My favorite family story is about my taking my very first plane trip when I was just 6 months old in the arms of my Great-aunt Edith. I’ve traveled with her ever since. The child of immigrants, my great-aunt made a yearly pilgrimage back home to Jamaica, laden with gifts, embarrassed by overstuffed suitcases, marveling at the heat, language, lizards, bullfrogs, pastel houses and rural landscape. And before or after the trip home, Aunt Edith fancied a “real” vacation.
In her youth she had crisscrossed the Western Hemisphere for both work and pleasure. Her old steamer trunk, filled with starched needlework and linens, was last ticketed “Great White Fleet, United Fruit Company,” from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, to New York in the spring of 1952. The story goes that when I came along, she stood me on the kitchen counter, sized me up, and decided to take me under her wing.
My great-aunt enjoyed quintessentially American vacations. We went to Niagara Falls by car, stayed at the King George Hotel, visited wax museums, bought souvenirs, ate in Chinese restaurants, and took spectacular photographs, hugging and smiling, with the falls bursting like fireworks behind us. In the early sixties, it was the kind of safely contained trip a new Black-American family like mine would often take. The budget kind. Historical interest. Headed North.
By the seventies we branched out to Montreal and Toronto, then ventured into Europe and the Pacific. Fashionably sharp, my great-aunt traveled in suits and pumps well into her eighties, looking crisp as a stewardess pinning wings to our sweaters. And when the plane began its descent, she always freshened her lipstick.
On tour, keeping an eye on her travel clock, she rose at first light, singing out the minutes as she dressed. As a college student one summer, I trudged through northern Italy behind her, half asleep, scowling for the photographs.
Aunt Edith’s favorite sport was people watching. Everywhere we went she would spot someone who looked “just like” someone back home or on television. In those days there were fewer Blacks on international tourist routes, and we counted the other “colored” people with delight. Whenever we met in those snaking clusters of organized travelers, we would acknowledge one another with smiles, knowing nods of recognition. My great-aunt always said, “I didn’t come to count cows; I came to drink milk.” And so we climbed the Spanish Steps, ascended the Mayan ruins and thought nothing of taking on Bermuda’s “heart attack hill.” To our Niagara Falls snapshots we added images of us at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, Doges’ Palace, the Rock of Gibraltar, Vatican City, in the marketplaces of Turkey, and under the welcome sign of every port from Freeport to
There is a saying: Day runs until night falls. One year the old suitcase and high heels began to conspire against us. Bumped from our flight, we were dashing to make an alternative when, for the first time, I heard my great-aunt shouting at my back that I was moving too fast. Though we exchanged her heels for lady loafers and bought wheeled suitcases, our shopping routine that year was marred by bickering. Sightseeing was bothersome. We accused each other of being miserable, and we were. The last year she hid how sick she felt, but on our vacation-a rocky Bermuda cruise and then the trip to Jamaica-we slept late and didn’t send a single postcard. We brought the blank cards back and wrote and mailed them from home. “If life’s fair,” Aunt Edith said to me afterward, as she would say to me every year, “if life’s fair, next year we’ll take the cruise in the other direction, or go back to London to see the queen.” Before we could confirm, she set off on her own journey. But come summer, for the rest of my life, I’ll be traveling in her arms.
To read the complete article, “Travels with My Great-Aunt,” pick up the July issue of ESSENCE.