Rebirth: Field Notes on Loss and Belonging

By Ethan Knowles

Summer Intern for Expo2020 for the upcoming Double Dutch, “Hot Water”. 

It took three days before Aunty Mary decided to stay. To stay, not merely till the next mailboat, but for the next month. This revelation came as a great shock not just to the enduring community, all of whom had seen my aunty pack her bags and run off to Nassau the second Pa Elmer turned a blind eye, but to Pa Elmer himself, my grandpa and guardian, who had never known his daughter to show a sense of attachment to this tiny rock at the foot of the Great Bahama Bank in all his life.

As expected, Aunty Mary had begun her stay in Ragged Island with the same stern, detached air she always wore. She afforded the residents their due compassion and sorrow, but as soon as the Sunday church service ended, the corners of her lips began to sag like a limp clothes hanger. She had seen all she needed to. Her only task now was to board that mailboat the second it waded back into this War Zone. It was not the first time that I had heard my aunty refer to her childhood home as the front lines. Throughout my six months in Nassau, Aunty Mary had called Ragged Island all manner of things, but the one that always stuck with me the most was Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

Northern view from a window on Ragged Island, July 2018. Photo by Ethan Knowles.

Northern view from a window on Ragged Island, July 2018. Photo by Ethan Knowles.

Aunty Mary thought coming back was condolence enough, and she did not fail to let me and Grandpa know. Thirty years ago, she had left without intention of ever returning. The fact that she now found herself in her father’s home was merely proof the Lord was at work in the land and, she argued, it would be plain sacrilege to let a woman big as her get in His way. Errands and a job were waiting in the capital. She would be off before anybody knew. And since I was to enrol in a high school on New Providence, I would be too.

Despite Aunty’s indisputable logic, I refused to abandon my intentions. On the second night, I settled down next to Aunty Mary into a small blow-up mattress on the floor of Grandpa’s guest bedroom, my old room before the storm. I wondered what I could do to convince her. I wanted to stay and rebuild. At least a little while. It didn’t feel right walking out on where I grew up, where everything I knew began and ended and had to begin again. How come she didn’t feel the same way? I kept trying to crawl into Aunty’s shoes like Grandpa said, to imagine why she was the way she was. But with each unsuccessful attempt, I realised how little I actually knew about why she left Ragged Island in the first place. Sure, I had spent six months in Nassau with her, but not once had she ever told me what pushed her away.

I sailed into the evening on these thoughts and before long, Aunty Mary lay breathing deeply beside me. In the dim, milky light of the moon, I examined her figure. Her arms were pulled close to her chest, sheltered by tightly tucked legs, and I watched soberly as she grew and sank like the tide. Her back was turned to me, but somehow, I sensed an uneasiness in her sleep. Even though we were among the most privileged – what with grandpa’s roof having just been fixed a few weeks before – Aunty Mary still carried on like she was constantly in danger of attack. And then it suddenly occurred to me. Maybe she felt she was.

Two seagulls trail the mailboat off Ragged Island coast, July 2018. Photo by Ethan Knowles.

Two seagulls trail the mailboat off Ragged Island coast, July 2018. Photo by Ethan Knowles.

Just then a lamp in the other room switched on. Grandpa’s bare feet shuffled over the rough concrete like sandpaper. As an empty glass swallowed its welcome fill, I decided Grandpa would be the key to decoding Aunty Mary’s madness. The following morning, I convinced Grandpa to take me and Aunty fishing by the dock. Aunty Mary hated fishing but did not refuse on account of her believing the boat would be back any day now to whisk us away and so it couldn’t hurt to spend just a couple hours indulging her soon-to-be distraught niece. It was a calculated investment of her time.

An hour passed and three fish were caught before I asked Aunty Mary why she left Ragged Island. She was silent, but Grandpa, Grandpa stirred. For a while, the question hung like a heavy chain around his neck. And then he told me something I would never forget. I had always known that my mother died when I was born, and I had always known that my father died at sea when I was very young. What I did not know was that they were never married. I did not know that the community had spurned my mother for her extramarital affair, and I did not know that my Aunty Mary was the only person who supported my mother through it all. I never knew that Grandpa was the reason she left and the reason I stayed, the reason she would never come back and the reason I would never leave. That is, until the hurricane came and reason got blown away along with every other roof on Ragged Island. 

It dawned on me that Aunty Mary wasn’t afraid of an attack. She was just terrified of feeling welcomed. Because as soon as she did, she’d have to give up being angry. She would have to accept that people, like the weather, can change from one year to the next. That after the great disaster, after the earth is flattened and laid bare, a community can come together and start over. Can be something even better.

I had not yet reorganized my newly shattered world when suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw Aunty Mary slip on a stray patch of conch slime and fall backwards into the bay. Grandpa and I immediately jumped to our feet, expecting Aunty to come flying out of that water with a vengeance worse than any hurricane. Instead, what we saw emerge from that water was an entirely different woman. Aunty Mary floated to the surface, stood so that just her shoulders and head were above water, and began to let out the loudest laugh I had heard in my entire sixteen years on this earth. I was speechless and so was Grandpa. The cacophony continued for almost a minute before dying down into the first smile I had seen on Aunty’s lips since coming home three days prior. As she crawled from the muddy water, Aunty Mary said a lot of things. Some didn’t make sense to me. But one that stuck was:

Ween gotta go on hidin an’ rehashin the past Pa. Is about time we made da best of today.

 Ethan Knowles is the NAGB attaché and is working with the collectives Expo 2020 out of the University of The Bahamas and the international collective, Plastico Fantastico on this year’s Double Dutch project titled “Hot Water” set to open on August 23rd at the NAGB. Knowles will further anchor the exhibition’s context with writings and field notes further clarifying the relationship of the environment to our humanity.