September 1, 2015

Things We Now Can’t Live Without

by Judith Grant
March 1, 2005

My thirteen-year-old nephew exclaimed in disbelief when I told him that I had grown up without a television. “So, what did you watch?”

“We watched the trees on the hillside,” I said, repeating the words my father used whenever we asked him to take us to the shop in the square to watch TV.

“Man, I feel your pain,” my nephew responded in a voice that really meant, “Growing up without a TV is totally incomprehensible. I wouldn’t even try to imagine it.”

“On moonlit nights,” I continued, “we sat beneath the stars and sang folk songs. My mother would also teach us Bible verses and prayers and tell us stories. Ever heard of duppy stories?”

“Mommy is always telling us all kinds of things that she did when she was a kid. She said you all didn’t go to the movie theater, either,” he proclaimed in his best Bahamian accent.

I gave a healthy laugh at this and reflected on the near obscurity of my childhood experiences of the not-so-long-ago ’70s in St. Ann, Jamaica. Yes, we had a transistor radio as well as a record changer, which was eventually replaced by an eight-track tape player as we progressed technologically.

And speaking of technology, in a recent exchange with my brother in Jamaica, we made fun of the two cell phones he has – one for making calls and the other for receiving. An economical tactic, he said. “What did people used to do without cell phones?” he asked.

“Write letters,” I said, feeling the need to enlighten my younger brother on the good old days when we had more time for each other, when we didn’t have to juggle between cell phones and land phones, e-mails, and remote control – technological advances that were meant to make our lives less complicated.

My brother replied, “I remember when Mama would receive a letter from our eldest sister, who lived in Kingston at the
time, a whole month in advance, announcing her planned visit to us in the country.”

“Back then , one month seemed like such a long time. You went to sleep waiting and woke up still waiting, until eventually you knew it was going to be any day now as Mama cleaned and dusted and…hey, by that time we were glad–” He interrupted himself.

“Kenny [a brother who also lived in Kingston] used to send telegrams to say he was coming on such-and-such a date; and man, you waited and waited, and when the time passed, you saw postman come with another telegram. And that time passed again, and then one day, without warning, he would show up…. Hold on one minute,” he said in one swift breath. “Hello, whaa gwaan? Mi deh pon a overseas call…” I heard him say in the background.

I was taken to moments in the past when my mother ironed using the self-heater; it was a large iron that you opened at the top so you could insert a piece of coal in it. You then lit it and closed the top, securing it with a catch. I truly thought it was a revolution. If we used coals that were too small, they cooled too quickly. Even when you cleaned the iron with yellow banana leaves, you had to be an expert to keep a white school blouse from smudging.

The gas range and electric stove were welcome conveniences, but they could never reproduce the unique flavor of the cumbersome “coal pot.” Roast beef, roast pork, fried chicken…often by the light of a Tilley lamp.

Since that conversation with my brother, I’ve had to get used to my stepmother telephoning my dad in the garden to tell him that breakfast was ready. I’ve also had to pick up the languages of DVDs, plasma TVs, MP3s, and some others that made me think that an expandable chip should be installed in my brain so that I could increase my memory. Or maybe they could delete yesterday’s information that had already become obsolete today. But the memories of the nights under the stars, singing folk songs with my mother and siblings, are files that I would want to keep in the ready-to-be-accessed file at any time. Until then – excuse me a moment – that’s my digital organizer reminding me that my favorite TV program is scheduled to start in two minutes.