Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Graduation -- Jamaican Style

This festive Jamaican rum cake was made by a longtime family
friend in New York and driven down to Baltimore for the party 
In Jamaica, one’s family is the most important group a person can belong to. This was evident Saturday as I attended a high-school graduation party for the 17-year-old daughter of my lovely neighbors, Leroy and Michelle. Young Samantha, along with her cousin, K.C., were being honored as only Jamaican families can do, with a celebration of more than 100 family members and close friends. It was quite the spectacle – marvelous in every way. 
Shauna, Leroy's brother Donald's
daughter, prepares one of several
green salads 
Pauline, wife of Leroy's oldest
brother, Tony, tends the fish  

Leroy, a master of carpentry who used his considerable talent to convert one of my spare bedrooms into a luxurious walk-in closet two years ago, is sixth in a family of ten brothers and sisters who divide their households between New York, Florida and Maryland. Eight of the ten siblings, along with spouses and children of their own, were present for Saturday’s tribute to the two graduates, along with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and both grandmothers. As their one-acre backyard quickly filled with family members, Leroy’s eldest brother, Gladstone (Tony for short), manned three smokers in the driveway which were stuffed to their limits with jerk chicken, burgers and sausages, while Kingsley, Leroy’s youngest brother and father of the other graduate, Kingsley, Jr. (K.C.), prepared to put the finishing touches on a whole roasted pig which had been smoking in an old-fashioned, brick-lined, outdoor barbecue since five o’clock that morning.

My 3-year-old neighbor, Mikayla,
center, made quick friends with
Dami, left, and Semira, right
Meanwhile, Samantha’s mother, Michelle, a nurse's assistant by trade, was a whirling dervish in the kitchen, whipping up dozens of salads and sides alongside a plethora of sisters, nieces and cousins and depositing the dishes on long buffet tables set up on a deck overlooking the yard. As children scampered across the manicured lawn and batted shuttlecocks across a badminton net, a DJ named Clive Taylor of Hollywood Sound Systems in Annapolis, Maryland (443-286-0998), broadcast an intoxicating mix of reggae, rhythm and blues and hip-hop into the sultry afternoon.

Dozens of blue crabs, potatoes and corn
were prepared by my neighbors Mike
from next door, and Allen from across
the street
Leroy’s sister-in-law, Pauline (wife of the eldest brother, Tony), sizzled fresh Croker in one of three propane-fueled cookers, while my neighbors, Allen and Jackie, from across the street, and Mike and Maria, from next door, filled a boiling cauldron with two bushels of blue crabs (that’s 168 crabs!), a Maryland delicacy anointed with Allen’s signature Louisiana-style seasoning, ten pounds of potatoes and dozens of ears of corn, which they soon tumbled onto butcher paper stretched over a large makeshift table as Kingsley carved the pork. The feast was on.

Kingsley, right, and his
wife, Carla, served roast
pork from a whole pig
The line of hungry party guests stretched clear across the patio, but eventually all were seated and sated. When it was time for dessert, Michelle unveiled matching sheet cakes decorated with each graduate’s senior prom portrait, and then sliced a third cake driven down from New York that morning, a traditional Jamaican rum cake baked by an old family friend in the Bronx, a dense rum-soaked confection laden with candied fruit, one of the best pastries I’ve ever eaten.

It seemed as though friends and relatives continued to appear throughout the evening, with everyone arriving in their "island best", a festive style with a laid-back, super comfortable vibe. I received several compliments on my own soft cotton jumpsuit by Luna Luz, designed in Spain and handcrafted in the U.S., one of three similar frocks I bought about 15 years ago at a little shop in Grapevine, Texas, which I accented for the party with summer sandals, a necklace of seashells I bought in Ocho Rios in 1978 and a shell bracelet I picked up in Nassau two years ago.

As the eating wound down, the music ramped up and young and old alike took to dancing on the patio and the lawn. To sit with a glass of sangria in the waning light of a steamy June day and survey the jubilant scene was to share in the unfettered joy of a large family enjoying each other’s company as they reveled in the passage of two of their own into adulthood, teens with big plans for the future – Samantha will enroll in pharmacology school at Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania and K.C. plans to study physical therapy at the Community College of Baltimore County.

After dinner, the "Electric Slide" was a
popular way to burn some calories 

Everyone got in on the dancng!
I could feel the love surrounding Leroy and his numerous siblings. I basked in the warmth of such strong family ties. It felt wonderful to be part of a close-knit community of such kind and generous people: my neighbors, my surrogate family far from home. 
K.C. wants to be a
physical therapist

Samantha will study pharmacology
Congratulations, Samantha and K.C. With bright futures ahead and the love of a great family at your back, there is nothing you can’t accomplish.


"Han' go, paki come" ~ When you reach out a hand, good things come back to you.


  1. Now that looks like a fun party!!

  2. Thank you Lynell,

    I couldn't be there but you brought it home for me. Thanks.

    Robert Bowen