A journalist reflects on his New Jersey childhood and the nurturing Jamaican nanny who raised him.
Urken’s resonant debut memoir doubles as a biographical tribute to Dezna Sanderson, the “Jamaican Mary Poppins” who helped raise him for over a decade. As the doting family nanny, Sanderson emerged as the saving grace in a Jewish household fractured by dysfunction from his parents’ tumultuous “screaming matches” as well as drug addiction and mental illness. Since her arrival in 1988, Sanderson became Urken’s anchor, a sweet, sage mother figure whose own Seventh-day Adventist sumptuary laws nicely mirrored Jewish restrictions. As generous as she was in her caregiving for the author and his sister, Nicole, she remained reserved about her own background. Urken writes with clarity and intense focus about his indebtedness to Sanderson, who was “like a protective buffer,” and he shares many treasured memories of their time together. This fondness continued into his adulthood until the devastating news of Sanderson’s death in 2010. Eager to discover and honor more of her heritage, the author traveled to Jamaica. Despite tight-lipped family members, he launched a cross-cultural exploration of her life in Mahogany Hill, seeking “to find the root of her strong voice to understand my own.” Urken immersed himself in Jamaica’s history of political unrest involving the CIA’s covert military invasion of the region in the 1970s and the ensuing economic destabilization, which sabotaged the Sanderson family’s pineapple plantation. Many fled the region, and Sanderson, despite birthing eight children, wound up on the Urkens’ doorstep. A family visit to Sanderson’s gravesite forms one of the memoir’s more poignant scenes. The author’s memories and descriptions of Sanderson are aptly adulatory in honoring a cherished, compassionate caregiver who, in large part, is responsible for the man he has become today.
A memorable hybrid of heartfelt memoir and fond commemoration framed in Caribbean history, familial turmoil, and unconditional maternal love.