Box by Jennie D'Ambra
One sunny day in 1923 my parents were keen to get away for a romantic picnic. As I was only three, my parents dropped me at the home of my paternal grandparents. And as my parents didn’t ever return from their outing, it became my fate to grow up with both my grandparents in their shabby, wooden, tenement in Boston. My grandfather was a menacing man who cast a dismal shadow in the tenement’s darkened rooms. And my grandmother, bird-like, barely uttered a word.
Talk on the subject of my parents was strictly forbidden in my grandparents’ home. Consequently, grieving the loss of my parents was disallowed. And later, when I was more capable of expressing my thoughts and feelings, conjecture about the fate of my parents was not permitted. Memories of my mother and father quickly faded until, in time, there was nothing left except the emptiness which they left in their absence.
Inside my grandfather’s musty and stale study was a private shrine dedicated to Joe Walcott, alias the Barbados Demon. The Demon was the boxing world welterweight champion 1901-1904. Photographs in wooden frames adorned a long wall in the crypt-like study. Most of the photos were of Joe Walcott affecting a pose. Old newspaper articles about Walcott’s career were stuck onto the three remaining walls.
My grandfather’s most treasured newspaper articles concerned three specific periods in the life of the Barbados Demon. There was the Demon’s victory against Joe Choynski in 1900. Significant because Choynski had already proved his mettle as a heavyweight boxer, so the Demon’s win exemplified heart rending courage in taking on the big boys. Next: the fight against the Dixie Kid in April, 1904, when Walcott relinquished his welterweight title in controversial circumstances. And finally, late in 1904, the tragic gun accident in which Joe Walcott shot his friend in the head. In the same incident Joe’s right hand was shattered.
Countless times I was required to retrieve a newspaper article about the Barbados Demon, invariably printed on ageing, flimsy paper, from the dusty walls in my grandfather’s study. The purpose of this endeavour was so that I could read aloud to my grandfather about the victories and failures in the life of the great man. Then, once grandfather was satisfied I’d expressed myself with the requisite gravitas, I re-stuck the article back onto the wall, being very careful not to tear the paper.
There were times when I felt sorry for mighty Joe; being so fervently admired by my grandfather. After all, the Barbados Demon couldn’t pick his admirers any more than I could pick my grandparents. Even when young, I realized that my grandfather gained his only access to raw, primal, emotion by revisiting the fervour and torment of mighty Joe’s life.
In 1935, Joe Walcott’s fate touched our lives once again. My grandmother and I were in the kitchen, where I was helping her to unravel a ball of wool. There was a thud at the back door, after which my grandfather crashed through the door and fell to the floor in a kind of hysteria. He was garbling loudly and incoherently, using words that came from some unknown subterranean place. Then he hissed, and then he cried uncontrollably. After he stopped crying he simply said, “Joe Walcott’s dead.” When the physical contortions started, my grandmother phoned the asylum, and men in white coats took my grandfather away.
Soon after that my grandmother began meeting with her spiritual friends. They shared great interest in meeting with people from the other side.
One day my grandmother was standing in the kitchen. She’d let the blinds up and subdued winter light came into the room. She signalled for me to come close then she hugged me. She whispered in my ear, “Sorry.” Next, my grandmother gave me a smart carry case and ushered me to the back door. She gently waved her hands and said to me, “Go and find a life.” Then she kissed me and the wetness of her tears made me feel cold and empty. She watched me walk past the threshold of her unhappy home then she firmly closed the door.
Although I had lived in Salem Street for thirteen years, no neighbour waved farewell and no friend wished me luck for my journey. The street’s barren, wooden tenements had always looked closed-up for the season, as they did on this occasion. People in Salem Street generally remained indoors in winter; confined with their demons, spouses and children. I didn’t dare to turn to look back, for I knew I wouldn’t be missed.
As I calmly walked away from my past I discovered a tenor of life beyond my own where hungry people stood in line to receive free coffee and doughnuts and men in berets swarmed around the Employment Bureau, and ragged children played, ghost-like, on Hanover Street.
Eventually I got to the Boston Fish Pier. Before I sat down I looked into my new case to see what my grandmother had packed for me. There were new clothes including a woollen jumper grandmother had knitted for me. And, thankfully, there was a long waterproof jacket. So I took off my old jumper and put on my new winter garments. After I found a bin in which to turf my old jumper, I sat on a slew of ice on a bench near the pier. As well as the jumper and jacket, there was an expensive pair of leather slippers and five pairs of fine woollen socks. Apart from these, there were food provisions thoughtfully prepared for a long journey, including a flask of hot coffee.
I ate cherry pies grandmother had baked that morning. The pies were still slightly warm, with their deliciously rich pastry which was lightly salted, and sprinkled with Demerara sugar. The morello cherries had been steeped in Black Currant Brandy, and mixed with loganberry jam. While eating each morsel of pie I felt an unfamiliar physical sensation—the joy and relish of eating something exquisitely beautiful. While sadness, soft and unspoken, quietly gnawed and prodded until it provoked the occasional tears which plopped onto the purple cherries and into my mouth.
I sipped my hot coffee and I was cautious not to waste a drop. I feared that my coffee-drinking days might be prematurely ended once the flask was emptied. As the steam rose from my cup I started to look around me.
Ice–covered trawlers and fishing boats looked stark and unwelcoming with the hard white water beneath them and a canopy of grey sky above. Near the pier some fishermen were busily de-icing their boats. The men spoke little but when they spoke it was in monosyllables used to curse their constant foe, the weather. Other men were sorting fish on the pier. These men looked wooden and stoic. They seemed impervious to the weather as they mechanically sorted the fish.
I shivered and I started thinking about Joe Walcott. I sensed he was my only friend and I contemplated his life. At once I was in awe of his courageous efforts to carve out his own unbounded existence, and his continual efforts to transcend fate. He became my instant guru. I thought about his early journey from Barbados to the U.S.A. when he was fifteen. Then there was his ensuing boxing career, and his serial triumphs and hardships. It was when I said a prayer for mighty Joe that I knew, intuitively, I would soon leave Boston and travel to Barbados.
Not long after that icy afternoon spent near the pier, I got myself organised. From India Wharf I got a job as a cabin boy on a cruise ship. The hard work was good for my physique and the food was plentiful and delicious. There was little in the way of meaningful company but I didn’t care. Occasionally I experienced moments of freedom, with nothing to look back to, as if the past never existed. And it was then that a strange kind of grace visited me like a loving hand on my shoulder urging me to continue.
The ship anchored in Carlisle Bay as the sensuous breath of the trade winds kissed my skin. The brilliant sunshine enlivened everything I saw. And once I disembarked I saw much. I marvelled at the warmth and gracious ease of the Barbadian men and women as they went about their business. I watched the elegance with which a young woman, dressed in white, carried a basket upon her head. An old man, with a pet baby monkey, smiled at me. At once I wanted to embrace the man and cry, “I’ve come home,” but instead he gave me the monkey before walking away.
Joe Walcott has been with me in spirit from the moment I arrived. He helped me to get a job in a rum distillery and find a small shack to call home. He’s been with me while I’ve explored the Caribbean. At night, when it’s dead quiet, we’ve spoken many a time about what it is to search for home.