Some of us have lived long enough to now look back with nostalgic sentiments to the “old time days.” Some have become so detached from those days that they do not wish to see them again. Yet others cherish them because they were a vital part of the fabric from which our lives were manufactured.
There are some habits and practices which we have left behind and it did not take an act of Parliament or even public discussion for such to be abandoned, although there was nothing intrinsically wrong about the practice. For example, hats and caps. Pictures taken of crowds attending a public function, pre-Independence, would show nearly all men dressed in hats or caps.
A popular brand name hat was a “Wilson.” There were varieties of men’s hats and styles but the Wilson was a cut above the rest. It carried a certain shape and had a clip carried on the inside to keep it in shape. A required piece of household furniture was a hat rack which held a prominent place in the house near the entrance or in the “living room.”
Ordinary workers and citizens generally wore a cap. A cap was a required part of school uniform, especially for secondary school children. This cap was designed a little differently from the adult male’s cap. A few also wore the English Bowler hat. A cork hat, brown or white in colour was worn by plantation managers who spent much time in the sun. Today, when a cap is worn, it is usually a sports cap with a long peak.
There was also the flannel undershirt. Imagine that some adults felt that it was necessary to wear an undershirt or vest but it was made from flannel cloth. Children, from a very early age, were required to wear flannel also. My grand-mother who was a seamstress used to make them for some of her clients. One of them who outlived her by many years wore such until his death in his nineties. It was necessary to keep the chest warm and a protection from “chest colds” or tuberculosis, was the assumption.
Buying cloth to have a pants or suit made was only satisfactory if it had wool in the fabric. A three piece suit was top class when made from wool and worn on a special occasion such as a wedding, funeral or church. Imagine a hot summer afternoon in a packed room without fans, air-conditioning, adequate ventilation and no deodorant. But it was the style and one was in style and that is what mattered. It seems that we have left such behind us.
Pulped white eddoes, parched corn and dried fish! Imagine an early summer’s evening and there is no radio or television for entertainment or sharing of news. Your chores for the day are all done. Of course, you live in the country and the sheep or goats are penned and the chicks are already in the trees for the evening and it’s about sunset. Dad comes home with 100 flying fish which he bought for one dollar.
That means that all of the few hands have to be on deck to scale, bone and salt and place on some appropriate place, the flat roof of the kitchen, to go through the drying process during the next few days. That was neither fun nor entertainment when midnight is nearing, sleep has overtaken and the rows and melts are yet to be separated from the fish and secured for breakfast and lunch tomorrow..
But parents were planning for the “hard times,” and the “dry season,” when both fish and money were scarce and there were still mouths to be fed. The fun time came later when parents and children got together on a moon lit evening and there is a pot of “white eddoes” to be cooked, pulped and prepared with lime and salt and cooked dried flying fish.
Parents and children enjoyed an evening bonding together around that fire and that pot of “ground provision.” It was story telling time, the sharing of experiences and the transmission of family values. Where have all the “white eddoes” gone?
On another evening, it would be parched corn, with or without sugar. Sometimes it was roasted corn. The children played games with the roasted corn. Tell me, “How many men are on deck”? One could lose all of his corn if he guessed the answer incorrectly. Popcorn does not fill that vacancy.
There was also the Clammy Cherry. The clammy cherry tree (cordia obliqua) was a popular and very useful tree back then. Its branches were used to frame fish pots and the extended branches were used as fishing rods. It was strong and flexible. Because of its texture, it was also used to make home-made cricket bats from the dried wood.
The cherry was eaten by children as well as by chickens. It was used as adhesive to stick paper on kites or repair books or seal envelopes. Most houses used to have a clammy cherry tree in the back yard. Today it is easier to find some in the gullies. In those days, Jacks used to come near the shore line in season and boys enjoyed having their own fishing rod made from the clammy cherry tree to catch them just from the shore.
Pilchards which also came near the shore in their season did not bite and could not be caught with a rod and hook. A net was necessary to catch them and the frys or (frays) from the shore line. The frays were mixed with a seasoned flour batter and were a delicacy when fried. When was the last time you tried a fray batter?
Courtship and engagement. Falling in love then was as natural as it is now. However, if a young man had any class or his parents were seen as respectable, he was expected to write a formal letter to the parents of the young lady of his choice before proceeding too far. In that letter, he introduced himself to the girl’s parents and expressed his intention and plans as well as requesting her hand in marriage.
This was the “letter of engagement.” The parents of the young lady, on receiving that “letter of intent,” convened a family meeting to consider the request, discuss the matter with their daughter and give a formal reply to the request. One such evaluation and reply considered that “the letter was well scripted and well written.” The young lady agreed to accept the offer and the official reply included the caution, ”she is young, so please don’t do anything to cause her to err.”
Another type of formal engagement was that which required the proposer to come to the home of the young lady with a sponsor who would recommend him to the girl’s family. This was very important if he was not from that community or if his family was relatively unknown in the community. I was told of an ambitious young man who was not quite literate and so the job of his sponsor, in his speech, was to convince her parents of his great intention as well as his excellent character and eligibility to take the young lady’s hand in marriage.
This particular fellow and his sponsor arrived at the home of the intended lover and at the appropriate time, he was given the opportunity to introduce himself and state his intentions. He introduced his sponsor who stood up and with the flowery language used on such occasions, began his speech.
But then things got out of hand when he said, “this young man’s father was a no good and disrespectful man. His son is just like his father, a lazy good for nothing fellow. If you know what is good for yourself, you would stay as far as possible from him.” With that, he took his hat and walked out. That was the end of that proposed engagement party. Have fellows stopped taking chances with sponsors?
For Whom the Bell Tolls. The last time I saw a hearse drawn by two horses on its way to the cemetery and burial in Barbados, was in the 1940s. The whole situation made a lasting impression. The walkers consisted of family and friends of the deceased who walked behind the hearse in silence. Along the way, people showed respect for the occasion by closing the doors of their shops and men took off their hats or caps.
A very sombre atmosphere was created as people grieved their loss and felt the support of their community as they marched in procession to the final spot. What broke the silence was when the church bell sounded one ring indicating to the whole community that the procession was on its away. After, what then seemed a long interval, there was another ringing of the bell.
About half of a mile away from the church, there were two rings. As the procession got nearer to the church, there was an increase of the tolling. When it stopped, everyone who had an interest knew that the procession had reached the church grounds and the church service would soon commence. That church bell was an important part of community life, especially as a community mourned its loss. I wonder what has become of the belfry, the bell ringer and the bell?
A Pinch of Snuff. There was a time when Barbados cultivated for export sugar, cotton and tobacco. One of the by-products of the tobacco plant was a powder made from selected tobacco leaves. This powder was packaged and returned to be sold as snuff. Some people smoked the processed leaves as cigarettes, cigars or rolled tobacco to be used in pipes. Sniffing snuff, that is, taking a pinch or the amount that could be held between the thumb and a finger and inhaling it through the nostrils, was one of the habits cultivated.
The sniffing of snuff was seen as the preferred habit of the elite in place of the cigarette. Some folks got together to sniff snuff and to see who could produce the biggest sneeze. The containers for snuff ranged from a piece of paper in which the shop keeper wrapped a few cents worth for a client to more sophisticated and ornate containers that could be carried inconspicuously in the pocket or hand bag of a user.
This brown powder stuff could leave around the nostrils and mouth pretty messy and so ladies as well as men always had a piece of cloth for keeping that area tidy. Awareness that tobacco usage for smoking and sniffing was associated with health hazards to the human body, because of its carcinogenic side effects, seemed to have precipitated the demise of the habit.
Being self-reliant. During World War II and shortly after, Barbadian households had become very self-sufficient as well as self-reliant. Garbage trucks were not required, especially in the country, because everything had a recycling value. For anything that was bought in a tin container, there was a tin smith in the village who placed a handle on a pint pot and the owner used it as an unbreakable utensil.
A gallon can got a handle added to it and the little child carried that to the standpipe to get water for his own bath, the animals or chickens. Shoes had a long life span. If there was a hole in the bottom, there was a shoemaker in the village to half-sole or do other repairs. The primary school which I attended exposed students to selected skills. Those boys whose parents were fishermen were taught how to mend nets or knit a fishing net.
Some others did carpentry and gardening and others were prepared for secondary school. The teachers used to visit the homes of their pupils and knew first- hand the stream which best fit their situation. The girls’ school which was nearby had its own interests such as sewing, hemming, darning, etc. These skills were brought from school and reinforced at home and became an apprenticeship for life.
The headmaster of a school was a very important and influential person in the community. His word or his signature on a letter or other document carried weight. He was requested to make recommendations, give character references and sign important documents. Parents trusted him and brought children who were unruly at home to the headmaster to be disciplined while the parent watched and decided when enough punishment was meted out.
My headmaster had three important disciplinary tools which were on full display on his desk, which had the highest elevation in the school. He had a rod, a strap and a “black book”. The black book was the most feared. If the name of a pupil was placed in that “black book”, it became very difficult to ever get a proper letter of recommendation for a job, to get a passport or a transfer to another school except Dodds or for the “cat of nine.” The good old days!
Fresh butter and butter milk! One of the household chores was the making of “fresh butter.” The fresh butter was made by following a series of steps. Skim the cream from the top of the milk over a number of days or weeks. Place the skim in a clay jar and keep it safely covered at all times. When you thought you had enough cream and milk in the jar to make the amount of butter you needed, the cover was replaced with a cover that had a paddle in the middle.
You would place the jar between your feet and you would plunge up and down until you began to feel a difference in the texture as the liquid started to turn to solid. That solid was the butter which was separated from the milk, washed and salted to taste to create “fresh butter.” After the butter was separated, the remaining milk was sweetened and used as butter milk.
In a real sense, we were truly independent, self-reliant and prepared to be self-sufficient. To build on a solid foundation is an imperative if we are to be successful going forward and looking forward to another very good fifty years. Choose well what goes into that foundation. It must be able to carry the weight placed on it in the future without cracking and crumbling under the challenges up ahead.