Barrel of Love, an Immigrant Story

By

The arrival of a barrel from America was a big event in my household. I must have been about six when the first one came. Or maybe I was five. I know it was an age when I could make out the name of the sender—my father’s name boldly written with a black marker on the brown surface of the cylindrical barrel. It was taller than me—about three feet—because I remember staring up at it, curious about what was inside. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother busied themselves with opening and unpacking it, their delighted gasps echoing throughout the house at the sight of foreign things. “Dennis nuh easy, eh nuh,” my mother said, shaking her head full of bountiful curls with a smile on her face while trying to swat me and my little brother away. “Guh wash ‘oonuh hands first!” The foreign items made it impossible to not jump with excitement. There were things we had never seen or eaten inside it—crunchy American apples, SPAM, Honey Nut Cheerios, Pringles, gummy bears, gummy snakes, bubble gum, and so many more candies. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then there were the shoes and clothes for everyone, and lots and lots of toys.

The smell of newness was pervasive inside our living room—a smell I began to associate with America, with my father. Before the arrival of the barrel, there was the sky. I always thought that daddy flew into the sky. That America was a vast blue land up above where he lived among the clouds into which all the Air Jamaica planes that flew over our house disappeared. I was very young when my father left Jamaica. All I remembered about that day was being lifted off the ground into his arms at the airport. I could see the airplanes taking off and Jamaicans dressed in their Sunday best, climbing the steps to get on their flights. I remembered being in awe of the magnificent planes perched on the runway like big birds—bigger than daddy’s afro. I remembered the taste of beef hot dogs that melted in your mouth with lots of mustard and ketchup from the vendors. I remembered daddy putting me down and me crying, and the gentle tug of my very pregnant mother, who could only calm me with the words, “Him soon come back.”

But soon never came. My father continued to live up there in the clouds, where my mind placed him. When he called, I imagined him gazing down from above, his voice sounding far, far away on the other end. Eventually, I got used to his absence, the scenes of my childhood populated mostly by my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and my newly arrived little brother, who my father didn’t get to meet before his departure. Our community in Vineyard Town, Kingston, became our extended family.

The year the first barrel arrived, it felt like a replacement. A temporary one. A part of me had hoped that my father would spring up from his hiding place to surprise us since the barrel seemed big enough to hold his six-foot, two-inch frame, but that never happened. The barrel itself stood in the middle of our living room, a presence. I simply accepted it. A doll was placed in my hands like a newborn baby. I had never seen anything like her before—my first black doll. She was beautiful, with a bow on her head that lit up, large dewy eyes with hints of blues and greens, bangs, long dark straight hair, and a diamond heart on her chest, which also lit up. The box she came out of read “PJ Sparkle.” My brother got a remote-controlled car that he raced on the veranda, bumping it into my great-grandmother’s potted plants that lined the walls, delighted by the sounds it made and how it could reverse with a single click on the remote. In our hearts we felt daddy knew everything about us and what we liked, though we knew very little about him. All we knew after receiving the barrel was that he was akin to Santa Claus.

The year my brother met our father he cried. Surely, the man in the sky who sent all those gifts couldn’t be the same man he was looking up at, while hiding behind our mother’s skirt tail. “Come here, my boy!” the man said, and my brother wailed. When the man turned to me, I froze. My brother had taken my favorite hiding place behind my mother. My father seemed taller—a dark, slender man dressed in a sweat suit and white sneakers like an American; his beloved afro shaved to a style that made his head look like a pencil eraser with a part on one side. He wore a gold chain around his neck and a gold watch that glistened on his wrist in the sunlight. “Dennis, ah see yuh trying to look like di young boy dem,” my mother joked, stroking his arm. This comment made it seem as though daddy was old, but both my parents were in their early twenties when I was born. I was six years old that year when I saw my father again—four years since the day he’d left.

He visited for two weeks, allowing us to ride around in his rented car. (Little did I know then that this cost an arm and a leg, and that it meant more to him to flaunt what he barely had in America). He bought us KFC and hamburgers from Burger King where he took us through the drive-through—a luxury that only people with cars had. We ate in the car like kings and queens, wearing the new clothes he bought and clutching the new toys he gifted us. He then took us to the top of the hill to a place called Lookout at night where we could see the sparkling lights of Kingston down below. My brother and I tried to spot our house in Vineyard Town to no avail. Daddy became less scary after this. We began to look forward to him showing up, taking us to school in his nice rented car, and teaching us how to ride our new bicycles with training wheels. We delighted in seeing the envy on the neighborhood children’s faces when they saw us riding our bicycles or driving around in our father’s car. But by the time we got used to him, he was gone again.

The next barrel came a year after daddy left the second time. By then, my little sister was born, and Hurricane Gilbert uprooted trees, destroyed houses, overflowed rivers, and blew down satellite dishes and light poles, leaving the whole country without electricity for months. Roads and schools were closed. Water from pipes had to be boiled since it was contaminated. For the first few weeks after the hurricane, we had to walk to a nearby tank to fill up large containers with water to bathe, cook, and drink. We also fed off tin foods like Bully Beef, sardines, and mackerel. The barrel came just in time, stuffed with food items we needed to get through the recovery—enough to last another natural disaster. When we emptied it of the toys and clothes and shoes and sweets, it became a reservoir to store clean water.

I will not say that I loved the barrels more than my father, but I will say that I think I did. I was unable to accept daddy as anything but gift-giver. Truth be told, I barely saw him. However, there were always the sturdy cylindrical barrels full of things inside our house, their arrival no less extraordinary than a newborn baby—so fragile that we lowered our voices in their presence and clasped our hands in anticipation. To discover what was inside was to be in constant wonder and awe, selecting what belonged to me, giggling when I picked it up, and holding it tightly to my chest. I began, without knowing, to place importance on things. As I grew older, my requests got grander, depending on trend, and with complete disregard for the fact that my father was not God. As a teenager who wanted things when I wanted them, and who was used to showing off what daddy got me from America, I realized I could control my father using his ineffable guilt. I also realized that I could use things to fill the gaping holes of insecurities that were beginning to form. For example, I thought I could fit in better in my high school where wealthy girls flaunted their new brand-name book bags and stationery that they bought on weekend shopping sprees in Miami. Because I didn’t speak Patois in school, even when teachers were out of earshot, my classmates thought that I, too, probably spent time in Miami. I relished the lie.

One day, a girl at school sat beside me in homeroom to admire the new bag I had. She was one of the wealthier girls who was often spotted with new things. “It’s pretty,” she said, sounding like she could be my friend after all, though she was four shades lighter than me and had the kind of hair you could run a fine-tooth comb through all the way to the middle of her back. When I replied with heartfelt gratitude, she quipped, “Let me guess—barrel?”

“Excuse me?”

“Yuh barrel jus’ come, right?”

I sat there, staring at her, speechless. I could have lied in that moment, but when I opened my mouth the lie couldn’t, wouldn’t come out. She had a satisfied smirk on her face. I wanted to slap it off. More upsetting was that I didn’t have the words then to tell her off, to say, “So what?” I knew barrel pickney was an insult without knowing that I knew it. I knew it was a negative connotation linked to social class. It never occurred to me that there was a name for children like myself who depended on money and things sent from overseas. While some households—middle-class and upper middle-class—can afford to have both parents living and working in Jamaica, other households—mostly working class—can only keep afloat financially when one parent, or both, finds work overseas in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, where the dollar amount is worth more than Jamaican dollars. This is how many of us could afford to pay astronomical school fees in a country where public education isn’t free. Without overseas money, my mother would not have been able to afford our tuition, school uniforms, textbooks, extra lessons, extracurricular activities such as dance classes for me and my sister and swimming lessons for my brother, on her civil servant salary. She definitely would not have been able to afford groceries for a household of six each week with the high general consumption taxes, which increased every day. My grandmother and great-grandmother had long retired and the pension my grandmother received was next to nothing. Nevertheless, many people who leave the island for better opportunities and a way to help their families are often criticized for leaving despite there being no systematic changes in place to keep them home. The government—upon realizing that remittance is the biggest revenue for Jamaica next to tourism—choose to capitalize on immigration. Hence, those barrels and money transfers from the Jamaican diaspora living abroad is what’s making the Jamaican economy thrive.

But what remains is stigma. There is the side-eye given to parents who send barrels in their place, and the hush, the encapsulating grudge and pity, which follows the recipients.

I was guilty, because until that moment in homeroom at school, I was proud of what I received from America. I was also guilty, because in flaunting these things, I could pretend that my father was a doctor or an accountant. I was guilty because he was just a taxi driver, and I knew he had big dreams for himself in America. I was guilty because I was ashamed, though I’d once worshipped him. I was guilty, because I knew I judged him harshly, though he tried his best. I was guilty, because I had nothing to say to him when he called aside from expressing concern about when the things would arrive and if they’d arrive in time for the next school fête. But none of this was his fault. Neither was it mine. I was angry that I needed him and that all he thought I needed was money and more things, and didn’t know any other way to express it.

To gain American citizenship, daddy had to marry an American woman. He had entered the country illegally and was lucky enough to find someone willing to help him get his papers. It was a business marriage that granted him the ability to get a green card, a bank account, his own apartment, and the ability to file for all his children in Jamaica. I later found that the American woman was the one who selected our clothes and toys, including my first black doll, which I loved. I spoke to her once over the telephone. She sounded like the Americans on television. I was dumbstruck, unable to stop myself from listening to the beautiful accented voice on the telephone. In hindsight, she sounded like Michelle Obama. “Did you like your dresses and the doll?” the American wife cooed. I imagined her looking as beautiful as she sounded. I nodded as though she could see me, mindful of my mother standing there, watchful. The American wife knew my name. Told me she was looking forward to meeting me. Said she had a son a little older than me—a son I later learned called my father “dad.” Daddy’s American situation, being what it was, seemed normal. My mother knew that once the American wife granted him a divorce, he would marry her and file for all of us to live with him in America. So, my mother was okay with the arrangement, okay with another woman looking after my father. “Dennis can’t cook,” she’d joke, as if to justify my father’s need for a woman in her place.

I already knew, for some reason, or had given myself reason to believe, that my father didn’t belong to us anymore. Or more accurately, I realized and accepted for the first time that love was not merely the pictures of smiling couples on the Sandals commercials, but distant, mostly lonely, and wistful. I decided then that maybe fairy tales were meant for only white people. My parents’ relationship wasn’t a bad one, but it was often played out over the telephone or in letters. It was felt in long pauses and sighs. Then one year, my mother’s sighs turned to sobs. Daddy had moved on.

Our lives didn’t really change. The barrels still came.

With daddy now filing for me and my siblings, we were able to visit him in America. He bought our tickets. He didn’t live in a two-story house with a white picket fence and a lawn with a sprinkler like Americans on television, but in a one-bedroom apartment in Hempstead, Long Island. My father and stepmother—a Jamaican woman he married instead of my mother after he divorced the American wife—shared a room, while my older stepbrother occupied a space tucked in the corner of the living room. Me and my younger siblings slept on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room. It was comfortable. We spent hours in front of the television, whetting our appetite for American life with Nickelodeon and MTV. Daddy took us shopping at the mall, and all over in his taxi. We went into Manhattan and saw the tall buildings that made us feel small in this big new country. However, I began to discern the effort my father was making to give us that fantasy of opulence in America. Though he bought everything we wanted, I had seen him reluctantly reach for a credit card and drummed his fingers anxiously on the counter as the sales person waited patiently for the approval of the sale.

What I didn’t know then was how much daddy had to put aside to buy things for a barrel, how little he got paid driving taxi, and therefore he had to work overtime to support his family in America and his family back home. He mentioned the drunk college kids who would vomit in his taxi and how he had to clean it up, the man who pointed a gun and demanded all the change, the passengers who were rude and nasty, and the ones who didn’t pay at all. Daddy’s Jamaican friends did the same thing. They worked odd jobs under the table, different from what they went to school for back home. Most of them had more than one job—daddy’s second job was building pools. All of them had the same goals—to make life better for their families back home. But in Jamaica, we had taken everything for granted, believing that money grew on trees in America and that nice things came easy—that they weren’t a result of sacrifice and sleepless nights.

A few years later, I moved to America to live with my father during college. My father warned me to be careful, that America wasn’t kind to blacks and immigrants. Just two years prior to my arrival, a Haitian man named Abner Louima was brutally beaten and sodomized by the NYPD. The incident was used as a cautionary tale. Though it wasn’t the easiest transition—acculturating in a new country that has its own issues—my future was certain. After graduating from college, I went as far away as possible, to the middle of the country, for graduate school. I did not return to my father’s house; neither did I take on any of the responsibility of being a good immigrant by working jobs I hated just to send money or a barrel home. I became a writer.

When I confessed this to a fellow immigrant friend at a Brooklyn café after quitting my job in public health to focus on writing, she lowered her coffee mug and stared as though I had made the vilest confession. What she didn’t understand was how I witnessed my father struggling all those years to provide for us and impress us with gifts while he could barely make ends meet in America; how I began to discern deep down, somewhat painfully, what that experience made of me. “Why should I pretend when I have nothing to give, and my own life to live?” I asked her.

“Because it’s our duty,” she replied.

There it was, the expectation breathing on me from across the table. It sounded like my fate was already predetermined—like death with complete disregard for my possibilities, my dreams. I wondered if my father felt the same way. He was my age or a little younger by the time he was sending barrels to Jamaica packed with things that could feed us and a whole village. Was I taking my freedom for granted? Was I ignoring my financial obligations? Was I being selfish, pursuing my dreams? Perhaps if I had the comfort I craved while living with my father in Hempstead, I wouldn’t have spent my twenties running—something that rarely happens in Jamaican immigrant households, where offspring often end up raising their own offspring in the family home or nearby. Or perhaps if I’d had the acceptance I craved after coming out to my family as a lesbian, I would’ve felt more obligated to adhere to the dreams they had for me. But there was no place for me. I completed my MFA, and sold my first book a couple years later. I sent home what I could afford to share, although I didn’t make a killing.

As I wrote my second book, Patsy, I found inspiration living in the Caribbean mecca of Brooklyn, smelling the same foods I grew up with, hearing the same songs and the accents of my people sailing through the wide, busy streets of Flatbush Avenue. One Saturday afternoon, while in search of some good oxtail stew at one of the many Jamaican restaurants, I paused at an intersection on Flatbush Avenue where the barrels lined the sidewalk like rotund soldiers colored ocean blue and brown. ”What are those?” my wife asked.

I remembered PJ Sparkle and the smell of newness and joy that filled my childhood home in Vineyard Town. I also remembered my father’s name written boldly across the surface of the barrels—the name I chose to keep, hyphenated with my wife’s name, the name I now see written across the covers and spines of books and on bookstore marquees. Dennis. A slight chuckle erupted from my gut where other emotions dredged with my reply. “They’re barrels.” But what I meant to say was, “they are vessels of sacrifice and love.”

***

Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.


Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the novels Patsy (June 4, 2019) and Here Comes the Sun, which won the Lambda Literary Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award. Time Out New York described Dennis-Benn as one of the “few immigrants and first-generation Americans who are putting their stamps on NYC,” and VICE included her in a round-up of immigrant authors “who are making American Literature great again.” Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn is a Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →