Too Little,Too Late

Old Man in Sorrow by Van Gogh

Old Man in Sorrow by Van Gogh

It’s been a couple of months ago now since I got a phone call from Martha. Martha is my stepfather’s niece, a woman a little younger than I. We are joined together by our relationship with Tom, my stepfather and Martha’s uncle, who is 90 years old and clearly failing, both physically and mentally.

Neither Martha nor I were particularly close to Tom: Tom and Martha’s father didn’t get along, and Tom married my mother long after I had married and left home. But Tom is a loveable man—unfailingly polite and kind, well-mannered and a good husband. He had no children of his own—Martha and I were his closest family and both of us live miles away from him.

Tom was in trouble, said Martha over the phone. Seems he’d been stopped by the state police for driving a little too slowly and erratically on the freeway, and they had impounded his car and put him in a medical center until someone could rescue him. That someone was me.

The rescue made it clear to Martha and to me that we were facing a real problem with Tom. Within an hour of bailing him out of the hospital and bringing him home, he was convinced that nothing had happened, he was just fine, and could he take us out to dinner? (He’d be glad to drive…) Martha and I confiscated his car keys and began to understand the extent to which his world was a danger to him.

We agonized: how can we say, “You don’t know me, but I am here to take over your life?” to such a dear man? How can we say, “No driving. You can no longer live alone. Someone must insulate you from the legion of shysters who flock to you because you are so good-hearted and you can’t say no? You need someone to help you on a daily basis, even if you don’t want anyone around.”

And then we found the bills. Mountains of them. Unpaid taxes. Three lawn services every week. What seemed like fifty ‘investment advisors’ who call and aggressively and nastily demand you buy their silver shares and technology stocks. Charities for every imaginable human cause from crippled soldiers to missing babies.

Martha and I, both in an unfamiliar city, flailed our way through the myriad of services for the elderly, attorneys, CPAs, banks, and well-meaning neighbors and friends, trying to bring order into this mess. Martha kept saying, “But I TOLD him that just ten minutes ago”, and Tom kept forgetting all the good advice we were giving.

“Martha,” I said, “it’s like putting your finger in a mountain stream. When you pull it out there’s nothing left, no sign you were ever there. The water just keeps running by.”

Now, six weeks later, Tom has a 24-hour caretaker—which can’t last long, because we’re getting a good handle on how much money has been lost to the sharks who prey on the elderly, the kind, and the gullible. We’re working on finding a place for him to live which can be funded by his social security and his military pension, probably in a city strange to him but close to Martha, who will visit him on weekends.

Every week I visit some of my older friends who are living now at Orchard Creek and we talk about my stepfather and what can be done. I tell them how intrusive I feel and how sad, and they tell me how important it is to make the choices that have to me made while you still have the ability to chose.

I nod in agreement and think that it’s far too late for Tom.

NOT the Hurdy Gurdy Man….

Not Donovan

Not Donovan

“Hey, hello. Hello? Miss? Heya, hello.”

I look around and see no one, just the narrow road stretching along the shore, winding through the village. And across it, the little village; a tiny seafood restaurant, several pretty cottages, and a cluster of ramshackle buildings with weathered siding and curving roofs.

But there’s no movement anywhere, and I perch myself back on the rough seawall and turn again to the still, turquoise sea.

“Miss. Hello? Miss?’

Turning again, I look down the road and see the man, half hidden among some sea grape bushes,

“Hello?”He calls again. “Are you the lady from the hill?”

“Hello. Yes, that’s where I live.”

“Could you please come here a moment? Please?’

I walk through the sand toward him, keeping the seawall and the road between us. He comes to meet me, stretching out his hand.

“Hi. I’m Donovan, owner of the Fish House. Hello.”

“Donovan? I’m Judith.”

“Pardon the fish smell. I am making conch salad for tonight. I just sold some to your friend, Miss Lynn.”

I knew that: Lynn had discovered the little restaurant and brought home some wonderful salad, a perfect lunch for a hot, still Bahamian day. I tell Donovan how much we enjoyed his salad and that we had planned to buy lobster for dinner. He is pleased, and his dark brown eyes smile.

“I be happy to cook for you,” he says. “Happy to. Happy to do anything for YOU, fact is.”

It occurs to me that this is more than an offer to grill lobster or chop conch. Been a long time since I’ve had an offer quite that direct. I feel like I’m in junior high, the old feeling of liking it and not wanting this to be happening.

“So how’s business?” I ask.

Donovan tells me he is really a builder, the number one occupation of most young Bahamian men…and many women, too. He was born in Nassau, where his children and grandchildren live. He’s 44, he says, and came to Eleuthera to work on one of the resorts being built last year—one of the many development jobs which are now stalled throughout the Bahamas due to the current economy.

“I met this woman, see, in Rock Sound, and she had a restaurant there. She closed it and we moved here to open this one and try to make a living. Business is ok. Not great, but ok for now.”

He says he’s a pretty good cook, and people like his food. I tell him that if our lunch was any indication, he’s a wonderful cook and should do well. Donovan replies that he thinks everything will be ok but it’s hard work, running a restaurant. He looks at me with soulful brown eyes. “I need to relax,” he says.

And in case I don’t get it: “I could relax with you.”

I get it. I get it. “What about your girlfriend?” I ask.

“Out. She had to go out.” Pause. “And I don’t know if she’s my girlfriend, anyway. There’s nothing, how you say, ‘romantic’ there.”

“Why not?”

“Cause she’s always tired. Always. And I am always ready. I am ALWAYS ready.”

“No wonder she’s tired,’ I say.

Brenda’s Car, Day Two

Well, today we had to return a couple of things to the Tarpum Bay Shopping Center. One of yesterday’s purchases was a snifty looking water pump, a blue plastic gizmo (here in Tarpum Bay we say “thingum”, not “gizmo”) that fits on top of a five gallon water jug. You push down on the
button on the top and the water comes out a spigot and, hopefully, into your
pitcher. Since the Eleuthera tap water is not drinkable, and since pouring from a 5 gallon jug is a little challenging until the jug is about half empty, this blue thingum seemed like a good idea.

Except it didn’t work. I pushed, it sputtered. No water.

So, we were headed back to see Julian at the Shopping Center. We also had to pick up Lynn’s friend Ann at the Rock Sound Airport, about 12 miles from our house down Queen’s Highway. Kervin brought back Brenda’s car, complete with a brand new battery and without an alarm system. We were ready to go!

An hour later we were back in our cottage, complete with Ann and a new water pump—life was good. Ann went across the street to Miss Barbie’s for some fresh coconut cake, and Lynn walked the other direction to the new fish restaurant for some conch salad for lunch. Life was really very good!

We decided that a Saturday night out was in order, and the big celebration was at a little
town about 20 miles south of Tarpum Bay, Wymss Bight (pronounced “Weemsbit” in Bahamian). What we were really in search of was some Bahamian food, something a little different from the usual cuisine of conch fritters, fried fish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and ‘peas and rice’–known as ‘beans and rice’ in Cajun country. So off we went to the Wymss Bight Homecoming.

The site of the party wasn’t hard to find. Wymss Bight has about 40 dwellings and a large open park area, which was, of course, where the party was. But we could hear the celebration from a half mile away: the “rake and scrape” Bahamian music blasted full volume. The festival set-up
consisted of a half dozen food stalls, a concrete dance floor, a grass hut bar, and a baseball game with about 30 spectators in the bleachers.

We visited each of the food vendors, and bought something from every one, just to be
democratic, of course. The women were cooking on huge grills—chicken, ribs, hot dogs in rich sauces. And of course there were the usual starches, plus Cole slaw and deserts. The
highlight of the meal was a dessert known as guava duff*, a kind of jellyroll filled with sweetened guava and covered with a butter sauce. Oh, my.

We decided not to stay for the dancing, but to drive home on Queen’s Highway before it got dark—the QH doesn’t have amenities like lines down the middle or on the sides, and in some places it’s none too wide, either.

We did fine until we came up a steep hill about half way home. The car slowed, and sputtered.

“Uh-oh,” said Ann, who was driving. “I am pushing on the gas pedal, and nothing is happening.”

Slower and slower we crept up the hill until we reached the top. Brenda’s car wheezed a little, and began to pick up the pace, but each time Ann slowed the car down, it began to hiccup and
gasp.

Finally, just outside the Rock Sound airport, it breathed its last and Ann steered it
silently to the side of the road .

Not three minutes later, a car stopped, and a well-dressed older man got out to
help. He and his wife had been to a wedding in Tarpum Bay and were on their way home, and would do what they could, including giving us a ride back to our house.

“You live in the pink house on the hill?”

“Yes, that’s us.”

“Nice house. Good for the whole town.”

From the other direction came a shiny white pickup, a big one with extra lights and
other jazzy things, and pulled up behind us. A huge, handsome young man jumped down from the cab, nodded briefly to the older man, and proceeded to lift the hood and look underneath. Lynn explained the problem, and both men stared thoughtfully at the silent car engine. Both of their women companions stayed in the car, of course, and the three of us—Ann, Lynn, and I—stood
helplessly by.

“Your car?” the younger man asked.

“No, Kervin’s,” I said.

“Oh, Kervin. Looks like he has a new battery.”

“Yes, it’s a new battery. But the red battery light was on.”

“Yup,” he said profoundly, and went back to his truck.

“That’s my son,” said the old man. “He been to the wedding, too.”

The son came back to our car, and removed Kervin’s battery. Now I don’t know how he did this, but he started up his truck, removed his own battery, and replaced it with Kervin’s, while the truck was running.

Then he put his battery in our car, started it up, said, “I’ll meet you at Kervin’s house,”
and climbed back in his truck.

We thanked the old man profusely. How nice they both were to take the time to rescue us, and to make sure we got back to Kervin’s house safely! How could we
repay them?

“Don’t repay me,” he said. “Repay God. Y’all just live next door to the church—go
over there tomorrow and thank Him for providing you with what you needed.”

He gave us a friendly wave as we drove away.

*Guava Duff Recipe
Recipe courtesy of Tara Ramsey

In celebration of Father’s Day, Tara Ramsey shares one of her father’s best
Bahamian recipes.

Ingredients:

* 1 pound bag plain flour
* 5 whole guavas
* 1 can guava
* 2 cups sugar
* Vanilla
* 4 sticks butter

In a big bowl, mix the flour with some water and roll the dough out on the
table. Insert pieces of guava all over the dough. Then, roll the dough almost
like an egg roll. Place the dough in a clean, white pillow case. Place the
pillow case with the dough in a big pot of boiling water. Let boil until dough
is cooked.

To make the sauce: Mix butter, sugar, vanilla together with juice from the
canned guava. Take dough out of pot after cooking, slice the dough into thin
slices like bread. Pour guava sauce over the dough. This is one of the
Bahamas’s oldest and greatest deserts.

Waking Up in Tarpum Bay

I don’t sleep late in Tarpum Bay…the sounds of the morning invade the senses. Gradually, like one of those alarm clocks that promise a gentle orientation into the world beginning softly and organizing into an energizing crescendo.

Morning here is like that.


It starts with this bird which hangs out just outside my bedroom
window. The bird has a whole repertoire of songs and he cycles through them randomly, beginning with a soft cluck, then some melodious chirping. and finally a long, intricate tune silvering into the still dark air.

That does it! He’s wakened the rooster who immediately pronounces is male-ness assertively into the morning. One thing about that rooster: he doesn’t
quit, either. He knows his place: he’s a signal for the entire town to begin movement and if I don’t move fast enough he will stand under someone’s porch, finding the exact place where the confluence of walls form a megaphone which seems pointed directly at my bedroom
window.

It’s seven o’clock now, and people are beginning to move. Two bicyclist ride under the street lamp, young men on their was to fishing boats, probably. Another man stands on his porch as shouts a greeting.

“Hey!”

The two riders wave back and disappear down the road along the sea.

The world lightens. The sea is calm and the sky has only a touch of morning clouds. The first truck of the day rolls past, a gravel truck filled to over-flowing, it’s engine straining as it turns a corner and crawls up the hill.

A radio plays, is turned off, and a police car cruises by,
the driver waving to the man in the yard.

It’s coffee time now, and soon the children will come, dressed in freshly ironed white blouses and navy blue pants or pleated skirts. They will be clean, with nappy hair cut short or skinned tightly back and gathered in little puffs or braids.
They carry plastic bags with homework laboriously done with the assistance of
their mothers and perhaps a treasure for Show and Tell.

God the Fourth emerges on his round of wanderings, singing
and chanting about the glories of his world. His song is tuneless and loud, proclaiming him to be God and bringing his message to the world. God the Fourth
(after the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, says Brenda, my native friend) will
spend the day in my neighborhood, sitting on the steps of “Berts for the Best”
Grocery Store, pausing in his singing only to ask white ladies like me for a dollar “for God”.

And it is his song that truly begins the morning in our tiny town, his deep chant that will follow us everywhere all the day long, reminding us that all’s right with the world.

Borrowing Brenda’s Car

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Kervin and Brenda loaned us Brenda’s car today. It was a newish car for Eleuthera, maybe five years old or so. Like most cars here, it gets left outside to fend for itself in the blistering daily sunshine and nighttime sea air, and assumes a matte finish, a weathered patina. And there’s seldom a rusty spot on a vehicle in Eleuthera, though Brenda’s car has a little patch under one wheel well.

Lynn and I needed to go to the “Shopping Centre”, a huge warehouse filled with ‘stuff—furniture to toothpicks and paint, with lots of ‘sale items—already marked down, take 15% more’. Which makes things only twice as much as I would pay in an upscale US department store—and these goods aren’t the least bit ‘upscale’.

But still, despite our stowing away household goods in our suitcases, we needed a big pot and a water pitcher and some porch furniture. And Miss Lynn needed a bed!

So, we borrowed Brenda’s car. Well, not borrowed—we’re both very careful to pay for things as we go, so yes—we rented the car. Kervin brought it over early this morning, after Brenda had thoroughly vacuumed and dusted the interior. “Careful, Miss Lynn,” he warned. “Don’t NEVER leave the keys in the car. It locks itself you see, and you leave the keys in, you be locked out!”

As we loaded the hot Nissan, Kevin issued yet another warning: “If the car alarm goes off, just push that button there, the one with the two dots.” And he roared away, down Adeline Avenue in his matte-white pick-up.

“Ok,” said, Lynn. “Here we go. Left side of the road, look out!” And she turned the key in the ignition.

Nothing. Silence.

“Well, dammit,” Lynn said. And she turned the key again, and all hell broke loose.

The car alarm system must have been top of the line. It had about seven auto-theft climaxes, and screamed them all at top decibel level. It whooped, it screeched, it grunted rhythmically, and it whooped again.

“Punch the button, punch the button!” I shouted. “No, not that one—the one with two dots.!”

“I am, I am,” Lynn screamed back at me. “I am, I am punching!”

From out of Bert’s for the Best grocery came a young man, 20 or so years old, dark skin in photographic contrast with wide-open eyes and a broad, toothy grin. “Miz Lynn, what yo problem?”

Soon we were surrounded by five men, all helplessly staring at the shrieking car. Nissan keys were passed from hand to hand, each man contributing to the button punching ritual, many with inventive combinations involving the lock and unlock and double-dot buttons.

One discovery we made was that when the car was in crisis mode, it locks itself up and refuses to start. So there we were in the early Bahamian morning—one orgasmic car, two sixty-ish white women, five sturdy, glistening black males—and not a helpful idea between the seven of us.

A sixth young man left Bert’s Best and casually sauntered over. He took the key ring imperiously from one of the others, punched the button, and—silence. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“How did you do that?” I asked?

He looked at me, said with extreme patience, “You push the button with two dots THREE times.”

And off we drove.

Our destination was about two miles down Queen’s Highway, at the Tarpum Bay Shopping Center.

The Shopping Center is, in fact, one large two-storied stucco warehouse containing furniture, paint, hardware, sheets, jewelry, batteries, and snacks. We had a long list of incidentals as well as a mattress and box springs, most of which we found quickly.

The car lay baking in the hot sun of the parking lot, sullen and sleepy. “Three pushes, Lynn,” I reminded her. And the car erupted, hooting and screeching, through all seven orgiastic warnings. And once again, all of the able-bodied males within a quarter of a mile descended upon us. “Poke the button.” “Turn the key”. “Unplug the battery and let it reset.” Louder and louder they begin to yell at each other — and at us. “We don’t know,” we answered. “It’s Kervin’s car. We don’t know anything!”

At length Julian, owner of Tarpum Bay Shopping Center , got in his pick-up and headed down toward Tarpum Bay, looking for Kervin while Lynn and I settled in for an hour of US television, discussing with our hosts, Julian’s parents, the prospects for an Obama success.

A warm pop and stale popcorn later, Brenda’s car was once again surrounded by men, including Kervin’s sons and their friends, a tangle of dark arms and dusty bare feet. And suddenly, once again, the silence struck. Quiet. And no triumphant faces. The silence, it seems, was due to the dead battery—so dead that no jumper cables could resuscitate it.

Much later still, Kervin arrived and the boys scampered, fearing his probable wrath at discovering the need for a new battery in Brenda’s car. Kervin brought us home,  better for us anyway because all our purchases could fit in the rear of his truck.

“I’ll bring you the car tomorrow morning, Miz Lynn, Miz Judith. I got to get me a battery. And we is gonna take OUT that car alarm. And you will have to lock it wid the key inna lock.”

“Kervin,” I asked, “where are people going to hide a stolen car on an island that’s only two miles wide?”

The Culmer Cottage at Last

Sorry I’ve taken so long to post anything.  This blog has been on my mind, and I’ve had many ideas but a lot less time than I had during the recovery days of winter.

Almost a year to the day of my surgery last October, I finally left for Eleuthera with my house-building partner.  Our goal was to see our house in its almost finished stage, and to catch our respective breaths following the summer madness.  The next few blogs were written in Eleuthera–I’ll begin with our first encounter with our new tropic retreat:

Lynn is so excited she can hardly stand it. Of course, she has worked with the house from the beginning, drawing the design, deciding on paint, buying the knobs for the kitchen doors. Me, I’ve only had the dream which lies, glowing deep inside me. It was a warm hope, a shimmering place which gave off healing and strength during the long hospital days.

So I am excited, yes, but not like Lynn is—she radiates energy and enthusiasm. I simply sit in my airplane seat in deep stillness, listening to her chatter about curtains and corner sinks and Kervin the builder. As we skim over the mottled Caribbean water, blue then turquoise, deep holes and shallow reefs, we descend deeper into our separate anticipations.

At the airport, greeted by Kervin’s wife Brenda, Lynn is ready to forget the suitcases. “Go!” she says, “Let’s hurry!”

“Lynn,” I remind her. “The luggage.”

As we drive over the hill into our little seaside village, we see it, sitting high on a more distant hill, the pink cottage with the gleaming new roof, poking up out of the tangled green of the palm and acacia trees.

And down toward town we go, past Papa George’s Internet and Pizza, past the Tarpum Bay Shopping Mall, and turn the corner at Bert’s for the Best grocery store.

Our house (“Cottage,” Miss Brenda reminds us) is small, built on the footprint of the original Culmer Cottage, with two-foot thick walls on the bottom story and an added second story complete with a balcony stretching across the sea side. The village side is has a walled back yard, high steps leading up to an open entry door, with Kervin standing in it, rigid with anticipation. “You like it, Miss Lynn?” he asks, before we are even inside.

And we love it. It’s pure Caribbean—huge, shiny floor tiles, white walls and deep window wells, pickled light wood cabinets, ceilings and accent walls. Downstairs there are high ceilings and many windows, an open floor plan with a living area and kitchen and a front patio under the upstairs deck.

Upstairs, there are two small bedrooms and a bath, and a large closet that will store clothes and personal items while we are gone. My bedroom is in the southwest corner, with two windows and a glass door onto the patio. I have futon for bedroom furniture; Lynn has a bed frame which Kervin has built.

Our downstairs furniture has already arrived and Brenda has cleaned our house thoroughly. On an earlier trip here, Lynn bought a wicker living room set on sale at the Tarpum Bay Shopping Mall and so we have our white wicker couch, chair, love seat, and assorted tables, resplendent in a pink and aqua print and—incredibly–matching the floor tiles just as if a professional decorator had planned it.

We dance from room to room. Our feet barely touch the ground, it seems, and Kervin follows us, “You like dat?” he asks, again and again.

Indeed we do, Kervin, indeed we do.

(To see more of the photos of the house and the people of Tarpum Bay, please visit my photo gallery.)