The Spirit that Guides Us
Auntie and Papa
Mother, Father, Step-Father, Wife,
My Friend Robert (May he rest in peace)
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The Spirit that Guides Us
“Mr. Luther;” came the voice from outside the gated entrance to our home. The voice’s sharp tone coupled with the unfamiliarity of its owner, disturbing the peaceful slumber of our dogs, gave cause for them to bark. Again the voice called, “Mr. Luther,” but the dogs’ chorus of barking only made more difficulty the identification of the person to whom the voice belonged. I had been playing on the inside of the fenced yard. “Mr. Luther!” for the third time the voice called out, the visitor having now moved closer, bringing their midsection to rest on the outside frame of our gate. The dogs also moved closer. However the dogs remained on the inside frame of the gate that secured as well as separated their controlled anger from being any real treat to the visitor.
There are many signals sent within each style of a dog’s barking. Today our dogs’ barking was signaling all other dogs within shouting distance to join in the chorus of the warning bark. In an order to make their voice heard over the barking of the dogs, the visitor had now pressed themselves fully onto the outside frame of the gate. This last movement of the visitor made it easier for me to have seen their face. Our dogs’ barking while sending a strong deterrent to the potential intruder also served as a request for my Auntie Vie to bring herself from inside the house onto the front verandah. And so she did, then promptly instructed our dogs to be quiet. The sudden silence of our dogs slowly quieted the chorus of the neighboring dogs. Silence having returned to our yard, Auntie then focused her attention on the visitor at our gate.
Recognizing the visitor, Auntie responded. “What is it Mrs. Delia?” My Auntie’s proper first name was Violet. It was a name reserved mostly for use by extended family or formal friendships. Our neighbors including my Papa, her husband, called her Miss Vie. The name “Auntie” was mostly reserved for my use. On occasion, very long standing friends and or older children of our extended family and children of close family friends would also be expected to call her Auntie, having to do so as a sign of respect.
The visitor at the gate was calling for Mr. Luther, my Papa. I came to live with my Auntie and Papa after my mother had earlier migrated to Canada as a domestic worker. It must have been very difficult for her to have left me behind. During the time of her migration as a domestic worker it was a mandatory requirement for all applicants to have been young women who had no children. So very valued was the opportunity of migration that all young mothers applying to work as domestic workers in foreign countries would have denied having had any children. The successful candidates would then make arrangements with relatives or friends with whom they would entrust the future care of their child or children. Such was my case.
Before migrating, my mother had moved me from our home in Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica to live with Auntie and Papa in Port Antonio. Port Antonio was a much smaller city located in the north eastern end of the island. Prior to my birth my mom had been living in Kingston with her adoptive family. As life unfolded both my mother and I grew up with adoptive parents. Mine was a choice made for me by my mother. My mother’s story is a bitter sweet one that would take a long time to tell but I will share with you this much;
When my mother was a very young child of no more than three years of age, herself living in the north western countryside just outside of Kingston, she was visited by family members from Kingston. At home the visitors found my mom her younger sister and my grandmother. My mother was one of four young children at the time. My also had two older brothers.
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My grandfather had gone to the fields to farm for the day having taken my mother’s two older brothers with him.
My grandfather’s surname was Crossman as taken by my mother. My grandmother’s maiden name was Anderson. The visiting family members, was a group consisting of two ladies, a mother and her granddaughter. The granddaughter a girl in her late twenties fell in love with this beautiful young girl, my mom. The older member of the visiting two ladies, the grandmother, known as Janeyrow carried the surname of Anderson and was related to my grandmother’s side of the family.
Janeyrow’s son was my Auntie Vie’s father known to me as Pappy D. I knew of him by the stories that my Auntie at first and then later my mom, had told me. The younger member of the two visitors Janeyrow’s granddaughter and my Auntie (Mrs. Vie), were sisters of the same father, Pappy D. The granddaughter later became known to me as my Auntie Bee. My Auntie Vie also had two other brothers who lived in Port Antonio.
However her sister, my Auntie Bee, has always lived in Kingston. Both my uncles as well as my Auntie Bee treated me as if I were their own child. Auntie Bee and her grandmother Janeyrow did managed to convince my grandmother to allow them to take my mom to Kingston for one week. With a promise of retuning her no later than that week’s ending, my grandmother allowed the taking of my mom. It is reported by folks in the small village from where my mom had been living that upon my grandfather’s return from the fields that day, finding his daughter missing, he became very enraged. The week came and went. More days were followed by weeks. Sadly my grandmother did not have enough knowledge to say with any certainty where exactly in Kingston my mom had been taken.
Weeks became months when finally one day my mom claims to have remembered some strangers arriving at the place of residence where she had been living in Kingston. My mom had been living with my Auntie Bee who was at that time a recently married young lady without any children of her own. My Auntie B later gave birth to five children, four boys followed by one girl. As the strangers approached the entrance to the yard my mom remembered being whisked off to the back room and kept there in the silence and darkness while the strangers explained their presence.
She remembered hearing questions being asked by the strangers inquiring if anyone knew of the two women that may have taken this young girl from her mother in the country. The strangers were sent away empty handed having gained no more knowledge of my mom’s location than when first having arrived. My grandmother died of a broken heart. Most folks said she had been so emotionally abused by my grandfather’s pain and anguish that she just laid down one day and never woke up.
My mother never saw her mom again. My mom’s version of the story at this point is a tale of fate and spiritualism. However briefly stated, in her late teenage years she did manage to find her way back to the very house in which she was born and lived the first three years of her childhood. My grandfather so overwhelmed with joy at the sight of having seen his long lost daughter, arranged a feast which stimulated conversation of the biblical return of the prodigal son. He acknowledged of course my mom’s role was that of being a victim. My mom would not connect with her father again until in her later adult life fortunately before he too passed away.
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On that very memorable trip, occurring on one of my mom’s three return visits from Canada. She took me along in search of her father. I too was fortunate enough to have met my grandfather in his living years. So it was, when my mom needed a place to have given care to me she found a home in a place that gave her comfort. She had earlier received information about her family members living in Port Antonio. She was told that a sister of her adoptive mother lived in Port Antonio. There she lived with her husband sharing no children between them and would be very happy to help. As I grew older I understood that my Auntie could not have any children. My Papa however had two sons from an earlier relationship.
Located approximately sixty miles outside of Kingston, Port Antonio would become my home for the next ten years. I first came to live with Auntie and Papa just a few days before my second birthday. Papa was a butcher, a farmer and also worked at the wharf as a loader of bananas onto the Banana Boats. His work on the Banana Boats was restricted to three or four days of work every two or three weeks. Sometimes on rare occasion there would be two different boats in the same week. Being a single ship wharf each worker was assured more hours of work because the second boat would have to await the departure of the first before taking on its own load of bananas.
There was always excitement when two boats came within view of each other prior to entering the wharf. The first ship to dock would be the first loaded. The loser would have to drop anchor and wait, something no captain was eager to endure. When you consider that on some occasions the wait would be as long as ten days, the cost was always of concern to the losing captain. Each ship’s captain would give the order to make quick time to the docks. This signal would be accompanied by the bellowing of the ship’s very loud horns. Papa told me the purpose of the horns was to intimidate the other captain into standing down and give clearance to the other ship for first priority at the docks. These series of horns would serve to create lots of excitement for us onlookers.
Because of his hard working habits and variety of work Papa came in contact with lots of people equally speaking to most on a first name basis. I benefited from his popularity. I too spoke to almost everyone many of whom addressed me simple as “Luther’s boy.”
“I am here to speak to Mr. Luther!” Mrs. Delia answered. I knew Mrs. Delia though not very well. She was a neighbor living several houses down the street from our home. She made her income from selling eggs however we were not a customer of hers. Similar to the greeting I gave to many others in my neighborhood, upon passing her I would acknowledge her politely with a
well spoken “good day!” and that was the extent of my relationship with her.
I had been sitting under the Breadfruit tree located on the eastern corner of our very small front yard when the dogs first began to bark. The noise of the dog’s barking rang like a very load knock at the front door of my imaginary world and Mrs. Delia’s voice was clearly the cause of that interruption. Her voice was to be the second interruption of my imaginary world within that same hour of play. Earlier I had been interrupted by my dog Bruna as she returned from her daily stroll around the neighborhood. Bruna was one of our four dogs each with their own unique personality. Rex was the intelligent calm male, generally accepted as the leader of the four. Monty, male, was the hard nose, rarely lost a fight, second in command member of the group. Rex stood higher in height however Monty was much ticker in body size and easily carrying ten or more pounds to his advantage.
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Known as the quietest of the four, Rusty was bigger in size than both Rex and Monty yet he remained submissive to both. Rusty rarely got into fights with man or dog. Papa’s fondness of Rusty came as a result of Rusty’s passive nature which was not to be mistaken for weakness. When pushed too far by either dog or man he would quickly transform into the wolf dog from hell. This behavior gave Rusty the title of “Luther’s mad dog” by our neighbors and a “lunatic brethren” by his fellow dogs. Even with this knowledge, from time to time the other dogs would push him too far. Having been pushed beyond his tolerance Rusty would slip into one of his predictably unpredictable insane episodes causing the other dogs to stay well away from him. For a period of time following every one of Rusty’s insane episodes the other dogs would get up and move from any comfortable resting position should Rusty express but the slightest of interest in that same spot.
After each episode of Rusty’s crazy retaliations Papa would repeat the same life’s lesson to me. “If you are walking down the street and a dog bite you, cross the street in order to avoid that dog.” If Auntie was around she would always intervene at this point with her own message to counteract Papa’s;
“Luther stop filling up the boy’s head with wickedness” she would say. Her interruption would almost always encourage Papa to finish his life’s lesson to me with even more enthusiasm. “But if after you have crossed the street to avoid the dog” Papa would continue as if Auntie’s previous statements were spoken in a foreign language, “and should that dog cross the street in an effort to bite you again, kill its ass, because that’s a dog that will never leave you alone”.
“Kill what!” Auntie would again reply speaking to me, “Boy pay no attention to your Papa, he needs to go to church more often.” While Auntie cautioned me about the evil of Papa’s advice he would be signaling to me from behind her back by pounding his two clinched fists one atop the other indicating to me “Kill it!” Auntie who knew all the antics of Papa’s behavior would close the conversation with, “your Papa is just as mad as Rusty.”
What Auntie was referring to as Papa’s madness was made clear one evening after my arrival home from school. “Could you go up the road and get me some flour and a little salt from the shop” instructed my Auntie. “I need those things to make some Johnny Cakes for breakfast in the morning” Auntie continued. Auntie knew Johnny cakes were my favorite type of dumplings. These were made of flour, couple of eggs, a dash of yeast, salt, a teaspoon or two of coconut oil, all mixed with an ample amount of water into a batter. The batter would be shaped into small spheres (dumplings) and fried in an open frying pan again with lots of oil. Once fried the dumplings would be served usually accompanied with some form of meat or a mixture of steamed onions, tomatoes, spices and codfish. Complimenting this traditional breakfast was, first the sweet smell. That was the smell of raw chocolate freshly boiled with cinnamons stick and bay leaves. Secondly was the taste after being sweetened with a generous amount of sweetened condensed milk.
Auntie was always at home. Breakfasts’, lunches and dinners were always ready for Papa and I. Dinners were always prepared and ready for me to eat upon my arrival home from school. Papa on the other hand would never eat his dinner unless I was at home to eat mine. It did not matter how late I came home he would always wait for us to eat dinner together. In the beginning he would get into long discussion with Auntie with her reminding him about his bad stomach. After a time Auntie gave in to his wishes. Soon I did the same, awaiting Papa’s arrival home in order that we could dine together. Auntie who labeled us both mad showed her understanding by way
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of her usual soft vocal but predicable brief protest of our behavior. On days when Papa was working at the wharf loading bananas I would bring him his dinner. After first arriving home from school Auntie would pack my super along with Papa’s and I would walk the approximately three miles to the wharf. Arriving at the wharf I would wait a brief time for the dinner whistle to sound and Papa and I would eat dinner together.
Shortly after my tenth birthday my mother came to Jamaica to inform us that she wished for me to join her in Canada. This was a very sad and confusing time for me, Auntie and Papa. The sadness was mostly visible on Auntie’s face with her crying openly at any mention of the topic. However I think it was most painful in Papa’s heart. I remember after having arrived in Canada, receiving a letter from my Auntie telling me that Papa had stop eating his dinners. He had kept on looking for me to come home even though he knew I was gone. Upon reading the very first of what would prove to be many of these letters I cried. Sometimes even to this day when I remember what must have been a most painful lost to Papa I still get tearful. Ironically shortly after arriving in Canada I began to have problems sleeping at nights. I would pine for my Papa at the end of each day. It would be many months before I was able fall asleep without crying.
It was on one of my many dinner trips to the wharf that I came to understand the meaning behind the song about the Talley Man. “Come Missa Talley Man Talley mi banana, daylight come and mi wana go home”. Boundbrook wharf, located in our port city of Port Antonio it is said was the inspiration for the Harry Belafonte’s Talley Man Song. Papa showed me that the Talley Man was a real person. He was the man that counted the bananas as they were being put onto the conveyor belt. The conveyor belt took the bananas from the dock to one of the many doors at the side of the ship. From there a single line of men loaded the bananas hand to hand down into the belly of the ship.
The Talley Men would sit all day, all night and count, one, two, three, four, Talley! One, two, three, four, Talley! Sitting in another chair with a big book was another man who would use single strokes to record the count of the Talley Man. The man sitting in front of the big book, the Steward, would write four upright strokes each representing the first four numbers called out by the Talley Man. The fifth stroke would come when the Tally Man called out “Talley!” On this fifth stroke the man seated in front of the big book would cross a straight line through the four upright stokes indicating a total of five. By doing things this way it was very easy to count the total number of bananas loaded onto the banana boat by each shift of workers. The workers were paid per banana loaded. It would be steward’s responsibility to ensure that not only the count was correct but that breaks were taken at proper intervals and the line of banana trucks moved in and out of the Warf quickly!
My neighbor two doors over was one such steward, Mr. Shelton. Many a night both he and Papa would share supper hour with me. It was also on one of these trips that I learned that the smoking of Ganja was harmful when abused. Papa would comment “Can you smell that”, yes I would respond. “Well” he would continue, “as long as they keep that quality of smoke here tonight we will have this ship loaded by morning.” Papa explained that, “The smoking of the herb resulted in the men working like horses that did not stop to eat.”
Since they got paid per banana loaded the faster they worked the better it was for everyone. It would also be cheaper for the Captain whose ship would have a shorter stop in port. Every one benefited from the illegal activity. Still Papa would insist it was better to spend a little more money to have good food than the much cheaper quick smoke. Many times he would show me
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men who I knew to have worked at the wharf in earlier days now wondering aimless on the streets. At times Papa would stop and give them a few shillings for the purchase food or maybe even another smoke. After leaving Papa would comment to me, “The Banana Wharf did not do that to him, the Ganja did.”
I had arrived at the store; purchased the flower and salt Auntie required and was on my return trip home. It was on that return trip home that I had a collision with Earl. This was the incident that gave cause for Auntie’s comment to have reminded me of my Papa’s madness. Earl was not a bad guy; he was just an unpredictable fifteen year old bully. I had often times complained to Papa about Earl’s behavior towards me. Papa would always reply “Just try to avoid that miserable boy.” I was at about the midway point home when from a distance of about fifty yards I spotted Earl approaching me atop his bicycle.
Upon seeing me Earl increased the speed of his riding and headed straight towards me. I knew he would stop because he had done this many times before. So I did what I usually did when faced with this behavior, I held my breath, flex tight every muscle in my body and prayed that he would soon be gone. My many previous encounters with him had prepared me for the following sequence of events. He would come within inches of my face grab hold of both set of brakes and willfully cause his bicycle to swerve away to one side. Freeing one hand from the handle of his bicycle he would then hit me in the head, “Hey Luther’s Boy” he would say, laugh and continue on his way. I needed only to have focused on his laughing and soon this would be over allowing us both to get on with our day.
On this day everything had been the same as before. All except one. Having done his usual racing towards me at break-neck speed, Earl grabbed both controls for the front and back brakes in such a way as to make the bicycle swing away from me. These were all the steps Earl would have normally taken in his previous efforts to forsake me. On this occasion one of the brake’s cable broke, I think! To this day I could not state with any certainty as to whether it was loose or broken brake cables. I can however remember with absolute certainty, the blow to the side of my head. More accurately I can remember the loud hollow thump on my head.
It felt as if some how my head had been suspended inside a large metal drum while someone pounded on the outer walls of that drum with a very heavy object. Then just as suddenly there was absolute silence. Nothing! No birds, no voices coming from any of the surrounding homes. Seconds passed and still nothing!
A sharp very excruciating, throbbing pain that now replaced the hollow silence that for a brief moment had been neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The time that passed between first having felt the sharp pain at the side of my head to full restoration of my hearing seemed to have taken an eternity. All these things, the hollow sound, the temporary lost of hearing and the resulting sharp pain, were consequences of Earl having lost control of his bicycle just prior to tumbling into me. Once I had regained my senses I realize that the force of Earl’s weight had sent me flying into the dirt banking at the side of the street.
The first voice I remembered hearing was that of Miss Gloria. She lived in the house just above the point of my impact with the ground. “Earl you idiot!” she exclaimed. Next she turned to me and asked, “Are you alright?” The answer to her question was far from being my first concern. Of urgent concern were the flour and the salt. Again Miss Gloria spoke. “Earl what were you tying to do, kill Luther’s boy?” “I am ok” I said to Miss Gloria but I was not ok. My head ached and I
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now felt a pain in my left side where Earl’s bicycle handle had struck me. Earl was beginning to show signs of being very scared not as a result of his fall but because he knew he had hit Luther’s boy.
I got myself up from the ditch, determine not to cry in front of Miss Gloria but definitely more determined not to cry in front of Earl. Papa had so many times warned me about this very thing. I knew Earl was in big trouble because Papa would not let this incident go unpunished. I would not be able to keep this away from Papa. Even if I were tempted to avoid telling Papa and I was not, Miss Gloria would certainly not let this accident go unreported. Here was an example of what Papa had so many times warned me about, ensuring that I was absolutely not at fault in these types of misdeeds.
He would say to me, “When I put my neck on that block for you I should have no doubts as to why I lost my head.” This was another one of life’s lesson where Auntie did not share the same interpretation as Papa. Her way of balancing Papa’s lesson in this case was simply to say to me, “Please behave yourself when you are outside of this house.”
Arriving home I was greeted by Papa who was standing by the gate. I had been gone a long time. Papa’s concern had placed him just minutes away from coming to meet me. After entering the yard I told him what had happened. Papa went to the back of the house and grabbed his machete. He returned to the front, machete in hand and said to me, “come we go up the road”. Auntie who was standing on the veranda quietly spoke to Papa, “Luther watch what you do up the road.” He did not respond. Of all the times I had wanted Papa to do something about Earl’s behavior this was not one of those times at least not with a machete in his hand. We walked briskly but silently up the road Papa carrying his machete in one hand and in the other a small piece of stick.
The stick had become a habit that Papa said was helpful in preventing his hands from sweating. The stick was also most valued by workers when cropping or clearing away grass or heavy weeded the machete. The stick while being held in the opposite hand would be place firmly into the ground blocking the machete in case of an accidental over swing. The stick would be cut into by an over swinging machete and not the leg of the worker. A short distance from our home just beyond the first corner we approached the area where I had been struck down. Miss Gloria who was still sitting in her front yard spoke to Papa as we passed. “Mr. Luther! Earl is too out of order he needs to be thought a lesson.” I quietly hoped that she had not heightened my Papa’s rage.
Passing the very store I had earlier visited we turned the second corner, putting us in clear site of Earl’s friends. From our vantage point we could clearly see Earl’s friends and so could they also see us. Some one from amongst the gathering of Earl’s friends called out, “Earl! Mr. Luther coming!” Earl had been busily tending to his bicycle, possibly trying to repair the damages of earlier. With the warning from his friend of Papa’s approach Earl immediately took to running. Papa was equally quick to the chase in an attempt to catch up to Earl. Papa was now in full stride, machete in hand and me in tow.
The large store, in front of which Earl had been tending to his bicycle and
the laneway that stemmed off the main road towards Earl’s home was separated by a bridge. Earl did not take the time to cross the thirty or so yards across the bridge. He took instead, the path closest to his side of the bridge. That path went down into the riverbed. The river ran from the mountainous regions high above Earl’s home, down under the bridge then passing our home and eventually empting into the sea. The mouth of the river where it intersected with the sea was just
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a short walk from my very first school. By the time Papa and I got to the bridge we had managed to attract the attention of several of Earl’s friends along with some curious onlookers. Earl was in the water about forty yards beyond the bridge.
He was running against the flow of the shallow river towards in the direction of his home. Earl would not be going home. I knew this because not only did we know where he lived, Papa knew his parents very well.
For most children in our neighborhood complaints to our parents were almost never the first option taken by adults who we offended. The offended adult would give you a tongue lashing or depending on how well they knew your parents, just a lashing. What we fear most as children was to have our parents be informed of our misdeeds by the offended neighbour. Papa was no stranger to his rights to be a surrogate parent and would exercise his option of taking all steps necessary to deal with Earl himself.
In his haste to evade us Earl had abandoned his bicycle. Papa picked up Earl’s bicycle walked onto the bridge and whilst standing on the bridge, Papa held Earl’s bicycle over the river and called out to the still fleeing Earl. “Run all you want but you must pass my house sooner or later.” Papa then drop Earl’s bicycle some forty feet from the bridge down into the river. “You touch my boy again you will have no hands left” Papa continued. Earl still kept on running.
There was one main street from Port Antonio’s city centre, passing immediately in front of our home continuing all the way to the homes and businesses of the high mountains to the northeast of our house. Where we stood on the bridge was a continuation of that same street. All traffic traveling to that area; be it human, animal or motorized was restricted to that main road. Until he made amends with my Papa Earl’s only path from his home to the city’s center in Port Antonio would be by nightfall or by way of the river’s path. Papa’s stern manner assured me of respect by everyone who knew my Papa. However with my privileged status within our community came an even greater responsibility of never allowing my Papa to be embarrassed by my behavior. On this life lesson both Papa and Auntie would always agree.