1985—Blue Mountains, Jamaica, West Indies
My mother used to tell me this story, while we picked coffee cherries on our farm. It was about a goat herder, in Ethiopia, that discovered that his goats were especially spirited when they ate a red fruit that grew abundantly among the land. She said once he noticed this, he alerted a nearby monastery and told the monks that they should use the fruit in a beverage to keep them awake for longer prayers. Once the world caught on to this beverage, they found ways to roast the beans inside the cherries for a more flavorful beverage.
“This is how coffee began,” my mother told the visiting tourists that pulled a sample cherry from the plant.
They all wanted pictures with her. They all pulled out their Polaroid and Fuji cameras and looped their arms around her neck, for the shot. The younger kids, with no inhibitions, played with her long dreadlocks and asked her how she “grew them.”
“They grow tallowah, with plenty love and water.”
I admired my mother’s patience with ignorance and the way our visitors used to treat her, as if she was something that sprouted from the ground of our coffee farm. She answered questions about the process, the way her family found the land and harvested it, the place she’d buried my father behind the house, and how a rose bush grew behind his tombstone although we’d never seen anything grow, but the coffee.
Daddy always made fun of my mother when she told this story to us, “Fana, tell us the story of the herb nuh?”
My mother always laughed and shooed him away, “You know I don’t believe in black up, unless yuh sick.”
When my father fell ill with leukemia, a year later, I remember running through the farms, using my eight year old hands to push the coffee leaves away, looking for this herb my mother and father spoke of. I could not find any. I know now that his death wasn’t my fault, but I remember a youth filled with regret that I could’ve saved my dad on his deathbed.
I watched my mother with the newest group of visitors. They were staying on the farm, and they wanted to know every little thing about our history. My mother said that as far back as she could remember, we were always coffee farmers. We took our dried beans from cloth to the market to sell, back then. Now, we had a factory, the main house, and several visitor cottages, on the property. It was daddy’s idea to turn our space into a tourist attraction. This idea made my mother quite a wealthy woman. We lived high up, in Jamaica’s blue mountains, a huge fence, one security guard, and several dogs keeping us safe. I’d grown up pulling the pulp from the cherries, leaving them out to arid, and watching my mother do magical things with the remains.
In exactly one year I’d be graduating from upper secondary and headed to college and I wondered about what mommy would do, when I was gone. She wanted me to leave the country, but I wanted to stay here.
“Mommy, the University of The West Indies is just as good, if not better than the schools in foreign.”
My mother sipped her coffee, black, and put it back down, “You need experience girl. I spent my entire life on a farm, so you wouldn’t have to.”
I looked around at our refurnished house and the amazing mountain view, just outside of our windows, “I think you did quite all right. I think I will be just fine, too.”
“You don’t have a choice, Selam, I’ve already gone and looked about your visa.”
I was infuriated, “What? You didn’t even ask me what I wanted to do!”
“I just did, but I know what I want for you. If you go abroad and you don’t like it, you’re more than welcome to come back here. But I don’t think you will.”
My mother tilted her glasses and looked at my plate of bammy and saltfish that I hadn’t touched, I stuffed a piece in my mouth and looked out of the window, to avoid her stare.
1985—Brooklyn, New York, USA
My mother was packing a barrel, again. She stuffed things she’d scoured department stores for and old, underused, items into it. When she started going through my closet, I jumped off of my bed and stood next to her. She was rummaging through my sneaker boxes.
“Mom! There’s nothing in here I don’t wear.”
“Julian, that’s a lie. I’m looking at sneakers that I haven’t seen you wear for years.”
“They might come back in style. My closet is off limits for barrel season.”
My mother dropped the boxes, back into the bottom of the closet, “You have cousins that are the same age as you and can really use them.”
“Tell their mothers to buy it! Why do we have to supply it?”
“Some of them have no mothers or anything at all. Do you hear yourself bwoy?”
I plopped back down into my bed, “I don’t know these cousins. I’ve never met them. It’s hard to feel something for people I’ve never met.”
My mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom, “Don’t worry, that’s going to change. I bought tickets for us to go down for the entire summer. We leave the day you finish school and come back the week, before you start up again.”
My jaw dropped, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I have so much planned for this summer! A Run DMC concert, ciphers in the park with Eddie and the crew, and I just got Jessica to start digging me.”
“Jessica, Eddie and the crew, and Run DMC will be here when you get back. I don’t want to hear it, your father and I have already decided.”
I followed my mother out of the room, “Of course you did! He’s okay with it, because he doesn’t have to go.”
“Your father has to work, you know that.”
“He always has to work. He doesn’t have to go to middle of nowhere West Indies.”
“Stop it! We’re staying with an old high school friend of mine. She owns a coffee farm there and it’s beautiful. You’re going to love it.”
“We’re staying on a farm? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“She’s got a daughter that’s about your age,” my mother sung this and smiled, as if she hadn’t ruined all of my awesome plans.
“So maybe she can show you a little bit about your heritage. You know nothing about my homeland. I think it’s time.”
“Daddy is from the South Bronx. Can I visit his homeland this summer?”
My mother put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes, “We’re going to Jamaica this summer. Final.”
Laguardia to Kingston---Summer 1985
Julian & Selam
The air smelled different on arrival. Julian noticed this the moment he stepped off of the plane. It was a sweet aroma; different from the urine, garbage, and smoke he’d become accustomed to. His mother was so excited; she greeted everyone in an overt manner. You could tell that she hadn’t been home, since she’d left at sixteen. Julian wouldn’t take off his headphones. If he was going to miss the concert, he might as well listen to RUN DMC, on his Walkman, the entire time. When they finally arrived to the taxi area of the airport, she forced him to take off his headphones and experience the hour and a half drive to the Blue Mountain area.
It was hot as hell. Julian sat next to the driver, uncomfortable that the passenger side here was the driver’s side in America. It felt weird. The breeze from the window helped with the weather, as he watched the variety of houses fly by. They passed shanties and mansions, brown folk alike sitting on porches, waiting on buses, and going about their business.
The roads stopped being smooth, after a while. Rocks rolled under the tires, as they drove higher up into the mountains, and lost sight of civilization. It was getting dark and Julian was afraid of being in the wilderness, with no streetlights. His mother sensed this and put her hand on his shoulder from the back seat, “We’re almost there.”
When they arrived, a beautiful cocoa colored woman, in a flowing red dress, stepped out from a large white house. She ran across the yard into his mother’s arms.
Julian stepped out of the car and started to take the suitcases out of the trunk, along with the driver, when his mother’s friend caught sight of him.
“Julie! He’s so big! He looks just like you!”
Julian and his mother were often told that they looked like brother and sister. His mother was petite and butterscotch, with huge eyes. He’d inherited her candy-coated skin and eyes, but had his father’s height standing at 6’3.
Julian shook the hand of the stranger, “Good to meet you, Fana.”
Fana laughed, “Bwoy you better hug me up. I’ve never met you, but I feel like I know everything about you. I bet you’re excited about this new rock infusion that DMC has been doing.”
Julian was shocked, “You listen to DMC?”
Fana pinched his cheeks and grabbed a suitcase; “You’re going to learn a lot this summer. Come on, let’s go inside.”
Julian and his mother walked inside and put their bags down, a young woman that worked in the house took their belongings to the room they’d be staying in. Fana yelled upstairs, “Selam, come and greet our guests!”
In a few seconds a young woman came running down the steps and stood before them. Julian’s heart thumped a mile a minute. She resembled her mother, too. Her locks were swept into a bun, with a purple tank top and flowing white skirt.
Fana smiled, “Julian, this is my daughter Selam.”
Selam shook his hand quickly, as if she had no interest in greeting him, and quickly turned her attention to his mother. She hugged her tightly.
“Julie! It’s so good to meet you. I have seen so many pictures of you and my mother as kids. I want to hear all about the madness my mother did, as a teen.”
Fana hit her daughter on the shoulder, “Chile, cut it out!”
Julie laughed, as they all walked towards the dining room, for dinner, “You mean like the time your mother chased down Ben, after he threw a lizard down her back.”
“Ben? You mean crazy Ben, from the market?”
Fana cringed, “Why would you start with that story? Lawd Julie, Ben is a mad man now!”
Julian watched the women laugh and exchange stories, as he sat around the table and took in the view outside of the window. He watched Selam flounce around the room, set the table, and immerse herself in the comfort of her home. He would never admit it out loud, but this might just be a cool summer.