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A Life of Service to her Community

A Life of Service to her Community

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by Adrian Saunders

From my earliest recollection, among the things that struck me most about my mother were her commitment to service, her generosity and her kindness towards the poor and the needy. Her weekly routine was consumed with meetings of one sort or another. A typical week of hers might run like this:

Mondays – she would give icing classes for a group of about 6 or 7 ladies. I took a great interest in those sessions because my brother Ronnie and I couldn’t wait for the ladies to leave so that we could lick clean the sugary utensils they left behind.

Tuesdays – my mother would attend Legion of Mary meetings at the Catholic presbytery. I vividly recall those too. I went to school literally next door and Legion meetings generally lasted from 4.30 to 6 PM. Loyal son that I was, I always chose to wait for her. That way, to my heart’s content, I could play with my pals in the school yard for hours. Or else, while the meetings were in progress, my friends and I might crawl through a hole under the fence surrounding Victoria Park to watch Saints (which I backed), Dames, Honved or Geest vie for honours. Local football then seemed much better organized and patronized than it is now. At any rate, I only complained about the length of Legion meetings after my mates had gone home at which time I sat forlornly on a bench outside the meeting room, waiting, waiting. {{more}}

Wednesdays – she might attend a meeting of the Church Parish Council or perhaps one of the St. Vincent Benefit and Educational Club or perhaps a meeting of the St. Vincent Music Council.

Thursdays – she would give the second of her weekly icing classes.

Fridays – she might go to Church Choir Practice or perhaps Kingstown Chorale practice or maybe a Red Cross meeting.

Now my mother wasn’t just an ordinary member of these various bodies (and, mind you, I may not have exhausted the list of them). She was one of if not the live wire in most of them. At least that is how it seemed to me at the time. Invariably, she was the secretary: the person who was expected to contribute to the meeting as well as take copious notes of what was said and decided; the same one who later reduced those hastily scribbled notes to neatly prepared minutes to be read out at the next meeting, who organized the meeting’s agenda, who received and responded to correspondence, who was the hub around which the association functioned. In short, the one who did the donkey work in the background.

When she wasn’t attending any of these meetings, my mother ran a variety store that she owned in Kingstown (more of that later). And she also dabbled in politics. Contesting once, as a candidate on the Labour Party ticket for the Kingstown Board elections, she lost. Clearly, Labour wasn’t as popular then as it was last year or in 2001 for that matter. I don’t know the name of the person who beat her or how many of my fellow citizens voted for her. Perhaps Dr. John can help me there. But I’d wager that she garnered more support than I mustered when I ran. But why am I going down that road?

Those of you who were well acquainted with her would know that my mother sewed. She didn’t just sew. She sewed professionally. She was actually a first class seamstress. No proof need be given of this fact but, just for the record, when a certain P. R. Campbell Esq., a snappy dresser to this day, wanted an elegant dashiki to adorn his person as he took, to have and to hold, my Grammar School class mate, the lovely Julie Peters, he retained no other but Mrs. Saunders. She didn’t disappoint him. So pleased was he that he promptly recommended her services to his Grenadian colleague, Dr. Francis Alexis who similarly, waltzed down the aisle beaming, his pretty Vincentian bride in tow, nattily attired in another of my mother’s stylish creations. Mother’s superlative skills in this area knew no bounds when in 1977 I was being called to the Bar. Naturally, I needed a lawyer’s gown but I neglected to have one ordered from England. To do so at that late stage would have delayed my call. No problem there. Mother had me borrow Andrew’s, or was it Kay’s and, armed with the treasured merchandise of Messrs. Ede & Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane, London (who proudly proclaim themselves “robe makers and tailors since 1689”), she set to work on yours truly’s. Now, the next time you see a lawyer dressed for High Court I want you to study the gown carefully. Take note of the frills, the folds, the flaps, the fine intricacies of this capacious garment. Only after you have made such an inspection would you understand and appreciate why I have always regarded my Barrister’s gown as a labour of love. And guess what! My gown is still in pristine condition and well, you can see Andrew’s for yourself. It isn’t because I cared for mine any better than he did for his. I certainly didn’t. It’s just that the craftsmanship that went into its manufacture was vastly superior to that of the esteemed English “robe makers and tailors since 1689” and they levy hundreds of pounds and crowns for their robes. Is there a lesson to be learnt there? … But that is for another time.

My mother also found time to train her wonderful singing voice. She was a soprano and she took it upon herself in August 1964 to give a song recital, solo, at the Peace Memorial Hall ably accompanied by, who else but the legendary Patrick Prescod. How many soprano recitals had given in St. Vincent and the Grenadines by native Vincentian previous to this one? How many have been given since? I don’t know, but by any yardstick, this was a monumentally ambitious venture. I remember vividly the weeks leading up to it. Mother practised at home. Every single night! I would fall asleep to the sound of music, or rather the twin sounds of the piano and my mother’s voice. She would sit at the piano for hours (she didn’t play very well but she could read music) pounding away at individual keys, endeavouring, with much success I thought as I drifted off to sleep, consistently to match the pitch and timbre of her voice to the sound of selected notes in the highest octaves.

The recital was arranged in eight sections, two of which featured pianoforte renditions (from Schuman, Beethoven and other classical composers) superbly executed by Mr. Prescod. For her part, mother’s gamut ran from the Baroque German composers of Bach and Handel to the English Arne and Boyce and onto the more modern Cecile Chaminade from France. The last of the eight sections featured traditional negro spirituals and folk songs. The recital was reviewed in THE VINCENTIAN by knowledgeable musician, Mr. E. Julian Duncan, who noted that “Mrs. Saunders, who is at ease in the three ranges of her voice is pure and clear in the upper register, though with a slight tendency to be sharp in places, vibrant in the middle range, which is her forte, and mellow in the lower register………… Although each section contained its moments of brilliance, Section VIII was by far the best, where brilliance was sustained throughout, and Mrs. Saunders’ rendition of “O What a Beautiful City” deserves special mention. [She] replied to the loud applause of the small but appreciative audience at the end of this section with the encore, ‘Count Your Blessings’ “.

One of the founders of the Kingstown Chorale, my mother also played sterling roles in the Chorale’s production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas – first The Mikado and later, The Gondoliers. Russell’s cinema was packed on each of the several nights of the performances with a large and appreciative audience. But, wait a second! Gilbert & Sullivan? Operas? The Mikado and the Gondoliers??!!! What does today’s Vincentian youth know of such classics? Do they possess the drive, the desire, the capacity to stage such ambitious presentations? For that matter, are they acquainted with the poetry of our own Tim Daisy? What do they know of the grand staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the Grammar School steps??? Heritage Square on a Friday evening!!! Have we regressed culturally? That too is another story, one that someone needs to take up … But pardon the digression.

You would think that a person like my Mum who was so heavily involved in social activities might be harried and stressed or neglectful of her children or her spouse. But that was never the case. My mother was a devoted wife and one who enjoyed life to the full yet who managed always to appear to have time on her hands (which is perhaps why she was forever being elected secretary in the first place). She enjoyed a specially close and tender relationship with her older sister, Aunty Marie (Bowman) and the twain and their respective families always found time to spend together.

My friends used to tell me that my mother always looked so young. This was due not just to her vivacious, cheerful personality but also because she genuinely enjoyed and sought out the company of younger persons. She had no qualms about jumping up in a carnival band and did so quite regularly. I remember once, I must have been about 6 or 7, I was with her, being jostled about in a crowded band, holding her hand swaying and chipping to the sweet sounds of steel when suddenly I looked up and realized that the hand I was then clinging onto was not my mother’s. Instead, terror-struck, I gaped into the kind face of a strange lady smiling benignly down at me. In the general melee and crush mother and I had gotten temporarily separated and this considerate lady had calmly held my hand until my mother could reclaim it.

I don’t know for sure when she started the store. But it must have been just before or shortly after I was born. I certainly can’t recall a time in my entire life when my mother didn’t have a store in Kingstown. I remember it first on Back Street, next to Linley’s Choice Garage underneath Providence Investments opposite the Slaters across the street. Camille has written a superb vignette about our mother and that store. I suppose, in between the meetings and the singing and the classes and the other stuff, my Mum needed something to occupy herself, something that would give her yet another connection with Vincentians and Vincentian society, an enterprise that could generate a li’l something and also provide a further outlet for her generosity and kindness.

The store made money because it carried a few niche items, crochet material, thread, wool, needles, along with basic stuff like cloth (the only Middle Easterner competing with her in fabrics in those days was the likeable Fred J. Dare) and toys. But the store also doubled as a virtual alms house. The most desperate of the urban poor (and some from country too) knew where that store was and they made a beeline for it on Saturdays … to collect their alms. I believe Camille in her essay recalled some of the beneficiaries. There was Teddy Bear, a squat swarthy man of gentle disposition who dragged in an uncertain gait alongside himself a thick, heavy, round, wooden leg that made a fearful noise each time he planted it on the store’s timber floor. Much to my annoyance at the time, Teddy Bear enjoyed teasing me. Then there was talkative Miss Sarah, a wrinkled old woman who, without a single tooth in her mouth, could be understood only by my mother and the young lass who was always with her. That never fazed Miss Sarah who continuously chattered away, with quivering lips, obviously delighted that she was patiently listened to and perfectly understood at least by her benefactress. There was also long tall Arthur Jumbie who was drunk more often than he was sober. Ronnie, the real writer in the family, might have said of Arthur Jumbie (as he did of a character in one of his short stories) that “in fits of inebriated ecstasy he drowned the canker that nagged at his conscience”. There were countless others, whose sobriquets now elude me, who frequented the store neither to look nor to buy. The bedridden and the housebound were not forgotten. My mother sought them out as well bringing them holy communion and food hampers from time to time.

As you might have guessed, mother was one of the pillars of the Roman Catholic Church. In this regard she followed in her father’s footsteps. Granpa, a staunch Catholic, was for decades, probably from the time he left his native Carriacou to marry Granma and settle in Union, the lay leader of the Roman Catholic community in Union Island. And this at a time when priests infrequently visited the Grenadines. Until recently, when ill health overcame her, my mother never missed Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation and she brought us all up in that fashion. I remember an occasion when Keith Boyea, who lived with us for some time, had come home one Sunday morning from an all night fete. As he wearily removed his shoes, preparing for bed, Aunty Theo knocked on his bedroom door, peeped in and said, “Oh that’s great Keith, you’re up already and dressed. I’ll be ready in a jiffy for 7:00AM Mass”. Poor Keith had to go with her to Church postponing his much needed sleep for another three hours.

Proprietress, seamstress par excellence, soprano extraordinaire, icing instructress, pillar of the church, secretary of divers clubs, organizations and associations, mother of five, faithful wife … How could one woman juggle so many different undertakings? Where on earth did she find the time? There was no financial reward to be had there. She sought no special social status or honour or privilege. Perhaps she simply loved to serve, to assist others. Perhaps that was a potent conduit through which she felt closer to God. Whatever, one thing is certain. She was able to flower as she did in large part because she was lucky. She married my father when she was barely 21! Nine years older than she was, he brought out the best in her. Without reserve, he allowed, encouraged her to grow, to blossom, to develop all her potential, to follow her modest dreams, to give freely of her time and her skills, to excel. Theirs was a truly unique union that lasted well over 50 years. How she missed him when he pre-deceased her in 1999!

It would truly be a magnificent thing if every human being could say that his or her parents were the best parents that one could ever have hoped for. Chesley, Keith, Camille, Ronnie and I are extremely fortunate and grateful that we can proudly say of ours, without fear of contradiction, that indeed they were the best parents that we could ever have hoped for.

Towards the end of her days, my mother was well cared for principally by Ms. Lynda John-Abiakar and Ms. Robertha Stapleton. To them both and to the many persons who found the time and made the effort to visit with her or assist in one way or another, we express our profound thanks. In this respect we must single out Robertha whose cheery, patient, loyal and loving disposition no words can truly describe.

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