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The International Writers Magazine: St Thomas

Conch Shells Painted White
Maria Ausherman
Since droughts and water shortages are frequent on the eastern side of St. Thomas, I learned conservation practices at an early age. 

conch

Every time I visited my aunts and uncles, I was warned not to let the bath water reach too high in the tub, not to take long showers, how to wash my face, my hair and teeth in the sink, how to wash dishes and cars and dogs, how to rinse paint brushes, how to wash floors, how to water plants, and most surprising of all, how not to flush the toilet unless I really had to. 

But while I was concerned that my relatives had a limited water supply, I never worried about their water being unsafe.  Uncle Albert’s father managed a water distillery besides their spacious dairy farm in Tutu, a region located in the Upper Turpentine Run Basin of the historic sugar estate known as Anna’s Retreat. There, in east-central St. Thomas, I stayed during my visits with Aunt Rosa, Uncle Albert, their four children, and Viva, the maid, in a large ranch house on top of a hill surrounded by cow pastures, creeks and tamarind trees.

A stream used to flow after rainstorms from a few hundred feet southwest of the Tutu site one mile south of the Atlantic Ocean toward the mangrove lagoon.  Every now and then as a teenager, when I would visit the islands as the sole representative of the Ausherman family, I would hike with two of my dearest cousins, Ricky and Tansy, along with the daughter of Uncle Albert’s sister I did not know very well, Jane.  Starting at Aunt Rosa’s and Uncle Albert’s hilltop home in Tutu, we would follow this intermittent stream, which often was just a dry trail through the mountain that led to the other side for a view of my grandfather’s home in Bovoni.

During one visit to Bovoni, we followed two parallel, meandering strings of white-painted conch shells leading to Abuelo’s small, square, cement, now boarded-up, home.  My cousin Tansy informed me that my mother had painted each one of those shells, and placed them on either side of the dirt driveway to guide cars going into their property.

The crusty shells made me think of the year I lived with Abuelo.  My father then was the minister of the St. Thomas Dutch Reformed Church and my mother taught fifth grade math at a downtown public school. The Anglican priests often invited my father to morning prayers in their vestry, and so I would later attend the Anglican nursery school while my sister helped Abuelo tend his little farm of chickens, goats, pigs and horses. 

I loved the times when I could stay home.  Our maid would not allow us to play outside, so Judy and I had to sneak out of the house with Abuelo’s encouragement.   In the dirt yard punctuated by acacia shrubs that were as tall as me, Abuelo taught us how to click our tongues and make chirping noises while throwing feed to attract the chickens, and how to lift baby goats onto our laps to feed them bottles of milk whenever their mothers were missing.  The maid would always find my sister and me sooner or later, and after a long scolding she led us back to the house, and then scrubbed our skin so harshly in the hot water of the tub, I thought we would stay permanently orange pink, just like the insides of those conch shells my mother had gathered and painted outside her home.

 I wondered why our maid got so angry whenever my sister and I played outdoors with Abuelo.  She acted like the farm was a dangerous place unfit for children, and I later learned that indeed it was, especially for single women, which was why our maids never stayed around for a long time and why I never learned their names.  But what kept my interest there in Bovoni was the mangrove lagoon, a magnificent spawning area for marine life.  Its beauty compelled us to view the greenery surrounding the water and catch fish.  In the late 1950s the mangrove lagoon was just as lush and rich in wildlife as any other island beach but much more private so Abuelo, Judy and I could stay there without seeing another human being.

As we waded in the still saltwater up to our knees to search for whelks that had suctioned themselves to exposed boulders that broke through the watery surface, pearly-eyed thrashers, also called sour sop birds or Jack birds, held onto slender trees and shrubs, and smooth-billed ani known as black witch or  tick bird or Old Arnold flapped slowly in the air and then glided and omitted a shrill drawl.  I listened for the barn owl, known locally as the death owl or jumbie bird, hissing and clicking behind the nearby remains of a low-lying rubble masonry wall.

Each time I spotted a one-inch brownish yellow, lightly banded whelks called Candes’s Phos, I'd pick it off the reefs with my fingernails and drop it into my plastic sand pail.  It could take an entire afternoon to fill one pail because we had to walk slowly along the uneven rocks and be careful to avoid stepping on the randomly stationed sea urchins with our bare feet.  Then Abuelo would tell my sister and me it was time for us to go home.  Just like the foot prints, shacks, chicken houses, privies, and paths of the early homesteaders mentioned by Wallace Stegner in Wolf Woman (1955), the conch shells painted white and arranged along Abuelo's driveway were my mother's way of assuring everyone that we were there.

© maria ausherman Feb 3rd 2010

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