AS far as Edward McGowan is concerned, there is no such thing as a "woman's job" and so for the last 35 years, the father of two has been making a living as a gardener and housekeeper to provide for his special-needs wife and children.
McGowan has been with his current employer for the past 17 years, and cooks, cleans, babysits and does landscaping. Last week he was awarded third place in GraceKennedy/Heather Little-White Household Worker Awards, which sought to reward Jamaica's best household workers. He was one of over 100 nominees in the competition.
"Men on a whole always say, 'a woman work', but I want to set an example to let men know that there is no such word as 'woman work'," he told All Woman.
"I always tell my wife and other people that I am glad that I wasn't born with two left hands or two right hands, because then I couldn't do anything. If you look at your two hands and you put them together and you see your two big fingers meet, you can do anything," he reasoned, as he sat in the office of his employer's upscale upper St Andrew house.
McGowan recalls that at age 17 and just recently graduated from Glengoffe High School, his focus was just on getting a job, and so he opted for the first one that came his way.
"I knew this lady who was doing house cleaning and she told me that she knew a man who wanted somebody to live in to do gardening work, so I accepted the offer."
"But when I went there I began to help this lady when she was tidying up and cleaning the windows. Some windows that she used to climb, I would tell her that I would climb up and clean the windows, so I began to clean the windows," he said.
"When the helper don't come to work, I went inside and I cleaned the floor. I dusted, cleaned the bathroom and all those things. I got to like it, so I continued doing it until I left that job."
McGowan left after seven years and ventured into farming. He also worked in a wholesale in downtown Kingston but said it wasn't something he enjoyed doing. In fact, he recalls working extremely hard the day before Hurricane Gilbert, providing last-minute items to individuals who came in droves to stock up before the historic natural disaster.
"I didn't like it because you know that when you work at some of these places people on a whole take liberty with you and if you are not strong, you want to retaliate," he said of his days working at the wholesale.
"I said no man, I prefer the house work, so I said alright, I am going back into it."
The worker they could not let go
McGowan said he was told of a business owner in need of someone to maintain her property off Red Hills Road and as soon as he was able to find his bus fare, the mild-mannered father travelled from the hills of Above Rocks where he lives, to Cherry Gardens to meet with the owner. He started working that day.
Unfortunately, the business closed down after some time, but not willing to let him go, his owner took him to her house to work as her personal gardener and to assist her helper in the house. When his employer's children grew up and went to live on their own, they also hired him to work some days at their homes.
"I work with the mother, I work with the son, I work with the daughters, because she has two daughters," said McGowan, who is called Eddie by his boss and her children.
"If they are going anywhere and the children are there, then they leave the children with me and they go where they are going."
McGowan especially likes helping out when it's time for the family to plan big get-togethers, because he gets to help bake.
"Most times when they have people coming here and they are cooking rice and peas, and they say they are going to buy the coconut powder, I will say no, I will grate the coconut, because I love the grated coconut," he explained.
McGowan said that although his boss has a full-time helper, he usually fills in for her when she has to go on leave.
"If they have cleaning, they call me in and say, 'Eddie, come help the helper', and sometimes down the line they say, 'You know I put a little extra in your envelope'," he said.
"Sometimes they have a pipe and it burst and they say they are going to call the plumber and I will look at it and say, no man, it just needs so and so and I will get it and repair it and so it saves them all that money."
McGowan is no stranger to hard work, because he had to start selling in Coronation Market from very young to supplement his family's income. As he puts it, "Before I even knew how to monitor myself."
After his father died from kidney disease when he was 13, even more responsibilities fell upon the young lad who had to give up his school days on Fridays to help his mother.
"It was my mother alone with 11 of us, so it was so difficult. Fridays I didn't go to school. The amount of days I went to school on Fridays you can count it on your hand, because Friday we would have to go to Coronation Market to sell so we could get our money to take us back to school from Monday to Thursday," he said.
He explained that his dream while growing up was to become an electrical engineer.
"When I went to secondary school they had work experience, but they would send out the children on Fridays. The Friday when I should have gone to school to get chosen, I couldn't go, so they had to choose somebody else. And right now the person that they chose went on to work on the railway and do the big electrical work. In those days, I could manage it more, because they were good in the theory, but the practical, I was better than them," he said in a wistful tone as a look of regret crept over his weathered face.
But as quickly as it came, it was gone and he resumed telling his story.
"So I could be further on, but I am not blaming my parents because my mother tried her best."
McGowan said he and his siblings would go in search of chocolate on Thursday evenings to prepare for sale in the market. His mother also supplied the product to local supermarkets and so sometimes they found themselves preparing as much as 200 dozen chocolates for just one order.
"Sometimes when you go to your bed, it's two o'clock before day Saturday morning and the bus leaving 4:30, so you know that you don't get much sleep because we had to go market," he said.
While his older siblings were given the task of peddling baskets of cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate, McGowan said his mother would make him stand beside the higglers and sell them bags to properly package the vegetables for their customers.
A gunman's bullet didn't stop him
Before November last year, McGowan would have been found four days a week tending to his employer's garden and cleaning the house, but then a gunman's bullet made this impossible for him. Now he only works two days per week.
"A group of us was walking home from a wake and they opened fire on the group and I got shot," he said.
McGowan said he had gone to the wake because he was asked by the children of a nurse friend who had died to assist with preparing soup for the wake.
"I love cooking soup; because when I cook the soup and people drink it and say 'yes, this is soup', I feel good," he boasted.
McGowan was shot in the abdomen and the bullet exited his body through his right side. He spent four days in the intensive care unit at the University Hospital of the West Indies and many more on the general ward. In fact, the doctors didn't release him until Christmas Eve to spend Christmas Day with his family, with strict instructions to report to the hospital as soon as the Yuletide period had ended.
"I couldn't walk so they had to teach me how to walk again," he said. "During those times they (employers) said, 'Eddie, don't worry yourself, your work is still here', and they got somebody to come once a week or every other week to clear up the place."
A proud dad
McGowan has been married for 25 years and provides for his wife who has schizophrenia. Although he knew of her condition prior to getting married, he said his love for her blinded him to it.
"When we just got married and would go to church for like fasting, most times I would have to carry her on my back because her joints would hurt her. But now she can walk better," he said.
He also provides for his two sons, although they are both 19 and 23 years old. The youngest is currently in his second year at the Shortwood Teachers' College, and the eldest has not been able to secure a steady job, despite sending out several job applications. He said he loves fixing computers and secured a grade one in information technology when he sat his CXCs. He recently relocated to St Ann to live with his aunt to ease the burden on his parents.
"The second one who is going to Shortwood, he sat seven subjects and he passed the seven of them including English and mathematics," McGowan explained.
"I remember when he just started, I never have a dollar to send him. I didn't even know when he went and did the test. I spent hours and days in the principal's office begging them to help me out to keep him there," the father said, while noting that he still owes money on his son's tuition.
When asked how he is able to provide for himself and his wife's medical care and still support his children, McGowan turned his head towards the ceiling, with hands outstretched and proclaimed, "God is good, because sometimes when I don't even see it, somebody would drop in and say, 'you know I have something for you' and when I go is $5,000 or so."
"I am so lucky I live in the country, so I will cut wood and make wood fire, so the gas will serve for a little while longer. I would only use the gas when compulsory, like if I go home late at nights and I want to cook."
McGowan said his wife mostly does the cooking for the family, but he will sometimes get up early mornings and prepare breakfast before he heads out to work. He doesn't mind taking up any opportunity presented to cook.
"Sunday is my day to cook. So from I wake up Sunday morning, I look after breakfast, start the dinner and then I go church, I come back and finish and make juice."
The bullet has damaged his liver, but McGowan said he will work for as long as he can because he is not lazy.
"If you are a lazy person you are not going to be able to achieve what you want when you do the gardening work or household work. You have to be on the go, because you will go in the kitchen and you tidy up the kitchen and you cook and you are going to have to tidy up again," he pointed out.