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.