Miss Sam

Grandma Samantha – Miss Sam to everyone in the village and most of her family – bought the land in that out-of-the-way Jamaican village for its view. She then had the big vacation house designed and built to command that view.

Not surprisingly, she was more than a little upset when the power company threatened to string a power line across her seascape two decades ago. In what has become legend, she sent Mr. Lenroy to find the line crew foreman and invite him up to the terrace for a glass of lemonade.

“Isn’t that a fine view?” she put to him.

The hillside slopes gently to the sea. Coconut palms, sea grape and acacia line the beach; beyond them, aqua-blue waters surround the shallow reefs that protect the fishing cove. Farther out is the deeper blue of the Caribbean, a horizon so broad you have to turn your head to take it in. (The village road – so twisty that having the power follow it was hopeless, hence the beach route – is to the rear, below the crest of the hill, unseen from the house or terrace.)

“Me dear ma’am, yu right. ‘Pon my word. Mos’ pretty.”

“And you can see that ugly poles and wires would ruin it. I built this house for that view, you know.” Knowing the old lady, one can imagine the dialogue.

The foreman protested: He had a job to do. She said of course, but couldn’t he put the line underground for a few hundred yards?

“‘Pon my word, dat be too dear. I got no order fe’ to do dat.”

She said she didn’t need the company’s power; she’d gotten by all these years with a generator. But she would pay for an underground connection to her house if he could put the whole section out of sight.

He hesitated. She suggested they go down to the beach and select the point at which the line ought to be buried. They walked down together. She shook hands with him and said she was sure he’d do the right thing.

We assume she had a few bills in the palm of her hand. No one knows, because she never tells this story herself, and no one has the temerity to ask Samantha Robinson if she bribed the foreman. She and Harrison, who was still living then, were well-enough connected that she could have gotten from the local member of parliament a political, top-down decision to spare her view. But that would have taken time, and meanwhile the poles would have gone up.

The crew skipped three poles and went on preparing the line beyond. They came back a few days later with a backhoe and underground cables. The view remained pristine.

“It’s just as it was when Columbus anchored here.” Miss Sam liked to say, “If he was smart, he came up here to get the lay of the land while his men filled the fresh-water casks down there at Black Spring.”

* *

The family loves the story. Everyone except Tommy, her number three grandson-in-law, who (when she is not around) calls it an example of colonialism. He leaves the room if the topic is brought up in her presence.

I don’t know why Sally doesn’t contrive to fly down when Tommy can’t. She wants her children to know their cousins, of course; and she’s been coming once or twice a year since she was a little girl herself. She couldn’t leave her husband behind every time, but she could avoid bringing him so often. When he gets up on his liberal high horse she doesn’t say much. It’s hard to tell whether she’s avoiding a fight with him or with the rest of us.

I’m an early riser down here. The neighbors’ roosters wake me when the first faint blush of dawn touches the eastern sky outside our bedroom window. I hurry out to the patio to see if the Southern Cross has faded from view, and find the Big Dipper, surprisingly low in the north, faintly visible as Orion sets to the west.

Then the few thin clouds turn pink, and the stars disappear. I go back in to put on shorts and a shirt and sandals, tiptoeing so as not to waken Mary. I switch on the Mr. Coffee machine that Miss Jennie has set out in the kitchen, and walk down to the beach to witness the new day.

Mondays and Fridays there are men at the fishing cove preparing to go to “near sea” – no more than a quarter-mile offshore – to draw their pots. Tommy is ahead of me this morning. He just nods silently to the men. They nod back, and he stands at water’s edge staring at the gentle waves lapping over the reef. I don’t think he’s gotten up to celebrate the dawn. Rather, he can’t sleep, and comes down to feel sorry for himself.

I speak to the men by name, using the Jamaican formality: “Mister Hugh-Jen, Mister Matthew, Mister Clive.” They all have village pet names – Backstep, Tumpa, Tuku – but only Miss Sam addresses them thus, another of her indulgences that Tommy finds reprehensibly mistress-to-servant. This morning Matthew returns my greeting in kind: “Good marnin’, Mist’ Charles.” The patois on this part of the island sounds almost Irish. The others greet me “Marnin’, boss,” pronouncing “boss” as “ba’as.”

“That’s what they called the white sahib in South Africa, you know,” Tommy mutters at me when I walk over to say hello. “‘Ba’as,’ just like that. I should think it would make you uncomfortable.”

“Get off it,” I tell him. “They like the little bit of respectful distance. I could say, ‘Hey, Tumpa, just call me Chuck,’ but you know it wouldn’t do any good.”

“Yes, ba’as,” Tommy sneers.

I turn and walk back to help the men push their boat into the shallow sea until it begins to bob in the frothy residue of waves that have broken farther out. When Hugh-Jen and Clive climb in and man the oars, I go up to the house to waken Mary with a cup of coffee.

Most of us adults have breakfast together maybe an hour later. Miss Jennie and Miss Sheila have fed the children, and two nannies keep an eye on them as they set out for morning play. My Mary has gone to the pool to swim laps, joined this morning by Sally. Dave and Barbara have taken a walk, starting where I was at the fishing beach, then following the damp strand to an undeveloped scallop of reef and sand to the west, where you half-expect to see Robinson Crusoe with his goat.

Miss Sam, at 78, has slept in, ignoring all her guests’ activity. Miss Sheila, no matter how busy in the kitchen, has listened for the faint sound of her bathroom door latch. She then has taken her a cup of coffee, brown with sugar and milk, and comes out to tell anyone on the terrace that “Miss Sam up now.”

Good smells begin to drift out of the kitchen. Miss Sam descends in her invariable baggy white shorts, and we all go to breakfast.

All except Tommy, who has already breakfasted. He likes to eat in the kitchen. It isn’t all that big, and he’s underfoot if they’re busy feeding the children, but it pleases him to break bread with the help.

“Where’s Tommy?” Miss Sam asks this morning.

“He ate earlier.” Sally obviously hopes her answer will suffice.

No such luck. “In the kitchen?” Miss Sam asks.

“Well, I wasn’t up yet, but I suppose so.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen him at breakfast since you arrived.”

“Perhaps not, Grandma. I haven’t kept track.”

“I have,” Miss Sam says crisply. “Please remind your husband that I invited him to a social occasion, not a fast-food restaurant. Tell him I miss the pleasure of his company at table. I’m sure you’ll convey the message, dear. Now help yourself to another of Miss Jennie’s biscuits and pass them along, please.”

Tommy is at breakfast next morning, visibly sulking. Miss Sam draws him into conversation by talking about his children. She asks if he wouldn’t like another biscuit. Before he can say no, she rings the little table bell for Miss Sheila to bring a hot batch. He hates that bell, but can only say “Thank you, Miss Sheila; sorry to trouble you.”

Miss Sam cannot find his company at the table pleasurable, but she plays the dowager hostess with smiles.

And she knows that talking about his children is playing to his strength. He is a good father, better than the rest of us. It’s too easy to let the kids play under the watchful eye of Miss Sam’s part-time nannies. Although she even hires a lifeguard to watch them in the pool or at the beach, Tommy is always there, and Sally joins him more often than not. It isn’t that he doesn’t trust the Jamaican caregivers; he just isn’t ready to abdicate parental responsibility as the rest of us too easily do.

Mornings after breakfast, though, all of us join the kids at the beach. It’s a ritual: As we finish eating, Miss Sam repeats the mantra she learned from Mr. Endley, a village elder when she first came, exaggerating the broad ahh of bath: “A sea bath a day keeps the doctor away.” Then she rings the bell to tell Miss Sheila she can clear the table. We go to our rooms to put on suits and gather up towels and snorkels and paraphernalia, and Miss Sam leads the parade down the hill.

It’s a pretty beach. Mornings before the sea breeze stirs up significant waves, one can snorkel out to inspect the reef. Occasionally someone sees something special like an angelfish or a baby stingray or even a barracuda or small shark. Then you’re supposed to roll over to float on your back, spit out the snorkel tube and holler to everyone to come see – or look out, as the case may be.

We often swim out beyond the reef, far enough out that I imagine Malcolm or Aamon or Matthew, whichever of Miss Sam’s lifeguards is on duty, would have a hard swim if any of us faltered. They watch us like a hawks from the wooden tower she had built. Miss Sam picked them because they are strong and swim well, and she paid for them to go to a school for lifeguarding. Mostly they work up at the hotel beach, but one of them always has to be available for Miss Sam.

“That’s pretty exploitative, isn’t it?” Tommy asked me one morning. “Droit du seigneur. We come first.”

“Get off it, Tommy! They earn twice as much lifeguarding as they could fishing; when she calls them, she pays them more than they earn at the hotel.”

“And unemployment comp in the off-season when nobody calls them?”

“Tommy, you know there’s no such system in Jamaica! There isn’t that kind of protection even for all workers in the States, for crying out loud. Be fair!”

“Fair is what it’s about,” he came back. “In Jamaica or the U.S., it isn’t fair for rich people to summon poor people when there’s a job, and let them hang by their thumbs when the boss doesn’t need them.”

I hadn’t a ready answer for that – this was a sunrise conversation, and I’m not terrific at debate just after rising – so I dropped the subject.

* *

The morning I’m speaking of now, there are no philosophical debates. The sea is as calm as it gets, and the water borrows its shimmering blue from a cloudless sky. Even Miss Sam, who sometimes just paddles in the shallows, puts on a snorkel mask and swims face-down with us the fifty yards to the notch where we can slip beyond the barrier reef.

All three couples are here this week, with seven children among us, the youngest of them six. Having grown up vacationing here, they swim like fish, but Cislyn and Ophelia, the nannies, always swim with them anyway, so there is a mob of us out beyond the reef. I look back and see Tumpa – Matthew, the day’s lifeguard – standing on his tower, keeping track of us.

I swim over to Mary and our kids. We paddle among the big branching elkhorn coral, and watch tiny blue chromis fish darting among the flame-like cups of the fire coral. We admire a huge round brain coral, named for the pattern, with yellow-and-black sergeant-major fish, some no bigger than my thumb, hovering nearby. Ophelia swims over to join us as we dive to admire the broad sea fans and narrow sea whips waving on the bottom.

There’s a general direction to our reef swims: We go out through one break in the reef, and come back in through another a hundred yards farther. If it’s calm, we don’t hurry. This morning Miss Sam is paddling along doggedly in the lead, while the rest of us linger and spread out. Mary and I and our kids follow a school of doctorfish, the ocean surgeon that looks purple if the light is behind it but flashes silvery when it turns into the light.

I almost don’t hear Miss Sam’s tiny, wispy “Help!”

She is at least fifty yards ahead of any of us. She’s rolled onto her back, as we all had learned, to spit out the snorkel tube and call out, but I can’t see what the problem is. To my left I see Tommy break into a vigorous crawl toward her, just as I am about to do.

I also see a blur of motion from my right. Tumpa. He must have spotted her the moment she rolled up. He has run through the shallows near shore and is swimming now. He has twice as far to swim as either of us, and had to clamber barefoot over the barrier reef and then swim again, but he has Miss Sam in his arms by the time we get to her.

“Here, Mist’ Tommy, you hold her head, now. Mist’ Charles, can you take her mask, please, so it don’t squeeze her head?

“Miss Sam? You hear me? It’s Tumpa.”

“I hear you, Matthew. You’re a good boy. I just felt a pain in my chest. I think it’s passing now. Just let me rest a moment and I can swim in.”

“No, mon, I not be letting you swim in. We be towing you in like the Queen Mary, so the water lif’ yu up. Mist’ Tommy, you be the tugboat at the feet. Mist’ Charles, you take the mid-ships.”

And with effortless skill and gentleness he cradles her head against his chest and steers her toward the notch in the reef and in toward the shallows.

Miss Ophelia had raced in when all the commotion began and run up to the house; Lenroy has a car at the beach before we reach it. Miss Sam does in fact seem better – it will turn out not to have been a heart attack – but two of her daughters climb into the car in their wet bathing suits and they are off in a flash to a doctor’s office. They leave a worried Tumpa, agony written on his face.

“That was a helluva dash, Matthew,” Tommy says as they speed away. “I’m a pretty good swimmer, and I was a lot nearer. I don’t know how you got to her first.”

“Oh, I always keeps a sharp eye,” Tumpa says. “I see Miss Sam stop swimming, and I know right away somethin’ wrong. I be on my way before she call out. Miss Sam like a mama to me, you know, ba’as? Like a mother.”

If Tommy heard the “ba’as,” it doesn’t show. He drapes an arm around the young man’s shoulder and gives him an unmistakably paternal hug. “She’s going to be all right, Matthew,” he says. “You did real good.”


Published by Meat for Tea,  The Valley Review, December 12, 2022





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