November 15, 1911
Kingston’s port is a beehive of activity as dock workers load barrels of rum and sacks of sugar aboard a ship bound for England and the colonies of her far-flung empire.
“Melveen, take this money and bring me back ice from the Chinee man store. And don’t take all day to come back. We still have plenty to finish doing for your party tonight to celebrate your 15th birthday.”
The streets are crowded with women out shopping for food to fix for their husband’s dinner. Children have been seen off to school—spic and span—in their uniforms, washed every evening, hung out to dry overnight, then pressed the next morning for school. Any child showing up in dirty clothes would be shamed unmercifully, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were poor, and therefore, stupid.
Melveen attended the second shift at her school, from 1pm to 5pm. Primary grade students were the majority that attended the early shift, from 7am to 11am. Other than adult women thronging the streets in the center of town, the streets leading to the port are relatively quiet.
Not exactly dawdling, but moving slower than her mother would have approved, Melveen feels a quickening pace around her; people seem headed to the port, and in snatches of conversation, she hears that a big boat is there.
The weekly ship from Panama to pick up workers for the Canal construction, has just docked. Melveen, swept up in the crowd, finds herself facing something she’s never before seen; a huge iron monster, ropes draped over its sides to hold it in place while hundreds of men line up to walk the plank, eventually descending into the ship’s bowels. Family members and friends are there to see them off. A few brave souls board the ship to see for themselves the deck and the interior of this floating gargantuan.
“I going just take a peek so I can tell my friends. Mama don’t need to know ‘cause I come soon with the ice.”
The strange, and unfamiliar sights and sounds must have deafened Melveen’s ears. The warning blast that the ship was about to set sail never penetrated her mind. As she stood at the ship’s rail, people on the dock began to grow smaller. Paralyzed with fear, she could only croak out an inaudible scream. Her feet took root, and even if she could lift them, she could not vault the rail because she couldn’t swim. Forcing herself away from the rail, she stumbled into a dark corner and collapsed, drawing her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees, unaware that she still held the plastic bag of melted ice.
November 15, 1911
“Hola, señorita, como estas?”
Dazed, disoriented, and shaking with fear, Melveen could only bring her hands up to cover her face as tears flowed through her fingers.
With gentle hands, Winston pulled Melveen’s hands away so that he could look into her eyes. Panic. Then a broken whisper, “I want to go home.”
“Where you home, chile,? You’s in Colon. You musta come on one of the ships that does go all around the Caribbean looking for workers for this man Canal. Is you home Barbados or Jamaica? ’But, ‘til we can find out what to do, I think it’s best you come home with me. I can’t leave you by youself on the street.”
November 15, 1911
“Oh Laud, where me pickney?! I send her to the Chinee man store this morning, and she don’t come back. Oh, Gawd! Where me pickney?! I gone dead!”
November 15, 1919
“Cathy, take you brother hand and go to the Chinee man store. I need some rice to cook for you fader dinner. And don’t stray; come right back!”
"Melveen, when you finish supper, me and Jose want you and Winston to bring the chilren over to have some ice cream and cake to celebrate Melba's 15th birthday."
"Thank you, Carmen. You and Jose are the best neighbors anybody could want. I'll never forget how you helped me when Winston brought me here. If it wasn't for you, I probably would have gone crazy after I realized I'm never going to see me mommy again in this world.
"Well, to me, you're the younger sister that I never had. It was tough growing up with only brothers that I could't share any secrets with, and the girls my age were so competitive for a boy's attention that I didn't dare share my secrets with them, either. So, Melveen, even though the way you came here was really sad, I'm glad you're here, mi hermana.