The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A fabulous Harvey girl

Posted on: April 3, 2008

The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and heard-headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle.  “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance herself from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounce “Do-reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s older sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

From From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison, published by Mclelland & Stewart, a book I started and finished in a day for I could not bear to part from it.

9 Responses to "A fabulous Harvey girl"

This is perfect in every way. I will need to read it.

I love this. My mother, who was born around the same time also had a name/identity problem. She was registered as Ivy, but christened Beatrice. She was always known as Ivy and to this day no one seems to know where the Beatrice came from.

raych it really is! It’s the kind of book one can reread over and over and find something new, so I predict.

Ann oh that’s funny, because my aunt (who would be of Goodison’s generation not her mother’s) had a similar issue too. Dings on paper, Daisy everywhere else.

I see I need to get me a copy of this book too!

Love memoirs about women.
Have you read Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat? It’s about a Haitian women dealing with identity as American and as Haitian, a beautiful book…

I haven’t, no, though I plan to try some Danticat eventually. That’s a novel though, and not a memoir, right?

[…] She has a judicious sense of what readers would find interesting. I cannot stress enough how vital a skill this is for someone writing on things that personally concern her. The writer may find every minute detail and throwaway incident riveting while the outsider is left to fan herself, dream about mocha frappuccinos and wonder why she tolerates such minutiae from anyone not related by blood or marriage. Goodison is up front about embellishing parts of her mother’s life, adjusting timelines. One is not perturbed not only because the seamless narrative pulls one in from start to finish or because one gets a good idea of what is fictionalised from the whimsical way she depicts certain scenes, but because, for a reader like me and a book like this a strict adherance to facts is not necessary for Goodison to record her mother’s life as she perceives it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year — I’ve already leant my copy out (I never do this) and have been singing its praises to any willing ear. (For an example of everything I’ve mention read this excerpt.) […]

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