Aunt Justine was nobody's favorite aunt. She had a quick temper and a harsh voice. Her husband, Uncle Nev, took her bad moods in stride, but her daughter used to come to our house to get away from her. Strangely enough, whenever my mother had to leave me somewhere for the day, I would ask to go to Aunt Justine's.
Like most houses in Jamaica, hers had a large, cool tile veranda. Several tiles were broken and they formed little ridges and valleys; it was a terrain I knew well. I would play on the veranda while Aunt Justine chain-smoked and worked at her easel, painting landscapes from memory. There were a lot of books in her house. Uncle Nev was a geography teacher, so along with my aunt's mystery and romance novels, there were atlases and geography textbooks, and these in particular enthralled me. Words like "tundra" appealed to me, and I would imagine myself living in extreme climates, in an igloo or a nomad's tent. When Uncle Nev was there, he quizzed me on things like the largest river in the world. He would sit on the veranda in khaki shorts and draw continents on a grapefruit. Then he would slice the grapefruit in half and offer me a hemisphere.
Every Christmas the whole family gathered at Aunt Justine's. What I remember most is playing outside in the warm sun and hearing the grown-ups' veranda talk and veranda laughter. There were three Christmas drinks: sorrel, made from the acidic red petals of a kind of hibiscus and spiced with ginger; Aunt Justine's famous egg punch, made with rum; and pimento dram, a chilled brandy made from pimento (allspice) berries. There were a lot of us, so we ate buffet-style on the veranda: roast suckling pig, ham, "rice-an'-peas," baked plantain, pureed boiled green bananas. Dessert was Jamaican Christmas pudding, a dark, moist fruitcake that had been soaking in rum and brandy for months.
When air conditioners first came to the island, Uncle Leo, whose company installed them in the big hotels, conspired with Uncle Nev to air-condition Aunt Justine's living room in time for Christmas. It was to be a surprise. Everybody except Aunt Justine knew and had an opinion: Some looked forward to the novelty of a cool Christmas, others said they didn't want to spend Christmas shut up inside the house shivering. Uncle Nev reasoned: "Those who want a white Christmas can sit in the living room, and those who want a red Christmas can sit on the veranda." By "red Christmas" he meant the poinsettias that grew in people's gardens and turned blood-red in December.
Christmas Day was burning hot, but I put on my sweater even before I reached Aunt Justine's. My sister asked if it was going to snow. I said no, but it would be cold, like real Christmas. In those days, Jamaican children were educated as though they lived in England. At school we painted snowmen and holly on our Christmas cards. The cards, the carols and Charles Dickens all gave me the impression that Christmas in Jamaica was counterfeit. As for our "red Christmas," though I looked forward to the changing poinsettia leaves, I thought it a paltry substitute for winter.
When we got to Aunt Justine's, the doors were wide open and Uncle Nev was on the veranda in his shorts.
"Wha' 'appen, Nev? No air conditioner?"
"Man, Justine say' no food goin' cook today if we bring cold weather into her house."
I went back for Christmas 1997. I had lived most of my adult life in the United States, and the violence in Jamaica in the '70s had alienated me. As I was driving from the airport, familiar sights reassured me: the noisy commerce of cart men, roadside higglers and crowded buses. The island seemed more lush and beautiful than ever; the violence of men had not denuded the landscape.
My parents and siblings were abroad. There was no family home to return to. I went to Aunt Justine's house even though I knew it had been sold. No one had prepared me for the hotel parking lot that had replaced it. It had been the most stable feature of my childhood.
Uncle Nev had died, and Aunt Justine lived in a tiny apartment without even a balcony. She had given most of her furniture and books to her daughter, Phyllis, but the walls were crowded with her unframed landscapes. Arthritic fingers now prevented her from painting, and she was almost blind. She spent her days "listening" to the TV, mostly American talk shows.
Phyllis continued her mother's Christmas Day tradition. Her veranda, like most in Kingston, had been enclosed, barricaded in iron grillwork. We sat in the living room, about a dozen of us. The country relatives no longer came to Kingston because of carjackings. There was no egg punch or pimento dram, but my cousin made sorrel spiked with rum. Her teenage sons sat in the TV room watching American football, and that seemed a sacrilege; soccer is football. Looking around, I thought we could have been a group of Jamaicans celebrating a Christmas anywhere.
There had been a number of particularly gruesome killings, and everyone was agreeing that the "dons," drug lords, were now running the country. Someone said, "Is de politicians' fault, man, dem sell off de country."
Things had not gotten much better; I wished I had not come "home." I got up and wandered around the house like a ghost looking for old things among the new.
I found what I was looking for, its cover worn but intact: World Geography for Primary Schools, Vol. I. I asked Phyllis if I could have it. She said yes, it had outlived its usefulness; geography was now an optional subject in the schools. I realized that this was true not only in Jamaica but most places. Like Latin, the language of geography was dead. Words that had captivated me as a child -- steppe, antipodes -- seemed anachronistic, at best poetic. Uncle Nev and his lessons, Aunt Justine's house, the changes in Jamaica, and in myself. I went out to the veranda carrying the book as if it alone contained my many-sided grief.
Aunt Justine was by herself out there, smoking. Before I had the chance to sit and talk with her, other guests began trickling out, bringing rum and their animated discussion of politics and crime. Phyllis brought out dessert. There was praise for the pudding, and then there was talk about whether Jamaica was becoming a less religious country.
"No, man, Jamaicans still love to go to church."
"Which church? Ganja church?"
Everyone laughed, then someone told a preacher joke, then someone else told another. The jokes became more raunchy, the laughter more raucous.
They were not mourners, but revelers. The book on my lap made me feel like a moody schoolgirl. My cousin had specially prepared some of my favorite Jamaican foods. And there was Aunt Justine, arthritic, blind and all! On the stereo Nat King Cole was singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . ." and through the grillwork I could see my cousin's garden full of red poinsettias. I was 18 degrees north of the equator, and it was really Christmas.
Margaret Cezair-Thompson's novel, The True History of Paradise, was published this fall by Dutton.