STORIES OF OUR FAMILIES
To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.
(26 May 1888, Port of Spain, Trinidad - 2 April 1969, Diego Martin, Trinidad)
A Tribute, written about my grandmother
on February 26, 1988
by her youngest son - my father, Andrew Sheppard
(transcribed from personal family memorabilia)
She was a natural beauty, unspoiled by cosmetics. Her complexion radiated good health and internal peace with her Creator. Elsie Mabel could have been of royal stock. She was indeed a queen. She never would admit poverty, for God had blessed her with many riches for which she so dearly loved and cared – her large family of thirteen children, the last of whom joined the band of angels before he could speak or walk. So there she was, “Queen” Elsie Mabel, with her flock. She had lost her beloved husband and father of these beautiful children, just over three years of her last baby’s demise.
What to do? “Mama”, as everyone called her, or “Ma”, turned to her best friend and Saviour without whom we would all surely perish. She believed in the power of prayer and prayed day and night, usually in the absolute privacy of her bedroom, and her very Christian upbringing that she passed on to her children has stood us all in good stead.
This very special person was left with many hostages to a fortune that did not exist. Truly, there was the very large house with 10 bedrooms, which our father had deemed very necessary to accommodate such a large family. And a soft drink factory, complete with horse-drawn trucks, motor trucks, hand-carts and some 25 employees. Elsie Mabel did not have a clue. You see, domestic affairs took up all of her time, so when Charlie left her in a hurry on 17 June, 1931, she had no business experience to that date. But, live we must, and the show must go on, and so it did.
How could she leave her beautiful home filled with precious gems to administer the Record Soda Water Factory? And so far from home? She sold the building and had another built in the yard of our home so that she could see everything from the kitchen and bedroom windows, when her time had to be so divided. The factory was now part of home.
We all loved Mama dearly and stood by her at all times. We really respected her and would never deliberately do anything to hurt her, or say anything rude. Bad words were not allowed at home. Meal times were serious times and to be sure, competition was furious, so we were always on time. Everyone had a task and we did our chores cheerfully. It could not work otherwise.
Of course, Elsie Mabel’s religion was of paramount importance, and she insisted that we all observe Sundays by attending Sunday school and church. It was so tempting and certain friends tried in vain to persuade Mamma that she should attend the church just 3 buildings from home. But no, we could not. You see, we were Presbyterians and the church next door was Roman Catholic. In those bad old days you just could not attend a church other than your own – you would be ostracized. So we journeyed to the St. Ann’s Church of Scotland, a beautiful, strongly built church which was constructed by the European victims of religious persecution, and who arrived with their faith intact in Trinidad, in spite of Cromwell’s detestable and cruel policy. So be it.
Mama was a pillar of the church and main organizer of fund-raising events. She was a powerhouse and a charming persuader. With good help all around, she prevailed.
Of course, necessity being the mother of invention and money being of great importance for our survival, in addition to running a large family and a soft drink factory, and tending her beautiful garden, Mama decided that we needed a few boarders, so this genius of improvisation created additional bedrooms with the help of a carpenter and cellotex partitions. Returning from school daily was facing unexpected surprises. Space was reduced to accommodate paying guests, so we had to squeeze. I almost forgot, additionally we had 10 cousins who lived in the distant Sangre Grande, many of whom were of similar ages to ourselves and they needed to be accommodated in Port-of-Spain in order to attend school. Of course, where else but the No. 30 Richmond Street. So there we were with 6 cousins at a time sharing our single beds with us – head and toe – the pillows a problem, but we soon solved that by waiting for one or the other to fall asleep and then zoom, pillow gone!
Ten boarders, 6 cousins, 12 of us, Mama and “poor” little friends (usually 2), say 28-30 people to be fed each and every day, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. We all ate a lot of bread, so Ma employed Harris, Barbadian baker who had a problem with testicular hernia always getting in his way. Harris would arrive home and start baking between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. He supplied us with 100 hops loaves, and 6 pan loaves, plus other sweet breads for tea. He also baked some 30 other pan loaves which had to be delivered to the customers before 7:00 a.m. These were friends of the family who lived the general neighbourhood. Ma had several bread bags made, some to hold one or two or more pan loaves. Each customer had a nail on the back or front porch to hold the stringed bread bag. The empty bag would be replaced by the full one. Each bag had the customer’s name. Problem – transportation. Andrew, Robert, George borrow Boysie’s, Bertie’s and John’s bicycles, surround the bicycles with bags of bread and make sure you return for the owners to get their bicycles to get to work. We “students” had to eat breakfast quickly and walk to school – and get there in time. Many times we failed as evidenced by the black and blues on our hands or backsides as administered by our school masters. But this was all part of life. We loved Mama and understood the situation.
The miraculous thing about this wonderful lady called “Mama”, “Ma”, or Elsie Mabel was her abundant optimism and love of her children, which was reciprocal. Of course, we all got married and produced 55 grandchildren for her – all of whom she loved, some in the USA, some in Trinidad, and the largest contingent in Barbados. My wife, Barbadian born, had 7 children. We would not reach a dozen.
All through the rough and tough times happiness and sadness were shared by a grateful, lovely Mama, with her tribe. In 1960, her worst blow to date was George’s death. He was number seven – “all good children go to Heaven”.
Everyone looked forward to Mama’s Christmas parties, which combined food, drinks and entertainment by the children – all 50 or more. The tradition continues with the grands and great grands. She invented the “Mama pool”. This was a devise to lighten the load on your pocket, whereby everyone brought presents for their own, which Santa distributed. In addition, through stipulated donations, other gifts were purchased along with food and drink.
All good things must end. As we have become older and wiser, we all know that whatever strength and courage we have had to possess over the years to survive and achieve in this mind-boggling world, has come from our Divine Creator and this faithful servant, Elsie Mabel, “Mama”, “Ma”. You will never be forgotten. We all hope to eventually join you in Paradise where you went with a smile on your face on April 2, 1969.
Andrew with his mother, Elsie Mabel
Elsie wrote a short, touching memoir about herself and her family.
Click on the picture below to read it.