Ten years ago this month I arrived on St Croix – I had been warned Ag Fair would mean hotel rooms would be at a premium and there would be no cars to hire. They were and there weren’t. I didn’t care. I came to view a house on a hill in Christiansted.
I fell in love that weekend—in love with a house, a town, an island.
The sea glistened aquamarine and topaz under a brilliant sun then, as trade winds blew a squall across the island, the ocean sparkled through opalescence to the colour of mercury.
Apart from knowing the island had once been part of the Danish West Indies then sold to the United States, I knew little of the history but, as with everywhere I’ve lived, I would learn, would throw myself into whys and wherefores of what would become our new home.
We bought the house on the hill.
It proved to be a project and without Barry Allaire and his Merry Men, Mingo and Easy, and the raft of tradesmen who helped, it would have been a job of epic proportions. They, with humour, sensitivity and patience turned dreams into a livable reality. And after slathering coats of paint on all the walls, I know each intimately as colour brought our new home to life.
With the help of a friend in Denmark, we found the Census for 1839 and learnt of some of the occupants of the house on the hill. My book, Crucian Fusion, has a short story called The Sempstress about the women – all seamstresses – who lived here.
And then the garden.
From a jungle of creeping coralita to a quarry of rotten rock relieved of buckets of Chaney and beer bottles, emerged coral-stone walls covered in moss. A slab of concrete with no discernible merit slid down the slope. Two coconut palms soared over a rampant ficus vine whose suckers sprouted in ankle-breaking profusion. A woody magenta bougainvillea with quarter-inch thorns clambered over a flaking white fence.
Over the years my husband, John, has turned the space into a garden of surprises. Each seating area offers glimpses of another promise through a curtain of Gardenia, Duranta, Portlandia, Hibiscus, Jasmine, Oleander and Ginger Thomas. A nod to my Australian heritage comes in the form a Bottle Brush. Honeysuckle climbs the wall of the workshop, a pygmy palm hovers near the pergola, where once coconuts threatened life. A path leads up the hillside to a bench covered with Chaney which offers a perch from which to view yachts either in Gallows Bay or Christiansted harbour. “Simon, Dec 31st 1928” was etched into another slab of concrete, which became the base for a patio. There is another name now added. “JKG, Feb 2018.”
It is a garden for the birds, the bees and the butterflies. Fish swim in the pond, until the night heron pays a call. Frog-song and cricket chorales fill our nights. It is a garden that has been enjoyed by our Crucian strays. Bonnie a week’s old kitten saved from drowning in Christiansted harbour after being kicked by a gig worker at Schupes on the Boardwalk. And Stan, left to die of starvation and suppurating sarcoptic mange at Altoona Lagoon, who followed me home from a walk. All is not always paradise on St Croix.
John has been involved with the National Park Service and has spent many hours, and much energy, helping clean beaches and trails, turtle watch and speaking to tourists. There is much talk of the beauty here and yet, too often, it is not valued. Instead people desecrate the island with dirty diapers, tires, appliances and any other detritus imaginable.
On the flip side, energy and imagination, and the St Croix Orchid Society, has created a sanctuary at the St George Village Botanical Garden. The Sugar Factory Memorial Garden will eventually house one thousand orchids to commemorate those slaves who lived and died on the estate. John, along with others, spent a year’s worth of Saturdays moving rocks and designing this sacred space – they became known as The Rock Stars.
St Croix is where I found my voice as a novelist – Fireburn and Transfer – are stories that have now travelled the world as tourists buy the books and take a little of the island’s history, wrapped in fiction, back to wherever home is. Crucian Fusion, mentioned earlier, honors a number of those who live on St Croix, both Crucians and imports, who have made a mark. One of my fondest memories when writing that book is of spending hours talking to Doc Petersen— little did either of us know he would die within a year.
I have gone on to write two more novels – Have You Eaten Rice Today? and, in the editing phase, Finding Serenissima. Neither about this island but written here, with huge support from the St Croix Writers’ Circle, who meet every Monday at ten – the eponymous name of the book we published during the pandemic.
Tomorrow I leave this house on the hill that has given us so much happiness. I leave the island that I love, the people who welcomed me, guided me, taught me. Not because I have fallen out of love but because, after ten years, it is time for a new adventure.
St Croix is not glitzy but colours shimmer like gemstones – sea-grape jam is like a handful of amethysts quivering on my morning muffin. And the people, the beaches, the towns, the architecture, the culture, the food, the ocean that laps the golden shores, epitomize America’s Caribbean.
Then why am I leaving?
Right now, as I think about packing my suitcase, as I say goodbye to another friend who has made me so welcome, I wonder.
But I’m about turn 65. If I’m to have another global adventure it has to be now.
So, goodbye and thank you St Croix. For the friendships and the fun