On She Goes

Knowing Kingston, Jamaica, by Heart

Will Jamaica still feel like home now that Grandma is gone?

Stacy-Ann Ellis
Stacy-Ann Ellis
January 31, 2018
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Although the only passport I’ve ever known is a deep nighttime blue on the outside and etched with a gold Great Seal of the United States, I’ve never felt “American.” During high school, I dumbed down my identifier to “Jamerican” as a way to claim the island where my parents and their parents were born. When I grew older, I began to simply say, “My parents are Jamaican.” Sage and friendly elders who inquired about my roots—they’d notice the prominence of my cheekbones, the deepness of my skin, and the sly lilt of patois that slips out with extreme emotions—would reply, “Then you are Jamaican.”

Shuttling back and forth between Kingston, the nation’s capital and the epicenter of my heritage, and Queens, New York, has been my norm for as long as I can remember. My first trip was during the summer of 1990, when I was just six months old. Mom has never stopped—and will rightfully never stop—saying we’re all going “home” whenever we rolled sleeveless clothing into suitcases for the trip, sorting each ensemble based on our itinerary for the week. As soon as the plane touched down, our first stop was always Grandma’s house.

Grandma’s cozy abode was like its own community hub. From inside, I’d hear the warm voices of people who’ve known me all my life yelling over the gate to announce their visit—“Mrs. T! Punsie! Joycie! Mother!” they’d call—people who have become synonymous with that one-level house on Marverly Avenue.

Taking a stroll through the foliage of Hope Botanicals Gardens.
photo by Stacy-Ann Ellis

Her home was a quaint and tranquil building with corridors that demanded a slowing of pace. Unlike New York, Jamaica has an unhurried ease about it, and Grandma’s house was no different. No urgent jobs or appointments required us to rush through the small home to jet out the door. To quote Jamaicans’ simple phrase for their laid-back, feel-good energy, everything here was “irie.” Mornings were filled with ackee and saltfish, boiled green banana, scrambled eggs, tea, and hard dough bread on Grandma’s kitchen table. Evenings were for barbecue chicken and festival (sweet cornmeal fritters) from Island Grill if we got lucky. All the bones and scraps on our plates went to the dogs in the backyard: Ringo, Brownie, Buster, and Sandy. My little sister and I would intentionally leave more food on the plate for them, slightly vexing but amusing all the adults in the room.

Unlike New York, Jamaica has an unhurried ease about it, and Grandma’s house was no different.

The best thing about lazy days at Marverly, though, was seeing Grandma at her happiest. Even in her old age, she had a mouth full of teeth that she would flash in a wide smile at the sight of her family cozied all around her. Her laugh, warm as the Caribbean sun and sweet as the sugarcane that grew from her yard, was like a magnet, drawing us all near. When my sister and I grew tired of running around the property, rustling past the leaves of the banana, ackee, lime, mango, and orange trees that surrounded the house, we’d flock to her sides. Sometimes we’d stroke the soft, gray head of hair framing her face, or latch onto her arms, a bit wrinkled but still strong. Mom and Dad would always be lounging around on a seat nearby. Everything about that space felt comfortable, even when, physically, it wasn’t.

If we didn’t light mosquito candles or sleep with a thin sheet over our heads, the zzzzip of speedy wings flitting around our ears kept us up at night. If not that, then the chorus of yard and street dogs having their nightly conversations would, their yelps and barks bouncing across the dirt road in a call-and-response we could never participate in. No hot water runs here, and tiny lizards would slip in and out of the grates in the bathroom window, which always scared me.

But it was home. No matter how hot and bothered I felt, my clothes sticking to me as my cousin and uncle picked us up from Norman Manley International Airport, there was my Grandma standing at the front door of her house in flip-flops and a slip dress, ready to greet her “little grand-D” with open arms. Until the year when she wasn’t there.

Family and friends finish up a delicious seafood meal at a local restaurant in Port Royal.
photo by Stacy-Ann Ellis

In February of 2017, one week after my 27th birthday, my family returned to Kingston to see Grandma. But this time it was to bury her. When we entered the home, the air was stiff with longing. Faces and memories of our lineage were tacked to the walls. She was no longer propped up on the cushy red couch ready to let us interrupt her Judge Joe Brown or nightly news TV sessions to chitchat. There is an emptiness now, when for all those years in her house, we knew there would be fullness.

She was my last living grandparent. Since her death, we’ve yet to plan a return trip, since going to Jamaica will have to take on a new meaning for us all. How will I expand my memories now that Grandma won’t be a part of them? Now begins the task of relearning what going “home” means without our hearth.

How will I expand my memories now that Grandma won’t be a part of them?

In a way, it’s sad because it will be a slight but significant shift from our usual routine: Devon House for sweet ice cream, rum and raisin or Grape-Nuts (no, not “great nuts”) flavored. Night strolls around Redemption Song Monument in Emancipation Park, the bronze depiction of a naked man and woman looking up to the skies in freedom. Licking the flavors of escovitch fried fish, festival, and D&G sodas from our fingers while kicking up the sands of Fort Clarence and Hellshire Beaches. Taking long walks through foliage and nimble clusters of mosquitoes at Hope Botanical Gardens. Driving out to Port Royal to roam old pirate stomping grounds for delectable seafood scooped right from the sea. Taking in Half Way Tree’s shopping hub, where merchants, hagglers, uniformed schoolchildren, buses, and the vibrancy of Kingston life stretches out along Constant Spring Road. Praising the Lord at Coke Methodist Church, a Jamaica National Heritage Trust site, on Sundays no matter what. Places we’ve all been countless times before but still loved going to. Voyages that began and ended on Marverly with Grandma.

It’s bittersweet, but the silver lining is that as a traveling family, we are no longer bound to location or routine. Checking in on Grandma was not only a familial joy but also a necessity; as she crept further into her 90s, both her ailments and needs increased. After my mom, aunts, and uncles tended to her first, then we could go about our adventures. Now, those adventures can extend beyond her home’s surrounding areas. For example, I’ve never been to Saint Ann, Manchester, Clarendon, Saint Catherine, Saint Thomas, or any of the island’s other parishes outside of Saint Andrew. I’ve yet to hike to the site of Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain Coffee or visit the scattered “country” beyond Kingston. I still haven’t felt the icy chill of Dunn’s River Falls as an adult, nor stepped foot inside Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong recording studio. I’ve yet to see the resort-lands of Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios—the pristine oases that non-Caribbeans are referring to when they say, “I loveee Jamaica! I went there one time!”

The family hangs out in Grandma’s kitchen, cleaning up after dinner.
photo by Stacy-Ann Ellis

My mother and father are filled to the brim with rich stories of their youth, name-dropping locales and activities whose images I cannot paint in my head. Retracing these steps with my parents and my sister, forging new lines along our Jamaica road map, can still be something special. It can be our reason to return to the island even though it hurts. The wound may be too fresh for us to continue sleeping in Grandma’s house, passing through the room housing her bed, trinkets, and old clothes. But it would be criminal to let her absence stop us from holding on to the one place where we reconnect with ourselves. Because although it was her island, and my mother and father’s island, it’s my island, too. I know Grandma would have wanted me to feel as comfortable and loved here as I’d always been. Jamaica, itself, is still home.