Eleuthera

THE SITE OF MEMORY: A PLACE. The Pink House. Where lives converge, where time moves faster than the current and stands as still as a breezeless hot summer night.

Here I left one part of my life and pickled another, an intermediate phase, that fermented and grew new life within itself. We bottled it like guava jelly, stored it in the sand and set it adrift at sea, a sealed map of memory.

The cliffs, where we saw the bull sharks circling below us, 20 feet down. Up there on the limestone, with our parents, Cade and I were safe. The setting sun and crashing waves sent mystery through the air as the 12-foot sharks shoved their fins and noses out of the water towards us. Our parents held our hands as we all stood silent up there, watching this wild force below us churn up the dark Atlantic blue.

The cliffs of Eleuthera Island are stunning. The backbone of a skeletal island, they have been beaten clean for years by hurricanes and astonishing waves, leaving them jagged and gnarly and lunar. Standing out on these brave cliffs against the Atlantic, I have often tried to connect with the incredible force I feel beneath my feet as water trickles through the limestone and circles again back into the ocean, turning white and cerulean. The ritual of absorbing the power of Whale Point. Out on those cliffs, facing the horizon, the wild seeps into every part of life. Naked power, a kind that has traveled from Africa and surges from the depths to move boulders across dry land, to send a wall of seawater fifty feet into the air with no explanation and no apology.

To build a house on the end of a tiny, jutting peninsula is to align with a vector of energy. Once, my father was flying in on a small prop-engine airplane that makes the trip down from Florida, when visibility became poor due to a Caribbean thunderstorm. Shaking in the air, the plane circled blindly as the pilot tried to coordinate the location of the island’s tiny airport. Lightning was striking all around. As the plane dropped and jumped back up, the door to the cockpit swung open wide, and my father says that the ladies aboard took out rosaries and crossed themselves. Some made use of the vomit bags in front of them. He kept his eyes out the window. Then, he says, a pointed roof appeared out of the gray. “My house!” he shouted. “That’s my house! It’s at the end of Whale Point. The airport is due west!” And so he was able to direct the pilot to a safe landing.

That is the kind of story that can happen on an island like Eleuthera. The island itself is shaped like a mystery, its skinny, knobby points trickling down in a backwards-c shape, cupping the turquoise Carribean Sea directly across the half-mile-long sliver of mainland rock, on the other side of the deep and brooding Atlantic. This gentle water seems to reach no more than ten feet deep for miles and miles as it stretches towards Florida. It is as calm as glass, and you can see straight through the water, especially on calm days. Oftentimes when I am flying into North Eleuthera airport, I look for sharks or giant manta rays in the bay. My cousin claims to have seen an entire shipwreck from the air.

The American painter Winslow Homer spent a good deal of his career depicting the Bahamian islands, and his works of Eleuthera are, not surprisingly, my favorites. He, too, seems to have been captivated by Glass Windows Bridge, a natural arch made of rock that stretches thirty feet and allows its passengers to essentially straddle these sister seas. To the north, the deep, midnight-colored Atlantic; southwards, the gemlike Caribbean. Humans did not create Glass Windows, though slaves from the pineapple plantations used to cross it from Gregory Town to the East in order to get fresh water in Upper Bogue, westward. What must they have thought about this striking example of balance in nature, of a more civilized wilderness?

As with the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America, the Spanish and then the English colonized the Bahama islands as centers of export, bringing slaves from Africa and establishing large plantations. Eleuthera, in particular, was used for pineapple production from the early 18th century, with the business peaking in the mid-19th. The Dole Company’s attention later shifted to Hawaii with its establishment as a state in the U.S. With the massive growth of the tourism industry and Bahamian independence in 1973, agriculture ceased to be the main economic feature of the Bahamas. Today, Eleuthera is lined with rolling fields of arable land, empty silos now grown to their tops with weeds and vines.

IT HAS BEEN YEARS SINCE my family went to Whale Point together. The past few times I have been, very frequently in the last two years, were all college trips with friends, my partner and my father. But, being there, I feel the passage of time and its beautiful malevolence tear at me as I go through every room of the house. Cade’s tiny hats. She had always had a big head, but how could these be so small? Sunglasses our parents had given us for Christmas. The driftwood curtain rods we had made the first summer after we built the house; their same, thin white curtains hazily swaying in the breeze from the ceiling fan.

Looking through the few pieces of clothing that my mom left in her armoire upstairs in the Pink House, I felt as if I was sorting through memories, or the clothes of somebody who no longer exists. I caught myself saying, “This was my mom’s,” though, of course, it still is my mom’s; I called her to ask if she wanted me to bring these things back to Florida. The orange skirt with small Hawaiian figures surfing across the fabric, a plain gray tee-shirt to wear on the boat – I can picture it now, the full ensemble, her white baseball cap shining over sporty black sunglasses and her beautiful painted toenails in blue flip flops. A blue paisley spaghetti-strapped dress, a red floral spaghetti-strapped dress; a summer wardrobe.

I wore her clothes, the last time I was there. We slept in their bed, Thomaz and I, and that first night alone felt like we had become my parents. Upstairs in that huge room, surrounded by water on all sides, with every window open and the sound of waves crashing around us. Living on Whale Point.

Memory: a feeling of intense joy and sadness at once, of knowing that this had been our home, that we had made it together. I know its nuances (no glass in the upstairs shower window), its secrets (two roofs) and its smell (the most comforting hint of salt spray and mildew). This house was never finished completely, and, like many projects of my parents’, perhaps never will be. But it is the absence of the glass in the window, that smell of mildew that I love; of knowing, this is a place where time is present, where nature comes in, like the ants seething into the Buendía family’s home in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

So much significance in a gray tee-shirt. So much depends on those clothes resting within that cabinet, waiting for Mom to return and wear them again. Waiting for my childhood to commence again, to run on the pink sand beaches with my parents and make bonfires at night. How I long for my mother wearing those simple sundresses on Bahamian afternoons.

WHALE POINT. Whales. Cetaceans. Distant, imaginary Leviathans swimming off those ragged cliffs. Their migration has stopped. Long ago, they were overfished. Suffering as always from insomnia, when I was young, crawling into my mother’s side of the bed. Soothing me, she would say, imagine whales. A mother whale and a baby whale, swimming together in the comfort and safety of the deep. Singing to each other. I would, and still do, imagine their songs before drifting off to that other place of memory, where the subconscious pulls apart memories in order to remember them, to put them back together.

But those imaginary whales, both of my dreams and my waking life, have a large presence and great meaning for my family. Leviathan Light, my father named his lighthouse – a large, cylindrical, shell-shaped studio he built overlooking the great cliffs and natural pool they have formed on the Atlantic side, up where we saw the sharks. The lighthouse, a crazy, beautiful project interrupted. Unlike his paintings, this site of creation is perpetually a work in progress. One day, he says, he’ll put a light in there. A beacon for the lost whales, calling them back to their migratory home. Those imaginary whales, soft, delicate, and so spiritual, so strong. Like so much of the Caribbean, they were taken for the use of others.

But like my memories of childhood, they swim swiftly through the temperate waters. What must it have been like to immigrate to a tiny island? My great great grandmother came from Israel with her sister and her mother, who abandoned her when she fell in love with a black man. You’d never know, looking at me, that my grandfather was the descendent of Africans, and of Lucayan Indians, who came to the Caribbean after being chased through South America by the Caribs, an indigenous group now known for their supposed cannibalism.

You might know, looking at me, that my grandmother’s distant ancestors were Irish. Only recently did I learn of an incredible family story: that my grandmother’s ancestors, sixteen generations back, were on the voyage of the Eleutherian Adventurers, an extremely well-known story in the Bahamas. Though I had believed my family first went to Abaco, as history would have it, they first shipwrecked off of Spanish Wells, in North Eleuthera, at Preacher’s Cave. Their plaque, dated 1648, is still there, telling of their survival until they were rescued by a search team of sailors from Harvard University. I had no idea. It is a staggering revelation. “This is our DESTINY!” my father writes me in an e-mail when I wrote to him, excitedly, nearly out of breath, that this was my family’s history, that my family named the island Eleuthera, for freedom.

So fitting it is, that my father would end up painting the black figure. His watercolors, so vibrant, an unmatched realism with the medium, reflect our larger family in their forms. Through my mother, he has claimed the Bahamas as his own, noting that my mother’s ancestors shipwrecking in Eleuthera is part of “our” destiny – one he cannot be separated from. His own family, coming from the United States South, traveling through states of racism – from Georgia to Alabama, Texas, Hawaii, where my dad was the outsider, the unwanted, and back to Florida – faced a reality we study in college today. In painting the black figure, my father paints this history; one that is larger than any of us, and yet contains pieces of him, of my mother, of me and my sister. We come from many places, and even Cade and I are only half-Bahamians. But this place, this site of memory, holds a convergence of our lives. Here we spent summers, spent time off from school in Florida, but my parents kept us there every day; my dad in his paintings, mum in her accent and knowledge of the most nourishing type of cooking – the meals that connect you to a place that is part of you.

Entering the Pink House through the kitchen screen door: the familiar smell of a musty, painted house. Eleuthera ages as it is reborn. This little yellow kitchen, such a welcoming entrance to my youth – the past – and yet a place of active creation. Most of my favorite Bahamian memories involve food. Spending the day on the boat, pulling a conch right out of the water on a sandy beach, dicing it up, adding limes, sour orange, raw onions and tomatoes and eating the freshest conch salad in the world while the sun sets; the smell of my mother’s Johnny Cake as it came out of the oven, getting us girls up for a day of exploration; waking up the morning after my cousin’s wedding a few years ago and enjoying boiled fish n’ grits with my whole family.

Johnny Cake,
a simple Afro-Caribbean bread
– 2 cups flour
– 1 tablespoon baking powder
– Salt
– 4 tablespoons sugar
– 1/2 stick of butter + 4 tablespoons oil
– Water
Combine the dry ingredients, press the butter into the flour until it looks like peas, then stir in the oil. Add enough water until it gets the consistency of cake batter, but not quite as wet. Bake at 425 until brown (about 20-25 minutes).

Mum’s accent. My dad called it cute when they met, and she said, “Fuck off.” A Bahamian girl who came to the States at sixteen to attend college; living in New York for a year and then coming back south, to study printing at Ringling School of Art before heading back to work for her father’s printing press in Freeport. That night, at some party, when my parents met, something changed for my dad. He met his muse. The next week, they saw each other in the laundry room, and my mum ended up doing dad’s laundry because he didn’t know how. My parents, so young to marry, so beautiful in their art and ambitions, in their love of the Bahamas. They waited eight years to have children, both of us conceived beneath my father’s painting table. One of their biggest projects, followed by constructing our house in Jupiter, Florida, in the State Park, where we were brought up in nature, then continued by the Pink House.

The Pink House, where we haven’t gone back to visit together in nearly seven years, is different from our beautiful, comfortable home in Florida. The Pink House holds danger, holds adventure, holds a mysterious and deep type of art and nourishment. It is a house of celebration, of change – the place where I first got my period; where, learning to drive, I ran over a dog with a car – and yet it is a place that remains unchanged – where Cade and I were best friends, before we returned to Florida to grow apart. The feeling is palpable, in the air of Cade’s bedroom, and our living room, out on the dock and along the swimming path to our favorite reef, that we are sisters and are forever connected to each other.

Family takes work. It is not just a given; the way we have naturalized the idea of “family” and the nuclear unit. But my family is all of me. The Pink House, the cliffs, the sister seas, Preacher’s Cave; Eleuthera. A home that stands strong through hurricanes and offers protection from the sharks, but a connection to whales. A place we all loved together.