This week, I thought I would share a small little excerpt from the book I’ve been writing. To get you in the groove, I’ll share a little background information and then jump right into it. Hope you enjoy.
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“My parents are Jamaican.”
“Are you black?”
“What do you mean you’re Jamaican then?”
When I was a kid, I dreaded bringing friends to my house or having them meet my parents. Just too many questions.
Why did my mother vacuum the walls, ceiling and curtains, and why did she dress like a movie star with full make-up, high-heeled shoes and evening gown type dresses every time they saw her, and why was our food weird, and what was her accent, and how could we be Jamaican if we weren’t black?
So I would explain that Jamaicans had many different ethnic backgrounds. But my friends seldom believed me and always got hung up on the black bit, so then I usually said, “Are you stupid or something? Does it look like I am?”
Confusion was understandable. It wasn’t like there was a pile of other white-Jamaican kids to compare me to, let alone a Jamaican community to help them get it.
And to cut my friends some slack, looking at me wasn’t all that helpful either. I had curly hair, a dark complexion and tanned like a nut in the summer. I really didn’t look the way most Canadians looked, but neither did I look the way Jamaicans were supposed to look.
In 1955, my Jamaican parents landed in Kitchener-Waterloo (KW), a homogenous Canadian small-town, with Germanic culture, sensibilities and a lot of Mennonites. The town was first called Berlin, but changed its name to Kitchener in 1916 in response to the war and anti-German sentiment.
In the 60s and 70s, light years away from Pierre Trudeau’s vision of Canada as a multi-cultural mecca, its beginnings were deeply etched in the town’s psyche.
The world I grew up in was decades before being different was a cause célèbre and spices other than salt and pepper sat on anyone’s table but mine. No other household had PickaPeppa sauce, let alone heard of Saltfish and Ackee or Plantains.
Most of my wiser Jamaican relatives had emigrated to Toronto the big, where assimilation was more possible. Others fled to either Florida or California, where it was hot, so who even cared about fitting in? My parents, on the other hand, chose Canada and the land of winter, a season my mother has vehemently despised all her life and never let us forget about, as if somehow, her offspring were single-handedly responsible for the cold and could do something about it.
For most of my life, I scratched my head wondering why my parents picked Canada, let alone KW. (It was only this last summer I discovered it was actually my Uncle David’s doing, but that is a whole other story.) In the meantime, a logical place to get an answer to the question would probably be a parent.
“Don’t ask such silly questions,” would be my mother’s response.
“I’ll have a scotch and water,” from my father.
This is to give you a sense of the world from whence I came before you begin the excerpt from my book. The piece that follows is about my dad, a man not quite cut from the customary dad mold, at least not the Canadian one, though in Jamaica, he fits right in. I must also tell you that part of the scene amalgamates one of my brother’s memories, and that yes, everything you will read is absolutely true.
So read on and welcome to life as a white-Jamaican teenager in small-town Ontario.
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Two nipples dangled dangerously close to the breakfast eggs, while the rest of the boobs jiggled in syncopation with the scrambling motion of my stepmother’s arm.
Do I need to say this? No step-child should have to see a step-mother’s bare boobs, ever, let alone at eight in the morning.
But it gets worse.
I can’t even say it but you know what I’m talking about—my father’s you know what was a’ dingling and a’ dangling not far from my line of sight. Sure, maybe if I accidentally walked in on my father changing or something, I might see it. I could take that. But seriously, not on purpose.
I pulled the covers over my head, a melodramatic attempt to convey my disgust. I’d have groaned too, had I thought there’d be any point.
But there wasn’t. Not in my family.
My family is Jamaican, and my father was a typical Jamaican father of a certain ilk. This would be not of the missionary or religious ilk, with exposure to scripture and iron rod. No, my father was the type of Jamaican that starts with a capital “P”— Petulant Party-boy, Peter Pan, Playboy—the product of which was an anything goes kind of father. Seeing my father and my step-mother naked was not normal, but neither was it out of the ordinary.
On Friday, my dad and step-mom had picked my brothers and me up for our weekend visit, as usual.
My dad dropped the bomb in the car, “We’re spending the weekend at the Four Seasons.”
I thought he was just telling us the name of the new trailer park. How the hell could I know there was more to it? I was 15.
I can’t say, though, that anything was ever much of a surprise with my dad. I’d had many weekends in his Toronto swinging bachelor pad in the sky, with his spinning rolodex of giggling girlfriends, a ton of beer and scotch, not to mention a weird plant in my room, which my brothers and I figured out was definitely dope.
In the last couple of years, my father had narrowed down the girlfriends to one, Ev, now my step-mother, and instead of taking us back to the big smoke on summer weekends, he parked his tent trailer at Bingeman’s, a seedy overnight camping dump on the gross side of town, in Kitchener-Waterloo (KW).
It had enough to keep us occupied, a roller rink and a dirty, shallow pond for my brothers and me to mess around in. And we made do through the mandatory every other weekend dad visits at the park, me doing my best to avoid the other trailer park people. So when my dad told us he’d bought a real trailer and parked it 45 minutes outside of KW, I was actually kind of relieved to be able to say good-bye to Bingeman’s.
When we got to the new park yesterday, I had my nose in my book to zone out my brothers and the annoyance of their never-ending I Spy game. I mean really, how many times can you play that in a car before you run out of colours?
My dad drove through the park for a bit, pulled up to the new trailer and stopped the car. We got out of the car, lugged our bags inside and then checked the place out.
It was pretty small, and I wondered how we were all supposed to fit in there and sleep and eat, since you could barely turn around in the place. But the kitchen table flipped down to make a bed and another bunk popped out of the wall, while my dad and step-mother had their own private spot at the back—with a door.
Once we were settled, the troubles began. Ev disappeared into the bedroom and came out naked, and my dad peeled off his pants, and then his underwear, right in the tiny kitchen.
Whoa. No warning.
“Dad. What’s going on?”
“It’s a nudist colony Karalee.”
“A nudist colony. You don’t have to wear clothes. Cha. Take your brothers and play.”
Okay. I was in a nudist colony then, but I figured I still should not be seeing my father’s naked body, here or anywhere. I stepped out of the trailer, only to see my next surprise.
Turned out, the showers for nudies to scrub their privates were located right in front of our trailer, outside of the building. It was horrifying. Men and women were scrubbing their bits with washcloths and soap like orangutans, with too much hair where it shouldn’t be and none where it should, in full view, directly across from our trailer.
Now, this is the thing with my dad. Nothing can be done. I can say what is going on is weird, but he’ll just laugh it off or swear (sometimes both) and pretty much he’ll give me the ‘pass me another beer and go outside and play’ line.
So I knew I would somehow have to make some sort of peace with this parental nakedness.
Though my brothers, at 13 and 11, weren’t as freaked out as me, I grabbed them anyway, explaining we were going to explore the park, though basically, it was to get the hell away from all the clothes-less bodies.
On our scenic tour, I learned a bit about the park dress code. For example, the outdoor tennis courts required shoes and white socks. Now, imagine a tennis match with a couple old farts, buck naked, running back and forth batting away at a tennis ball. I say old farts because, mostly, all we saw were people at least my dad’s age or older. Ancient.
And yes. You heard what I said, just shoes and white socks.
Although there was a pool, any hopes for swimming were quickly abandoned when I found out about the no suit rule. Eventually, I found a little lake with a rowboat, and paddled my brothers to the middle and kept us there until dark.
When we got back to the trailer, dad was drinking a beer, and Ev, a Dubonnet on the rocks. They were sitting on chairs outside, around a fire, still naked and surrounded by, yes, other naked people. My dad’s always been pretty good at attracting a crowd and getting a party going.
My brothers and I dove into the trailer.
Much later that night, I heard my dad scream out in pain, followed by a generous litany of curse words.
“Jesus Christ, Ev. A God damned mosquito bastard just bit my balls.”
I laughed. It was a perfect end to one of the longest days of my life.
Off course, that was before this morning, when I woke up to day two of my interminable weekend visit with my dad and saw those two boobs jiggling just above my morning eggs.
Addendum: Bingeman’s has long since reinvented itself into a business conglomerate, complete with waterpark, conference facilities and more. Kitchener-Waterloo is now, indeed, a multi-cultural mecca, and I have many German pals, including a few Mennonites (and they all get me). Four Seasons was purchases in 2009 and clothing became mandatory in 2011. Good thing I have my memories! Seems we’ve all grown up and matured, after all.
Illustration: Warren Jones