Remembering Miss Ina

Miss Ina on her porch at Hard Labor, Coral Bay, St. John US

Remembering Miss Ina

The following vignettes have been collected over my twenty-five years as a visitor, part-time resident and working musician on the Caribbean island of Saint John, USVI and are told to the best of my recollection. - DR

1. The Kapok Tree

I'd first met Miss Ina nearly twenty years earlier after her son Henry and my sister Marcia became “an item”. When we arrived at her home for my introduction, she was not there. Henry called out to her and from a distance we heard “Hendry, up here.” There she was, down a deep ravine (called a 'gut' in the islands) sitting partially hidden by leaves high up in a kapok tree, her spindly legs dangling as she sat on a stout branch, her cotton house dress stuffed with kapok fibre. She was seventy one years old.

Ma, get down from there! You'll get hurt!” shouted Henry, shading his eyes as he looked up.

Ya mind yaself, Hendry! I collectin' cotton to stuff meh pillows!” retorted Miss Ina.

Come down and meet Marcia's brother,” Henry insisted.

Awright, awright, meh-son, I comin'”, Miss Ina called down reluctantly. “Nex' time ya gon' be deh one come uppa dis tree when meh need deh cotton!” she added emphatically.

This was an introduction I shall never forget!

Except for several years during the 1960s and '70s when she lived in New York City, Ina Mathias Powell George, born in 1919, had lived her life on St. John in the same faded wooden, two-room, tin-roofed cottage nestled upon a shady hillside. Situated upon the same plot of land that had been in the Mathias family for generations, her house had become the first little grocery and dry goods store in the Hard Labor community.

Hard Labor, a community whose name was coined during the Danish colonial period, had been a well-known penal settlement in the days when runaway or recalcitrant slaves from the prosperous North Shore sugar plantations 'earned punishment'. Slaves were remanded to toil in 'hard labor' under the scorching sun and ready lash of brutal bombas (overseers) upon the bleakly desiccated farms in the eastern outskirts of Coral Bay. Though very different today, Hard Labor - once the tropical version of a Siberian gulag - was not a place where one wanted to find themselves under any circumstances!

Over the years, Miss Ina's simple dwelling had stoutly withstood the ravages of a fire that destroyed the family house back in the early '70s, as well as many tropical hurricanes, including the 1995 armageddon that was Marilyn. Guava, sugar-apple and spectacular flamboyant trees crowd the cluttered porch where Brownie, her fiercely beloved mastiff-mix dog lay heavily chained. Depending upon who, or what, you were, Brownie could be much more fierce than beloved! An ancient wringer-washing machine stood sentinel under the roof’s downspout, at the ready to catch rainfall for the next wash load.

2. Nate and the Goats

One beautifully sunny late March day, my musical colleague Mary and I stopped by Miss Ina's brightly blue-painted home to introduce her to Nate, Mary’s twenty-nine year old son who'd recently arrived for a brief respite from school and the harsh Pennsylvania winter.

Brownie, dozing nearby, appeared to be asleep, but in truth he was keeping a watchful eye over his mistress. Assorted scrawny island cats skulked through the low bushes surrounding her well-worn stoop, warily calculating the exact length of Brownie’s heavy chain. They knew to remain well outside its radius if they wished to avoid becoming a canine repast. In fact, unknown visitors of any stripe had better take a clue from the cats!

Almost ninety years young, Miss Ina had slowed down considerably. She no longer climbs kapok 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 as she gathered medicinal herbs and plants for her homemade tinctures, or shrilly calling and whistling for her wandering goats who sporadically decide not to return to their pen by sunset. Goat herding duty is now left to Henry and her daughter Gen, much to their annoyance. She stopped attending church on Sundays because the climb up the hill to the Calvary Baptist 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 now spent more time after dinner at Henry and Gen’s commodious, concrete-block home where they provided her with her own comfortably crowded bedroom to use whenever she decided not to return to her next-door, two-room wooden sanctuary.

These days Miss Ina seems more content to put her feet up and quietly retreat into her thoughts while being lulled to sleep as an up-island televangelist preaches 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, should family or 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 Miss Ina did not feel well, but she perked up when we came into the parlor where she sat in front of the TV, picking at her lunch. She was dressed, not in her usual faded cotton house-dress, but in a beautiful, raspberry-colored dress. Despite her pallor and physical decline, she looked luscious! Having been told we were coming, she had spent considerable time braiding her thinning 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’ ya be cussin’ ‘roun’ me! I don’ tell ya evert’ing. Yo know dey come home mos’ de time, but sometime goat jus’ like chirrun - dey be bad an’ do wha' dey wan’!”

3. “Dat Wicked, Wicked Glaston!”

It was always a pleasure to idle away an afternoon on this porch listening as Miss Ina, in her lyrical island lilt, wove 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 roots and herbs gathered on her walkabouts. She loved to reminisce about "meh Faddah" and how he diligently worked their land growing squash, potatoes, beans, raising goats, donkeys and a cow for milk. After Sunday church he would take his family on picnics way up on Paradise Mountain where all the cousins would play games and explore while their parents visited, preparing a huge lunch. Tales of her mischievous cousin, "dat wicked, wicked bwoy Glaston" always brought me smile!

I'll paraphrase one of his adventures, “Glaston an' Deh Jock-o Rats”: Cousin Glaston had a bit of a lazy streak. His grandfather, with whom he resided, was a task-master that kept the boy busy as best he could with chores and errands whenever Glaston wasn't in school. When the opportunity arose, Glaston would disappear delinquent, running off to fish in the bay or play in the woods, not returning home until well after dark when he knew his grandfather would be asleep.

One day, grandfather handed him a shoebox tied with string and ordered Glaston to “tek dis box of pate to ya uncle Mooie.” Glaston, who for some reason or another, had a bone to pick with his uncle Mooie and had held a grudge towards him for a long while. Glaston hatched a two-fold plan: He could settle his score with uncle Mooie and send a strong message to his grandfather that he would no longer be at his beckoned call.

Glaston procured some rat poison that he placed inside the shoebox with uncle Mooie's pate treats and then hid the box in the bush near Mooie's house down in John's Folly. He knew when dusk fell that the notorious, nocturnal island tree rats (aka “jocko-rats”) would descend from their lairs high in the coconut palms. In their quest for a meal they would quickly discover Mooie's shoebox of pate and devour its contents, including the poison. If all went according to plan, there would be several dead rats scattered about in a day or two. There were.

Glaston located another shoebox and took it into the bush where the pate had been hidden. He gathered up as many dead rats as he could find and put them in the new shoebox, tied it up and delivered the box directly to uncle Mooie's house. “A gift from meh grandfadder,” said Glaston, handing the shoebox to Mooie, stiffling his laughter as he scampered away.

A few days later, before the sun rose, Glaston's grandfather came into the room where Glaston slept and beat him with a stick, loudly cursing and chastising him for the prank he'd pulled on Mooie. Glaston, terrified of his grandfather, ran away into the bush where he hid for a couple of days. One night he snuck into the house and got some clean clothes for school. Upon returning home from school that day, Glaston was ambushed on the path by his grandfather who'd been hiding in the bush and was clearly not finished with administering his punishment.

For weeks, his grandfather hid in various locations on the path from school hoping to ambush Glaston should he try to return home to John's Folly. For weeks, Glaston decided that it would be a lot safer for him to reside with various friends in Coral Bay until his grandfather's rage blew over, which it did. Over time, a silent truce ensued and life returned to normal. Until the next misadventure!

                                                             4. “Some T'ings Nah Change!”

I find island life in the West Indies seductively wonderful, largely because of the delightful people, their customs, food and colorful, island ways. Regrettably it seems that much of the old, traditional island culture is becoming forgotten and diluted as the elders pass, young folks leave and new transplants arrive “from deh cont'nent” hoping to catch the island vibe for themselves. However, if one remains observantly patient, it is possible to find an island elder who will be generous with his or her stories about the old days past. Hard times, certainly, but good times as well. And some of them are pretty darn funny. 
Here is an actual conversation I overheard between my West Indian brother, Henry (only a few years older than I and a retired Navy man) and his mom, Miss Ina, upon our return home with two fish we had caught after a day of deep-sea fishing with Mr. Aidan, a local church deacon who had a stellar reputation as a fishing guide and for instinctively “knowin' where dere bitin'”.

We walked up the hibiscus lined drive to the family's old, sea-blue concrete front porch where Miss Ina had just finished hanging up a fresh load of washing on several random lengths of knotted, reclaimed twine. She was resting, leaning on her battered porch railing while gazing out over the sea. Her ancient dog Brownie, a large, island mutt cross (perhaps between a mastiff and a chihuahua?), lay at her feet. He raised his weary head when he noticed us traipsing up the drive. Brownie stood up, shook himself and howled a greeting.

Miss Ina called out to us: "Wha' ya gah in de bag, Hendry?"
Henry: "We caught us two nice fish today, Mom".
Miss Ina: "Wha' kine fish ya gah dere?"

Henry: "We caught a mahi-mahi and a rainbow runner.”

Miss Ina, a little confused: "Wha' dis mahi-mahi? I know deh runner, Hendry, but no such t'ing as mahi-mahi, meh-son."
Henry (emphatically): "But that's what we have here, mom, a mahi-mahi. Mr. Aiden will tell you so, too. I'll clean it up and Genny will cook it nice so we can have some for supper tonight."

Genny, Henry's elder sister who resided with them and was the chief cook and bottle washer for the family, looked up from her TV program that she'd just turned on, minor annoyance creeping across her face with the knowledge that she had just been anointed with yet another task.

Miss Ina, becoming quite annoyed with Henry's insistence:  "Ya nah gah none dis mahi-mahi, mon. Nah such t'ing a' mahi-mahi I tellin' ya!” Miss Ina declared insistently, then demanded, “Lemme look in deh sack."  

She stood and grabbed the bag. Peering into the dark burlap sack, she shouted, "Dat fish a hard-nose. Hard-nose, meh-say!!!  I know it a hard-nose, you hearing' meh, bwoy?"  

She sucked her teeth in displeasure and disbelief:  "Meh tellin' you Hendry, you don' know nuttin' ‘bout fish!"  Brownie remained motionless, staring at his agitated mistress.

Henry: (softening a bit): "Mom, things change. People call this fish a mahi-mahi now."

Miss Ina rose up to her full height, brandishing her cane and with raised voice intoned authoritatively: "HENDRY, mebbe YOU t'ings change, but FISH DON' CHANGE! Dat fish a HARDNOSE!!!"  

And that was that! Case closed.

Whatever the fish was named, a truce ensued, the fish was rolled in corn meal and deliciously fried up nice and brown. Served together with fried plantains, stewed guava, fungi (a West Indian cornmeal and okra dish, similar to polenta), a fresh salad, all washed down with ice-cold, home-brewed maube (a local beverage made of roots, herbs and molasses - each family has its own favorite recipe), we enjoyed a terrific repast.

As is typical of close family spats most everywhere, the whole “hard-nose versus mahi-mahi” conflict blew over as quickly as a Caribbean evening shower.

5. “Mo' Rain”

I leave you with another little vignette from the matriarch herself.

Before the rest of us gathered in the cramped kitchen to feast upon Gen's famed fried chicken with fungi, Miss Ina informed us loudly and insistently from the adjacent living room where she was ensconced in her chair, "Meh on'y eats fish! Nevah eat any kine fowl, dey filt'y creature! Meh on'y eats fish!"

You don't think after all these years that I don't know that, Mom?” said Gen, sucking her teeth as she scooped fungi into a colorful ceramic bowl. We dug into our fried chicken dinner swhile Miss Ina sat contentedly in her well-worn recliner enjoying her Sunday meal of stewed fish, greens and rice 'n peas. Her eyes closed, chuckling quietly and smiling with delight to herself, Miss Ina recited a little joke that went like this:

Mo’ rain, mo’ res’. Mo’ rain, mo’ res’.”
Wha’ dat you be sayin’, bwoy?” Massa say.
Mo' rain, mo’ grass. Mo’ rain, mo’ grass. Mo’ rain, mo’ grass for Massa’s horse!”

Henry later told me that while he had never before heard this particular play-on-words story, it was probably a remnant from the Danish colonial sugar-plantation era when slavery flourished. He has heard her recount other similar tragic/comic memories that must have been absorbed at the feet of her parents or grandparents, making reference to plantation life and the societal/cultural differences between the African (and Irish) slaves and their masters poignantly, sometimes humorously, illustrated.

True stories, or simply private, personal allegories from a wise old Caribbean soul? We’ll never know for sure, nor will we hear any more stories and tales directly from this exceptionally independent, strong, devoted and devout island matriarch. Miss Ina “went home” into the celestial realm during the early morning of April 17, 2009, just a couple of weeks after our visit. I miss her...and her stories!


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