Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

The Return of the Native

It all hinged on his passport. Shawn came here in the mid Eighties on a work visa, which he overstayed. A kindly bureaucracy might overlook that, if he could establish the legality of his entry. But his passport had vanished, he thought in a long-ago burglary of his home safe. In its absence the efforts of a series of (predatory?) immigration lawyers were in vain. Last year, though, his wife found it — in the depths of a closet, stuffed into a cookbook. His permanent-residency card came through this winter, and he could now go home.

He made arrangements immediately, booking flights and renting a beach house. His first plan was to show up by surprise. I thought this was a bad idea. He and his mother, to whom he is devoted, have stayed in touch by regular phone calls and occasional meetings in Miami. But she is 75 years old, and a woman of ardent emotions. If he appeared suddenly on her doorstep, the consequences could be medical. He was spared from making the experiment by his inability to deceive her. She said, in one of their phone calls, that she was planning to go to a funeral on one of the out islands during the time he was to be home. “Do you have to go?” he asked. “Why are you asking?” she asked in turn. The truth came out; she dropped the phone, weeping. When she picked it back up they agreed that she would tell no one else, so an element of surprise remained.

He spent his first day back, a Saturday, with his mother. On Sunday he went to church. When his favorite half-sister (Afro-Chinese, once a great beauty) came down the aisle, he stood up in the front pew. She collapsed. Other people did not recognize him at all; after coming here he had become first a power lifter, then a bodybuilder, and even after retiring from competition, he carries a lot more muscle than his 20-year-old self. He went to see his father (who had left his mother long ago), a self-contained, hard-working man, at his restaurant. The old man was out, though his present wife was there. She looked at this maybe-not-new face, as if trying to bring it into focus. “Shawn?” “How did you know?” he asked. “The spirit of love told me,” she said.

Other people had vanished. He tried to look up his favorite teacher, an English lady, Mrs. Illingsworth. She once took her students to London, where they painted a mural that would hang in the Parliament. She had lived on a farm outside of town. The area was now all developed; no one recognized the name, including someone who had been there for 25 years. It was the same with Michael, a Conchy Joe (the local term for an indigenous white person) from one of the out islands. Michael stuck out when he moved to the neighborhood, but he showed Shawn how to catch birds in a box propped up by a stick. He too had gone without leaving a trace, except in Shawn’s memory.

Junkanoo happened when he was home — a raucous parade downtown. Paraders are divided into squads (Shawn’s was the Saxons). They march to the sound of goatskin drums, cowbells, and lots of brass. The traditional dates for this brouhaha are Boxing Day and New Year’s, but the government, hoping for tourist dollars, has added a spring fling to mimic/compete with Carnival. Another dramatic change, in his telling, was to the streets. He drove down many a familiar road, only to find that it was now one-way, the other way. Fortunately the locals are used to tourists in rental cars driving wrong. A third change, apparently at least, was to the water. He remembered it being clear (clar in his pronunciation, a last trace of his former accent), but he had forgotten how clear it was. “You can look down five feet and see a dime.” He budgeted an entire day for this element, fishing. “I didn’t catch a damn thing. That’s why they call it fishing.”

His mother cooked for him: land crabs from the out islands (the white ones are as big as Dungeness crabs, but the black ones go better with rice); pork rinds, boiled down; tomato paste, thyme, chopped-up jalapeños; chicken broth. She put this in her mother’s iron pot, which Shawn remembered from his childhood, a foot and a half deep, mouth big as a 45-pound plate. Serve with grouper on the side. “I think I get played by the grouper I get in Chinatown. This was pearly white, and the flesh stays firm.” The passport in his cookbook took him back to home cooking.

For his next trip back he wants to go to the out island where he spent the first eight years of his life. His uncle told him not to bother; his grandmother’s old house, where he once lived, is four limestone walls, a roofless shell. His uncle showed him a picture of it; Shawn marveled at how it had shrunk. I told him his uncle was wrong; he can see the place whenever he wants to make the trip, Shawn has been on a half-life furlough. His mother’s current house, where he moved when he was nine, also seemed small to him. “This was the room where my grandmother died, this is where I slept. But I had more leg room.”

“You did; your legs were shorter.”

The native has become a tourist in time. This is the state, not just of participants in the great migration, Third World to First, but of so many born Americans. The architecture professor Vincent Scully liked to show paired pictures, of a tepee, horse, and sledge and a house, car, and trailer: America the mobile. Gray wrote about rude forefathers sleeping in the country churchyard. They do, but their children move on — till they sleep, elsewhere.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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