It wasn’t until I started traveling a lot that I began experiencing flight anxiety. Tucked into a snug window seat, I found myself at ease; excited to see my family who I knew would be waiting for me when I landed.
Fewer disastrous thoughts about the plane crashing invaded my mind and instead I pictured a long awaited reunion with my grandmother, Miss Daisy. It had been exactly 5 years since her last birthday, when I had seen her and many of my other Jamaican relatives.
A smooth landing on the rock brought me that Irie feeling I didn’t realize I had missed so much. The backdrop of pastel colored homes against the runway of Sangster International made me smile from the inside out.
A surge of energy filled my body as I took in the rush of feeling like I was back home, backayard, once again. I grabbed my things hastily from the cabin, zoomed through customs, and exited the airport searching for signs of my father. Naturally, I found my two favorite people, Papa and Sissy, drinking rum punches at the airport bar.
Patties in hand and laughing heartily; I walked up to them with a huge grin on my face, knowing they felt as light as I did having been touched by the island sun. I hugged my father tightly, noticing that this particular embrace felt different for some reason... it dawned on me that I was hugging my father in his home country. Something I had undoubtedly done before, but never thought about.
Somehow it was more nostalgic, more sentimental. It was as if I could see into him more deeply... and I attributed this feeling to the tiny revolutions that had taken place deeply within me since our last visit.
An immense sense of pride almost choked me as I looked upon my sister and my best friend, Kira, (who had come along for the family trip) laughing raucously. Kira held her rum punch with a smirk, exposing the pleasant surprise that was her experiencing this trip with us after her last minute decision to come. I sat down next to her for an obligatory, and much needed, patty and rum punch. It felt good that despite traveling separately, we had all touched down safely and had a moment for a nostalgic treat.
Informed and reassured of our 5th companions need for some R&R at the bed and breakfast, the reunion felt complete. Tara, my former Host sister, had traveled all the way from Germany to be with us on this trip. Only a few months prior, during my tour of Western Europe, the two of us had reconnected for the first time in 23 years!
I was the only one to have seen her and it was a special blessing to have her on our ancestral land, reuniting with my father, my sister, and I after all that time. Remembering this, I felt a dual sense of purpose in being backayard. Not only were we celebrating the matriarch of the family and her Solar Return, but we were reuniting a version of our family that had become disconnected over the years.
As I sat on the beach, the hot sun was sweet on my skin and the white sand gloriously draped over my legs. I remembered how much I’d missed Jamaica, despite my underwhelming desire to return when I had booked the flight.
For the first time, in a long time, I had come home and felt no sense of pressure or anxiety in traveling. Before now, I had never really wondered where that came from. I’d always known that because we were born and raised in America, even though we were family, we were outsiders.
There was also the slight anticipation that one of our family members might ask us to help them with money. This was expected simply because we grew up in a wealthier society. I was younger the other times, though, and this time I felt I understood more about the intricacies of our family and our differences. I’d gone through countless transformations and variations since the last time I had been on the island, no doubt.
This time I was more attentive. I could better hear the names of my elders when spoken, now carrying more weight. I could bask in the same sun that my ancestors once did... and still do.
I walked with a spirit of refinement, all the while enveloped in a complicated web of slave history, strange spiritual fascinations, and oddly paired DNA strands.
I came to see my grandmother. As she reached her 95th cycle around the sun, what she carried inspired in me a deep sense of wonder and curiosity. I felt ashamed that before now, I hadn’t wondered as much.
The second day was her birthday. We drove the familiar way to go see her and the landmarks I recognized gave me a sense of belonging. My father parked the car at the top of the steep hill. He didn’t want to risk the rain causing a mudslide, preventing him from being able to drive back up.
We all walked down the unpaved, rocky hill observing the overgrown bush and goats that surrounded the family's tiny estate. Standing high up and at the bottom of the road was my grandmothers house. A monument of perseverance; its brightly colored yellow exterior radiated under the Caribbean sun. A slew of brown skinned children ran around the unstable grounds of the tiny house, causing a delightful ruckus.
We walked in carrying bags stuffed with to-go boxes of jerk chicken, rice and peas, festival, and plantain; the typical West Indian fare. The party, which was supposed to start at 4:00 in the afternoon, didn’t start until 6:30 and night was slowly creeping upon the occasion.
I walked into my grandmothers small room, excited at the opportunity to take her birthday photograph. For some reason, I had never really taken any photos of the family in this setting. Although, I reminded myself of the stark contrast to her last birthday party, which was much more formal and not as comfortable or convenient.
Miss D sat in a white, wooden lawn chair inside of her brightly colored green bedroom. She was dressed up and sat up as comfortably as possible to receive her visiting family, unable to do much more than give a hug and a kiss to each.
Making my presence known, I entered the room. Her eyesight had gone for the most part and I was unsure of the state of her hearing. I tried my best to speak clearly and audibly, forgetting that my randomized version of the American accent can sometimes be difficult to understand.
I wanted badly to connect with her, feeling anxious about her seeing me again since it had been so long. I wondered if she would recognize me, though, I knew her vision was bad. I wanted her to have a lasting impression of me... unsure of what my current impression actually was.
I held her hand, caressing 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 an epic story about what they’ve seen, what they’ve been through.
A desire to ask her so many questions burned within me. I was keenly aware that my sister, who stood beside me, shared the same desire. Clutching my hand, Miss D asked, “Where mi baby, Vanessa?” I grasped her delicate hand even tighter and said, “Right here Miss D, I’m right here next to you.”
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 later that she had 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 the island. As I grew up, our visits became more infrequent and my relationship with this part of my family became a responsibility I didn’t understand.
I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and love as I played the sound of her voice asking for me over and over again. It made me feel important, like even though my presence was sometimes lacking, I still made an impact on this woman, whose life was so much bigger and more intricate than mine would ever be.
My Aunt Niesy was tending to her care as my father entered the room. I recognized in him that day, that his presence was a stern one amongst the family. He had another identity here. His name was Trevor, but they called him Chun. It was a name that I knew from hearing it over the years when he was on the phone with somebody back home, but he was always Daddy to me.
It was fascinating to watch our grown adult cousins tip toe around my father for fear of being “talked to”. A feeling that I thought was unique to my sister and I. That is, until my 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, remembering that I was 26 and still 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 questions about him.
I wanted to know more about how he grew up, the funny stories she had to share, and most importantly…. who his father was.
My sister and I talked about strategies to get her to talk about it before arriving. It’s been quite a largely unspoken mystery for all of our lives. For whatever reason, and I've no doubt she had a good one... she simply did not want to discuss it. Consequently, much of my fathers background was left to speculation.
I wanted to ask Miss D about her memories, growing up in Jamaica in the early 1900s, raising dozens of children into her big age, what she liked, what she didn’t, and so much more.
Despite her obvious strength at 95, her delicate qualities made me anxious. Part of me waited for my sister to start asking the questions. I was busy taking photographs 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 for her 95th birthday, no less! So, we didn’t ask any questions that day.
The cake was cut and we sang out loud and in her honor; a chorus brimming with joy and delivered by legacy. I gladly received my piece of cake and took the first bite hoping there would be another day, another chance, to ask.