By George Keyes
- A PIECE OF LIFE
It doesn’t matter how many times I come to Washington, District of Columbia, there’s always a thrill. Its old splendidly designed wide avenues lined with high-reaching trees and exquisite modernized buildings make it the most astonished city in the world. One observer can never forget the superb dome of the Capital illuminated at night, the prodigious Washington Monument, the solemn glory of the Lincoln Memorial, the simplicity of White House or the impressive new of fine government buildings along Constitution Avenue, headed by the great marble National Gallery of Art. Most fascinated at all, twenty-seven kilometers from Potomac River, considering to mark the northern Port Tobacco Gilroy Road ends, squeezing by a series of oak trees, there is the Coconut Field that has been out of business since 1970.
Here, my grandmother lives in a large old white wooden house across the canyon, which is very lonely, in the midst of majestic black walnuts and hardy pecan trees; but this wooden house has nothing mysteries about it – no legends, except one day it is going to fall. Grandmother’s first and last husband, Herbert Powell Opdyke, died several years earlier, producing from that long marriage, a daughter, Phyllis, who is my mother. At the moment of things, I have heard she isn’t doing well, a series of chill, some dry coughs, sleeping all days alone, worrying about her feet and chest pains, but when I arrive at the Coconut Field house, I have to be honest, she isn’t the person mum has described it to me.
“I hope you aren’t here what your mother has told you about me, rather, that you’re here to see me as a good boy who still love his grandma, Stevenson,” she said, standing across the frame of the door, peeping into my eyes, and ready to fight for any misunderstandings.
I don’t move or step further, regretting to come because of mum letter, and not from those momentums I am here because I want to see her.
“Shh-hh, boy. You aren’t good by lying. Not to me, I can feel it.”
She steps out of the house, and I can never stop admiring her. I remember Hudson Stevenson, my dad, (God has in heaven), has told me that my grandma could be perfect for a Parisian Magazine model. I’ve a picture in my mind (as well as mum) that she was a jazz dancer and artists had dubbed her “black pearl” or “African queen” as many did to Josephine Baker during her times. She is a dark woman, stunning tall, and neither too stout nor too thin. I cannot say how tall, but my grandma is well over six feet and stand very erect. There is a contract appears to amuse me, mum and me and the rest of the family. I’m a white young man, and that is obvious. My father was a handsome blue-eyed white mechanic from Fayetteville West Virginia and mum has the same heights and dark complexions of my grandmother has. I remember once, when I began to see things, asking mum why.
“Your father and I were in love since we were at Cactus Lowers. I was the only colored girl in that Christian school and when I left to go to the State of Alabama University, he followed me, and he said to his letters after a year as I tried to wave him off, that I would be his wife if he had to wait many years to come. He was very persistent, and he was very crazy about me.”
That was a fact, and I know dad was very proud telling us that story between mum and him and that obstacles he that need jump before my grandfather, Herbert.
Smiling at me, my grandmother says, “C’mon! You kiss your grandma. Don’t stay there.”
I come over to her. I greet her, kiss her, and I give her a big hug. As I stand next to her, I’m out convinced she is all right. Her brawny color is healthful, full with blood, and her eyes, soft and alive, making me to see nothing else.
“Mum has said…”
“What your mom didn’t tell you she wants me to move with her to that noisy City of Alabama. You remember we lived in Tuscaloosa once. It has changed, and I won’t move. This is having been my place for the past 60 years.”
“You realize she’s your daughter.”
She presses hard her eyes against my face. “I’ve more seniority, Stevenson, and this is my home. Can you hear me? It’s the quality of living, happy.”
I admit she has points there. Between families and that quality of living, I am acquainted with that fact we are very separated among us, and I apprehend we live in distance, hundreds of miles from each other, and none us can see what my grandmother has been telling us for years. I am guessing I am the only who may appreciate it very much because I’ve patience to deal with her. This place looks like a Camelot heaven, which she never has forced us to see what you feel after you have the opportunity to step into it. I am the one who has visited this place a hundred of times, and I can count how many times mum or sisters or other siblings have come here willingly, just one to none. I don’t blame them, and perhaps my grandmother will not blame them either – they have grown, having families to take care of, or they do not want to listen to an old woman taking from a past well gone – and during the last meeting with her, I am aware of this place is more than grandmother’s place, it is her own life. It vital. Nothing is much beautiful to hold on it, but my wife, Jennifer, a teacher of Garret Elemental School in Delaware, has been hard to convince to move to Washington, telling me the city is a crummy city, and she does not really care what I feel.
“Besides,” she says grandma, after a long moment watching the wild meadows, populated with birds, butterflies and moths. “I’ll die if I leave this place.”
“Then, you aren’t all right.”
“You can stand beside your mother, but I wonder.”
“She called you the other day, Grandma.”
“I told her about my morning pains, and that isn’t occurred often, a moment. Look! She has made a big deal of everything, making you come all the way from Delaware. Would you like to eat something? It’s my time for an afternoon snack.”
“You seem the one who cares most, not about the way I handle myself during these years rather what this place is. My husband, God blesses him, has seen it when you were a teen and sat there with him talking.” She cares my square jaw. “The day before God has called him, we had a private conversation and he told about this place and much he loved it and how much he was going to miss and the many intentions from our family to have me locked in an unfriendly elderly home and selling this place for a few pennies. As he had grasped my hand, he continued telling me to promise him that was not going to happen. You know, I felt his pain – but I just couldn’t bear to give him a fake reply. I was indeed I was going to sale this place, and to move with your mother. I was glad I didn’t. Yet when the moment comes to make the decision, lying on the bed my husband had died, some inner voice inside me – and it my husband’s voice, for all I know – continues telling to keep the promise, and I will.”
As we move through the columns of the quiet porch, I think about mum. Perhaps, she has misunderstood grandmother. And I think so still until I glimpse at my grandmother suddenly loses her balance, but it is too far by the time I am going to ask her, she turns.
“I’m an old woman, Stevenson. That happens.”
“Let me to open the door.”
“Now, you’re acting like a fool. The door is open.”
“Very well, Grandma. You got me.”
She smiles. “After my snacks, I love to walk around my place.”
“We can do that.”
Her snack is quite nutrition – yogurt, mixed berries, cottage cheese with tomatoes and water – and when she serves me, we sit at the table. “How your boys are doing?” She refers to Bob, Ted, Mike, and Herbert.
“They’re doing good, Grandma.”
I am thinking to she is going to skip my wife’s name, Jennifer. She always steps into Jennifer’s territory careful, as she has done with the members of the family, for which my grandmother believes that isn’t her business to interfere or to make any comment or negative none of them. I know to love my wife from a different kind of love she has toward my boys. As her closest friend and family member, I know how something my wife acts. It’s a little surprise when I hear Jennifer’s name comes from her.
“She’s doing well, Grandma. I believe they’ll promote her to principal.”
“She’s something for a wife. She has visited me only four times for each birth of my grandsons. I could accept such disrespects like the other ones.”
It is the first time I hear her talking directly about my wife’s absent affection and lack of attention so I believe I was my fault. “She’s a teacher, Grandmother, and it has been difficult now with the kids.”
“It’s right to defense a wife, but there isn’t excuse as the others.”
“I’m not defense her, Grandma. I mention the reasons.”
“I’m not an educated folk like yours, but I am more that relative.”
“That’s the way I see. I’ve right to say so.”
“You can take your frustration with me.”
“Frustration? You mean unfairness, son.”
“You’re right. Unfairness.”
“That’s better. Have you finished eating?”
“I’ll change my shoes. You have yours there if you want to do so.”
“I’m good, Grandma.”
She turned and walked toward a door access to the mud room. I hear her saying, “How you will be stay?”
She reappears. She looks concerned, and even though she has heard me so well, she asks me to repeat myself. I did.
“What was that?”
“You seem to surprise. I’ve taken more longer.”
“Yes. It’s because what your mother has told you.”
“No. It isn’t.”
- THE COCONUT FIELD
As we stroll through the quiet old Coconut Field, I am thinking about this place why my grandmother is so much attached to it. The soil is cracking causes by dryness, large bad weeds and grasses cover over a hundred of acres, as well as the barn and the horse stables, while guest lodging rooms for seasonal workers, abandoned to rats and to any kind of earthly creatures, and to where the ravines and meadows, shaded by gigantic mount of waste, interlacing here and there, tossing by senseless constructors and drifters, narrowed the path with garbage, ungraceful enough to be unhealthy. Many of the houses have gone. The Rodeo Mill of Mr. Erick McHals has been abandoned for years, producing jobs to the black family immigrants for those who had come from Maryland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as far as South Carolina. Along the way, there is something mystery about Coconut Field, and after turning and twisting among its passage and its condition still have this golden star since Herbert Powell Opdyke’s father bought the propriety. Yet, to this day, I sometimes find myself wondering how this place will turn out if one of those big players has a serious eye on it, as it hasn’t been the first – to convince my grandfather to sell.
While we are getting into the other side of the parcel, which my grandmother has been explaining to me this part was a favorite site of her latest husband, I take the opportunity of asking after a long observation what will be the destiny of this acreage. It isn’t good soil to create magic. It’s a general observation because I do not know a thing about agriculture. I know people with knowledge will make a bad soil into good one and all depends on the plants growing within the soil and what has occurred to that soil over the seasons. Now how much it will cost? Does one have the same idea of coconut field, or holding the same illusion of having this forever? I perceive the changing of grandmother’s face, while I keep speculating about this place and its magic, its loose.
“I don’t know,” says, looking of mut appeal. Then she peeked into my eyes. “I thought, my husband and I, ones of our grandsons or granddaughters will make part of his legend. To take care of this holding, a last stand, you know.”
This site was building first for beetroot productions, as well as sugar beet processing factor, and when Mr. Rex Lousteau died in 1850, her granddaughter, Theresa Gagnon Lousteau, with her husband, Joseph Gagnon, and their children, reversed the homestead into a cotton field, more profit she had said later. More than seventy slaves were working in the landholding. In 1865, while her husband and two of their sons died, a new area of liberty and justice have begun to shake America, one of her third son, Markus, would unable to keep up the cotton production, many of slaves had been gone, and her other son, Rubberier, a lazy and abusive young man, who was incapable to write his own name, let the heavy load to his brother and mother and a few old slaves, the ones didn’t know what to do their life. Years later, in 1870, a new air for District of Columbia had begun to take shape for a lot of black families, and it was then, my grandfather’s son, Waylay Powell Opdyke, a free slave, after his seventeen years waiting for that opportunity, bought the plot of land from the son of Rubberier’s son, Ernest, which included the stables, guest lodging rooms, and the promises behind the Rodeo Mill land for only three hundred dollars. Waylay who was good in planting, such as hickory, almond, pecans, walnuts, and hazelnut, did not wait any time to make a profit. When later he married with the reverend’s daughter, Miss Gail Rosenbloom, and with their sons John, Helen, Jerome, Petro, James, Herbert, and a Chinese man by the name of Scott Chin-yen, another idea hit his versatile head. Coconut. Helping by the American Indian friend, a mix of Cheyenne and Iroquois blood, Rafel of the Wulf, with the connection a Cuban creole, in 1899, when the last war for Hispaniola had come to an end, began building his coconut field dream. Many of his friends saw this adventure extravagance, recognizing that the Florida Coconut Grove already was a major force in the country, while Brazil, Cuba, and India trade were more better equipped than a single family like Herbert & Brothers, and in 1925, after his father died, Herbert & his Brothers made their first productions of seven hundred forty-five cocos, and the followed year, he increased to one million but it was not enough to compete in front of Miami mega productions.
Married my grandmother, Loretta Sullivan Glonet, a graduated from Jene High School, dreaming to become a nurse, which he had been hoping for a big family, stretching the business as far as California and Texas and to keep pace with the tropical productions, where the American capitalists had started muscling in Jamaica, Cuba, and other Caribbean Islands coconut oil, but Loretta would give him only a child –- a daughter, who had grown hating the countryside, most important, that hard session of working under the sun in the coconut field. After the unwanted World War Two, many of his brothers or relatives turned their head insignificantly to the production of coconut. In 1950, he tried to hire illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, the so-called “work seasonal”, paid a three-dollar per week included food and lodging, but, this, of course, God would not give him a second chance. He died on an Autumn day, laying there in bed, refusing any medication, and with his hand holding Loretta’s hands, and after a long speech of promises toward the coconut field, he let himself go and God took him to Heaven.
My grandmother’s heart was broken at whose health was not so good; though my grandmother naturally did not feel intimate to face her daughter Phyllis, mum, in doing man’s work, rather to study to become an important person, she just left the field to fall into time –refusing at the same time to sell.
I think certain relatives grew suddenly and mysteriously disappointment when profit was not what they expected. I comprehend a great many of medium family class as we are, and the first family united of 1930 Negro families of today do not care to trace their pedigree back to the time when their grandparents owned nothing than a piece of land to make them to feel where they came from. I cognize the Coconut Field land has not given too much to my grandmother, even though all Herbert’s brothers, including his mother and father, died for this piece of land.
During the walking at right angles of the road to the house, my grandmother is very quieting. I am struck, of course, only by the neatness of the house on this side and the beauty of the garden and the elm trees lining alone to the limitation of the Coconut Field linked to the Rodeo Mill. As my grandmother is about to speak, I hold her gently by one of her arms.
“What if, Grandma?”
“If what, Stevenson?”
“To bring this to the glory of grandpa.”
“No, Grandma. I’m serious.”
She looks at me long enough, touching my face, smiling, she says, “I’ll be very, very happy, my boy. It cannot be only for me, but to your grandfather as well.”
“I will make this happens.”
“How so suddenly?”
“Life, Grandma. You say something about life…”
“That’s what I say you’re a good listener.”
- WHEN FAMILY MATTER
“Say it again?”
“I’m going to rebuild the Coconut Field.”
“Aren’t you serious, Stevenson?” my sister, Naomi, of New Jersey, exclaimed at the phone. “You know everyone has a different idea about this place. As a real estate agent, it’s a golden mine when grandma passes away.”
“You’ll be disappointed then. I’ll bring this place back to life, and I am calling you to help me.”
“To make it as a familiar, Naomi.”
“No, thanks. I’m very happy here in New Jersey with my kids and husband.”
“Why! I’m here.”
“I’m telling you it’s about our grandmother’s last hope, her life.”
“Sorry. We aren’t in 1888.”
“Thank you for nothing.”
“Please, my dear brother. You don’t be upset. Be real.”
“I am not upset. I know you will come alone.”
She was, and three months later when I reached the grandsons of the Opdyke families.
Breathing a little, I make another call to my second sister, Elaine. “Hey, Vick. It’s me. Uncle Stevenson. Is your mother in?”
“She’s sleeping, Uncle Stevenson.”
“Tell her brother is on the phone.”
“You know how she is…”
“Please, Vick. I’ll give you an iPhone for your birthday. Three months from now, uh?”
“You got it.”
A few minutes later, I hear Elaine’s voice. “This gotta be important.”
“It’s about our grandmother.”
“Oh, my God! When did she die?”
“Good Lord, Elaine! It’s not about of dying.”
“You say about grandmother.”
“Not by the seal of death!”
“What is then?”
“It’s about the coconut field.”
“You had heard mum. She’s refusing to sell.”
“It ain’t about sell.”
“What it is then.”
“It’s about to rebuild it again.”
She laughs. “What is now, Stevenson? From a software engineer to a farm-boy planter…”
“It’s a legacy, Elaine. It’s something we must bring it up to life.”
There is a long pause.
“What do you need? Money? Remember, I’m a single mother.”
“No, I don’t need money. I just want you to convince Naomi for me.”
“Oh, that will be tough.”
“Please, Naomi. Can you do it for our grandfather?”
“He’s died a century ago.”
“He’s still alive in that field. I’ve been telling to everyone of you to visit more often that place, our grandma, and I am sure each one of you would feel what I feel. You realize this is the good thing to do.”
“Very well, brother. Let me see what I can do. Ah, Stevenson…”
“You must fulfill the promise about my daughter in getting an iPhone.”
“Oh, yes. I will.”
My brothers Allan, Clarence and Tom, as each one lives across the America (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina) have agreed, but they do not dare to leave their states to land on Washington, most specific to the Coconut Field’s realm, but I do not care much about their personal observation yet, rather to their commitment, so far they are in.
Tom says, after a long speech, “I will, and perhaps, we will become multimillionaire and I’ll buy off where I am now.”
“Then, you are with me.”
“Yes, my little brother. By the say, how is she? Mum has been saying she was very sick these past days.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you. She’s better than anyone of us. Trust me.”
“I’ll drink for that. Hey, bro. I have to go. Say hi her for me.”
And Clarence, after a long-bothered conversation about economy and politics, he says, “Yes. I will. Bye.”
Of course, I catch Allan at his office, putting me on hold for ten minutes, and he says in hurry, “Naomi called me, and she explained it to me after our sister Elaine told her she was just a selfish and you are a dreamer.”
“Give me a second…”
“Allan, please, don’t put me on hold again.”
“Alright. Alright. I’m in whatever you need.”
- A KISS OF HAPPINESS
I wait for my grandma to awoke. She is having her siesta. When later she has awakened, she finds me contemplating over the field. I turn and hold her, gazing into her eyes. “They agreed, Grandma, and we are going to make it happens.” I kiss her. She does not say a word, but I see her eyes become moisture. “Grandma?” “I am thrilling, my boy. I am, with the exception about your mother.” “Let me to deal it with her.” “When you will do that, I am going to prepare the super.”
As I stay alone again, I am ready to make a call to my wife.
“It’s me. Herbert. Your dad.”
“Oh, hi, dad. When would you come home?”
“I miss you, Dad.”
“Me, too, son.”
“Is mum around?”
“She’s in the kitchen. Do you want to speak with her? Because Bob and Ted and Mike want to speak you as well.”
“Let me have a chat with your mother first.”
A few minutes, I hear the sounds of my boys, the television set, and then, “You suppose to be here by now, Stevenson.”
“I’ll have a couple of days, planning to bring back the Coconut Field.”
“You said what?”
“I spoke with my sisters and brothers, and I want you pack and to come to see the moonlight with me and the kids next to me.”
“Stevenson, have you lost your mind? I just pack like that with kids.”
“They’re on vacations, and you can call your office for a few days.”
“Just like that.”
“Do you know how crazy you sound?”
“You told me once, remember? When I asked you to marry knowing your creole father would accept me?”
“You play now with heart, is that it?”
“Well, I think the kids need some air and your grandmother would appreciate their presence. I wonder how she would react to see me.”
When my grandmother calls me inside the house, I details about my last adventure with my wife, but I keep the other part, yet, whoever has made it, there is more to hold on, when Naomi and her family have begun showing up, Elaine and her daughter, Allan and his wife and the kids, Clarence and his family and Tom and his family as well. We can see more, and we (grandma and I) will never go to figure out what really happens. Later, I learned Tom, with the company jetliner, has made it possible. There is my wife and my boys. Grandmother cannot hold any longer the tears. Bringing chairs and tables from the guest lodging rooms, the women starts to be active around grandma. An unknown man who is dressed in company uniformed leads mum to the wide path. I reach her, and I kiss her.
“You always have a way to bring people together, son.”
“It’s my grandfather’s spirit has made it possible, mum.”
“I’m glad then. Where is mother?”
“She’s over there, mum.”
I do not move. I gaze upon them like a canopy eagle from that high, watching them, hearing them, talking, and laughing, which several years ago, I would have any idea how this was going to end. Now look at them, together, happy, living the true what I sense a year ago that family is all. Contemplating the field, clear first, rooting second, and finally in reborn, with such splendid, I regard to this magic for our own effort, in family’s sense, in union, with love, and with that persistence.
“Dad, who is that?”
In the middle of the coconut field, he is, my grandfather, standing there and smiling, and then he is gone.
“Never mind, dad. I think I’ve been eating too much coconut sweet since I’ve come here.”
He makes me laugh, and I bring him to my sides, and my boy and I remain there, where the moon, slowly but surely come over the coconut field…
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 17, 2001 –
New York, Mar 15, 2002