It was late evening and the Jamaican downpour of rain made it seem even darker in the bus in which my mother and I were traveling. It did not matter that I could not see outside from the rain beating on the side of the window or glimpse the shadows of trees sprinting by the window. I was small enough to be traveling on the lap of my mother. Since not being many years on this earth, the conversation around did not interest me and the only things that I remember is the rise in the tone of the “oie,” and “Laad, have mercy,” in the chorus of voices when my mother and me and everyone else braced to lean on one side and lean to the other as the bus drove over uneven surfaces and around deep corners. My dangling feet were far from touching the floor of the bus, but I remember that grownups around me were speaking as if their words were coming from a pressure cooker letting out gasps of steam, and “it a go come up in a de bus!” Someone else repeated the urgent message as if we all did not hear the first desperate announcement of the water on the road trying to make its way up into the bus. In quick succession, like the clap of falling dominoes, the chant was repeated: “Laad, have mercy. It a go come up in a de bus. It a go come up in a de bus!” I do not know for sure if the dampness that we felt in the bus came from our breathing moist air in the warm Jamaican temperatures or it came from the sweat of a bus full of people all closed up in the tropical heat. But wet we all felt. We did not need the rain from outside to feel drenched.
It seems to be necessary that every country should have a particular kind of weather that needs to be feared or at least taken seriously. For Jamaica, when I was growing up, it was rain. Children had a legitimate excuse for being absent from school because of rain. People were in danger of an array of sicknesses from being in the rain too long. This collective understanding of how life occurred was accepted by all Jamaicans as fact, and we lived and got sick or stayed well by the rules. Bay Rum was needed if one got wet. Any Jamaican grandmother will tell you that applying a splash of Bay Rum to the chest will help to ward off chest problems. It was not long after that ordeal in the bus that I became very ill. Bay Rum did not work for me.
The world seemed like I lived in an invisible airless bubble, and suck as I tried, there was no air to be had. I felt cold, no matter how closely I cuddled up to my mother and how much her soft, comforting arms tried to warm me. She herself had not started school until her late childhood because her grandmother kept her home to care for her asthma. I don’t know what my parents observed about me that made them call Dr. Glaspole, but he did come. And I don’t remember why I needed to have an injection but this was the first time I was conscious of a doctor piercing my skin with that cursed needle and causing more discomfort than what I felt from my sickness. My survival of the pneumonia did not erase the idea from my parents’ mind that I was sickly, frail and delicate. To remind me of my special frailty, I was to wear a sash of sick distinction, an undershirt made of fine merino wool “to protect your lungs.”
In my toddlerhood, my parents had started a school, and had made provisions to receive boarders in the big house where we lived not far from the school. As I accumulated one or two more years, my house filled up with teenage boarders. They seemed like tall giants and would occasionally bend down like giraffes to notice I was there. I was in my own world, fed, clothed, provided for but largely ignored except when there was some natural threat like rain. This is when I would be called and given an extra sweater to wear and other precautions would be taken to keep us children safe. When I did get sick, all family forces were mobilized to bring me special treats and my grandmother would sing to me and my father would pat my back and rub my head. I learned to feel lucky to be sick because I held court with my family. I was so delicate that my parents allowed my younger sister, Marcia, to go to a special preschool with our Aunt Lolly while I still stayed protected at home. The identity of frail weakness and infirmity was injected into my psyche and my psyche absorbed its deceptive and debilitating medicine.
If my mother was busy saving the world with her long hours of teaching, my sister Marcia became my little nurse when anything went wrong with me. A prickle in my hand was patiently and gently exhumed from my finger by my Marcia or a boarder. Canadian Healing Oil and camphorated oil were applied to all kinds of other acquired maladies. But Mama occasionally found time to bring my breakfast to my room when I turned away from the breakfast table. She would stir and mix until the cornmeal porridge was completely free of any lump, or if I just did not like the meal she would add an extra nice piece of fruit that she knew I liked. Enticed by the fruit or piece of sweet fried plantain, I would eat the entire meal and be praised. I remember being taken to Dr. Grant because my parents were worried that I did not eat enough. Dr. Grant was correct then, that later when I needed to, I would eat enough. In fact, it was a gross understatement on his part. Eating is now one of my greatest skills and accomplishments.
In my teenage years, I wore my persistent ulcerated stomach like flower children wore bell bottoms and black people wore Afros. Fresh beef soup always seemed to help my stomach. With cows slaughtered Thursday night into early Friday morning, we could get fresh beef and beef bones in the market. This would be slowly cooked with chocho, a kind of hard squash, and breadfruit pegs added with Jamaican yellow yams (not the American Thanksgiving yam but the kind humorously reported to be the secret behind Usain Bolt’s speed). The simmering soup would be joined by lots of fresh thyme and two whole scotch bonnet peppers for flavor, with the stem intact so that none of the peppery heat would escape into the soup. Pimento and escellions, onions and garlic, dumplings and a small piece of pumpkin to ‘mash out,’ would be added. The result would be a warm anointing of the stomach that substituted for the gentle rubs and hugs that were less frequent for a teenager as they were in childhood.
In our youth, Marcia and I would create little plays which we had others perform. I would write the words with contributions from her, but the logistics and implementation of setting up the props were solely her accomplishment. Much later, in college, fate would have it that we did a stint of elementary school practice teaching as partner teachers. My sister would tell me to go to bed and rest, implying that I was still delicate, while she finished up the charts and the manipulatives for the lessons the next day. My identity as a frail and delicate individual was becoming a petrified forest of lies that I accepted and benefitted from in some ways.
Later, when I was grown and a teacher, employed, effective, accomplished, but still living at home, if the rain showed definite signs of coming, my mother would send a yard-boy on the two-mile walk to my school, bringing an extra sweater and covering for me to ensure that I was protected. Months later, with my ‘delicate constitution’ receding from our daily attention, I would wave and said goodbye to my parents, sister and friends at the airport and boarded the plane to start graduate school and a new life of independence. Now there were little skirmishes with health issues that sprouted from the seed of my earlier label. But they presented nothing that I did not overcome on my own. Decades later I had walked in the Michigan rain as others did, I had played in the snow and survived driving on sleet and black ice. I learned that normal people wore long johns in winter to keep them warm and protected. The merino I had discarded some months after arriving in Michigan had been normalized in my eyes. I had faced the worst weather that any Jamaican could have ever thought of. I had survived the torments of a dissertation committee and graduated with a doctoral degree. I managed to earn very positive evaluations from my grad students, and respectable annual reviews from my Dean and colleagues. I had proven I could manage life all by myself and without direct buttressing family help.
My mother was having a big birthday and we children decided to have a special party for her. I loved planning parties so spent many days planning and arranging details and inviting friends. We three children, with our families decided to rent a house on the North Coast in Jamaica and have a week on the beach before going to Christiana, our home town, and making final arrangements for the party at the end of the next week. It was a glorious time to be together as one big family just to relax and have fun.
Tourists to Jamaica usually visit for the sun, water, sand and music, but Jamaicans return home for the food and the chatting in free-flowing patois, and for the breeze rattling the banana leaves, and the high-pitched sirens of the jimmy-long-day crickets that sing in the day when the sun is hot. We go back to curse and quarrel about the music being too loud with it vibrating the louvre windows in our houses. We go back to practice and enjoy the exquisite art form of arguing and one-upping each other with peppery insults, barely neutralized by our smiles.
At the beach house that we rented, we indulged in the fresh red snapper and goat fish that the fisherman brought from his catch earlier that morning, all cooked by the maid that came with the house. We bit and sucked on mangoes that oozed with thick, sweet juices, sneaking into the crevices of our hands, forcing us to lick with pleasure. To give lips a break from the constant sucking we would stop and recount and laugh how Daddy would arrive home in Christiana from Kingston from visiting our Aunt Esmie who had mango trees. He would issue us an invitation to come and eat the mangoes by shouting out in the house “Lissen me! These mangoes that I brought from you Aunt Esmie are mine!” That would be the cue for us all to scurry out of our rooms like little cockroaches after their hiding place was sprayed! Those first two days at the beach house were ones of shameless gorging. Tired of mangoes, we would move to bunches of sweet guineps that we sucked until only the big seed was left. We each had a container where we would put the seeds to keep score of the number we had demolished. We buried our faces in sweetsops, with their sweet white milky juice that was far better than any milkshake from Dairy Queen. We made our way through dozens of dark, sweet naseberries and chewed on sweet sugar cane.
Our vacation was going splendidly well, and then it appeared. An invisible battering ram began attacking my head. I was useless. All the excursions were suspended. No two Phensic tablets could even approach this headache. My entire body responded, muscles, stomach, ears, eyes all joined in undulating waves of tension. My whole family automatically took up their positions like a well-rehearsed ball team, everyone aware of the strategy and their moves. My mother and sister scurried and brought any remotely useful ointment and medicine to try on me. My father, already slowing physically and intellectually, gently rubbed my head and mumbled soothing sounds while my brother was on alert, waiting for commands about how he could help. In-laws dutifully and lovingly supported the family team. It took a visit to the doctor the next day to cure me of the mysterious malady that threatened the week of holiday on the beach. And since the incident ended well and we had a very satisfying time for the rest of our days together, the ordeal became a tiny detail in the recounting of the triumph of the party and the magnificent time we had on our trip back to Jamaica.
“You notice how every time you are with your family you get sick?” My husband, his hand on the wheel of the car and looking ahead on the road, spat out. This sentence was one of millions of sentences we had both uttered as we recounted and commented on and laughed about and analyzed ideas that came to our minds. I had married Roderick because he was a lot like my father. He did not spend weekends and evenings playing dominoes like many West Indians I knew. He did not spend endless hours watching sports and making loud noises when there was a score, like many American men seemed to do. Instead he read books as I loved to do. He read not just his economics books but also my psychology ones so we could converse effectively with each. He watched the news shows and kept up a rebuttal or endorsement of most every comment made by guests on shows. Like my father, he loved politics and current events, and was gentle and generous and noble. He loved to cook and cooked well. He hated soup but regularly and expertly cooked it for me. And most of all, he loved to talk and laugh about any and every topic.
The best part of a road trip was the conversations we had in the car, whether to the over twelve-hour drive to the Tennessee mountains for a week of vacation or the fourteen-hour drive to New York to his relatives for Christmas, or the eight hours to Canada to visit friends and family. We would start from home in Michigan and after a state or two we would have covered all the current events and surface issues in the world. We would then tackle all the issues of individuals in both our families, then we would rectify in our minds, the faults and shortcomings of our university systems. Eventually, after another state or two had whizzed past, we would express our own personal sources of annoyances, our fears and our wishes. We had reached that far in our journey. “Say that again?”
“You know. The time when we were in California for Sean’s blessing, when you felt sick, and the time when at your graduation, and everyone had come, in the midst of the weekend activities, you had to go get some extra rest to calm your headache; and the time when Marcia was getting married and in the midst of the weekend you ate something that did not agree with you …” In consternation I started dredging up other scrapes with illness when my entire family
was together. We then recalled what before seemed incidental occurrences of my being physically afflicted when with my family. These are the moments when one becomes conscious that they have received a pot of gold but the revelation of the treasure had come about by a scary, searing flash of lightning bright enough to fell a person and smite through dark droplets of confounding cloudy moisture of ignorance. “I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it! Unbelievable!” my mouth sputtered incredulity as my brain churned out the realization to make the new revelation of this insidious habit more recognizable. Luckily we had enough miles left on our journey for me to reach the place where I resolved to vow to eradicate this false message that I had been fed and that I had wholly swallowed. I made bold declarations and called upon the universe to witness my resolve, ‘so-help-me-God.’
With that issue settled we moved on with our lives until my father died one July 1st, and my family decided to celebrate the following Christmas together. They would all come to me in Michigan, Horace and family from California and Marcia and family with my mother from New
York. We were going to neutralize the sadness of the funeral weeks in July. We were going to imprint the family with a new sense of joy and celebration. I gloried in such festivities. With a Christmas tree to welcome all in the lobby and one in the sitting room to compel them with its beauty to stay, I added every decoration to the house that seemed appropriate. Wood was gleaming, crystal was glistening, silver was glinting. Menus were set. Functions were booked, shopping trips were scheduled, and food orders were made.
The absolute necessities were on hand for it to be a near-real Jamaican Christmas: rich, red sorrel drink spiced with a tingle of ginger; real Christmas fruit cake made with fruits that had been soaking in rum and wine for half a year, and rich eggs and wine and sugar hugged by just enough flour to barely hold it together, resulting in a dark, warm, moist fondle of the lips and tongue and affectionate nudge to inner reaches of the mouth. Marcia brought the Christmas ‘duck bread,’ from New York. Made from hard dough and shaped into the form of a duck, at Christmas time, we as children would be permitted to break off a wing or a beak or break off a leg of the bread and slather it with butter before a well-seasoned slice of roast beef was made to recline on it. This we would eat between sips of Jamaican chocolate tea. Chocolate tea is like a resounding Amen to the most fervent blessing of a revered saint. It is the Jamaica’s Star of Bethlehem that shines over a home at Christmas. It is freshly grated earthy aroma-exuding chocolate in a chorus of rose water and pure vanilla extract harmonized with freshly-grated nutmeg and condensed milk, simmered in milk so the bubbles start happily hopscotching in the pot. Every gentle sip offers a warm velvet fleece of comfort for the mouth, stroking and patting the throat, moving down to the stomach and spreading its warmth throughout the body.
The umpteen inches of snow on the ground outside ensured it would be a white Christmas and that the children would have enough snow to boast about at school in January when they returned to California and the puny snows of New York. Our welcome party rang with exuberance and our first days defined the Christmas spirit! And then it happened! This was not a little sneeze from snowflakes tickling my nose. This was not a chill from ‘dashing through the snow’ on my front lawn. This was a bonafide cold setting in, complete with teasing scrape in my throat! “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!” I couldn’t believe it! Roderick and I were unloading the dishwasher when the sneezing invaded our space. His ears ringing from my loud cursing froze him but only for a moment. He began to laugh at me. It was annoyingly funny, I admitted. “This blasted hydra of a ghost back here to haunt me again!” “It didn’t hear you when you told it to ‘go-dead-a-bush,” he mocked. In that moment I wanted to tell him to go-dead-a-bush, a favorite Jamaican way to cruelly dismiss someone.
Well I had come to America and met Jamaican friends who had taught me the real way to be a true ‘raw-chaw’ Jamaican, and throw off my nice little gentle and restrained middle class, ladylike behaviors. I had not yet acquired facility with the copious array of Jamaican curse words or the ‘F’ word that shockingly floated around me at work from American mouths. I had not yet taken the workshop where I learned not to choke on the ‘F’ and other such words. What I lacked in words, I made up for with the hurricane roar of a thousand angry lions! I was not going to fool with this cold. I was going to tell it who was boss. And I did. I marched to the basement to be alone and unheard and I threatened my sniveling little psyche and ‘roughed it up’ and told myself to march upstairs and continue to preside over the Christmas in my house where my family members were guests and at my mercy. I told myself that no sickness was tolerated from anyone in this house and that no distractions from our festivity would be entertained. “You are not sick. YOU ARE NOT SICK. YOU ARE WELL! Now go back upstairs and get on with your activities. You are not going to spoil this time for them!”
I did take two pills and muscled through the rest of the evening with only my husband knowing what had transpired. And that cold fled from my body like a burglar at work after a floodlight suddenly exposed him. Hitler was reported as saying, “If you tell a big enough lie, and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Well I was done believing the lie that I was frail and delicate. I stalked that hydra. I followed it wherever it sought to lodge in my psyche. I stalked it. I squeezed the hell out of it. And I burned it with my consuming resolve to be healthy, strong and powerful!