My great-great Uncle Edward was the son of a freed slave and an English woman. Since his racial make up wasn’t easily discernible, and being black limited his opportunities, he decided to leave his family in Bermuda and go where no one knew him, and he would not have to live as a second class citizen. He went “down under,” and had a family, first in Australia, then another in New Zealand. He cut ties with the Bermudians, so I didn’t learn of my Kiwi and Aussie connections until 2006, when one of Edward’s descendants contacted the Bermuda archives and found my grandmother’s family.
I began corresponding with Sylvia, a cousin who lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband Barry. Though we’d never met in person, she invited me to visit. I hopped a plane to the other side of the world, eager to meet this stranger with whom I share DNA.
Our first adventure, on a warm October day, was to a psychiatric hospital, which does not sound like much of a tourist attraction, huh? Maybe that’s why she and her husband didn’t tell me where we were going.
On the way, Barry stopped at a market and bought a loaf of white bread. Oy, I thought. White bread is anathema to me, but I would not be rude if that is what my cousin was serving for dinner.
Looking out from the backseat, I found myself moving though a vast lawn that needed watering.
“These are the grounds of a mental asylum,” Sylvia said.
An asylum? I began to sweat. I barely knew this woman. She could have had me locked up and no one would find me.
“Get your camera ready,” she said. The car headed toward what looked like a bank of creepy, old buildings dusty with desuetude. I didn’t want a picture of that.
Then I noticed… a big KANGAROO standing on the side of the road next to a tree. Just hanging out. My jaw dropped. I turned to Sylvia, who was grinning. She was not having me committed, she was giving me a surprise.
“Oh my god,” I squealed, “What’s he doing there?” I asked, because this wasn’t a zoo, safari, or a game camp. It was the Park Center for Mental Health, in Wacol.
“He lives here,” Sylvia said, handing me a slice of bread.
As the car brought me closer toward the buildings more Kangaroos appeared. On their hind legs, their ears perked up and their eyes grew wide. These marsupials just happen to live on the grounds of the mental hospital the way squirrels hang around building with trees in the states.
Barry stopped the car. The roos stared for a few moments.
“Roll down your window.”
As I did as Sylvia instructed, three of the kangaroos moved closer. The biggest came all the way up to me, looking at the bread. I was a bit scared. He was big, wild, and he had teeth. But I mustered the courage to hand him a piece of bread. He grabbed it so fast I’d have missed it had I blinked. His paws looked like hands. He stood close and watched me while he chewed.
His huge eyes asked, “Any more?” The rest of the family approached, and there I was breaking bread with three Kangaroos.
“Thank you. This is amazing,” I said, turning to Sylvia.
“Yes, it is,” she smiled.
I was reminded of the interconnectedness of us all—animals and humans of all kinds. Never know whom you might be related to, or whom you might dine with, if you dare to travel.
Toni Ann Johnson is a Sundance Institute Screenwriter’s Lab alum. She won the Humanitas Prize for her civil rights era teleplay “Ruby Bridges,” in 1998. In 2004 she won a second Humanitas Prize for “Crown Heights,” the Showtime drama about the 1991 riots between African-American and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She also writes dance movies and books about health and beauty. Her books Vibrating Youth and Vibrant and Clear are available on Amazon. Visit www.vibratingyouth.com