After we had finished our meals (and I had gotten my Devon Stout ice cream), we decided it was time to call it a night. My parents were exhausted; their long day had finally caught up with them and they were ready to get some sleep. Adrianne was the only one who still had energy, probably because of the invigoration of her announcement, and the positive reaction that I envied her for. She had one of her friends pick her up right from Devon House so that she could go out for a few more hours.
The four adults drove back in one car, and I drove back with Nathan in his car. “So Nadiya,” he started once we were comfortably on the road, “you fall in love with Jamaica, eeh?”
“I really have, Nathan,” I said forlornly, gazing out the window. “So many people are always trying to leave Jamaica, and here I am, trying to go the other way. I guess everyone thinks it’s like heading into a burning building. But I don’t! At least I don’t think I do. What do you think?”
“Well, you know what, a lot of people do leave here every day. A LOT. I’m sure a lot of them would tell you Jamaica is a burning building. But there are also people, like me, who leave for school or whatever, and then come right back.” I had forgotten that Nathan had actually done his schooling in England. I remembered that there had been talk of him staying there to work after he finished, but he had, in the end, chosen to come back to Jamaica.
He continued, “I really was close to staying there, you know. I mean, it just made sense! The money would be better, I would be living in a First World nation instead of this little island, there’s more opportunity there, it’s much safer…and I had a great time there, I really liked London. There’s a lot going on in that city.”
“So why did you come back then?”
“Because at the end of the day, this is where my heart is.” He grinned at me. “I’m sure you can relate to that.” He was right; I couldn’t ignore the fact that the past six months had felt like the best of my life. “I knew I was making certain sacrifices by choosing to come back here instead of staying in England, but chuh man, I would have been making certain sacrifices if I had stayed there too.”
“Do you ever have any regrets?”
He laughed. “Well, when all my work shirts were stolen off my clothes line the other day and I had to go buy a new wardrobe, I came close to regretting it. But then the next morning, I was sitting on my veranda with mango juice dripping down my chin and arms as I looked out on to a beautiful Jamaican view…no, I have never regretted coming back home.”
His words made me feel better, but the answer still wasn’t clear to me. What he said summed up my dilemma though, funny as it sounded. Was the mango juice worth the work shirts?
When we got back to the house, we were the first ones there. Nathan didn’t bother to come in. He was tired too, and wanted to get back home. “Lata, Nadiya, get some sleep,” he advised.
I entered the house and headed straight to Adrianne’s room. I didn’t want to have to talk to anybody again for the night; I just wanted to go straight to bed and put the night behind me. I was glad it had worked out so well for my cousin, I really was, but felt terrible about ruining it with my own ill-received declaration.
I got ready for bed and climbed under the covers, but tired as I was, I couldn’t fall asleep. I heard my parents, aunt and uncle come in, heard them all go off to bed, and I was still lying there as wide awake as ever. When Adrianne came in, I pretended to be asleep so that I wouldn’t have to talk, but it was many hours later before I finally drifted off.
“Tomorrow is Christmas, can you believe?” asked Adrianne excitedly. “You might as well just tell me now, what did you get me?”
“Yu mad? I’m not telling you that!” I said, whacking her with a pillow. “You have to wait until tomorrow to see. And don’t expect anything fancy either.”
“Yu mad?” mocked Adrianne with a devilish grin. “Bwoy, by the time you leave here, you won’t even be able to talk good English anymore.”
I blushed. It was true; the longer I spent there, the more I was starting to talk like a true Jamaican. At the thought of the phrase “true Jamaican”, my mind turned back to the dinner on my parents’ first night, and how I’d been feeling ever since, wondering if I could ever be a true Jamaican. Fortunately for me, nobody had brought it up since. I didn’t know if it was because they sensed I needed time to think, or if they just thought of it as a frivolous thought that had already come and gone.
”Whatever! Anyway, come on, we’re the last two up in this house. Let’s get to bed so that they don’t have to drag us out of bed in the morning.”
“Ha! I don’t know about you, but they would never have to drag me out of bed Christmas morning. I have something that I’m expecting to get!” I knew that Adrianne had had her eye on a new digital camera. For my part, I really couldn’t care less about presents. I hadn’t even been able to think of anything to ask for this year; I was just happy to be where I was, with the people that I was with. I giggled to myself as a picture suddenly popped into my head, of opening a large wrapped box and Kevin popping out. Now that would be a great Christmas present. But since I doubted anyone had been able to kidnap him for me, what I was most looking forward to was the breakfast that my aunt and mother had promised to cook up.
We eventually forced ourselves to go to bed, in spite of our giddiness. Even after we had turned the lights out, we spent almost half an hour whispering to each other, and checking to see if the other one was still awake. But we managed to fall asleep at a reasonable enough hour and weren’t tired at all when Uncle Ken woke us up on Christmas morning with loud Jamaican carols blaring from the stereo. Nathan was singing along in a pretty terrible voice. “Merry Christmas, girls!” my uncle boomed as we came down the stairs. After we both returned the greeting, he said, “I was considering dressing up like Pitchy-Patchy and waking you up this morning, but my lovely wife wouldn’t allow it.”
Adrianne wrinkled up her nose. “Good. You would have sent Nadiya right back to Canada.”
I felt confused. “Who on earth is Pitchy Patchy?” I asked with a laugh.
“Yu don’ know Pitchy Patchy?” asked my father’s surprised voice from behind me. “Merry Christmas,” he said, giving me a hug. “Let me tell you who that is,” he continued. “You must have heard of Jonkunnu?”
“Of course. Mummy always says how they used to scare her so much when she was little.” I knew from my mother’s stories that, in decades past, every Christmas the Jonkunnu bands would come out and roam the streets, playing music and dancing. The frightening masks and costumes that they wore always scared the children. It was a tradition that had started as far back as the days of slavery, but seemed to be slowly dwindling away. I’d never seen a Jonkunnu band myself.
“Well, Pitchy Patchy is one of the most famous characters. He wears all these shredded strips of cloth, all different colours. He used to scare me, yu’ see! He would run into the crowd and growl right at you. Lawd, it’s a shame those things don’t really go on anymore, you know.”
“OK, OK, Uncle Owen,” interrupted Adrianne with an impatient laugh. “It really is a shame, but we have more pressing issues at hand!”
Aunt Angela stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Adrianne,” she warned, “I hope you know that breakfast comes before presents in this house! You would think you were ten years old, you know!”
I love my crazy family, I thought to myself, as Adrianne rushed to help out in the kitchen. That Christmas turned out to be the best one I’d had for years. We started off the day with an enormous Jamaican breakfast consisting of ackee and saltfish, fried plantain, calalloo, bammy, roast breadfruit, johnnycake, boiled banana, and liver, with fresh squeezed orange juice and chocolate tea to drink. After we had all eaten to the point of bursting, we opened up our presents. Adrianne had gotten the digital camera that she had wanted, but Nathan and her parents had also gotten her a framed print of a painting called Mento Yard by the famous Jamaican artist, Barrington Watson. It pictured a group of women absorbed in a feverish dance, as they spun around the men in the centre providing the resounding beat. I could see Adrianne tearing up after she’d opened it. Her family had bought it to show their support in her decision and to show how proud they were of her. “Thank you guys so much!” she exclaimed, giving each of them a hug. “You know every time I look at this painting, I’m going to imagine the woman in the forefront to be me.”
I hadn’t asked for anything special, so I was astonished to see what my parents had bought for me. They had selected a stunning tennis bracelet that clearly had cost a lot of money. “I’ve never owned anything so beautiful in my life!” I cried, amazed, before giving both of my parents huge hugs. I put it on right away, even though it didn’t quite match with my pyjamas.
With all our gifts opened, next it was time to go to church. Truth be told, my parents and I weren’t churchgoers and I hadn’t set foot in a church since landing on the island. But, hypocritical as it was to only go to church on holidays, there was something special about a Christmas morning church service in Jamaica. I still remembered them from my years of living there. I loved the hymn-singing and the enthusiastic preaching, and the general good mood that filled the air.
When the service was over, our two families went our separate ways, each off to make our Christmas Day visits. Jamaicans normally spent a lot of time either visiting or being visited, but they took it to a whole other level at Christmas time! If we had tried to do all our Christmas visiting all together, it would have taken us a week.
Our first stop was at my grandparents’ (on my mother’s side). They had lunch there waiting for us and, of course, some Christmas cake and sorrel. My aunt and uncle, my mother’s younger brother and sister, were also there with their spouses and young children, so the house was filled to the brim with laughter, shrieks and loud voices. My grandparents were absolutely in their element to have all of their children and grandchildren in their house at the same time. They had moved from Hanover to Kingston a few years before just for this reason. “If only you three lived here too,” my grandmother said to me wistfully. I simply smiled in response, deciding there would be no point in telling her what had transpired on my parents’ first night.
After eating, I gravitated towards my grandparents’ veranda. As I sat out there, holding one of my young cousins in my lap and listening to my grandfather tell one of his extravagant tales about his youth that everybody knew was at least partially untrue, I thought about one of the questions that one of my Canadian friends had asked me in an e-mail: if I would miss having a white Christmas. After all, I had spent all of my Christmases in Canada since we had moved there. Like I’d told my friend, I’d thought I would probably miss it, but now I realized that a tropical Christmas was where it’s at!
Don’t get me wrong; Christmas in Canada had always been great. But the same certainly didn’t hold for the build-up to it. In November and December, the days were getting shorter, the air was getting chillier, and the sun was showing its face less often. With each day, it became that much harder to get out of bed each morning, and pretty much impossible to do it without grumbling and complaining. (I’d always said that hibernation wasn’t just for bears; during the winter, I tended to sleep like crazy). It was the classic winter blues, and I’d gotten them every single year. I knew I wasn’t alone; if you walked down any street on a cold Toronto day, it seemed like all you’d see would be surly faces and down-turned eyes.
This year had been different though. It was so rare for a day to go by in Jamaica without the sun making at least a brief appearance, and the sunshine and warmth had been the perfect antidote that I needed for the winter blues. Plus I hadn’t gotten my usual winter cold! I couldn’t think of a better place to spend a Christmas season.
“Nadiya, are you ready to go?” My mother’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “We have to push off now.” So we were on the move again, this time to Aunt Sharon’s house, where my Mandeville grandparents were staying for the holiday. Bridget, Jeremy and I all showed off our presents to each other, and then we had dinner where, just as I had at lunch and just as I had at breakfast, I ate myself silly. And of course there was Christmas cake to eat after it was all done. I knew there was no use trying to refuse someone’s Christmas cake, so I just sent a silent message to my stomach to make some room and swallowed it down.
Late that night, after two quick stops at family friends, we were finally back at Adrianne’s house. It had been a long day and we were all exhausted. But when Aunt Angela put a CD of old-time Jamaican music into the stereo, somehow we all found the energy to sing along (and for the old folks to dance) to the ska and mento until the wee hours of the morning.
When we finally climbed into bed, Adrianne fell asleep and was snoring almost instantly. I was just as tired from my own hectic day, and so I drifted off to sleep only a few minutes later. I’m pretty sure that I fell asleep with a huge smile on my face.