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What My Nanny Left Me

How did a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up speaking with a Jamaican accent? It’s an enduring inheritance from a woman who raised me.

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Dezna Sanderson and the author at the candle lighting at his bar mitzvah on June 5, 1999. (Courtesy of the author)

It was a supreme role reversal, as I stood next to my former nanny’s bed in Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital, feeding her Kozy-Shack rice pudding and wiping the residue from her lips.

No longer a boy with a neat auburn bowl-cut, I was now an unruly-haired twenty-something with a thick Semitic beard. Looking like an ancient Levite, I stood in sharp contrast to the others in Dezna’s hospital room—the Caribbean churchwomen from her Seventh Day Adventist congregation who sang hymns, held my hands, told me about Jesus, and gave me a book about the afterlife. Though I appeared a distinct outsider, I knew I could reveal our surprising shared identity simply by opening my mouth. Because unlike most Jewish boys from New Jersey, I have a Jamaican accent.

I am often faced with guffaws of incredulity, or pshaws of dismissal, when I explain that my unusual accent doesn’t reflect the influence of my native Princeton or the musicality of Torah tropes, but rather the sing-song lilt of the West Indies, the hum-drum of Montego Bay, the modulated patois of reggaeton. But it’s true, and it all started with Dezna, the Jamaican woman who spent the first 13 years of my life with me.

***

Throughout my neurotic, book-stuffed youth, I was terrified at bedtime, when the absence of light makes one vulnerable to bandits and dybbuks. My family certainly had no conception of the golem crisis in my bedroom in the early ’90s, so to cope with my paranoia, I stayed close to Dezna at night.

Dezna was my hero, especially on nights my parents went out, when the fear was at its peak. My parents would go to dinner at the Blumenfelds, see a movie with the Walkers, or grab some nosh with the Andersons. The door would slam, the Saab would pull out of Hale Drive, and my sister, Nicole, would start crying. I would start washing my hands to cope with the stress of abandonment, until Dezna would eliminate my anxieties with various invitations pronounced in her mellifluous Jamaican accent: “Come yah dungstairs, Ross-mon, let’s get dez-ert,” or “Djeopardy stahts soon.”

And with my washed-out knuckles on the verge of bleeding, I would descend to the kitchen—my ears overflowing with her words’ intoxicating rhythm, dulcet rum to inebriate my auditory nerves.

After dessert—I always chose Chips Ahoy Deluxe, because I thought it sounded fancy—Dezna would put on her hair curlers, and Nicole and I would sit Indian-style in front of the television in her room for Jeopardy at 7:00. In our little trinity, we slapped five when we secured Daily Doubles or won at Final Jeopardy. (Dezna knew an impressive amount of trivia.) Then came Wheel of Fortune; vowels were for sale, but in our Jamaican-influenced articulation, they were shortened, flattened, deepened. The three of us would shout: “C’mon, big money!” Dezna would solve the puzzles, and Nicole and I would lavish in the glory of our (somehow) collective victory—some two or three spins before the contestants on the tube. We were, after all, two precocious children growing up in an intellectually pretentious town with a woman of profound knowledge.

After the shows, we would make some complaint about brushing our teeth before preparing for bed at 8:30. But it was an anatomical impossibility to speak out against Dezna’s honeyed voice, and we would eventually obey her rules and squeeze our toothpaste from the bottom, “brush and flush,” and go to bed in Nicole’s room. I spent every night my parents went out in the extra twin bed in my sister’s room. It mattered not that Nicole’s room, adorned with pink ruffles and ornately frilled shams, better suited the usual girly suspects of her sleepovers—I was comfortable all the same there in the uterine warmth of down and silk.

Dezna, dimming the lights to make the pink ruffles and chiffon a pastel Creamsicle, would pray. This wasn’t the sort of prayer we found in Hebrew school where we could race through mumbling, without a full conception of the gravitas. This prayer was more about profound wishing. Dezna would pray for the welfare of our parents, the health and happiness of her eight children (seven in Montego Bay, one in the other Jamaica, in Queens), the sweet dreams of Nicole and Ross. Just as Dezna would look on with absolute, if amused, respect as we lit the Shabbes candles or sang before the menorah, Nicole and I, eyes closed, would hold hands with our nanny in a circle of reciprocal respect as she prayed: “Lord our Father, Jah in Heaven.”

***

In my youth, I spent many weekends and school vacations working in my father’s hardware store in Princeton where I helped hoity-toity Nobel laureates in literature find the correct screw, and counted out incorrect change to tenured Princeton math professors who had proven Fermat’s Last Theorem. As such, I was exposed to the most pretentious and academic of speech patterns: R’s that became H’s, throaty schwa E’s, nasal and diminutive A’s. Added to that, I had a Jewish merchant’s inflection, a gimmicky shtick to deflect hagglers. (At 7 years old, I could not be talked down in price on a Weber grill.) These influences, to be sure, laid the foundation of my accent, but the decorations of its baroque tendencies, the savvy of its enunciation, come from my extended time with Dezna.

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MichaelSklaroff says:

Good one, this.

A beautiful eulogy.

That was so beautiful. We have been to Montego Bay a few times…cruise ship stops and love it there. The people are lovely. She sounded like a beautiful person, you were blessed  to have in your life

Beautiful, beautiful! Reminiscent of a movie called ‘Clara’s Heart’.  You were lucky to be so well-cared for, so loved.

From a Jewish Peace Corps Volunteer – L’chaim the overproof rum and thank you for your story!  Likkle more!

yehudabendavid says:

Jamaicans have a Jewish neshuna.I am married to a Jamaican woman ,who converted to Judaism,and observes all the Jewish hollidays.Our son Benyamin goes to a Jewish school and is growing up proud  to be both black and Jewish.On our frequent visit to Jamaica to visit ,his grand-parents and relatives,I have never experienced prejudice.The church ladies are warm and caring,as well as having a very loving heart.We have attaended services at the only synagogue in Kingstan,where whites and blacks congregate and sing Hebrew services in hebrew with a Jamaican accent.What a wonderful experience!”One love,One heart”.On my last trip to Jamaica I also noticed many Israelis moving to Jamaica ,who are speaking  with a Jamaican patois.What a beautiful country,what a beautiful people!PS>Saven day Adventists also observe shabbat and keep kosher and the women dress like lebovitch,modestly.You were very fortunate to be brought up by Dezna,a very caring and loving person.Beruch Ashem.

nancy18 says:

I also had a Jamaican housekeeper/nanny until I was about 15.  I don’t have her accent, but everything else in this piece rang true.  I miss her very much.  Thank you for this piece.

Lawd geezam man Ross! Yuh mek mi eye full up a wata. I am glad that you had someone as special as Dezna in your life. 

Dezna made an indelible mark on this youngster just as most Jamaican parents do to their children and it was great to hear all that she did from the other side of someone from a totally different culture, this only confirm how universal our Jamaican/Caribbean culture and way of life is. I really thank him for immortalizing her in his reflection on some the times shared with her that we all can connect with, God bless her soul and all the best for this young man and his family who’s life was forever enriched and seems to have a very promising future as a writer among other talents

Cool Runnings
Jah Guide &
One Love
Roy

apodoca says:

Boy, you make m’ eyes and them full, full, full. This glass o’ ginger beer to you an’ Dezna.

Thank you for this lovely tribute, Ross – to Dezna and all the Jamaican women who lovingly help raise children in the U.S. and all over the world.  You are truly blessed to have had Dezna as part of your early formation.  I think I speak for most Jamaicans when I say, we embrace you as one of ours!!!

And how about your use of language!!!  You are clearly gifted in linguistics…. such elegant and lyrical writing.  Thanks again!!!

Dreadie says:

A fantastis tribute to Denza. She did bring yu up good, as one of her own. She would have been proud. Bwoy yu caan tawk Jamaican yuh nuh. Big up! Yuh caan eben write tu rawtid! Bring a smile to mi face. Yuh hav more story fi tell?

Recoloniser says:

So what did your parents have to say about it?  My brother copied the ripe Lancashire accent of our wonderfully kind cleaning lady cum babysitter and my parents were not amused.

Beautiful writing. Did you miss her. One of my friends had a similar relationship with his nanny and he was traumatized when she was fired. Did you fall apart when she left? Would like to hear more.

Ross, your piece moved me to tears. Denza sounded wonderful and I’m amazed at your Jamaicanness! what joy!

Ross, your article brought me to tears. It made me stand a little prouder as a Jamaican and I would be honoured to meet you to warmly welcome you as a fellow Jamaican!

Your linguistic ability and the profound way in which you have articulated the nuances of our accent are both astounding. I am beyond impressed! Do please tell us more about how your parents react to the impact Dezna had on you and I am happy you had her in your life!

Continue to be well and bless you! You are beyond talented!

What a beautiful love letter to a wonderful woman. I was a Seventh Day Adventist, Caribbean nanny at 21, for a sweet Jewish boy who grew up to be a lovely young man. I am so blessed he and I are still in touch! Your words let me know that the special connection I had and still have with my young charge, matters. And the next time I see him, I will ask him what he remembers most about my years with his family. …I’m suddenly curious! Your beautiful words are not only a tribute to Denza, but also her culture, faith and her family who helped form her loving spirit. Thank you for writing this…for so many reasons!

Michelle Smith says:

Good read. I am sorry that she passed, but I am very happy that she left you a legacy. Keep it close to you and visit us anytime you wish. Peace and love from Kingston,Jamaica!

EbonyLolita says:

WOW!! I can relate so well. My father is Haitian & my mother was Southern. I had ALL Jamaican nannies & was raised in a Jamaican neighborhood. *NorthEast Bronx* Ppl who JUST arrived from Jamaica think I’m Jamaican, but I tell them I’m Black American. Some have said I’m “Putting on” but when you’re raised primarily by a grp of ppl you will adapt to their way of speaking quite naturally. Shoutout to Cita, Aunt Vin & Ms. Pearl who gave me a gift of Language :)

Absolutely beautiful story! The power of love and friendship which crosses all nationalities and cultures. Also brings back memories of my childhood in Jamaican and the strength and positive influence of those stalwart Jamaican women.

Marcia Campbell says:

Good read Ross….brought tears to my eyes. Happy you shared this with us…We Jamaicans are proud. Jamaica awaits you Ross. PLEASE visit!

ONE LOVE..BLESS

First I have to say, well written. The entire time reading this I had a big smile on my face with a few chuckles here and there. May that beautiful lady rest in peace.

Wonderful Zenza. May her soul rest in peace.

Denise says:

This is an amazing story…. I would love to hear you speak ‘Rhuss’. Hope that you get the opportunity to visit Jamaica sometime.

Althea Brown says:

I am in Jamaica now reading this and I am feeling overjoyed by the sheer energy of this tribute to your caregiver.
I am amazed at the precise Jamaicanness of the allusions and feel so proud to have you- a stranger- as part of our big Jamaican heritage/family.
Peace and love to you … and a wish for heaven for Denza’a soul.

Sonia Bartley Thompson says:

Such a beautiful, heart warming story! Thanks for sharing Ross. RIP Dezna. One Love every time!

Deneice says:

Just lovely. Thank you honouring Dezna and her Jamaica.

Observer99 says:

One Love.

Dahlia Walker-Huntington says:

Ross – yuh mek mi bawl. Lovely tribute. Dezna would have been proud. So many Jamaican women have left their own children in Jamaica in search of a better life in America and in the process have loved and raised thousands of American children.

Thank you for the acknowledgement and for sharing your love for Desna the world.

Walk good.

This was beautiful. Its nice to see how different cultures can intertwine. Great writing.

Patricia R. Blackwood says:

Mr. Ross:
Great story! I was a Nanny for years and I love the family. Ms. Denza makes us very proud Jamaicans!

You should tell us more stories …
Please visit JAMAICA soon :)

quamie mortley says:

Very interesting….I can identify with the bilingual mix, having lived in many different cultures. I always tell people that I pronounce words in Jamaican. Nice article.

Antoinette Reynolds says:

A touching story of the influence of relationships and culture on language and development. Couple of comments, though. I highly doubt that Adventist Dezna would have prayed to “Jah in heaven.” I know that the perceptions and memories of children are often a little off. She would more likely have prayed to “Our Father God in Heaven…” Jah–especially back in those days–was a distinctly Rastafarian term, and Christians would have been averse to it, viewing it as a reference to Haile Selassie. Things are a little different now, but not back then. Also, reggaeton is the fusion of reggae–the Jamaican original musical genre–with Latin rhythms. So it would have been the patois of “reggae” with which the author grew up.

Davia says:

Thank you for this piece. It made me proud to be a Jamaican. Little things like these can make a big difference. Thank you Sir and the company for reaching out and touching us. Much love. Walk good.

Love knows no boundaries. This wonderful memoir has inspired me to write my own. Thank you for a beautiful share, so elegantly written.

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What My Nanny Left Me

How did a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up speaking with a Jamaican accent? It’s an enduring inheritance from a woman who raised me.