The next morning, as I slowly drifted back into the land of awakening, I thought, Thank God for no morning classes on Fridays! We hadn’t gotten in until after four in the morning, and I knew that Cassandra had had to go to class bright and early.
I took my time getting out of bed, showering, and eating breakfast. Arlene and I were leaving on the bus for Mandeville that afternoon, so I decided to pack my things before going to my class so that I would be ready to go as soon as it was over. I was really excited to be seeing my grandparents. I had talked to them a few times since I had gotten to Jamaica but it would be nice to actually see them in person and spend time with them again. I was looking forward to meeting Arlene’s family as well. Our plan was for me to go to her place for dinner before heading to my father’s parents’ house. And finally, I was just looking forward to being in Mandeville. My flatmate was absolutely in love with her hometown, and although I was more of a Kingston person myself, I could definitely appreciate why. Because it was perched well above sea-level, Mandeville had cool breezes and spectacular scenery. It had become a popular spot for Jamaicans returning from abroad, and I knew my grandparents would never live anywhere else.
So I had a few reasons to be excited about my trip. But I was also excited about coming back, so that I could go on my dinner date with Omar. Although I wish it were with Kevin, I suddenly thought with a pang. I frowned at myself for letting that thought cross my mind. But I’m still going to enjoy it, I resolved. It’ll be my first date in Jamaica, hopefully the first of many!
My upcoming date was the first thing that Arlene asked me about once we were comfortably settled on the bus several hours later. We talked about Omar for a while and then moved on to Kevin, the party the night before, and both of our plans for the future. Since law school was something I hadn’t ruled out, I liked hearing Arlene’s stories about it. It felt like we had barely been on the bus by the time that we arrived in Mandeville.
“Alright,” said Arlene, peering around as we got off the bus, “my father should be here any minute. Listen, Nadiya,” she said seriously, turning to look me straight in the eye. “I know what kind of family you come from, so I just…want to give you a warning about mine.”
“Um, OK…what on earth does that mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“You might not be used to…the lifestyle that we lead, let’s say. My family doesn’t have much money, Nadiya. I mean, we’re better off than a lot of other families in Jamaica, which is a sad fact, but I’m sure it’s still not what you are used to. You and I are not in the same social class at all, and I just want you to be prepared for it.” I was touched by the nervous look on Arlene’s face.
“Well, thanks for the warning, I guess, but you should know I don’t care about stuff like that, Arlene! It doesn’t matter to me how much money my friends’ families do or don’t have,” I chastised her. A car horn interrupted us before she could reply.
“Daddy!” cried Arlene, beaming and waving at the car that had just pulled up behind me. She rushed toward it and had reached the driver’s door by the time her father got out of the car. He jumped out, gave his daughter a big hug and kiss on the cheek, actually lifting her off the ground, and then turned to me, and gave me a big hug as well. I thought for a second he was going to lift me off the ground too, but he didn’t. It was uncanny how much alike he and his daughter looked, but, unlike Arlene, he was decidedly not shy! He engaged me in conversation right away, and for the whole ride home, was chatting enthusiastically to both of us. “So how was the trip?”
“It was fine. It went really quickly since I had someone to talk to the whole time,” Arlene replied.
“Nice dat Arlene has a fren’ with family here, Nadiya! I hope the two of you come here togedda a lot dis year, yu hear? You are certainly welcome to come by for dinna anytime yu like.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it! Arlene said her mother is a really good cook too.”
“Yeh man, di bes’ cook in town! And I hope yu ready to eat, Nadiya,” he advised with a smile in the rearview mirror, “becaw a whole heap a food de missis a mek dis evenin’.”
I hadn’t lied to my friend; I didn’t care how much money Arlene’s family had or didn’t have. Although both of my parents came from upper middle-class backgrounds, they had enforced it in me that a person’s socioeconomic class didn’t define them and that our money didn’t make us any better than anyone else. Plus, I’d learned enough about the history of the Caribbean and Jamaica in particular to realize that poverty had a long historical context, and was not something that people could easily get out of. It was the most common reason that so many people immigrated to North America and England, for a more realistic chance at climbing the social and economic ladder.
In spite of all that, although I probably wouldn’t have admitted it to her, I was still glad that Arlene had given me warning. My parents were both doctors; in all honesty, each of their salaries alone would have made us well-off. Most of my parents’ relatives and friends were lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, politicians, and the like. In a country where classes were kept so separated, it was easy to forget that not all Jamaicans were middle or upper class, in spite of the fact that so many were suffering. So if Arlene hadn’t warned me, I might not have been able to hide my surprise.
The car that her father picked us up in was one that would probably never even have been allowed on the road in Canada. It was clearly decades-old, and looked like it had been through a lot in its time. I later found out that Arlene’s father used it as a taxi. When we got to Arlene’s house, it was just as modest. There were two tiny bedrooms, one for her parents, and one that Arlene had always shared with her younger sister, who was now fourteen years old. For me, who had grown up as an only child, the thought of sharing a bedroom all my childhood was horrifying. And the fact that it was horrifying made me feel like a spoiled brat. People make do with what they have.
“Believe it or not, lots of our friends were jealous that we had two bedrooms in our house,” Arlene noted as she showed me her and her sister’s room, perhaps in response to the look that I had failed to hide on my face. “Sheryl’s really lucky now that she has it all to herself.”
Besides the two bedrooms, the house had a small living room with old and faded furniture and uneven squeaking floor boards. The living room also served as their dining room with a four-person dinette set squished in to the small space. There was also a single bathroom, and an impossibly small kitchen. They did have a flushing toilet in the bathroom, but Arlene pointed out to me the outhouse in the back that she had used as a child before they got the toilet. I felt very sheltered as I looked around, like I had grown up in a bubble, which in many ways I had.
“So that’s it,” she said with a shy smile as we sat down on the couch in the living room. “It’s not much.”
I didn’t want to say anything stupid or insincere, like “What a lovely home you have!” so I decided to stick with honesty. “No, but it’s home. I can tell that you love it here.”
“I do! Nadiya, I have so many great memories in this house. I’ve lived here all my life, and I had a ton of fun growing up. So you’re right. It’s not much but it’s home.” As Arlene started to tell me stories about growing up, you could just see her starting to glow. I had honestly felt really sorry for her at first as she was giving me the tour of her house, but she spoke so fondly about her childhood and about Mandeville, that it seemed silly to be feeling any pity. Arlene seemed a lot happier with her life than some people I could think of who had a lot more money. I also had to remember what she had said; humble as her home was, it was much bigger than that of many other Jamaicans.
I loved hearing stories about Arlene’s childhood but as we talked, the aroma of the food started to be all-consuming and I felt like if we didn’t eat soon, I was going to have to tackle her mother to the floor and run out of the house as fast as I could lugging a pot full of food. So I was delighted to hear her mother say, “Arlene, don’t forget that Nadiya needs to get to her grandparents’ at a reasonable hour. I think it’s time we eat now.”
Arlene’s mother looked nothing like her, but she had the exact same shy, sweet personality as my friend. She hadn’t said but a few words since my arrival but she had been full of smiles, and continued to be full of smiles as she set out the food and we all sat down. After saying grace, Arlene’s father made a sincere effort at dominating the conversation, but he was easily defeated by his younger daughter, Sheryl. She had a million-and-one questions for both of us about UWI: about our programs, our classes, life on hall, future plans… She was clearly a very intelligent and confident girl. She also hoped to go to law school, and probably would be able to get in straight out of high school. She said as much herself. “I’m going to be a lawyer too, you know,” she declared. “You’ll see me at UWI law school in just another four years.”
When we finished dinner, I felt like I was going to burst. The meal had been absolutely excellent, just as promised, and I had gobbled down as much food as I could without coming across as completely ill-mannered. Arlene’s mother had stuffed us full of delicious oxtail, rice and peas, and callaloo. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Thompson. That was fantastic.”
“Oh, you’re welcome, Nadiya. Anytime. Come back anytime.”
After another fifteen minutes sitting out on the veranda to let our food settle, Arlene got the car keys to drive me to my grandparents’ house and I gave her their address. Fortunately, she knew where it was; I never would have been able to direct her on how to get there. “I’m glad you got to meet my family,” she offered on the way there. “But I’m sure you’ll see them many more times this year. They would love to have you. I can tell that they all really like you.”
I was flattered. “Oh, I liked them all too, they’re really nice. And Sheryl is such a cute kid!”
Arlene smiled. “Yes, she is, isn’t she? I’m glad to hear her still so interested in law school. Maybe we can open a practice together! She’s such a smart girl, she can do anything that she wants, I’m telling you.” We drove in silence for another minute, in which Arlene was apparently deep in thought, because suddenly she continued. “Our parents always drilled it into our heads that education is the key, and that it is the way out of poverty. They said that we absolutely had to go all the way through school, all the way to university. Neither of them had the chance to do it, so they told us that we had to. And I’m sure that both of them would have done well in school, you know, given the chance.” She looked at me and smiled. “My sister and I have to get our brains from somewhere.” She looked back at the road. “But neither one of them could afford to go to any of the high schools around here where they could get a proper education, and their own parents really didn’t see the value of school. They worked hard though, both of them, because they wanted to make sure that their children would get the education that they couldn’t get.
“You know how I told you I worked for a couple of years before starting at UWI? It’s because I wanted to make absolutely sure that both Sheryl and I could do our studies without having to worry about money. I qualified for scholarships, and I’m positive that she will too, but I didn’t want there to be anything that would stop us from getting through school. I wanted to make sure that our tuition, and room and board, and spending money, would all be taken care of. And I didn’t want my parents to be worrying about trying to scrape together the money to do it, because I know they don’t have it, and they’re already doing the best they can.”
“Arlene, your parents are so lucky to have you as a daughter. You know how many kids wouldn’t be thinking about that kind of stuff? Your parents must be so proud of you, of both of you, and how you turned out.”
“We’re the ones who are lucky,” she blushed. “With another set of parents, trust me, we could have both ended up as very different people than we are now. But we’re on the road that we are now all because of them.”
She was right about that, and Arlene’s parents were right; if there was a way to break the cycle of poverty in Jamaica, getting an education was the way to do it. UWI was one of the few places in the island that had the potential to bring social classes together as equals. Having an education certainly made no guarantees of abundance and riches, but not having one really limited how far you could get in life. Anyway, I was glad to see that both Arlene and Sheryl were on the path to success. They and their parents deserved it.
“When I start making some money, you see,” she declared, “you’re not going to recognize my parents’ house when I’m done. I wouldn’t dream of moving them, but I promise you, I’m going to fix it up really nice. Just as nice as this one.”
“This one” referred to my grandparents’ house. We had just reached the front gate, and as I expected, they were both sitting outside on their veranda when we got there. Unless they were at church or sleeping, it seemed like my grandparents were always sitting on their veranda. Arlene stayed for about ten minutes, long enough for my grandmother to force some banana bread into her, and then headed back on the road. “I’ll be back for you on Sunday morning after church, alright?” she called as she walked towards the car. “I’ll call you on your cellular before I leave.”
“What a nice girl,” commented my grandfather as Arlene drove away. “Now come now, I know you had dinner already but you need to eat some more dessert. How yu’ look so skinny? Just like a piece of stick.”
The next morning, in spite of no alarm clock and no classes to go to, I woke up by seven. I don’t know what it was, but unless I’d had a really late night, it was hard to sleep in when I was in Jamaica. The Jamaican sun was just too bright and hot to be ignored come morning time. Anyway, on that morning, I slowly drifted awake to sunlight streaming in through the thin white curtains directly on to my eyelids, the sounds of a rooster crowing and a donkey braying in the distance, and the smell of ackee and saltfish cooking in the kitchen. I smiled to myself, knowing that my grandparents had likely been up for quite a while already. This is the life, I thought happily as I yawned and stretched under the covers.
I slowly got out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. “Morning, Grandma. Morning, Grandpa,” I greeted both of them with a kiss on the cheek.
“What a way you look like your father!” my grandmother marvelled with a smile as I yawned again and rubbed my eyes. “It’s like going back in time thirty years and seeing him do the exact same thing. Breakfast soon ready, yu hear?” she continued. “Take this and then you can sit down at the table.”
I went into the dining room with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and sat down with my grandfather, as Grandma and their helper started to bring food out to the table. I looked around the room, remembering the numerous times I had sat in the exact same chair growing up. I loved Kingston, I was a city girl at heart, but there was nothing like a Jamaican country morning. As I watched a croaking lizard scurry across the wall, I almost laughed out loud remembering how scared of them I used to be when I was younger. Unfortunately for the young me, they were a pretty common sight. My grandfather interrupted my thoughts. “Bwoy, Nadiya, I didn’t think the day would come when you would see one of those and not start screaming, much less be smiling. When you were small, you would run and cling to one of us as soon as you saw a croaking lizard! Just like your father.”
“Daddy did that too?” I couldn’t imagine my six-foot-tall gruff father being scared of anything, much less a lizard! My grandfather kissed his teeth. “What?! To this day, he tries to hide it, but I can tell they still make him nervous. Come, let’s say grace and eat breakfast, then afterward, I’ll tell you all about when your father and your auntie were little.”
After a delicious breakfast and an invigorating (read: not warm) shower, I went out into the back yard with both my grandparents. They had a sprawling yard interspersed with numerous tall fruit trees, most of which, I discovered, had been there for decades.
“Your father and your auntie had such a good time growing up here,” my grandmother said fondly as she stared at the yard. “They were always outside. You couldn’t get them to come in! Not like these children today who just want to watch television and play video games. No sah. Dem an’ all dem friends used to play back here, in all the other children’s yards, and all over really.
“After school, they would come racing home, change out of their uniform and run right back out to play. You don’t know how many times I stood on the front veranda bawling out their names, trying to get them to come home to eat dinner and do their homework. Thank goodness for that dog we had, Old Meg. She followed them on all their adventures, and once she heard me calling, she would come running and lead me right to them if need be.”
She pointed at one tall banana tree. “De two o’ dem would try to climb that tree all the time. You remember?” She looked at her husband, laughing.
He chuckled too. “Sharon never made it to the top. Owen couldn’t reach up the top until he was about sixteen. They fought about it for years.”
“Remember Sharon and the river?” Her grandmother shook her head. “Nadiya, your aunt is hard-headed, yu see! When she was small, she didn’t know how to swim and her older brother did. So when he and some of the other children from the area went down to the river one day, she decided that she was going to join them. Well, my dear, your auntie almos’ drown that day! This older boy named Thomas jump in and saved her, and let me tell you, for years, she was sure that he was going to be the man that she married because of it. Thank goodness she grew out of that. Thomas had too many girlfriends for my liking. He ended up getting married a total of three times, if you can believe such a thing, and had five children, each with a different mother. I was not going to stand for him being my son-in-law.”
As my grandmother started to rail about Thomas and his wicked ways, my thoughts drifted off. I had always teased my parents about the fact that they had both grown up in the country, or “in the bush” as I liked to tell them. But listening to my grandparents talk, I was suddenly filled with envy for the life my father, and surely my mother, had lived growing up. They had grown up with a beautiful, peaceful land as their playground, and were probably much the better for it. My parents had always gone along with it when I teased them about their upbringing, but the truth probably was that they both felt sorry for me that I hadn’t gotten to experience what they had as youngsters in a young country.
“Come on, Grandpa,” I prompted as my grandmother finally came to a stop. “Tell me more.”