I was born beneath Cuba, across the waters of the West Indies on an island that lives and breathes Bob Marley. It was 1967. While papa, my grandfather, was mending the house he built with his bare hands, civil rights marches were happening in “foreign” the place the locals called America. As King, Jr. lay dead, murdered by the mindset of the majority, I learned to walk on hot stones. The light of a man went out. I was oblivious to this then. I lived in a place where electricity and running water and indoor plumbing didn’t reach us. The outhouse was dark at night. But my uncle would take me there sometimes. At other times the chimmy, as my grandmother called it, would be pulled out from under the bed, squatted over, then slid back filled with yellow waste that reminded us of our simple life.
I was small and grass blade thin but I remember the mangoes and jackfruit and star apples and ackee and ginepes and the flowers I used to make jewelry, little necklaces and bracelets, bright and red and beautiful. I want to remember the name of that flower, but time sends memories away to places we can’t find.
My memories are not tall and steady like Tasmanian ash. They are tossed marbles on the floor, rolling away from their center. They scatter and cause the eyes to dart here and there, trying to find a fixed point. I follow one, then another as it rolls underneath other inanimate things that await them as they roll out of sight. I reach for it but it has vanished deep behind a giant refrigerator that is too heavy and determined to be moved alone. Not even lost memory begging to be set free can lift it. Some memories roll out of reach but visible, others stop and wait for their story to be told. There is no order, just pieces of moments that fade in and out of remembrance. The memories do not compete. As each one comes the others move out of the way. The pieces of my life will unfold in this way. To organize each thought would be to destroy the flow of memory and marbles seeking their own destiny.
Nineteen sixty seven wasn’t that long ago. It was the year before the official end of the Civil Rights Movement. In many ways we are still in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting our way through laws that continue to institutionalize the disparity between blacks and whites in America. Jamaica was still an infant learning to walk into the arms of its new found independence from the United Kingdom. It was already five years old when I came into the world. In many ways I believe I learned to walk before Jamaica learned to tread the newness of its perceived freedom from the oppressive crown. Jamaica was young in the eyes of its colonizers who felt they’d brought the “savages” a better way of life and contrived independence, but it was millennia old in the eyes of the Arawaks and Tainos who carried the oral history of an island that knew freedom long before anyone knew they existed.
I am descended from Arawak and Taino. This truth doesn’t comfort me but instead reminds me of a violent past that has led me to this place called America; where I speak English and wear the clothes of oppressors and eat fruits and vegetables that would have been foreign to me had I lived in a time before visitors with ill intentions set foot upon my soil. Some say the past is the past and there is no getting it back, so let it go. Being Arawak becomes that marble that has rolled under the refrigerator and has lodged itself in a space unreachable. It can be reached, but at what cost to everything around it that must be upheaved in order to rescue it from its future? Or its past? Or that space in between past and future that is not quit now, but a feeling that won’t rest.
In 1967 life didn’t pause to listen to my cries as I exited my mother’s pained and bloody womb. Just before my entrance, as I sat inside her listening to the warm breeze against the leaves of Jamaica through amniotic fluid, smelled through her nose and saw through skin that stretched and thinned with each passing month, the American Basketball Association was formed; Aretha Franklin released her soon to be hit song, “Respect” and the body of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was moved to its permanent burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Life in vivo, death in vitro. Martin Luther King, Jr. denounced the Vietnam War, Fidel Castro took back his home and intellectual property, Elvis married Priscilla, and The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Maybe that summer of love flowed through me as their song flowed to the top of the charts. A few weeks after my umbilical cord was cut to release me from my nine-month life source, the Soviet Union cut its umbilical cord from Israel. The relations between them would no longer be diplomatic, but I would diplomatically refuse to eat and remained skinny most of my life. Race riots spread to Washington, D.C., an abortion bill was passed in British Parliament, Rhodesian parliament passed pro-Apartheid laws, and Thurgood Marshall was made the first African-American Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Black life was tumultuous and exhilarating all at once, as ravaging as the earth quake in Caracas, Venezuela that left 240 dead that year.
It was not long before this that I too almost died. Nation dividing events furiously moved through sunrises and sunsets threatening to devour what our ancestors died for and what the future wanted to create. As I lay on the bed, barely one week old, my mother attended to chores outside under the hot Jamaican sun. She had left me asleep. Even if awake, a one week old newborn was no real danger to itself. But I was determined to awaken from the slumber of infancy and a past life remembered, one where I moved and made my way in the otherworld before I could crawl.
My mother remembers the day. She knew with fair certainty that her current life would have been thwarted had things gone differently. She would have been jailed with no chance of anyone believing her. Her instincts saved her, or maybe it was the “voice” whom she said surreptitiously told her things she should typically have no way of knowing. She has always been a seer. She passed it on to me. It saved her many times throughout her life. In my case, she was saved not only from jail time, but from a loss that would have been inexplicable. She obeyed the voices and dropped what she was doing and went inside the house. There I was, awake and filled with glee.
We hear many stories in life and from those stories we extract knowledge and wisdom that allows us to learn new ways of seeing and being in the world. We are taught through science that some things are absolute, although I do not believe in the notion of anything being absolute. The world is a strange and wild place at times. Some of us are so steeped in the bubble of our existence that we often can’t fathom the many wondrous possibilities that are available to us for the taking. Many make grand assumptions based on our limited observations and from that, decide what we think we know for sure. Nothing, however, could have prepared my mother for her one week old baby whom she’d placed in the center of a large bed, to be a mere push away from falling head first onto a hard wood floor. Two week old babies cannot roll or turn or crawl or push. That is the wisdom we’ve received in this modern world, a wisdom that should have been treated as limited and inconclusive observation with room for error.
I was ahead of my time. There was something brewing inside me that could not be contained. I walked at six months and was reading at four years old. I saw ghosts on kitchen counters at five years old and carried memories of a time before here, a time of comfortable darkness, before I was ten. It was a place where I could not see light with my human eyes, but I saw brilliant light with what I call soul eyes. There was no fear there, only the comfort of being enveloped by the blackness that whispered to me through matter-less air. At times I want to call it black light, but not the kind we’ve named on earth, not the kind that can move darkness away so our human eyes can see. It is the kind of black light that moves fear away so we can see. It moved the kind of fear away that coaxed my one week old self to show my mother that my tiny body remembered a soul movement. The memory of darkness stays with me, even now almost 48 years later when I still feel I am in the world, but not of the world.
The darkness reminds me to enjoy the now and memories of prom night and that boy who wanted to take me to the prom so desperately he wouldn’t stop asking my mother who became exasperated with his pleas and gave in. I didn’t want to go. It was a silly event that was meaningless in the grand scheme of things. There were bigger to fish to fry and places to remember that housed a part of me that came before the womb.
My mother’s womb had to be strong. She carries within her DNA the memory of Maroons who fought so hard and fiercely that all she could do was birth a warrior who wanted to crawl and walk and die before her time.
The darkness beckons me to remember its presence. It wants me to hold on to the many fragile, fractured and joyous moments that make up the gumbo of my current existence. I remember lost virginity being as uneventful as a cool drink of water, but somehow still satisfying. There were many girls who told tall tales of pain and blood and tears who made sex seem like birth. We each have our stories and we tell them well. But they are our stories meant to share what is behind our eyes. I carried their fears and experiences into the bedroom. When the threshold of my womanhood was reached and breached I realized that I carried dead weight that did not belong to my story. It was then that I knew that if I were to make it through this life with authentic experiences that I had to learn to listen for my story and the voices that whisper my path.
Disjointed pieces of thought flood in to remind me of a drive in theater. The fragmented memory was so persistent that all I wanted was to open a drive in movie theater. It would be a place where the German film Metropolis from 1927 would reel across the giant screen under a bright full moon as stars dimmed from the light of the screen. The 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would force convertibles to fold closed for fear of another 1938 repeat of the War of the Worlds radio announcement that just might be true. Double features like the 1934 and 1959 versions of Imitation of Life, adapted from the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst would bring the progressives together to later talk about the nature of race in film and its portrayal of the mixed child who did not merely want to pass for white, but be white. This is how I imagined my drive-in to be, filled with engaging films from the past with a speckling of modern flavor for the not so nostalgic.
I would eventually go to a drive-in movie. Memories from my childhood seized me. I longed for placement of my childhood experience. It never surfaced. I would eventually begin to believe it was a dream I once had that I thought was real. I shared my dream with many friends and family members. It never occurred to me that I had not told my father. I was maybe 45 years old. We were in the Poconos in Pennsylvania standing in my living room talking. Like a child remembering hop scotch, double-dutch or the hula-hoop, I rambled off one of my fondest memories and shared my dream to one day open a drive-in theater. My father smiled as I spoke, put his hand against his chin and looked at me in wonder.
“I took you to a drive-in theatre when you were a little girl in Jamaica.”
I was astounded. My mother brought us to America two weeks before my fifth birthday. I was still four years old. My father said there was no way that I could remember that. But remember I did. I never knew who took me, I only remembered the feeling of the drive-in. I could not have been more than three years old, yet I carried memories that the average three year old could never find even if they searched the farthest reaches of their mind. I had heard of such rare occurrences, but never believed them to be true. Yet there I stood, a living and breathing example of the power of memory and experience.
“How did you remember that?”
I had no answer for my father and he had no understanding of how it was possible. He filled in the torn out pages of my memory. He went to my grandmother’s house to pick me up. My mother wasn’t there. My grandmother didn’t see anything wrong with me going to spend time with my father. My mother came home and found me gone. My grandmother told her where I was. She came to my father’s house to pick me up and told him to never take me anywhere again without her permission. My grandmother was my angel and my father was the path to a rich past. Were it not for her I would not have had the opportunity to go with my father. Were it not for my father, I would not have spent my life filled with an exquisite memory that shaped my love for films.
I still watch films. The quality of most have taken a turn toward inanity. But once in a while there are gems to be found that remind me why circa 1970 on a developing island, films where still trying to find their footing. The lack of electricity and running water were elements that did not stop my father from sharing an experience with me that took me far from my simple beginnings of outhouses and water barrels on a porch built with bare hands.
I went back to Jamaica a few times up until I was about fourteen years old. The American mindset tainted me and made keeping memories less tenable. I remembered more about Jamaica at four years old than I did at fourteen. This was a frightening revelation. What had happened to me? Why couldn’t I remember a single event on my return trips? What was taken from me while in the land of plenty? What was washed from my soul and who did it? I was seeking answers to a question that required more questions before it could be answered. The answers never came. Instead, new memories began to surface.
We moved to the North Bronx on a quiet dead end street just a skip away from Mount Vernon. Bell Avenue. A walk across the border would take five minutes if that much. Dyre Avenue was the last stop on the number 5 train. I lived at the end of a bustling world that was also the beginning of a journey into other enigmatic worlds. The world of New York trains were by far the most intricate and sensational adventure I’d ever experienced as a teenager. While a pre-teen, my mother never allowed us on trains. It was beneath her to to stand or sit hip to hip with strangers whose habits she could not ascertain. She was a registered nurse and had seen all kinds of unsanitary behaviors from her patients, some of whom felt assistance from a black nurse was a filthy encounter they preferred to avoid. She ensured she would never need to ride the train for as long as she remained in New York. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the thrill of it, right up to the time that I began to work in Manhattan—in the height of summer. The train underground in July and August was beyond hot. Even without sun the heat threatened to give everyone a tan. Air conditioners typically were only on the trains themselves, rarely on the platforms. Woe upon you if you find yourself in a train car with a broken air conditioner and packed as tight as toes in seven inch high heels. There is no escape except by fainting.
Finding a seat was a battle of wits and wills and sometimes muscle. Not even little old ladies and pregnant women stood a chance against a white collar Fortune 500 employee who spent twelve hours trying to satisfy their boss. During rush hour seats where something one only hoped for. It was typically easier to be struck by lightening.
You eventually learn the patterns, however. The majority of whites disembarked the train before 149th Street. Stand in front of them and you’ll get a seat before you reach the Bronx. Don’t sit next to the nod-ers, they will drool and sleep on your shoulder all the way home. Sit beside the avid readers, you will travel home in peace, unless they decide to snack while reading, at which point you could become target of a few carefully aimed crumbs and droplets of whatever they are drinking. If the person looks weird, you sit next to them at your own peril. The worst ones are the fart-ers who let out the silent but deadly ones, turn up the noses of those sitting near them and pretend that they didn’t do it while almost turning to you as though you were the fart-er. I’ve had one too many experiences with them and it’s no fun, particularly when the smell in question conjures nothing on the food chain you have ever recalled eating. Sewers are a breathe of fresh air compared.
But New York was home. For 33 years I roamed the literary scene throughout the five boroughs and met writers, editors, agents and readers who wanted nothing more than great works to litter the landscape of literature and become a land pilled high with knowledge, information and great stories. They sought out stories that came through writers who were possessed by the gods of words, or possessed by their ancestors or their land. They wanted an uncontrived richness that was authentic and true without pretense. They wanted griots who transposed their oral gems to papyrus.
It was during those years that I wanted to move from being a casual writer and poet to becoming a writer who studied and perfected her craft. Stories about my brief years in Jamaica summoned me to the page. I sat down to write but nothing ever came. Instead I leaned on poetry and wrote about ideas and death and love and life and sexuality.
I remember first grade. One of my best friends was Talitha. She was beautiful and sweet and kind. We were both tiny things who too young wanted to explore our bodies. With our clothes on we would rub our still developing parts together. I remember a strange sensation that I wanted to repeat many times over. But Talitha would disappear into my past, resurfacing nearly 35 years later on Boston Road in the Bronx in front of a Bodega. I recognized her immediately, she recognized me. She looked worn and tired. Her clothes were ragged and seemed unwashed. It was fairly clear that she was on drugs. I watched as she rubbed her nose, twitched and fidgeted as she spoke to me, never once smiling. I touched her hand and told her if she ever wanted to hang out, I am there. She pulled her hand away abruptly, told me good-bye and walked into the Bodega to procure her goods. I sat in the car wondering what she was thinking and feeling and why she rejected my offer. She walked out of the Bodega toward a man waiting at a Motel. I realized many months later that she did not want my pity. She did not know how to be saved and needed me to leave without ever knowing the truth about the trajectory of her life. I wondered, did she remember our childhood romp? Did she remember the sensations we shared?
My daughters were in the car quietly examining the peculiar world around them. They watched people come and go, never caring or even understanding the exchange between Talitha and I. To some degree, I did not understand our exchange. Maybe I didn’t want to understand it and wanted to be willfully ignorant. Maybe I wanted to save her and she felt I had no right to uncover her without words, but instead with a gentle touch that she recognized as the road toward pity and judgment. Three decades before we shared something between us that was judged by no one. Maybe she didn’t want to taint that space we shared, in my room in my house, on the floor after school. We were six years old then.
I would eventually discover other life long friends. We moved from Bell Avenue to Harper Avenue which was a mere five blocks from Bell Avenue and another dead end. There is a symbolism there that I have never uncovered. I’d spent ninety percent of my life on dead end streets. There my stock of friends was replenished and what was once a dead end without outlet now became a haven that nurtured our youth. We took advantage of our freedom to run in the streets and through yards without fences and in open fields of trees and short mountains of weed covered soil. We climbed trees and played tag and raced until sweat wet our clothes and left it to stick to our skin. We would lay on the grass under the noon day sun and hope that Saturday never turned into Sunday, and Sunday would fast forward back to Saturday.
Straight rope and double-dutch were the jobs we worked until we were paid in praise, Twinkies, red juice or a round of Hide and Seek. Our bonus was Blind Man’s Bluff played sometimes in dark basements and at other times with blind folds that kept the person who was “it” from seeing where we were. You had to listen carefully because your ears became your eyes and without your ears you wouldn’t catch those who tip-toed around you teasingly.
When the street lights came on doors began to close and unruly children who felt the night was their domain would find their buttocks domain meeting with strips of cowhide that would the next day be worn around fathers’ waists to work. Parents carried to work memories of their discipline around their waists as children carried to school memories of missed sun downs, street lights they would sling shot into darkness and a love of open sky, stars that doubled as street lights and a full white moon that sling shots cannot reach.
My youth was filled with inquisitive play and hastily forgotten tears. A few summers of play were spent in Michigan with my aunt and two cousins. For a month I lived the life of Seventh Day Adventists and ate no meat, enjoying my favorite veggie franks, Linketts and Big Franks as often as allowed. Veggie burgers were also a treated I consumed without question. I went from the skinny child who ate sparingly if at all to a gluttonous boar who remained skinny despite the mountain of food I shoveled into my mouth daily. I was repeatedly warned that if I did not stop “eating like a pig” I would blow up into a 500 pound circus attraction. The circus never received the honor of my voluptuousness and I continued to eat unabated. It wasn’t until I reached my thirties that my body no longer appreciated the ferociousness with which I devoured food.
My older cousin, Aldene, was the first to introduce me to the finer skill of riding a bike through corn fields without tumbling over. How we never went home bloodied and bruised was beyond me. We peddled through rows upon rows of corn as my younger cousin, Roanne, sat home unable to peddle herself into her own future. She was born with Gaucher’s Disease, a genetic disorder that robbed her of her childhood. At eight years old she looked like a nine-months pregnant child. It would have been easier to bear if she were pregnant. We could have lived with imagining she was seeded by immaculate conception. But instead, she was she was seeded with a recessive mutation that enlarged her liver and spleen; the world defiled her from birth. She never complained, always sharing with her classmates what little she carried with her for lunch. She talked of death and heaven and things being ok. With the keen awareness of a 100 year old sage, she spoke of her purpose here and how it had been fulfilled and she was ready to go. Ready or not, she would go before she reached 10 years old. It was sometime in the early 80s when she died. I was no more than 14 years old and had experienced my first death. It gave me life.
My aunt gave me a music box that Roanne loved and played frequently. I still have it after all these years and open it periodically to remind me of her innocence and fearless wisdom. I sometimes look at my daughters and think of Roanne. I am reminded of her light and love and generous spirit. She gave herself to us for a time and now the universe has reclaimed its daughter. I think of her often and miss her smile; and her small body sitting inside a bright red wheel cart as we pulled her along so she could share in our memories of hot summers, corn fields and the sun shining on our skins.
Harper Avenue summers were endless. My mother would send me outside almost daily to water the parched grass. I would drown the lawn in order to spend extra time outside. Puddles of water gathered at the end of our concrete driveway and ran down the sidewalk until it found the sewage grates. As I created the second great flood, my mother welcomed a new tenant into our three-family apartment building.
Audrey was a nurses’ assistant bound for her RN. She was still new to America and came without her still young children in order to build a life for them. Like most Jamaicans, she believed that America was the land of opportunity. Her children waited in Jamaica for several years before she gathered the funds and paperwork to bring them to her new home. Her son, Walter, arrived one summer only a few short weeks away from the new school year. He was enthralled with the American life and carried a smile with him everywhere he went. It would be many decades later before his smile would be dimmed by loss and loneliness. That summer he wanted nothing more than December to arrive and with it, the snow he’d never before experienced.
The winter came and it was time for the gathering of energy. Walter was filled with energy waiting to be released. He wanted to see snow and would look outside the window daily, hoping for flurries that seemed to take forever to come. When the day came, it was momentous. Drunk with joy, he headed for the door. His glee was contagious. I ran after him. We were barefoot and knew we needed to put on shoes to keep out the cold. But it was too late. We were like beings possessed. We ran outside and began to dance and jump in the snow barefoot. To this day I don’t remember my feet being cold. We wanted to feel the raw nakedness of his first winter. I wrote a poem about our experience which I still look at from time to time and refine so it is the essence of what we experienced. I wrote with a flavor of my Jamaican accent; not to heavy, not too light.
Feet in Snow
This girl remember bare feet in snow on a warm winter day.
Sun beaming down on two wide eyed kids
enjoying tufts of cold white flakes between toes.
One child just come from Jamaica.
The other come just five years before.
The one just come never see snow before.
He giggle with delight.
Snow fall from sky like rain.
He look up in wonder.
It fall slow, like cotton, but cold, he say.
We feel it. Feet melting it until we reach concrete or grass.
We reach hands to sky, try to catch the cotton that come down.
It fall in shapes, like sky stars.
It fall on tongues that love ice.
It melt like it never existed.
Body too warm for it to live long.
Arms swing. Bodies spin.
Mother look out window.
What you doing? You crazy?
You will catch cold and die!
Get inside now!
Mother don’t know snow can’t kill us.
Snow love us. It made for us.
It fall for us. It dance for us.
Mother don’t know. She too far removed.
She forget the child inside her.
She forget that laughter scare away demons.
The demons can’t take us from this place.
From the land of snow fall.
From the land of bare feet on white stars.
It was a mid-70s winter. It was a time of building childhood memories and finding ways to save the child inside us that was slowly growing out of itself. That day healed us and freed something inside us. In many ways we fought to remain children. But we continued to stretch toward the sky, fighting a future we could not halt.