After retiring as president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and moving to Odenton, Md. to take a position as distinguished professor of English at Bowie State University, Thelma B. Thompson began unpacking her past, along with all the household goods.
“I’m still going through boxes. I’m still unpacking my belongings and realizing that when you move, you should really give yourself time to see what you have,” Thompson said. “I started opening the boxes and I realized, it’s my life. I can’t throw away my life.”
Instead, she has started to step back from the fast-paced life of a college administrator, and returned to her first passion: Literature.
“When people heard I was writing a book, they just assumed I was writing about higher education, as I had done previously,” Thompson said. She instead wrote a short novel inspired by her background as a Jamaican immigrant to the United States. “Bay Leaves and Cinnamon Sticks: Life Is,” tells the story of a Jamaican woman who seeks a better life for herself and her family by coming to America to work in people’s homes.
Thompson has been in the United States since she came to study at Howard University in 1966. The rest of her family has also settled here, making Jamaica more of a place to visit and remember than a home to miss.
“My father is buried here, my mother lives here, my siblings are here; we no longer have a homestead in Jamaica. We visit, we do all we can, but returning to Jamaica is no longer in the cards for us as a family. Our children are Americans here, so we have not considered returning to Jamaica.” Thompson said. “What you’re returning to, what I knew as Jamaica is no longer there.”
After seeing “Bay Leaves and Cinnamon Sticks: Life Is,” published, Thompson went back to her boxes of writings and found a children’s story she had written while working at Norfolk State University.
“The librarian challenged those who worked there to a reading week. She brought children to the library and we who wrote came and read to the children, so I wrote ‘Children’s Day,’” Thompson said.
The handwritten manuscript, written in the 1990s and tucked away, seemed especially timely after its decades in storage. It follows a young girl as she investigates why children don’t have an official day, “like veterans and grandparents and even the groundhog.” Her efforts take her from her parents’ kitchen table to the White House.
“I was ahead of my time. It was written when there was not big talk about a female president, but it has always been a possibility in fiction,” Thompson said.
After working with an illustrator, Thompson is now promoting both her novel and “Children’s Day.” She is also working on a collection of short stories, and a sequel to “Bay Leaves and Cinnamon Sticks: Life Is,” while in discussions with several college Women’s Studies departments to use the novel in their programs. It sounds like a busy schedule, but for Thompson it is a quiet and reflective time.
“I have been a person who throws herself into whatever I’m doing, so the nine years I was college president, that was my very busy and full life. I did not have time to relax enough to create, when I had the last two jobs that I had, as vice president at Norfolk State and president at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The pressure and demands of those jobs are night and day, weekends as well as public holidays. You do not have time to create and think creatively; you are busy solving real problems,” Thompson said. “When I came home I realized I could again write poetry. That’s why I prefer to stay in that vein right now, rather than go back to work as an administrator..I’m comfortable in my skin.”