By now the evening of quiet party preparations was progressing with interruptions from arriving visitors, who were mostly family members. Our family remained the only outsiders in a family that extended into the next generation of grandchildren.
So enormous was Luisa’s family that one could hardly finish the snacks offered for having to attend the protocol of greeting newer members of the family, who were the babies born two years ago and some older and the remaining brood of energetic children who embraced us as long lost family member. My pre teen daughter immediately found friends and playmates. For a child born and raised in California she spoke Spanish with a Mexican accent, but, as is usual with children, that did not deter their rambunctious play.
The ice now being broken by the shared knowledge of a living Matron, a Westindian Saint, who also had been a neighbor and healer of countless generations of battered and bruised bodies and emotions, we both settled into some sharing of historic facts behind this matriarch’s humble beginnings that I really was unaware.
“Where were your mother and father from, Luisa?” I asked nonchalantly. “Well, as I said before, my father he was from Jamaica, and you know how them old people was long time ago. They would not talk about where they was from in Jamaica, so all we know is that he said he was from Jamaica.” “Did he speak Spanish?” I asked as a way of keeping the conversation going.
“As I remember in them days he spoke all kinds of languages that we didn’t understand, because he was a loving man an I remembah we could play with him, and things like that. But my mother she was African; yes, she was a African. She use to tell us that she remembah waking up in this part of the world, and that she was a African, but nevah talk to us in African.”
“But I remembah that she and my fahda use to talk and laugh a lot and play around, saying things like, ‘I not the same girl you find at the rivah you know, so you bettah watch out!’ And them would laugh and laugh and we children would get very happy and laugh and play with them. I was a very happy child and a very happy girl when I was growing up. My fahda he bring the first goats into these parts. You know, come to think of it, we children drink goats milk every living day since my fahda, bless his soul, bring them goats home.”
As I listened, I was transported to a story set during the last two decades of the 19th century, of a young bush boy meeting a girl at the river’s edge and falling passionately in love. I could visualize a people who would live in those bushes for such a long time as to have been able to produce generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; people who never worked for the North Americans or depended on them for anything. The story told by Luisa reminded me of the story I had read as part of my wanderings into the African presence in the Caribbean, a tale called “Suandende.” It had been an oral tale passed down by Cuban storytellers about a young black man meeting a young beautiful black girl at the river’s edge while she took a refreshing bath and he turned himself into a turtle to spy on her breathtaking beauty.
However, sitting with that beautiful woman who had retained the charm and looks of a young woman all I could think about, as we were interrupted once more by people handing us more appetizers that looked like fried balls of dough, was that she was definitely not a typical nonagenarian grandmother.
When I finally did try the tasty morsels of fried appetizers, my throaty awes revealed that it was something I hadn’t tasted since I was a child. The fried Codfish “Bakes,” were followed by a magnificent cup of Bush Tea which tasted like the sweet “Caisimon” which Panamanians know as “Hinojo de Anis,” (piper auritum). With a dash of milk and sugar the subtle anis flavor of this calming tea makes for a pleasant hot drink to settle ones emotions. The bush is also used by some troops of jungle monkeys to ward off insects such as mosquitoes.
The family suddenly advanced inside the house to partake of the irresistible appetizers while some music was being played by the younger teens present. Some of the mothers promptly shooed them outdoors again, to the delight of the older people who had been so engrossed in conversing.
This story continues.