The Orange Tree

I. First, I choose my topic.

Lucy Pittman, formerly Lucy Van Albrecht, is twenty-three when she leaves Trinidad. She is thirty when she gives birth to my grandmother, Kathleen Pittman, in New Brunswick. She is thirty-five when her husband, Malcolm Pittman, dies suspiciously of alcohol poisoning in a car in the middle of the woods. He had been a banker who collected debts during the Great Depression. He did not drink.

Lucy is forty when she retrieves her far-flung children from relatives across the Eastern Seaboard and moves to Nova Scotia. She trains as a secretary in a bank, and she supports five children on her own in the early 20th century. Her mother encourages her to return to Trinidad and remarry. The children could stay with her dead husband’s family in the north. She refuses.

I am twenty-five, and childless, when I start collecting photographs of Lucy from my grandmother’s apartment in Sudbury, Ontario. I hope to write a story about the saga of my heritage, something with ancestral lines and magical themes and tragic inevitabilities. Something introverted and self-obsessed, qualities I bring to the Caribbean oceans as I try and write about their luster and expanse. I have never seen them but they remind me of the turquoise impossibility of the glacial lakes I have seen. I try and overlap my waters with Lucy’s.

When I first see Lucy, it is in a black and white photograph. She is probably sixteen here, dressed for a carnival in Trinidad called Canboulay. I see my legacy in her awkward confidence as she poses in her backyard, all young and haughty and unsure. I single out Lucy from among other family members because I favor her.

II. After I acquire the basic facts, I begin the research.

Canboulay is the original form of Trinidad’s Carnival. Slaves sought to self-identify their own celebrations after they were excluded from the Mas, or masquerades, of plantation owners in the 18th century. The white man’s Mas was a last hurrah before the deprivation of Lent each year. Rebelling against the masthead, slaves created their own festival named after cannes brulées, or burnt cane. It was a brief relief from toiling in sugarcane fields under hot island sun.

In the early days of the Caribbean slave trade, communication between slaves was outlawed. Owners attempted a cultural genocide. They stole West African men and women from their land and brought them to islands where no one knew their names. Outlawing language was a tool for erasing words, erasing ancestry, erasing a sense of self that keeps humanity defiant.

But Africans were resilient and white men failed. Calypso, a language created to communicate with fellow slaves after their birth words were banned, morphed into music. This loud language lasted late into the night during Canboulay. It was accompanied by sounds of stick fighting, the chaos of limbo, and the story-songs of the Calypsonian, the story-keeper. Again, owners tried to mute the owned. They decreed stick fighting, the dance of two revellers who made music by barring sticks against each other, too dangerous for Canboulay.

In 1881, the Canboulay Riots exploded in Trinidad’s capital, the Port of Spain, when the descendants of freed slaves defied the rules of the descendants of plantation owners. The protestors replaced sticks with bamboo. When this in turn was outlawed, they picked up steel buckets, the lids of metal trash cans, pots of copper and cast iron from their kitchens, and banged their drums into celebrations of a new century. The items found rhythm and became known as steel pans, the only non-electrical instrument invented in the 20th century.

Lucy is born at the precipice of 1900. She may or may not know the history of Canboulay.

But still, she flaunts it.

III. I create a black hole.

Confederate ancestor Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, stated in an interview that he was wary of apologizing to the thousands of descendants who could be traced from slaves on Ball family plantations. He was worried that such a magnanimous apology would feel insincere.

I’m fairly certain Lucy’s ancestors did not own a plantation in Trinidad, but they did exploit its history as colonizers. I don’t know how to make such a foreign regret so many generations later sound sincere.

Ramona Ausubel, a fiction writer, spoke at the Institute of American Indian Arts describing a black hole as the center of a story. Everything else swirls around it. My black hole is the luxury of Lucy’s life built on the backs of the occupied, and my accountability, as Ball states, for inheriting it.

IV. I create Lucy.

Nana and I are in her apartment in Sudbury. We sip martinis and look through yellowing manila folders for hints on the topography of our past. She has family trees that span eleven pages of taped together horizontal sheets. She brings out records like Lucy’s birth certificate, her great-great-great grandfather’s listing on the first voyage of the Mayflower, a brief detailed story of how Lucy’s estranged father died after a U-Boat attack on a passenger ship at the close of World War II. She shows me Lucy’s photograph, the one that leads me here.

Lucy takes up three-quarters of the frame. She looks like a mannequin, posed in the artful way of a puppeteer. Her body is angled with her right foot and arm lifted into the air, her ankle resting against a stool and barely visible beneath her frock. Her left foot is firmly planted into the ground and her left hand is delicately draped on her hip, accented with a small black watch. Her right arm extends from the crook of her elbow, a cigarette expertly flicked towards the sky like a sixth finger. Brown hair thickened her forehead and curled into a wreath near her Adam’s apple. It rested just above her ruff, an extension of tufted plumage atop her shoulders mimicking the Queen’s gowns. I have this hair. I refuse to cut it in summer; I know it will seize up towards my throat in humidity.

Below her hair she is a clown. Her dress is lined from her chest to her thighs with pom poms the size and shape of snowballs. Beneath the cotton dress that ends in a deep zigzag of triangles, witchy stripes appear ruffled at her shoulders and drape just beyond her kneecaps. In the sepia photograph the stripes look grey and black, and they vaguely shade into her black tights and black boots that mark a special occasion with heels and pointed toes. Clunky and childish. I would never wear such an outfit.

Since it is Carnival in Trinidad, it must be February, and the temperature must hover around 85 degrees. But Lucy’s cheeks do not shine even though she must be sweating, caged in such a costume. Her crown extends into a circle with a dunce cap split by the same snowballs that line her dress. Its cone shape shifts into the curve of a fern at its inflection point. The fern covers the left side of the photograph, extending from greenery outside the frame. Its shadow darkens dried leaves that form a carpet on the ground, and Lucy’s shoes crunch the dying foliage as she shifts her weight from her right leg to her left. The wrought iron gate behind her encloses her safe backyard.

I imagine what exists outside of it. I wonder if there are judgments from other revellers of a white girl celebrating in clown-like garb. I create judgments. I do not know if the residents of Trinidad, if the descendants of slaves, care about Lucy and her costume. I do not know if they think of her as an outsider or a racist or a colonizer or a silly girl.

I question where she, or we, are really from. Her parents are European immigrants, from Germany and England, who voluntarily crossed the ocean. Slaves, who did not volunteer to board the ships of chains and salts, and whose legacy casts a shadow much longer and darker than the fern, are not physically in this photo, yet their contribution is loud. But this is not what my Nana and I talk about as the alcohol forms small puffs of fog between our words.

V. I find fault with Lucy.

“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I have always chosen weight. I have always searched for the parts of stories that feel unsaid, with hard edges that make me feel riotous. History is often silenced whenever it makes its recipients, especially the white ones, uncomfortable. The tendency for the oppressed parts of story does not feel like an inheritance from Lucy. It does not mirror her picture like my thin wrists and young face.

I record my Aunt Paula, Lucy’s granddaughter, telling stories about visiting Lucy in Toronto. In these reveries, Paula is young, eight or nine, and Lucy in her sixties, perhaps early seventies. Paula cringes at her memories and I cringe to write them. In Paula’s memory, Lucy lived in a high-rise apartment in downtown Toronto. She commented to Paula that a passerby “may have been painted with a bit of the tar brush.” She served treats like “nigger babies,” licorice from the confectionary, and “nigger toes,” brazil nuts from the grocery. She looked out her window at the black teenagers playing basketball on the high school’s court beside her complex. She wondered what they are up to, and she expressed annoyance at the musical rhythms their ball made upon the concrete. A ball. A stick. Bamboo. The steel pans.

I seek out these stories. Instead of telling a story about my great-grandmother Lucy and her incredible childhood in Trinidad, a childhood that is both mysterious and exotic, I find ways in which it is problematic. I cannot help myself. I do not know what the anchor I tie to my ankle and drag around through my days says about me. Perhaps it’s simple: I do not balance like Lucy upon her stool in this photograph. I am heavy; I carry her.

VI. I try to write a short story about Lucy.

In my writing workshop I’m told I can write a sentence. I’m told not to try too hard with metaphor. A few weeks later, a colleague calls me “pretty good.” I am the worst kind of writer, a perfectionist. Pretty good is not good enough. I put the story away. I stitch the seams of Lucy’s photograph back up in tidy rows. I put the seam ripper back in my sewing kit. I stop asking what is hidden beneath her portrait, what stories are stuffed, mangled, suffocated within the stories we are told. I strive to stay tidy.

VII. I try to write an essay about Lucy.

I invent a description of Lucy. I try to knit my personal feelings of the slave trade, colonization, and the white privilege of European ancestry: Lucy is born at the precipice of 1900, a child of a German banker and an English aristocrat. Her life is one of gates, of luxury, of shiny black boots and matted cheeks, of celebrating Trinidad’s history in a dress made by the descendant of a slave, slid over Lucy’s head by a descendant of a slave, perhaps standing just out of the frame as Lucy’s photograph is being taken, a descendant of a slave watches a white girl become a sophisticated clown at her expense.

While drafting the essay, I visit my parents’ home, and I see a photograph mounted on the wall. It is an image of a swamp with grey, dying mangrove trees lifting out of the frame, dense and dark and weighted. In front of this desiccating forest stands a mangrove with charcoal bark and orange leaves, bold in a bland space, a shock to the viewer’s expectations of swamp and salt water.

I do not know if Lucy continued to celebrate Carnival, though Toronto has one of the biggest performances of Canboulay in the world, bigger than the one organized each year in Trinidad. I do not know if she understood the history of Carnival, or if she cared. But my obsession continues beyond all precursory attempts, until I am here, trying to reconcile her body in my body, the shock of the orange tree, of inheritance, of my family’s fleeting Trinidad. For better or worse, that is the story I want to tell. The thing we forget is there, the brightness of it.

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