A Bajan holiday
IT IS MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY today, the third Monday in January and the first Monday holiday of the year. First observed in 1986, two decades after a significant holiday of my own, MLK Day represents a step forward in race relations here in the United States.
In keeping with that warming trend, especially for those of us living in northern climes, the day often coincides with thoughts of getting away—from the old, the cold, the less-than-friendly business of getting ahead. In fact, no matter one’s ethnicity, leisure travel is a common bond; jetting away to someplace warm a common desire.
Unfortunately, the chilly economy has persuaded me to travel by armchair this season, which, on the whole, has proved a not-unpleasant way to escape the snowbound New England outside my window. I laze on the couch, stare into the orange glow crackling in the fireplace and think of warmer places, like the first time I saw the Caribbean . . .
It was 1966, I was twelve, and my father surprised us with a family vacation to Barbados. This was unusual since, after a trip by car to Florida some years earlier to visit our grandparents, my father vowed never again to subject himself to such close quarters with his brood of five for such a long spell, without escape and especially without air-conditioning.
Yet several years later, after my eldest sister had married and begun her own family and my next-eldest sister was away at college, my father wondered where the time had gone and put his familial reservations aside. This time the drive was shorter, to Queens and JFK Airport—Idlewild, my father continued to call it (he had not been a Kennedy supporter)—the 727 we were to board a considerable step up from the Country Squire we’d sardined ourselves into those many years before.
Landing at Grantley Adams Airport, the first thing we noticed, other than the blast of tropical heat in the middle of April and the whimsical, pastel-colored chattel houses flocking the runway, was that everyone around us was black—not the variegated shades of “colored” inhabiting the welfare projects back home in Connecticut, or of porters and washroom attendants we came across in New York City, but a black-as-ebony black, the matte black of piano keys. Curiously, it was white tourists who were sweating, squinting in the Tropic of Cancer sun as they moved in a thin, anemic rivulet through the rich loam of Bajans.
“Good afternoon, sir. May I see your passport?” came the lilting Queen’s English of the customs officer from behind her grille. She peered benignly over her glasses at the rest of us, all the way down to my towheaded sister. “And milady’s?”
My mother, startled by the appellation, looked to my father for proof of her sudden, elevated status, and in no time we were waved into the country. After a longish left-handed drive through lush landscapes, we were soon settled in our cottage, a charming respite on a slope of Bermuda grass cropped close as a fairway and surrounded by low shrubs of rose mallow and bird of paradise.
Well-to-do friends of my parents were staying with their two girls at Sandy Lane, an exclusive resort on the calm, upper-crust side of bell-shaped Barbados, a place out of reach for us despite the very good living my father made. Instead, he had booked the five of us—my parents, my younger brother, sister and me—into an old British homestead on the wilder eastern shore, a former pirate’s castle that had been converted into a hotel. We occupied one of the newer guesthouses perched on the surrounding cliffs, where waves crashed in spectacular fashion against the coral hollows, and just as fearsomely along the nearby beach. It was our first exposure to a tropical island, and the water’s rough surface didn’t quite live up to what any of us imagined a Caribbean shore to be. My father scoffed at our timidity. “Good for the character,” he huffed.
Our first night, we walked up the hill to the castle like good serfs and dined on dolphin fish, plantains, and Edwardian splendor, served up by a white-gloved staff with the same bespoke accent as their airport counterparts. By dessert, we felt like revered guests. My parents enjoyed a couple or three after-dinner drinks before we descended to our seaside abode and comfortable beds hard by the jalousied windows. Within minutes, my father rousted all of us with complaints of the noisy air-conditioning units squeaking incessantly.
Calls were made to the front desk. “I’m paying all this money to listen to this racket?” my father grumbled in ever-louder tones. Immediately, a surfeit of startled staff appeared in our cottage to attend to the matter and smooth ruffled feathers. Meanwhile my mother, brother, sister and I watched with increasing embarrassment our father’s tirade at our accommodating hosts, who, after about fifteen minutes, assessed the problem: Tree frogs—melodious, chirping tree frogs singing their nightly lullaby. My father was immediately placated, apologized profusely, and slept like a man endowed.
Adjusting to Caribbean life was by turns smooth and bumpy. Sweetening the adventure were the sugar birds that fluttered marvelously around our heads at breakfast on the castle’s porch, brazenly dipping their beaks into sugar bowls filled with local cane and sipping the maple syrup, imported from Vermont, that covered our pancakes.
Equally pleasurable, every afternoon my siblings and I sized up the churning Atlantic and dove fearlessly into the breaking waves headfirst. We had the steep white beach to ourselves save for a boy my brother’s age, a native of the island who watched our antics with some interest. He didn’t know how to swim, he told us matter-of-factly despite our wide-eyed inability to square the incongruity of a land-locked existence aboard this island Eden.
Less pleasurable, our second night introduced us to our first luau, a Hawaiian-style pig roast and barbecue complete with flaming torches, limbo contest and steel-drum band, whose leader exhorted guests to join him on the sandy dance floor. No one did—certainly not we three youngsters, shy enough at school dances at home and not about to come forward on a beach, no matter how alluring the swaying palms or distance from school friends.
But our father was of a different temperament. Never one to waste good music, he’d sweep my mother onto any available dance floor at the first downbeat. On this night, for some reason, he chose to spectate, to be entertained by the ersatz Polynesian flavors drifting his way. Moody in the best of times, he suddenly ordered the three of us to get out there and dance, the edge in his voice making it clear that any dissension in the ranks would not be tolerated.
Our stomachs lurched with humiliation as we shuffled to the center of the circle, the lone performers. Hopping side to side to the unfamiliar musical currents, our sunburned limbs bobbing awkwardly, we trembled under the ever-louder drumming until, finally, the sound of plinking steel crashed over us in one gigantic wave. Bowed by the onslaught, we scurried back to the table, holding our ears in relief and shame at our poor showing.
The next morning only extended the difficulties. Purposely, our father had left his golf clubs at home in order to reacquaint himself with his remaining progeny and the customary threesome that was my brother, sister and I became, somewhat uncomfortably, a lop-sided foursome. Our father, it seems, was attempting to recapture a youth about which we knew little except that he once played something called stickball and frequented a place called Ebbets Field when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Of course, such travel back in time is quite impossible, and after fending off one too many of our cannonballs poolside and the same number of scratch shots at the snooker table, he abandoned us to our mother with evident relief to tool around the parishes by himself.
Left to his own devices, he headed north to explore the coastline, keeping a windward view of the Atlantic out the driver-side window while remembering to pilot his compact Dodge left. This kept him on his toes, a place he often found himself, for as a self-made man by happenstance and a stockbroker by trade, it had been his experience that relaxing one’s guard invited all manner of unwelcome surprises.
The two-lane affair known usefully if not very picturesquely as Highway 5 led him around the rim of the island’s “bell” to the village of Industry Hall and Highway 4B, which in turn led him inland and, making right turns where he could—tricky in this topsy-turvy country—onto various highways that put him in sight of the sea.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Supers he noticed a local native, a tall, thin man dressed in suit clothes elegantly thumbing a ride. In those days there were few cars to clog the roads, and in the nearly non-existent traffic, my father pulled over to give the man a lift. This would have been unthinkable in suburban Connecticut, but here in this former English colony, somehow the sons and daughters descended from slaves seemed not to bear any grudge against the descendants of their oppressors, and in fact had such grace, openness and dignity about them that my father lost any inhibitions he might otherwise have had.
There was no hesitation on the hitchhiker’s part either. He climbed in next to my father with a nod to the driver as if he were boarding a bus he’d been expecting, and folded his slim build and neat dress into the passenger seat with equal economy. He seemed to my father the picture of intelligence, and as a sign indicated Codrington College was just up ahead, my father asked his passenger if he happened to be associated with the institution.
“No, sir, I am not,” replied the traveler—Livingston turned out to be his name—and informed my father that the college was a seminary for Anglican ministers, and that he tended the grounds of Andromeda Botanical Gardens.
“And you’re headed there now, Livingston?”
The two men sailed along under cabbage palms and blue skies, alongside fields of sugarcane climbing hillsides and bandbox cottages painted aquas, pinks and mint greens, pretty as Easter bonnets all the way through New Castle. My father had no idea how long a drive it might be and didn’t care. He was a stranger in a strange, beautiful land and had all the time in the world. Finally, at Foster Hall, he pulled over at the gardener’s gesture.
“Thank you,” said Livingston.
“Glad to oblige,” returned my father. “Say, Livingston, know where I can get a bite?”
“Bathsheba,” came the answer, a long, thin arm pointing back toward the shore. “She’s a pretty spot.”
At water’s edge my father was unable to find any sign of an eatery, only a dead-end beach road and a few houses set back on the bluffs. But as he was hot and sweaty, one thing led to another, and he took up the ocean’s invitation to bathe, which proved sustenance enough. Long, lazy waves curled across the wide shallows and settled themselves benignly on the sand, their approach broken by several rocks of immense size, as if left behind by some Gulliver grown tired of playing ninepins-by-the-sea. My father shed shirt and shoes and stepped gingerly between stones slippery with moss until he was fully immersed in an Atlantic a far cry from the one he’d known off Brighton Beach.
He swam out quite a ways, perhaps a good quarter-mile. From this vantage point he could almost imagine what buccaneers and slave traders to the New World had first seen as they arrived at this most eastern of the Lesser Antilles, still pristine. Naturally, things had changed since then, for the hand of man was visible everywhere, in the checkered fields of sugarcane and the road not yet taken. His gaze followed the pavement’s switchbacks up the hillside, disappearing behind verdant foliage until it was resurrected at a promontory wide enough to accommodate a church the color of warm stone that looked down upon him with similar mien and across an ocean that went all the way to Africa.
It was the Saturday following Good Friday, which got my father thinking, and that night we were all shooed straight to bed, my father even forgoing his customary after-dinner stinger. The next morning at dawn, he awakened my brother, sister and me, told us to get dressed, make haste, we were going to church.
In the early light he drove through a tintype landscape while the three of us nodded off in the backseat. Our mother roused us when we arrived at St. Joseph’s, and we stumbled groggily across a jumble of low walls and cemetery stones to assemble ourselves inside.
There, a sea of primary colors flowed from stained-glass windows and spread across the black congregation like a benison.
We had arrived late and I noticed that my mother, sister and I were the only hatless females, though that was the least of what set us apart. The Anglican hymns weren’t familiar either but we followed along as best we could; our father did, too, which surprised all of us a little, as he took a dim view of religion, particularly the Catholic one in which he and we had been raised. I’m not sure what he expected to find amidst strangers so wholly different from us, people who didn’t know him from Adam. Maybe he was grateful for so much beauty and the means to enjoy it. Maybe this was his way of giving thanks. It felt that way to me.
Following my father’s usual fashion, we didn’t dally after the service, nor hobnob with the congregants, but went about the business of leaving as unceremoniously as we had arrived. By then the sun had risen and the sea below looked liked burnished silver, sparkling and dancing in the light. From the hillside I could just make out a bather, featureless as a stick figure, wading into the trembling waters off Bathsheba, whose wide ruffled skirts embraced him that Easter morning.