Andrew J. Skerritt: A ride into Montserrat exclusion zone, a journey to the crypt of my memories

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The Glad Tidings Pentecostal Church still stands in Cork Hill despite years of volcanic damage.

As we ride south, the waning sunlight of a Sunday afternoon in February streaks through the windows, making me squint. Our route descends as it meanders, each zig and zag, each twist and turn unveiling a canopy of almond trees growing wild, their unharvested fruit providing seedlings for succeeding generations, resulting in forests of almond going to waste.

The unkempt shrubs at the side of the road grab the vehicle’s side mirror and whip at the driver’s side windows, it being a left-hand drive sports utility vehicle on an island where motorists hug the left side of the road. The road becomes less asphalt and more rocks and dirt and ash as our two-vehicle caravan ventures downward into the Belham River Valley.

At the bottom of the valley, the road disappears completely just like the bridge that once connected the north and south banks of the river. The valley has become an open plain, a moonscape of large boulders, thorns and a red metal roof, the only visible sign of a once majestic colonial swallowed whole by the torrents of mud and ash and water that flowed down from the angry volcano mountain to the east. 

Hills rise up behind us. Lush green interrupted by rooftops and white walls, like red and white handkerchiefs in nature’s pocket. I pay close attention; my eyes are the cameras of my memory. I am a funeral tourist. Having returned home to Montserrat to bury my dead, having completed the funeral rites for my maternal grandmother, the woman some called Peggy, but who was always my “Mama,” I am free to roam, to look for my past, to find again the places of my childhood, places locked behind metal gates and a sign marked “Exclusion Zone” and a 5 p.m. curfew.

As we drive through the gate, the vehicle tires hum over the smooth asphalt, roads healthy for lack of wear and tear, a backhanded blessing of the evacuation. No one lives here. Ours is one-way traffic. Trees on either side reach over the road, their branches touch, like giants shaking hands with their neighbors. They form a canopy, like driving through nature’s tunnel.

An officer opens the gate in the exclusion zone during my trip home in 2014.

We drive through what used to be Cork Hill, past an abandoned church, Glad Tidings Pentecostal, whose pastor and congregation was mostly scattered in places like Birmingham, Brooklyn and Boston. Houses hug the roadside, their front porches home only for shrub and bushes; their collapsed roofs bend and buckle beneath the weight of ash and time. After we turn right off the main road, the road narrows, just barely wide enough for one pickup. The terrain descends, as if we are about to enter a tunnel. Shrubs snatch at the moving vehicles, as if urging us to stop, to turn back.

When you leave a continent to visit an island, distances constrict and time expands, hours become days, the mansions of your childhood become the cottages of middle age. Within seconds of the turn-off, I realize we are in familiar territory, Delvins, ancestral home of the paternal branch of my wild, unpruned family tree. In some ways, it’s my Eden, overgrown, wild, encased in acacia and thorns and white and red and pink oleander bushes; it is my place of beginning, where my life on this tragic island began.

Wild shrub devoured the wood shack planted near the road beneath a governor plum tree. The dirt and gravel driveway that climbed fifty feet to my parents’ house exists now more in my memory than in reality. My paternal grandparents, Peter “Dads” and Peggy “Mam” Lewis lived there until the volcano erupted and chased them to the north of the island.

Even as our vehicle slowed, I can see a red car driving slowly up the driveway; a young woman sits behind the wheel; her high cheekbones, sultry full lips and caramel-colored skin is the kind of combination that makes oncoming taxi drivers slow down and beep their horns. In the front passenger seat beside her sits a little boy of three or four. They have just returned from delivering lunch to her dad. She talks to him as if he is grown, as if he understands her every word. That young woman of eighteen or nineteen is my aunt, Rose. I am that boy.

Even though the house is barely visible behind the arbor of wild shrub, I conjure four walls in memory. Two doors, to the kitchen and living room, face westward. One louvered window looks down toward the roadway. Three bedrooms sit off the living room and kitchen. One for Mam, one for Dads – he leaves home early each morning and returns each evening after sundown.

A guest bedroom sits in the northern corner off the kitchen where, years later, after Rose is gone and I am grown, I come to sleep on those weekends when I sought refuge from the busy city life. I awoke some Sunday mornings to my father’s melodious tenor voice. He visited his mother every Sunday morning. He doted on her. They were, mother and son, inseparable except for death. No one, no wife, child or mistress, could come between them. They talked over salted Cod, stewed eggplant, white bread and sour sop bush tea. 

My lasting memory of the two is of the ease between them, the way time passed unnoticed when they sat together at the kitchen table, the absolute absence of rancor in their exchanges. That memory still haunts me, leaves a cavity in my chest where reassurance should be, still reminds me of the bond I never quite possessed or understood, that bond between a mother and her only son.

And so while my fellow passengers marvel at the wilderness around them, I cannot afford to remain merely a tourist of memory. I must become an archeologist to unearth my familial history to find the links between my distant past and my present.

As I climbed out of the vehicle, I understood that Delvins, the place where I stood, was a crypt for my memory, that my Sunday afternoon excursion was no joy ride but a pilgrimage. And that in order for the journey to be complete, I must retrace my steps across the Atlantic Ocean, remember things I tried to forget, ask nagging questions I had tried to ignore, if I ever hoped to grasp who I was and the person I had come to be.

Not even the volcano can disrupt the serenity of a Montserrat sunset.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful yet heartbreaking. The conflict of what was versus what is in the light of what will never be is hard externally, but especially in the heart.

  2. You are a very descriptive writer. It is like the British commentators during Sports Roundup at 1:00pm on Saturday’s.
    I was there on the same day but I did not want to see any destruction when, in my mind, I think I was part of the reason why it happened.

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