A Lot of Church

Sunday, July 26th.

Full disclosure: I’m not a church-goer.

Do I believe in a higher power? Yes. But that’s my personal belief. And I have a very … ambivalent relationship with organized religion.

However, because of my experiences in attending two different church sects in my youth, I try to be understanding and respectful when it comes to people’s religious beliefs, and their right to worship.

So when I was hastily planning my trip, I knew, in the back of my mind, that a trip to church with my cousin would likely happen. As I panicked over what to pack, and voiced my concerns to my mom, she said to me, “I’m sure you won’t have to go to church, if you don’t want to.”

Wrong. So. Wrong.

For folks who are of West Indian (or even African-American) descent, you’ll understand what I’m about to say. But to anyone else: in the Caribbean (and in this case, Jamaica) church is a serious business. And they can be equally as serious about their church attire.

It’s not just about putting on a dress, versus pants. It’s wearing stuff that other people might reserve for a special occasion, like a wedding.

Sometimes, there are hats involved. Not fascinators. HATS.

If there is such a thing as “church hat swagger”, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Of course, I listened to my mom, and only packed a sundress.

The subject of a church outfit briefly came up early in the trip, but didn’t go very far. But when it finally reared its ugly head on Saturday, K had to lend me an outfit.

Although she didn’t say anything, I don’t think she wasn’t terribly impressed – she told me, “You must always carry something casual as well as formal.”  (I also overheard her talking to her friend and mentioning how I didn’t bring any church outfits. Lesson noted and learned.)

In the end, she lent me a tight, black, knit dress, a pair of pointy-toed shoes and some jewellery to match. This was going to be an interesting ensemble to wear in the heat.

**********************************************************************

One of K’s friends picks us up and drives us over to the Moravian church around the corner from my (absent) aunt’s house.

Unlike church services in my youth — and despite the oppressive heat — this one keeps my attention, and keeps me awake. It’s a nice service, and the small congregation seems lovely. It’s also fairly brief at, 90 minutes in length.

Minutes after the service ends, there’s no dallying — there’s another church-related event happening in St. Elizabeth parish. One of the former pastors of K’s church is being ordained as a bishop in a special event/service. And we’re going.

I will tell you one thing about the drive down: it’s probably the coolest I’ve been, for the longest period of time, during this entire trip. It’s downright heavenly. I gaze at the scenery as we pass through town after town. I close my eyes …

And when I open them, we’re driving under a shady tunnel of trees, with fields beyond them. Turns out, we’re passing through Holland Bamboo.

A little while later, we arrive at the church, in the town of Santa Cruz.

It’s two levels, with a sizeable upper level for those members of the congregation who can’t get a seat in one of the pews on the main level. Inside, the overhead fans – all 10 of them – are whirring away. The only thing it shares with the one back in Montego Bay are those hard, unforgiving wooden pews.

And people are dressed to the hilt. Dress of all styles and colours. Heels of all heights. Hats of all sizes.

There isn’t a free seat anywhere. K and I are crammed into a pew like sardines; the black knit dress clings to me like a small child.

Forty-five minutes after we arrive, the service begins. There are two choirs on this occasion – a senior choir that sings the hymns for most of the church program, and a youth choir.

The presiding bishop speaks for a good 45 minutes before the man of the hour is officially ordained. All in, the ceremony lasts about two and a half hours.

After a restroom break and some refreshments, we eventually leave for home.

The trip back seems to take longer than the one to St. Elizabeth. There’s a brief roadside stop so one of the passengers can buy some fried shrimp. And it’s gotten dark.

As we approach the city limits, K asks for us to be dropped off in town so we can catch a taxi home.

We have plans to go to Negril tomorrow morning, but K and I haven’t really talked about what time we’re leaving. When we finally reach home, she’s so exhausted, she makes a cup of tea and goes straight to bed.

I guess we’ll figure it out when we get up tomorrow.

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Meeting Mrs. Shearer

K drives down from the hillside, back into the chaos of downtown. She expertly manoeuvres past cars, around wayward pedestrians — and stops off at the hardware store run by one of my distant relatives.

The lady I’m about to meet is related to my mother’s father’s side of the family*, but everyone knows her as Mrs. Shearer.

She’s busy with the operations of her business — which I completely understand —  but she does make a little time for us.

She says she doesn’t have anything that say about my great-aunt Ellen – those are questions for Milda. (I don’t see it at the time, but my cousin says she makes a face at my mention of Milda’s name. Apparently Milda was quite the piece of work in her youthful days.)

Before leaving for my trip, my mother told me she thought that Mrs. Shearer would be glad to meet me and help. Now that I’m in her presence, I’m not so sure.

She makes an almost-dismissive comment (at least, to me) about “Canadians always asking about the family tree stuff”, and when I mention the gentleman who seems to have done the same thing I’m doing now, she says, “That’s him.” Apparently he’s due to come down to Jamaica for a family reunion (for more immediate members of his family) in August.

She tells me my great-grandfather was one of three brothers (her grandfather being one of the other brothers), and they were really close. (My mother has said the brothers had a bit of an unsavoury reputation in the community where they lived.)

They all had nicknames, so she isn’t sure of what their real names are. That doesn’t surprise me.  She makes a brief phone call to ask someone (I’m assuming another relative) if they can recall, but no dice.

Mrs. Shearer says she’ll try to consult the “book” (of family information, I presume) and get back to me. I would have to drop by and check with her.

Then it’s back on the road, going from errand to errand with K, before heading home for the evening.

It’s been a whirlwind past couple of days, and I’m still trying to process the bits and pieces I’ve learned. But it seems that this portion of my trip is done. We’ll see what else is in store.

*My great-grandfather (on my mother’s father’s side) and her grandfather (her mother’s father) were brothers … which I think makes me her second cousin, once removed? Genealogy experts, let me know if I’m remotely right. I had to look this up on the internet, and I’m still not sure.

Milda Speaks.

I don’t see Milda at first, because the adult care nurse is trying to wake her up.

As K and I file into the room, we see this tiny woman, startled out of her morning nap, slowly sit up, blinking and and trying to get her bearings.

So this is the infamous Aunt Milda, I think, my mind shuffling through all the things – for better or for worse – that I’ve heard about this lady.

Aside from her wee, skinny frame, she’s dressed in a patterned housedress and a beige head-tie. She puts her hand on her forehead and pulls it upward, as if the gesture helps her to see more clearly.

We tell her our names, and who we are, by way of our mothers’ pet names.  It takes about several tries back and forth, but we think she eventually gets it. (As she tells us a bit later, she’s hard of hearing — but that tends to happen when you’re her age.)

I give her a scarf that my mom sent for her as a gift. She can’t use it in this heat, but hopefully she’ll make good use of it when the evenings get cooler.

I suddenly kind of lose my nerve and my brain briefly goes blank. What on earth do I ask her? Where do I start?

K kind of prompts me to start — we haven’t got all day — so I sort of stammer out my first question about her siblings …

The conversation’s not completely linear, but when Milda says something I recognize, I start jotting things down.

I ask (awkwardly) about Ellen and where she lived in Canada, and Milda mentions Montreal – she doesn’t mention any other place in our conversation – and that she died years ago. (This isn’t news to me.)

My cousin listening to my great-aunt.
My cousin listening to my great-aunt.

She mentions there were four sisters — which I presume includes Ellen and herself — and gives me the names of the others, who she says died in 1934 and 1936. (Close enough.)

She says Ellen returned to Jamaica in 1938, and that she actually had tried to send for Milda to come to Canada, but things didn’t pan out.* Her big sister suggested instead that she try going to live with her Uncle Jon in the United States. Sadly, that path never materialized either, as he died, and his widow returned to Jamaica.

Milda then mentions the names of her aunt — the sister of my great-grandmother, Jane Ann Clarke, who I’d found in records last November —  and another uncle, whose names I’d discovered around the same time, but couldn’t be too sure of … until now.  That’s one great-great-aunt and two great-great-uncles**!

She also reveals something else. In a low, almost mischievous tone, she proudly proclaims her age, and that she hasn’t told anyone – she’s not even sure her own children know how old she is! She says her 100th birthday will be next March.

After that, the conversation turns away from talk of family that’s passed, and she chatters about life in the home — how independent she is (and how she hopes to stay that way), perhaps even complaining about things, but she seems so happy as she speaks, it’s hard to tell.

She talks about the food and snacks she gets – I’m assuming they’re not exactly up to snuff – and K asks her what she would like Milda to bring her the next time she visits.

Without so much as batting an eyelash, she says, “I would really like some Kentucky Fried Chicken — it’s nice.” (I think it takes everything for either of us not to completely crack up.)

Before either of us forget, I snap a few photos on my smartphone. I can’t come all this way and not get a picture of the woman I’ve waited months to see!

When we ask, she pauses and — putting her hand to her forehead — says no … not until she can put on her wig. We smooth talk her into taking a photo just as she is, and voila.

2015-07-22 14.11.28I’m not sure how much time we spend there, but Milda chats for a very long time. K silently asks me whether we should go, and I say yes (a little reluctantly).

I leave with my cousin with a lot of unanswered questions.

I still don’t know why Ellen left, what kinds of things she might have seen living in Canada, or when she died (other than “many years ago”).

But I hope (selfishly) that if Milda’s lived for this long, that she gets to live another year – I’d like to see her reach 100, and I’d like to see her again.

Now that we know where she is (for the time being), I hope that my relatives drop in from time to time to check up on her.

(Photos are mine. Please do not use without permission.)


*THIS is new information.

**I’ve actually found three great-great uncles through records. Even though Milda didn’t mention the third – and oldest – by name, confirming the others lets me safely assume that he’s also from the Clarke branch of the family.

Searching For “The Lady”

2015-07-22 10.34.06

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.

Pinched!

2013-10-02 03.41.07(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, October 2.

One last stop before we head for Rome is the Tuscan town of Siena.

Outside the town gates, we pile out, and Franco takes us on a “short” tour/orientation walk.

According to Franco, there’s this horse race – the Palio di Siena – which takes place twice a year, in July and August. (Rick Steves has written about it here.)

And from what he tells us, Siena’s streets are covered with sand (or dirt, if you believe Wikipedia), all for the purpose of a race that lasts roughly 90 seconds.

NINETY. SECONDS. Think about that.

And the jockeys ride bareback, which makes it that much more treacherous.

Here’s a visual of July’s race:

2013-10-02 03.51.35We pass by a building we all assume is a church. Because after all the churches we’ve seen, why wouldn’t it be?

Nope. It’s actually a very pretty … horse stable.

We stroll past various buildings in warm, muted shades of yellow, orange and terracotta red.

Some stores and other doorways have sculpted animals – like snails – hanging overhead.

Eventually, we arrive at the main square (the Piazza del Campo), home to the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall).

2013-10-02 04.17.13 The piazza slopes downwards, dipping in its  centre like a shallow basin.

There’s a huge tower – the Torre del Mangia – with a clock on the other side of the square from us.

The sun is slowly moving overhead, so at this point in the day, half of the square’s in the shade.

Franco herds us back up the stairs, away from the square, back onto one of the streets encircling the square … passing little shrines to the Virgin Mary, stores with pastries displayed or cured meats hanging in the windows, and doors with all shapes and sizes of knockers.

2013-10-02 04.26.16Franco returns us to the square and cuts us look for about 90 minutes.

Mom and I wander about, get something to eat, then browse. I return to one of the stores we passed earlier and pick up souvenirs for a couple of friends.

Time’s up. We’ve been told we have to be out of Siena by a specific time, because of a local law which reduces traffic for the streams of school kids leaving classes for the day.

So we’re rounded up and taken to a gate on the other side of the square, where we wait. And wait. The bus appears … eventually.

We arrive on the outskirts of Rome in the early evening, at our final hotel.

We get about an hour and a half to catch our collective breaths in our tiny, minimalist hotel rooms, then freshen up and change for our goodbye dinner at a downtown restaurant.

Before departing, we meet just outside the front entrance for a group picture, then climb onto the bus, and Pierluigi drives us downtown, dropping us off around the corner from our restaurant, called Mangrovia.

The room our group’s in, is a wee bit chilly – especially for my mom, still trying fight off an imminent cold. But it’s nice, considering.

We’re serenaded at intervals by two musicians while we dine. But the real entertainment comes in the form of our two waiters, who roll their r’s and pretend to flirt with some of the female tour members.

Then, they kick the comedy up a notch.

At first, the one waiter serving our group singles out some of the older women, like Else from Vancouver, and Vi from Halifax. He presents them each with roses, then plants (partially pantomimed) kisses up their arms, into the crooks of their necks and on their cheeks.

And – for good measure – the momentary embarrassment concludes when he pinches their rumps.

This happens early on in our meals (during the antipasto and salads), am I’m finding this all highly entertaining.

But things take a turn when the pasta course is served.

Everyone except for me and fellow tour-mate Tim (from Saint John, New Brunswick) get their pasta plates right away.

I brush it off; I figure perhaps the waiters’ hands are full and our plates are coming.

IMAG0505Well, they come, all right.

Our pasta arrives on gold-coloured octagonal plates.

Ruh-roh.

The waiter comes up behind me and lowers a rose into my sight line.

Aw, sheeeeit.

He starts planting kisses up my arm, warbling away in Italian, rolling his r’s in muffled tones, lands a kiss on my neck – making me squirm uncomfortably – and then *YIP!* gives me a good, hearty pinch on the meaty bit where my hip and backside meet.

My goal of visiting Italy without getting goosed … FOILED by the Kissing Waiter of Mangrovia Restaurant.

Sitting just behind me, my own mother and some of the Aussies are having a field day, and mercilessly rib me about it for the next five minutes. But I suppose it could be worse. The waiter makes Tim wear a blonde wig. (But there’s no bum-pinching [the Kissing Waiter has LIMITS] and he’s an extremely good sport about it.)

IMAG0508The meal’s very filling – and I keep getting roses from whats-his-face (I can’t tell if they’re still trying to get a rise out of me, genuinely having fun with me, or taking pity) – and ends with possibly the biggest gelato mountain I’ve ever seen, which I can’t even finish.

We eventually leave (but not without my mom and I getting overzealous pecks on cheeks from our restaurant Romeo), climbing onto the bus, which Franco pumps full of ’70s and ’80s tunes on the way back to the hotel.

The rest of the evening is honestly a blur. I remember most people retire to their rooms to pack (as a number of them have to leave extremely early the next morning).

I vaguely remember getting some of my things ready, but then returning to the hotel lobby to hang out one last time with Dallas, Randy (who’s losing his voice), Selene, Paul, Crystal and Louise.

After a handful of drinks – and once the bottle of blue wine Selene and Paul has brought has been drained – the group shrinks.

Eventually I wish the stragglers a safe trip and toddle off to bed.

***********************************************************

Travelling with my mom to Italy has been at times challenging, but fun. I’m glad I got a chance to share the experience with her.

Would I ever do it again? Perhaps. But it might depend on her.

Maybe the next trip together won’t be overseas. Maybe it’ll be for a shorter period of time, and at a slightly slower pace.

We’ll see what the future holds.