This past week in Dominica, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting for the very first time my great-grandfather, Aborfield Rabess. Going into this encounter, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would he know who I was? After all, he has a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the world… Would he even be cognitively present enough to engage in conversation? 97 years is a long time! But in retrospect, I can definitely say that it exceeded my expectations and turned out to be a day I will never forget.
My family comes from a little town in northeast Dominica called Atkinson. This home, which I’ve seen pictures of for years, has been in my family for over 100 years! My great-grandfather was even born in this home.
In preparation for Hurricane Maria, his caretakers had to remove him from the home for safety and he told me that he cried. He was so sad to be removed from the home, fearful of what might happen to it, fearful that he might not return to it. The morning after the storm had passed, he immediately requested to be reunited with his beloved sanctuary of a home. After assessing the damages and cleaning things up, he was taken back to his safe haven, our family home. This little house on the hill with a red rooftop withstood Hurricane Maria with minor damages.
It turns out that he did know exactly who I was! When I told him I was “Earl’s granddaughter,” he replied, “Oh, Ashlei!?” And I said, “Yes!” as I teared up. I was so happy.
He credited his old age to a very strict diet: no sugars (besides that from natural fruits), and only whole wheat breads. He takes his diabetes medication faithfully and drinks lots of fresh coconut water. I better take some notes!
He showed us his teaching diploma. He was an English teacher on the island for many, many years. My aunts and cousin reported that he was so strict on them about speaking and writing in perfect English, that they still speak to him very properly to this day! I even began to straighten up my English when I learned this of him, haha!
He also showed us his medal of honor award from the government of Dominica, for teaching. What an outstanding English teacher he must have been to have been formally recognized by the President!
I was boarding a bus in the downtown Roseau area, when the bus driver stopped me to ask me if I had any family on the island. I told him that my great-grandfather is Aborfield Rabess, to which he replied, “Wow! Prominent, very prominent man and educator. You resemble him.” I was smiling from ear to ear, of course.
He was also very proud to show me these two plaques signifying the meaning and recognition of our last name. Pretty cool!
The surname of Rabess is of French origin, thought to be a patronym for “the son of Rabe or Raban”, an old French name meaning “dweller at the sign of the raven”.
And here we are saying our goodbyes. I became so emotional; I did not want to leave! He has such a peaceful and warm presence that I wish I could’ve spent more time with him that day, but I don’t know that any amount of time would ever be enough. I hope to visit him again soon some day.