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?The Island Always Brings You Back?: Finding a Caribbean Home

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The New York Times
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Supported byA writer never knew her family’s house on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but discovering it, and her history, became an obsession. By Jessica Francis KaneHere is everything I knew about Mafolie before I went to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in January: It was one of the original hilltop estates, given to my grandparents by my great-grandfather as a wedding present in 1936. My father is a university professor, a scientist skeptical of what he calls my “humanist love of place.” And yet he was the one who kept a framed pair of maps of St. Thomas, one of the biggest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, on the wall behind his dining room chair all the years I was growing up. He is the one who said the view from Mafolie had been described as the “eighth wonder of the world,” and told me about my grandfather playing horseshoes in the evening, his cocktail in a glass the shape of a bud vase so it could be slipped into his shirt pocket. “Oh, the island always brings you back,” they said when I told them why I was there. Her father’s family’s history on the island went back hundreds of years and her mother had owned an old house in Misgunst, the estate right next to Mafolie. It looked a little bit like the house in my photos and for a moment I wondered if Mafolie hadn’t been knocked down after all.Juliette parked and we went up to the gate, which was not very big or grand. Inside!” which is, I learned after my heart stopped racing, a typical way of approaching a house on the island. “It was a travesty when they knocked the Great House down.” He said travesty with great force.I asked him if he could show me where it had been and Bill walked us slowly, on somewhat unsteady legs, to the edge of his property. He cared about the black children.” “He is not forgotten.”And then she looked at Juliette and said that their father and my grandfather had been good friends. In the dream I was there but not there, unable to see what I’d come to see.My flight home wasn’t until the afternoon, and though I didn’t know how I was going to get in, I decided that last morning that I had to try and see the place where the Great House had been, No. 8 Mafolie Estates. He said I could look about the place, but the gate had closed behind his car, so he gestured at the foliage and said, “Just go around.” He drove off and while I was trying to figure out what he meant, a woman came walking up the road. Mafolie.In the taxi to the airport I looked back at the ridge line above Charlotte Amalie one last time and realized I could tell where the Great House had been by the trees, the old and twisted mahoganies left at the edge of the terracing.

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