by Catherine Bulger
Editor’s Note: Catherine Bulger has joined the staff of Vine & Branches both as a writer and as the managing editor.
In August of 1988, Catherine’s parents, Jim and Beth Bulger (Servant Branch), moved to Grenada with two-year-old Catherine and six-month-old Annie in tow. The community sent them to implement a high school Christian Family Life program that Laurie (Tychsen) Magill (northern Virginia) and Linda Porto (South Bend) had written for religious education teachers in Grenada, at the request of the then bishop of Grenada, the Most Rev. Sidney Charles. The Bulgers shared People of Praise life first with John and Amy Zwerneman and, before long, with Grenadian branch members as well.
The Bulgers lived in Grenada until May, 1991, when Catherine was five. Twenty-seven years later, in February, 2019, she fulfilled a longtime hope to return to Grenada and see her former home again, traveling with her parents, who visit annually on behalf of the community’s branch relations office.
Part I: Remembering a Distant Home Before a Long-Awaited Return
Nutmeg, lime, coconut, mango, ginger. The warm smell of spices in the air. Tall palm fronds waving gently high above my head. The deep, deep, endless green. The ferns on the mountaintop. Little green-brown, funny lizards scurrying down the walls. Juicy ripe fruit with brilliant sweetness exploding in my mouth. Goats grazing in the yard when we came home from church. Women walking on the roof of the cocoa-processing plant outside our kitchen window, stirring the cocoa pods with their bare feet.
These things flit across the edges, the beginnings of my memory. I see people, places, images. I remember our house: our wrap-around veranda, the mosquito netting on the beds, the laundry tub out back. The prickly pear cactus that the cat liked to sit in. The two swings my dad built for us under the trees. The bats swooping through the living room at dusk. And our cat, Salty, named by Annie and me, that we got to catch the bats (she was bad at it).
I remember racing Annie down the long lane, flanked by rows of stately royal palms, at Mount St. Ervan Retreat Center. Ordering BLT sandwiches at the restaurant on La Sagesse Beach (the taste of all the fresh-caught fish so wasted on us). Riding the waves to shore in my floaties and trying to walk on the water because I had plenty of faith, just like Jesus said.
I remember eating pieces of fresh coconut in the kitchen, and drinking fiery homemade ginger juice, and popping the fleshy little fruits called skin-ups in my mouth, and my favorite treat: sweet, chewy, translucent-red guava cheese candy.
Once we found five newborn kittens under our bunk bed. One day I woke from a nap to learn I had a baby brother, Joseph.
There were Lord’s Day meals on our veranda with the fledgling People of Praise branch. And long evenings at John and Amy Zwernemans’ home while the adults played Uno and other games. Sometimes we’d go to sleep there and get up to be driven home late.
Early memories are funny, though. As time passes, I become less sure of them. How much is truly real? How much is influenced by the pictures I’ve looked at, by the stories we’ve told again and again?
Back in Minnesota, we did tell and retell the stories. We did treasure our photographs, and we savoured for years a jar of bay leaves we collected off our Christmas tree—along with a jar of nutmeg and a little hoard of guava cheese. We would eat one tiny slice of that guava cheese on the rarest of occasions, and I would nibble it slowly, treasuring those morsels like a bit of heaven in my mouth.
I know this, anyway. I know how my heart leaps when I see a Grenadian brother or sister at a People of Praise leaders’ conference. I know the tears that welled in my eyes when I went to Jamaica in 2002 and realized I was back in the Caribbean at last. I know the flavors that are dearest, most familiar, most comforting to me are nutmeg, coconut, ginger, lime, mango. I know the sound of calypso music or a steel pan drum makes my eyes light up.
And this: I’m going home.
Part 2: The Return
I step out of the small airport into the bright, tropical sunshine. The air is warm and pleasant, dry and breezy. Dominic Jeremiah, the branch leader, is there, giving me a big hug, flashing a smile. I had wondered if I would cry, but I don’t. Instead, I sit in the front passenger seat of Dominic’s van as he drives us across the island from the main city and capital of St. George’s to the town of Grenville on the east side of Grenada.
I stare out the rolled-down window, hardly hearing a word of the conversation between Dominic and my parents. Cars honk on the busy curving roads, whipping past each other around treacherous corners. We wind upwards, high above the calm, turquoise harbor dotted with bright-colored fishing boats, into the rainforest of Grand Etang National Park, with its extinct volcano that forms the center of the island, and there they are: great banks of ferns—my ferns! And banana trees, palm trees, towering bamboo stands. I feel the cool dampness of the mountaintop. It starts to rain. It’s the middle of the dry season, and Dominic jokes that we brought the rain with us.
We drive down the other side of the mountain into a quieter, homier world. Open-air shops and houses line the hillsides in shades of pink, orange, blue, green and yellow. People sit outside on their verandas and stoops. Sheep graze in yards. Strings of Grenadian flags—red, yellow and green—decorate rooflines. We slow down outside a white cinderblock house with a pinkish tin roof next to a cocoa-drying factory.
“Do you recognize it?,” Dominic asks.
“I thought it was bigger!”
Our old house.
Three minutes later, we pull into Dominic and his wife Jenny’s driveway. Jenny has made us supper. Pea soup, and I remember: Annie and I used to shuck pigeon peas on our veranda—a chore we loved. Besides the peas there are dumplings and yams and breadfruit and green bananas and pork.
After supper I stand on Jenny’s veranda and watch the bats circling the electric light in the yard. Jenny and I walk down the lane to the main road. We wait at the corner until Lucy Ogilvie picks us up. We drive through the old, busy little harbor town of Grenville to Walter and Ann Ogilvie’s house for a branch meeting.
“Good night!” the brothers and sisters exclaim, as they enter the room, using words that serve as both greeting and farewell in Grenada. Everyone keeps telling me, “Welcome home!” It’s an adults-only meeting, and about 15 people sit around the living room in a tight circle. My dad gives a short talk. There’s some general sharing and conversation. We sing praise and worship songs, unaccompanied but with much clapping and harmony.
After the meeting, Jenny announces to a laughing audience that we are having “fellowship and swallow-ship.” Mercedes Ogilvie and her sister Lucy list our drink options: mauby, light sorrel, coconut water and ginger. Soon I’m holding a glass of ginger juice: ginger root steeped in sugar water, spicy and sweet, a drink I remember so vividly. I sip my ginger in a happy daze and listen to my Grenadian brothers and sisters laughing and talking and affectionately teasing one another.
For the next few days, I don’t talk as much as usual. People keep asking me if I remember things. Some things—the flavors most of all, the smells, many of the plants, the colors—feel familiar, but there are many details I do not remember. There was a major hurricane (Ivan in 2004) that necessitated a great deal of rebuilding and replanting. There are more cars on the road, more stores in the towns, more houses. I look different from most Grenadians. I sound different. I have to strain a bit to understand the Grenadian accent. I feel like a stranger, a foreigner in my homeland.
The young adults take me on an island tour. Mercedes and Lucy organized the trip, and Sabrina Ogilvie, with her son Liam, Che and Felicia Alexander, and their brother-in-law Ryan come along too. We pile into two vehicles and spend the day driving up the east coast of the island.
We visit a waterfall, a former airport, a 300-year-old rum distillery that still operates using 18th-century methods, a crater lake, a couple of glorious beaches, a sulfur spring and a mangrove forest and bird sanctuary.
Fruit trees grow everywhere: breadfruit and lime, orange, paw-paw and soursop. Mercedes has a fruit-bearing mango tree that grew from a pit she accidentally dropped in her yard. There’s almost always a breeze blowing off the ocean, and often you can hear vinyl kites whining high in the sky, like lofty giant mosquitos, as the wind whistles against them.
One evening, my parents and I come back to the Jeremiahs’ house from a long day driving to some of our old haunts. Mercedes comes over and joins us for supper. We sit around the table, eat delicious food, drink a bottle of wine, and talk, like I have so many times before in community. I notice that all the strangeness, all the sense of being a foreigner, is gone.
On Saturday evening, the whole branch gathers at the Jeremiahs’ home for a Lord’s Day opening meal. There are about 18 adults and maybe a dozen children. We will be eating oil down—the national dish of Grenada, a coconut-milk-based stew laden with breadfruit, vegetables and meat and boiled for hours—as well as chicken and fish and salads and rice and peas and pumpkin and cake and ice cream.
I listen to Dominic leading us in the familiar prayers I’ve heard almost every Saturday night of my life. “We praise you for the blessings of the past week: for life, health and strength, for home, love and friendship.” Often, when I hear those words, I think of Grenada, because my earliest memories of opening the Lord’s Day are here. My parents told me that it was in Grenada that they started making a point of regularly opening the Lord’s Day. Now here I am, celebrating the Lord’s Day, back in Grenada, full circle. Grenada is home still, not only because of nostalgia or memories or formative experiences but because my covenanted brothers and sisters are here.
I sing in my head and my full heart, over and over, the song, “What shall I say unto the Lord? All I have to say is, thank you, Lord.”