I’m on the porch of our little house on Cat Island in the Bahamas. It’s the end of the day and evening is coming on, turning the sky and the sea to the west of us a bright burnt orange, and the sky and the sea to the east of us a cool blue that deepens to purple and then to black. In the gathering darkness, in the coolness of our porch, my mother and father sit and fan the smoke from green palm leaves they’re burning to shoo away the mosquitoes and the sand flies. And as she did so often when I was small, my sister Teddy takes me in her arms to rock me to sleep. While she’s rocking me in her arms, she too is fanning the smoke that comes from the big pot of green leaves being burned, and she fans the smoke around me as I try to go to sleep in her arms.
That’s the way the evenings always were on Cat Island. In the simplicity of that setting I always knew how I was going to get through the day and how Mom and Dad were going to get through the day and how, at the end of it, we were all going to sit on this porch, fanning the smoke of the burning green leaves.
Now, if you take children in the modern United States that you and I are living in, they probably have a mom and a dad (or at least one parent), a set of grandparents possibly, and some siblings. But they’re also going to have a radio in the house, and they’re going to have a telephone (or at least know that such a thing exists), and they’re going to know that there are television sets, and they’re going to see people on the television sets who speak just like their mom and dad speak.
In the kind of place where I grew up, what’s coming at you is the sound of the sea and the smell of the wind and your mama’s voice and the voice of your dad and the craziness of your brothers and sisters — and that’s it. That’s what you’re dealing with when you’re too young to really be counted into anything, when you’re just listening, when you’re watching the behavior of your siblings and of your mom and dad, noting how they behave and how they attend to your feedings and how they care for you when you have a pain or when the wasp stings you around your eye. What occurs when something goes wrong is that someone reaches out, someone soothes, someone protects. And as the people around you talk, you begin to recognize things that are carried on the voice. Words and behavior begin to spell out something to you. All those subtleties are what’s going on with you, and that’s all that’s going on with you, day in and day out.
The rain comes and you hear the sound of it on the thatched roof and you sit waiting for it to stop because you want to go outside and play marbles — that is, play with the dried seeds from the pods of certain trees that were the marbles of my day. And if it’s a Sunday, you want your mother to be able to get to the kitchen and cook the rice, because you know that you always have rice on Sunday.