At nine years old I was a lanky fourth grader living in Conway, Massachusetts. I spent most of my time outside school running around our eight acres in the New England hills with my brother and sister. I was barefoot whenever possible School was small and insulated. The teachers knew all of us, many of them had taught parents of my classmates.
My mother had recently graduated from the nursing program at the local community college. Unable to find a job nearby that would hire someone without experience she hatched a scheme. She connected with a Jamaican midwife who would allow her to be her apprentice. I remember selecting two hideously cheap suitcases from the now defunct Rich’s Department Store. Mine was rust colored and hers was gray, and they had big belts that fastened over the shoddy zippers. I packed for myself, laying out everything on the bed. My mother quickly discarded the Snoopy slippers I set out. I should’ve bailed then. Surely any trip where you couldn’t wear slippers was a bad one. I had a bit of room at the top of my suitcase which my mom used to stuff her pillow. I didn’t bring one. This too would prove to be a mistake.
We left in early winter, flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica. From the airport we caught a taxi which brought us careening down narrow roads barely avoiding clusters of school kids who would walk down the center. When we arrived I saw row upon row of cinder block houses, part of a Sandals Resort funded housing scheme designed to withstand hurricanes. Each house had a tiny yard and was set perpendicular to the road. Nurse Bev’s house was across from a grassy field. Someone would stake a horse out there every morning, allowing it to graze until early evening. At dusk they would come for the horse, yielding the field to the soccer players.
My mom pitched a tent for us to sleep in and we’d go inside to eat and use the bathroom. In the evenings we would watch MacGuyver and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air reruns in Nurse Bev’s living room. The houses were so close together and there was only one station, so you could hear the neighbors laughing at the same jokes you were. Before bed I would ball up clothes and stuff them under my head, gazing longingly at my mother’s pillow.
Nurse Bev had one of the only telephones in the project. Neighbors would come over with a few dollars and pay to use it. The house had two bedrooms. The second was shared by Nurse Bev’s three children, Max, Sabrina and Junior. They slept parallel, the short way, on a queen sized bed. When a laboring woman came to the house the kids were forced outside. Nurse Bev would strip her own bed and put on plastic sheets and boil water. The women gave birth in her room. Of course we could all hear the woman crying out, and I remember many nights out on the concrete veranda, listening to the sounds of a woman bringing new life into the world. A few hours later she would emerge with her baby wrapped tightly in her arms and walk home.
Nurse Bev’s son Junior was older so he travelled to go to high school. But we younger kids went to school right in the project. Every school had a color, and I was dismayed ours was brown. They way you got a uniform was to take a minibus to the shopping district called Sav La Mar and buy fabric. Junior and Nurse Bev made the trip with us. The mini busses take on as many passengers as will fit and inside the rules of personal space cease to exist. Junior and I ended up in the back row with our mothers up front. At one of the stops the man sitting between Junior and the window simply hoisted himself out of it rather than climb over the other passengers. People called for us to move into his space to make more room but Junior stayed put and began nudging me urgently. He pointed to the small sliver of seat the man had vacated and I saw a cockroach sitting there.
The store in Sav La Mar sold everything by the pound. Great bins of towels, shoes, and fabric, all to be weighed. My mother bought the proper amounts of brown and cream material and brought them to the neighborhood seamstress. We went back to retrieve my uniforms. Two brown jumper dresses and two cream colored short sleeve collared shirts. They were worn with white knee socks and brown sandals.
Most of the girls in school kept their hair braided in cornrow. I begged my mother to let me get them when Nurse Bev sent Sabrina. We went to yet another woman’s house and sat in a chair while she perched above us on a stool. She complained bitterly about the slipperiness of my blonde hair, telling me it wouldn’t stay. The other girls wore their braids for weeks, washing them while they were still in. My cornrows became ragged and messy after a few days.
At Sandals Preparatory School the classrooms were nothing more than a big hall divided by chalkboards. The lessons were mostly copying off the board into thin paper covered booklets. The teachers were allowed to hit students, requesting the belt from a favorite boy and slapping outstretched hands with it in front of everyone.
Before I left Conway we had done a fourth-grade unit on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Tolerance and equality were taught to me at home and at school even though we were all white and had no one to practice on. I could not have been more surprised running sprints in the schoolyard for gym and hearing shouts of “White Monkey!” from older boys at the fence. There was only one other white girl in the whole school. She was German and had long blonde hair she let the other girls brush and fuss with. She didn’t seem to enjoy the daily ritual but sat through it patiently. It was a social entrance fee I would have gladly paid, but my goofy haircut and American obliviousness didn’t get me very far.
A girl in my class named Marsha befriended me on the first day. She taught me to sharpen my pencil on the concrete floors by rubbing them on the side of the point. I didn’t know it was against the rules, and Marsha laughed at me when I got caught by the teacher. She never hit my hands, and Marsha never spoke to me again.
After school my mom and I would walk to the public beach behind the craft market. On the way home sometimes we stopped on the bridge and wait for the soup man. He would come on his bicycle with an enormous stock pot bungeed on the back. The soup had chunks of corncob in it. You would fish them out, eat the kernels from it then chew the cob up. Everyone would spit the cob off the bridge into the canal and watch the eels that came to the surface to eat it. As the soup man pedaled on the cake man would come, with squares of cake wrapped in waxed paper in a wooden box on the back of his bike.
We stayed in Jamaica for six months, eventually leaving Nurse Bev’s to live inside a yoga retreat compound that also contained a private clinic that mainly serviced expats and tourists. I left my school uniforms behind for Sabrina. I started going to a small private school across from the resort owned beaches called Harmony Prep. Most of the kids who went there were American or British, with parents who owned and managed beach hotels. The school was made up of two small buildings and I was with the older kids in the smaller one. The school was fun and easy, but it quickly became apparent I had already reached the end of their curriculum. The teachers ordered workbooks for us from the United States and we spent a week waiting for them. There was an elderly couple who lived in a house behind the school and they set up a table at lunchtime selling candy, juice and chips.
Harmony Prep was too far from the retreat to walk so my mom would get me a taxi in the morning. Getting a taxi to yourself was called “chartering” and cost about fifty Jamaican dollars. After a few days my mom talked to a driver and figured out that she could get me into a shared taxi with a group of women in cleaning uniforms who were headed to the hotels for ten dollars. I would end up crammed into a back seat with three or four of these ladies barely able to see where we were. I would call out “one stop” when we got close and the ladies would make sure the driver heard and shuffle around to let me out.
There were two Danish doctors at the new clinic, one of which had a pretty intense cocaine addiction. They had my mother doing all kinds of non-nurse work like painting the clinic and poisoning rats. On the weekends I spent long days outside in a thatched hut eating jelly coconuts and citrus that my mom bought on the beach. Our tent was on the other side of the clinic but was unbearably hot in the daytime.
One day there was an incredible commotion at the gates of the retreat. People In Jamaica tend to form a mob when there’s an accident. Someone opened the gate and three men rushed in carrying a limp man covered in blood. He’d been riding a moped and struck the side of a pickup as it backed out of a driveway into his path. He’d gone sailing over the vehicle and landed in a heap on the other side. There wasn’t much the small clinic could do other than stabilize him. I remember his hysterical girlfriend outside the clinic door calling family to raise the money to helicopter him to Miami. She, probably wisely, was trying to avoid the Jamaican hospital system.
Another time a tourist came in wearing his wetsuit from scuba diving. He’d seen a puffer fish and wanted it to inflate so he stuck his finger inside it’s mouth. I’m not sure if it puffed up, but it did bite down, mangling his finger tip with its strange little beak.
Once a week two women would come in to do the laundry by hand. They brought out tubs and soap and worked all morning, hanging sheets and clothes on huge lines that strung from the clinic to the pavilion. My mother and I would set up on the side with our clothes. The ladies showed me how to scrub the cloth back against itself and how to wring things out at the end. We used forked sticks to raise the lines closer to the sun and keep the sheets from hanging to the ground.
The owner of the yoga retreat was an American woman named Raquel. She had suffered an attack before and never left the gates of the retreat without a bodyguard. She also a guard patrol the grounds at night. After dinner I would sit with the guard Niah, and he would talk to me about his daughter who was a couple of years younger than me and lived on the other side of the island with her mother and grandmother. He would read me parts of the letters she wrote to him, and the letters he was sending back. She wrote about what she was learning in school, about going to church with her grandmother, and about what they ate for Sunday dinner. He wrote about his work, how he missed them, and when he would be home next. Sometimes he mentioned me.
We would sit on the edge of the open pavilion where they held the yoga classes while he ate his dinner. Niah said I should eat more Jamaican food and gave me bites as he unwrapped his dishes. Curry chicken, ackee, whole fried fish curled up from the heat of the oil, and always rice. He told me not to worry at night, because I could listen for his footsteps along the fence and know that he was keeping everyone safe.