That I spent the first 13 years of my life living with a Jamaican woman is always striking to those who best know me. Seldom, I suppose, is the topic broached in casual parley. So when I reveal I have a Jamaican accent, I am often faced with guffaws of incredulity, pshaws of dismissal, cold shoulders of scorn. Even when I insist, and truthfully so, my doubters—those too tired for a tale, rubbing at the eyes with fatigue and malaise—reject my claims as patent falsehood and mosey along with their trite little lives. I suppose I can’t hold these types at fault for hesitating to believe that the soi-disant affect in my accent is not the influence of my native Princeton, but rather the sing-song lilt of the West Indies, the hum-drum of Montego Bay, the modulated patois of Reggaeton. It all started with Dezna. I was terrified at bedtime for all of my neurotic and book-stuffed youth. It was less the darkness that scared me but the way an absence of light makes one vulnerable to robbers, bandits, duppies, and gypsies. These were my biggest fears throughout the school day that escalated come evening. My immense imagination, fueled with fodder from the 5 o’clock news and left to the devices of my chamber’s penumbra, allowed me to mentally pinch-pot the effigy of the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper in the grain of my oak door.
“But, Bossman, the worst is the Freemasons,” my father (the alliteratively named Irvin Kenneth) once told me before a dinner party—his sarcasm biting, his Semitic profile just as sharply cut. But it becomes clear from his statement that he had no conception of the banshee crisis in my bedroom in the early 90s.
To cope with my paranoia, between the ages of five and twelve, I spent every night my parents went out in the extra twin bed in my sister’s room. It mattered not that Nicole’s room adorned with pink ruffles and ornately frilled shams was better suited for the usual girly suspects of her sleepovers. I was comfortable all the same there in the uterine warmth of down and silk—no matter the Liz Claiborne bedskirt and madras headboard.
Dezna, our family’s former live-in nanny from Jamaica, is all things to me and was my hero most especially on nights my parents went out, when the paranoia was at its peak. The routine would always proceed in the same manner: my parents would go over to dinner at the Blumenfelds, see a movie with the Walkers, or grab some nosh with the Andersens. The door would slam, the Saab would pull out of Hale Drive, and Nicole would start crying. Then I would start washing my hands to cope with the stress of abandonment, and Dezna would eliminate all anxieties (no matter how severe or neurotically Semitic) with various invitations pronounced in her mellifluous Jamaican accent—z.B. “Come yah dungstairs , Ross-mon, let’s get dezERT,” or “Djeopardy stahts soon.” One can bathe in the warmness of Dezna’s particular blend of Caribbean sing-song, the paradoxical cadent monotony of the inflection. And with my washed-out knuckles on the verge of bleeding, I would descend to the kitchen—my ears overflowing with the intoxicating rhythm, dulcet rum to inebriate my auditory nerves.
A creature of obsessive habit and epicureanism, I always chose Chips Ahoy Deluxe, because I thought it to be a fancy snack; I scorned others in the neighborhood who ate plebian Gushers, Pringles, Twinkies, and, worst of all, Fritos. I would dunk and eat successively all seven cookies, take a spoon to fish the cookie residue from the glass’s bottom, and down the milk in a single, Adam’s-apple-bobbing chug.
With dessert consumed and Dezna putting on her hair curlers, Nicole and I would sit Indian-style in front of her room’s T.V. for 7 o’clock “Jeopardy” followed by 7:30 “Wheel of Fortune”. Several things made an impression on me about the experience: Alex Trebek looked much better without the mustache, Dezna knew an impressive amount of trivia, Vanna White was sort of like Tinker Bell to Pat Sajak’s Peter Pan, but was trapped in a totally misogynistic roll (and, as I added one evening in my cadent seven-year-old contralto, “Totally not hot.”). Vowels on the T.V. were for sale, but in our Jamaican-influenced bavardage, they were shortened, flattened, deepened. We, in our little trinity, slapped five when we secured Daily Doubles or won at Final Jeopardy. Dezna would solve the puzzles, and Nicole and I would lavish in the glory of our (somehow) collective victory. We were, after all, two precocious children growing up in an intellectually pretentious town with a woman of profound knowledge. The commercials would eventually come on, and after some Jamaican-accented laba-laba, we would feel the imminent cloud of bedtime doom.
How we never really had to go to bed, we insisted. What rested children we were! How nuts we went during indoor recess games of “Connect Four” without the playground space to exhaust our obscenely large excess of energy!
But being it an anatomical impossibility to speak out against Dezna’s honeyed voice, we would act amenably to her rules and squeeze our tooth paste from the bottom, “brush and flush,” and go to bed in Nicole’s room.
In the pink chamber, as the culinary and televised distractions faded (like the effects of a time-released and palindromic Xanax), we began to have what they call, in the Yiddish persuasion, ageda and a rare form of spilkus. Would our parents hit a deer on the way home? Would they abandon us and move to France? Would they send us for a childhood abroad in Montego Bay (just like summers shipped off to Camp Saginaw)?
But Dezna, dimming the lights to make the pink ruffles and chiffon a pastel creamsicle, would decide it time to pray. How I can see it still in the sepia portrait of my mind of we three bredren.
She would pray for the welfare of our parents, the health and happiness of her eight children (seven in Montego Bay, one in Jamaica Queens), the sweet dreams of Nicole and Ross. Just as Dezna would look on with absolute, if amused, respect as we lit the Shabbos candles or sang before the menorah, Nicole and I, eyes closed, would hold hands with our nanny in a circle of reciprocal respect to bask in the Nazarite calm snatched from the jaws of neurosis. “Lord our Father, Jah in Heaven” soon converted my youthful body into an oneiric mush—my somniloquies mere Rasta mutterings.
I must digress from the peculiarities of our bedtime routine with Dezna to discuss again the origins of my accent and its current peculiarities. It should be known that in my youth I spent many weekends and school vacations working in my father’s mom-n-pop hardware store at 27 Witherspoon Street where I helped hitey-titey Nobel laureates in literature find the correct screw and counted out incorrect change to tenured Princeton math professors. As such, I was exposed to the most pretentious and academic of accents, with H’d R’s and diminutive A’s, with throaty or “ehh’d” schwaws instead of the plebian North Eastern “uhhhh.” These Princetonian influences, to be sure, have led to the foundation of my accent, but the decorations of its baroque tendencies, the saviness of its enunciation, come from my extended time spent with Dezna.
My consonants are clear, if over-pronounced, with T and D ticking in tandem and spitting like the greasy hands of a grandfather clock. The flat vowels, the deep plunks of rocks in Caribbean coves, irrigate my voice with a tempo, a confluent base.
Dezna was my closest friend in my childhood, and it was jentacular moments spent over cereal and tea, the walk to the bustop on spring mornings, the games we invented with tennis balls and the geometric bends of my house’s shingled roof that lent the occasion for her to pour into my ear the West Indian time signature, the syntactic steel drum. Our constant chatter during the formation of my accent has indubitably shaped and cut and compressed my form. From her urgent afternoon warnings to soap-operatic stars of The Young and the Restless (z.B. “Dohn go in der, girl?”), I have retained, in the most instinctive elements of my speech, the diminished final T, the Germanic D’d T, the rhythmic jump, the last word of the interrogative statement hurling up toward the question mark, the rhythm beating the ear drum into a sort of conga line.
Dezna never spoke with the full Jamaican “patwa,” but rather in maintaining the King’s English to the T, she also colored her speech with incorrect colloquialisms to spice up her syntax. She kept diphthongs beautifully closed and flat with “cow” or “now” said in an almost Irish brogue. Her speech is enhanced by a semi-rhoticity, failing to enunciate the R in words, as the roughness of the letter is exchanged for a tender vowel sound. Instead of “Ross and I” she would say “Ruhss and m’self,” and in this way, she sometimes sounded Medieval to Shakespearian bamba yay in her English. “This thing” became “dis ting.” At bathtime, “dirty” was somehow “dutty” in our Jam-Down speech. “Somebody” was “samdi,” and “you all” became “uno.” My speech is moistened, colored, more muscular because of the variety of sounds to which I was exposed.
In 2000, as part of my acrophobia, I refused to board an airplane bound for Jamaica to begin what would be a seven-year hiatus from flying and the beginning of peculiar travel methods (including two transatlantic cruises and several transcontinental train trips). It is one of the largest regrets of my life I have not visited Dezna’s village on a hill and burnt my pasty Russian skin like matzoh on the back of the Israelites.
One day, I insist, I will return to the land of my accent’s origin. Kids in school would tease me my relationship with my nanny—ask how many times I’d watched Cool Runnings, cleverly exclaimed “jamakin’ me crazy” at the back of the bus; however, I could not laugh along about a woman who, in her maternal essence, conceived my speech. So here we galang in our lives, and when I speak to Dezna over the phone or have family visits during the holidays, a slight smile of pride appears on my lips when I hear in our dialogue the clangor of a Jon Connu troupe, the syncopated Caribbean rhythms, the swished vowels of our One Love accent weaved—warp and woof—into our language.