by Pittershawn Palmer
I was born beneath Cuba, across the waters of the West Indies on an island that lives and breathes Bob Marley. It was 1967. While papa, my grandfather, was mending the house he built with his bare hands, civil rights marches were happening in foreign, the place the locals called America. As King, Jr. lay dead, murdered by the mindset of the majority, I learned to walk on hot stones. The light of a man went out. I was oblivious to this then. I lived in a place where electricity and running water and indoor plumbing didn’t reach us. The outhouse was dark at night. But my uncle would take me there sometimes. At other times the chimmy, as my grandmother called it, would be pulled out from under the bed, squatted over, then slid back filled with yellow waste that reminded us of our simple life.
I was small and grass blade thin but I remember the mangoes and jackfruit and star apples and ackee and ginepes and the flowers I used to make jewelry, little necklaces and bracelets, bright and red and beautiful. I want to remember the name of that flower, but time sends memories away to places we can’t find.
My memories are not tall and steady like Tasmanian ash. They are like tossed marbles on the floor rolling away from their center. They scatter and cause the eyes to dart here and there, trying to find a fixed point. I follow one, then another as it rolls underneath inanimate things that await them as they move out of sight. I reach for one but it has vanished deep behind a large black refrigerator too heavy to be moved. Not even lost memories begging to be set free can lift it. Some memories roll out of reach but still visible, others stop and wait for their story to be told. There is no order, just pieces of moments that fade in and out of remembrance. The memories do not compete. As each one comes the others move out of the way. The pieces of my life unfold this way. To organize each thought would be to destroy the flow of memory, and marbles seeking their own destiny. So I recount pieces of my life in no particular order, in honor of memory with its often fragmented, inaccurate, shambolic and fleeting way of being.
Nineteen sixty-seven wasn’t that long ago. It was the year before the official end of the Civil Rights Movement. Jamaica was still an infant learning to walk into the arms of its newfound independence from the United Kingdom. It was already five years old when I came into the world. In many ways I believe I learned to walk before Jamaica learned to tread the newness of its perceived freedom from the oppressive crown. Jamaica was young in the eyes of its colonizers who felt they’d brought the “savages” a better way of life and contrived independence, but it was millennia old in the eyes of the Arawaks and Tainos who carried the oral history of an island that knew freedom long before anyone knew they existed.
I am descended from Arawak and Taino. This truth doesn’t comfort me but instead reminds me of a violent past that has led me to this place called America; where I speak English and wear the clothes of oppressors and eat fruits and vegetables that would have been foreign to me had I lived in a time before visitors with ill intentions set foot upon my soil. Some say the past is the past and there is no getting it back, let it go. Being Arawak becomes that marble that has rolled under the refrigerator and has lodged itself in a space unreachable. It can be reached, but at what cost to everything around it that must be upheaved in order to rescue it from its future? Or its past? Or that space between past and future that is not quite now, but a feeling that won’t rest.
In 1967 life didn’t pause to listen to my birth cries as I exited my mother’s pained and bloody womb. Before my entrance, as I swam inside her listening to the warm breeze against the leaves of Jamaica through amniotic fluid, smelled through her nose and saw through skin that stretched and thinned with each passing month, Aretha Franklin released her soon to be hit song, “Respect” and the body of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was moved to its permanent burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Life in vivo, death in vitro. Fidel Castro took back his home and intellectual property, Elvis married Priscilla, and The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Maybe that summer of love flowed through me as their song flowed to the top of the charts. A few weeks after my umbilical cord was cut to release me from my nine-month life source, the Soviet Union cut its umbilical cord from Israel. Race riots spread to Washington, D.C., an abortion bill was passed in British Parliament, Rhodesian parliament passed pro-Apartheid laws, and Thurgood Marshall was nominated as the first African-American Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Black life was intensely tumultuous and exhilarating all at once.
It was not long before that day that I too almost died. Nation dividing events furiously moved through sunrises and sunsets threatening to devour what our ancestors died for and what the future wanted to create. As I lay on the bed, barely two weeks old, my mother attended to chores outside under the hot Jamaican sun. She had left me asleep. But I was determined to awaken from the slumber of infancy and a past life remembered, one where I moved about and made my way around the otherworld before I could crawl.
My mother still remembers the day. She knew with fair certainty that her current life would have been thwarted had things gone differently. She would have been jailed with no chance of anyone believing her. Her instincts saved her, or maybe it was the “voice” whom she said surreptitiously told her things she couldn’t have known. She has always been a seer. She passed it on to me. It saved her many times throughout her life. In my case, she was saved not only from jail time, but from a loss that would have been inexplicable. She obeyed the voices and dropped what she was doing and went inside the house. There I was, awake and filled with glee.
Many often make grand assumptions based on our limited observations and from that, decide what we think we know for sure. Nothing, however, could have prepared my mother for her two week old baby whom she’d placed in the center of a large bed, to be a mere push away from falling head first onto a hard wood floor. Two-week old babies cannot roll or turn or crawl or push. That is the wisdom we’ve received in this modern world.
I was ahead of my time. There was something brewing inside me that could not be contained. I walked at six months and was reading at four years old. I saw ghosts on kitchen counters at five years old and before I turned ten carried memories of a time before here, a time of comfortable darkness. It was a place where I could not see sunlight with human eyes, but I saw a brilliant light with what I call soul eyes. There was no fear there, only the comfort of being enveloped by the blackness that whispered to me through matter-less air. At times I want to call it black light, but it is not the kind we’ve named on earth, not the kind that can move darkness away so our human eyes can see. It is the kind of black light that moves fear away so we can see. It moved the kind of fear away that coaxed my two-week old self to show my mother that my tiny body remembered a soul movement. The memory of darkness stays with me, even now almost 48 years later when I still feel I am in the world, but not of it.
Although the darkness reminds me to enjoy the now, there are places to remember that house aspects of me that preceded the womb—a strong womb. My mother’s womb had to be strong. She carries within her DNA the memory of Maroons who fought so hard and fiercely that she could only birth a warrior who wanted to crawl and walk and die before her time. The darkness beckons me to remember its presence. It wants me to hold on to the many fragile, fractured and joyous memories that make up the gumbo of my existence.
Memories sway inside my mind.
The Bronx, New York eventually became home. For 33 years I explored the literary scene and met writers, editors, agents and readers who wanted nothing more than great works to litter the landscape of literature and become a land piled high with stories. It was during those years that I wanted to move from being a casual writer and poet to becoming a professional writer working to perfect her craft. Stories of my brief years in Jamaica summoned me to the page. I sat down to write, but nothing came; so I leaned on poetry and wrote about death, love, life and sexuality.
Neophyte writing did not garner economic comforts, but straight rope and double-dutch were the jobs my friends and I happily worked until we were paid in praise, Twinkies, red juice or a round of Hide and Seek. Our bonus was Blind Man’s Bluff played sometimes in dark basements and at other times with blindfolds that kept the person who was “it” from seeing us. You had to listen carefully because your ears became your eyes and without your ears you wouldn’t catch those who tiptoed around you teasingly.
When the streetlights came on doors began to close and unruly children who felt the night was their domain would find their buttocks domain meeting with long strips of cowhide. Parents carried to work memories of their discipline buckled around their waists as children carried to school memories of missed sundowns, street lights they would sling shot into darkness, a love of open sky, stars that doubled as street lights and a full white moon that sling shots could not reach.
I remember lost virginity being as uneventful as a cool drink of water, but somehow still satisfying. There were girls who told tall tales of pain and blood and tears who made sex seem like painful birth. We each have our stories and we tell them well. But they are our stories, meant to share what is behind our eyes. Still, I carried their fears and experiences into the bedroom. When the threshold of my womanhood was reached and breached I realized that I carried dead weight that did not belong to my story. It was then that I realized that if I were to make it through this life with authentic experiences I had to learn to listen and wait for my story and the voices that whispered my path.
Memories move like strong winds under obsidian skies.
Disjointed memories flooded in to remind me of a drive in theater. The fragmented memory was so persistent that all I wanted was to open a drive in movie theater. It would be a place where the German film Metropolis from 1927 would reel across the giant screen under a bright full moon as stars dimmed due to the light of the screen. Double features like the 1934 and 1959 versions of “Imitation of Life,” adapted from the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst would bring the progressives together to later talk about the nature of race in film and its portrayal of the mixed child who did not merely want to pass for white, but be white. This is how I imagined my drive-in to be, filled with engaging films from the past with a speckling of modern flavor for the not so nostalgic.
I would eventually go to a drive-in movie as an adult. Memories from my childhood persisted and I longed for placement of those experiences. I would eventually begin to believe it was a dream I had that I believed was real. I shared my dream with many friends and family members. It never occurred to me that I had not told my father. I was maybe 45 years old when I first mentioned my memory to him. We were in the Poconos in Pennsylvania standing in my living room talking. Like a child remembering hopscotch, double dutch or the hula-hoop, I rambled on about my fondest memories and shared my dream to one day open a drive-in theater. My father smiled as I spoke.
“I took you to a drive-in theatre when you were a child in Jamaica.”
I was astounded. My father said there was no way I could remember that. But remember I did. I had never known who took me, I only remembered the feeling of the drive-in. I could not have been more than three, yet I carried memories the average three year old could never find even if they searched the farthest reaches of their mind. On a small island in the Caribbean Sea, I housed inside my tiny body immutable memory.
The lack of electricity and running water were elements that did not stop my father from sharing an experience with me that took me far from my simple beginnings of outhouses, and water barrels on a porch built with bare brown hands.
Memories course deep.
Harper Avenue summers were scorching and endless in the late 70s and early 80s. My mother would send me outside almost daily to water the parched grass. I would drown the lawn in order to spend extra time outside. Puddles of water gathered at the end of our concrete driveway and ran down the sidewalk until it found the sewage grates. As I created the second great flood, my mother welcomed a new tenant into our three-family apartment building.
Our tenant was a nurses’ assistant bound for her RN. She was still new to America and came without her young children in order to build a life for them. Like most Jamaicans, she believed that America was the land of opportunity. Her children waited in Jamaica for several years before she gathered the funds and paperwork to bring them to her new home. Her son arrived one summer only a few short weeks away from the new school year. He was enthralled with the American life and carried a smile with him everywhere he went. It would be many decades later before his smile would be dimmed by loss and loneliness. That summer he wanted nothing more than December to arrive and with it, the snow he’d never before experienced.
The winter came and it was time for the gathering of energy. Like winter he was filled with energy waiting to be released. He wanted to see snow and would look outside the window daily, hoping for flurries that seemed to take forever to come. When the day came, it was momentous. Drunk with joy he headed for the door. His glee was contagious. I ran after him. We were barefoot and knew we needed to put on shoes to keep out the cold. But it was too late. We were like beings possessed. We ran outside and began to dance and jump in the snow barefoot. To this day I don’t remember my feet being cold. We wanted to feel the raw nakedness of his first winter. I wrote a poem about our experience which I still look at from time to time and refine so it is the essence of what we experienced. I wrote with a flavor of my Jamaican accent; not to heavy, not too light.
Feet in Snow
This girl remember bare feet in snow on a warm winter day.
Sun beaming down on two wide-eyed kids
enjoying tufts of cold white flakes between toes.
One child just come from Jamaica.
The other come just five years before.
The one just come never see snow before.
He giggle with delight.
Snow fall from sky like rain.
He look up in wonder.
It fall slow, like cotton, but cold, he say.
We feel it. Feet melting it until we reach concrete or grass.
We reach hands to sky, try to catch the cotton that come down.
It fall in shapes, like sky stars.
It fall on tongues that love ice.
It melt like it never existed.
Body too warm for it to live long.
Arms swing. Bodies spin.
Mother look out window.
What you doing? You crazy?
You will catch cold and die!
Get inside now!
Mother don’t know snow can’t kill us.
Snow love us. It made for us.
It fall for us. It dance for us.
Mother don’t know. She too far removed.
She forget the child inside her.
She forget that laughter scare away demons.
The demons can’t take us from this place.
From the land of snow fall.
From the land of bare feet on white stars.
It was a mid-70s winter. It was a time of building childhood memories and finding ways to save the child inside us that was slowly growing out of itself. That day healed us and freed something inside us. In many ways we fought to remain children. But we continued to stretch toward the sky, fighting a future we could not halt.
© 2015 Excerpt from In the Space of Scattered Memories
Pittershawn Palmer is a published freelance writer and author. She earned her B.A. in English and M.S. in Journalism (magna cum laude) from Iona College. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Goddard College. She moonlights as a graphic arts and web designer. She has published When We Were One, her first novel; a book of poetry, Words…Loving Emotions; two short stories, The Letters and “Lights on a Cave Wall”, for the anthology Making the Hook-Up; and is working on her second novel as well as several short stories. In the Space of Scattered Memories is a soon to be published memoir that shares random snippets of her life. She can be found at thezaji.com and zajizee.wordpress.com under her pen name. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.