Inside Life: Christmas past, Christmas present — a TT mother’s holiday carol

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Peter Noel, Jean Griffith and Dominic Carter.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Griffith

On the 36th anniversary of the brutal murder of 23-year-old Michael Griffith his mother Jean will return to Evergreen Cemetery where he’s buried, place a pine wreath in his memory and with his siblings repeat a prayer she has said on each visit since Dec, 1986.

“Lord give me strength, guide and protect everyone, we know you never give us more than we can bear.”

Two weeks ago she visited his final resting place in Bushwick in order to plant tulip bulbs.

Each year, since the hateful killing of her son, the immigrant from the twin islands of Trinidad & Tobago frequents the plot to spruce up the site and mostly to bond with her beloved offspring.

“No one knows the pain mothers feel when they lose their children to violence. The feeling never goes away. Although I cry, I thank God for the courage …that he has kept me here all these years.”

On reflections of Christmas past, Jean said “they were always a time of fun.”

“Christmas was happy; Christmas was the best time.”

She said during the period Michael and his siblings would often try to guess which gifts they would receive.

For sure, along with dream items, the second of her sons knew his mother would always include the bonus of thermal underwear dressed in holiday wrap.

There would be plenty of bustling activity in the kitchen as a lively household combined feasting on dishes from the homeland with beverages such as Puncha Crema, ginger beer, sorrel and mauby. Sweet bread baked in the oven and reminiscences of parang in TT. However, on the eve of Dec. 20, 1986, just days before the Christian commemoration Michael was brutally beaten and chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway.

Newspapers emblazoned his face on their publications.

Some decried the death, ‘the shame of Howard Beach.’

Jean did not bake that December.

As a matter of fact, from then Jean ceased cooking all the holiday treats she had previously entreated her family.

She paused decorating a tree with pepper lights and ornaments. Along with sons Anthony, Christopher, daughters Odette and Brenda she seemed to revoke festivities associated with the season.

Except for Sunday visits to Our Lady of Mercy Roman Catholic Church it seemed she had replaced solemnity with nostalgia from Christmases past.

As if December 1986 wasn’t bad enough, the following year during the same period a jury pondered the fate of the racist thugs for 12 days before rendering a decision.

Throughout the deliberations some reporters spent the waiting time writing holiday greeting cards.

As Jean watched and waited a verdict, she also pondered the fate of her spouse Cedric Sandifford from Guyana.

Sandifford also made headline news throughout the nation because he along with Michael and two others ventured into the apartheid-like territory they did not know they were restricted from entering.

Court testimony revealed that Sandifford accompanied Michael to pick up a cheque he was due. The car they rode in broke down. Together they walked to find a pay phone to call for help. It was then they heard racist slurs hurled at them.

Apparently at an all-white party, news had spread that Blacks were in the neighborhood and they had to be evicted.

The assault that followed forced Michael to run for safety.

He ran into traffic.

Although badly beaten, Sandifford also ran to save his life.

He lived to testify about the ill-fated night but at age 41 died on Nov. 19, 1991 just before Thanksgiving Day commemorations.

Jean’s holiday memories are fraught with reflections of joyous holiday times with her family.

Since losing a husband and son, Jean immersed herself in volunteerism.

At the Veteran’s Hospital, cancer and AIDS walks, she was always a regular. She advocated for a Mother to Mother Movement, fed the needy, campaigned to mobilize unification between Blacks and Jews in Crown heights and even endorsed political aspiration for Joe Hynes, the special prosecutor who won convictions.

That her son’s name would become synonymous with the hate that infested Howard Beach during that decade seems a nightmarish reminder every holiday, every Christmas.

These many years later, Brenda still keeps the Cabbage Patch doll her father gave her when she was five years old.

Every Father’s Day, Sandifford is regaled by the one child he shares with Jean.

An accomplished recipient of a Master’s Degree, she prominently displays his picture annually on that date.

Jean’s most tangible keepsake is one of Michael’s shirts.

It hangs in her closet.

Odette excels in the medical profession. Although she moved away from NYC, she resides close enough to readily join her mother on important occasions.

Tony, an Army veteran has survived two wars.

He also moved out of New York State and on Tuesday will undergo surgery to his knees.

Christopher is quite the shutterbug and archivist of news and entertainment. His vast photographic collection spans most major events in NYC.

Jean now has 10 grands, 11 great grands and two great, great, grandchildren.

“God has helped and protected me all these years.”

Jean’s mother died two years ago at age 97.

Next month will be her 80th

The faith-based, optimist said she never plans for the occasion but her children always seem to surprise her in a big way. Last year, despite the prevalence of Covid-19, they managed to lure her to the airport. She was shocked to find out she was bound for her first trip to Jamaica.

They had pulled that same prank for a trip to the Dominican Republic and a Las Vegas, Nevada Christmas visit.

Jean retired July 18, 2015.

On the 25th anniversary of Michael’s death, she honored reporters and activists who bolstered her throughout the volatile times.

She presented them lucite awards with engraved images of her beloved martyrs,

Among the recipients; Peter Noel, (Village Voice) Dominic Carter(WLIB-radio), Mary Murphy (WPIX-TV), Sarah Wallace (NBC-TV), Joe Fried (New York Times) and yours truly, as well as attorney C. Vernon Mason, Rev. Al Sharpton and former Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes.

About the future, Jean said “Everything is in God’s hand. I leave it up to him.”

Catch You On The Inside!