Labor Day weekend has come and gone, and with it the unofficial end of summer. Autumn has traditionally been my favorite season, but this year I’ve been hanging onto Summer’s coattails, not ready to let go. Bay Area weather has been unusually sultry and I’ve been swimming laps, so Jamaica has been on my mind.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned I had cousins living on an island called Jamaica in the West Indies. It wasn’t real until I celebrated my tenth birthday there, in February. My mother blithely took me out of school for a three- to four-week trip to visit her eldest niece, Valerie. Valerie had married Maurice Facey, the first son of a prominent island family. They had two children: Stephen, my age, and Laura, one year younger. (I think my grandmother, Celia, must have been there on extended holiday, and we might have escorted her back to California, but I’m really not sure.)
The flight from LA to Miami was my first trip on an airplane. Everything about it was magical. To see the earth from 30,000 feet both schooled me about my place in the universe and expanded life’s possibilities. My first career goal was launched that day: to become a Pan Am stewardess, travel, and see the world (wearing those smart outfits, of course). In Miami, we took a smaller “puddle jumper” to Kingston, flying directly over Cuba with a brief stop at Montego Bay.
For a child reared in Southern California, Jamaica was a total immersion experience. Everything was new — from the tropical climate and colorful flora and fauna (including iridescent beetles the size of Mars bars) to the culture, decidedly British — except lily-white folks who looked like me were somewhat scarce. My ears had to re-tune to follow even my cousins’ conversation, but I soon came to love the music of Jamaican dialect.
Valerie & Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) had designed and built their ranch style home called “Caenwood” on a family compound, so Maurice’s siblings and their families lived next door. The central living/dining area had shuttered doors that were opened each day to allow cooling island breezes to flow through the house. One side opened to a generous patio and pool with a shaded veranda.
Cousin Valerie was much stricter than my mother. I had to call her “Aunt Valerie” in deference to the gap in our ages. In private, I protested that it wasn’t true, but Mom insisted I just go with it. Valerie’s kids were expected to be seen more than heard, and woe to them if they whined or talked back. As a guest in the home I possessed immunity, but was frightened of her nonetheless. At the same time, I was in awe of Valerie’s tall, patrician beauty. She and Maurice cut a striking couple, Jamaica’s answer to Jack & Jackie Kennedy. The story of their Hollywood script-worthy courtship and marriage is detailed here*. Valerie’s commanding presence made such a strong impression on me, that years would pass before I realized she was not yet 30 when we met.
From the back seat of Valerie’s car, I registered poverty for the very first time; here, I saw native Jamaicans who lived along the road in small shacks and shelters without the amenities I took for granted. In their expressionless faces, I read reproach.
Other memory snippets are refreshed by faded Kodachrome and those square black & whites with the curly edges (I’m dating myself, now). The wonder and discovery, alongside those squirmy, mortifying moments of childhood — such as my birthday party, surrounded by children I didn’t know, the visit to a rum factory (the overpowering smell of fermented cane juice in tropical heat), and my first and last gig as a photographic model, sporting a Jamaican friend’s kids wear.
All in all, it was a life changing trip. I’d barely settled in when it was time to leave. Once home, I felt that I’d been let in on a big secret. Outside of our little bubble there existed another, very different world in real time.
My second trip, I was primed and ready. I was now eleven or twelve, and my brother, Paul (two years older), joined us. It was summertime, so Stephen and Laura were out of school.
Happily, the Facey pool was the go-to place for a motley tribe of cousins and neighbors, into which we were inducted quite seamlessly. Days of kid-bliss followed — hours of races and games of Marco Polo in the pool, punctuated by food & drink, or board & card games. One particular game of Monopoly went on for days in relay fashion. When one player tired of the game, another would take his or her place and carry on. I developed a crush on a Facey neighbor named Richard Bailey. I decided he didn’t like me back when he persisted in annihilating me at every single game.
My downtime was spent with my nose in a book, while my brother Paul, the naturalist, was deep in the backyard jungle hunting lizards, aided and abetted by Herman the Gardener. To my knowledge, no wildlife was harmed in this pursuit. Specimens were collected for study then returned to their habitat. Thanks to growing up with Paul, I regarded the small chameleon-like lizards (Anoles), which frequented the walls of the guest bedroom I slept in, as low-maintenance pets.
I was (and still am) crazy about Caribbean food. Midday lunch was the big meal of the day when the whole family gathered. The national dish, akee and saltfish, wasn’t a favorite, but I did grow fond of breadfruit, black beans with rice, and plantain. Jerked chicken or pork could be purchased at roadside stands. Poolside, we snacked on fresh fruit like mangos (picked ripe right off the tree), paw paw (papaya), otaheite apples, starfruit, and guineps (my favorite), which are something like large green grapes with rough, loose skins you pop open to get to the fruit.
We kids were fed an early, light supper so the adults could enjoy a more formal dinner, kid-free. By contrast, this meal invariably consisted of standard American fare like scrambled eggs and toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches, served with chocolate milk.
Nighttime was filled with a loud chorus of cicadas and frogs, and the air was alive with bats, fireflies and other insects. I interrupt this rhapsody to mention my quarrel with mosquitos. I could hate them a bit less if they’d ever stop loving me so much.
The highlight of my Jamaican experience was San San Bay. At the time, my cousins kept a vacation cottage named “Pelican”, one of a handful of cottages raised on stilts at the edge of this small bay with a deck facing the water. Google Maps is a bit foggy on San San’s exact location, but I located it easily near Port Antonio at the Eastern end of the island, thanks to this vintage map.
Accommodations at the cottage might have been quite simple. I don’t remember how many days we spent there or the complete cast of characters. What I do remember vividly, is we lived in our swimsuits 24/7 including sleeping (sand and all), dormitory-style, 4- to 6- bunk beds to a room. The main attraction was the clear, aquamarine water, which offered unobstructed viewing of the aquatic life below. We jumped from the deck into the water to swim, snorkel, and mess about in dinghies. There were small species of shark, also rays and barracuda in the bay, but none of these troubled us at all. We fished from the deck, then grilled and ate our catch. The fish we caught were small and crunchy and I felt a bit guilty eating them. On the plus side, I felt like a character out of “Swiss Family Robinson”, a book that sparked many childhood fantasies. The day we left to go back to Kingston, I was very, very sad.
I’ve yet to turn up any photos documenting my second visit to Jamaica, including San San. The dated photo record I do have seems to indicate that my brother, Paul, went back alone twice before the end of high school. At the time, he was looking forward to a career in marine biology, so this was field study for him. As special as Jamaica was for me, it must’ve been sheer Heaven for Paul.
Postscript: Due to four trips to Europe in ten years, then adult responsibilities, I did not go back to Jamaica till I was 28. I’ve only been back once since. Seeing various members of the Facey clan on my home turf over the years tends to make me lose track of how long it’s been. Once I reached adulthood, the age gap between my cousin Valerie and me disappeared (and she’s not at all scary). She has so-graciously hosted the members of our extended family over the years.
The clan has grown to include Stephen’s and Laura’s spouses and children, and now Laura’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren (Laura married her childhood sweetheart, the hunky Gordon, top left, 1967). “Caenwood” and “Pelican” have been succeeded by other homes, notably restoration of and residence in a former mill in Kingston and one of Jamaica’s “great houses” in the hills above Ocho Rios. Likewise the combined Facey family enterprises (professional, commercial, and philanthropic) have morphed and grown.
The Hon. Maurice Facey passed away on April 2, 2013 at the age of 88. This patriarch left his family, as daughter Laura said, “in good spirits with much to be grateful for”. A quick google search of his name brings up his résumé of accomplishments and many accolades. Ditto on Google hits for Valerie Facey, Stephen Facey, and Laura Facey Cooper, an accomplished sculptor & artist. It would require a second post to do justice to their contributions to the arts and culture of their island nation.
I feel blessed to be related to my Jamaican family. I cherish my childhood memories made there in their midst. Sadly, I don’t know when I’ll get to go again. For now, I plan to keep swimming laps throughout winter, while meditating on the prospect.
* This newspaper article tells their story as I’ve heard it, with only a few minor inaccuracies.