‘Sight-seeing’ in the land of your birth, as a visiting migrant, is a whole different ball-game. Every little thing becomes infused with significance — every bus stop, corner or fence a landmark; every tree, every flower, every fruit an event to re-live, an incident to memorialize. The blue of the sky, the green of the hills and the white of the limestone scar in the Rockfort hillside: everything, ordinary or especial, comes at you fresh-laden with meaning they did not originally pack. Not to mention all that you have forgotten.
Having flown in at night, I eagerly anticipated waking up my first morning back home in Kingston, St. Andrew to be exact. A complex set of socio-economic, and relational compromises had conspired against my returning to what was once the family home, in lower Kingston. But I could not have had a more providentially selected vantage point from which to re-engage this land of my birth. I guess I must have slept, but dawn found me eagerly waiting for first light. The hostess could not get the necessary bars and locks opened fast enough for me to step out onto her balcony and greet the glorious Jamaican sun as it rose over the mountain and casually set about warming the St. Andrew foothills. I scanned the scene grinning foolishly, like a “never-see; come-see”, from this perch over the Orange Grove community that is “Neita’s Nest” Bed and Breakfast. And the sun, like a loud and lavish market woman, urged me to unpack—
Out came patriotic hymns and folk songs early learned; they unfurled themselves from my mind — a mixed ‘Ring-ding’ of ‘small days’ memories, unveiling treasures sweet and sorrowful, as I looked out on the lush green hills. My romanticism was brought down to earth as blue plumes of smoke and the muffled roar of early traffic from the morning business of the hillside communities reminded me that yes, “We are more than a beach (or island paradise). We are a country”. But I was reluctant to go there yet. I would face the people later. Right now all I wanted was to stare in wonder at the brilliant flowers of the poinciana trees that dotted the green — their vivid orange splashed artistically over the lush hillside, the green of the valleys and hills. Poinciana.
As I let its beautiful name fill my mouth, I recalled my primary school “outings”— formal occasions when I would have learned those names. In perfectly straight lines, the early grades of the St. George’s Girls’ Primary School, each girl holding in one hand that of her classmate and in the other her lunch, would walk to the National Heroes’ Circle and the park surrounding it. There, seated under the massive banyan tree, we would rehearse—Poinciana, bougainvillea, anthurium, lignum vitae, blue mahoe, canna, croton, gloxinia…African violet, Joseph’s coat, bird of paradise, elephant’s ears, ladies’ tongue…from the sublime to the common, we took it in with our lunch and loved it all.
As my eyes searched the gardens of the B&B and its neighboring houses, drinking in the bounty and trying to match name to flower, I was irresistibly drawn from our hostesses’ elegant breakfast balcony. Neither her caution nor the security gate could keep me from wading out into the beauty, and what a joyous surprise awaited as I turned the first corner and found —veiled under a light blue haze — the Liguanea Plains spread out before me, with the city of Kingston nestled on it, holding Kingston Harbour in its embrace.
“I saw my land in the morning
And O, but she was fair..”
Call me an incurable romantic, but I teared up and let the prayer of praise in my heart flow unhindered. I knew there was pain in that city, as in every city, but saw God’s undeniable bounty resting on her head — the flag’s motto, spot on:
“Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shines”.
Our first trip out, to get our currency and cell phones sorted, confirmed an intrinsic blessing that sits on this land: ‘Mangoes to stone dog’, as the saying goes. Trees laden with the succulent fruit were everywhere! Fruit peddlers waylaid pedestrians and drivers alike on virtually every corner, and in the streets, offering pre-sliced pineapple, otaheite apples, bananas, and did I mention? the ever ubiquitous mangoes!
The sight of mangoes presented, unbidden, memories of my precious Grandma Dora Stair. Her dear minister husband —Papa, Vernon Stair, the family patriarch—would often come home laden with the fruit generously given by the parishioners of the ‘Church of the First-Born’, to whom he ministered all across the island. And Grandma, dear, dear Grandma — the picture I most treasure of her — heaving bags of succulent mangoes and other produce over the fence to our next-door neighbors, sweet smile on her face.
The only sight more treasured was that of her kneeling in prayer for the family, first thing every morning in the ‘drawing room of our Whitfield Town home. But the Whitfield Town home of my childhood was no more; neither were Grandma and Papa, at least not on this side of Kingston, nor indeed on this side of earth’s veil. (I was glad Daddy had whizzed by the side road leading to our old neighborhood on another of our rides into Kingston; its decline was abundantly evident). Grandma had always dreamed of living in a nicer neighborhood but was content to bloom where she was planted, and though her children eventually bought a home elsewhere, it was early established that home for Grandma would ever only be one place — heaven.
On day two, on our way to visit the famous Port Royal, we drove through the city, passing by my elementary Alma Mater, St. George’s Girls’ Anglican Primary School: pleated green and white plaid tunic, over white button-front blouses, green belted, brown leather shoes and socks, with a ‘jippa-jappa’ straw hat or lace mantilla, for Friday and Lenten services with the rector at the Anglican church across the alley. An accepted part of school culture was caning in the palms for lateness, failing tests or for besmirching the good name of St. George’s in the public eye, in any way. Though by grade 4 it became all about the Common Entrance Examination for high school, time was taken in the earlier grades to teach us to love the flora and fauna of our tropic land and to speak helpfully and intelligently to tourists— cruise ships and foreign vacationers being then a vital part of our island economy, even on the southern coast, in those days. Our colonial, post-slavery history, the example, and ideals of our national heroes and political leaders taught us to value our people — the dignity, resourcefulness and proud culture that was uniquely forged in the fires of a unique history.
‘We likkle but we Tallawah’ (we’re small but tough as nails!).
But I had something extra, in my idealistic teens, I had learned to love the spirit of this land — its people and God’s Divine purposes for her, built into her very soil, her mountains and shorelines. This spirit had been imparted to a generation of us by a pastor who himself believed the same, and that God would heal our land, save our nation from crushing economic woes and halt the steady moral decline. The Rev. C.B.Peter Morgan that I remembered, as I re-visited my land, had laced his messages, in those destabilized and economically trying times, with the truth that God is a ‘covenant God’ — a ‘promise-keeping God’, His people — ‘A Covenant People’ and the Scriptures — a book laden with covenant promises. We were a part of that generation that was all about national reconstruction. Our prayers, community involvement, and cultural participation reflected this commitment. My purpose was wedded to the welfare of this land.
Civic duty, school pledges, covenant promises— noble in intent but a double-edged sword, for life’s vicissitudes quite quickly teach us that our promises are only as certain as our ability to control the circumstances of their fulfillment, and that is something none of us can do, for too long, without Divine assistance. Long before I dreamed I would ever hear promises, such as my husband’s one day under a banyan tree at Devon House and again at the airport as he quoted John 14 to me, promising to come back and take me away so that we would be together thenceforth. And long before I would seal that deal with a promise of my own, clad in white lace under a spreading Bombay mango tree, midst song and dance and Jamaican breakfast cuisine, I had already made many other promises; vows that would hold me fast.
The obvious confirmation of God’s sovereign hand behind my husband’s proposal and my acceptance of it did not make settling into life in America any easier. I suffered from an odd strain of ‘survivor’s guilt’ that could be termed ‘migrant guilt’: I had had to deal with at least six major life changes in that marriage and move, as one counsellor explained; a fact which supplied a steady dose of culture shock for my first year or two. And, in the midst of this, I carried a heavy emotional burden, a ‘noble’ sorrow, a concern for my friends who continued in JA while I had been so ‘uncommonly blessed’. Each of my three early visits, made to tend or bury grand-parents, and later to an educational conference, were too hasty and scheduled to afford the luxury of sorting such baggage.
Much of my early writing in America found me grappling with this psychological dilemma. (Kansas Sunrise Trilogy)* and I found that not many appreciated the yearly general letter outlining blessings and milestones of my life or my growing family’s. Nonetheless, I soon emerged emotionally, into a place from which I could engage and enjoy the blessings of family and parenting, reconciling myself to the fact that I could live in only one place at a time.
I had always regretted not being able to live up to the pledge to visit home every two years, as my husband and I had idealistically dreamed; and we had been able to visit only once as a family, and then only before our first-born, Joseph was even a year old. Now, with two children financially independent, we felt it was time to make that visit. But spontaneity had to yield to pragmatism, as there were still Summer studies and office conferences previously scheduled, so we postponed a year. Yet I felt a solo journey was mine to make ahead of the family, like a way-maker of sorts or maybe even a mine-sweeper.
I was somewhat surprised preparing for this trip, now a virtual empty nester, when I felt a jerk on my psychological reins as I interviewed my ailing Mom and realized a world of unknowns about her and our family that would perish with her declining mind. A book about her life presented itself as the one I needed to write and this the trip to research for it. I felt a providential confluence — an urgency to reconnect with my mother’s past, my past, and thus to re-enter Jamaica from a different direction. Like my travel partner, Christine, research for this book would be the perfect buffer between me and a begrudging past – that accusing psychological customs officer demanding his pound of flesh.
A journal entry written during my morning devotions the day we purchased my ticket for the trip, tells of God’s gracious preparation; He had packed me a little ‘carry-on’. I wrote:
As nostalgia sets in, I find myself trying to remember the Jamaica I left – the Jamaica I hope to find on my return. Claude McKay’s poem ‘Flame-heart’ comes to mind. He begins “So much I have forgotten…”, it’s true — too much I have forgotten; but plasticity of the brain is indeed a reality. I must strive to recoup, I must work to remember — to reclaim my precious things; not as shards from a potter’s field but as beautiful shells, my beautiful things washed up from the tides, currents, affairs and seasons of life, onto the shores of my memory. Precious things, restored to me by God’s grace, can be given new life even as shells and sea-glass can be brought again to new life as glorious shining jewelry.
Covenant God, who knew my thoughts before they were words on my tongue, I bring you my memories, my shells, my flotsam, my precious, broken, time-bleached, beach-combed things. Make sense again of them. Show me again how they fit together into Your good plan and purpose. Bring together again the related parts. RE-MEMBER me. Great Reconciler, my soul waits for you on this side of the sea, on this side of morning — open wide to me the wings of the new dawn of Your new day awaiting to bear me to resurrection.
I had seven days to lay my hands on the treasure chest, to unpack almost two decades separated from parts of myself, precious memories, covenants, promises, friendships, prayers, duty, expectations…I chose to re-think and re-name it …not baggage, but treasures. I opened to resurrection, glad to serve a God who seeks treasures out of darkness, not contraband from human luggage.