My grandfather and ancestors live on at my jumbie table this Christmas
The West Indian tradition honors the lives and memories of those whose shoulders we stand
My grandfather was Joseph “Dada” Skerritt. He was born in 1903, the son of Olive and Jack Skerritt. He always talked about his father. My grandfather rarely spoke of his mother. I had to ask my 82-year-old mother, Frances, for her name. My grandfather was in his late 30s when Frances was born. By then, his parents were long dead. He never let go of their memory.
As a child of the early 20th century, my grandfather walked the streets of the Caribbean island of Montserrat with people who were alive in 1833 when freedom finally came. The spirit of oppression and hardship hung heavy in his life and theirs.
Dada Skerritt was a stevedore and a fisherman. I was raised on his stories of smuggling rum and sugar from nearby St. Kitts and evading police patrols. By the time I knew him, his days of fishing and pulling trolleys were long over. Still, he dutifully showed up for work at the wharf every day whether boats were in the harbor or not.
Each afternoon, he’d return home to have his dinner served on a tray placed right next to his bed. He rarely ventured into the kitchen or fussed about food preparation.
But there were two exceptions. He insisted on roasting trunkfish himself. Seasoned and stuffed, trunkfish was a rare family treat.
Dada Skerritt’s other occasion to care about food preparation was annual and seasonal. It came at Christmastime. He was assiduous about setting his jumbie table each season, beginning on Christmas Eve. There was no ceremony, but his deep desire to honor his ancestors was palpable.
My grandfather was raised in a time when the lines between the living and the dead often blurred. He spoke of jack-o’-lanterns, jumbies and other spirits as if they were real. To him they were. Even as a teenager, enjoying the first fruits of freedom and going out at night, I was reminded one morning that things are more than they seem.
“Someone came in after you last night,” he told me, as an indirect warning against keeping late hours. “I heard them walk through the door.”
My grandfather’s relationship with the ancestors was not worshipful or fearful. He understood that his universe was constructed of past, present and future. To a generation unschooled about future planning and who were acutely aware of the capriciousness of life and nature, the past was the only thing that was guaranteed. And so, he honored his ancestors, my forebears, in the manner he learned.
He set what we called a jumbie table for them on Christmas Eve. Jumbie was what West Indies referred to the very present spirits of the dearly departed.
My first memories of my grandfather’s jumbie table are set in the living room of our wood house on Mercer Street in Jubilee Town on Montserrat. The light was a certain yellow hue. He placed a chunk of crown cheese uncovered on a floral enamel plate. A coconut plate tart, its crust burnished brown. A rum cake my grandmother made that was chock-full of liquor, soaked currants and raisins. A bottle of his Black & White Scotch Whiskey. If ingredients were not in stock at home, he made sure he sent out to buy it.
Our jumbie table was simple. Some of my fellow West Indians remember jumbie tables that were far more elaborate: souse, fried chicken, cassava bread, sorrel drink, white rum, black pudding, rum punch, ginger beer, a teacup of strong coffee, fruit cake, ball of white rice and a ball of corn meal. The fare was distinctively local, an affirmation of the food and drink that sustained us from one generation to the next.
The tradition of the jumbie table didn’t die with my grandfather in 1976. My grandmother, Peggy Skerritt, who was almost 20 years his junior, did set a jumbie table. My grandmother was religious in the way my grandfather never could be. But she saw her table not as a worship but honoring the memory of those who had gone on before. It is a tradition worth holding onto. She intuitively understood that in the long continuum of time, in a society as transient and transitory as ours, people come and go. But it was right for traditions to remain. It was not backward to honor traditions.
During my research, I encountered an undated draft of the Montserrat National Cultural Policy study. In its 60 pages, I found this discussion of the jumbie table:
“People are still now fascinated by the jumbie table another activity that involves ancestral spirits. Thus, there is a kind of communion between the living and the dead through sharing of a meal. What is really significant about these manifestations is community reliance on the wisdom of ancestors and the problem-solving capacity, which resides in abiding family bonds.”
This sharing is figurative. Those who have left us have no more need of food. But by their example, their lives guide and inspire us.
My grandfather understood that ancestral wisdom. He lived with it his entire life and in a way passed it down to me. The past remains my indispensable teacher.
The study goes further than just reminding us of what was past. It leaves instructions for us to follow.
To foster traditions, the study calls for “tradition evenings organized when selected folkways such as the jumbie table, jumbie dances and jumbie dance music and traditional products like ginger sticks, cassava bread and cassava flour can be exhibited in live settings.“
The study also called for arranging radio and television discussions on those elements of the culture that have been lost.
It also calls on us to “Encourage citizens, residents and civil and corporate society to support local television and radio programs such as the discussion of recipes, alternative medicine, jumbie stories, folk stories, literary readings, including plays. Interviews with cultural practitioners and prominent figures in the diaspora could be included in these programs.”
Recently, I participated in a similar conversation via Zoom. It reminded me of where I have been and asks me to reconsider a return visit. Over the past 37 years in America, I have set a jumbie table a few times. Each time I have done so in the memory of Dada Skerritt, the stevedore who sat at the clock stand with his back to the sea and his face toward the mountains. The faithful provider whose counsel each afternoon after school still resonates in my memory. He shared the wisdom of the ages with his grandson.
Even as I write in this, I can hear the masquerade drums of Christmases past, wafting from one village to the next, infusing the December days with life and merriment.
I am now a grandfather. I am on the path to becoming the person whose wisdom can be shared.
I now possess evidence that my bloodline may survive me. I also am aware through DNA testing that my ancestral heritage goes way back before my grandfather and his father to those who were brought in chains from places we now call Nigeria, Liberia and Ghana.
Knowing empowers me. Knowing enlightens me.
This Christmas I will honor my grandfather with a jumbie table. I will invoke his name. I will honor his memory. I make his tradition, once again, my own.