Alisha Westerman is a Caribbean American writer from the island of St. Croix. She grew up in Southern California and earned a B.A. in Writing at UC Santa Barbara's College of Creative Studies. Her coursework centered around poetry, fiction and Black Studies. She was a two-time recipient of an LA Times Literary Scholarship, a Profant Foundation Scholarship, an Idyllwild Poetry Workshop Scholarship, and a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. She has worked as a copywriter in advertising and released two albums of music.
Westerman is currently writing a non-fiction novel combining memoir and family history. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two dogs.
On Death and Trees in the Tropics
If I had one year to live, I’d probably spend the first half building a treehouse in the jungle and “getting right with god”. The second half I’d spend helping people in the best way that I could: as a spirit medium. Because what greater gift can we offer others than peace, the relief, the confirmation that love transcends dimension, and that we live beyond our bodies, beyond our lifetime?
I think of mediumship as part personal hobby, part remedial skill. I’m still shy about it, because how can I be sure I’m not making it all up? And yet, over the years I’ve channeled a band of brujas, a friend’s father, another friend’s grandmother. They’ve given me detailed advice, or images that are then confirmed by others. They speak quietly, and quickly. I do worry that I’ll hear them wrong or my thoughts will get in the way and and distort the message. Which is probably why I’ve never tried to channel my own ancestors.
“Dad, what was your dad’s name?”
“Arthur Ivan Westerman.”
Where’s the name ‘Westerman’ from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well… why did they name you Llewellyn?”
“I don’t know. It’s Welsh.”
“Were there Welsh people on Nevis?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did Arthur die?”
“I don’t remember.”
I know very little about my grandfather Arthur Westerman. In the only photo I’ve seen, he is tall and handsome and serious, with a delicate mouth, killer cheekbones and light, silky looking hair. He’s wearing a suit, sitting in a fancy chair like a gentleman of leisure. But he was never that. He was a sailor. A fisherman. And a street performer, it turns out. This is news to me.
“He was a performer?”
“He performed in the street?”
“Yeah. At Christmastime, for Sagua,” says my dad, like I shouldn’t be surprised.
“Don’t ask me how to spell it. We didn’t spell shit, we only spoke it.”
Yet another reminder that much of my history is unwritten. Soon after realizing I was a storyteller, I began to see that the most important stories I would tell would involve deciphering the mystery of my ancestry. This would mean unwrapping centuries in Russia, and then tracing an escape from Anti-Jewish pogroms to New York City beginning in 1901. I’d be sifting through a sweeping history of imperialism, slavery, colonialism, religion and commerce throughout Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. And I’d be going in blind.
Because there is no ancient family photo album. No safety deposit box. No bible with a family tree on the inside cover. I would have to let go of this fifth grade fantasy of sitting down with a grandparent for thirty minutes to fill in the blanks for my class report. No, this is detective work. Knocking on doors. Questioning strangers. Visiting cemeteries and historical societies. Pouring over archives. Hoarding hints and clues, and acting with urgency, because time is of the essence. Because the people with the clues are disappearing.
Up until recently, my father has given me some names and anecdotes — the same ones, every time I ask. The names of Arthur’s siblings: Rebecca, Amelia, Jim, Walter, John and Victor, who killed a man on the shipping docks and fled town. Mistress Woodley, an aunt who baked pastries, and whom apparently I resemble every time I put on an apron. And Great Uncle Nathan, who left island and died some years later, never having written home. The family data dries up there; my father claims his memory is shit.
But my observations tell me otherwise. He memorizes the names and hometowns of his favorite waitresses and boat passengers going back decades, to the point where I get annoyed at at him for it. He recites The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner from memory. And having recently recovered from a minor surgery, he recounted the names of all his nurses and doctors. Somewhere in the crags of his memory is a rich store of information. He’s holding out on me.
Then late one fall night after his surgery, I get a call from him. St. Croix is four hours ahead of LA and the crickets have already gone to bed in his timezone. His voice is deep from slumber. It seems as if he has just awakened from a dream where he has been given specific instructions to pass on an important message to me.
“There was a man I called uncle,” he begins, with a bit of incredulity in his voice, as if he’s only now realizing just how odd it all sounds. “Uncle Pinkin. Not too tall. Wore glasses, and overalls. He was a carpenter. Made his coffin years before he died. Kept it under his bed. I think he might have been Jewish.” There is a crack in the dam. The past is opening up to me. The world is opening up.
“Hang on dad, hang on. Let me get a pen.”
“Uncle Pinkin. Pinkin Scarborough.”
“What makes you think he was Jewish? Is the name Jewish?”
“I don’t know. There’s a Jewish cemetery in Nevis, you know.”
“Is he buried there?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“Why is there a Jewish cemetery on Nevis?”
“Because there were Jewish people, I guess.”
“But… well, what else do your remember?”
Over the next two hours, he recites a succession of first and last names, occupations, spouses, relations, places of birth and deaths, who enlisted in the military, who emigrated to Jamaica, Cuba, New York, etc. The info keeps coming like ticker tape and I just scribble for dear life with no time to be mad or wowed or amused, stopping him here and there to clarify a detail or get a proper spelling.
I get a couple phone calls like this. Whenever I see his number come up, I grab headphones and pen and paper or my laptop before even picking up. Then I answer the call and settle onto the couch, tuning in to the deep timbre of his voice, the linguistic patterns and contexts of alternating Queen’s English and patois.
The opacity of our family history comes away in layers. One call, he has a mental placeholder for a name he can’t remember. A night or two later, he produces the name. During one particular download I just had to get up and start whiteboarding that shit like I was in a psychological thriller. When we hung up, I looked up at the notes in awe, this web of details assuring me that I am a part of other, older worlds. Promising that I will reconstruct our fragmented legacy.
Eventually, my father goes back to calling me for less deliberate reasons — casual hellos from the boat while chartering visitors on weekends afternoons, or from the noisy bar he goes to after sailing. And if family history comes up, I glance up at my whiteboard and finish his sentences with an announcement of marriage, death, the name of relative. Even over the phone I can sense his satisfaction.
One member of my detective team is my maternal grandmother Isabelle. She is a 90-year-old woman from the Bronx. She has done some sleuthing on her family, who came from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. So she’s in good practice when I bring her this first wave of information from my father. Using the names and approximate ages and places of birth, she actualy finds some of my Nevisian family members in Ellis Island and U.S. Census records.
I text my step-mom these scanned images so she can show them to my father. I want him to see these people he knew, whom he thought had disappeared forever. Here are their names, ages, occupations and New York addresses. Death and birth certificates, even a photo. And it’s public. Surely, this shows my father that our work matters. That any foggy details are worth trying to remember. That pieced this together, no matter how broken it is.
Around the time that my father has started speaking more about his father, I feel compelled to try channeling Arthur. I lay in bed with my journal and pen. I should probably sit up. Light a candle. Do a ritual or something to set the mood, but I don’t want to make too big a deal. In case nothing happens, in case I get it wrong. I just start writing.
Dear Arthur, are you there?
I am here, my dear.
I miss you, Grandad.
I am with you, my dear.
I would love to hear from you.
I would love to speak with you.
What would you like me to know?
What would you like to know?
About you, your life, your world.
As I write I hear a deep voice in my head — deeper than my father’s. But the exchange comes too easily and it reads too simply. I decide I must be making it up… except that there’s this accent. It’s not Crucian. It sounds… less contemporary. Closer to the fork in the road where Queen’s English and Nevisian went their separate ways. It rounds in the mouth. ‘Dear’ sounds like ‘dierr’, ‘eye’ sounds like ‘oi’ and ‘you’ sounds closer to ‘yoh’. An I making this up?
Who knew you woulda come to me like dis?
I wish it could have been in person.
If I coulda seen you wit me own eye…
Den I nevah woulda had to die.
What do you mean?
I coulda pass de spark on to you.
Spark of what?
The pride. To nevah hide.
I’ve done a lot of hiding. I’ve struggled with visibility as a woman of color, a non-binary person, a trauma survivor and a performer and a creative. And two generations before me was Arthur — an Afro-Caribbean man born in a British colony at the start of the 1900's, who went to New York in his twenties where he worked as a truck driver before moving back to his home island. In what ways was or wasn’t he able to choose to be visible, or invisible? What boldness might I have inherited by meeting such a powerful predecessor? What confidence might I have simply by looking into Arthur’s eyes? And have I lost my chance, or is there still a way to receive the transmission?
I sit back and look over this channeling, this exchange, trying to figure out if it’s real or if I made it up in my head. I sense a shape, a feel to our dialogue. I feel that Arthur sees me as his own. I sense warmth, and love. I cry like a child, missing the grandfather I never knew.
My father jokes that he reads the obituary every morning to make sure he’s not in it. George Burns said that, but now it’s my dad’s joke too; after suffering a heart attack while sailing, he got word while in the hospital that newspapers on his native island of Nevis had reported him as dead. He took it lightly, and has earned the nickname Lazarus. In my song Anchors Aweigh, the third verse says:
Arrested was the heart of my dear old dad.
He sat up in bed, said I’m not dead yet.
And you can tell that it all of the worried ears.
I’m sticking it out for a star-studded grip of years.
I traveled from LA to St. Croix to shoot a music video for this song. My father makes a cameo, on his boat. The song is a mantra, my prayer for my father’s life. Because I don’t want him to die, ever, and it’s a fear I entertain daily. For a while I was sure it was his gruesome, noble destiny to get eaten by a shark while leading snorkeling trips. I feared this was inevitable, the way it was inevitable that Timothy Treadwell who studied and lived with bears was killed and eaten by one.
Then I feared he would be killed by a tsunami. Or swallowed by the Bermuda triangle, its southern corner inching east from its position at neighboring Puerto Rico in order to include St. Croix. I also imagined how easily he could die by getting struck by lightning while sailing. But then, just yesterday he told me the story of getting struck by lightning on his boat and he didn’t feel a thing, so I’ve put that scenario to rest.
Nobody in St. Croix has been killed by a shark, but there are occasional tsunami warnings, when sirens blare from quaint, 1950’s style public megaphones that you can only hear if you’re downtown. It would be the first tsunami to hit St. Croix since 1865. But the island is bordered by the deepest water in the world — two underwater ridges that could split open and swallow my father at any time.
The second night of channeling Arthur, I hastily light a candle. My small, impatient gesture of ritual.
How are you tonight, grandad?
Me good, man, me good.
Rainbow Wood. It rain fah days.
What’s it good for?
Clothespins Hangers. Stays.
Where did you see Rainbow Wood?
In the cemetery by de table, and de dry creek.
This could be my imagination filling in the blanks based on what I know of small town, island life at the turn of the century. Knowing that, back then, any commodities you could get on a 35-square-mile island either came by boat or were made locally. I’ve got to verify this information.
“Dad, do you remember what hangers were made of when your were a boy?”
“Plastic, I think.”
“Really?” I say. “In the 50’s?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I never hung anything.”
I envy his childhood — one where you never hung anything, and never spelled anything.
“Well, Arthur said they were made of rainbow wood. Oh yeah — by the way, I’ve been channeling Arthur.”
“You’ve been channeling Arthur,” he repeats in an even, nonchalant tone.
I know this tone. It means ‘I hear you, I’m amused, and I’m withholding judgement until I have more information.’ It’s the same response he has had in the past to all my bluntly delivered important life news:
“I’m still a virgin,” while he’s driving me to the airport one summer.
“I’m moving to St. Croix,” after not visiting him for ten years.
“We’re getting married in Connecticut,” while I know he hates flying.
My father has never heard of Rainbow wood. I do some research. It’s a nickname for Eucalyptus deglupta, also known as the rainbow eucalyptus, Mindanao gum, or rainbow gum. Not native to Nevis. He can’t recall ever seeing a Eucalpytus tree on Nevis.
One of the most prized trees on St. Croix is Lignum vitae, or Guayacan. It’s the world’s densest wood. So dense and rich in oils that naturally seal it from the saltiest ocean water that was used in ship parts before cast iron pieces were a thing. Thus the nickname ironwood.
Lignum Vitae is one of Brian Bishop’s favorite topics. He comes from a large family of white Crucians, with one sister and ten brothers. He’ll talk for hours about anything related to the island - flora and fauna, history, and fun trivia. He was an underwater ship welder before becoming a goldsmith in the 70’s. I love the idea of this transition as he emerged from cloudy, shipyard water to the dry, dusty serenity of an artisan workshop.
When I lived on St. Croix, I worked at Brian’s gold shop in Christiansted. In his shop cases, we displayed the gold alongside natural and found local items. Seed pods, broken antique china, giant leaves, a hibiscus picked fresh outside every morning. In one case was a very heavy, dark cylinder made of Lignum Vitae. It was an old ship part that had been found in Christiansted harbor during a dredging. Probably underwater for decades, but it was as smooth and rich as anything that had sat in a temperature controlled case in a museum.
Five miles East of Christiansted Harbor is Teague Bay, and the St. Croix Yacht Club. Dennis was the yacht club custodian for 30 years, until ten days before his death — the details of which are very sad. He was from Dominica and was part Carib Indian. A small man with a Chaplin mustache and Malcom X glasses. Every single time I saw him he was in a trucker hat and head to toe uniform that perfectly matched his skin — the red-brown color of coconut husk. It was as if someone handed him the uniform on the first day of the job in 1972 and he wore it until the end- long after uniforms weren’t required — and became one with it.
He and my father were the only two brown men, other than the occasional bartender, to be found at the Yacht Club on a daily basis. My father tells me, “He used to fish off the beach. Loved to fish off the beach. But a lot of people who knew Dennis never knew he was a sailor.”
I don’t remember ever seeing Dennis near a boat.
“How did you find out?” I ask.
“Some people had a little boat and we had a little sail in it up above [north of] the yacht club. Me say, ‘Dennis, come man.’ I put him at the helm. And me see Dennis at the helm and me ask, ‘Yeh sail?’ He say, ‘Yeah man, I used to make me canoe.’” My father has effortlessly gone from a Crucian accent to Dennis’s higher register and lilting Dominican accent.
“In Dominica, they dug canoes from solid tree trunk. They put fire in it to expand the center. And they used to sail dem tings out in the ocean. The damn tings were narrow. They were very narrow. And when they used to catch tuna, big tuna — over a hundred pounds — and they couldn’t lift dem in de boat, they would swamp de canoe ‘em, swim the tuna in de boat, and bail it out.” I can hear the admiration in his voice. I imagine Dennis’s small frame squeezed into the hull beside the giant, gasping a fish.
“They used to smuggle rum and cigarettes from Guadeloupe to Dominica,” he continues. “They would leave in the night. But there’s a lot people who knew Dennis, who never knew that about him.”
What he means isn’t that Dennis had a well kept secret about trafficking contraband. He’s talking about the skill and strength required to maneuver those boats on the open sea, in the dark, between islands, and carrying fish as big as him. “To sail dem friggin tings you have to be a very good sailor.”
He switches subjects. “You know what he used to call you?”
“Yes,” I answer, dutifully. “Sucooloong.”
He repeats it, slowly, affirming. “Su-coo-loong.”
“What does it mean?”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s one a dem Carib words. And your mother was Tall Tree.
When Dennis didn’t show up to work one Saturday, he knew some rhythm of life had been disturbed, the way he knows when a wind in the morning will affect a sail in the afternoon. When Dennis didn’t show up on Monday, our friend Moose stopped by and knocked on Dennis door and got no answer. He and my father urged the Yacht Club to report Dennis as missing and send someone to enter the house. The Yacht Club made an inquiry with the police and was told that they’d need a search warrant.
On Tuesday, Moose broke in and found Dennis face down on the floor. He had suffered a stroke, but was still alive and had been lying there for who knows how many days, dying slowly, like a fish out of water. Uncle Glu thinks he was trying to reach the phone. He had no family on island. He passed away days later in the hospital, having never regained consciousness. I learned all this while in California, and I wept.
Not because he meant so much to me — we weren’t close, and we never said much to each other aside from pleasantries. I wept that he didn’t mean more to more people. I hate that nobody with the big boats knew what a good sailor he was, and that he lay alone on his floor for days before anyone found him. If more people knew and cared about him, he could still be alive right now. This is the tragedy of having no witnesses. It means death. Without someone to remember you, you can’t live on.
That’s why I collect scraps of stories from my family, from the island, and beyond. I’m trying to save everyone, and myself.
I often think I’ll die a dramatic, horrible death. By some giant machinery, or falling from a great height. I used to think it was my jumpy, neurotic Jewish side, but now I wonder if it’s from tales of the islands. The stories I hear of people I knew, or knew of, are impressively tragic. Death by hurricane while on a boat moored in a harbor. Dragged out to sea during a flood. Beheading by machete. Set on fire. Knifed on the wharf. Caught in the throat by a ricochet bullet. Disappeared while fishing, boat never found.
Every so often I hear another one from my father, or my mother who keeps in touch with people from her life down there. She also updates me on the deaths of people I grew up with at Community Bible Church in Orange County. But she always tells me after they’re long gone. So the wakes, memorials and funerals, flowers, condolences happen without me, while I sit in a glass building in Hollywood, working on ad pitches and social media strategy.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I finally ask her after Jimmy, who I used to babysit when he was a chubby kid, died of a drug overdose. My job already feels empty and meaningless. It feels worse knowing I could have been with her and Jimmy’s family for a day.
“I figured you wouldn’t want to come. She thinks I’m more traumatized by church than I actually am. But my memories of this church aren’t bad. What I remember most is playing the grand piano and sitting in the creaky oak pews. And when kids I babysat or hung out with or had a crush on die, I want to know.
Because I want to be the kind of person who shows up at the funeral in appropriate dress and pays my respects and says a kind word if it’s fitting. Like I did for Jay Walker, tall, curly-headed older brother to my childhood friend Bethany. His mother and sister were so touched that I was there. I didn’t know it would mean much to them. I want to be that one additional attendee who somehow comforts the family a bit more, simply because I knew the deceased and thought it worthwhile to show up. I want to be that for people like Jay. And for Dennis, who with his own hands has could carve a boat out of a tree trunk.
I don’t really understand the glory of Lignum Vitae. It takes forever to grow. The smooth, twisting branches stay small for many years - only a few inches in diameter - yet are nearly impossible to bend, break or even chop with a machete. The trees are not particularly beautiful, they have no edible fruit, and I don't even think you can make tea with the silvery green-grey leaves. But though I secretly don’t get it, I’ve adopted my father’s reverence for the trees. In place of wedding rings, my husband Francis and I wear two matching machete pendants. The miniature, blades are copper. Two gold pins bind blade to its tiny Lignum vitae handle, which was masterfully fashioned on a wood lathe. They were designed by goldsmith Brian Bishop and made by his son, to whom he has passed on the trade.
There was one memorial I was able to attend on St. Croix. Brian’s brother Donnie Bishop. Donnie had been a woodworker of tremendous talent who drank himself to death. He was a charming man who flirted inappropriately with me whenever he stopped in at the gold shop. He had three sweet, intelligent daughters who came down one summer and impressed me by spending their entire vacation reading.
He passed away before I came down one winter. The family had a short service and potluck at one of the covered picnic areas down by the lagoon. Francis and I stood in the back during the service, then said hello and were urged to fill plates and eat. We flipped through books of photos. I couldn’t believe how handsome Donnie had been. Like, movie star handsome, with golden curls, a killer smile and oceanic blue eyes. I had only known the watery-eyed, red faced, pot bellied version of him. And the only woodwork I ever saw of his were these hack job teak pedestals he had made, which we bought for our gallery space on St. Croix. They were heavy, uneven and treacherous with protruding screws. Nevertheless they were very useful, so we used them for every show to display work. We never stopped marveling at how such a talented woodworker had made something so awful.
I still can’t find any mention of Eucalyptus on Nevis. Veronica Gordon would have known. Veronica knew all flora on island - the latin, local name, and uses and benefits of bark, roots, stems, leaves, flower and fruit. When I first met her she was a cheery artisan at local festivals with a story for every piece that she carved and crafted. Instruments, jewelry and decor handily fashioned from wood, pods and seeds. I still have a few prized items she made. One worn coconut shell spoon (its mate got trashed by a someone at my office), a few calabash bowls and plumrose wood claves. The claves, which have a brilliant resonance, are silky smooth and charred to a dark brown. After she carved and sanded them, she smoked them, she had explained, to seal them from bugs.
My sister Nikki and I once took an island bush tour with Veronica. She introduced us to Baobab, the mystical African tree that can live up to 1500 years and whose limbs look like those of humans. Veronica knew the quantity and location of all baobabs on island. Brought here via seeds hidden in the hair of African abductees, she postulated. On our tour she cracked open a giant velvety green baobab pod to reveal a web of seeds buried in a tasty, tangy peach colored powder. It has like a million super beneficial properties and is perfect for smoothies. The pods hang from the tree attached by long, thick vine-like stems, which is where the nickname Dead Rat tree came from. Some say the spirits of deceased Africans live in the trees.
When a baobab dies - this is the word Veronica used - it disappears within 2 years, collapsing into itself. This is because they’re 76% water - more than the human body. She showed us where one had stood not long ago. All we could see was a depressed circle in the grass. From up to 82 feet high, with a trunk diameter of up to 45 feet, this tree disappeare without a trace, as if it got a call from the motherland - or the mothership - and made an exit by collapsing in a slow motion puddle of tears.
Being a bushwoman is tradition in Veronica’s family. The knowledge is passed down orally alternating gender with each generation. She learned from her father, and passed it on to her son. She wouldn’t allow people to record her during interviews, so as to keep the knowledge in its intended oral form. But I remember asking if i could record her on my phone once when she was giving a demo at the botanical garden, and she welcomed me to do so. Maybe she liked me, or trusted me.
When my sister was sick during her pregnancy, I called Veronica, who prescribed herbs and even met Nikki at the supermarket to give her the herbs with instructions. When my father had his heart attack, I called and asked how he might remove plaque from his arteries. (A clove of garlic in a gallon of water everyday). Veronica looked decades younger than her 50-something years. Not a line in her skin. She once mentioned having arthritis, for which she’d slap a piece of stinging nettle on her wrist to relieve the pain. Bee stings worked just as well she said. She had a remedy for everything.
Hers was another funeral I missed. She died of lung cancer. It was a shock to everyone. Apparently, she had been a closet chain smoker. I imagined it was her way of coping with some trauma from her past. I remember her telling me that when she lived in New York, she slept on a bed she made out of stacks of newspaper in her apartment. To me, this was a sign of some odd survivor’s behavior. Although, it could have been some instinctual urge to sleep closer to nature - wood pulp of newspapers being the best she could do in the city.
She behaved so strangely the last time I saw her. I was visiting St. Croix one early summer. It was a hot day. I saw her at Frederiksted pier, selling her wares to the cruise ship crowd. She usually wore traditional Caribbean and African garb for fairs and festivals, but this time she looked more like a witch doctor. She wore a mesmerizingly intricate patterned dress and pants, and colorful mask that covered her whole face. It had slits for eyes and no mouth. She even wore gloves - not an inch of her skin was showing. From her whole costume hung countless strings dotted with tiny triangles of paper that swung and rustled every time she made a move. It reminded me of a wood spirit a character finds peeking at them from behind a tree in an anime movie. Something that isn't evil, but doesn't feel good, either.
Though she was friendly as she spoke, she’d occasionally utter an ominous phrase in a light-hearted voice - I can’t remember any of them now. And n addition to her customary dried calabash bowls that bore carvings of hearts, the shape of St. Croix and adages like “Positive is how I live” there were now pieces warning shoppers of unhealed wounds and scars. When I stopped later to say goodbye, there was an older tourist woman taking a video of her as she peeked out from behind a palm tree, flipping the woman off with white-gloved hands. I was more upset by the tourist than by Veronica’s behavior. This woman knew nothing about Veronica, her wisdom, her kindness, her legacy. But I guess even those of us who knew Veronica didn’t know enough.
After more searching, I find one mention of eucalyptus on Nevis. In a travel blog, a guy describes his hiking guide scraping gum from the trunk of a Eucalyptus. They hold it to their noses and deeply inhale its astringent, menthol aroma. Their guide explains that it brings mental alertness.
Here’s the thing. If I can find single a Eucalyptus tree on Nevis then I’m willing to believe that Arthur really came through. And if Arthur came through, then Arthur lives. That means my wish is granted: my father will never die. None of us will die.