Tio Abuelo's House on Daisy Avenue

Trisha Simone

© Copyright 2023 by Trisha Simone

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
I didn’t make it to the funeral. I told everyone that I couldn’t miss more school. The truth is that there was no money. I had used every cent on my credit cards for the flight home when he was in the hospital. Last-minute tickets are expensive. I hadn’t bothered with new clothes and didn’t need a hotel. But all my shoes were worn out, so I bought black pumps, sneakers, and a pair of flats.

Also, there were the presents. You can’t go home empty-handed if you live in America. This branch of the family is well-to-do; so, I made do with a handful of novelties. There were flash drives, gourmet snacks, and ultraviolet toothbrush cleaners—just enough to pull shame out of my eyes.

That trip was unlike any other visit. So many things were different. So many things were wrong. The housekeeper didn’t answer the phone. Tio Abuelo answered himself, sounding somehow both cheerful and drained. The melody of his voice rang out in familiar hues. Words danced in a mélange of British, Jamaican, and Panamanian accents. He said that he couldn’t pick me up from the airport.

All my life, Tio Abuelo had been the person who greeted me when I landed in the country. Vacation always began when I stared through the window of his car. Tense muscles in my back and neck would slacken as I basked in my surroundings. Gawking at mundane scenes of daily life, I was a puzzle piece finding its home. Reveling in everything, my senses tingled. I devoured every vibration, every sigh — all the sights, scents, and sounds.
Occasionally, there was a vendor selling on the roundabout. This was not allowed, of course. but the airport exit was a great place to find customers returning home from somewhere “foreign” where local delicacies cannot be found. As a child, I applauded the rule-flouting merchants for their work ethic and brazen disregard for regulations.

Although I participated dutifully in the conversations about my flight and school, I was captivated by the places and the people I saw along the route. There was no air conditioning; my window was always open. Without trying, I smelled salty sea in the humid air. Dancehall music wafted into the vehicle. Even new songs seemed somehow familiar.

Whenever we stopped at a red light, the air around me absorbed the aromas of whatever was being sold from the nearest handcart. I eavesdropped on polite conversations between customers and cook. Despite being New York born, this local tongue is my native language. It was seldom heard on American streets.

I plucked gems from the world outside the window like berries from a bush. Devouring the succulent sights, smells, and sounds, I wrapped myself in welcome. Just thinking of it takes me there.

After about an hour, we pass out of the lively working-class areas and meander into quiet suburbs. Colorful houses crowd the foothills below sprawling mansions perched precariously on cliffs. Eventually the boxy white car enters Tio Abuelo’s neighborhood. Undulating roads relax and flatten. The streets are named for flowers, and blooms can be seen everywhere in bursts of red, white, purple, and pink. These homes are not mansions, but each one has a wide verandah. I glimpse trees in the side and back yards.

One of my first childhood memories is of Tio Abuelo carrying me around his backyard, naming each fruiting tree. In those days, I lived in New York City in an apartment. I played in the hallway outside our door, or on sidewalks. The local playground was concrete. Lawns and flowers existed on television. Tio Abuelo’s backyard, hairy with lush greenery, was enchanting.

There, I felt like a person, like a human that might one day own a verdant square of Earth. We moved around New York; then to Atlanta. Nowhere was home in the same sense that the Caribbean was home. The connection to this ancestral homeland has always been visceral and complex. I know that I spent months in Tio Abuelo’s neighborhood during my infancy, but those memories are out of reach. I partake in the shared memories of my relatives. I see street names and landmarks that add texture and context to family stories, bringing them to life. Living vicariously through others, I partake in the excitement of Christmas markets, church concerts, and school mischief. Although I didn’t experience those adventures, the narratives are part of my family anthology and live along my own vivid recollections, intertwined.

After high school, I went to study in Philadelphia. During four years of college, I lived in four different places. Tio Abuelo’s house was the only geographic constant in my life.
It was the anchor that kept me grounded. No matter where I went, I could always go home. I could always return to feed from the mother’s milk of that place. Towards the end, the property began to change. Some of the backyard trees were removed to expand the main living spaces. The detached maid’s quarters was renovated and rented to international students attending the nearby university. It was odd to have strangers living on family property, but the money was welcome. Retirement was looming. Developers and architects were brought in.

Perhaps a second story could be added to avoid stealing more land from the shrinking backyard? There was no need for extra space for Tio Abuelo and his wife. It was probably for us—the hordes of nieces, nephews and their children who incessantly poured out of the sky from North America and the UK.

Between training replacements at work and working on the house, Tio Abuelo missed his annual physical. That was a mistake. The cancer was diagnosed at an advanced stage. He tried a few procedures and a few medications. Nothing worked. A mere month after my hospital visit, he was gone. I didn’t go to the funeral. My uncle comforted me reminding me of my hospital visits.

“It is more important to visit the sick than to bury the dead. You were here when he needed you.”

I repeat these phrases to myself, like a mantra.

It’s not that I just lost a beloved family member. I lost the only enduring link to myself. My clan lost the anchor to our past, and to each other. Without the gathering place, which was promptly rented, there was no beckoning, no gravitational pull. Laws of nature were repealed. We floated off into separate lives, into our own worlds scattered across three countries.

The next generation of children will never climb those trees in the backyard. My daughter and nephews will never experience the magical reawakening of dulled senses during the long drive from the airport. My cousins’ children will never feel the chaotic excitement of fleeing a snowstorm in a jet, prodded and buoyed by the promise of mangoes at the end of the journey.

When I said goodbye that last time, but I didn’t realize that I was saying goodbye to so much. It was obvious that I may not see Tio Abuelo again, but I had no idea how much else would dissolve. Although I never took anything about him, or about that place for granted, I didn’t understand how much there was to cherish. It was difficult to value my treasure while it was still present.
The land and buildings have now been sold. There is no going home. The last time that I was on the island, I drove past the house, desperate for a glimpse, hoping to see myself dangling from the branch of a tree. I yearned to get out of the taxi and beg the new owners for a tour. But I restrained myself. It is best to leave memories as they are—faded, yet perfect. The neighborhood will always be there. I plan to return one day to explore it on foot. Perhaps holding my daughter’s hand, I will stroll the tree-lined streets.

Birdsong and citrus-scented air will caress me and comfort my soul, releasing caged memories of childhood bliss. I will be welcome. No matter where I go, and how much I lose myself, my core will always be that house, that backyard and everything they meant to me.

The mountains, mango trees, and violets will always know my name.

I am a Caribbean American pediatrician living in Arizona with my husband and son.  I have been writing since childhood. 

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