Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Characters of the Caribbean #3 - Mr. and Mrs. Belle

I had been on St.  Eustatius only a short while when I met Mrs. Belle.  Her name was given to me as someone who might be willing to do some light housekeeping for me and could perhaps do my laundry.  This last was terribly important since we had no electricity and no access to water except by pulling it out of the cistern by the bucket.  To shower, we poured buckets of water over each other;  to drink or cook, we strained water through a handkerchief, but laundry was daunting.  

Mrs. Belle came to my house to meet me late one afternoon after she finished her other jobs.  A handsome, dignified black woman, she sat on the veranda with me and we chatted. I liked her from the first instant.  She had a vast knowledge of West Indian life and lore.  

My husband had been unable to get away from work and I had come alone to the island to see how the building of our house was progressing (it wasn’t).   Mrs. Belle looked around at my no-work-in-progress house.  It had a roof and four walls, but little else.  We had sent down some rudimentary furniture, and I had a two-burner propane stove, but to say I was living rustically would be to understate the reality.

Was Mrs. Belle daunted by the way I was living? Indeed not.  I soon realized that what was a lark for me had been for many years simply a way of life for this intrepid woman.  No electricity? She had electricity now, but for years she had lived without it.  Indoor plumbing? A luxury only recently acquired.  Her greatest worry for me was not the hardship of living “in the bush”.  

She said “You here all alone at night?”

 I allowed as to how I was.  

“You not afraid of the jumbies?”

“What are jumbies?”

“The walking dead.  You way out here in the country.  There be jumbies. ”

Mrs. Belle & Mrs. Choksy
At that time I thought it was superstitious nonsense.  Now, after many years of living here, I’m not so sure.  More than once I’ve heard footsteps in the night and a door opening and closing, only to find no one there.  Today, I’m simply grateful that the jumbies, the ghosts of the early plantation owners and slaves, are willing to let me coexist with them.  When I wrote Delighting In Your Company, it was Mrs. Belle’s voice that reverberated in my mind.

In the years following that first encounter, Mrs. Belle and I sat many times on her porch or on mine and talked.   The matriarch of a large and close-knit family, she usually had a grandchild on her knee.  We became friends.  Her name at birth was Margaret Catherine Evangeline Tweed, although I learned this only after her death.  We always addressed each other simply as Mrs. Belle and Mrs. Choksy (my married name).  This formality is common on the island.  When she spoke of her husband it was always as “Mr. Belle”.  To this day, forty some years later, I am usually addressed on this island by my last, not my first name. This courtesy is common among Caribbean Islanders, and I very much like it.

Mrs. Belle told me bits and fragments of her life over the years, but never enough for me to put together in any cohesive way.  I’m sure her view of my life was just as fragmented as hers was to me.  It didn’t matter.  We were friends.

When I started writing about the people important to my life here on this tiny rock in the Caribbean, I knew Mrs. Belle had to be among them.  Fortunately, two of her daughters, Venetta McDonald and Joyce Simmons, were happy to help fill in the blanks.  What I learned from them gave me and even deeper respect for this remarkable woman than I had had before.

Mr. & Mrs. Belle
Mrs. Belle was born on the neighboring Island of St.  Kitts on October 19th, 1917 and lived there until the early 1970’s.  From her earliest years she worked … first in the cane fields, then cleaning houses.  She did whatever she had to, to survive.   Still in her teens, she met and married a Mr. McDonald, but the marriage was short lived.  She met Mr. Belle, John, sometime after this failed marriage.  He wanted from the first to marry her, but his family objected to her as “not good enough.” To get him away from her, they sent him off to St.  Eustatius (Statia).  

Margaret was a beautiful young woman, much admired.  She told him if he left her there might well be other men, there might be children.  He said he didn’t care.  He loved her.  One day he’d come back to St.  Kitts and marry her.  He’d accept any children she might have as his own.  

Mr. Belle was a tailor.  His speciality was making brimmed caps of the kind worn then by many of the island men.  As a parting present, Margaret gave him a pair of beautiful, well-crafted scissors to use in his trade.  He treasured those scissors to the day he died.  

Mrs. Belle’s first daughter, Venetta, was born not long after.  Since Mr. McDonald had refused Margaret a divorce, Venetta carries McDonald’s name, but from the first she knew he was not her father.  

By the time Mr. Belle returned from Statia, there were three children.  He still wanted Margaret and they took up life together.  He again asked McDonald to grant her a divorce so he could marry her, but McDonald refused.  They continued their life together, but only when McDonald died were John and Margaret finally able to marry, on November 26th 1965.  Mrs. Belle was then 48.  Their life-long love affair had begun when she was a girl in her teens.

By then she had five girls and he had three boys.

When Mr. Belle was offered a full-time job on Statia, they discussed it and made the move.  Venetta was old enough to look after the younger children, so they were left behind in her charge until the Belle’s could sort out their new situation and find suitable housing.  Every week Mrs. Belle sent a package of food to the girls including home-made bread and succulent coconut drops.   Joyce remembers those coconut drops fondly to this day.

Mr. Belle was to work for Island Estates, a development started by retired American Army Officer, George Bauer.  He took his army pension in a lump sum and started buying up old plantation lands all over the uninhabited part of the island with the vision of creating an upscale retirement community.   The prospectus optimistically showed roads and even a golf course where none existed.  The land, in use only as a free range for the many goats, cows and sheep owned by the islanders living in town, seemed valueless to the local people, who were happy to sell it for cash in hand.  Few ever even ventured to the other side of the island where at one time Dutch and English planters had run some of the largest and most successful sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, all the plantation houses were in ruins.  The local people saw little value in the land.

Bauer bought it up, hundreds of acres, then divided it into one acre lots, and put it through the Dutch courts to ensure owners clear title.  (This last step was what failed to happen on many non-Dutch islands.  The stories of people building Caribbean houses on British and French islands, only to discover they didn’t own the land, are legion. )

By the time the Belles came to Statia, the Bauer’s had separated and Mrs.  Bauer held the land.  She needed help in clearing and fencing lots, and doing the myriad odd jobs required by the business of selling land.  She also needed household help and offered to provide housing.   The job seemed ideal to the Belles.

But to an outsider like me, the conditions of such employment seem almost medieval.  To hire an “off-islander” even today, the employer has to “sign” for them.  That is, the employer has to assume full responsibility for them, food, clothing, shelter, medical needs.

This may seem reasonable and straightforward.  But the other side of the coin is that the sponsor, the employer, has an enormous hold over the employee.  He or she can revoke that agreement with a moment’s notice.  It has always seemed to me little short of indentured servitude.  But to the Belles, at that time and place, it was a step up.

They came to Statia and for the next several years worked for Island Estates.  It was during this period that I first met them.   Mrs. Belle started “doing” for me and we began a close friendship that lasted till her death.

They lived at first in a little stone house, former slave quarters, on the side of Little Round Hill, in the shadow of the volcano.  It was one large room with no electricity or running water.  Then they moved to a house on Rosemary Lane, just at the time the Dutch began extended electricity throughout the town and across the island.  It had previously been available only from six pm to midnight each day and only in the heart of town.  This was a great improvement.  The Belles brought their girls over from St.  Kitts to live with them and Mr. Belle bought a small piece of land on a hillside and began construction on the house he and Mrs. Belle would live in for the rest of their lives.

But things were not going well between Mr. Belle and his employer.  Mr. Belle was a deeply religious man.  He told me he had been instructed to testify under oath in court to witnessing a signature in a dispute over ownership of a large piece of land belonging to an old island family.  He said he had not witnessed the signature on the sale agreement and could not bring himself to lie about it, even under threat of losing everything.   As a result, the Bauer’s lost the court case and Mr. Belle lost his job.  

A friend stepped forward and signed the necessary residence papers for him and, soon after, the Belles applied for and received permanent resident status.  Their years of indentured servitude were over.  But life wasn’t easy on Statia, even then.

Mrs. Belle with one of her grandchildren
They took over the maintenance of my house and grounds, and Mr. Belle did whatever jobs he could find elsewhere to make ends meet, while Mrs. Belle cleaned houses, did laundry, and looked after a growing brood of grandchildren. They made charcoal and sold it, they raised sorrel, a plant much coveted on the island, and they had fresh eggs from their chickens.  

They supported their churches generously.  Mr. Belle was Anglican and served as the substitute minister three Sundays of the month.  The Anglican priest came over from a neighboring island on the fourth.   If I chanced to visit them on a Saturday, I always found Mr. Belle sitting on his porch studying his well-worn bible, preparing for Sunday.

Mrs. Belle rarely set foot in the Anglican Church.  She said “Dat his church!” She was staunchly Methodist.  The Methodist Church service was later than the Anglican one on Sunday morning, so Mr. Belle would finish his service and then accompany Mrs. Belle to hers.  Occasionally I was invited by one or the other of them to a special service.  I always accepted.  I enjoyed being a part of their large, loving family, even peripherally.  

When my husband died, and I was alone in my isolated house on the lower slopes of the volcano, Mrs. Belle called me every single morning.  The phone would ring.  “Good morning” she would say in her beautiful island lilt.  “You has a good night?”

“Yes.  I’m fine.  I’ll stop by later. ”

Somehow, knowing she’d call made me feel less alone.

Then Mrs. Belle was diagnosed with diabetes.  Many people in the Caribbean struggle with diabetes, but I believe Mrs. Belle was what we know today as a brittle diabetic.  Even though the public health nurse came daily to administer her necessary insulin, it was never quite right.  Her feet and legs swelled.  It became increasingly difficult for her to walk.  

Still she never missed a Sunday morning service.  Her daughter, Joyce, came by car each Sunday to take her to church, but if Mrs. Belle thought she wouldn’t be there on time, she’d start walking.  She’d say, when Joyce found her struggling along the road “I jes tooku.”  ( I was just taking it one step at a time.”)

I will regret all my life that I did not see her that last day.  I had been off-island.  It was at the end of a fourteen hour day of planes and airports, and when I arrived home, Mr. Belle was waiting for me.  He told me she was in serious condition but that I was too late to see her that night.  Visiting hours were over.  I should go the next morning.

She slipped into a coma that night.  I learned only later that she had been up and dressed and waiting for me all that afternoon.  I hope that in whatever heaven she inhabits she understands and forgives me.
When I walked into the church for her funeral and looked around at the overflowing congregation I wasn’t sure I would find a seat.  Then from the very front of the church, her daughters, Joyce and Venetta and Lenore, motioned to me.  I was to sit with the family.  They had saved a place for me.  The minister in her homily spoke of her large, loving family and, nodding toward me, “her friend”.
She was indeed my friend, and I miss her to this day.

There were eighteen grandsons at her funeral.  Six carried her coffin from the hearse into the church, six from the church to the hearse and six from the hearse to the cemetery and into the grave yard overlooking the sea.

Mr. Belle never recovered from the death of his wife.  He took to wandering off, not knowing where he was, where he was going.  His daughter, Lenore, tried to keep him safe, but she had children to keep track of and eventually there was no recourse but to put him in the old people’s home, where he could have constant supervision.

He lived another few years after Mrs. Belle’s death, but in truth, he died when she did.  He was never able to find himself again after she died.


Following are my own published novels. Go to my Goodreads page, to find more details about my books, and many more reviews.  
To purchase one of my books, just click on the book cover below and select the vendor of your choice.

COMING SOON!  Romantic Road, is a romantic thriller set in Europe.  It is due for release in late 2014 by Wild Rose Press!  Stay tuned.

Romantic Road ~ Takes you on a chase across Europe with our heroine who finds herself in a series of precarious situations.  She encounters a handsome stranger, but is he helping her, or is he dangerous?  This story has hair raising suspense, romance and a sprinkling of humour


The Memory of Roses, Blair McDowell
 • The Memory of Roses ~ The story of a secret and how it impacts two generations of the McQuaid family.  It unfolds on the beautiful Greek Island of Corfu and is a tale complete with beautiful and passionate women, handsome and fiery men, and an intriguing mystery.

"The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell is simply an incredibly lovely story. It’s also a love story, and a story about finding yourself, and about closure. The theme running through the book is “all’s well that ends well.”  
-- Marlene, Reading Reality

Delighting In Your Company, Blair McDowell
 • Delighting In Your Company ~ Delighting In Your Company is a paranormal romance set on an exotic Caribbean island, featuring a handsome ghost and an adventurous heroine who travels back in time to solve a mystery!

"Delighting In Your Company is a unique paranormal romance that brings together island folklore, history, and mystery with an unlikely romance between the past and present that had me going through a torrent of emotions and made it impossible to put down.
 -- The Romance Reviews

Sonata, Blair McDowell
 • Sonata ~ Sayuri McAllister has just arrived home to Vancouver to find that a robbery has taken place at her family home, and it is being investigated by her old flame.  She also has a new stepmother with a charming brother who is intent on bedding and wedding the rich and beautiful Sayuri. It’s a confusing and difficult time for Sayuri, especially when dangerous accidents happen to her father and herself – or are they accidents?

“I found Sonata to be a charming novel that left me laughing out loud in parts and gnawing nails in others. It was a delight to read.”  
– Night Owl Reviews


Abigail's Christmas, Blair McDowell
 • Abigail's Christmas (short story) ~ An enchanting tale of love and romance, with a magical touch of fantasy.
"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays."  

-- Sizzling Hot Books  

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Blair McDowell