Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Fall by Minehaha Forman

When I was eight years old, I fell out of a tree and my face smashed into the rosewood beams that lay beneath it. I still wonder how I’m alive today, or at least not incredibly deformed.
It was a dry day, and I was taking a break between math problems. Way was talking to a visitor halfway down the hill, and, overcome with a sudden curiosity, I climbed a tree to see who it was. Perched at my usual branch about four feet off the ground, I couldn’t see far enough down the hillside.
I climbed higher and higher, grabbing into unfamiliar branches, checking to see if I could get a better view at each branch. I was at least 12 feet up when I got a glimpse of the visitor in the driveway. It was a thin man with dreadlocks who I didn’t recognize.I reached up and shifted all my weight to a branch above me and hung there, letting my feet unwrap from the trunk as I peered down the hillside. Suddenly, there was a crack and a spray of rotted wood dust hit my face. Before I could grab another branch, I felt myself falling. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and everything was blurred. My heart raced and the warm summer air felt cold. Everything was a frantic swirl: a life-flashing past, and then evaporating. I flailed my arms in blind search for a branch to grab onto on the way down. The skin on my right arm was torn by something sharp, and then I saw it: the pile of rosewood logs that I was to hit in seconds. My muscles wrapped tight around my bones as I braced for impact. There were no more branches to grasp at. It was over.
My face hit the logs first and the rest of my body came crashing after it. It felt like the time I accidentally inhaled water at the river—a sharp sting high up in my nose from liquid in my sinuses and then a burning in my throat. But it came and went in a flash. Soon I didn’t feel anything but a warmth in my fingers and toes, everything else was numb. I didn’t move right away. It felt like I was standing outside of my body looking at myself, a calming warmth radiating through me. There was no pain. I didn’t move, I felt like I was falling asleep. I was brought back by the sound of Jah’s voice breaking into a long bawl. I sat up to see what was the matter. He was staring at me and screaming and I felt confused. I stood up and felt a wash of warm liquid run down my face and the front of my flowered rag dress, I my head felt so light on my shoulders, I almost fell over. I looked down and thought the red liquid looked pretty as it soaked into the fabric leaving behind the thick clumps of tissue that didn’t soak through the cloth.
The warm feeling spread from my fingers and toes to all of my skin. A dull metallic taste filled my mouth. I felt like laying back down and continuing my nap but I thought I should at least walk to the bed in the house.
Jah’s cries had alerted Na and she was standing at the end of the path by the house looking down the driveway that was the entrance to our hilltop home. When she saw me her fists clenched. Her face got red and she looked angry and terrorized at the same time. A warm trickle still flowed from my face, the blood soaked fabric of my dress stuck to my stomach and it felt like a warm blanket. I saw red dots of blood start to drip on my feet. I walked right up to her, looked up, and I smiled.
“I’m fine,” I said. “It doesn’t even hurt.”
Na grabbed at a nearby water drum to catch her balance. Her face went from red to pale. I felt a sweeping calm, like I did after eating a large hot meal. Sleep seemed so close, now. The ground looked soft, like a bed.
“Can I take a nap?” I asked.
Na let out a primal scream. The world got blurry. I felt her grab my arm. “I’m so angry with you. I’ll never forgive you.” She said lowered herself to my level and looked me in the eyes. “I will never forgive you for this.”
Moments later, I felt cold water hit my face and it disrupted my euphoric feeling. I felt a deep, distant throb inside my skull. I felt Na’s hands on the back of my neck and a cold cloth dabbing my face. I heard voices. At my core, I just wanted everyone to know I was all right. I tried a smile but my muscles slackened. I just needed a nap. Everything would be fine. Why didn’t everyone know?
When my face was wiped off, Na led me to the hammock in the kitchen. I sat in it and laid back. The warm stream down my face had been replaced with the cool dampness of a cloth. My nostrils were full of something thick and wet. I had to breath out of my mouth.
“We need a doctor,” I heard Na say. Then I heard Way and saw his face appear over me. He returned to his discussion with Na. “We can do it ourself!” He said. Then  they lowered their voices but I heard snippets of the conversation all ending in “her nose.”
I reached up to feel my face and Na slapped my hand. “Don’t touch it! We have to tape it on. We’ll just tape it in place. That’s what we’ll do.” She was talking fast and frantic and pacing. Jah was staring at me with red, watery eyes and quivering.
An idea was floating around in my head. Something bad happened. Something very bad happened to my face. My nose. Where was it? I couldn’t feel a thing, or at least no pain; just a cool breeze on my skin.
“I’m fine.” I repeated, and I was surprised at the gurgled, nasal sound that was my voice.
“Don’t talk!” Na shouted at me. “Just be quiet!”
She ran into the wooden house. Way turned to me and bent over the hammock, examining my face closely. “Yeah, Min,” he said smiling,“You bus’ up your face, but don’t worry. We a fix it, okay? Just relax.”
Na returned with a roll of duct tape, some cotton balls we used to wrap around sticks and use as Q-tips, and a pair of scissors. She set them on the kitchen table and she and Way discussed antibiotic cream, namely that we didn’t have any.
Way went into the garden near the kitchen and came back with four fat aloe vera leaves. He slit one open with a knife and dug its inner clear jelly into a bowl. Na mashed the cotton in it until it was wet and sticky. She then took the cotton and wiped my face with long gentle strokes in one direction. It felt slimy and cold, faintly itchy. Globs of it dripped down into the creases of my lips and an intense bitterness invaded my mouth. Na tore off pieces of duct tape, one after another, and stuck them over the aloe soaked cotton onto my face. It didn’t hurt. It felt like my face was not mine at all, like my being had shrunk inside of my body making it a shell.
When she was done, she asked if I could open my mouth. I could, but only halfway. She said it was fine. “Just enough to get a spoon in.” I breathed through my mouth, shut my eyes. The world went quiet.
Almost instantly, Na shook me. “You can’t sleep right away, you’ve had a concussion.” She said. “Jah, find her a book, I don’t want her to go into a coma.”
I opened my eyes and three pairs of eyes blinked back at me. Na had pulled up stools around the hammock for her and Jah and she held Chaka in her lap.
“She’s alive!” Jah jumped off the stool, a wild look on his face. “Now can I ask her which books?”
I wasn’t sure if he was happier that I was alive or that it meant that Na would read us story.
“Get the one with the story about the man who pulls the thread.” I gurgled.

Jah jumped as if he had heard a ghost. He looked at me for a second and then ran to the wooden house to find the book of Russian fairy tales that was my favorite.
The first story I requested was the one about a man who was going through a hard time. He encountered a witch in the forest who gave him a magical ball of thread. He could pull on the thread and time would fast forward, a perfect tool to skip over life’s worst moments. The man ended up pulling through all the hard parts of his life and so he aged and died fast–something like a matter of days.
“If you had that thread would you pull it ’til your face was fixed?” Jah asked.
I tried to open my mouth to answer but the duct tape pinched me. I would, I thought to myself. I’d pull the thread.
As Na read, Jah was tasked with keeping me awake. It was a duty he cherished, poking and pinching me whenever my eyes lowered. We sat there listening to stories until the evening birds could be heard in the surrounding jungle and Na had to boil the beans to preserve them for the next day. Jah helped me out of the hammock to the wooden house. By nightfall my face had swollen so far that my eyes were reduced to slits that I could barely see out of. Na had held her hand in front of my face at different points during the day to make sure I could see, and I could until my face swelled shut which set her at ease knowing that I had’t gone blind. Now, I saw slivers of light in front of me but the swelling made it hard to see far enough to walk.
We all packed onto our sponge mattress as usual. Na and Chaka at the bottom and Jah and I laying diagonally so out feet didn’t touch her.  I got Jah’s pillow and mine to prop my head up on to help me breathe. Na said I could fall asleep, since I seemed pretty alert and out of the the woods for a possible coma. No sooner than I laid down, I fell asleep.
When I woke up I was alarmed that my eyes had sealed shut with a crusty dried fluid and I couldn’t open them. It stayed like that for about a week. Na changed the duct tape and cotton balls on my face every morning and evening and put more aloe on. A few days in, after I got my sense of smell back, I started to hate the smell of aloe. I laid in the hammock during the day and Na would check on my when she had time between chores. Most of the time my only company was Jah circling the hammock and telling me how horrible my face looked. “You look like a lizard,” He said one day, then he hesitated. “Well, a lizard who got beat up a pulp.”
I threw the cup I was holding in the direction of his voice.
“You look like a garrobo,” He said at length. “But without the tail I guess.”
I sat up. “Go get me a wet rag.”‘
“Just get me one, okay!”
He went to the kitchen and returned with a wet dish cloth. It smelled like rancid cooking grease. Still, I used it to rub my eyes until the dried mucus let go of my eyelashes and lids and I forced my eyes open, even to slits. The first thing I saw was Jah running to tell Na what I was doing.
I put the rag down and laid back in the hammock like nothing happened.
Na came from in from the kitchen and I felt her grip my arm and examine my face. “Do you want to go blind?”
“I want to see how bad it is.” I said.
She asked if I was sure. I nodded. She went to the house and got the one mirror and handed it to me. I held it close to my face so I could see. My heart jumped when I saw my face. It felt like little splinters fell in my stomach and my tongue got dry. It didn’t look like me at all. I was overcome by a terrifying feeling that it was how I would look for the rest of my life. I didn’t say anything, just handed the mirror back and tried to fight back tears.
“Maybe you don’t look like a garrobo so much,” Jah said once he saw my condition, and in a strange show of consolation, he  poked me in the shoulder with a stick.
The swelling went down gradually, and after a couple weeks I was moving around and doing chores again.
The first chore i did was collect firewood. Jah and I took our machetes into the ravine on the outskirts of the bush to collect firewood. I was chopping dried branches and Jah was stacking them. My sight was fine now, and I could see everything that moved in the bush. I stopped chopping and sat down next to the pile of branches.
“What is it?” Jah asked.
“I’m so happy I can still see.” I said. I was looking at the leaves flickering in the canopy above. There were birds up there feeding on the luciana seeds. I finished all my chores that day like they were not chores at all. I decided that my biggest fear was going blind.
For weeks I avoided the mirror. I was still a sight with duct tape stretched over the middle of my face and the whites of my eyes blood red. I wondered if they would ever go back to normal. Na said not to worry, that it was “just broken blood vessels”.
I don’t remember the day it went away. I was a slow healing and one day Na didn’t put the duct tape back on, she just slathered the scar under my nose with Vaseline. My nose started itching and it took everything in me not to scratch it. And one day, I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day it was gone. My face was back to normal except for a raised scar right under my nose where the flesh had healed back.  The fall became a bizarre memory.
The first tree I climbed after the fall was the guava tree. Guava season was just coming in and I wanted to get one before the piam piams pecked into them or before they were crawling with fruit worms. Jah went up the the tree first and I, after. It was like normal. I wasn’t afraid, instead I felt security in my new practice of checking the end of each branch to make sure there were green leaves on it. Na and Way saw me go up the tree in quiet approval. Looking back, they must have known I had suffered the best lesson of all, better then any scolding could carry.
In college, to my peer’s astonishment, I would scale the crab apple tree on campus on my way to class, eat as many as the tart fruit I could take, and then descend like a cat back onto the sidewalk with twigs lodged in my curls.
Over the years I’ve learned the  art of climbing: examine the tree, know the durability of the wood type, know your limits, be flexible, always check the end of the branch before leaning your weight into to, and never put all your weight on a branch without making sure there is another within reach that can hold your weight. These are the principles of climbing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Long Trip, Part II

The Long Trip: Part II

Our mother’s mood swings can be fun, when she is on the high part of them. My mother and I dance around the house singing and laughing, she looks beautiful with her long dark hair swinging freely and a rosy flush on her cheeks.

 “Come on TT, dance with us!" I say to my sister through fits of giggles. 

Sarah Jane wants no part of it; she is content in the corner drawing. "I'm busy," she says sternly without turning in our direction. I can't for the life of me figure out why Sarah Jane or TT, as I call her, would want to miss this fun time, but she knows something I am too young to comprehend, that these highs our mother has, are undoubtedly always followed by crushing lows. We are still having fun, we play with dolls, my mother doing different voices for each, we try on some makeup that she brought over from the States, she even picks me up over her head, and lets me pretend I am an airplane.  I am in heaven playing with her. We only stop because we are both exhausted, and she must go outside to start dinner. 

Our kitchen is just outside and to the right of our house. A gigantic tree, which must have fallen some time ago makes up our table, this is also where our father likes to sit and smoke in the evenings. A roof consisting of old pieces of siding and fencing is secured to some small surrounding trees and shelters the area from rain. Our stove is made up of an old oil barrel with the top and part of one side cut off. Broken cinder blocks are used to fill it up, and weigh it down from strong winds. Fire wood is placed on top of the cinder blocks, and a make-shift grill made of chicken wire is placed on top of the wood, for the pots and pans to sit upon. When the fire gets low, it needs someone to blow on it, so the fire can grow from the blast of oxygen. While this gets the fire going stronger and hotter, the blower usually ends up with a face full of ashes and soot, that come bursting from the stove as the air is blown in. 

Despite the primitive set up, and our father constantly telling her she cooks like a foolish white woman, our mother enjoys cooking. After playing with me for hours, she slips out to begin cooking the rice and beans for dinner. The cooking process takes a while, getting the fire started and such, so I occupy myself by drawing wonderful swirls with a crayon on paper. Sarah Jane has stopped drawing, she is sitting up stiffly looking intently at the back door, passing a little rubber ball between her hands. She is waiting for what is coming; the devastating low of our mothers mood swing. Then we hear it, a scream of pain from outside. We run out to see what happened, and find our mother holding her arm, she burnt herself as a piping hot coal fell from the stove. 

"Are you Okay Mommy?" I ask, still blissfully ignorant of what is coming. 

"No, I'm not okay! I can't do all this!" she shouts, sounding angry and panicky. She turns sharply to Sarah Jane and me; there is anger and hate in her usual gentle eyes. 

“This is your fault! Look what you did to me!" now she is screaming. "I have to cook for you and clean for your, I can't do it all!" She turns away and begins to sob. Our father is not here, he is in town, I wish he was here, he would know what to do. 

"Leave me alone! Get in the house!" she cries out between sobs. "I'm going to the river." She turns without looking at us toward the pineapple and banana tree-lined path. Sarah Jane grabs my arm firmly yet gently and guides me inside.

“Mommy is mad at us," I say through hiccups and sobs. I can see the hurt on Sarah Jane's face too, but she is holding it in. 

"She's not mad," she tell me, "She just burnt herself. Let's clean the house and that will make her happy again." 

We get to work quickly cleaning the house. We put all our clothes away in the duffle bags we use for travel and storage, we put our small collection of toys in the corner, and as I work on putting the crayons away, Sarah Jane goes outside to check on the now boiling pot of beans our mother abandoned on the stove. Minutes turn to hours as we wait for her to come back from the river. The beans finish cooking while Sarah Jane starts a smaller pot with rice. Before the rice is done, our mother returns, her eyes and lips puffy from crying. She comes up the three steps and through the door slowly, eyes cast down. We are standing in the middle of the house, I am clinging tightly to Sarah Jane's arm, and we pray she is not mad anymore. 

"The house looks wonderful," she says quietly. "You girls did a good job cleaning." 

Sarah Jane walks over to her, "Grandma told me this goes on burns." 

She hands our mother a tub of petroleum jelly. Our mother drops to her knees and throw open her arms. 

"My girls, what would I do without you?" she says. 

We both dive into her arms as she squeezes us tight. I nestle my head into her neck and take in her scent, the wonderful smell of patchouli oil. While in her arms I am sure everything is going to be alright. Though her mood is better, the cloud around her does not lift until our father returns, with a cookie for Sarah Jane and me to split and a small bottle of whiskey. This pattern became more and more frequent, until there is no money left and little food. Every night, our bellies ache so much with hunger, occasionally I crawl into Sarah Jane's lap whimpering, and she holds me, rocking me back and forth and singing a song she made up just for me. 

 We all try to be resourceful; our father goes hunting and fishing, sometimes returning with a small booty. Our mother stretches everything as far as she can and always eats last. Sarah Jane and I try to help by stalking the pineapple plants, checking them every day for signs of a ripening pineapple, ready to taste the tingly sweet juice on our tongues.

The countdown until we will leave has already started, our parents did not want to admit it, but they will not be living off the land, not this time. Now it is only a matter of time, the fights stop, they are replaced with quite whispered conversations which take place after they think we are asleep. Before long, we pack our duffel bags, put on our clothes that cover as much of our bodies from the dangerous jungle hike as possible, and begin our journey to the States. "It's just for a little while," our mother says trying to reassure herself. "We'll be back with your father in no time; he just needs some time to work out a plan." Reasons are irrelevant to me, all I can think is soon I will have Twinkies and cottage cheese again, we won't be hungry anymore, and best of all, I will be in Michigan for my fourth birthday.

This is where I feel safe and content, here on Farragut Court in Northville, Michigan. The weather is cold, there is snow covering everything, and that only makes it more wonderful. Sarah Jane and I love to play in the snow. We strap on our snowsuits, mittens, hats and scarves that have been patiently waiting for us to pull them out of the storage closet and use them. We stay out in the snow playing, building snow forts, making snow angels, and trying to get a grown up to take us to the hill a few blocks away for sledding . We stay out until the bitter arctic air has made our noses and lips numb, then still giggling and coated with clumps of snow, dash inside to run our hands under the warm water, and then return to the frozen back yard.  We must follow our grandparent’s strict rules when we stay with them, and we miss our father and the freedom we had in Belize, but the comforts and playmates that we find in Michigan make it easier to live with these rules. I think of my birthday, just a little ways away, I will get a scrumptious homemade cake, any kind I want. I think about spring, when we can put on shorts and roll down the plush grassy hill. 

For now we can gorge ourselves on Twinkies, cheese puffs and fried bologna sandwiches. It will not last; we know that it is only a matter of time. She will begin to miss him, the crying will start, the longing for her husband would become unbearable, and the panic attacks would start. Sadness and panic will overwhelm our mother, and then, we will return to our father, and the dark, mysterious jungle to which he seems anchored. For now, we will play in the snow, for now, we are secure, protected and blissful.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Long Trip, Part 1

The Long Trip, Part 1

One of my earliest clear memories is riding on my father's back, as we tracked through the Belizean jungle, the musty smell of his long dreadlocks filling my nose, and their rough texture tickling my cheek. I can see a blur of silver as the blade of his machete flies diagonally across his body while he whips it through the thick dense brush with every step. Behind me are my mother, her alabaster skin flushed pink with heat and exhaustion, and my older sister Sarah Jane, her face in a determined scowl as she makes her way through the newly cut yet still treacherous terrain. 

I have the best seat in the house, perched on my father’s back, but the long day of travel from Detroit to Belize City, then to the jungle has taken a toll on my small body. I am tired, hungry and a little hesitant of what lies ahead. After the arduous mile hike, we reach our destination, a small 15' by 15' house on stilts, sitting among the colossal trees of the rain forest. The house, which my father built by hand, is simply made of planks of wood nailed together with windows on two of the walls and doors on the other two. The planks did not fit perfectly together, so there were gaps, some of them several centimeters wide along all the walls and the floor. The roof is made of sheets of zinc overlapping and nailed together. The posts of the house are made from the trunks of a gumbo- limbo tree,  which are known for taking root and growing even after being cut down and chopped into logs.  Our posts had done just that and were sprouting small branches and leaves. 

This is now our home, not just the tiny house, but also all the land surrounding the diminutive shack. "Here we are, my sweetness’s!" my father exclaims in his Belizean­ Criol accent. 

He gently lowers me to the ground, and I quickly scramble over to my mother, who scoops me up so swiftly it gives the impression of a reflex. 

"I'll have it ready for you swiftly," he says excitedly as he disappears behind the house and reappears with a crowbar. 

The doors of the house have a large wooden board nailed across them, to prevent them from opening. He goes to work on removing the wooden board at a rapid pace, and is done fast. Despite his strong muscular frame, my father is not particularly fond of physical work, in fact he detests it. This type of job, habitually, would be accompanied by a vast amount of cursing, but he is in high spirits today, because he finally has his family back.

We entered the house as one unit, my mother still carrying me and my sister attached to her leg. My father has not told us to come in yet, but the sun has set and the heavy darkness that blankets the jungle at night is taking over. There may have been a few more scorpions, snakes and tarantulas for him to kill inside, but at least we had walls around us. 

"Do you remember this house?" my mother whispers gleefully to Sarah Jane and me. 

We do remember, Sarah Jane more so than me, because of my young age, but both of us can recall the joys and terrors of this place.

The first few days are tough and thorny. Sarah Jane and I have to adjust to a different diet and different activities; the rainforest itself has to adjust to our presence. We were the intruders, not the snakes and monkeys. We have hiked away from society and into the wilds of Belize. The nights are hard to adapt to; the jungle becomes alive with sound. The monkeys howl and birds caw, the cockroaches search for food while the scorpions search for cockroaches. Sarah Jane and I sleep close as we can to our mother, hoping nothing crawls our way in the dark of night. 

I remember my bedtime routine in Michigan, before we had left for the jungle: Sitting on my cozy twin bed in my grandparents' house, having been freshly plucked out of the sudsy warmth of the bathtub and towel dried. The smell of the Johnsons baby shampoo still fragrant in my damp hair. As my mother stuffed me into a pink fleece onesie, I began asking for my most precious item: my bummy. Bummy was my name for my book of Mother Goose rhymes, no one knows why I chose that name, but since I could speak, I had been demanding my bummy, I am told it was one of my first words. Sarah Jane and my mother would begin their nightly search for my bummy - under the bed, behind the toy chest, in the closet. Each of them scurrying around fast and franticly, as my demands for the book  grew louder and louder. Once found, all three of us would pile in my twin bed and begin to read, I knew each poem by heart, and would soon drift to sleep with the gentle rhymes floating in my dreamy mind. 

Now, in Belize, bedtime is different, our entire house is not much bigger than the room Sarah and I shared at my grandparents. We cannot take a bath at night, because all our bathing is either done in Cacao creek, the heavily canopied river just about 100 yards in front of our house or with water hauled from the river in a bucket. Whichever way, bathing is done during the heat of the day and even then, the cool water would cause goose bumps to spring up on our brown little backs. For bedtime, we are dressed in sleeveless nightgowns as we listen to the howler monkeys and the crickets chatter outside. As Sarah Jane and I roll out the large piece of foam we use for a mattress, our mother gets my bummy out. One nice thing about such a small house, we never have to search for my bummy. While our father sits outside listening to the radio and smoking a joint, the three of us pile into bed, and begin to read the comforting words of Mother Goose. Sarah Jane knows the rhymes by heart too, and will sometimes say a few of them, with her sweet, soothing voice coating my ears; I drift into safe happy dreams.

He was a natural born entertainer, so our father will always find ways to make Sarah Jane and I laugh. Singing songs he simply makes up as he goes or telling us action packed fairytales of Anansi the spider. Our favorite form of entertainment is what we call the "noodle dance," Stark naked; he dances wildly and shakes about the house, laughing at himself with every ridiculous movement. We cannot contain ourselves, within just a few seconds of the dance, we are belly laughing, rolling around on the rigid wooden floor, barely able to breathe. Our mother tries to maintain composure as long as she can but before long, she is on the floor laughing just as hard as us. We solicit him for a story or song or the noodle dance almost every night, but if the mood was not right, he remains outside, smoking and grumbling about "no peace and quiet with girls" and "too much rass," pretending not to hear us. Rass is the Belizean word for BS, and one of my father’s all-time favorites.

Except for the few pineapple plants and banana trees, there are not much grows on our  land, so our father goes to Punta Gorda town to get food and supplies once every two weeks. They want to live off the land, he and my mother, but as of yet the only action towards this goal has been planting a few fruit trees and hibiscus bushes around the property. He is usually in a bad mood when it is time to go to town, firstly due to arguments about money. The money we have is what our mother was able to save during our last stay in Michigan. Secondly, because the trip to town is long and straining. After he hikes the mile out of the jungle, which takes anywhere from 30 minutes to and an hour, depending on what the jungle has in store for him, he waits on the side on the dirt road, sun beating down on him, for a truck to come by so he can "hail a ride." If he is lucky, this kind stranger will take him all the way to PG town, but sometimes the driver is headed to another town like Dangrigia, or Orangewalk, and can only take him part of the way. Once dropped off, he must again wait on the side of the dusty road, grime sticking to his now sweat-coated clothes, for another willing driver to help him finish the journey. 

Once in town, things drastically improve. Everyone in town knows "Congo Charlie" and is thrilled to have him back among them. He uses his natural charisma to enchant the  locals with harrowing, sometimes tall tales of jungle life. Everywhere he turns he hears "Charlie! Charlie, I have smoke for you" or "Charlie! Have a drink with me!" Although the journey to town and back can be done in one day, he almost always stays longer. The free pot to smoke, beer and rum to drink, and an open invitation to stay at the local brothel tend to draw him in for a few days, but he will always come back to us. 

Finally, he returns, getting dropped off by his ride, whomever he was able to find this time, on the dirt road, then making the mile hike back to his family. We can hear him calling to us from far away, and all of us come running, standing at the edge of the thick brush, waiting for him to appear in his straw hat. Our mother is as excited as she can be. 

"It’s him, I can hear him! Your father is back!" she exclaims, like a teenage girl about to meet her idol. 

As soon as he sees us, he drops all his bags and runs over. 

"Sweetness’s! Daddy's heartstrings!" he declares, and he lifts both Sarah Jane and me up and twirls us around. 

He smells of marijuana and stale booze, a musk he wears so often, it brings me comfort, it is the smell of my daddy. From his journey he always comes back with gossip about what was going on in town, large bags of rice and beans, a chicken which is just starting to thaw after the long journey, plus a new supply of marijuana and a bottle of rum, which will keep him content until his next trip.

The money does not last long. This means supply trips to town get less frequent, which means more time together and less food, which means more fighting. More fighting means more crying and more mood swings for our mother. During the really ghastly fights, Sarah Jane and I stay outside. In front of the house we distract ourselves by playing with our rag dolls and the happy apple, a plastic apple with a smiley face that rocked back and forth and played out-of-tune music. Our father storms out of the house, and heads towards the path out of the jungle, without so much as a glance at us girls. Grumbling words like "that honkey white bitch" and "fuckin' rass" under his breath, he plunges into the jungle, machete twirling in front of him. As soon as he leaves, our mother's mental stability begins to deteriorate. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Summer Meetings

May 1984-zooming along I 696 in my mother’s dirt brown Buick. Bob Marley and the Whalers were wailin’ on the cassette player. The windows were all open, letting in the much anticipated spring air. I was enjoying how the wind was playing in my hair, causing it to whip wildly in the air above my head and brushing the ceiling of the car. The frantic energy of the wind matched the mix of excited emotions inside me.

I was going to see my best sisters. 

Sarah and Rosie....

I came up in the bourgeois public school system of Birmingham Michigan, and coming there from a once rural, and extremely counter culture farm life... needless to say kids thought I was quirky at best. To say that I had crowds of friends would just be a lie....but that was ok, because I always knew that I had Sarah and Rosie. I looked forward to their letters filled with stories about their dogs, and chickens....fantastic tales of imaginary characters (based mostly on the misadventures of their chicken population). I loved hearing about the exotic fruits and plants that they had where they lived. 

There is a fruit there called Craboo. I always wanted to know what it tasted like, because my sisters insisted that the taste defied description. It all seemed very exciting to me to live in the jungle. I had lived in the northern woods in a cabin and tents during my earliest years, and missed the life of nature and endless play that I had become accustomed to. The banal suburban existence that was placed in my path was mild at best in my mind compared to the extraordinary life in which my dearest friends still lived.

My partners in crime lived in Belize Central America for the majority of the time. While they enjoyed themselves because, of course, they were children, and children find any way to entertain themselves in any situation, it was a very difficult life for them sometimes. There were many times that Charles, their father would disappear for days with the understanding that he was going to get much needed provisions. Sometimes he came back with food, but it was hardly ever enough to feed their growing family. 

I was never sheltered from the knowledge of how difficult their life was. Nor was I ever allowed to take for granted all of the privileges that I had been given. While most children were being told "Eat that broccoli, there are starving children in Africa who would LOVE to have that!" I was being told "Eat that broccoli, your best friends are starving in Belize and would LOVE to have that." Even as a small child, I knew that it was true.

Even so...I fantasized about climbing trees, swimming in the clear blue pools of the river, visiting Mayan ruins, and talking to fairies in the jungle with them...This is where they lived. It was another world from me....seemingly a fantasy land, filled with magical creatures and fascinating mysteries.

But...when reality reared its ugly head, and somebody needed a dentist or, Na, their mother and my mother’s best friend, would need to see a Doctor. They would come to the States and stay in Northville with their grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Burr. I was closer with them than I ever had been to my own biological grandparents. They were wonderful yet strict and structured people. When I went there, I would have to make sure to "be a good guest". 

No problem!
This is where we were driving now! I was 8 years old, Sarah almost 10, and Rosie 7. The three of us together spun stories that defy understanding to anyone but ourselves. We had our own language (still do, we call it gypsy). When they were here, my life was my world with them.

A magical place where everything was possible. We would lose ourselves in the intricate characters that we would invent. Sometimes we were wandering orphans, fending for ourselves in abandoned buildings....many times in actual abandoned buildings that we would claim as a temporary club house. Then we could be mermaids escaping from a hungry giant, who wanted nothing better than to tuck in to some good ole mermaid stew. Other times we were wolves, searching for the perfect spot to build our den for our new litters of pups. Then there were....the Barbie games! They were by far better than any soap opera that anybody had ever seen.

This is who my mother was taking me to see today! 
It had been easily a year since we had seen each other last...maybe longer. 
It hadn't occurred to me that my mother may be just as excited as I was to see her best friend as well. 

I was wearing an orange and white striped pinafore with my favorite white patent leather shoes and white tights. My hair was down and long. The wind had formed it into a "devil may care" sort of style, and I was ready! I was ready to see my friends! 
As the car pulled into the large immaculate driveway, suddenly an emotion came over me that I wasn't prepared for. 

The emotion was fear. 

What if they didn't like me anymore? What if they were better friends with each other and I wouldn't fit into their games anymore? How would we greet each other? Would we hug? Would we squeal and jump around each other and grab and clutch and hug and kiss and be excited (like we do now)? Or would we stay calm and feel each other out?

It had been easily a year since we had seen each other. So much can change.

I realized that I had actually been biting the back of the head rest of the driver side seat in front of me, leaving dozens of little dimples in the upholstery behind my mother’s head. My dad would not be happy....oh well.

We walked up the flower lined walkway towards the wooden door of the condo where Grandma and Grandpa lived. My heart started beating faster and faster. 

This was it. I was going to play with my friends!

The door opened and Grandma Burr smiled down at me warmly. She grabbed me and hug me tight, as though she had seen and granddaughter that she hadn't seen for years. I felt so welcomed by her.  I still didn't see my friends though. Suddenly, I heard thundering footsteps! My sister Sarah came bounding down the stairs followed very quickly by little Rosie, but stopped before they reached the bottom of the stairs.

I looked at Sarah and recognized the outfit she had on. Pink shorts that were once mine before my well-fed body grew out of them, and a white T shirt that we had painted together with glitter and puff WAS the 80's after all. I loved those shorts but, as usual my clothes looked better on her than they did on me. I noticed that they DID look like they had been going hungry. Skinny legs and arms. Clothing fell loose on Rosie’s tiny frame.

Sarah stood looking at me with what I'm sure were the same fears that I had about our reunion. They both seemed nervous, but ecstatic at the same time. Who knows how long they were going to be here this time, or how long they would be gone once they inevitably were taken away again.

They were here! Now! I was looking at them! My life had begun again! I got to be a mermaid again! Sarah would of course control the games, being the oldest, but I never minded. She always came up with the greatest games. My sisters were home!

I would spend every weekend with them until school let out, and then once summer vacation began, we would be together for at least the next 2 months straight. Standing in the middle of the stairs with giant beaming smiles on their faces, Rosie and Sarah peered at me between the rungs of the bannister.  Sarah looked at me. With an excited, smiling ring to her voice, that still makes my heart smile to this day, she said with ultimate joy, "HI RACHEL!"

Every summer that my sisters were with me was the greatest summer of my life.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Creation Myth, Part 2

My father was a native Belizean. Born and raised in the colony of British Honduras, he left just before it was granted self-government in 1964. He used to say Belize will always call you back.

In 1973, Charles Douglas Forman was 26 and just off the plane. He was the prodigal son, returning to his homeland after years in North America. His afro was neat and low and he could speak English with a nearly perfect American accent. Well dressed and handsome, with a magnetic smile and perfectly cleft chin, he had come to dazzle his former squad of street urchins with James Brown inspired dance moves.

My dad’s parents, Leone Mason and Charles Forman were not married.  In fact, my dad was what Belizeans call a shalleye baby. A shalleye baby is, essentially, a child born out of wedlock.  When the mother presents the baby to the purported father he asks “shall I claim him, or shall I deny him?” Thus the name shalleye.

My grandmother says that on the day she delivered my father there was another woman in the hospital who was also pregnant with the child of Charles Forman, my grandfather.  Grandpa had a way with the ladies.  At the time (and still somewhat today) it was not uncommon in Belize for a married man to have multiple shalleye babies with other women.  There is even a Belizean folk song about it.

Shalleye baby/ dat a shalleye pikni/ I no pikni daddy\dat a shalleye baby

But it is not easy growing up as a shalleye baby. GrandpaForman was a relatively wealthy Creole man but he did very little to help my father. Grandma Leone was left to raise him and her other children, by several different men, on her own. She lived on Raccoon street in a wooden colonial-style house they was slowly succumbing to the heat and humidity of the tropics. To make ends meet, Leone put her children to work roasting and then shelling raw cashew nuts which she and uncle Bluebeard sold at market. The acid from the cashew shells burned my fathers little hands after long hours shelling the nuts.

By sixth grade, Charles had dropped out of school and was hustling full time for a living.  My grandmother tired to discipline him by sending him to work for uncle Bluebeard, who had a cart from which he vended nuts, shaved ice, and fruit. Bluebeard was an ill-tempered alcoholic who went heavy on the belt. He violently beat my father on a regular basis. Although beating children was part of the culture, Bluebeard didn’t know when to stop. He would leave my father with bleeding, broken skin that formed gnarled scars on his backside. Eventually the scars on his skin faded, but the ones that had cut deeper never did.

When he was old enough, Charles escaped Bluebeards clutches and went back to live with his Mother. He landed a coveted job as a waiter at the tony Fort George Hotel. The Fort George was a bastion of colonial values. Business men and colonial types kicked back in the white wicker chairs on its ocean-side porch and speak of their affairs in the Queens English while sipping lemon and cane juice from an impeccably sparkling class, hand-shined tableside by a grinning black boy.

At the Fort George, my father learned how to cater to the needs of the rich, white men who were quickly impressed with his wit, charm and attention to detail. There was one man in particular, a Canadian business man, who took a liking to the young Charles Forman. The Canadian had considerable wealth, but no children of his own, so he enjoyed lavishing attention onto Charlie, as he called my dad. These were halcyon days in the life of the colony, and they were about to come to an end.

On October 31, 1961 Hurricane Hattie made landfall just south of Belize City. Powerful Hattie was a category five storm. She devastated the city. Gale force winds tore apart buildings. Even the hurricane shelters where people had been evacuated to were destroyed. A storm tide surged up to the third floor of any buildings that did remain standing. Hundreds of people died and the city was in ruins. When the waters receded, the stench of death rose from the rubble. Thousands of survivors swarmed the streets for days digging in the crumbled ruins in search of any kind of food. My grandmother and her children survived, but my father had lost faith in the colonial authorities who, in spite of ample warnings, seemed unprepared for the wrath of Hattie and aloof in their relief efforts after the storm.

The Canadian returned shortly after Hattie struck to survey the damage and check on Charlie’s wellbeing. Perhaps he saw the desperation in the young man’s eyes, or was overcome by the crushing blow Hattie had dealt to the city he so loved and its residents. Whatever the reason, he offered my father what he had been praying for: a future without bluebeard, hurricanes, poverty, and colonial oppression. Charlie was to come live with him in faraway Canada. My father jumped at the chance. So, like me, my father was 14 years old when he got his one-way ticket out of Belize.

He didn’t look back until 1973.

My mother was wearing a white caftan that was nearly see-through as she stood in at the fruit stall in Market Square.  She had never bought a mango before and the woman at the stall was giving her a hard time. The locals did not quite know what to make of this strange nearly naked white woman with a backpack. 

But my father knew.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Creation Myth, Part 1

My father was a good shot, when his gun was working. You have to be if your dinner depends on shooting a four foot iguana that is ambling high in the rain forest canopy. The problem was that sometimes they fell out of the tree and into the river, sinking to the bottom, becoming very difficult to find. It could be several days later that the carcass was spotted by me or my sister, stuck in flotsam along the river’s edge.

“I knew I got him!” My father exclaimed as the bloated, very dead iguana drifted lazily by.

The iguana escaped the soup pot but, unfortunately, had not cheated death.

Ever since he came back from iguana hunting empty handed we teased him about missing the shot. He swore that he had not missed, and now he was vindicated. He removed the swollen creature from the water and lamented about the waste of a good meal. Rosie and I we not particularly fond of iguana stew anyway because the meat is very dark and a bit slimy. In fact, we though iguana was pretty gross. We figured the iguana had done us a favor by escaping.

However, we kept this to ourselves because if our father was hunting iguana, it meant that times were tough. Truth be told, neither he nor my mother enjoyed iguana but it was better than nothing and most of the time, nothing was what we had.

My parents met in February 1973 in Market Square in the heart of Belize City. Market square is still a bustling locale, where vendors hawk everything from cashew fruit to brightly colored Sunday dresses.

Mary Kay Burr was 23 years old in 1973. The daughter of an accountant and a country-club secretary, she had a bachelor’s degree in theater from Wayne State University in Detroit. She was the captain of the cheerleading squad at Farmington High School in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She was Miss Teen Michigan, and went on to compete in the Miss Teen USA pageant in Texas. She sang soprano and starred in several opera productions while at Wayne State. After college, she made a very good living singing jingles for radio commercials and performing in night clubs, including the Playboy Club in Detroit. By all outward appearances, she was successful. She had her own downtown penthouse apartment, a nice car, and plenty of suitors. 

But she was restless; something inside of her would not sit still. Maybe it’s the same thing that compelled me to make the agonizing choice fifteen years later to walk away, by myself, from my family. But, then again, maybe not.

After her beauty pageant days, Mary Kay became a back-to-nature flower child. When McGovern lost the 1972 election, she decided to backpack through Central America. Her stated destination was Columbia, South America, but like any free-wheeling non-conformist, the real destination was the journey itself.

I don’t know what made her throw her belongings into a backpack and take off. In the 60’s revolution and lots of pot smoke was in the air and everyone was high off of it. Bras were burnt and armpits were hairy. My mom and her hippie friends dreamt of a new world order where peace and love prevailed. But by 1972 America was waking up from the dream. Mary Kay was not ready for that. She held on to her dreams, packed them in that backpack with her caftans and patchouli oil, and headed to Mexico.

She ended up in Belize by accident. Mexico turned out to be a terrible misadventure that she barely survived. She met a man there who, like all men, was probably attracted to her stunning looks. She had long dark hair, fair skin that could hold a glowing tan, and big doe eyes. And she was, perhaps, a bit naive. The man was wealthy. He took her out, they had fun, and then they went back to his place. He wanted things to go further than she did. When she declined his advances, he took what he wanted.

Afterwards her, he locked her in a room and left her dazed and shaken on the floor. It was something she wouldn’t talk about for 30 years.

She had no idea where she was. The room had a narrow window that looked out onto a stretch of ocean populated with mangrove trees. She managed to open the window and squeeze her body through it, making her way by swimming through the mangroves along the shoreline until she saw signs of civilization. She was helped by a couple of long haired beach bums who were also young American travelers. They were headed to the Yucatan in their VW Bus. In need of the kindness of strangers, my mom went along for the ride. 

The Yucatan, with its unspoiled stretches of white sand, was the perfect place to recover from her ordeal. The two travelers were gentlemen who treated her kindly and did not try to take advantage of her. But, like many a tourist in Mexico, Montezuma’s revenge eventually caught up with her. Her companions nursed her back to health but the bout with dysentery took its toll. She did not feel strong enough to continue as planned onto the Pan-American Highway to South America. There was a country she had never heard of just a few miles south. British Honduras (now Belize) was just a days drive away.

And so the Michigan beauty queen found herself on the hot and crowded streets of the British colony, trying to discern the thick Pidgin English dialect as she haggled over the price of a mango.

In steps my father. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sparkles of Hope

Some things are just meant to be.  That was the unshakable feeling I had about my sparkly Smurfette sandals.  They came to me in an unexpected way, against all odds. 

The day they dropped themselves into my life was a reasonably ordinary day in the life of a pair of jungle girls.  Our mother was pillaging through the old, army green duffel bags we kept under the house, looking for a few new items to add to our wardrobe.  During our visits to Michigan, she would stock up on clothing for my older sister Sarah and me to wear during our time in the jungle.  Our baby sister Minni didn't have a stockpile of clothes in these duffel bags yet, all she wore at the time was a diaper, sometimes a little sleeping gown, sometimes nothing at all.  Everything in the duffel bags was usually kept dry and safe for future use beneath a tarp, under our stilted house.  

Sarah and I had 4 or 5 outfits each, that we wore over and over, week in, week out.  Being active little girls living in the jungle, our clothes took quite a beating.  Between climbing every tree we could find, the constant presence of mildew, soot from the fire we used for cooking and scrubbing them on river rocks to keep them clean, our clothes were destined to fall apart, meeting their journey's end as kitchen or bath rags.  In the past few weeks leading up to this particular day, two major clothing casualties had occurred.  First, my sister snagged her pink shorts on a tree, causing a huge hole on one side.  Then, my favorite gray dress with the tiny flowers ripped and, after being mended so many times that the fabric became thin in spots, was beyond repair.  Sarah and I watched with great anticipation as my mother searched through the duffel bags. 

The days of clothing replacement were always bittersweet.  With so few outfits to choose from, we grew quite attached to what we had.  Each one had its own feeling, its own spirit.  I was sad to give up my grey dress, it was perfect for twirling.  I knew Sarah felt the same about her pink shorts, they fit her perfectly, hugging her long legs with a very complimentary pink color.  But replacing the clothes was exciting as well because since we didn't get to shop for new clothes in the jungle of Belize, this was as close as we got retail therapy.  The idea of something new, or at least new to us (most of the items in the duffel bags were hand-me-downs from family and friends) was very intriguing.  After several minutes of digging through the bags, our mother finally pulled out a light pink top and a pair of blue shorts for me.  The shorts were a bit long, and the top had a tendency to slip off one shoulder. This new outfit certainly lacked the fun whimsical quality of my grey dress, but I knew the shorts would be ideal for climbing trees. My mother continued digging, pulling out a wrinkled pair of white shorts with rainbow piping for Sarah.  She also found out a yellow tank top.  They both fit perfectly, and Sarah was satisfied.  She definitely got the better end of the deal, as my slightly over-sized clothes seemed flat and dull in comparison to her fanciful new outfit.  I let out a sigh of disappointment, and yanked the neck of my shirt back in place.  However, a surprise awaited me; my mother pulled out a pair of sparking pink sandals from the duffel and set them on the floor. 

"I forgot I packed these.”

"My Smurfette sandals!" Sarah said with excitement and confusion. 

That is exactly what they were, the wonderful Smurfette sandals Sarah had worn during our last summer in Michigan, over two years ago.  I could still picture her, prancing around on the perfectly manicured lawns of Farragut Court in those sparkly shoes. She was a true vision.

"These are too small for you, honey," my mother said.  "You were out growing them last time we were in Michigan."

Sarah was already busily trying to cram her foot into one of the sandals.  There was no denying that they were way too small.  Her foot barely fit between the delicate side straps, and her toes and heel were hanging over the edges of the shoe.

"Try them on, Rosie," my mother said as she tossed one of the sandals towards me.

I slipped the sandal on my foot, and buckled it as tight as it would go.  The shoes were a bit big, and already had quite a few miles on them, but I felt like Cinderella.  I knew then and there these shoes were exceptional.  My mother examined how the sandals fit, and told me I could wear them with socks until I grew into them.  I scrambled to find a pair of socks, strapped on both sandals and trotted outside.  I couldn't believe my luck.  My mother could have left these shoes behind in Michigan, it would have made sense, they were too small for Sarah and too big for me.  If my mother had found these shoes in the duffel earlier, Sarah may have been able to squeeze her foot into them, and she would have been able to claim them as her own once again. But as luck would have it, those events did not happen, the shoes made their way to Belize, and remained hidden for two years -- it was simply meant to be.

In the depths of the rain forest, during a time when money and food were in short supply for our family, these sandals made me feel like a posh American girl.  They reminded me of a different time in my life, when food and friends were plentiful.  There I was, a little jungle girl wearing socks and sparkly sandals everywhere I could.  When I saw those sandals on my feet, I felt hopeful for my future, they were a symbol of strength to get through the hard and trying times.  When hunger came, or my father's yelling, or my mother's crying, the sandals and their sparkles were my armor. When they were on my feet, I knew the dark clouds would pass.

Eventually after many months, the jungle began to lay claim on my precious sandals.  The straps on the side began to break, and even though my mother tried to glue them, I knew they were beyond repair.  I had worn them all over, to explore the rough jungle terrain, to climb trees, and to play in mud. One morning, I put them by my bed.  I couldn't wear them anymore, but I could still look at them, and seeing them sparkle in the sun kept me hopeful.  Just seeing them next to my pillow gave me a sense that somewhere, somehow in my future, I would have another pair of Smurfette sandals.  With a spark of promise in my heart, I tucked them under my pillow for safe keeping, and ran outside, with my bare feet, to romp and play with my big sister.