It’s been a long couple of years for my husband and I. When 2019 began we were in some dark places. We’d been slogging along dealing with my Parkinson’s diagnosis, which was six years in and taking a toll. But the year ended up in a great place: I got my DBS surgery, he got in the best shape of his life, we rang in New Year’s with a lot of optimism, and we planned to take a well-deserved vacation in early 2020. So in a few weeks we’re headed to Jamaica to spend ten days relaxing, reconnecting, and getting away from everything. Why Jamaica? Two reasons. First, we’d been there once before, staying in Montego Bay, and we’d always said we wanted to return to Negril, after spending an afternoon among the cliff divers. And second, because Jamaica has loomed large in my family’s lore.
You see, in 1965, when my parents were just 22 years old, they left for Jamaica and lived there for two years. Jamaica had just gained its independence, and it was a poor country, full of amazing people and culture. Bob Marley’s hit “One Love” was recorded as a single in 1965, although at the time he and his band the Wailers were just a local dance hall reggae act, and the song wouldn’t be released in the U.S. until 1977, the year I was born. They came home with lots of memories and a few souvenirs, including prints of Rastafarian high priests they had acquired. (My parents were innocent farm children from Michigan, and I’m quite sure they just appreciated the culture, well out of inhaling distance.) They were among the second class of Peace Corps trainees. In Jamaica they trained people for jobs and taught life skills at a school for the blind. My husband and I, on the other hand, are going to drink Jamaican Red Stripe beer and get sunburned. I like to joke that we all have our different gifts to give to the world. The truth is, I think both are important, and so did they.
Below is the first page of a letter my mother wrote on August 12,1965 to her mother-in-law from Peace Corps training in New York. My parents married on August 29,1964, and were deployed before their first wedding anniversary. One of the things I love about this letter is the motel letterhead, which showed its location as Jamaica (Queens), New York. As a result, I was convinced (as only a kid can be) that every country where Peace Corps volunteers were sent had a corresponding training location in the U.S. with an identical name. Being from Michigan, I didn't know at the time that all Peace Corps training just happened to take place in Jamaica, Queens.
They were so young and excited before their grand adventure—she writes of getting sun poisoning at Jones Beach, having a Saturday night off to see My Fair Lady, the 1965 Oscar winner for Best Picture. Oh, and buying an amazing slide projector for $20. They kept the projector for many years, and as a kid I watched many viewings of their slides of Jamaica.
They had clearly heard and answered President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve their country, and were proud of their service. In December 1994, 29 years later, we would lose my mother to pancreatic cancer. My parents learned a lot, and they taught me a lot about the importance of love, adventure, and partnership, lessons not lost on my husband and I as we face our now much rosier future. I don’t get to see my Dad often enough, but he’s really happy that I’m going back to Jamaica. It’s a special place, and one that I wish I’d been able to experience with my parents—to have them give us a tour of where they spent two years of their young adult lives. I’m looking forward to being there for a while to enjoy this place that was so important to them, and to allow it once again to work its magic and help us let go, relax, and also heal a bit.