One beautifully sunny day late last March, Miss Mary and I stopped by Miss Ina’s St. John island home to introduce her to Nate, Miss Mary’s twenty-nine year old son who'd recently arrived for a brief respite from school and the harsh Pittsburg winter.
Born in 1917, Miss Ina had lived most of her life on St. John (except for several years during the 1960s and 70s when she lived in New York City) in the faded wooden, two-room, tin-roofed cottage nestled upon a shady hillside, and situated upon the same plot of land that had been in her family for generations. She was the first in her community to open a little grocery and dry goods store in her home and her entrepreneurial spirit stayed with her all her life .
Her humble homestead sits just on the edge of Hard Labor, a settlement whose name was coined during the Danish colonial period. It was well-known in those days that when errant or recalcitrant slaves from the prosperous North Shore sugar plantations 'earned punishment', they were remanded to the scorched, desiccated farms on the eastern outskirts of Coral Bay. There they executed 'plenty hard labor' under the relentlessly unforgiving sun and ready lash of the brutal 'Bombas', or overseers. Though very different today, Hard Labor - once a tropical version of Siberia - was not where one wanted to find themselves under any circumstances!
Over the years, Miss Ina's simple dwelling has stoutly withstood a fire that destroyed the main family house back in the early 70s, as well as many a tropical hurricane, including the 1995 armaggedon that was 'Marilyn'. Guava, sugar-apple and a spectacular flamboyant tree crowd the sagging porch where Brownie, her fiercely beloved mastiff-mix dog lies chained. Depending upon who you are, Brownie can be much more fierce than beloved! An ancient wringer-washing machine stands sentinel under the roof’s downspout, at the ready to catch rainfall for the next washload. It was a pleasure to idle away an afternoon on this porch listening as Miss Ina, in her lyrical island lilt, would weave stories from her distant childhood about the adventures (and misadventures!) of assorted island characters while she peeled guavas or prepared her own medicinal tinctures from local roots and herbs. She loved to reminisce about "mi Faddah" and how he worked their land and after church would take his family on picnics up on Paradise Mountain; another tale of her cousin, "dat wicked, wicked Glaston an' de jacko-rats" still brings a smile to me! Brownie, dozing nearby, might appear to be asleep, but in truth he is keeping a watchful eye over his mistress. The assorted scrawny island cats that skulk through the low bushes surrounding her well-worn stoop have warily calculated the exact length of Brownie’s heavy chain and know to remain well outside its radius if they wish to avoid becoming a canine repast. In fact, unknown visitors of any stripe had better take a clue from the cats!
At ninety-two, Miss Ina had slowed down considerably. She no longer climbs trees for “cotton stuffing" for homemade pillows and bandages. She hasn’t tramped down into the steep “gut” to tend her banana trees for months. Neighbors haven’t seen her crashing through the bush, machete “cutlass” in hand, calling and whistling for her wandering goats who sporadically decide not to return to their pen by sunset - this herding duty now left to her son Henry and daughter Gen, much to their annoyance. She stopped attending church on Sundays because the climb up the hill to the chapel was simply too exhausting. Her friends at the Callabash Boom Senior Center still lament her absence at lunches or riding with them in the van to sit in the shade of the coconut palms at Maho Bay.
Becoming better acquainted with senescence, Miss Ina tended to spend more time next door at Henry and Gen’s commodious, concrete-block home where they provided her with her own crowded but comfortable bedroom to use whenever she decided not to return to her hillside sanctuary after dinner. These days Miss Ina seems more content to put her feet up and quietly retreat into her thoughts while being lulled to sleep by an up-island Baptist televangelist preaching the gospel, the TV's sound turned off. Her dog-eared, worn Bible lies close at hand, ready to offer guidance or solace, need depending, as she drifts off.
However, if family or welcomed guests drop by, Miss Ina will rouse herself from her reverie and offer comments, opinions or perhaps a totally unrelated story to whatever dialog is swirling around her in the room.
On the day we visited, we could tell Miss Ina did not feel well, but she perked up when we came into the parlor where she was picking at her lunch in front of the TV. She was dressed, not in her usual faded cotton house-dress, but in a beautiful, raspberry-colored dress. Despite her pallor and obvious physical decline, she looked luscious! Having been told we were coming, she had spent considerable time braiding her thin hair and adorning herself with her favorite gold earrings...not an easy task with her arthritic hands.
She was introduced to Nate and after exchanging greetings and pleasantries all around we began to converse, inquiring about her huge family of relatives, including her beloved animals. Nate had been curious about all the goats he’d seen along the roadsides and clambering the hills.
Nate: “There sure are a lot of goats on this island aren’t there?”
Miss Ina: “Yeh, mon, plenty goat.”
Nate: “How can you tell them all apart? How do you know which ones are yours?”
Miss Ina: “I know mi goats. Dey like mi chirrun. Yo know yo own chirrun.”
Nate: “But how do they know where to go home at night? Why don’t they just go to anybody’s place?”
Miss Ina: “Dey know, but yo got to teach dem. Mi faddah he tol’ me when I was jus' a young girl, ‘If yo wan’ goat to come home ever’ day, yo mus’ do dis. Jus’ afta dey born an’ dey standin’ up, tek dey nose an’ rub it over an’ over right here.’ Miss Ina demonstrates by lifting her arm and rubbing her armpit briskly. ‘Dat way, de goat know yo smell, understan’, mi-son? Goat she smell yo and come right home! Ever’ day!”
Henry, who had been listening incredulously to this story, broke in: “Mom, what you talkin’ ‘bout? I never heard this crazy stuff. You know I got to go hunt the damn goats down a couple times a week!”
Miss Ina: “Hendry, don’ you be cussin’ ‘roun’ me! I don’ tell yo evert’ing. Yo know dey come home mos’ de time, but sometime goat jus’ like chirrun - dey be bad an’ do what dey wan’!”
True story, or a little private, personal allegory from a wise old island soul? We’ll never know for sure. Nor will we hear any more stories and tales directly from this wise, independent, strong, devoted and devout island matriarch. Miss Ina passed into the celestial realm in the early morning of April 17, 2009, just a couple of weeks after our visit.
I leave you with another little vignette from the lady herself. It is a joke I heard Miss Ina repeating quietly to herself, eyes closed, chuckling and smiling with delight as she sat in her well-worn recliner after her Sunday dinner of stewed fish, greens and rice 'n peas. (We had feasted on Gen's famed fried chicken with fungi, but Miss Ina told us insistantly that she "nevah eat any kin' fowl, dey a filty creature! I eat fish!"). Her joke went like this:
“Mo’ rain, mo’ res’. Mo’ rain, mo’ res’.”
“Wha’ dat you be sayin’, boy?” Massa say.
“Mo rain, mo’ grass. Mo’ rain, mo’ grass. Mo’ rain, mo’ grass for Massa’s horse!”
Henry told me that while he hadn’t heard this particular play-on-words, it was probably yet another remnant from the Danish colonial days. He has heard her recount other similar tragi-comic dialogs that must have been learned at the feet of her parents or grandparents and make reference to plantation life with the societal/cultural differences between slaves and their masters poignantly, and sometimes humorously, illustrated.