Daphne Cumbermack emigrated to the UK not once, but twice. Here, she and her daughter, Michelle discuss the dignity and quiet resilience she showed in setting up a life for her and a future for her children.
‘I don’t know how you did it Mum, honestly.’
Michelle Cumbermack may have had a successful career in law, but she is still in awe of her mother, Daphne.
The two of them live in London. Daphne joined her daughter in 2017 after her second husband passed away, soon after which she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Michelle has given up full-time work to look after her mum. She now wonders how Daphne managed to balance her job, studies and family while making a life in the UK.
‘I went to evening class, I worked – I never stopped working,’ says Daphne. ‘I didn’t have any time to waste.’
Daphne’s early life
Daphne grew up in Georgetown, Guyana. She was a talented student, winning a scholarship to a prestigious high school, where she especially enjoyed English, Latin and French.
She married at just 19 and had her first two children there – Michael and Gilliane. Her husband wanted to go into law, so in 1962 they travelled by boat to England where he could study for the bar.
‘It was completely different from the West Indies – colder for a start’, Daphne laughs. ‘There was perpetual sunshine in Guyana.’
The young family rented the bottom of a house with Daphne’s sister, Claudine, who was already in London.
‘I trained as a secretary – shorthand, typing - and I carried on with that. There were agencies looking for staff.’
‘But what I really remember’, Daphne chuckles, ‘is pushing an enormous pram around, to go to the child minder, going to work, then coming back, and picking the children up, and going home.’
Too many barriers
Daphne and her husband saved up enough money to get a mortgage and buy a house. They had another child – Michelle. ‘Mum worked full time, Dad worked full time, and we always had a home cooked dinner every night and had to sit together at the table,’ Michelle says.
Daphne doesn’t dwell on any bad experiences she had in England, but she did recall one boss: ‘I was a secretary and he never had a kind word to say about me. ‘You people’ this, and ‘you people’ that, he always used to say. He was a real racist. I was really pleased to leave that job.’
After 15 years in England, the family left. Daphne’s husband decided that as a Black man working in law, there were simply too many barriers for him to find a job that matched his ability.
Michelle remembers her dad saying, ‘Over here, you are just a speck on the horizon.’
She says it was just so tough for him to be recognised.
‘He didn’t want that. His family was well known in Guyana, so he went and set up his own law firm.’
Memories of Guyana
In 1976, the family returned to South America. It was a remarkable time for Michelle, one that would stay with her for her whole life.
‘It was amazing. Teenage years are quite formative. It gave me a real sense of identity. The school was amazing. The lifestyle was nice. For me, that was a really good time.’
It was an extraordinary time for the whole family. Daphne worked at the Libyan Embassy. Once, Daphne and Michelle ended up at a dinner with Muhammed Ali, who was visiting. At the time, he was arguably the most famous man on the planet. Michelle says, ‘He was so nice as well, he pulled me aside and started chatting to me, I remember that.’
Then, two things coincided. Daphne’s marriage was strained, and Michael was reaching an age where he was thinking of university. Daphne wanted Michael to have the chance to study at an English university, which would help him in future life.
Starting again from scratch
Daphne bought one-way tickets for her and Michael from Guyana to London.
Michelle says: ‘Respect to my mum, because at that time, things in Guyana were difficult, you couldn’t buy foreign currency. Mum left Guyana with nothing but two small blocks of gold, and with that, started in England – again – from scratch.
‘Then, she worked and saved to pay for my sister and my passage back to the UK.
‘And then she saved again to get a mortgage and bought a house. It was so nice having a house of our own. Before this we were renting a small house where my sister and I slept in one room, and Michael slept on a sofa bed’.
As her children made their own way in the world, and left home, Daphne was working for an oil firm. There, she met Rick, the man who would go on to become her second husband.
Work led Daphne and Rick to Spain, where they stayed for the next 20 years. Daphne learned the language, and really enjoyed their life there.
Daphne’s memory problems
But around six years ago, Michelle noticed that Daphne’s memory was changing.
‘We were at a lunch, and she kept asking me what Rick was having to eat. And I said ‘Mum, why do you keep asking me the same question?’’
Rick passed away suddenly in Spain. Michelle knew that her mum needed to come and live with someone who could care for and look after her. And so Daphne, still grieving from the sudden passing of her husband, had to move back to England.
Michelle brought her home to live with her family. And then began the process of researching the condition and getting a diagnosis.
Finding dementia support
‘I took Mum to the GP and that’s when we were referred to the Memory Clinic. A lovely woman came, Mum had a brain scan, and then we got the diagnosis – Alzheimer’s disease.
‘After she had the diagnosis and I was researching the illness, I came across the Alzheimer’s Society website, and I kind of thought ‘mmmm. Do I call them?’
‘Because as a Black person sometimes you feel as though these organisations are not targeted to you. They may not be aware of the concerns you have as a Black person living in the UK.
‘But I do remember seeing some images of Black people on the website. And that’s when I contacted Alzheimer’s Society
‘We were put in touch with a lovely volunteer, Susan, who started spending time with Mum on Friday afternoons. She still does.’
Courage and strength
In recognition of a life filled with care and hard work, Michelle is full of gratitude for her mum.
‘What I really admire about Mum is her strength of character,’ says Michelle. ‘She didn’t have a particularly good time with my dad. She had the courage and strength to leave him, but only when we were old enough to understand it. And just being able to make that choice, pulling herself from a really nice life in Guyana and coming back with nothing.
‘And that’s why I look after her now.’