bohemian roots and leaving genes

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There is always a story behind moving to an island. That’s the thing you soon realize after meeting enough people who live on one. There is a story about the mainland they left behind. A tale to tell about what brought them out to sea in the middle of nowhere. Most are not always forthcoming with their narrative, as in they won’t just come out and tell you the whole story, but there is always something to it. They might confide in you after a while, maybe after a few drinks. Or you may never find out what it was exactly. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure. I haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact moment from my own narrative. But it doesn’t stop me from asking. How did I get here? Which exactly was it from a series of events?

Maybe it simply started with a job offer. I remember asking for the weekend to decide on that Friday when I was expected to answer yes or no. I would have a decision by Monday. I just needed 48 hours. The next day I was looking around my house for a photograph. After searching that Saturday afternoon through the designated boxes for photo storage to no avail, I pulled down a vintage suitcase perched high on a shelf in the spare bedroom closet. It was stuffed full of letters and cards, the kind delivered to mailboxes before the Internet came along. I never did find the picture, but my then boyfriend randomly pulled a piece of newspaper from the suitcase, which had been left open on the sofa. “What is this?” he asked. It was an advertisement for the placement agency that had helped me to get the job I was now deciding whether or not to accept. The copy enticed teachers: Make the world your classroom. I’d clipped it in 2005 and here it was being passed from his hand to mine in 2015, ten years later. Some kind of sign I guess. We both thought so anyway. “It seems this is something you have always wanted to do,” he said, selflessly encouraging me to do so. 

Or maybe it started on October 30th, 2014, five months before that weekend. My grandmother was moments away from her own departure, and there I was sitting next to her, eyes filled with tears, holding her fragile hand and saying a long goodbye as if we were standing on a platform waiting for her to board a train. I remember telling her that she hadn’t danced in years and now was the time to go and dance again. “Go to Paris and dance,” I whispered so as to guide her to courageously climb aboard. “You’ve never been to Paris, and you worked for years to master the French language,” I told her these things while I thought to myself that today was the day she had to leave. Tomorrow would not be a good day for dying. Tomorrow would be October 31st, Halloween. I worried about her getting mixed up in the cross traffic of ghosts and goblins. I didn’t want her on the roads between here and wherever she was headed with all those vampires and witches. Yes, she definitely needed to leave today. Her body could not hold on until November 1st. Halloween is definitely not a day for dying. It would be a better day for me to spend at the Greenwood Funeral Home planning her burial.

I sat in the director’s office at that funeral home on Halloween day for a surreal span of time, shocked and grief-stricken while trick-or-treaters began to file out late that afternoon on to the streets outside. The doors swung open and closed as eccentric funeral home types stepped in and out to introduce themselves and ask my family a million questions. They seemed to me like real Halloween ghouls who had come to snatch my grandmother and steal her away, carry her off in a polished wooden box to their eternal lair. An old woman with layer upon layer of mascara and wispy orange hair came in to ask about makeup. My aunt, clearly baffled, asked, “Who needs makeup for a closed casket funeral?” A tall pale gangly man dressed head to toe in black came in to ask questions about religion. It was a question that made my family uncomfortable, so they promptly put me in charge of all that stuff, abandoning me to meet with this man of God all alone the next day. My grandmother never specified much about the religious nature of the service, but only wrote in her instructions that we read an excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, something about how death was like a dance. Although she did not adhere to any one system of belief, she knew more than most people about religion all around the world. I read the book front to back on Sunday and wrote the eulogy late into the evening before the funeral on Monday. Who knew I would be packing that book in one of six suitcases, six months later, moving to an island in the Caribbean of all places.

I would have never moved to this place if my grandmother was still here with me on this crazy planet. So, yes, her departure had everything to do with mine. But then what is it exactly that makes it so that someone can just leave everything behind? Not everyone does this leaving thing. I have friends who admit to me they could never do it and then promptly ask why would anyone want to. Some people have no desire to leave everything they know and move to a foreign world. Other people are terrified of it. And it really is absolutely terrifying. Until you do it. And then leaving becomes incredibly simple. It becomes the most liberating thing in the world. You find out leaving is so exhilarating that you want to leave and leave again. Perhaps then these things are genetic. Maybe these always wanting to leave genes are passed along from one generation to the next.

Maybe it all started with my grandmother years ago. She left everything behind and moved to Texas in the 1950s, on her own and with two young daughters in tow. She told me it was the big sky that brought her to Texas. She first saw this sky while driving across the country, from Georgia to New Mexico when she went to visit her father on his deathbed in Santa Fe. She left a whole life behind soon after, nearly 30 years worth. We knew nothing about this life, none of us did: her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She never talked about it. But clues were uncovered of wealthy relatives and a lucrative family business and emotionally charged memories and an ancestral grave site, the kind where the whole family is buried together on a plot of land reserved for distinguished clans. We eventually learned that she came from a family of Czech immigrants who left their Bohemian homeland to cross the Atlantic and start a new life in a new world at the end of the 19th Century. So maybe this leaving thing started with them. It worked out well for the ones who crossed over. They truly lived the American dream, arriving penniless and later building a fortune after the patriarch of the family created some kind of pump patent.

On rare occasions, she would recall her earliest memories. They lived in a lavish apartment in the sky with majestic views of downtown Atlanta. She remembered decadent parties where everyone was dressed to the hilt. She looked up above from her toddler vantage point to see ice sculptures and hired help holding trays of champagne. Times were good; it was the Roaring Twenties. Her father was the art director at Fox Theater–an architectural gem, perfectly preserved to this day. His brother wrote everything for the theater that went to press. Those were the days when a movie theater symbolized status for American cities, a sign the city had made it. But then something went terribly wrong after the stock market crashed. How it is that history can turn and spin everything in another direction. Eventually, years later, I pieced most of the story together with the help of Google and newspaper archives, following a timeline that zigzagged back and forth between cities from one coast to the other. Another story for another time. It’s much too convoluted and dramatic for a silly blog about island life. But maybe it is with this story that the inclination to leave truly originated.

What I found out was that I have an unbelievable family history. I imagine it was a history that my grandmother undoubtedly tried to escape, although the newspapers never did let her do so. I discovered that there was more to her leaving Georgia than the allure of the Texas sky. There is always more to the leaving. Though it filled her with joy to tell it that way, this sky story, I heard it so many times, as if this were the one and only reason she moved to Texas. She would make grandiose gestures, sweeping her arms above her head for added emphasis. But we all knew there was something else that drove her out, and we never did hear much about that part. There were subtle hints in the jazz lyrics she would recite as if they were guiding mantras. “Smile though your fear and sorrow. Smile and maybe tomorrow.” These are the pieces of her that I have left. I hear her song lyrics in my mind. I hear her playing the melody on her piano. Music evokes powerful memories. But I also packed away pieces from her life in my luggage before I left Texas for Aruba. I had just lost her a few months before. I desperately wanted to hold on to what I had left. So there are many things that belonged to her strewn about my living space here on this tiny island. They are small things, whatever I could fit along with all the other stuff I would need.

I couldn’t bring her paintings, but I zipped away matted printmaking works inside the flat exterior pockets of my luggage. Around the edge of each suitcase, I tucked away books, narrowly escaping the fifty-pound overage fee for each piece of luggage as I haphazardly checked them all curbside at the airport. There was a Spanish novel with all of her annotations written in the margins. I packed The Prophet, and others like it, taking care to make sure that all the pages she had marked with tiny pieces of paper remained so. I placed in my wallet University of Texas at Arlington identification cards from her time there as a student, and later as a teacher of Spanish and French. I folded a framed picture of her ballroom dancing days between my clothes. I tossed in anything I could find simply because we shared the same appreciation for aesthetics in design and print: pillowcases, coffee mugs, wind chimes, dinner napkins, clothing she had sewn. A butterfly motif emerged. There are a lot of butterflies here in my house on this island.

She and I are inextricably linked. We love all the same things in life. How do you choose a verb tense when one is left and the other is gone? I choose to write in the present because I’m still here loving all the things she loved, actively pursuing to immerse my life with this stuff. And it is after losing her that I truly learned to fill life with all the things that make the moments seem as if you are opening a treasure chest each and every day. To never take for granted that there are so many treasures in life. My grandmother always scheduled the full moon on her calendar. If I happened to be over visiting, which I did most weekends in those final years, she would take me by the hand and lead me outside to show me the moon. “Look at it! Can you believe it? See how it just hangs there in the sky.” The moon is magic. Life is filled with magic. Never forget this is what she seemed to be telling me.

It’s impossible to select just one event that brought me here. Maybe there were some things that drove me out as well. But mostly there were the impulses within me that constantly sought out the beauty in the world. Parts of me that refused to accept anything else less than that. There is so much of it to be found in life. There was a career I built that made it all possible. But if anyone is bold enough to ask how I landed here, I have a simple answer. It was the sea. Yes, that was definitely it. The blue and green of the Caribbean sea.

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2 thoughts on “bohemian roots and leaving genes

  1. Gretchen

    Oh, Tiffany! I just sat down after a long day of parent conferences at school, saw that photo of your grandmother (that could be you!) at the top of your blog, and was hooked. I couldn’t quit reading. Absolutely my favorite of your island musings so far. And a love letter to your grandmother like no other I can imagine. Your ending reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” — Isak Dinesen

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    1. arubatlewis Post author

      I had parent conferences this week as well. Not really the most convenient time to be writing. That’s always the case though. Inspiration always shows up when you are out of time. Thanks for sharing the quote. It’s a good one.

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