Did My Uncle Drown or Was He Murdered?
For as far back as she can remember, Mardi Fuller grew up in a world of swimming lessons and swim teams, which was unusual for a daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Why the emphasis on water? Because of a mysterious death that haunted her family’s past.
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My palms slice through dark, clear water as I remind myself to swim slowly and evenly. I breathe after every third stroke, and I can feel, like always, that it’s slightly less natural for me to turn my head to the left. Those neck muscles aren’t quite as developed, thanks to years of breathing only to the right, before a coach told me to do both.
I’m at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts—one of the closest public bodies of fresh water to Boston—for a good, long open-water swim. This is the land of the Massa-adchu-es-et, the Nipmuc, and the Pawtucket, a place known in American history as Thoreau’s home, though he moved to Walden after a community of free Black people had already been homesteading there for decades.
Jumping into deep water has been my favorite sensation for as long as I can remember. In tension with this, setting off into a lake or the ocean also gives me a feeling of stress, a bit more than the healthy, natural fear I get in other dangerous situations. This is my reality, even though I was on the swim team for most of my childhood, even though I was a lifeguard and a swim instructor for six years, through high school and college.
As I experience the familiar weightlessness and cooling effect, I’m filled with joy and relief. But when I choose a direction and move farther from the safety of the shoreline, most of my senses dull. Sight, smell, sound, taste offer no consistent stream of information or grounding. Touch provides an overwhelming amount of feedback to the body, as my extremities stretch through the water, as the temperature, current, and any life within caresses, pushes, and pulls.
Relaxing into this mystery, this enveloping ambiguity, is always a challenge for me. Though I can’t quite sort it out, I wonder if my low-level anxiety is generational, in my bones, as old as the Middle Passage. It’s as though I’m somehow linked to my ancestors who jumped off slave ships to drown rather than give in to a captive existence. But perhaps my fear is more recent than that. Perhaps it’s related to what happened to my uncle 15 years before I was born.
My mother, Phyllis, the fourth of six children, grew up in Linstead, Jamaica, a landlocked hamlet 12 miles north of Spanish Town, a large “second city” to Kingston. My uncle Easter Oliver Jones was the second oldest. My grandfather was a skilled tailor and for a time ran his own shop in town. At some point, looking for better opportunities, he left to work abroad for lengthy stretches of time, first in England and then in the United States.
Easter became the man of the house as an early teen. He was a great support to his mother; he watched over the family and property. His older sister, who suffered from mental illness, would often wander off and disappear. Easter would always find her and bring her home. He was strong, athletic, smart, ambitious. In Jamaica in the 1950s, only students who showed academic promise had the opportunity to attend high school, which cost families a substantial amount of money. Easter went to the prestigious Saint Jago high school in Spanish Town and was often featured in the local paper for his talent in track and field, especially the high jump. He was the pride of the family, and he appeared to be his mother’s favorite child.
The Jones family emigrated from Jamaica to the Bronx over a period of several years. My grandfather came first, followed by my mother, in 1960, at age 13. My grandmother, two aunts, a younger uncle, and Easter followed in 1962. He was 20. He attended the City College of New York for one semester and then learned that college grants were available to people serving in the armed forces, including immigrants. Just like that, he enlisted in the Air Force and was off to basic training in Waco, Texas. The day he left home, after the goodbyes and the final hugs, he played a record of the classic hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” And then he was gone. That was the last time my family saw him alive.
(Film by Evan Grainger & Jackson Buscher)