Some Childhood Memories
Growing up in the British West Indies
Valerie in Ursuline Convent school uniform at "Norgate" in Barbados - 1957
The first memory I have of my Bajan grandparents, Esmée and Garnet St. Hill, was when they lived in a three-bedroom bungalow called “Norgate” on Dayrells Road, just before the corner of Navy Gardens, in the southern parish of St. Michael, Barbados. They had already sold the family home "Ypres" at the corner of 1st Avenue in Belleville, where my mother and all her siblings were born and raised. When they bought their new home it was called "Minscourt". Why they renamed it "Norgate" I don't know. It was next door to the corner house, “Macneath”. Every home in Barbados seemed to have a name.
Just before my 10th birthday in September of 1957, I came over from Trinidad with my mother, as I was going to start school at the Ursuline Convent in Barbados and stay with my grandparents during term time. New uniforms, new surroundings, and a totally new way of life from what I had been accustomed to at our home in San Fernando, Trinidad. Mummy went back to Trinidad, and I settled in with Granny and Pop. I had a nice bedroom, clean and neat as a pin, cream painted furniture, a washbasin in the corner. There was a little cream-painted desk by the windows where I did my homework and wrote weekly letters to my parents in Trinidad. I loved the lined writing pads that always had glamorous screen stars on the covers. Sometimes I used blue postage pre-paid aerograms. On my bed was a blue and white candlewick bedspread. Over the bed on the wall hung a print of an angel carrying a small child over a bridge on a stormy night, a turbulent river surging below. That always fascinated me and must have made an impression as 65 years later I still vividly remember it!
My first impression when I arrived in Barbados was how clean and orderly everything was. The drive from Seawell Airport along the south coast was magical as the bright turquoise sea glistened alongside the road. With the windows rolled down (no airconditioned cars in those days) you could hear the waves and smell the ocean. I remember passing a sort of billboard of a huge, colourful macaw somewhere near Oistins, I believe it was an advertisement for Doorley's Rum.
I was surprised that my grandparents never closed the windows at night, they stayed wide open with the breeze blowing in, and there were no burglar bars. Granny St. Hill was a housekeeper of note. She kept an exercise book with all of the maid’s daily duties and time-table written down in her clear, rounded handwriting. There were also pages that laid out weekly and monthly duties, such as cleaning the brass, silverware, windows, polishing the mahogany furniture etc. There was a strict routine, and their house rules were “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I was told that I was to take off my school uniform as soon as I came home from school, hang it neatly on a hanger “to air” and that I could use 3 clean shirts and one tunic per week. Navy blue tunic, white shirt, brown laced up shoes, white socks turned down to the ankle, and a navy blue beret with the school badge, to be worn while out on the road. There were penalties to be paid at school if you were seen not wearing your school beret on the road!
To me, it was a completely different world from my Trinidad home. Everything was routine and scheduled at my grandparents' home - I had been accustomed to more spontaneous and rather chaotic home life with my siblings. Unplanned drives with my parents and dropping in unexpectedly to visit friends was normal in Trinidad. "Stay and have something to eat, nah". . . grown-ups drank and chatted, the kids played and ran wild till late. We often went to the movies with our parents - "Matinee show", with hot channa in brown paper cones bought from a vendor outside the cinema. We sometimes stopped to buy rotis from East Indian roadside vendors, watching them flip the roti skins on to the hot coalpots. Best rotis ever! Fresh hops breads from the "parlours" and Charlie's black pudding - there was none of that in this totally different Barbados world. Two islands close to each other, yet so different.
Unlike in Trinidad, maids were called by their surnames only. In Trinidad, our helper was Laura, in Barbados, Granny’s maid was called Scott. Back then, household helpers were called servants. I never knew Scott's first name. I remember that Scott turned up for work each day in her morning uniform, and had to wear a green cap and apron at all times. She lived nearby so would knock off for an hour or so after serving lunch and cleaning up the kitchen, then reappear in the afternoon donning her white cap and apron, perfectly starched and laundered. Scott called me “Miss Valerie” and my grandparents were addressed as Master and Mistress. To my young Trini ears, that sounded strange and somehow quaint. In Trinidad, Mummy was Madam and Daddy was "Suh" or "Mistah Sheppad". Bajan maids also had a peculiar habit of saying “yes please” or “no please” when asked a question. That also sounded very odd to me. Never yes or no without “please” added on.
Granny kept an exercise book in which she wrote her grocery lists. The telephone table with the black rotary-dial telephone, number 7224, was next to the window in the dining room, and a mahogany cane-bottomed chair ready. There she sat and called in her grocery order from Alleyne, Arthur & Co. and was told when to expect the delivery. On the appointed day, a horn would blow at the back entrance to the house which was in a narrow alley-way on the east side of the house that connected through to Navy Gardens. "Granny, the Alleyne Arthur van is here!" I loved to watch the delivery of groceries - something I had never seen before in Trinidad. You see, my grandparents did not own a car, so that was also a huge difference. I loved to take the Route 15 bus sometimes, what a thrill that was for a little Trini girl that had never been in a bus before. Sometimes I would catch the open-sided bus and go to the Museum by the Garrison, all by myself. The bus fare was 15 cents. In Trinidad, Daddy drove a sleek iridescent green Chevy in which he took us everywhere.
On grocery delivery day, the door set in the outside wall at "Norgate" would be opened, and the Alleyne Arthur boy would bring the cardboard box with goods and set it on the red formica kitchen counter. Right next to it was the red metal kitchen scale with the brass tray and iron weights arranged in a stack, the smallest on top. There he would unpack each item, and Granny would tick it off against the bill and her list. I think sometimes she would even check the weights of, say the potatoes or sugar that came in brown paper bags! She would do the same for drugstore items, and had accounts with Knights Ltd. and Collins Ltd. in Bridgetown. I don’t recall ever seeing her write a cheque, so I guess payments were made in cash. She kept her housekeeping money in a large cigar box that had compartments. Granny kept all the groceries under lock and key in the kitchen cupboards, and had a rather large bunch of keys to everything in the house that had a lock on it. Each morning, she would “put out” the ingredients for Scott to cook lunch, and lock the cupboards again. All of this was like watching a movie to me, having come from Trinidad where I went to HiLo with my mother, and often to the San Fernando markets to buy vegetables, fruit, a live chicken with its feet tied together, and big, live blue crabs for the Sunday callaloo! It also struck me that I didn’t see East Indians, Chinese, Syrians and other mixtures of those people that I had become accustomed to in Trinidad. There, the vendors would always give a little “lagniappe” when Mum bought produce. I can still smell the freshness of the chadon beni, hot red peppers and other seasonings in the San Fernando market. Mum would carry a big handmade basket for market shopping - the same one that went on picnics to Mayaro when we were children.
Another fascinating thing for me in Barbados were the hucksters that walked in the street outside selling their wares. The women who sold flying fish carried them in a wooden tray on their head, and the tray was covered with some kind of cloth to keep them clean, I suppose. Sometimes they would also be carrying a basket with fresh seasonings of thyme, marjoram, chives and hot peppers, and a small variety of vegetables. We would hear the cry “FLYING FEEEESH” - and the going price - “12 a bit” if they were plentiful. Granny would send me to run outside and stop the huckster, which I would do by clapping my hands and gesturing her that we wanted her to come to the house. She would come to the same back door, and Granny would send Scott out to buy the fish. She took an enamel bowl to place them in. Well, that was another whole new experience to watch! Unlike today when fish are bought ready to be cooked and Bajan green seasoning comes in a jar from the supermarket, these were flying fish fresh from the sea, complete with wings, scales guts and bones. Granny took great pride in preparing them herself and she had it down to a fine art. She set about scaling and boning each one with her special well-worn boning knife, and I was amazed at her dexterity as she transformed each fish into a perfectly filleted one. Not a single stray bone could dare hang around and worse yet, reach my grandfather’s plate! Next, she prepared the Bajan green seasoning from scratch, chop chop chopping fresh thyme, marjoram, onions and peppers on her board. The dipping in beaten eggs and home made breadcrumbs came next, then the moment in the frying pan when they became the sizzling golden brown delicacy that graced the meticulously set dinner table. She would always give me one to sample in the kitchen, piping hot, fresh out of the pan. I still think they were the best flying fish I’ve ever eaten.
The "ground provisions man" came around every week in his donkey cart. We could hear the cart and donkey clanking along, and he would call out “Get ya sweet putaaatahs, eddas, yaaaams. . . “ My grandfather would open the front gate to Dayrells Road and allow him to drive his cart into the front yard. This was another thing I’d never experienced before, and had never been that close to a donkey in my life. He weighed everything on a scale that looked like the Scales of Justice on the back of his wooden cart, but smaller and rustier. He was a small, wizened fellow, and wore a felt cap and baggy clothes that were sort of khaki colored. He would hop down from the cart to sell and weigh everything, and he wore no shoes. I’ll never forget one day my grandfather said to him teasingly, “Tell me, are you a little old man or a little old woman?” He politely grinned, bowed his head and said “I'z a little ole man, please." Scott always came out to take part in the purchasing and to carry the good ‘ground provisions’ into the kitchen. That night there would be a big dish of hot mashed yam, with dollops of golden butter on it served with flying fish. Often there would be string beans and fried plantain on the side. Heaven!
In 1957 there was no television in Barbados yet. My grandparents had Rediffusion which broadcast daily soaps like "Portia Faces Life". My grandmother would sit in her rocking chair and listen. I loved the Saturday morning Children's Programme with Alfred Pragnell and Doris Provençal. When I was a little older I often sang on that programme. On weekends, I was allowed to walk alone through Navy Gardens, Marine Gardens to Hastings where my Lobo great-grandmother and great-aunts lived. Granny forbade me to wear shorts on the street, so I had to obey and wear a skirt. I would spend long hours on the beach and in the sea by the Ocean View hotel, sometimes with a friend. That independence and freedom at a young age was good. Nobody worried about safety back then. All I had to remember was Granny's heeding to keep to the side of the road and look up and down carefully before crossing.
Granny made the best lemon-meringue pies and for special occasions she made a dessert called "Spanish Cream", also the best rum trifle. On ordinary nights, there would be red Jell-O with canned fruit set in it for dessert. I remember her making eats for the evenings she expected guests - they were little meat patties, egg sandwiches, rolled asparagus sandwiches, stuffed eggs, and prunes stuffed with peanut butter. A must were the cubes of yellow cheese with either a small cocktail onion or maraschino cherry on toothpicks stuck into a large grapefruit for serving. I don't know whether tins of peanuts were available then, but Granny would shell bags of peanuts and prepare her own delicious salted cocktail peanuts in the oven.
Granny St. Hill pampered and catered to her husband. When I lived with them to go to school, he was still working at Robert’s Manufacturing Co. as their Secretary/Accountant. He left early in the morning, and would be picked up and dropped by Maurice Foster who lived in nearby Rockley New Road and also worked at Roberts. Every morning, Granny would lay out his clothes on the bed. He wore white shirts with detachable collars, and those were kept in a circular tin that toffees or sweet biscuits had come in. The collars were starched stiff and sparkling white. The shirts didn’t have buttons, instead they were buttoned with little gold studs, which Granny would place in each button hole, just ready to be secured by him on the other side. She also placed his gold cuff links in the cuffs of the long sleeves. He always wore a gold fob pocket watch and suspenders. One of Scott’s duties was to clean his shoes. I also remember my grandmother making a large glass of eggnog topped with grated nutmeg, and had it ready for him when he came back home from work in the afternoon. I never remember seeing Pop do any washing up or housework - ever. He was a kite maker - he called himself a “kite-ologist” and Granny’s job was to cut and strip cloth into varying sizes for him to make the tapered tails for his kites. Pop loved plants and gardening and tending to that was his clearly established domain. They had a Cocker Spaniel dog named Freckles who had his own dog bed that looked like a miniature cradle, also painted cream like the bedroom furniture.
During my time of staying with my Bajan grandparents I would fly back home by BWIA for school holidays. Mum and Dad were waiting for me at the old Piarco airport, and back home I would quickly have to adjust to not being the only child in the house! Looking back, I was very fortunate to have experienced childhood in the two very different Caribbean islands, and life with grandparents who were born in the 1890's.
Those were Colonial times and Barbados was decidedly more British in customs and culture than Trinidad was. The Ursuline Convent was run by nuns, many of whom were British. My early childhood upbringing taught me adaptability and gave me awareness of the importance of and respect for family, in particular for elders. Looking back, my solo visits to the Barbados Museum at 10 years old must have triggered my love for historical things, people and places. I would stare at the Penny-farthing and the huge mahogany four poster bed with the little steps. The story of the Tamarind Seed in the shape of a slave-man's head impressed me. Over the years my West Indian accent became a Trini-Baje one, and that's quite okay with me.
These recollections show that children are like sponges, soaking in everything around them. Memories are subjective. These ramblings of mine are to recall a past era, one without television, smart phones or computers.
To my grandchildren: I hope ValVal's memories amuse you!
To be continued . . .