Birthdays in my family were usually quietly celebrated at home. It was a day the celebrant didn’t have to do any of the usual household chores expected of them. Gifts were opened in the morning. At the end of the day a favorite dinner was prepared, there was a cake and, if we were lucky, there was ice cream too.
I’m sure all of that happened on my 10th birthday, but I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember any of the gifts I got either, except for one.
We were living up at Gift Hill on St. John. Probably after breakfast my father took us all outside. He had a surprise for me. We followed him out to the mampoo tree where he had things all set up, waiting for this moment. Then for the first and last time in my life, I saw him climb a tree. My mother was probably nervous watching him up there…would that branch hold his weight? Mampoos are softwood trees. There was a real danger the branch could break under him.
He shimmied out onto a limb and, with all of us directing him, carefully positioned two chains which were attached to a nice wide wooden board. My father’s present to me was a swing.
It wasn’t just a swing in a tree. One must close ones eyes and try to visualize where the swing was. The mampoo tree grew on a slight rise of ground with the hillside sloping away at its feet. The hill drops steeply down into the long, wide, deep valley of the Fish Bay ghutt. (Pronounced gut, it is a rocky wash, a gulley, where water flows when it rains.) The hills rise on the other side of the ghutt and continue east. The view is of the south side of the island. From the swing I could see the white cliffs of Reef Bay all the way to Ram’s Head Point. On clear days the conical hills of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands some 40 miles away, are visible. All of that is to the left. To the right, as far as the eye can see, unobstructed by islands, is the wide open expanse of the Caribbean Sea. I could watch the ocean change moods.
It was and still remains, a glorious and magnificent view.
Tree and swing were positioned in such a way that when I would swing it was like flying. I’d soar out into a great space, out over the valley, out over the hills swooping toward Reef Bay, and fly out over the vastness of the sea. Then, swinging back, I was embraced by the waiting, protective arms of the tree and brought safely back to earth. Out into space, back into arms – Out in space, back into arms.
I loved that swing and tree.
I thought of myself as a kind and benevolent queen who ruled over a fairy world inhabited by lizards, birds, insects and flowers. It was my job to keep everyone safe. It was my job to love that view, that tree, and all those creatures living within it. I knew no one would ever be able to love it as much as me. In my little girl mind, I thought without me to love that space, it would become lonely.
Two years later, when I was twelve, one of the greatest upheavals of my life took place. We had to move from Gift Hill. We had to move from St. John. We had to move to St. Thomas.
Oh, it was horrible! I didn’t want to move. Everything and everyone I loved was on St. John. And my kingdom…what would become of my kingdom? Who would love it? Who could love the tree, the view, the animals? Whose arms and legs would climb the tree and hug it? Whose ears would hear the rustle of lizards, the songs of birds, and understand their music? Who would protect it all and keep it safe? Who would keep it from being lonely? No one.
I agonized over it. I felt guilty for having to leave my kingdom. And I knew, deep in my heart, my kingdom would be just as lost and lonely without me and I would be without it.
What was I going to do? And then a solution came to me.
One day, not long before we left Gift Hill, never to return, I preformed a little ceremony and made a vow.
At the base of the mampoo tree there was a hollow space beneath the roots, a niche where I put special things like rocks and shells. It was also a place where I laid to rest dead lizards and birds I found. It was both a safe and a tomb, a shrine and an altar.
From somewhere I got a small round tin box with a lid, like a cookie or cracker tin. I went out to my tree and kingdom and this is what I did. I placed my hands on my chest, I cradled my heart in my hands and I carefully placed my heart in the tin. As I did that I told my tree and kingdom that I was leaving my heart with them. I told them they would never be lonely because I would always be with them. I vowed I would never take my heart away.
Then I put the lid on and took the tin and put it into the hollow place beneath the tree.
The consequences of making that vow, of leaving my heart at Gift Hill, made mysterious waves that washed up on the shores of my life, leaving behind odd bits of debris. I will only say that I was a kind of cripple because I was never able to be truly happy or content. There was always something wrong, I never quite fit anywhere I went later in life.
It was a long time before I realized how displaced and uprooted I was and why.
There came a day many years later that I stood in the place where once a tree had stood. It was gone by then, cut down, blown over in a storm….I stood there and knew I had to take back my heart else I would never be content no matter where I went or what I did.
I found my heart where I had left it, overlooking the view. I called it to me. I cradled it in my hands, I placed my hands on my chest and I put my heart back.
I told my kingdom I had to break my vow, because I could not live without my heart. With tears in my eyes I asked to be forgiven. Then I assured them a piece of me would always be with them, that I would never forget them, that I held the memory of my kingdom sacred and precious.
I felt a peace descend. The view, my kingdom, seemed to smile at me. I thought it would be sad, but it understood. We shared something between us that was ours and no one else’s. It is something that no one will ever be able to take away from us.
Today, right now, this instant, there is a little girl in her swing who is a benevolent queen of a mystical realm. She reigns eternally.
I am never far away from my kingdom nor is my kingdom ever alone. And somewhere in the soil are the chemical remains of tin box.
This picture was taken when I was about seven. To the right, in the back, is the mampoo tree. The brush around the tree had yet to be cleared, but the branch from which my swing was hung is visible. It arches away from the trunk, right to left, and seems to be bending down towards me. Note that I am wearing flip-flops. My mother is doing some weeding among the rocks. The two 55 gallon drums contain gasoline for the generator that gave us light at night and kerosene which was for our kerosene refrigerator. The dog is Happy, who deserves and will one day have, a book written about him.