica Public Service Company.
Deep-rural life in the 1960s was one without electricity, running water and public transportation – save for the single bus making the hourslong trip to Kingston. If your parents had a own car, you would be considered well off.
For a young Rebecca, whose mother died when she was a young girl, it was a rich life – and exciting, too – despite having no access to those facilities in Kingston.
“My uncle said that because my father did not have a wife, he was going to take me. He didn’t think that the country life was good for me being raised by my father alone. He (my father) went to Cuba (to work in Guantanamo Bay) and came back. But I had many mothers,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I had this long, thick hair and I would go to different family and non-family members to comb it. Anyone who combed it too hot, I would not go back to them. So the ones that didn’t cause it to hurt, I would go to them more often.”
Arriving in Kingston just before Independence, she lived in a house with the front facing Torrington Avenue and the back Geffrard Place at the northwestern end of what is now National Heroes Circle. She attended Grantham College, a private school on Penrith Road, which taught all subjects in addition to secretarial skills.
Living in Kingston would become a torment, although, decades later, her greatest joy.
Rebecca’s problems began in a house with a controlling uncle and a wife who bore him no children. He had three outside of his marriage. Life was predictable for her: home and school. She helped out in the shop at the back of the house, which also had boarders – students and working professionals.
Just before finishing school, they moved to Roehampton Drive in St Andrew, as her uncle sold the property and moved away from the growing commercialisation of the area.
After leaving school, he helped her secure a job, but demanded that she hand over her weekly wages. She refused.
The following week, things turned violent.
“I came in and said, ‘Good evening’, and went to lie down, as I was not feeling well because of period pains. He came in, beat me up, boxed me for nothing at all. I couldn’t even eat. I just felt that he was upset that I didn’t give him the money,” she said.
Seeking consolation, she went to the house of a husband-and-wife family friends, who offered her a place to stay until matters were sorted. She then went to run a private basic school for a friend who left for college for six months. When she returned, they parted company.
With nowhere else to go, Rebecca thought of returning to her uncle and his wife.
While attending Emmanuel Gospel Assembly on Red Hills Road, and during a period of upheaval in her life, she met and quickly married “the man of my dreams” for what she wrongly thought was for better.
Rebecca moved with her husband to Clarendon to pastor two churches, but they returned to Kingston shortly after. Preferring to”walk and preach”, her husband did not want to be tied down to a church. He found a willing partner, who later emigrated and filed for his wife and children. Rebecca and her husband the moved into that house.
“But the instability was affecting me and the children and I was having them so fast. I wasn’t working. My husband was also selling encyclopaedias because he was very good with his mouth. He could sweet-talk anyone. At the house, I took in boarders and things were going well until I took in a white man,” she said.
Curiosity drew other residents of the area to the yard and it soon became uncomfortable for her Caucasian boarder. He left, and trouble came.
With no income, the landlady seized their refrigerator, television set and a table because of unpaid rent. Embarrassment sent her behind closed doors and she wept tears of shame.
But she always believed that God was never too far, and in the midst of all the pain, her father-in-law, who was visiting from Canada, arrived and offered help. That intervention allowed them move to a family house on Waltham Park Road, hours before the landlady made a second trip to seize more of their belongings.
Misery accompanied the move.
“People gave him (husband) money because he could speak, so he would go to some of Kingston’s expensive hotels and have sessions. He made these food orders, and sometimes the number of persons did not come, but the food was prepared. That man never said, ‘Let him carry home [some] food for the children.’ That was when I really knew what hungry was. I prayed, and prayed, and I was advised to leave him. But all that was on my mind was my children,” Rebecca said through tears.
One day, her uncle’s wife, who had sowed seeds of discord while she lived with them, turned up at the gate, sick and in need of help. With no children of her own, she asked Rebecca to come and assist. However, she wanted her to come with the youngest child only – a baby girl named Keisha.
She said no.
“All this time, none of the children was going school because my husband had this philosophy and found every reason for them not to go to school. I had to draw on my experience from running the school and start teaching them to read,” she said.
Her husband was into Calvinism – a philosophy that was advanced by John Calvin, the 16th-century protestant reformer who broke from the Roman Catholic Church and emphasised the sovereignty of God and authority of the Bible.
Her husband extended his Calvinism talks to Montego Bay and she made a fateful decision. As he headed out one day, she told him to take the two boys with him.
He did, and Rebecca packed up and left with the three girls.
He returned to find her gone.
She told him there was still a marriage, but she would not be returning to Waltham Park Road and that he should find them a place to live. He was encouraged to go overseas for a better life and file for his family, but he never did.
“He was walking all over preaching Calvinism with the two boys behind him. Poor Chris and Steve, they meet hell,” she stated.
Rebecca had moved back to her uncle’s house, which allowed her daughter Joylyn to begin school formally with the help of Mrs Baker, a social worker with whom she forged a lifelong friendship.
“I am eternally grateful for all she did for me and the children,” she said.
Each Friday, Rebecca’s husband would turn up, collecting food on credit for the boys, but she later found out he seldom gave them any.
One day she asked him for how long he would continue coming for food and he tossed away all she gave him. She picked them up and took them to the lady who prepared their food just in time to hear her son, Chris, being berated by the church sister, who told him that his mother had left them because she did not care about them.
The father would later abandon them and they ended up in state care.
Rebecca made another fateful choice that would prove a blessing for her children.
She began a relationship with a man, who would become the father her children needed. He moved her to yet another place, but the property was sold after the 1980 general election and start of the political purging. The man with whom she cohabited had no job and her suffering continued.
Rebecca began working for her uncle and managed to throw a partner from the $50 she earned weekly. Her daughter Joylyn secured a high school place through the Grade Nine Achievement Test; daughter Ester went to The Queen’s School; one of the sons went to technical school from the state home; while the others slowly made their way.
“I never knew hard life until I got married and started having children,” she said.
When her uncle’s wife died and she found herself without a place to live again, she eventually moved back to that home. And although her uncle didn’t charge her rent, she paid and kept receipts.
Her uncle was murdered in his 80s, and nearly 30 years later, the case remains unsolved.
She ran his business, had access to his bank accounts, and when he died, paid off his bills. He left her a plot of land in Kirkland Heights and one of her daughters resides at the adjoining family home.
As for the father, the children had offered to construct a room at the Waltham Park Road family house for him, but he refused. He later died.
Today, Rebecca ‘Mama Becca’ Hayle is the proud mother of big rig driver in Canada, Christopher; assistant island overseer in the Church of Pentecost, Steven; Exim Bank employee, author and motivational speaker, Ester; Padmore Primary School principal, Keisha; and Pembroke Hall High home and family life education teacher and cosmetologist, Joylyn.
Rebecca now resides with her daughter, Joylyn, and enjoys regular morning walks and gardening.
“All I ever wanted to be was the best mother for my children despite never being raised by my own [parents]. I am glad I never stopped fighting for them,” Mama Becca said, encouraging all mothers to do the same.