Oh Nana! all of you is not involved in this evil business – Death,
Nor all of us in life.
At My Grandmother’s Grave
I did not see her at first, I remember. For it was not only dark inside the crowded disembarkation shed despite the daylight flooding in from outside, but standing there waiting for her with my mother and sister, I was still somewhat blinded from the dazzling sheen of tropical sunlight on the water of the bay which we had just crossed in the landing boat. We were leaving behind us, the ship that had brought us from New York lying in the offing. Besides, being only nine at the time and knowing nothing of islands, I was busy attending to the alien sights and sounds of Barbados, the unfamiliar smells.
I did not see her, but I was alerted to her approach by my mother’s hand, which suddenly tightened anxiously around mine, and looking up, I traced her gaze through the gloom in the shed until I finally made out the small, purposeful, painfully erect figure of the old woman headed our way.
Her face was drowned in the shadow of an ugly rolled-brim brown felt hat, but the details of her slight body and of the struggle taking place within it were clear enough. There was an intense, unrelenting contest between her back which was beginning to bend ever so slightly under the weight of her eighty odd years, and the rest of her which sought to deny those years and hold that back straight, keep it in line. Moving swiftly towards us, so swiftly, it seemed she did not intend stopping when she reached us, but would sweep past us out the doorway opening onto the sea and like Christ, walk upon the waves. She was caught between the sunlight at her end of the building and the darkness inside, and for a moment, she appeared to contain them both: the light in the long severe old-fashioned white dress she wore, which brought the sense of a past that was still alive into our bustling present, and in the snatch of white at her eye, the darkness in her black high-top shoes, and in her face which was visible now that she was closer.
It was as stark and fleshless as a death mask, that face. The maggots might have already done their work, leaving only the framework of bone beneath the ruined skin and deep wells at the temple and jaw. But her eyes were alive, unnervingly so for one so old, with a sharp light that flicked out of the dim clouded depths like a lizard’s tongue to snap up all in her view. Those eyes betrayed a child’s curiosity about the world, and I wondered vaguely seeing them, and seeing the way the bodice of her ancient dress had collapsed in on her flat chest (what had happened to her breasts?) I wondered whether she might not be some kind of child at the same time that she was a woman, with fourteen children, my mother included, to prove it. Perhaps she was both, child and woman, darkness and light, past and present life and death – all the opposites contained and reconciled in her.
“My Da-duh,” my mother said formally and stepped forward. The name had a sound like that of thunder fading softly in the distance.
“Child,” Da-duh said, and her tone, her quick scrutiny of my mother, the brief embrace in which they appeared to shy from each other rather than to touch, wiped out the fifteen years my mother had been away and restored the old relationship. My mother, who was such a formidable figure in my eyes, had suddenly with a word been reduced to my status.
‘Yes, God is good,” Da-duh said with a nod that was like a tic. “He has spared me to see my child again.”
We were led forward then, apologetically, because not only did Da-duh prefer boys but she also liked her grandchildren to be “white”, that is, fair-skinned. And we had, I was to discover, a number of cousins, the outside children of white estate managers and the like, who qualified. We, though, were as black as she.
My sister being the oldest was presented first. “This one takes after the father,” my mother said and waited to be reproved.
Frowning, Da-duh tilted my sister’s face toward the light. But her frown soon gave way to a grudging smile, for my sister with her large mild eyes and little broad winged nose, with our father’s high cheeked Bajan cast to her face, was pretty.
“She’s goin’ be lucky,” Da-duh said and patted her once on the cheek. “Any girl-child that favours the father does be lucky.”
She turned then to me. But oddly enough, she did not touch me. Instead, leaning forward sharply, she peered hard at me, and then as quickly drew back. I thought I saw her hand start up to shield her eyes. It was as if she saw not only me, a thin intractable child who it was said took after no one but myself, but something in me that for some reason she found disturbing, threatening. We looked silently at each other for a long time there in the noisy shed, our gaze locked. She was the first to look away.
“But Adry,” she said to my mother and her laugh was cracked, thin, apprehensive. “Where did you get this one here with this fierce look?”
“We don’t know where she came out of, my Da-duh,” my mother said, laughing also. Even I smiled. After all, I had won the encounter. Daduh had recognized my small strength, and this was all I asked of the adults in my life then.
“Come, soul,” Da-duh said and took my hand.
“You must be one of those New York terrors you hear so much about.”
She led us, me at her side and my sister and mother behind, out of the shed into the sunlight that was like a driving summer rain and over to a group of people clustered beside a decrepit lorry. They were our relatives, most of them from St. Andrew, although Da-duh herself lived in St. Thomas. The women were wearing bright print dresses, the colours made more vivid by their darkness, and the men rusty black suits that encased them like straightjackets. Da-duh, holding fast to my hand, became my anchor as they circled round us like a nervous sea, exclaiming, touching us with their calloused hands, embracing us shyly. They laughed in awed bursts: “But look Adry got big-big children. “And see the nice things they wearing, wrist watch and all!” “I tell you, Adry has done all right for sheself in New York…”
Da-duh, ashamed at their wonder, embarrassed for them, admonished them the while, “But oh Christ,” she said, “why you all got to get on like you never saw people from away before? You would think New York is the only place in the world to hear wunna. That’s why I don’t like to go anyplace with you St. Andrews people, you know. You all ain’t been colonized.”
We were in the back of the lorry finally, packed in among the barrels of ham, flour, cornmeal and rice and the trunks of clothes my mother had brought as gifts. We made our way slowly through Bridgetown’s clogged streets, part of a funeral procession of cars and open-sided buses, bicycles and donkey carts. The dim little limestone shops and offices along the way marched with us, at the same mournful pace, toward the same grave ceremony, as did the people. The women balancing huge baskets on their heads as if they were no more than hats they wore to shade them from the sun. Looking over the edge of the lorry, I watched as their feet patterned the dust. I listened, and their voices, raw and loud and dissonant in the heat, seemed to be grappling with each other high overhead.
Da-duh sat on a trunk in our midst, a monarch amid her court. She still held my hand, but it was different now. I had suddenly become her anchor, for I felt her fear of the lorry with its asthmatic motor (a fear and distrust, I later learned, she held of all machines) beating like a pulse in her rough palm.
As soon as we left Bridgetown though she relaxed, and while the others talked, she gazed at the canes standing tall on either side of the winding marl road. “C’dear,” she said to herself after a time, “the canes this side are pretty enough.” · ·
They were too much for me. I thought of them as giant weeds that had overrun the island, leaving scarcely any room for the small tottering houses of sunbleached pine we passed, or for the people, dark streaks as our lorry hurtled by. I suddenly feared that we were journeying, unaware that we were, toward some dangerous place where the canes, grown as high and thick as a forest, would close in on us and run us through with their stiletto blades. I longed then for the familiar: for the street in Brooklyn where we lived, for my father who had been unable to accompany us on the trip “home” because of his job, for a game of tag with my friends under the chestnut tree outside our aging brownstone house.
“Yes, but wait till you see the canes we grow in St. Thomas”, Da-duh was saying to me. “They’s canes father, bo.” She gave a proud arrogant nod. “Tomorrow, God willing, I goin’ take you out in the ground and show them to you.”
True to her word, Da-duh took me with her the following day out into the ground. It was a fairly large plot adjoining her weathered board and shingle house and consisting of a small orchard, a good-sized cane piece and behind the canes, where the land sloped abruptly down, a gully. She had purchased it with Panama money sent her by her eldest son, my uncle Joseph, who had died working on the canal. We entered the ground along a trail no wider than her body, and as devious and complex as her reasons for showing me her land. Da-duh strode briskly ahead, her slight form filled out by the layers of sacking petticoats she wore under her working dress to protect her against the damp. A fresh white cloth, elaborately arranged around her head, added to her height and lent her a vain, almost roguish air.
Her pace slowed once we reached the orchard, and glancing back at me occasionally over her boulder, she pointed out the various trees.
“This here is a breadfruit,” she said. “That one yonder is a papaw. Here’s a guava. This is a mango. I know you don’t have anything like these in New York. Here’s a sugar apple (the fruit looked more like artichokes than apples to me). This one bears limes…” She went on for some time, intoning the names of the trees as though they were those of her gods. Finally, turning to me, she said, “I know you don’t have anything this nice where you come from.” Then, as I refused her an answer, she repeated: “I said I know you don’t have anything this nice where you come from…”
“No.” I said and my world did seem suddenly lacking.