Caribbean Queens

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Living & loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

Earlier in this magazine you read the stories of some extraordinary Caribbean women, in our celebration of International Women’s Day. Their lives and achievements got me thinking about the women in our daily lives: the resolute aunts, the resourceful mothers, the stoic grandmothers. These family matriarchs are redoubtable, staunch women, masters of the glacial stare and the withering put-down.

International Women’s Day champions equality and gender parity, and it’s a serious issue, of course. But in most Caribbean families, it seems to me, it’s the men who need parity. It’s the women who control the show.

One aunt, who we’ll call Dot, refers to the senior males of my family – a generation of uncles and fathers, all men over 60 – collectively and dismissively as “the boys”. While the men posture and fluff their feathers in public, she gets on with pulling strings behind the scenes and always, but always, gets her own way. I’ve never seen her bested. It’s not all shady skulduggery, either. Dot’s just as happy going toe-to-toe in a straight shoot-out. Any disagreeable male is left in no uncertain terms as to why the position he has taken up is incorrect.

A favourite sport is to watch some boyfriend new to the family fall into a disagreement while picking up a plateful of chicken pilau at the Christmas get-together.

As the very first “Really, dat’s interestin’ – why yuh feel so?” trips from Dot’s lips, other family members start focusing undue attention on the caraille and piccalilli. “Ooohhhh gawd, he takin’ on Dot!” you can hear them thinking. Dot always ends these engagements the same way. “Very good, very good,” she will say with a finality underlining that her word is indeed the last on the matter.

Then there is my mother-in-law. Jokes about awful mother-in-laws are legion, but mine is awesome. Widowed at a young age and left with four daughters to raise, Elsie has suffered health scares and misfortune, but still her default is laughter and fun. You’re not long into a chat with Elsie before you’re laughing at one of life’s absurdities.

Being alone made resourcefulness a necessity. She took every class going on mending or making everyday items – and some not so everyday, such as creating porch furniture from PVC piping. Elsie made her own clothes, running up dresses on her old sewing machine long into the night. The results weren’t always appreciated by fashion-conscious daughters, but they were by a budget-conscious mother. Her backyard was a bountifully free source of fruit and vegetables, the sloping half-acre section rammed with mango trees, pawpaw, avocado, passionfruit, mandarin, lemons and limes; peas and beans grew in a tangle along the chainlink fence and herbs flourished in upturned half oil drums. It all took hard work to maintain.

As newlyweds, we lived with Elsie briefly. One day, she married a conversation about renting our own place with a demonstration of how to split a coconut with a long-handled axe. She talked me through the splitting process as she threw the glinting axe blade high up and over her shoulder, and brought it down repeatedly on the coconut resting on the concrete path, like a medieval executioner.

Dressed in her housedress, this diminutive woman was a vision of swirling florals quite at odds with the lumberjack strength she was displaying. The axe was nearly as big as her, but the speed and unerring accuracy with which she accelerated it to deliver chop after savage chop convinced me it was time to start checking the newspaper’s rental ads. That, and her manic smiles as the coconut shattered beneath the withering assault.

I once asked Elsie why, after being alone so long, she had never remarried. Her answer was simple.

“Jayyyymes, why I need ah man tuh tell me what to do?”

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