“As she told me stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.”
That’s Jamaica Kincaid, writing about her mother in the exquisite Annie John, a novella I read for the third time yesterday while flying from Grenada to Miami on my way home to Ann Arbor. Inside my copy of the book (whose cover cracked in half midway over the Caribbean, so old is the volume), I found a note I’d written to myself in an unspecified year:
“I first read this book eight years ago and fell in love with it. I picked it up again a few weeks ago on a dreary January day and fell for it all over again.”
Such is the nature of literary devotion. This time I took the affair a step further by carrying the book to and from Kincaid’s kind of island; I even coupled it with her delicate screed of an essay, A Small Place (now reviewed in the newly released Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter). A Small Place indicts those, like me, who swoop down on beautiful islands for a mid-winter respite from our colorless lives.
“When the natives see you, the tourist,” Kincaid charges, “they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”
Flying over Caribbean yesterday, I spotted a larger place, the island where my own mother grew up: Haiti, whose stories she has not tired of telling, even now, in her 92nd year. She grows teary when I report by phone from Miami that I saw the dun-colored country of her childhood from the air.
At 30,000+ feet, Haiti is an unpeopled bit of geometry surrounded by an ethereal blue sea that edges into sky, into a kind of nothingness that suggests (to me at least) the state of my mother’s mind these days. I sit staring from my window at the place where my mother slept under mosquito nets and checked her shoes for scorpions in the morning and listened as the family maid, Ta Gras (from Alta Gracia), brought the morning’s coffee to my grandmother. It’s an idyll Kincaid might attack, given its context–my grandfather was managing a sisal plantation, and the U.S. Marines had recently occupied the country.
Still, these are the stories my mother fed me until I no longer knew what she was saying, and as we fly over the turquoise sea where her mind increasingly dwells, I tell myself she is laughing.
Hello there. I am so grateful to have found a descendent of the Scarlett family. I have been to your family burial ground here in my hometown of Brunswick and fell in love with the place. Sadly, upon revisiting it the other day, i see where it has been completely destroyed and it breaks my heart. I thought you would want to know. I wish that i had been blessed to see and take photos of the family home before they tore it down. Do you have any photos that you might share with me? Our history is being destroyed on all sides and it is very sad that folks think it is okay to do such a thing. I grew up with a friend named Deyette Scarlett. I believe she is a distant relative of yours. She was a dear friend and sadly, has passed away. I would be honored to hear from you as i have a powerful curiosity to hear more about your family home. I only know a little that i have read in historical books about Brunswick. I dearly hope to hear from you soon. Respectfully, Cynthia C. Moyers (cici)
Dear Cynthia, My apologies for the delay!! I’m delighted to hear from you and to be in touch. I share your distress and concern about the graveyard–I was last there nearly two years ago and fairly horrified by what I found. It was vandalized in 2010, with damages estimated at $30,000. There were plans to restore some of the broken tombstones, but those plans must have fallen through. There was also a family fund for cemetery upkeep, but I’m not sure what’s happened to that. I do have a fair number of photos of the graveyard before it was destroyed, and I’d be happy to share them with you. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m hoping to get back to Brunswick before too long, and if I do, it’d be lovely to meet in person. I do not know Deyette Scarlett and would love to learn more–