Searching For “The Lady”

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Wednesday, July 22nd.

I’m so tired from the day before, I sleep in until 9. I get up and apologize to K for oversleeping. She dismisses my apology, saying she understands.

Breakfast is a big plate of ackee, saltfish, roasted breadfruit, dumplings and banana (which didn’t have that taste I dislike) — filling and absolutely delicious!

Then, it’s out of the house and on the road. Today’s objective: finding our great-aunt Milda.

We know she’s in a nursing home (or “adult care” home, as they’re called down here) in the community of Mount Salem, which is just outside Montego Bay proper. We don’t know the name – just that there are a couple of homes, and she’s in one of them.

After stopping several times to ask for directions, we finally pull up in front of one. Looking beyond the front gate, we see a few people sitting out on the long “porch”.  To be honest, the place doesn’t look very home-y.

The gate’s a bit hard to open, and it doesn’t open very wide, but we manage to squeeze through. We approach a guy sitting at a desk just inside the building, give Milda’s name and ask if she’s there. He says no – apparently she had been there last year, but had been moved. They don’t know where she’s gone.

I’m not immediately discouraged. But I can literally see K’s shoulders slump. She’s already frustrated.

The prospect of searching for a nonagenarian in this sweltering heat isn’t appealing in the least. But we have to find her.

And, as we’re about to find out, there are more than two adult care homes in Mount Salem.

We’re directed to another one farther down on the same street. As soon as we pull up in front of it, I take one look at what lies behind the gates and know there’s no way Milda is here.

There are a couple of residents in sitting in wheelchairs. One of them looks like he’s barely awake. A young woman is sprawled out, stomach down, on a run-down couch.

Having heard about my great-aunt’s reputation for complaining, I know she wouldn’t put up with a place like this.  But still, we try.

We approach a worker standing in a nearby doorway and ask for our aunt. She says she doesn’t know and suggests we check with the front “office”, which was a closed door just behind us.

After knocking several times, the door opens a sliver. K asks the woman behind the door if our aunt is there. She says there are no Campbells there, and closes the door.

We’re walking back towards the front gate, when the worker gestures for us to come back. She says there are two other nursing homes a couple of streets over that we could try.

Back in the car, K calls our uncle to see if he knows the name of the adult care home where Milda’s living. He calls back several minutes later with the answer.

We pull up in front of the gate at home number 3. My t-shirt is starting to cling to my back, so I’m truly hoping this is the place.

The nurse in charge confirms that Milda is there, brings us inside and finds us places to sit while we wait. We’re under the impression that perhaps they’ll bring Milda out.

But 10 minutes pass. Then 15. Then 20 …

I look around. One resident keeps trying to wander into the kitchen. Another sits slack-jawed in a chair on the other side of the room. A little boy — around two years old — runs in and out of the house.

There’s a woman sitting adjacent to me. I presume she’s visiting her relative, who’s barely awake and sitting in the couch across from me.

She tells him she has to get to the bank and needs him to sign something. He’s practically comatose. She puts a pen into his immobile hand, wraps hers around it and literally guides it along the bank form.

I turn to K, and she suggests that perhaps Milda’s sleeping and that we should return later.

I’m reluctantly agree. What can we do? She’s sleeping, and we can’t sit here all day.

When the nurse re-appears, we tell her this.

“Oh!” she says. “I’m so sorry – I thought you were here to visit with her,” referring to the lady who basically just forged her relative’s signature. We shake our heads.

“This has been a complete misunderstanding. Please let me offer my apologies. I’ll take you to her,” she says.

But isn’t she’s SLEEPING? I’m thinking …

But we’re up on our feet. The nurse walks over to a room just off the main sitting area and opens the door …

(Photo taken above is mine. Please do not use without permission.)

Touchdown in Jamaica

Tuesday, July 21st.

Sangster International Airport.

I’ve been standing in the very long customs lineup for about a half-hour. It’s still relatively cool in the airport, so that’s a small mercy.

I chat with a man standing behind me. He’s Jamaican-born, for sure, but currently lives in Virginia. As we inch closer to the front of the line, he catches the eye of the customs officers at one of the kiosks. She’s apparently his cousin.

She unfastens the cordon to let him out of line and over to the nearest kiosk. He looks at me, and I nod — I get it. He’s got an in. But just before I turn to face the person in front of me, there’s some hesitation, and with some fleeting (non-verbal) reluctance, she does me a solid and lets me line-jump, too. He gives his cousin some money for the favour.

After exchanging some currency and finding my suitcase, I finally exit.

Outside, it’s a zoo. Taxi drivers trying to get business, people trying to collect their relatives. I scan the crowd and can’t see anyone I recognize. My cousin K spots me first and gets my attention. Thank goodness!

A lot’s changed in the 22 years since my previous trip. For starters, my cousin can now drive! (She’s had a licence for several years, but has only been driving since January.) So she’ll be putting on quite a few kilometres during my short week here.

First stop on the itinerary is our uncle Eucline’s house in the neighbourhood of Flanker. He’s lived there for many years. It’s been known in the past for being a bit of a rough place, but it’s gotten better.

K parks outside the front gate. We call his name and knock on the door. No answer. Folks across the street tell us he went into town, so we’ll have to check back later.

We then drive to another neighbourhood, where her older sister (my cousin living in Milwaukee) is building a house.

Right now, the site’s a concrete foundation (above ground – there’s no basement) with a flight of steps. Rebar is sticking out everywhere.

Behind the structure, a young, shirtless guy is standing in the doorway of a makeshift plywood shelter, chatting away on his cell phone. He calls himself Feather (which sounds like “Fedda” to my untrained Canadian ear). He’s picked a bunch of fruit, some of which K buys.

We walk next door to say hi to someone my mother apparently knows. K yells through the locked gate. The woman eventually answers from just inside the house … but she can’t come out. She’s apparently house-sitting while the rest of the family is away — seems that no one’s really supposed to know that no one’s at home, lest someone try to break in.

Next, K drives us over to the neighbourhood of Ironshore, where my Uncle Egton lives.

I’ve forgotten how big and colourful some of these houses are. Not that I’ve never seen mansions before (from a moving car), but some of them are breathtaking.

We turn onto the unpaved “road” that leads uphill to my uncle Egton’s house. At the top, K stops in front of the huge gate and calls out. He eventually emerges, walking slowly, aided by a cane (not from old age – he served in the British military and was shot in Ireland in the early 1970s) and opens the gate.

As K attempts to reverse park, I gaze at my uncle. He’s wearing glasses, but no shirt (because of the heat). I’m looking for any sort of recognition. He seems to be scowling, but it’s likely because of the sun’s glare.

I’m not sure he recognizes me.

We lock the car and walk over. We say hello. I get a good look at my uncle, smile, and give him a hug. I’m not sure what he might be thinking. Maybe that’s a good thing.

We walk through the house and out to the back porch. It’s enclosed with a white geometrically-patterned iron gate, and faces his empty in-ground pool. The interior paint job is chipped and faded. Beyond the pool and chain-linked fence, there’s a fantastic view of the water. Homes of various sizes dot the hillside.

Egton’s still the same quiet guy I vaguely remember from two decades ago, and is very pleasant. While we chat, I mention that I’m also in Jamaica to see Aunt Milda and do some family research.

I think that gets his attention. He smiles, and says that he’s been thinking about doing a family tree for some time. He also says that Aunt Milda isn’t necessarily the nicest person, that she likes to cuss people out.

K chimes in, saying she has a fiery personality. In fact, because of her reputation, K refers to her as “the lady”.

Also? Unlike my mom, Uncle Egton’s technologically inclined — he has two cell phones and a tablet! I get his contact information and promise to keep in touch.

We leave and drive back to Uncle Eucline’s house. This time he’s home, and I get a big hug from him. He’s still the same – but with one exception

Where’s the rest of you?” I ask. He’s lost a LOT of weight. K and Uncle Eucline laugh.

We all chat for a bit, and I take a few photos. I give him my mom’s gifts: a short-sleeved shirt, and a little outfit for his 8-month-old grandson.

After the visit, we stop for patties, then it’s over to my cousin’s home, in the neighbourhood of Irwin. It’s a very cute house, on a corner lot.

I don’t know how I wasn’t sweaty from all the moving around. But less than 10 minutes after walking through her front door, I just start sweating – profusely. It’s as if my pores just give way.

K makes me a cup of tea, and invites me to sit out on her front porch, where there’s a bit of a nice breeze.

But not for long. We’re out the door again, because it’s discount night at the movies. There’s a line at the multiplex, but we manage to get in and catch (three-quarters of) the new Terminator movie — complete with intermission.

By the time we leave the theatre and go over to a local fast-food joint for some jerk chicken, I can’t stop yawning. I’m ready to sleeeeeep.

K skillfully drives us home in the dark, and I’m all too happy to call it a night.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to track down Aunt Milda.

We’ll see what happens.

Island Bound

My vacation starts today!

And on Tuesday morning, I’ll be boarding a plane and flying down to Jamaica for a week.

The last time I set foot in the country, I was 16 and my grandfather was on his deathbed.

Admittedly, I’m a bit anxious. For starters, this will be the first time I’m going to Jamaica without any immediate family members.

As well, things have changed.  A lot of the relatives I knew have grown up, or have left and are in other countries. Not to mention that I’m very self-conscious of the fact of my Canadian-ness — that I carry myself differently, and don’t speak patois — so I feel uneasy about sticking out like a sore thumb.

And then, there’s Aunt Milda.

I’m trying to tell myself to keep my expectations low and to prepare myself for the possibility that she won’t want to tell me anything. But I really, REALLY want to be pleasantly surprised. I want my expectations to be exceeded. I want to come away with some keys that will unlock those doors that have stayed shut for all this time. But I know real life doesn’t necessarily work that way.

On top of everything else, this is my vacation. It won’t be all about family research. I just really want to kick my feet up and take everything in.

But, enough talk! I’ve got a LOT of running around and packing to do. Wish me luck.

Found!

Monday afternoon, as I was getting ready to eat my post-lunch brownie, my phone rang. It was my mom.

She’d just gotten off the phone with my aunt, who’s getting ready to return to the U.S.

She told my mom that she’d called my uncle (who lives just outside Montego Bay), to see if he might know how to find out where my great-aunt Milda might be, since she was moved out of the nursing home in Montego Bay in late April.

Turns out she’s been moved to Mount Salem – it’s basically a suburb/community just outside Montego Bay proper. There are two nursing homes there, and she’s in one of them.

So. Unless one of my relatives lends some assistance, I’ll have to consider taking a short trip down to Jamaica during my summer vacation.

I’ll keep you posted.

Checking In …

Hey!

I realize I’ve been silent for quite a few weeks, so here’s a brief update:

I took several days back in June to fly down to Connecticut to visit some family members on my late dad’s side of the family. One of my male cousins and his wife were organizing this enormous 21st birthday party for their (step)daughter.

Truth be told, there really wasn’t any sightseeing on this trip – it was mainly trips to the stores for food, party supplies, and last-minute party clothing shopping. But I wasn’t too fussed about that. I decided to make myself useful in helping with party preps. And believe you me, this party needed as many hands on deck as it could get.

And — if the number of people who came to the party throughout the evening was an indication – the event turned out pretty well. (The cleanup the day after? Well … it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.)

I also got to meet some cousins I’d never met before. I’m hoping to make another state-side visit to see of them in the fall. Fingers crossed! That would be a lovely long weekend, I think.

But surely that can’t be all? Well, I haven’t done anything fun travel-wise since then. But maybe I can rectify that next year.

If you’re wondering about my genealogical searching, I’ll explain that in the next post. Stay tuned.

Family, Lost and Found

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that the running joke with respect to my family is that, yearly, I either (a) meet new relatives I didn’t know I had, OR (b) “find” cousins I met – and lost touch with – long ago. 

It turned out to be the latter, when the phone rang last Sunday evening.

As the walls in my folks’ house tend to be quite thin, I overheard my mom pick up the phone in the kitchen and start talking to someone named Christine, unsure of who it was …

Followed by the “Oh my God!” and the increase in the volume of her voice when she recognized who it was. 

And I must admit, I was taken aback as well.

The last – and first – time I saw my cousin Christine, she was nine years old and skinny. I was only six, probably equally as skinny, and visiting some of my mom’s side of the family for the first time in my entire little life.

I don’t know if we were as thick as thieves when my mom, little brother and I visited for those three weeks, but from what little I can remember, we certainly ran around a lot together in that short period of time.

And to this day, there’s one story my mom will never forget, nor let me live down:

Picture it: Jamaica, the summer of 1983. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was huge. Kentucky Fried Chicken was still edible. And one day Christine and I decided to have a little fun with my aunt’s cat.

Keep in mind, the cat in my aunt’s house wasn’t so much there as a pet as it was to help catch the mice.

I don’t remember the details which brought this about,*** but one thing led to another and we decided to take the dear Cat With No Name and put him somewhere special.

Namely one of my mom’s big, tan suitcases.

My mother found the cat later on in the afternoon, in the suitcase, in the closet. We didn’t completely zip up the suitcase, so the poor thing – understandably petrified – had shat over most of the shoes in the closet and inside the suitcase.

To say she wasn’t amused was a GROSS understatement. Needless to say, I’ve never done anything like that again or since.

Incidentally, I also really like cats.

But I would never see Christine again. I heard dribs and drabs about her through the years through my mom, who would get news about her whereabouts from time to time through my uncle Ucline.*

Fast forward about 25 years, and I now know she’s alive and well. Speaking to her briefly, I found out that she’s now in Connecticut (probably Hartford where, from the sounds of it, there’s a sizeable Jamaican population, which includes relatives from my dad’s side**), with three kids, working as a legal assistant while waiting for her green card (don’t ask me how this works – I’ve no idea).  

And the strangest thing? About three weeks before she made the phone call to our house, she and a co-worker were having a conversation and ended up on the subject of cats … prompting her re-tell the very story that brought us together in the first place.

That Sunday evening, she mentioned that her phone call was prompted by the fact her own kids are getting older and starting to ask questions about where they came from, and who their family is. 

If I could talk to them, I’d say, good for you. Not just because I think family should be one of the most vital things a person should know about him or herself. But because you’re helping people like me rediscover and re-connect with people I shouldn’t have lost touch with in the first place.

Fingers crossed she gets her green card, so that maybe one day I’ll get to see her again and make up for lost time. 

 

*His real name is Harold. If you’re from a West Indian family, you know most people have two names … or you know this if you’re from a culture where a lot of family members get a “second” name.

**A prime example of what I’m talking about. I didn’t really know about them until I met some of them last year.

***Christine says it was because either she or I wanted to take the cat with me back to Canada …

Farewell to The Last Little Girl

She was the smallest of my second cousins.

But what she lacked in physical strength, she made up for in personality and, from what I hear, a sharp mind.

And yesterday afternoon at work, I found out my cousin, Adonia, died.

She had sickle cell anemia, which – to probably oversimplify things – is a disorder that affects the properties and number of red blood cells in the body, which can clog blood vessels and deprive the body’s organs and tissue from getting the oxygen they need.

This, in turn, means she was more prone to getting infections and becoming ill quite easily.

The last time I met her, she was a tiny baby, barely a toddler.

But from what I’ve heard from my mom, who saw her last summer, she was extremely bright.

To say her mother is beside herself with grief is probably the understatement of the year, and perhaps even insensitive. She’s a teacher in the Jamaican school system, which is often tough and insensitive to the needs of teachers. So when Adonia fell ill, she couldn’t drop everything to see to her in hospital.

By the time she did manage to get there, she was too late. From the sounds of it, her last little girl had died in pain and alone.

And I can only imagine what her older brother and two sisters – thousands of kilometres away in the U.K. – must be thinking and feeling right now.

It just feels strange. Just thinking about it, it’s like my brain can’t process what’s happening and has separated itself. It’s like looking at myself through a pair of binoculars, or one of those cardboard tubes, the way you might as a kid after the toilet paper was finished.

Her mom – my first cousin – is a teacher … she won a trip to come up to Canada this spring. And I was finally going to meet her after almost 15 years. Now I’ll never get the chance.

My mom says that she’s probably better off now because she’s no longer suffering.

Is she right?