“Lovely dainty Spanish needle
With your yellow flower and white,
Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,
Do you think of me to-night?”~ Claude McKay.
For many years, I was totally loyal to Air Jamaica. I refused to fly on any other airline when I flew home to Jamaica. It was not just the beautifully sleek and elegant ‘Love Bird’, with its red and yellow stripes, its beautiful doctor bird logo. When all the other airlines had found ways to cut costs, eliminating meals on short flights, Air Jamaica fed you, and fed you with authentic Jamaican cuisine. Cooked breakfast, my friends! Callaloo and saltfish! Capped with a glass of Mimosa! You toasted yourself as you showed you had the good sense to fly with a set of people who knew they were flying a piece of the island, a slice of the culture.
And it didn’t stop there. Before many other airlines had in-flight entertainment, Air Jamaica showed entertaining videos: who can forget Island Stylee with Rachel? Sights and sounds of the exotic Caribbean islands that Air Jamaica served, performances by local artists, interviews with luminaries, you knew you were in Jamaica the moment you stepped on board. In-flight music played reggae hits. Who could experience fear of flying when you were rocking steady to an island beat?
My first trip back to Jamaica after a long absence was twenty-five years ago. Each time I have returned since then, I have felt the same pull as soon as I land. The first sight of the Blue Mountains holds my gaze. I am still tickled by the bright colors: of the flora and fauna, of the homes and businesses, of the people, of the language. I am still stunned by the jarring juxtapositions: the fabulous mansions on the hill; the falling down hovels down the lane. The pampered pets of the wealthy; the mangy dogs cowering in the corners. The top of the line spanking new brand name vehicles and the ancient crumpled wrecks held together with sheer will force and inventions of a creative mechanic. The manicured, landscaped gardens, with exotic tropical bird of paradise flowers, while elsewhere ugly and trash covered weeds abound. The bright colors of artistically designed buildings contrast with half erect concrete monstrosities, projects abandoned when money done. The aromatic smells of Jamaican cooked food tempting you on every corner compete with illegal dumps and garbage fires. The chest thudding beat of lewd and raucous lyrics contrasting with a society that begins even secular meetings with a Christian prayer. Oh Jamaica. Sweet Jamaica.
When you fill in your immigration form it asks you your intentions, the purpose of your visit: business. Wedding? Vacation? And yet there is no box for what I suspect is one of the more common reasons for many born returning Jamaicans. Funerals draw people home like no other activity (well maybe Tony Rebel’s Rebel salute, or the fabulous celebrations of Emanci-pendence!). Whether death occurs in ‘Yard’ (home) or ‘Farrin’ (foreign), many people go home for their home-goings. And in the Jamaican tradition, lives are celebrated in many forums and styles. One such is the night before, the ‘set-up’ (a joyous and loud celebration, accompanied by food and drink, a live band, and in the country, a host of temporary businesses that spring up at the gate to tempt the attendees). In some countries, friends support the family of the deceased by bringing cooked food, so they won’t have to worry about day to day chores as they mourn their loved ones. In Jamaica the role is reversed: visitors expect to be fed, The ‘dead-yard’ entertains visitors day and night for the days (or sometimes weeks while awaiting far flung family members to arrive) before the funeral. And we don’t mean a cup of tea in the British tradition. It is like a long drawn out party, with food, drink and games of dominoes helping to change the mood of mourning into a joyous recounting of tales (richly embellished, perhaps) involving the one whose presence is strongly felt, and sadly missed.
Jamaica sweet, boy. As a child I was a part of the tradition of being named by the profession of my father. Daughter of a minister? Miss Parson. Or a teacher? Miss Teacher. We were reminded by these respectful greetings that not only did we carry the status of our parents; we were expected to live up to them as well. A heavy burden for normal kids who lived in small communities where every street corner had a resident busybody, a person whose job it was to let everyone (especially your parents) know when you slipped. And that labeling sticks with you. Many years after leaving my parents’ home behind me, I would be greeted as ‘Parson daughter’, usually couched as a reprimand as I was heard to swear, or observed with a Red Stripe in my hand.
What amazed me recently was how long we can live as adults, still being identified as children of our parents. I was at a function where I met (for the first time), the ‘children’ (each was over 70 if they were a day) of two prominent people of my childhood. Two of them were the daughters of our famous (or infamous) school nurse, one who sent fear and trembling through the hearts of those she touched. She was liable to rip out the hems of school girls who had adjusted theirs to fit the fashion of the day (mini-skirts!). She did was never known to smile, no gentle bedside manner there. And who knew she had kids!!!
When we meet old friends, we are young again. No matter how many years have passed, we are our parents’ kids, still trying to live up to whatever those expectations are. This week I flew once more to the island home of my childhood, and revisited old haunts. I stepped foot in the historic University Chapel, a building erected in my first year of life, built of stones relocated from an 18th century great house. It was historic in our family for a wedding once attended. My mother had splurged on new shoes for my brother, only to find when we arrived there after the two hour rocky drive from country, that he had sneaked and changed back into his scruffy, worn out, comfortable old shoes! He was commanded to make sure he stayed in the back of any photographs!
Our parents continue to influence our lives, no matter how old we are. And for some of us, we still represent them, even when they are long gone. If we are lucky, we become famous in our own right; we create our own legends, carve our own destiny. The funeral I attended this week was of such a person. Her parents are still legendary; they still command respect and love. But Nicky created her own story. As her brother eloquently reminded us: “She was a woman who wanted everything; and she could do anything.” Her lifestory was celebrated in style and with dignity, with laughter and with tears. Miss Teacher turned lawyer, businesswoman, radio personality but also mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend.
So if you have to go to Jamaica, I hope you enjoy the beauty of the island and its people regardless of your reason for being there. Like the people, the island is a complex work of art. Have a wonderful weekend Family!