In This Bright Future, You Can’t Forget Your Past

TW Column by Steven Lewis

Lessons From a Family Vacation in Jamaica


Everyone—and I mean everyone—had warned us (closed eyes, tight shakes of the head) that Jamaica is both deplorably impoverished and (open eyelids, raised brows) terrifyingly dangerous.

Bella in Jamaica


And so everyone—and I do mean everyone—advised us to stay in one of those lovely and safe, perfectly manicured, all-inclusive resorts between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, each one resembling an exclusive mental institution, complete with walls, gates, well-tended tropical gardens, and black medical aides posing as uniformed staff members who deliver daily doses of Benzodiazepines in the form of umbrella drinks, fusion cuisine, chaise lounges, snorkeling instructors, and glass-bottom boats.

Nevertheless, the thirty of us—meaning my everyone: my mate Patti, our seven grown children, their five spouses, and our sixteen grandchildren—disregarded the hand-wringing naysayers back home and opted to stay up in the hills on the north coast of Jamaica around Runaway Bay, an apt name and locale for anyone yearning to escape the trappings of civilization. We rented a villa with the suspect name of Valley High, which accommodated 21—the four families with babies—while the other 9 arranged to stay at a small hotel down the steep jungle-y hill.

Runaway Bay, rich and poor, night and day, is stunning to the senses, all the senses: complicated, messy, elegant, transcendent, and feral. Like nature. Like children. Was there poverty? Oh, yeah. Crime? Yup. But it should be noted that there was something of a different nature in the Jamaican poverty and crime we experienced, something altogether unlike the gut-wrenching deprivation, the soulless transgression I’ve known in the mean streets around Newburgh, New York, or Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Starfish GuyEven behind the walls of the rusting tin shacks that sat near the beach or off the narrow road winding up the mountain to Nine Mile and Bob Marley’s mausoleum, yam plants and coffee beans growing up the hillsides, no one was starving, no one wore that hideous mask of simmering rage. Not the guy on the beach with a starfish on his head. Not the women on the beach who braided hair. Not the security guard with a machete in one hand, a big fat blunt in the other. Not the roaming dogs. Not the goats. Not the children.

As a man, a writer, a father well-schooled in the primitive vicissitudes of life by his seven kids, I have been rendered slack-jawed, time and again, by the illusions of supposedly sophisticated, educated people who are so cut off from their own nature that they have no idea of the wholly and holy dynamic nature of children’s lives. People who are so detached from their misunderstood “inner child” that they have lost all connection to the uncontained withness of nature.

Oh, if only they could have seen my tamed-untamed grandchildren at Runaway Bay: the infants sucking on breasts; toddlers clawing in the sand; an alpha monkey’s swipe from a four-year-old as he mindlessly reminds the two-year-old about the order of things…something he learned from the six-year-olds and they from the nine-year-olds.

If my detached comrades could have just heard the gleeful screams of a raft of bald-skinned otters dunking each other in the ocean, or looked inside the wailing mouth of a two-year-old Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo refused some candy, or joined the herd at the long dining room table at Valley High, where the unfettered talked too loud, chewed with their mouths open, picked up plantains with their paws, Jamaican jerk sauce on their chins…yes, then they would have come to understand Delmore Schwartz’s “heavy bear” and that “scrimmage of appetite everywhere.”

And oh oh oh, now to be back in the presence of two of my beautiful and refined thirty-something daughters, Addie and Clover, standing there on the beach with babies on their hips, bare feet wiggling in the sand, reverting before my squinting eyes to the feral girls they once were, laughing in delight at their (65-year-old) longhaired (and balding) father sitting on a white plastic chair right beside the stunningly gorgeous nine-year-old Bella, the two of us getting our hair braided and beaded.

Someone walking along the beach right then might have mistakenly concluded that the old goat in the chair was an escapee from a mental institution. Or an all-inclusive resort.

Not a pale Rasta mon right at home in this feral paradise.

The Family in Runaway Bay


Publications Info

Art Information

  • “Bella in Jamaica,” “Starfish Guy,” and “The Family in Runaway Bay” © Steven Lewis; used by permission


Steven LewisSteven Lewis is a contributing writer and columnist at Talking Writing. The photo at left shows the braided and beaded Steve in Jamaica.

“With seven kids spanning a generation-wide 19 years, the logistics of any July–August escape from civilization proved to be as complicated and unrealistic as my preadolescent hallucinations about playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” — The Road We Never Traveled



You made Jamaica your own while letting it remain Jamaica. A beautiful place that belongs to the people that love it. Bravo Jefe.

I love the picture you paint! Utterly beautiful and completely free... Congratulations on a life well lived!

What a great piece, ESP "my everyone" and the writing makes me feel sated in my own life. Less than teeming maybe, but not really, birds up all night, horse piss that never fully washes from the street. It's definitely delightful, but I think the best part about this is that it brings out the reward for not being afraid.

I love this. I also experience some of the "What? Are you crazy?" warnings each winter when I head to Mexico (not the beach) for a couple of months. "You'll get murdered." "Those are terrible people down there." "I would never (with horrified italics) got to Mexico."
Yet I do, and I love it, and I feel lucky to see Mexicans living a life totally unlike the U.S. government assures me they are living. So, way to go, Steve. It sounds wonderful.

Steve- I can still see Addie and Clover running around the yard...the boys running through the house...Patti sipping a drink after breastfeeding and you with the most beautiful look on your face knowing that your world was just right.
Then I read this article and see how much more life had in store for Patti and you. Magnificent.
I miss the old days...for my youth...but see that things only get better.
Love hugs kisses to you all.

Great piece, a nice thing to read in the morning. So much of life is doom and gloom, especially now. It is nice to read something that restores, that enjoys, that brings one back to nature. It is nice to read about family. Well done.

Steve--your delight washed over me as I read this intoxicating piece--like those gorgeous Jamaican views. Thanks!

Delightful, as always, Steve.

I know a bunch of folks who stay in those gated communities when they travel abroad -- which, of course, isn't travel since they're careful to bring everything that is America with them. Some of them have even told me why EPCOT is better than going to real foreign countries: "You can walk from one country to another, carrying your drink."

Gary has said much of what I was going to say. What is the point of going to somewhere foreign if all you want to do is bring America with you? Good for you and your family for staying somewhere real, instead of the highly sanitized and oblivious choices that many American travelers make.
The idea of, for example, being locked up on a cruise ship for seven days makes me twitch just thinking about it.
I'm leaving on my own adventure next week. Not Jamaica, but somewhere unscripted nonetheless. Thanks for reminding me of why I love to travel.

Thanks so much Jan, Elissa, Sheila, Alice, Gary, Lorraine, Cynthia, Lauren and Jubie! I'm overwhelmed by all your wonderful responses--over the years I guess I've grown used to the print magazine life which is like a publishing vacuum where almost no one responds to anything in writing. Really amazing,

Since you're so much older than I am, I can understand your unfamiliarity with some of the benefits of all this new-fangled technology...

...& BTW, prego!

Steven...You brought your Jamaica alive with sweetness...rippling with freedom and happiness. Your family stories are wonderful. I enjoyed reading this tremendously. Susan McGraw Keber

Pale Rasta travelin' mon: Tasty & tactile and a balm for the eye and the brain. But one pic is missing: you, beaded and braided. Your new avatar!

Jeremiah: The humbling picture of the beaded and braided me is a thumbnail at the bottom of the piece. I sometimes feel sorry for my children (having to explain me to their friends). Thanks for the "tasty and tactile"--for me it's the doorway into the balm.

I've just made a note in the bio to ensure everyone knows this photo is of the beaded and braided version of Steve!

There it is! I didn't see it. Although the "hats-off" version might be even more interesting, my hat's off to you for even having it done in the first place.

Jeremiah: Just imagine a slightly less rotund, more angular-faced, Semitic Friar Tuck with beaded dreds .... (On second thought, cleanse your mind of the image immediately.)

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