Saturday, August 1, 2015

Jamaican Red

I peel a supermarket banana, hold it to my nose. It has almost no scent. It is too hard and mealy, a pale yellow.

I think of the house in Ocho Rios, see the fruiting ten-foot, red-trunked trees in my grandmother's back yard, feel the strong, textured, purple leaves between my fingers. Brilliant magenta aromatic fruit with soft, orange-colored pulp. Tender, moist, sweet. Like custard. My nostrils flare, remembering the summer air that surrounded this simple feast: waves of strong wind from green Jamaican hills coupling with delicate sea breezes.

"Hush, chile, you go to sleep now," my father would say to me when I asked for bedtime stories about the island. He, who usually spoke carefully, in clipped tones with accurate grammar, only then allowed a hint in his voice of the reef-sheltered harbor where he was born.

"Hush chile, you go to sleep now," Grandmama Abrianna had said to
my father's busy questions when he was a boy, and again to me years later during my summer visits. She did not always speak the dialect of her Ocho Rios neighbors. "Your Abuela is part Spanish," she would remind me in her silvery tones. But she could slip easily into vibrant, musical Jamaican.

From my perch on her porch swing one summer in the early fifties when my father and I came to visit, I heard the woman next door ask, "How de pickney dem stay?"

Slanting her eyes left to see if I could hear, Grandmama answered sassily, "Bwai, dem alright."

My father disliked it when I mimicked Grandmama's songful words. And in later years he corrected my use of the term patois to describe this dialect. "Jamaican is not a patois," he lectured, "not a degeneration of English. It is creole -- its rhythm and timbre the independent language of an independent people!"

As a teenager in love with Bob Marley's reggae, I would imagine strolling with Marley on an early summer island morning, to the gully outside Ocho Rios, through the canyon of an old watercourse, hardwood trees canopied overhead, filtering aqua light as if we were under the sea, the tree tops waving water ferns.

"Why do you listen to that Rastafarian?" my father would interrupt my daydream, his lips tight -- fearing for me, I now think. A Rhodes Scholar, he'd found on his arrival in 1942 New York that he was simply "colored." This beautiful man with cinnamon skin could only find work as a janitor. In fatigue and frustration he would lash out at my British mother, criticize her untidy hair, the way she placed a knife next to a plate.

She left me with him when I was nine years old, telling me that morning, "He sees his hopes in you. If I take you with me, he will haunt me." I was quiet, grieving, dutiful.

My father
was unwilling to leave me unsupervised in our run-down neighborhood while he was at work, and reluctantly sent me to stay with his mother every summer until I was fourteen.

He wanted me to succeed where he could not.

I had to be careful not to show my love for Jamaica. How I longed to claim it. Because I loved my father, I did not tell him I preferred the Rastafarian's dreadlocks to his own short, smoothed hair, did not say the lyrics from "War" were for him as much as for me: Until the philosophy which holds one race superior is abandoned, everywhere is war, me say war.

"Listen to this instead," my father would direct. And we would sit together, immersed in Albinoni's "Adagio in G," my tears mirroring those in his mahogany eyes.

My father is old now. He is curved over, jaundiced, soft. Like the bananas from the supermarket -- pale cousin to succulent Jamaican flesh.

If you enjoyed this fictional piece, read Gail Galloway Adams' "Olives," fiction so believable The Kenyon Review published it as memoir.

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