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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)

My consonants are clear, if over-pronounced, with T and D ticking in tandem and spitting like the greasy hands of a grandfather clock. Flat vowels, like deep plunks of rocks in Caribbean coves, irrigate my voice.

Dezna was my closest childhood friend, and moments we spent over cereal and tea, the walk to the bus stop on spring mornings, the games we invented with tennis balls and the geometric bends of my house’s shingled roof, allowed her to pour into my ear the West Indian time signature, the syntactic steel drum. From her taunting calls at wrestlers (we got into WWF together, favoring the Undertaker and under-the-radar uber-Jew Randy Savage), tempered with afternoon warnings directed at the television during The Young and the Restless (“Dohn go in der, girl?”), I have retained, in the most instinctive elements of my speech, the diminished final T, the rhythmic jump, the last word of a statement hurling up interrogatively toward an unnecessary question mark. We share, by osmosis, this sing-song accent, harmonized in a sort of Haftorah-trope progression, incanted in pedal-held beats. The accent is not merely Dezna’s fault, but her phylogenic begetting, the prolongation of her most amazing feature.

My Jamaican way of speaking is perhaps, strictly speaking, less an accent than intonation or rhythm. If you’d listened to Dezna and to me, our lilts would sound the same, our reduced O’s identical. She kept diphthongs beautifully closed and flat, saying “cow” or “now” with an almost Irish brogue. Instead of “Ross and I,” she would say “Ruhss and m’self.” “This thing” became “Dis ting.” At bathtime, “dirty” was somehow “dutty” in our Jam-Down speech. “Somebody” was “samdi,” and “you all” became “uno.” Dezna also colored her speech with incorrect colloquialisms to spice up her syntax. My own speech is moistened, colored, more muscular because of the variety of sounds to which I was exposed.

In fact, she exposed me to more than language. My whole upbringing spliced together a Jamaican cultural immersion alongside my American Jewish upbringing; with all the johnnycake dumplings and ginger beer and salted codfish she fed us, it was almost Study Abroad Montego Bay. But like any study program, it had to end. In 1999, I was bar mitzvahed—no longer a child, no longer in need of a nanny—and Dezna moved out.

Later, when I lived for a year in Crown Heights, that smattering of Orthodox Jews and Caribbean refugees, I felt the Brooklyn neighborhood was ideal for my binary character. Though I consented to the be-payosed lulav squad who tracked me down and made me shake to reaffirm God’s existence, though I attended a service at the Chabad-Lubavitch mecca at 770 Eastern Parkway and went to Shabbat dinners in the neighborhood, I found just as much connection eating jerk chicken at The Islands or from some random beef-patty joints. I moved seamlessly through Crown Heights. After all, my poufy Jew-fro, standing on end as if Kafka had gotten friendly with an electrical outlet, could have put me into either of two categories: New Age rabbi with a Samson complex, or reggae star extraordinaire.

Dezna and I remained in contact. When I spoke to her over the phone, a slight smile of pride appeared on my lips when I heard in our dialogue the clangor of a Jon Connu troupe, the syncopated Caribbean rhythms, the swished vowels of our One Love accent woven into our language.

And so it was terrifying to stand over her hospital bed in Newark, as I did the fall before last, and see my childhood savior supported through an IV feeding tube. Hard to call her name and have her not hear through some deep sleep, unable to voice any response. But that voice, the Jamaican voice that is my most prized asset when I greet the world, carries on her memory within me. It is the voice that sang Kaddish for Dezna when she died, and the one that maintains the fluidity, the Jewish-Jamaican encoding with which I so proudly make my pronunciations.

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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.

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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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