We came by plane. A little puddle hopper with 30 seats. Leaving behind the island of Nassau where I met my sister – my sister, my partner my twin. The airplane was not as small as I imagined.
We landed on a small air strip where a line of maybe four people were waiting just off of the field. One woman in a dashiki and an older man. I had ordered a car rental from a man named Bob, so I was hoping the man was Bob. He was.
The car was $80 a day and we negotiated the days. I wanted two to start and maybe more later in the week. He wanted cash. I settled on two days only and was able to pay after finigling with husband John and my sister. We headed to the Ocean Dream Beach hotel with Bob leading us for directions. He left us at the end of a long sandy driveway saying “go-on up the road – it’s up there”. We drove. 5, 10, 15 minutes up a bumpy road. Wondering if we were heading in the right direction in the dusk.
John spotted two concrete arches and we headed up a hill. There were six colorful houses sitting on the ridge. One had a car parked outside. The end one was larger. Maybe this was the advertised restaurant. We drove up to the building and an older Black woman emerged from the house
“You came early?
“I wasn’t expecting you till tomorrow.”
Exhausted. We were here today. After lots of discussion, she said she would finish up our rooms, and she didn’t know how we were planning to fit in the one bedroom cottage. Wait -we were three and we ordered a two bedroom.
“I don’t care what you ordered, I’m fixing up the 2 bedroom cause that’s where you’ll fit. Wait here.”
We waited minutes that seemed like hours in the car. Finally, the beautiful cottage was serviced and we unloaded the bags. We headed to the restaurant as the woman had promised us a snack before bed. As we approached the building, smells of fried fish and coconut rice wafted towards us. A younger man offered us a table and asked what we wanted to drink. I said “we’re water kind of people.” He brought bottled water.
After about fifteen minutes the woman brought us plates of fish and coconut rice with peas and salad and slaw. They were flavors from heaven. Then, Dr. Clark told us about her career as an educator and how this property was her retirement entertainment.
We have been recognized as relatives by the folks on the Island. Dr. Clark invited us to an event with children and elders and a roast pig and two roast turkeys. That’s where we met Eris Moncour and Nikki. Then looked over our family tree papers and notated the settlements where each of our family members might be from. So many names connected to locations related to the geography – which hill, which cay, which pond. A network of relations where everyone knows who lives up the road in which house. Dr. Clark said we needed to get started right away if we wanted to head down north before sunset. We started out.
We traveled north to the settlements and climbed Kelly Hill where we could see both sides of the island from a single high peak. Sisters in a photo looking towards the ground for connections to the ancestors. Climbing the hill with aching knees and unstable gaits. John taking photographs to document the moment. Heading down north we passed through Gaitors and Bennet’s Harbor. In Dumfires, just where the Anglican Church is set back away from the road you can turn right to head up towards Kelly Hill. Four hills. Kelly Hill is the highest and from the top you can see both the Atlantic and the Caribbean Ocean.
Eris Moncour, island historian, was the man who directed us up to Kelly Hill. The Thurstons of Bennet’s Harbor are the most likely relatives since they live close to Kelly Hill and Arthur’s Town. We have been advised to check in on some relatives in the store later this week to see if we can find a couple of the Thurston Brothers who may know about Hubert in Nassau who will know about all the rest of the Thurston folks.
This traveling back to the Caribbean Bahamas is like coming home to stay with my Grandma in Tampa where the small colorful homes house folks who sit out on the road acknowledging each car passing by. Waving. Hearing about deaths and funerals of distant cousins and nephews. Meeting new family in the faces of the children on the island. Recognizing all of the features and the walks which remind me of Aunt Gladys and Mama Rene and Cousin Scoop and all of the other faces and textures and hands from my childhood in the sands of Florida on Beech Street.
We explored inside the Anglican Church in Old Bight where the hymnals have songs written in verse to celebrate with the congregation.
So many buildings made of stone and handmade cement. So many ruins as folks come and go and mostly go. They leave Cat Island for lucrative markets in Nassau and Miami and New York.
We met up with Mr Pompey who remembered even more. People up in the Bight don’t know as much about people down in Arthur’s Town. Like black communities everywhere the rules invert. Up is south and Down in north. Those are the rules. Nassau is the commuting place where everyone goes for funerals and business.
The mail boat comes in once a week on Thursday from Nassau bringing in goods. But I saw a ferry yesterday and that was Sunday. Everything closes on Sunday except the store was open at 10 am in Sunday ‘cause we learned the store is open on Sunday until 10 am cause people have to drop off their cars to catch the plane. But we went to the store at 10:15 and it was open. Because it closes at 10 am Caribbean not American time.
Amy says it challenges your ideas about logic.
But it makes perfect sense.
Like the man who I asked about the eco tours who said this morning that his boat for the tours holds two adults and two children. Unless they are American size. Then it holds a lot less. And the tour is 2 or 3 hours depending if people like sea turtles or sharks, but he tries to get in a little bit of everything.
In two days, I’ve only seen four white people on the island. And we have driven almost the whole length. Maybe it’s not the white people season yet.
Wednesday December 19 was a Cat Island kind of day – magical and familial.
We left around 10 and headed down to Alverna’s the store near the docks. The once-a-week ferry had just come in and folks were off-loading hardware and pipes and bags of cement into the backs of cars. We were looking for a map and we didn’t see one. We started our drive down north to Arthurs Town. Cat Island people call it down when you’re heading up north to the other end of the island. First stop was near a beach to walk into and around one of the old plantation houses. Stone and concrete one room homes with thick walls. A lot of them are still in use for storage and living. Every now and then you see a bright colorful painted one.
Back in the car we drove north – stopping here and there for photos. We stopped in a place called Pigeon’s Cove where we followed a long road to find two houses for sale. A white man was leaving out and he waved. We kept going until we saw the Pigeon Cove resort, a collection of cottages and another white man in a car he came out and said he was the owner and what did we want and he was in charge of selling both houses and also the resort too if we wanted it. $300,000 to $700,000 for an already built property. He was heading to town to pick up report cards from the school. We thanked him and drove on until the road ran out, then we heading back to the main road north. After a little while we came across an open home/store called Yardie’s where Yardie was in. She was just getting back from the ferry and picking up the report cards from the children’s school.
So we asked Yardie if she had food and internet and she said she had both. John submitted his grades and we all ate cheeseburgers for $5 each. Got in the car heading north again. We drove till we came to a village with a playground. Arthurs Town. Riding along the back side we say a beautiful beach in a quiet cove. We got out of the car, met a man who told us it was the Arthurs Town high school. They were giving out report cards. We decided to swim in the cove. Beautiful clear water. After the cove we headed north where we saw a store and went it. It was a larger store with all kinds of supplies. A lady behind the counter and a man sitting in the corner watching. We bought tomatoes and lettuce and tuna and a bag of chips. She asks – “what brings you to Cat Island?” We say “We think our relatives are from here.” She says “what’s the family name?” we tell her and she says we need to head south to talk to Helen Thurston just past Yardie’s. An older woman who can’t walk with a husband who can’t see. Just past the old Baptist church. We say OK.
We start driving south again and stop off to buy souvenirs at the first souvenir store we have seen in a week. A one-room plantation building with an elderly man inside. We buy fans and purses made of straw. He says. “You gotta get to Helen Thurston’s house. It’s right around the bend after Yardie’s and the Baptist church. Lots of stairs up to the house. Hope you can find climb them. She can’t come down, so walk on up.” So we drive and spot the house. Helen Thurston invites us in, but says she can’t remember nothing and her husband even less because at 94 years old, he lost it all. “Go see Mama Rolle – Minerva Rolle – she’ll know everything. You’ll see and then you’ll come back and tell me I was right.”
So Amy and I wobble down the stairs again and get in the car. We drive to the next road, which is the wrong place, and then someone passes by and says “If you’re looking for Mom’s you need to go down two more streets and it’s right there.”
So we go down two more streets and see the house. Blue and white with beautiful flowers outside and we park. On the porch we see a really old tiny woman cleaning dirt off the roots of some picked plants. She welcomes us in. This is Mama (Minerva) Rolle. She’s 97 years old and recently won an award of a conch shell statue for being a national treasure of Cat Island. She shows us the photo of the award ceremony. Her mother lived to be 100 and her grandmother lived to be 105. She has always lived and farmed on Cat Island. She still has most of her teeth and has never had an operation and only went to the hospital once we she was 43 to have her appendix removed.
Mama is on the phone and calling to neighbors and jumping up and down. Cataracts in her eyes and a smile just like my own grandma Irene used to have. She listens to us mention names carefully. If it’s the Thurston’s she thinks we might be more connected with the Old Bight Thurstons, but there are so many of them. They are spread all throughout the island. The Roberts is what sticks in her mind. Nathaniel Roberts was Amelia Roberts father. [And she married Reginald Kelly and Reginald Kelly is the father of Irene and Cambell Kelly. Our Dad was named after Uncle Cambell Kelly. Uncle Cambell’s wife’s name was Rose.]
So Mama Rolle says Ann Roberts used to live across the street. She remembers her from when she was 5 years old. They were in the house across the street. There was only one woman and she had others that went to the United States. Mama Rolle is like Mother Wit. Full of love and wisdom and generosity. She laughs and talks about a life of farming yucca and corn and beans and tomatoes and okra. Talks about how she keeps her health by moving around. Talks about how the youth today don’t pay her no mind. Talks about how neighbors used to farm each other’s field if someone was sick and check in day and night to see how they were doing. And how all the medicines are in the bush and in the trees outside. Like the leaves she was cleaning which are good for arthritis and breathing, anything with the respiratory system. All those disease come from the food. Every family used to fish and have a goat and grow their own food. There was no refrigerators so we would salt the pigs and salt the fish to keep them. You would beat the casadilla, lay it out, go to the school, come back, turn the casadilla, and then go back to school. Then come home and work the fields.
We stayed with Mama Rolle about an hour. Until the mosquitos and no-see-um’s were too much for us. She thanked us for coming and said she likes when folks find their people. Beautiful Mama Rolle.
By then it was dusk and we headed home to the Ocean Dream.