In 1975 our family would move to Diego Martin, the deep North-West of the island. We would see much less of the Moonans and Madrays. However, Aunty Thelma (pronounced without the “h” by many Trinis) would be a constant in my life for the rest of the 70s and in Leila’s case, well into the 80s.
Thelma Robinson had been born on Beaton St, Woodbrook, a neighbourhood, a mere two-minutes-drive from POS. Woodbrook in the 19th and early 20th century had been a sugar estate. The owner had lost his wife and only son in the late 1890s. He sold the land to a wealthy local Spanish family, who immediately parcelled it into lots and sold them to the burgeoning-coloured middle class that was emerging in POS.
Thelma’s parents, both primary school teachers had bought and built a sturdy three- bedroom house. The Robinsons had five children, born between 1909 and 1918. Thelma was the oldest of the four girls and one boy.
Land in POS was not at a premium in the early 1900s. The majority of the Woodbrook homes were simple, yet comfortable and built on huge pieces of property, usually around five thousand square feet.
Looking at Thelma in the 1970s, she seemed to be an unremarkable, elderly, stout, black woman. However, that would be the furthest from the truth.
Old enough to remember World War I and a widow by the emergence of WWII, she had had a proper British education in the Primary and Secondary school system of T&T.
The Robinson children had grown up in an era where children were expected to know their place. You did not talk back to the adults and you had to know the social graces.
She was selected by the TT government in 1929, as one of ten teachers to go on a one-year course in London to further their pedagogy skills.
A year later she was engaged to a fellow teacher, Ian Clarke. He was also a Trini and had actually been working in London for the previous five years. They had met at the course. She remained in London but did return to TT in early 1931 to be married in her hometown of Woodbrook.
Ian was an extremely religious man and took up a missionary position in Africa. Naturally, Thelma accompanied him and together they taught in the British colonies there. They spent one year in Kenya, before moving to Nigeria.
They never had the luxury of being posted in the capital of either country but rather small towns where their services were in greater demand.
The Clarkes moved to a town just a few miles from the River Niger in August 1932. Ian taught Math, English and French. Thelma, Math and Geography.
Their plan had been to give three years of their lives to Africa, then return to London, where they would start a family.
They never got that far.
Three months into their Nigerian stay, Ian contracted Malaria. He died on Boxing Day, 1932.
A grieving widow, Thelma buried her husband in a cemetery overlooking the River Niger. She returned to her family in Trinidad, never remarrying. She would remain childless but would take care of over 50 children for over four decades.
She spent most of the 1930s teaching in Port of Spain. However, by 1939, with her parents deceased, she decided to rent out her front room and offer babysitting services. She was now living with her youngest sister, Anne. Thelma was stout, black with curly, black hair. Anne was white skinned, slim with straight, black hair. Such different siblings may have been a sight in Europe but in Trinidad this was pretty much par for the course.
They would spend the next fifty years babysitting generations of young children.
The name, Aunty Thelma, would become known throughout every street of Woodbrook. A respected elder of the community, there was no store or street where she was not recognized. The most boisterous of men if liming on the pavement, would immediately lower their tone if she approached: “Good day Aunty Thelma. Good evening Mrs. Clarke.”
“So let me ask you something. You all have nothing better to do than just hang about on a street?”
“Well … Mrs. Clarke, we just liming. You know how it is?”
“No! I don’t know how it is. At your age, I was working. I didn’t have time to knock about on the street. Well, just let me pass and don’t block my way please.”
“Yes Mrs. Clarke.”
I first heard of Aunty Thelma in 1973. With no regular housekeeper, Leila would spend her days there until she started school the following year. My mother would walk me from Holy Faith to her office just a few minutes away and I would wait until she had finished work. We would then pick up Leila at Aunty Thelma’s. She and her sister would always give me a pleasant smile and a wave. She seemed like a nice person. What I would soon find out is that this woman would become a thorn in my side for the rest of the seventies.
When Betty our housekeeper for the next two years, arrived around August of 1973, there was even less reason to see Aunty Thelma.
However, in late ’74 both Leila and I were now students at Morgan’s. The school was not near Mummy’s office and it would be too inconvenient to have both of us there every afternoon. We had a chauffeur who would pick us up along with other children and drop us off at our destination. The others were dropped off at their home, for us it was Aunty Thelma’s.
It only took a week for me to understand that spending the afternoons there would be no bed of roses. In the second week, I was eating some cake and some crumbs dropped into my lap. She immediately rushed over and started pulling my hair at the back of my head. “Are you a gorilla? Pick up those crumbs. Put your face over the plate!”
I could feel the tears rolling down my cheeks.
She would beat me if my grip on the knife and fork was wrong and on NO occasion were my elbows to be on the dinner table. “Keep your wings off the table.”
She explained to me: “You need to know these things now so that you will not be embarrassed when you become an adult. Imagine how stupid you will look in society if you cannot eat properly and everybody else knows how to do it.
“When I was a young lady travelling in Africa, we were on a boat for five nights. A man came up to me and told me that he did not know how to eat socially. He was embarrassed to eat dinner with the others and could I please show him how. And this was a white man from Scotland. I told him to sit next to me and to just follow everything I did.”
Every night the Scotsman sat next to young Thelma and dutifully followed her actions. By the fourth night he was a pro.
“Do you want to be like him? Stupid and embarrassed as an adult!?”
“No,” I respectfully answered.
“No what???? Cat … dog??”
“No Aunty Thelma.”
I would brace for the possible lash as I answered.
I had been told to hold the utensils as one holds a pencil. Unfortunately for me, I did not hold the pencil as most people of the Western Hemisphere. My grip was between the thumb and index finger, much to the chagrin of my teachers and parents. No amount of coaxing could get me to hold it otherwise. I therefore, held them in this manner.
On one occasion, as I was eating a mid-afternoon meal, Aunty Thelma picked up a piece of wood about two feet long, ran across the kitchen and began hitting me on my back. I thought she had lost her mind.
“Your grip on the knife and fork is wrong!”
Galindez, Sammy and slackness
Galindez explained that his father’s office in Port of Spain was on the fifth floor. The building next door only had three floors. There was a fire escape to the roof. Galindez bored one day at his dad’s office climbed up the 25 odd feet to investigate what the roof was like. He was walking along it and noticed a hole. Looking in he saw a beautiful, big breasted woman sleeping naked on a bed. She had thick, long, black hair, cascading over her shoulders and arms. He ogled her beautiful, thick, brown lips and a tanned brown physique. “Boy if you see that flat stomach, dem big breasts and nipples and those thick thighs. She is like an Olympic athlete.”
Way at the back of my head there was a voice that said, No.
However, the mental picture was too much. And it wasn’t like we would have bouncers to worry about.
I smiled resignedly. “Ok, let’s go.”
School finished at 2:15 pm. We were at the office before 2:35. Mr. Galindez was at court. We were taken to the empty office and saw the roof from two floors up. The hole was only partially visible.
“Boy I really hope she taking a nap today,” said Galindez.
“But something doesn’t make sense,” I said looking at them, processing the situation. “How can she have a hole above the bed. What does she do when it rains?”
“Oh God man Darsan!!” shouted Galindez. “You is a lawyer? Why you have to analyse so?”
“Look! She does move the bed when it rains. Alright?” said Sammy, holding my arm and guiding me out of the office and towards our mission.
I had a problem with heights even something as simple as standing on a table. However, on this day I manned up and followed my friends up the ladder.
We gently walked across the roof to our objective. As we got closer to the hole, we could hear some kind of gasping. I thought maybe someone was doing aerobics.
It wasn’t aerobics but it could be categorized as some form of exercise.
A beautiful black woman with copper toned skin, high cheekbones and long, thick, luxurious, black hair, was gasping away, her eyes closed and mouth wide open. Her magnificently, toned legs, high in the air.
On top of her was a white man. He was pumping away, beads of sweat covering his back. I was sure if the woman looked up, she would have seen us but if she did, her eyes seemed only half open at best and in some sort of hypnotic state.