“I don’t remember what that guy looks like,” he says of his father who abandoned him, his mother, and three of his six sisters when Mark was only a tot. “He went to England with drugs and was busted,” Nelson reveals. “He was in prison and was just released three years ago but I don’t want to talk to him…I just kinda cut him off.” He decides, “…it’s just too late (for reconciliation) now.”
His mother, Precious Mundell, is a Rastafarian, and like so many who follow the movement popularized by Bob Marley, she fell victim to a socio-religious intolerance that was rampant in Jamaica when Nelson was a child. And like most Rastafarians, she was labeled an outcast, unable to hold traditional employment. Nelson’s mother, in an effort to shelter her children from the persecutions that haunted her religious beliefs, sought refuge where she could.
Mundell, on a parcel of land captured from an absentee owner, opposite Ocho Rios’s tourism centre, Mamee Bay, St. Ann – also Bob Marley’s birthplace – erected a woebegone contraption that could not be further removed from the image of home. This is where Mark spent his childhood.
“I lived in the ghetto of Mamee Bay,” he recounts. “…wooden shack, dirt floor… my mom, and sisters, and my sister’s baby.” The children’s rooms were separated by cardboard walls and although the flush toilet was invented in the 1840s, in the miasma where he lived, out-houses were the norm, open wood flames were stoves, and tried and true preservation measures worked in the absence of refrigerators.
Despite their consistent lack of wherewithal, Nelson seldom went to bed hungry. “If I didn’t succeed at anything else, I always made sure I had food for them every night,” says his mother. “I made rice and peas every night… and sometimes I made cornmeal pudding with coconut milk and raisins…I baked it in a pan on the wood fire.”
Mundell, a self taught maker of craft, supported her family from the income generated from sales at her stall in the Ocho Rios craft market. However, the market was closed by regulatory officials and when it re-opened, Mundell lost her spot. “She is not into politics and affiliation and that’s what was required to get a space there,” Mark opines. Without a steady income, the family stumbled upon even harder times, and each of them tried whatever they could to make ends meet.
“I think my sisters used pregnancy as a way to survive…these men would make them promises and then leave once the kids came into the picture.” He adds, “I have no respect for those guys…I think guys like that should be arrested and forced to fulfill their obligations.”
The head of the family did not fare very well either. An apothecarist of sorts, his mother developed remedies from herbs she grew in her yard and peddled them on the streets. “I made medicines for asthma, arthritis, and other sickness,” she states. And in order to solicit business, she walked from one end of the city to the next. At times her efforts, as dedicated as they were, failed to secure the income required to keep her family afloat. She was, therefore, forced to resort to other means.
She left the younger children, unsupervised for a day every week. “I would leave on Thursday evenings and head for Kingston to try and make sales…I would remove all matches and knives and normally returned home on Friday….I took the Northstar bus, and sometimes when it broke down, I had to walk.” Nelson’s mother recollects one specific journey. “I walked from Bog Walk to Pear Tree Grove in order to get home,” she says. Not only did Mundell walk this distance – just under five miles short of the Greek Marathon – she traversed with the accoutrements that were not sold on that day.
“I had one bag in my hand, one on my shoulder, and a basket on my head,” for the entire twenty miles. “I just did not want to leave them alone for two nights,” she explains. “I did not trust anyone to take care of them…I was mother and father to them and I was scared of people handling them.”
She exhausted that avenue and made little money but she did not cave. “My mother had to peddle on the beach, trying to sell her craft to tourists,” Mark adds. In most cases, entrepreneurs like her are considered tourist harassers, and are dealt with by beach security dispatched by local hotels.
Mark soon realized he had to step up to the task of head of his household. “One evening I saw him with some wrong company gathering sticks for money, for a man in the community…he was pushing a handcart with some other boys….I was so angry…I said nothing, I just wait for him to get home.” Nelson was lambasted and strong-armed to tears by his mother, who, by this time was livid. Not because she thinks the job lacked honour, but because, for the first time, she witnessed Nelson copying the roistering of other boys in the area. “I did not think that was appropriate for my son,” she says without apology.
Twelve year old Nelson, determined to help his mother, found a job as a bartender.
Before he knew it, he dropped out of high school for a while, so he could work to keep the cogs turning at home. “I had goals and dreams, and I wanted to help my mom.” He continues. “She is my hero, she could have given up on us, but she didn’t…that is why I can’t say no to her, even if I don’t have it, I find a way to give it to her, even the silliest things.”
Realizing the importance of having graduation credentials to ensure the future he visualized, the tenacious youngster returned to Ocho Rios High School to plead his case. “I graduated after I told the teachers my whole story,” he reveals, with a trace of accomplishment in his voice.
Without a doubt, Nelson’s childhood was a poster for dirt poor, but his exiguous means was not an excuse to compromise his values. “She told me if I get into any trouble, she would come and get me out of any situation.” Except for one.
“Out of fear of what my mother would do, I have never stolen anything in my life,” he says as though her words still resonate with him.
By the time Mark arrived on the scene for his share of the sweets, he was disappointed as the supply was already finished. But something more important happened that day. He met Kimberly’s brother, David, with whom he instantly formed a bond, and both men, now twenty years later, remain each other’s confidante, source of motivation, support, best friends, and the brother that each did not have. And more importantly, after Mark met their mother, Cindy Black, he started to live vicariously through her teachings.
“Auntie Cindy is my second mother,” he says. “She is a big part of the reason I am successful today…”
Cindy, a British national, lived on the island for thirty five years. She pays little attention to Mark’s compliment, cannot wait to get into her car – for which she secured the best deal with his automotive counsel – just to spend the next seventy nine minutes talking about “this incredible young man” in whose progress she is particularly invested.
“When I first met Mark, I thought, ‘here’s a great friend for my son,’” she says, with an excitement that is tangible. She cannot wait to carry on with stories about Nelson. “He carried himself so well…I had no idea how bad it was with him….we did not know the extent of his suffering until years later,” she said with amazement.
Nelson reflects. “I was embarrassed to show them where I lived…but after being friends for so long, I realize that didn’t matter to them.”
She shares a memory that adds perspective to Nelson’s plight. “I remember one night my son told me it was very important that Mark stays with us…he explained that the Parish Council was going to demolish their home as the land they lived on was captured…there is an archaic law that stipulates if the residents are at home, they have the right to go ahead and demolish but could do nothing if no-one was at home…his sisters and mother went elsewhere…Mark stayed with us.”
They avoided the demolition.
“I think Mark just decided one day, that he was going to make it….he never stopped trying….he has a wonderful curiosity and a thirst for learning, always analyzing things…I do not think we were his only role models, I think he spent a great deal of time emulating the right people.”
Despite her urging, Cindy’s children, like many Jamaicans did not always care to speak the English they were taught, but after Mark was refused a hotel job on grounds of his poor diction and inflection, she made a new rule.
“When Mark was around, no Patois was allowed.” Despite their initial protests, this practice blossomed into a pseudo-elocution school, to which the voluble Nelson gives kudos for helping him land the job from which he was shunned months before – Entertainment Coordinator at Sandals Dunn’s River – and the foundation of the way he projects himself linguistically. “If I hadn’t seen this happen, I would think it’s Hollywood material,” says his Auntie Cindy. “Mark is living proof you can come from nothing and achieve what you want, if you want it bad enough.”
His past must have been the ultimate training ground, for bigger, more resounding adversities that awaited the defiant sales master, especially at the workplace. Although he was rated “one of the best” in entertainment at Sandals resorts, the gregarious Nelson strongly feels he was side-stepped for a long-anticipated promotion. He grew despondent, but not for long, as his transfer from that hotel, was the beginning of a series of convergence that were to govern his life.
While working his “crazy fun” at Beaches resort in Negril, he met a girl named Lynn Ferry, who was vacationing with friends. He describes their meeting as a “script” for Terry McMillan’s 1998 film, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He fell in love with her but had to prove reciprocity. “She returned to visit me very often and then I realized she must love me too,” he says.
It did not take the assertive Nelson very long to save enough money to declare his intention. “I cleaned out my bank account and bought her an engagement ring,” he quips. Nelson introspects for a few seconds. “I couldn’t accomplish all that I have today without my wife.” To him, Lynn, who is seven years his senior, is the “cylinder that turns the engine” of his life.
It isn’t always rainbows and butterflies for the Nelson couple. After their wedding, they moved to a state that does not hold mixed marriages in much esteem, a state where segregation is so institutionalized, a state sign tells the story. Nelson laughs out loud before he shares the wording. “Don’t let the sun set on your black ass,” it reads.
That he raked in the most money and was one of the top car sales-man in the state of Louisiana did not matter. He remembers, in detail, an encounter with one of the key directors at a party hosted by the car company where he worked at that time. “How does it feel for a blackbird to be in bluebird’s nest?” he asked Nelson. That the said individual later apologized to Nelson, on account of having too much to drink, did not wash with Mark. “I grabbed my wife and left.”
It’s not that Nelson is unforgiving, he responds to situations in which he is wronged in a completely no-nonsense fashion. His auntie Cindy says he has always been like that.
“He’s up front and straight forward,” she says, “he’s honest… always tells you what is on his mind.”
It makes sense that one of Nelson’s role models is Oprah Winfrey. “I am empowered by her honesty,” he says. He adds, “She’s like me…a success story…one where you can take away something and use it as an inspiration for your own life.”
Not only did he express how he felt about the racist remark, he acted upon it.
“I left the company and we moved to California where my wife grew up.” And there is where Mark’s sales career really took flight. Within the first year of his employment with Cerritos Nissan, sales savvy Nelson rocketed to the seat of manager, then director, and has not looked back since. “If I don’t earn it, I don’t deserve it….life owes me nothing,” is his philosophy. “Everything is a surprise…my whole life is a surprise.”
The demands of his executive portfolio do not take precedence over those of his family. He, therefore, does not hesitate to put the breaks on his job to take the next red-eye out of Los Angeles to Jamaica at his mother’s behest when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. With Lynn in tow, Mark took charge of her treatment.
“The chemo made her locks fall out and she didn’t want to continue the treatment.” But after much beseeching, Nelson managed to persuade his mother to follow the plan that helped to restore the health she currently enjoys.
“I wouldn’t say I am very close to my mother…we did not grow up expressing our love…hugging each other like other families…but she has paid her dues and deserves all the good things in life,” he says with certainty.
The winsome Nelson definitely dispels the myth, nice guys finish last.
“If I am not going to win I don’t want to play…I don’t settle for failure,” he declares without doubt. He thinks if the stars did not lead him to the sales profession, he is certain he would claim a career that puts him in contact with people. “I think I would own my own bar, or be on stage,” he adds.
Cindy Black says Mark Nelson is a “credit to himslef, a credit to his mother, and a credit to Jamaica.” She adds, “I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
Neither can we.