It wasn’t until I really started traveling that I began having flight anxiety. Nestled into my usual window seat, I found myself feeling easy and excited to see my family who would be waiting for me when I landed. I had fewer thoughts about the plane crashing and instead pictured my reunion with my grandmother. It had been 5 years since I last saw her or any of my other Jamaican relatives. I was nervous for some reason, remembering that I’d become 3 different people since the last time I had been on the island.
A smooth landing brought me that irie feeling I hadn’t realize I’d missed so much. The backdrop of caribbean style homes against the runway inspired a smile from the inside out. The rush of feeling like I was back home, backayard, once again. I grabbed my things hastily and left the airport avoiding taxi offers as I searched for signs of my father. Naturally, I found my favorite people drinking rum punch at the bar.
Patties in hand, they were laughing heartily. I walked up to them with a huge grin on my face, knowing they felt as light as I did. I hugged my father tightly, noticing that hugging him in his home country felt different this time. Somehow it was more nostalgic, more sentimental even, as if I could see into him more deeply. An immense sense of pride filled me as I looked over at my sister and my best friend, spilling rum punch onto the floor as they laughed. Kira smirked at me, still surprised that she was there in the flesh after her last minute decision to come. I sat down for an obligatory (and much needed) patty and rum punch, ready to start the trip. It felt good to all have touched down safely and had a moment for a nostalgic treat.
Reassured of our 5th person’s solo time at the bed and breakfast, the reunion was complete. Tara, my exchange sister from 23 years ago, was reuniting with my father and my sister, Jessica, after all that time there on the island. Remembering this, I felt a dual sense of purpose for being present. Not only were we celebrating the matriarch of our family and the longevity of her life, we were reuniting a version of our family that had become disconnected over the years.
Feeling the hot island sun on my skin and the coarse sand on my legs was glorious. I remembered how much I’d missed Jamaica, despite my underwhelming desire to return when I booked the flight. This was the first time since I was a child that I’d come home and felt no sense of pressure or anxiety. Before now, I never cared to wonder where those feelings came from.
I’d always known that because we were born and raised in America, even though we were family, we were outsiders. A subtle language barrier existed between my proper english and the Jamaican Patois that I never learned, but loved to hear. In the back of my mind was the slight anticipation that one of our family members might ask one of us for money. I always felt that this was because we grew up in a wealthier society and largely, our father always did what he could to take care of the family financially. Being older this time around, I felt I understood even more about our family despite the long gaps in communication.
This time I was more attentive and filled with appreciation for the history that had assembled itself inside my body. I could better hear the names of my elders and would bask in the same sun that my ancestors once did. I walked with a spirit of refinement, all the while tangled in a complicated web of slave history and an oddly paired set of DNA. Thanks to my mothers’ Scottish heritage and my fathers Jamaican roots, my prior travels led me down a puzzling path into our ancestry. The weight that this trip inevitably carried revealed itself soon after I reminded myself that I came to see my grandmother gracefully welcome her 95th cycle around the sun. Carrying a deep sense of wonder and curiosity about her, I felt ashamed that before now, I hadn’t wondered as much.
The next day was her birthday and we drove the familiar way to go see her. Passing landmarks I’d remembered from previous trips, my memory of the island was returning. My father parked the car at the top of the hill and we walked down the unpaved, rocky road to the bottom where my grandmothers’ house stood. A monument of perseverance, its brightly colored walls radiated under the hot island sun, illuminating the freshly laundered linens that hung beside the house. A slew of children ran around the unstable grounds of the tiny house, excited to see new people that didn’t look like any they’d ever seen before.
We walked in carrying bags of to-go boxes filled with jerk chicken, rice and peas, and festival; typical West Indian fare. The party, which was supposed to start at 4pm, didn’t start until 6:30 (in perfect accordance with island time and its’ reputation) and night was slowly creeping in on the occasion.
I walked into my grandmothers’ small room, excited at the opportunity to take her photograph. I’d evolved over the years as a photographer and was surprised at myself because for some reason, I had never really taken any photos of the family at Miss D’s house. Although, there was a stark contrast to celebrating at the house to the setting of her last birthday party, which was more formal and not as comfortable or convenient.
Miss D was resting on a white wooden lawn chair inside of her bedroom. She had been dressed up and sat as comfortably as possible to receive her visiting family. I made my presence known as I entered the room trying my best not to startle her. Her eyesight had gone for the most part and I wasn’t sure of the state of her hearing. I tried my best to speak clearly, remembering that my hodge-podge version of the American accent is sometimes difficult to understand.
I wanted to connect with her, anxious for some reason about her seeing me again. I wanted her to have a lasting impression of me, unsure of what my current impression actually was. I held her hand as I moved my thumb against her soft skin. I’d never felt skin like hers before; soft and supple with the subtlety of strength soaked into them. The type of hands that tell a story about what they’ve felt, what they’ve been through.
I wanted badly to ask her the questions that had been circling my brain in the days prior, aware that my sister shared the same desire. Clutching my hand, Miss D asked, “Where mi baby Vanessa?” I grasped her delicate hand tightly and said, “Right here Miss D, I’m right here next to you.” I realized she was having a hard time differentiating my voice from my sisters. We’d always been told how much we sounded alike.
Her tone of voice was like molasses as she spoke my name. I didn’t know she thought of me so sentimentally, until I learned that she met me for the first time in my mothers’ womb. In the years that followed, she watched over me when my parents came to visit. As I grew, our visits became more distant and my relationship with this part of my family became a responsibility I didn’t understand.
I felt an overwhelming feeling of pride and love as I played the sound of her voice asking for me over and over again in my mind. It made me feel important, like even though my presence was lacking, I still made an impact on her life. Her life that was so much bigger and more intricate than mine would ever be. Pulled back into reality, she pulled me closer to ask for my mother. She told me that she’d like for her to come and see her. Instantly, I was reminded of time, how quickly it passes, and how much she had left… I felt a crushing sense of urgency to get her message to my mother. It had been years since my mother had seen her because of the divorce… a painful reminder that time can never heal all of the wounds we suffer through life.
My aunt Niesy was tending to her as my father entered the room. I recognized, observing him that day, that his presence was a stern one amongst the family. He had another identity in the family that I knew well - they called him Chun. It was fascinating to watch our grown cousins tip toe around my father for fear of being “talked to”. A feeling I thought was unique to my sister and I, until my older cousin Patrick (the designated rude bwoy of the family) tried to roll us a joint and kept looking to see if my father was around. I laughed to myself, realizing that I was 26 and still found that I was looking to see if he was around too.
He was revered and respected by everyone in the family. They care deeply about what he thinks and how he views them, as do his children. It’s because of my father that I wanted, so intensely, to ask my grandmother these questions. I wanted to know more about how he grew up, funny stories she had to share about him, and most importantly…. who his father was. The missing piece to the puzzle of my family history that had been pressing hard on me throughout my travels. My sister and I discussed strategies to get her to talk about it as we prepared for the party. The identity of our grandfather had been somewhat of an unspoken mystery for all of our lives. For whatever reason, she simply did not want to discuss it and this left much of my fathers background to speculation.
I wanted to ask Miss D about her memories, growing up in Jamaica, raising dozens of children into her big age, what she liked, what she didn’t. Despite her obvious strength at 95, her more delicate qualities made me anxious. Part of me waited for my sister to start with the questions, as I was busy taking photographs of her to commemorate her in the years to come. She sat there like a work of art, gleaming with a high spirit and a heavy message. My sister and I, without saying a word, agreed that it was best not to upset her tender balance. We knew that she was likely over stimulated with all the guests in the house on her 95th birthday, so we didn’t press her for answers that day.
The cake was cut and we sang out loud in her honor; a chorus overflowing with joy and delivered by legacy. I gladly received my piece of cake and took the first delicious bite, filled with gratitude for that day; hoping there would be another day, another chance, to ask.