Life Beyond MeasureLetters to My Great-Granddaughter
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Sidney Poitier
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061496202
You and Me
Though these letters are addressed to you, my dearest Ayele, they are also written for me, so that I can rest assured in knowing that you will have me as a steadfast presence in your life—even after I'm gone and you are older. Much as I would have it otherwise, chances are that I will not be around long enough for you to know me well. Even so, on these pages you will find me waiting whenever you choose to visit.
But until such a time as I am not physically here anymore, it will be a top priority for us to spend as much time together as possible, you and me, hand in hand, eye to eye—in spite of the two thousand miles between your house and mine that do require logistical adjustments. After all, we've got a lot of catching up to do, don't you think?
I am fully aware that the history between us is more than your seventeen months and my eighty years. Our history encompasses all that came before us. And all that came before us is the stage on which we were destined to appear.
As to exactly what role we are meant to play on that stage—that's one of those questions I'll examine at further length in upcoming letters. For now, I can start by relating a conversation that took place many years ago, when I was just about thirteen years old.
After spending the first decade of my life in the village of Arthur's Town on semiprimitive Cat Island in the Bahamas, where my family lived and worked as subsistence farmers, without electricity or running water or even cars, a change in trade policies caused my parents to move us to Nassau—which had all those things and more. It may have been rustic in those days to some, but at that point in my worldview, Nassau was the height of civilization. Though I was a fantastic, formidable daydreamer, the possibility that I could envisage one day traveling far from there was severely limited by a lack of exposure to other places. So when, quite out of the blue one afternoon, my older sister Teddy posed a question to me about my future, I was forced to push past those limits of imagination in order to give her a solid answer.
Out of my eight siblings, Teddy was the one to whom I was closest. No longer alive today, I regret to tell you, Teddy was an original—so full of life, bright and open, bursting with laughter and affection. Though it was not her habit to ask me serious questions, she did so that day when, without an explanation as to why she wanted to know the answer, she asked suddenly, "Sidney, what do you want to do when you grow up?"
In a flash, it became clear to me. Confidently, I said, "I'm going to go to Hollywood."
"Oh," said Teddy. "Well, why Hollywood?"
"Because," I explained to her, "I want to work with cows."
Loving sister that she was, Teddy refrained from laughing. Then she patiently went on to describe Hollywood as a place where they made movies. Teddy figured that since it was in the movies that I had seen cows, I must have assumed that in order to be one of the heroic cowboys from the movies, I had to go to Hollywood.
Disappointed by this revelation, I concluded that my future apparently was to lie elsewhere. Ironically, however, as you probably know, I eventually did go to Hollywood—where I made two Westerns! And, as you can imagine, when that time came, among our family members my sister Teddy would have been the least surprised of all.
That story is a reminder that, just as it was in my youth, questions regarding the future can be the most difficult to answer. It is my hope that insights revealed in such anecdotes and memories from my life will find a place of meaning in yours.
You will have questions after I'm gone. Such answers as I might embrace in the course of this book may or may not apply when you stroll across these pages. But never mind. What I can promise is to give you my best judgment on what I've seen in my time, and my understanding of what unfolded even earlier and in the millennia before we came along.
What I can also promise, here at the outset of our correspondence, is that as you meet up with some of the questions that have nurtured my curiosity starting at a very early age, you'll discover that none of them are new. Nor are the answers. They are all variations of other questions, other answers, passing quietly from culture to culture over thousands of years, proclaiming that for salvation and redemption one must frame one's own questions, seek one's own answers, in the boundary of one's own time. Each generation must be responsible for itself, and there's no escaping that.
Even so, dearest Ayele, it can be helpful at crucial moments to listen to the murmurings of ancestors in whose footsteps we follow. And sometimes, if we're fortunate, they catch us off guard and make themselves known to us as well. I hear them even today, out of a distant time, through fading recollections of my father and our village elders gathered in conversation, wrestling with the fundamental questions of life, survival, and death. All ordinary working men: fishermen, farmers, men who built houses out of palm leaves and tree trunks, men who exchanged fish for land crabs, others who worked the sea in respectful ways, others who worked the land with reverence. A few were teachers, and others worked for the colonial government. A few owned petty shops stocked with items shipped in from the capital island, Nassau. Mostly flour, sugar, rice, lard, pork, and the like. Some dry goods, tobacco, fishhooks; some lobster pots.