I would not normally include the children’s work in these letters but this speech addresses Cec’s war experience, one of the few times we, as children, ever heard him talk about it. There was a picture of the H.M.S. Indomitable on the wall, some musty smelling epaulettes and a hat with a tropical white cover in the basement, and that was all we knew. In fact, until my husband and I visited 30 years later, I had never known him to tell anyone details about his service- and he didn’t talk to me, but to Pat. There certainly was a lot of parental input into our speeches- Linda’s was based on one of Carol’s childhood experiences, as told by Cyn- but given that this was all happening while Cyn was in hospital and then home recovering, Charlie’s success was a commendable effort!
My father had a Faithful Friend on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This friend was a little monkey called Stoopid, who was so small he could sit on a man’s hand. He had greyish fur and a beautiful long tail. But his eyes were sad and he had a little worryed face. Every morning my father would take him into the shower and give him a good scrub. Stoopid didn’t like this and scolded when he was getting dried. He was friends with everyone except the ships cats. He would sneak along and pull their tails then run away as fast as he could, climb over the edge of the ship into a port hole, and sometimes come up with a pen in his mouth. He used to like to visit the officers’ wardroom where there was a notice board. Stoopid thought the notices made lovely parachutes. He jumped at them and rode down as they tore. He liked to look at the letters and sorted them out as he thought, with some in the wrong places and the rest on the floor. The officers had a terrible time finding their mail. Every morning when the smell of breakfast was around Stoopid would go to the table and sit on my father’s shoulder and wait for his food. One day there was a bowl of fruit in the middle of the table. After everyone had left the room Stoopid jumped up on the table, grabbed a banana, and ran away behind a coil of rope to eat it. When he was finished he through the peel on the deck. Soon the captain came along deep in thought. Suddenly there was a crash and all 250 pounds of the captain was sitting on the deck. The captain was furious and wanted to keep Stoopid locked up in a cage but my father said he would keep an eye on him. One day the captain saw him running along the deck and said to a sailor “You know how to knit?” And the sailor said “Y- yes sir” “Well, said the captain you had better get busy and knit that little monkey a sweater.” He looked so sweet in his little red sweater and cap when they sailed south into wintery weather. Stoopid was a very sad little monkey when my father had to leave. He was well looked after by the other men, but to no one else was he such a faithful friend.
La Soufrière, St. Vincent’s volcano, erupted April 9th 2021 as it had twice in my grandmother’s lifetime, and now twice in mine. The island suffered a devastating physical, psychological, and economic blow, because of the evacuations, the air quality, the volcanic destruction, and the blow to whatever remained of the tourist trade during the pandemic. But St. Vincent is resilient. Five years after the devastating eruption in 1902, the volcano was deemed inactive and life went on. By the 1950s, locals knew it as a green mountain with a lake in the middle, although they were aware of the tragic past. Cyn explains her interest in the volcano, and regarded the climb as the pinnacle (!) of her holiday in her birthplace. We hope for healing for all St.Vincentians and hope this glimpse of the past isn’t upsetting.
We Climbed the Volcano by Cynthia Costain
When I was young I remember boasting proudly to my friends “My mother has been through a hurricane, a volcanic eruption and an earthquake.” I don’t recall whether they were greatly impressed as none of these phenomena were familiar to schoolgirls in the north of England, but my mother’s recollections of these events were vivid and thrilling to me. I loved to hear of her running out of the house with the earth shaking under her feet, and of the crowds in the dark hurricane cellar of my grandfather’s big house listening to the crash as the wind blew in the shutters and windows above, but most of all I liked the story of the eruption of the Soufrière with the darkness coming over the sun and the dust sifting down over everything. Perhaps this was why when I visited St. Vincent with my husband and family last year, I was determined to climb the volcano. I had never been back to the island after leaving it at four years of age, but I had heard so many tales that it all seemed quite familiar. I knew that it was possible to climb the volcano and I had even heard of people who swam in the lake which had formed in the crater. However, it was very pleasant lazing and swimming and enjoying the lovely island, and whenever I mentioned the Soufrière no one was very enthusiastic. My mother was frankly scornful of my chances of reaching the top, as my exercise is usually limited to a stroll to the local store or getting in and out of the car. When my uncle began to talk of getting horses for the initial stages of the climb I was quite horrified as I had never been on a horse in my life. Fortunately, also vacationing in the island was a cousin of mine, Jack, and his wife, Joan and Jack having grown up on the island had climbed the volcano many times and volunteered to take my husband and me with himself and Joan. We made all our plans for an early start, and chose the day with due consideration for the banana boat. This is very necessary in island life, as the days the boats are in the harbour all private cars stay off the roads while the banana trucks pour in from the estates in a reckless stream. The boats are only in for a limited time and the more loads of bananas that can be brought in, the more money for everyone. As Mr. Harry Belafonte says “Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me bananas” while along the winding, twisting, mountainous roads the trucks run a bi-weekly Grand Prix with their carefully packed green cargoes. On the morning of our expedition we got up at 4 o’clock to drive to the other end of the island and make our ascent while it was still cool. Jack and Joan arrived from the adjoining small island where they were staying, and we set off in a canvas topped jeep, leaving my mother to look after the children. The drive in the early morning was beautiful, and we saw the sunrise over the Caribbean and make the water sparkle and gleam. Already the little villages along the way were stirring, and women were walking along the road towards town and the market with their vegetables and other produce on their heads. They bowed gravely to us, without upsetting the balance of their loads, and continued quietly along, while we followed the narrow road up the windward coast of the island. Being volcanic, the island is extremely mountainous and there are only three main roads, one which goes up the windward coast, one up the leeward coast, and a shorter one partly up a central valley – all these beginning at the main town of Kingstown, and none of them meeting. The coastline is very sharply indented, and in places the hills come down to the sea, so the roads turn and bend, climb and dip, follow ledges along the hillside and all along the way give one the most spectacular views of sugar-cane, coconut palms, arrowroot, sea- island cotton, nutmeg and mango trees all growing in small precipitous, terraced fields. After driving about an hour and a half we passed through a slightly larger village, Georgetown, and came to the Dry River. This is a ‘river’ composed entirely of rocks, stones and lava which has poured down from the volcano at various times. During the rainy season there is some water in it, but we were able to drive across with only a few bumps, and we came to the beginning of the biggest coconut estate in the island. The trees grow in the soft gray lava dust, which seems to deaden all sounds, and makes this whole part seem rather sinister and eerie. The dust sifts through the air continually, and as we drove through the rows and rows of palms along the dusty track, with no signs of people or houses, it felt as if we were far away from the rest of the world. As we drove we climbed higher, and I was relieved to hear that the jeep would take us up to the foothills and we would not have horses, as they could not take us much further. At last we came to a high field, where the track became a path along a stony ridge, so we left the jeep and set out. Almost immediately the path became very steep, as we climbed on up into the range of hills, and then we crossed a narrow ridge, just wide enough for one person to walk, and below on either side we could look down on sugar-cane growing on slopes so steep that the men would not need to bend to cut the cane but would find the roots at the level of their shoulders. I had always imagined the Soufrière as being like volcanos I had seen in pictures – Parícutin and Vesuvius – but to my surprise it was quite different. It is one of many mountains, and unless you are far away on the Leeward side of the island, it is very hard to see. The morning we set out to climb it, the whole range was covered with thick cloud, and as we climbed we were surrounded with mist, and began to think of all the pessimists who had warned us of the many people who climb the Soufriere and don’t see anything because of the cloud. All the early part of the climb was up the foothills, gradually working our way towards the main mountain itself and after about an hour we came to a river bed which marked the beginning of the real climb. The river was dry now, as the island was having a very dry season, but Jack told us tales of coming down the mountain and picnicking and swimming after the long hot climb. After a short rest, we set off again, along a small path, always mounting between walls of tropical trees and creepers. The vegetation was luxuriant, with lovely begonias growing waist high and flowered vines trailing from the trees. On the way down Joan found an orchid, which she dug up and carefully took home for my Aunt’s garden, as it was quite a rare variety. I also found some beautiful little flowers and took them home too, but my aunt kindly told me that they were a common weed which no gardener would allow in his garden. I have been writing calmly and cooly about the vegetation along the way, but believe me, there was nothing cool or calm about me at the time. Never in all my life had I been so hot. The air was humid and still, with the clinging mist all around and over us. A mixture of sweat and vapour drops continually dripped from every lank strand of hair, and I had long ago given up mopping my face. My husband and Jack were just the same, but Joan, born and raised in Trinidad, wandered happily along with no obvious discomfort, and looked as if the temperature was as pleasant as one could wish. I was quite pleased with my progress though, and found after the first 20 minutes, during which I thought I would either die quietly by the path or have apoplexy, that I could keep up with the others with very little trouble, and although I was always glad for the few minutes rest we took every now and then, I didn’t have to call a halt at any time. The climb is actually not hard, and anyone normally active can climb it if they persevere. As we got higher the trees, which had been tall and completely hiding all the light so that we were climbing through a green dim tunnel, gradually became shorter, and slowly we found that all the vegetation was getting less and less tropical and becoming more of the hardy brush type. Even this, as we got higher, thinned out, so that there were only low shrubs growing knee-high along the path. As we got out onto the shale and cinders it was more troublesome, as one tended to slide back at every step, but it was never dangerous. We were thankful to have Jack as guide because the path which was at first clearly marked, gradually grew fainter, and in places disappeared. Even Jack found it difficult to trace at times, particularly as it was 25 years since he had last climbed the volcano, and during that time, he found the whole appearance of parts of the mountain had changed as the vegetation had grown. The volcano last erupted in 1902 and even in the 1930s when Jack was last climbing it, the whole area was arid with very few signs of growth, but by now this has completely changed on the lower slopes, and even halfway up there is a low shrub like growth. We climbed on slowly through these low bushes, but still because of the cloud we could not see the summit, and it was not until we came to the dry cinders and sliding gritty dust that we knew we were beginning to get close to the top. The ground in places was deeply eroded, with great fissures, and the ascent was very steep. The cinders were of a dark red colour in places with a kind of lichen growing on the rocks, so that the whole visible landscape was dreary and depressing with the shreds of clouds drifting by, a very slight acrid sulphur smell in the air, and a dank chill wind blowing through our damp clothes. Suddenly walking along a ledge of cinders we topped a rise, and in front of us was no more path to climb but deep down below us – the crater! We had reached the top.
It was an incredible sight to stand in that burnt up wasteland, and look down – down into that still green lake with low bushes growing around with everything so quiet and peaceful and try to imagine what it had been like to cause the destruction around. The crater is a mile across and the lake 1500 feet down, the water in the lake having gradually seeped in during the years. There is a path down inside the crater on the opposite side, but the slope is very sheer, and when one gets down the water is said to be very cold. As we could still see little because of the mist, we decided to rest and have our second breakfast, with the hope that the sun would break through, and we huddled down behind some rocks, thankful for the sweaters which had seem so superfluous earlier. By this time it was after 10 o’clock and we had been climbing since seven, so the hard boiled eggs and rum punch had an added flavour at that altitude. Just as we finished it began to get brighter and as we dashed quickly to try to take some pictures, the sun broke through the clouds and in a few minutes the whole landscape was clear and we were standing in brilliant tropical sunshine.
It was a beautiful sight with the crater below us, and all around the mountains and valleys of the island with far on either side the glorious blue sea. The Soufrière is only 4100 feet high, but because it rises so steeply from the sea coast the elevation seems more, and the view of the surrounding country is spectacular. Beyond the crater on the far side is the ‘old crater’, which is even higher still, but it is difficult to reach, and during the last eruption it was entirely filled in with the debris from the first immense explosion. This eruption in 1902 was unusual in that the volcano literally ‘blew its top’, and the whole top was hurled off in a terrific explosion of rocks and cinders. It was accompanied by the deadly gas, which crept for miles around, and was the cause of the high number of deaths. The Soufrière is in a sparsely populated part of the island, but standing there I could see down to the small coves and bays on the leeward coast, and it was in one of these that the entire population of a small Carib village was wiped out, killing nearly all the last remaining Caribs in the island. Over on the windward side we could just see some of the estates, and it was on one of these that my grandfather’s friend, Mr. Fraser and his wife, were found sitting quietly on the verandah when rescuers came from Kingstown, killed by the gas from the volcano.
We wanted to get down the mountain before the sun became too hot, so at 11 o’clock we began the downward trek which seem to go so much more quickly than the upward climb. We were back to the jeep by 1 o’clock, finding a patient donkey beside it being loaded with sugar cane from the fields nearby. His master gave us each a piece of cane which I had always imagined quite soft and succulent, but I could not find much refreshment in the hard pithy dryness. We drove back through the coconut groves, and hot, damp and dirty as we were, we became even dirtier as the lava dust blew through the open jeep and settled blackly into every crease. The owner of the estate and his wife had very kindly invited us to have lunch at their estate house, although they were away, and we were very glad of this before setting out on our drive home. After an excited welcome by 13 dogs headed by 2 enormous Great Danes we were ushered into beautiful modern bathrooms with showers, and afterwards on the tiled verandah had the most delicious meal. It was a tired, but satisfied, and – yes – rather smug group which returned home that afternoon, and proudly told our children and friends ‘Well, we did climb the volcano!’ For those of you who are interested in exotic and out-of-the-way places, and would like to visit St. Vincent, it is one of the Windward Islands in the West Indies. It can be reached by air from either Barbados or Trinidad – when we went there was no airfield on the island as the island is so mountainous, so we flew in an amphibian ‘Goose’ which lands on the sea. The Goose only takes 6 passengers, so the island never had many visitors, but since then an airfield has been made on one of the level valleys, and a regular air service is being started with a larger plane which will carry 25 passengers. There is a good hotel in Kingstown, and two delightful guest houses or inns in the country near the sea and the airport. The people are courteous and friendly, the prices are low and all authorities agree that St. Vincent is one of the loveliest islands in the Caribbean.
And a final note from Linda in the 21st century. I am so grateful to my brother for having unearthed the slides my father took of our holiday. Of course I remembered that they took slides in our childhood- and showed them boringly in the dark- but I had forgotten the mechanics of it. Obviously for the St. Vincent visit, they started off with a black-and-white film in the camera, and then switched to a film for slides. That is why the scrapbook has clear pictures without colour, but the slides were used for their adventure and the colour, though perhaps faded a bit, is better preserved than colour snaps are. However moments immortalized in slides tended to disappear into the dark that one needed to see them by. Anyone can look at photos again and again, although sticking them in an album does make it easier. Slides needed a projector, a screen, an audience, preparation- and Cec loved technology and so enjoyed this- but how much better is it now, when phones give us instant access and gorgeous colour? (And witness testimony when operated by an intelligent woman?)
My brother remembers different things about our trip, of course, including the fact that we had not been warned of our parents’ defection and were baffled by their disappearance when we got up that morning. We were placated by new toys: a plastic sink with a pump that pumped real water into the sink- Charlie liked technology too- and Linda got red plastic beads that popped together to make crowns, necklaces, or bracelets. Cyn’s speech is a period piece, showing an agricultural St. Vincent so soon to be changed by the economic forces of the second half of the 20th century, the tourist trade, and the political drive for independence in colonial states around the world. It was her birthplace too, and she and Cec loved visiting it and my grandmother, once we were off their hands. She wrote a sadder piece in her old age, about the changes she had noticed over the years, which I will publish once the letters are finished. Meanwhile, back to 1958…
This letter is one of the long chatty ones, but before I begin, I must say that I am shocked at the amount of drinking going on during Cyn’s pregnancy- it’s amazing that my development was not affected! Two weeks before this, their night of celebration in Detroit for Cyn’s birthday included drinks and wine, and now Cec’s present from St Vincent! Apparently it was not until the mid 70s that doctors began worrying about it, and public health advisories began in the 80s. However, alcohol was clearly an infrequent treat in their household, owing to the student budget- a toaster was definitely a more desirable acquisition!
803 Granger Ave., Ann Arbor, Mich.
Thurs. 12th April.
The starting decoration at the top of the page is my red preggy dress that you were all laughing about! It is quite pretty, isn’t it? Everyone has been very complimentary about it & my suit & say that they are some of the nicest maternity clothes they’ve seen- particularly the dress, as it has a nice neckline & it’s a little bit different. I got a cotton dress last week too – it is green & white – partly striped & partly plain green, & it looks nice & cool. I am definitely into preggy clothes now & can’t do a thing about it! – I suddenly seem to have become much bigger! I decided yesterday looking at myself in the mirror, I looked Stout!! But when we went to Detroit with Dawn & Bert less than two weeks ago, I had to pin the skirt of my mat. suit to keep it on, & now – the first button is getting tight!!
My poor little Cec has got such a bad cold today – yesterday he had a little sore throat, but neither of us thought it was much. However last night he took 2 anahist tablets, but it must have been too late because he woke up with a real sneezy, stuffy cold. He stayed in bed all day, but got up for dinner this evening & is now sitting doing a jigsaw & feeling a bit happier. I do hope that as it came so quickly it will go just as quickly & that he will soon be well again, as colds make him feel so badly, poor honey.
Yesterday he was so pleased & excited about MacArthur though! He was lying in bed while I was getting breakfast & when it came on the radio, he just leapt out, quicker than I’d ever seen him get out of bed before!! Feelings are very mixed, it seems, amongst the people, but the anti-Truman, pro-MacA. groups are bellowing loudly in the papers etc. so you hear most about them. Cec said nearly everyone at the Physics Building he spoke to, was pleased though, & Charlie (my boss) was telling me today that he & all the men in the Institute were pleased, but he said a lot of the girls weren’t! We listened to Truman’s speech over the radio last night & thought it was quite good, but no one around here has much good to say for him – even if they’re Democrats they compare him so unfavourably with Roosevelt.
I got a nice, long, long letter from you yesterday- begun on 3rd, my birthday, & posted on the 5th. Also, on Saturday we got our parcels! Thank you very, very much for all of them. We were so excited when the parcels arrived on Sat. afternoon, as usually the parcel man comes when we are out, & he won’t leave the parcels, but just a note & we have to go to the P.O. & get them. However, this time it was fine, & we were very tickled because we were supposed to pay 15¢ on each parcel & by mistake the man only charged us 15¢ altogether! They never bothered about the “refined cane juice” at all, and we were so delighted! Cec had a nip straight away, & then before dinner we mixed cocktails & thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! It is scrummy!
My parcel was lovely too, Mummy, and I love all the things – the nightie is so pretty, & fits very nicely. I tried it on, & apart from my bulgy tummy, it looked lovely! The little baby jacket is cute! I keep giggling at it because it looks so little & funny & fat, just like the baby will probably!! I rather like the shade of blue – it is a change from the pale baby blue & looks very cheery & nice, I think. And of course I am so pleased to have the baby pillowcases – none of the ones I have are very nice, & I haven’t many anyway, so it will be lovely to have some nice new ones. Altogether it was a lovely parcel – or rather 2 lovely parcels- & we loved getting them – thank you from all of us.
By the way, in your letter of yesterday you asked if I had felt the baby moving yet, & just yesterday I did feel it for the first time! At least, yesterday I felt something odd rather like a series of burps in my tummy & it dawned on me what it was, but I think it has been going on for a little while & I didn’t realize what it was! Anyway, today he or she or they were bouncing around again, so they seem to be feeling quite lively & frisky!!
I have been going to the Mother’s Classes on Wed. evenings fairly regularly – there were a series of 7, & I have been to 5- but they were mostly just repetitions of what I already knew. Of course, if you hadn’t read any books or anything & were just plain iggerant, they would be a lot of help!! I thought the nurse who gave most of the lectures was a bit dumb, but this was the first time she’d done it & she improved as she went along. She reminded me of my Cookery School days- giving demonstrations on bathing a baby using a silly, little doll etc.!!
Since I last wrote I haven’t done very much at all – last night I washed clothes & on Tuesday evening both Cec & I felt so tired when we came home that we had a rest & then went out for dinner! Wasn’t that nice? We went to a place near here & had a $1 plate which was quite good, & I felt so relieved at not having to cook! On Monday evening I went & played bridge with some of the girls. They occasionally think up one of these sessions at work, & one of the girls invites everyone to her place to play bridge, & as I had refused 2 previous do’s, I felt I had to accept this time. This week is actually the spring vacation at the University, so one or two of the girls’ husbands are away (job-hunting etc.) & so they were all pleased, but I was quite reluctant, as by the time dinner is over, I’m usually very glad to have a bit sit & rest! However, off I went, & there were 6 of us – so awkward- but 4 of us played, & everyone talked- all about work- & altogether we didn’t either play good bridge or have a good chat, as it was nothing but “shop” all the time!
At the weekend we had a nice time- on Sat. Cec went up to the Lab. early & I drove MacT. and did all sorts of chores, like washing to the laundromat, clothes to the cleaners, pay the laundry, shoes to be mended etc.! Besides that I went to the bank & changed library books & bought a bunch of daffodils. It was quite hot & coming so suddenly with everyone still in winter coats we were all gasping! Cec came & had lunch with me in town & then we did some shopping- quite unintentionally! I intended to buy another ball of wool to finish my baby jacket, and get your birthday present, and after we’d done that successfully we bought Cec 2 shirts as he is getting rather short & wandered along to a new jewellery store which was having a huge opening sale! They were giving away free bread baskets- little woven oval things for buns etc. instead of a plate you know, so in we went to get ours, & came out not only with the basket, but with an electric toaster too! We saw these nice automatic pop-up toasters in the sale for $12, & as they are usually much more, & will still be more in Canada, we decided to plunge, as we decided the Atkinsons had definitely cut us off without a toaster by now!! We are going to have a big campaign to sell our other electric waffle iron & then we will come out square!! Actually, we didn’t get any extra money out for these extravagances, so we are scrapping along very hard up this week, with hardly any housekeeping money & no pocket money at all! But never mind – we are having lots of lovely toast!!
It is now Monday & I am having fits that this won’t reach you in time for your birthday, but I will write violently today & hope that it catches a quick plane! On Friday Cec’s cold was still bad, so he spent the morning in bed, but got up for the afternoon. Millie was one of the girls whose husband was away for the week, so I had invited her to come to dinner. Jerry had gone to New York to have interviews etc. & as it was a bit of a rush trip the Dr. advised her not to go. Anyway, I warned her about Cec’s cold, but she still said she’d come, so we got back from work to find Cec had been trying a little cane juice cure & was feeling quite cheery although still sneezly & snuffly! We had a fish casserole, with mashed potatoes and peas, & a dish of celery sticks, radishes, Sp. onions, carrots sticks etc. & tinned peaches with vanilla pud. afterwards. We sat & chatted most of the evening, then I drove Milly home.
On Sat. Cec felt a lot better, & really was more like himself, but he was still sneezing a bit, so he didn’t go out. I went to the Super Market & to the Library & Cleaners & so on & what with one thing & another that seemed to take most of the day! Jean & her husband Al, had invited us to a party that evening, but as Cec was still so snuffly, I went round & said we’d better not come. They called it a “cooling-off” party, as it was just before they moved from the house they had rented, into a nice new apartment! Yesterday I was really energetic, & did all the cleaning I should have done on Sat. I let Cec sleep & cleaned the rooms & did the stairs & bathroom & felt very virtuous! Then in the afternoon I mended his slacks & sweater which I had put away to do for ages, so altogether I got lots done. We had asked Gordon & Gunborg to come in during the evening, to sample our cane juice, & they came about 8:30 & we had a nice chatty evening! We mixed the rum with Rose’s Lime Juice & it was very good. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, so it was really nice to be with them again & we all enjoyed ourselves. We had a jigsaw out on the table which we had been doing, & of course Gunborg got enthralled & could hardly drag herself away! We are finishing it now – at least Cec is, & I keep stopping to look & put in an odd piece! We have both been at work today & Cec really seems to have got rid of the cold marvellously quickly & I haven’t caught it – touch wood! I was quite looking forward to having a mild touch of the sniffles, so that I could stay home for a few days, but of course it probably would have developed into something much more, & I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all!
I must begin & stop now as it is nearly my bedtime, but before I do both Cec & I hope that you will have a lovely lovely birthday & many, many happy returns. We will be thinking of you & sending best wishes on the day & will drink your health in cane juice! I am afraid that your parcel will be late but we hope you will like your present & have lots of fun in & with it! My love to the Aunties –
And lots & lots to you,
Cynnie & Cec.
Cyn had a story about being British, living in Michigan, and walking on eggs when it came to American politics. (She had practice from visiting her American relatives.) It must have been in April 1951, when General Douglas MacArthur was dismissed from his command of the Korean War (since President Truman and other world leaders had no desire for World War 3) and came home to address Congress. Cynthia was driving in a car with colleagues from work when they must have heard part of his speech on the radio:
I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.
Cyn, revolted, kept quiet, not sure what the attitude of the others might be until a woman in the back seat said in a drawl, “Don’t it just make you kinda wanna throw up?”
And so say all of us.
Ironic that I am posting this on the eve of the American election now in 2020. As Canadians, we just follow Cyn’s example, keep our mouths shut, cross our fingers, and wait in suspense.
The week after the Royal Wedding, changes began in the Ewing family, changes that had been years in the making but which moved swiftly in the months that followed. The marriage between Cynthia’s parents, Carol and Gordon Ewing, was not a happy one. I have said before that I suspect my grandfather Gordon suffered from depression, or bi-polar disorder, and in his sixties things seemed to get worse. His wife was the one who bore the brunt of his behaviour. At the end of 1947, their troubles came to a head, and Carol decided to leave him, coming to live with Cynthia in Cambridge.
Eventually Gordon was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries of the brain. I don’t know whether he had vascular dementia or had had strokes, but within two years of his wife leaving him he had been institutionalized.
In Cynthia’s late seventies, she wrote a short story “The Straw That Broke” that fictionalized the break-up, giving a good picture of the sort of life Carol and Gordon led and what their daughter thought of it. Then there is a letter from Carol to Gordon- probably not sent to or read by him- that shows clearly the psychological abuse she endured and the toll it was taking. Cyn’s letters to her mother that follow are supportive – and worried!- as Carol goes through the process of splitting up the home and moving. But by April 1948, Cyn and Carol were happily sharing a flat in Cambridge and enjoying it- and there was no need for letters between them!
Luckily by then Cyn had met Cec Costain, her future husband, so that 1948 is illuminated by a few of his letters to his mother, and holiday postcards to Cyn, as well as photographs from a happy Cambridge courtship. In the summer of 1949, they began a much happier marriage than Carol and Gordon’s, honeymoon letters were sent to Carol, and then they all left Cambridge, scattered, and-
the letters continued.
THE STRAW THAT BROKE
“Are you coming swimming Katie?” asked my College roommate.
“No- you go ahead. I just got a letter from my Mother. She’s leaving my Father.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” as she quickly grabbed a rolled up towel and ran out the door. Parents separating was not an everyday thing in the 1930s and she was glad to leave.
I looked at the letter again. I wasn’t surprised in some ways- I’d been glad enough to leave home and my Father’s dictatorial ways myself, but after 20 years of seeing my mother trying to please, pacify and on very rare occasions, rebel, I had got used to the status quo. I must write I thought. But no, she says that she is going to her cousin Dorothy in London – I’ll phone Dorothy tomorrow. I looked at the familiar writing. A letter every week at boarding school – a letter every week since I came to University. What did I really know of my Mother as a person? A loving Mother, a devoted member of a close family and a much younger wife of a stern husband.
When I was a child one of my favourite ways to spend a dull winter afternoon was to persuade my Mother to open the big cabin trunk which stood on the upstairs landing. It was cold but the excitement of seeing the fascinating contents made me forget the unwarmed landing. In the trunk was the satin wedding dress, mellowed to a deep ivory colour; evening dresses with demure necklines and elbow length sleeves made of silk embroidered with glittering beads, or pastel coloured georgette trimmed with ruffles. There were evening shoes to match with Louis heels and long pointed toes, beaded evening bags and delicate fans decorated with sequins. For me it was just a glorious afternoon of dressing up. I wonder what my Mother felt as she saw the lovely things never worn in England, remembered back to the time the trunk was first packed.
As the daughter of the British Resident in a corner of the Empire, just returned from Finishing school in Europe life must have seemed like a big exciting parcel filled with thrilling little packages in bright paper and silk ribbons, all waiting to be opened. Into the storybook setting of tropical sunshine and waving palm trees swept the handsome prince. The newly arrived Cultural Attaché was charming, good looking, travelled and was single!
“What happened next?” I would ask when I was told this story.
“Well” my Mother would say “My Mother thought he was too old for me, and Dad wondered why a young man had been moved so often but I wanted to get married – it was SO romantic.” and she would laugh at her 19-year-old self. “We got engaged and then we got married and not very long afterwards we came to England.”
How could my mother know that the charm could be turned on at will; that the friendliness could change to cold dislike if his opinions were challenged; or that irritability could become rage?
On returning to England my Father left the Foreign Service and joined a business firm. In the provincial city where we lived my parents at first knew no one. My Father’s work bored him and he had no hobbies. How quickly my Mother’s dreams must have dissolved, living in a small house in a suburb of identical houses, with one young untrained maid coming daily to clean. The shopping for someone who had never bought a loaf of bread; the cooking of three meals a day for someone who had only been taught to bake a cake for tea; the whole bewildering process of running a house with a husband and eventually a child. I remember in my teens realizing that no one had ever given my Mother a Cookbook.
“But what did you do Mum?”
“I just tried and tried again- not always very successfully. I had a nice neighbour, Mrs. Halliday- do you remember her? She helped me a lot, but I still made lots of mistakes.”
“I remember one mistake that I liked. The steamed puddings that sank in the middle and that was the part I liked! I was sorry when you learn to make them properly!”
With my Father’s boredom came depression and through my childhood the periods when he sat in his armchair staring at the fire for days on end while my mother tried to get him to eat or persuaded him to look at a paper or go for a walk. I would return from school, creeping into the house praying that he would be “happy” again.
As the years went by I escaped to boarding school and we moved to a new house. In that move the cabin trunk and its contents disappeared. My father was no sentimentalist. I began to want my independence and holiday times at home became more difficult as I rebelled at the strict rules. However, once I was away from home I was free.
Through the years my mother had found a few good women friends, but visits from her family were frowned upon and contact with his family was minimal. I realize that she had developed a “peace at any price” attitude; they went where he wanted for their rare holidays; they entertained as little as possible; outings to theatre and concerts dwindled. I got used to it but did my mother?
When I went to London to see her that weekend she told me that she had decided to go and live with her unmarried sister in Mexico. It seemed like a very long way away.
“Mum” I said “What finally made you leave?”
“He called me a parasite.” she said.
Cynthia fictionalized the minutia of dates, jobs, and places in telling the story but the details of the relationship were completely true. I remember Cyn telling me about my grandmother’s ending the marriage. The final question was the same- “What finally made you leave?” The answer even simpler.
“He told me I was useless,” she said.
When Cyn next saw her father, as she was collecting the packed boxes from the house during her holiday, she found him baffled. After all, he had called her things like that for years…
November in an industrial city in the north of England. Fog drifting up the river from the sea, and the muffled sound of riveting from the shipyards like far away guns. The smell of smoke from coal fires and industrial chimneys. The mournful wail of the fog horns from the ships on the river.
I was seven years old, trailing home from school along the main road with hurrying people pushing past and streetcars clanging on their tracks. It was a long school day for me, leaving home at eight in the morning and not returning until five… At last I turned up a quiet residential street lined with small neat houses enclosed in gardens surrounded by clipped hedges. Each one had a closed gate and some had bare-branched trees from which cold drops fell on my head as I walked by. So thick was the fog and so quiet the street that it seemed to me as if the houses were melting away and all the people had disappeared. It was quite dark by now and the mist was damp on my face and beaded on my coat, and the sidewalk was wet and greasy. I was chilled and cold and it seemed a long way home and what would I find there? As I plodded past each gate from the glow of one dim street lamp to the next, I came to a house that shone brightly. The light over the door was lit and you could see through the side windows into the hall. Although the curtains were drawn they glowed warmly red and pink as I stopped and looked through the gate at this vision of cosiness. Slowly I realized that the house looked vaguely familiar. In the nineteen twenties it was still the fashion among older ladies to have an ‘At Home Day’ every month and my Mother had once taken me with her to visit two elderly sisters, Mrs. Carrick and Miss Gill, on just such an occasion. Shivering in my damp clothes, I remembered the two kind ladies and the warmth of their welcome.
I was a shy child but that glowing memory drew me slowly up the path. All the lights must mean that the ladies were entertaining so I stood on tiptoe and rang the bell.
After a few minutes the door was opened by the older of the two sisters, her white hair shining in the light and her eyes opening wide in surprise.
“Yes, dear?” she said in a puzzled voice.
“I’m Cynthia,” I replied, “I have come to your At Home.”
“Why Cynthia, of course. Come on in. Mary,” she said to her sister who had come to see who this late caller could be, “Cynthia has come to our At Home.”
With no hesitation the gentle ladies took my hat and coat and showed me upstairs to their drawing room. I was in awe, as I had never had my tea upstairs before and what a sight that drawing room was! A blazing coal fire flickered over the brass andirons and the cream carpet; warm pink velvet curtains shut out the dark night; rose patterned sofa and chairs, soft silk cushions and shaded lamps. A small table drawn up to the fire was covered with a delicate embroidered cloth and set with china teacups and gleaming silver. The ladies had probably planned to sit down and have a leisurely tea on their own after their earlier exertions as hostesses in fact Miss Gill was carrying the silver teapot with fresh tea as she came in and Mrs. Carrick took the cover from the dish of buttered scones which had been keeping warm by the hearth.
Miss Gill brought me a special little teacup of cambric tea and we all enjoyed the remains of the feast. The two sisters chatted quietly together and I sat on the stool by the fire, entranced in a fairytale of golden light and warmth. At last the tinkling chime of the clock on the mantelpiece pricked the bubble and I stood up and said, “I think I’d better go home now.”
Downstairs I put on my hat and coat and remembered to say thank you for a lovely time, with a kiss.
I do not remember whether I was scolded for being late when I got home, or if my parents had been worried. But looking back over all those years I can still see the lights and feel the warmth and happiness in that cosy room.
The days, weeks, and months after the hurricane dragged on with hardship, work, worry, and problems, but help continued to arrive and eventually the island itself seemed to spring back into life. Green spread over the sodden earth, skeleton trees produced small new leaves and as the sun shone and the warm breeze blew people began planting again. Grown ups were not so worried and the children relaxed into their usual routines of school and play.
One evening Dad suddenly said, “How about a picnic and some sea bathing at Villa tomorrow?”
Mother thought it over and agreed that it would be pleasant to have a change and a rest. Then the girls all exclaimed and and the boys began talking of boats and swimming, and the children poked each other and giggled. Early the next morning then, the wagon was packed with food, the children, driver, and servants set out slowly to drive the six miles to Villa. Later, the ladies in the carriage and the men on horseback followed more quickly. The meeting place was the little stone jetty opposite Young’s Island which stood about two hundred yards across the water. It was a perfect place for a picnic; a series of small bays of sand and rock, with hillsides behind curving in a great semicircle. On Young’s Island was an Isolation Hospital which Dad wanted to examine for needed repairs after the hurricane, and behind was the big rock on which Fort Duvernette had been built during the Napoleonic wars.
The children could hardly wait to tumble out of the wagon and rush down the sand to the glorious sparkling turquoise sea, but the grown-ups were already arriving and Dad soon took charge. The wagon was unloaded, the horses tethered nearby with the driver in charge, while Mother was made comfortable in a folding chair in the shade. All the men and boys went around the bay where they could swim and splash in the nude without offending the sensibilities of the ladies. Meanwhile the girls undressed modestly behind the wagon and helped the smaller ones into an assortment of old cut-down dresses and drawers, then they headed decorously to the shallow water where they bobbed up and down in the little waves. The boys were taught to swim by being thrown into deeper water from a boat and encouraged to dog paddle to shore but the girls were not expected to swim or even to float. They enjoyed the warm water and little waves, playing with the children and laughing together, revelling in the sun and freedom from corsets- what joy!
Afterwards was the picnic in the shade of the few palm trees and bushes still standing- sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, little meat pies and even a few oranges, although there was little fruit to be had this year. Tea had been brought in the big old Chinese teapot in its padded silk nest and a few small black boys appeared with green coconuts and were well rewarded. The children loved to watch the boys chop off the tops with their cutlasses and enjoyed the cool faintly sweet taste of the coconut water.
The ladies settled to rest and snooze while the older boys ran along the beach to persuade a fisherman to row them to Young’s Island where Dad and the other men could see what damage had been done while the boat took them on to Fort Duvenet. There they climbed the old crumbling stone steps to the top and mounted the abandoned cannon and the immense walls, pretending that the French ships were creeping into the bay. The little girls on shore hunted in the sand for tiny pink shells they called `Puppy Dogs’ Eyes’ while the small boys explored the wrack left by the hurricane high up on the shore and found sad remains of oars and boats, life belts, battered boxes, and debris.
Too soon the afternoon passed. The family gathered to leave and the children clutched their treasures and snuggled down on the floor of the wagon, already half asleep with the sun and the sea, while the adults took one last look at the lovely peaceful sea with the deep blue reaching out to the horizon.
Once the main problems were taken care of and the Government was functioning satisfactorily Dad and the other landowners began to travel further from Kingstown to see what had happened in outlying districts and make sure that help was available. These journeys were by horse or by boat, and as the roads were cleared, people were anxious to see how their own estates had fared.
The term plantation was not used in St. Vincent, and estates were generally quite small. One of the Hazell estates was `Grandsable’ in the north of the island near the town of Georgetown. All the family loved the beautiful old house on the hillside, with the mountains behind and the wide view of the valley and the sea from the big verandah. This might be called their holiday home as it took a whole day to get there by slow moving wagons and carriages over steep narrow roads, transporting family, food, servants, clothes, and linens, so once they arrived they stayed and enjoyed themselves. Carol loved the long drive when one of the excitements was to stop at the village of Stubbs to rest the horses. All the villagers clustered around to exchange news and the children were allowed to get out of the carriage to run around and stretch their legs. Occasionally one of the old ladies would come with a basket of Burney Sugar Cake or Coconut Candy and Mother would recognize old servants or people from the market and buy `treats’ for the children.
On this occasion there was no leisurely family visit. Father with a group of men on horseback set out early one morning to ride up north through Caliaqua, past Ratho Mill and Prospect, and on to Stubbs. A short stop, then along Argyle Beach with its black sands and the islands of Bequia, Balisoe, and Battawea plainly visible out to sea. After that they passed the estate at Spring and the arrowroot factory-washed lean by the torrential rain, it was for once without the pungent unpleasant smell of the bitty, the residue of the crushed root after the starch had been extracted, left to rot in the riverbed until the next rain washed it down to the sea. Then they rode on up the coast and finally to Georgetown. There had been landslides and in many places great trees had blown down, little houses levelled, and roads washed out but already the work of clearing had begun. At Grandsable and most of the other estates, the local people had sheltered in the cellars of the big houses and there had been no loss of life and few injuries. People were rebuilding their small houses and in the main buildings the need for galvanized iron for roofs and glass for windows were the most urgent requirements.
It would be many months before the family could spend happy carefree holidays at Grandsable, sitting on the big verandah entertaining friends and neighbours while the children played barefoot in old clothes and picked fruit. The trees were bare, the sugarcane was flattened, and the soil washed down the hillside into the sea, but Father was pleased to return home with no worse news: the house was still standing, and Mother was relieved to hear that apart from minor damage all was well- even her beautiful scarlet, blue and gold dinner service had survived!
Much as they enjoyed Grandsable, the place the children loved best for a holiday was Mustique, a little bare tropical island down the chain of the Grenadines, far away from everywhere. For the children, Mustique was an adventure. To begin with, you had to sail a long way in a big boat with every single thing you were going to need when you were there: sacks, boxes, crates, and chests packed with food, bedlinen, knives and forks, towels and pans, dolls and balls and hardly any clothes. The adults and the children perched on sacks and boxes while the boys climbed as high as they could and were pirates. All this was necessary because there was not a `proper’ house on Mustique- it was a building with big rooms and wide windows, with furniture like beds and tables and chairs, but just enough for everyday use, and it was like living in a picnic all the time. Everyone had their own favourite place on the island and did whatever they liked to do best. The boys went out with the fishermen and there was delicious redfish for dinner and sometimes even lobster; the little girls found the prettiest shells and picked flowers for the house. Everyone relaxed and enjoyed the sea and the sky and the lovely bare quiet scenery.
How could they know that many years later during the Depression the youngest of the boys, Fred, would sell Mustique for twenty-five thousand dollars? Later, the Honourable Colin Tennant, a British millionaire bought the island with the idea of creating a fabulous retreat for discriminating and wealthy friends. In a wonderful advertising gesture, he gave Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, a piece of land to build a house on Mustique as a wedding present. Before long others followed, and beautiful houses were created by the talented Oliver Messel. It remains a quiet but special place for those who can afford it.
Perhaps the Princess, resting in her lovely house, thinks Mustique a pleasant place for a holiday. To the little Hazell children long ago, it was the most beautiful place in the whole world.
Apparently the British Prime Minster Boris Johnson does, in spite of various crises in his own country and in the world…
Life in the family went on quietly through the years as Carol grew up from a baby to a little girl of four years old. There were occasional excitements when Father went to England taking an older brother to school, or one of the big sisters went to Barbados to visit friends. During most of the year the climate was perfect; nearly always warm and sunny with cool sea breezes and sudden short showers which kept the gardens blooming, the trees flowering and bearing fruit, and the crops growing. Cocoa was being cultivated in St. Vincent as an alternate crop to sugar and was doing well with a promise of prosperity in the island.
It was the year 1898, and during August the weather began to get very hot. The breeze dropped and the air felt heavy and still. The heat pressed down on the island and people became tired and irritable, fanning themselves and complaining about “hurricane weather”. The heat continued and during the night of the eleventh of September the wind began to blow in sharp hard gusts and the barometer fell rapidly. (25.35 and falling). The shutters were closed and the children put to bed, but they found it hard to sleep and tossed and sweated in the darkness. The storm increased: the wind became strong with sounds of thunder in the distance and loud crashes as branches broke and rocks fell.
Carol woke up to find her nurse shaking her and shouting “Come on Miss Baba, wake up! wake up!” Pulling her out of bed, she bundled her into a little shawl and carried her downstairs, ignoring her sleepy whimper, “Whatsamatter?”
In the big hallway all the family was gathered with maids and servants. It was hard to see as the only light was a small oil lamp, but it was the incredible noise which was the most frightening. The whole house shuddered and creaked, the rain lashed against the walls and roof and there was the occasional breaking of glass or crash as something heavy fell nearby. Above all the wind screamed and howled as it swept across the island with terrific force. The children were crying and the adults looked scared but Carol saw Dad standing by the cellar stairs, fully dressed and calmly calling “Come on now, all of you- down to the cellar. You’ll be all right there, Mother is waiting for you”.
Gradually nurses with children, sisters, servants, brothers and all filtered down the steep steps. The house had a strong stone cellar built against the rocky hillside. Lit by the dim lamp carried by Father it looked very strange and eerie. One or two chairs had been brought down and Mother in her usual daytime dress was sitting at one end with the big sisters. The children ran and clustered on the floor at her feet. Carol shouted in Fred’s ear “What makes the big noise, Freddy?” and he shouted back, “It’s the hurricane, silly”.
The cellar door which gave onto the hillside at the back of the house was open, as it was sheltered from the fiercest blasts, and through it came a stream of terrified people; stumbling and limping, families with old women and babies, beaten by the wind, soaked by the drenching rain and scarred by blowing branches and debris. Carol sat against her Mother’s knee and as the cellar was lit by the sudden violent flashes of lightening saw more and more people crowding through the door and heard the great crashes of the wind. Near her was a family settling down on the floor and a man was carrying a little girl about her own age. She had a big gash on her head and there was blood on her curly hair and trickling down her face.
“Papa! Papa!” she sobbed, and her father soothed her, saying, “Hush now chile – doctor will fix yor haid later on,” but still the little girl cried.
“Poor little girl,” thought Carol and leant over and patted her hand. One of her sisters had a box of bandages and came to help, but so many people were hurt with broken bones as well as cuts that there was little that they could do. Dad helped the more seriously hurt to places against the walls and everyone did what they could without panic. At last Dad called to shut the outside door as a deluge of water began to pour over the lintel and the cellar was full, but as it was shutting there was a sudden wild banging at the door and they eased it open to a family drenched and covered with mud who had escaped from the remnants of their house and crawled up the hillside for shelter.
Carol was too young to realise that the small wooden houses and shacks of the people had been literally blown away in pieces. Some families had feared the worst when the storm began and had gathered together what they could and made their way to bigger stronger houses with hurricane cellars like ‘Windsor’, but others had cowered in their tiny homes which were no protection, until it was too late. In spite of the noise the children slept. They had no idea how long it was before they suddenly woke up in the dim breathless darkness of the crowded cellar with the stifling heat and overpowering smell of frightened people. Everything was silent. Only the occasional moan or snore, but otherwise nothing.
“What’s happening?”‘ asked Fred in a scared voice. “It’s called the eye of the hurricane,” Mother said.”It will be quiet for a while and then get noisy again, but it won’t be for so long”.
Reassured, the children dozed once more, huddled together on the hard floor.
Hours later, they became aware of a general movement, as people stood and listened and murmured to each other and on the top of the stairs stood Willie silhouetted against the grey light from the open hall door.
“Dad,” he called, “I think the wind has dropped.” Some of the men went to try to open the outside door but it would not move. Eventually they were able to force it open a bit and push aside the rocks and rubbish which had been piled against it by the storm. A faint light came in and people began to move and pick up children and bundles and try to peer outside. Mother was helped upstairs, stiff after her long ordeal, and the family followed her up into the hall. Dad went to open the front door and everyone pressed forward onto the verandah.
Carol was very frightened because no one seemed happy that the dreadful noise had stopped and she could see nothing until one of her big brothers picked her up. Nobody spoke; it was as if they all held their breaths. “Where has everything gone’?” she asked.
They looked at a scene of devastation. Down the hillside what had been the garden and the drive to the small houses and streets leading to the harbour was now a sea of mud and debris. There were no houses, no trees, retaining walls had collapsed and muddy water was pouring down the hill, carving deep clefts between rocks and fallen trees carrying stones, roof tiles and the bodies of dead animals towards the town. There were huge waves pounding the buildings still standing on Bay Street carrying broken remains of boats, the wreckage at sloops and battered steamers along the harbour. All the small houses and shelters in the town were gone as were the wooden warehouses. Those buildings still standing were roofless and they could see the Cathedral had missing tiles and broken windows. Along what had been the main street of the town the Library and most of the stores were crumbling ruins.
At last Dad said, “Mother, see that everyone has something to eat. We all have a lot to do.”
There was indeed a lot to do. The hurricane had lasted six hours with an interval of fifty-five minutes. In that time between two hundred and three hundred people had been killed, went missing, or were lost at sea. Nearly all the small boats of the island had been destroyed with their crews, ten sloops had been lost or had capsized, and three large steamers had been driven ashore and broken up.
People were homeless and helpless, hungry and hurt. From the countryside wandered scores of lost people to add to the crowds already in the town: their homes were gone, their goats and chickens lost or killed, their crops beaten into the ground.
The Government had the police set up big tents in the grounds of the hospital, which was roofless, and in open spaces nearby where the wounded could be cared for. The dead were brought to the Police Station. All the men were set to clearing the roads of debris -trees, bricks and stone from fallen houses and walls, dead animals such as, pigs, goals, sheep and chickens which had been swept down in the water and mud. In all the big houses the women prepared food for everyone and all who came were fed.
Before the day ended messages were received by telegraph from Queen Victoria and the Royal Family, and from all over the world came offers of help. Within days, ships arrived with food and supplies from other islands. The Hurricane Relief Fund sent food and medical aid while many volunteer workers came to help dig graves and clear away the remains of the ships and buildings. The children were eager to help and the boys cleared branches, rocks and stones and the girls swept and washed the verandah. Mother and the servants cooked and served big pots of cooked rice and soup with the stores they had in the house, feeding all who came but the straggle of sad hungry people seemed never ending. Finally the relief foods arrived and Fred whispered to Carol, “Thank goodness, I’m getting awfully sick of rice.”
As the immediate difficulties were being looked after, the government tried to assess the overall disaster to the island. The sugar estates were ruined, the new cocoa trees were levelled, most of the trees including fruit trees, palm trees, breadfruit and spice trees were down, or if they had survived were stripped bare and would not produce for many months. There was not a green leaf or blade of grass to be seen and all the vegetables, fruits and livestock which the people needed to survive had vanished.
Although this site exists to cover years of letters, I am going to start with stories that fill in the background, by posting documents that were written by my mother, Cynthia, about the early life of her mother, Carol. These were written in her 70s when she took a writing class, and are fictionalized versions of the family stories that she had been told, and that she passed on to us- the fact that my grandmother had survived a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, and an earthquake seemed impossibly exotic to me, a Canadian child. Some of these are finished products, some have marks indicating editing is intended, but they all are typed and, I hope, legible, and I think she’s a good storyteller!
LONG, LONG AGO
by Cynthia Costain
Over a hundred years ago, at the end of the nineteenth century, a little girl called Carol was born on a small island, St. Vincent, in the West Indies. It was part of the British Empire, proud to be a colony under the rule of Queen Victoria. St. Vincent is one of a chain of beautiful, tropical, volcanic islands arcing through the Caribbean from North to South America. The island had one main town, Kingstown, enclosed in a great harbour. Above the town arose the mountains, dotted here and there with large sprawling houses, the red roofs showing through the palms and flowering trees. One of these houses was called `Windsor’ and was the home of the Hazell family, which had originated with two brothers who left England in 1748. They were ship-builders by trade and, having built their own ship, embarked with their wives, families, and all their goods and sailed west and south to begin a new life.
There is no record of their voyage, though it must have felt perilous to two men whose past experience had probably been confined to coastal waters, but eventually they landed in Saba in the Virgin Islands. This was not the lush tropical land they had hoped for, as it was bare and infertile, with rocky shores and little shelter, but they anchored and there they remained until a baby boy named Hercules was born in 1749. Soon afterwards they sailed south and finally settled in the island of Bequia in the Windward Islands. There they found a friendly climate and friendly people where they made their homes and founded a ship building business.
Eventually Hercules grew up and married, moving with his family after some time to the bigger island of St. Vincent where he began a trading company. Within his lifetime his grandson, John Gregg Windsor Hazell, had become one of the leading businessmen of the island. This grandson John was the father of the tiny baby at the beginning of this story.
There was not much excitement when the twelfth baby, Carol, arrived in the family and the busy but leisured life of most of the members hardly suffered a hiccup. The older daughters helped the nurse look after Mother and their new little sister, took over the housekeeping and saw that things in the house continued smoothly; the older brothers took little interest in babies. The only members of the family who were excited about Carol were `the little ones’. With Mother’s permission the nurses brought them to see the baby the next day and as they stood around the cradle looking down at the baby with the big brown eyes, Doris said, “She’s very small.” “She’s no use to play with,” said two year old Fred, who was disappointed, but Willie, aged six, looked at the baby seriously and announced, “She looks just like a monkey!” and from that time on, Carol was known as `Monks’ in the family.
The young children all had nurses and Carol called her nurse `Dada’. Dada bathed, dressed, and fed the baby; washed and ironed her clothes, and, most important, kept her quiet and amused. At teatime the children were washed and dressed in clean clothes (if company was expected the boys wore sailor suits and the girls white starched dresses) and brought to the verandah to be petted and join in the conversation with Mother, sisters and friends. At the sign of tears, spills, or noise, a nurse would appear and hastily remove the offender.
Carol grew up in a busy household. Mother was the firm disciplinarian, ruling her family and the household, while Father was the good-natured benevolent Papa. With numerous servants, nurses, cooks, grooms, and gardeners working in a slow noisy West Indian way there was plenty for Mother to do: she was a severe woman, feared by some, but there was much love and affection and the family was a closely knit, safe world. Much of the time older members of the family would be at school in Barbados, England, or Canada, or working in the U.S.A. but the young ladies and gentlemen at home all had their ‘work’ each day. The men went to the family business on the harbour with Father, or rode out to one of the estates. If it was time for the sugar crop all the estates would be busy with the cutting of the cane and the sugar mill would work day and night crushing, processing, and finally bagging the sugar to send to England. Later the molasses would go to the rum factory to be distilled into raw alcohol and then aged in barrels before it too was sent overseas.
The young ladies of the family had various jobs: they cut and arranged the flowers, such as hibiscus, lilies, ixora, and bougainvillea; shopped in town for small items not trusted to the maid who went every morning to the market; and sometimes visited the dressmaker. This was very important as the only chance of a `ready-made’ dress was to ask a friend who was visiting some larger place to bring one back for you. The girls also did a little cooking- cakes for tea or a special dessert if guests were expected for dinner. They used the woodstove and oven, but the cook preferred the charcoal `coal pot’ outside.
The whole family were expected back at noon for the main meal of the day. Having risen at six or earlier and begun work while it was still cool, everyone was hungry and sat down to what was considered in Victorian households to be a simple family meal (albeit with a West Indian twist): roast pork with crackling, or a large dish of chicken pilau, or sometimes a whole baked redfish. With this would be served rice, sweet potatoes, fried plantain, tania cakes crisp and brown, or perhaps breadfruit or pigeon peas. Beforehand would be hot pumpkin or callalou soup, and the main course would be followed by a sweet coconut pudding with stewed guavas. Business did not resume much before three o’clock.
Until they became teenagers, the children went to school in the town. The boys’ schools were run by clergy or teachers from England, while the girls attended schools run by maiden ladies in their own homes. The older daughters helped the young children but actually their social lives were fully occupied. Making calls took up many afternoons and the horse and a carriage would take two or three of the ladies to sign the Book at Government House or make other calls. They were all devoted churchwomen and much time was spent at the Cathedral doing the flowers, seeing to the vestments, or attending meetings. In the evening between five and seven when the air became cool and the sun set, friends and relatives would drop in for a cool drink and a chat. Riding parties and picnics were planned, or arrangements made to play tennis or watch a cricket match.
The arrival of one of H. M. Ships of War was a great occasion, and any ship from England or America or even the small vessels from other islands brought visitors or old friends as well as business and everything from buttons to furniture, horses, carriages and machinery. The ship’s officers were always entertained at the big houses as well as visitors, and return invitations, particularly on board ship, were looked forward to eagerly.
Carol’s childhood was a happy one. The white people were the wealthy people on the island and she accepted all the St. Vincentians of every colour and any other heritage as being `natives’. Some she loved like her old nurse Dada, and she realized that any who worked for the family had to be `looked after’ when they were ill or became old, but it was a paternalistic society that she did not question.
When Carol was very young she remembered that one of her older sisters taught her to count on her fingers. She was told, “Look, you have ten fingers and you have ten brothers and sisters.”
This seemed to her to be the most astonishing piece of news she had ever heard! She began counting: “Georgina, Arthur, Blanche, Ethel, John Louis, Muriel, Beatrice, Willie, Doris, Fred makes ten. Oh, and there was baby Cyprian, but he’s dead. And Me.”