As the new year washed over me and rolled on by to February, it left the refrain of the traditional New Year’s chorus ‘Auld lang syne’ replaying on the shores of my mind. I looked up the words and was compelled by them to follow where their inspiration led me in the completion of processing my experiences of re-connecting with friends during my recent visit back home to Jamaica.
My interpretation of the Scots-language poem ‘Auld lang syne’, written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song ‘Roud’, reads thus:
‘Old Times’ Sake’
Should we really put the past and all its old associations behind us?
Forget former people, places and times?
Ah! Those were good old days, friend!
Those were the good old days.
Let’s lift a toast to bygone days
For old times’ sake.
Here, you raise your glass, and I’ll raise mine.
And together we’ll raise one – a toast!
For old times’ sake!
Boy, we two did get around, didn’t we?
Those were the days before life separated us,
Took us down some rough paths too,
Since those good old days.
We two were great buddies
Those small days—working just for the love of it,
From dawn until dusk;
But then life’s vast oceans swept in and washed us apart,
Taking us places we never knew we would go,
In those good old days.
Well let’s shake on it; here, let’s re-connect old friend –
Here’s my contact; I’ll take yours,
And let’s unearth the springs that sustained us so well,
Back in the good old days.
Relieved, I giggled nervously when I eventually heard the outburst of recognition from my long-time, teachers’-college friend, Dahlia, on the line. Relief, because her initial response to my greeting had been “Nooo… I don’t know anyone by that na…”; then, after a few more of my memory-prodding sentences, “Oh my! Deniiiise!”. Whew! There was hope: old acquaintances can be renewed, though they may, for a while, have been forgotten.
My two previous posts “On Going Home – Pts 1 & 2”, had prattled on romantically about Jamaica and its local color and breezes, but my friend Janet, knew me too well not to note that I was avoiding the real heart issue of my visit — the process of re-connecting with friends and past acquaintances.
The doubts and fears that fill the dead air-space, before recognition kicks in, can be awkward as you wonder how different you must appear, even as you observe the altered features of your old acquaintances. Even more daunting is waiting to learn if it has been too long, if the friendship could accept the explanations of the difficulty of trying to maintain relationships while living hundreds of miles apart; of admitting that your station in life and resources were not of such that could accommodate constant contact and visits, and that, as cherished as the friendship may have been then, others had emerged that were even more so now, taking precedence in the convening years of life, as you grappled with new roles in a whole new world.
Well, the question had been asked and answered months ago, And the decision made:
No, I would not put old acquaintances, places and times behind us.
Yes, I would look up those with whom I had “run hills, pulled daisies and paddled streams”.
We would ‘take a cup of kindness, raise a toast’, re-connect and unplug the springs that had sustained us so well in the ‘good old, bygone, small days’.
So we bought the plane ticket.
Though at first the prospect was daunting, it soon became clear that it is not difficult to coax others to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’: to raise a cup of kindness, drink a toast to good memories of bygone days. A drink, or better yet, a shared meal can go a long way in re-establishing trust broken by silence or in re-acquainting hearts separated by distance. Dining together can give time and place, face-to-face, to examine the waves of life’s seas which had swept us apart.
Meals with my father book-ended the visit; it was a masterful stroke of grace on the part of the heavenly Father to have Dad stop at KFC on the way from the airport the first night – Countless were the occasions when me and my siblings would sit in the car, waiting for Dad to bring back something for our empty tummies following a long school day or an extended wait on him at his office. Offerings included boiled corn-on-the-cob or crab (yes!) from the side-walk vendors near the National Heroes’ Circle, pepper(ed) shrimps (small mountain prawns caught and prepped with cayenne pepper seasoning, sold from large straw baskets by men on bicycles), or the absolute favourite— ‘Tastee Patties’ (a delectable flaky, meat-filled turn-over, that Jamaicans consume the way Americans consume hamburgers). As Christine, my travel partner, and I waited on Dad to return with our meal that night, I felt like that little girl again and internally raised a toast thanking God for the memory of happier, less complicated, bygone days re-visited.
Our first ‘touristy’ activity, a visit to historic Port Royal, provided the second meal-oriented reunion. The historic, earthquake-wrecked, port city once called the ‘wickedest’ in the earliest days of European colonization of the Americas, attracts a modest year-round stream of visitors. This fact, along with superb Jamaican cuisine, has contributed to the success of Ruby’s Fish Restaurant, a short walk away.
As Christine, Daddy and I settled down on the upper level of Ruby’s, a rustic, sturdy, awning-covered pavilion, I caught sight of the distinguished grey-bearded gentleman because of his distinctive buttoned front shirt. It was crafted from Jamaica’s traditional red-plaid bandana cotton fabric. Though the passing years and recent heart surgery had taken their toll on his once commanding frame, my double-take confirmed that it was indeed, he and his wife: dear friends and disciplers /mentors, fondly embraced as Uncle Raphael and Aunty Cherry. Retired Salvation Army veterans, they had served a zealous group of us young people, discipling and stabilizing us during the days of the fluctuating relational dynamics of the Charismatic Renewal of the ’70s and ’80s. I considered the timing and sequence of that reunion nothing short of providential and after fervent hugs and effusive exchanges, sharing information, we parted with plans for a later get-together.
Other than my father, much of my movement about the city during my visit was unexpectedly facilitated by another dear mentor figure. As stratified as the Jamaican society is socio-economically, nobody had convinced Dawn that that should govern the way she relates to people from any level. A true believer in the Kingdom of God and of the fact of the stamp of His image on every human being, Dawn had welcomed me, as well as many other purpose-hungry teens and young adults over the years, into the Drama ministry of the Charismatic renewal in Kingston, without hesitation. As she ‘chauffeured’ us around on my visit, we caught up over patties and bottled juices, boxed lunches of Jamaican fast-food, and binge-watched recordings of previous dramatic productions in her upper St. Andrew’s home over a meal of curried chicken, fried plantains and boiled green bananas prepared by her household helper.
I marveled at the love of God thru Dawn as I observed this degreed wife of an award-winning businessman, drive across the city to receive a gift of a bag of coals from a woman who lived in a virtual hole-in-the-wall of a dwelling because she had asked her to. This act of validation clearly blessed this woman who further would not let us drive away before procuring box juices from a corner shop, to cool us on the hot drive back, and before regaling us with an amazing riff of spoken-word, Christianized, dance-hall styled lyrics. The whole afternoon reminded me of Jesus’ injunction to care for the least of these. Dawn, a trained counsellor, demonstrated that this was done not just in giving but in also receiving from the poor. Still today she welcomes all types to the Drama ministry of the church, using it as a means of purposeful engagement and witness, but no one ever feels like a project; all you know in her presence is Dawn’s kindness, warmth, sweet smile and ready, cackling laughter ultimately calling you to Jesus.
Excitedly meandering between the Jamaican Creole and Standard English Maxi drew me into the grittiness of how life in a struggling economy affects good hard-working people like him and his dear wife, my friend Inez. Together with their young adult children, they were a special extended part of the drama community fostered by Dawn. One vital principle of the Charismatic Renewal that was sustained throughout the previous three decades, was that of covenant. Maxi and Inez ‘got it’ and were the closest thing to blood siblings that one could have and did not hesitate to show it on my visit. My husband had reached out to Maxi as we made plans and Maxi and ‘Nez were prepared to be there for me. Theirs was the first home we visited after the ‘bed and breakfast’ where we stayed and we reminisced and caught up over mangoes, spiced bun and cheese and lemonade.
With a cooler loaded with drinks and snacks, they gladly taxied us on the long trek across the island, to St. Mary, my mother’s hometown so I could do research for my book and the history of the Quakers in Jamaica. Almost more than anyone else, Max and ‘Nez had ‘old times’ for us to toast. The goofiness and camaraderie fostered in any artistic community were ours before marriage, jobs, child-bearing and rearing swept us all apart. Add to that the purpose and intimacy of Christian covenant and eternal community are birthed. At the end of the day, I was glad to locate a pizza shop that delivered to our steeply situated bed and breakfast, where we wrapped up the day, reminiscing over old times and exchanging prayer requests for our progeny who face a colder, more dissociated world.
Today Jamaicans are among the most geographically scattered of peoples. And though we venture far we take our proud identity with us. Our gifts have made room for us as Scriptures say they do, yet our hearts are never really at home when we are cut off from the destiny associated with the very soil of our nascence. People like Maxi and ‘Nez exemplify that conviction, declining opportunity to live abroad despite dire challenges and difficulties, in preference of commitment to the land of our birth and a sense of God’s keeping hand. They illustrate the answer to the questions posed by ‘Auld Lang Syne” –
‘Should we really put the past and all its old associations behind us?
Forget former people, places and times… of our origins?’
Maxi and Inez would say along with their progeny, a resounding ‘No!’
Those bygone days are the foundation on which we stand, and where they are broken down and its walls breached, our offspring are called not to trample it and start over elsewhere, but rather to raise it up, repair the breaches in its walls and restore within its boundaries new paths in which to dwell.