In Bequia, we rented a contraption that looks like a cross between a dune
buggy, a golf cart, a pickup truck and a miniature paddy wagon - a kind of
open air two-seater whose back “seat” consists of two small wooden
benches facing each other. It’s called a “mule,” which is apt because
though it doesn’t move very fast, its four-wheel drive can take plenty of
load and traverse virtually any terrain a windy, sandy, rocky, storm-racked
tropical island can present.
Inching our way up a steep hill around noon, we overtook a slight,
spindly-legged black woman who hadn’t seen 60 in quite a while,
trudging along the potholed incline carrying the day’s shopping in two heavy
“Give us a lift, will you?” she hollered over the clatter of our
engine, treating us to a big, gap-toothed smile.
We ground noisily to a halt. She hefted herself and her bags into the
child-sized benches, accompanying the effort with a mini-series of sighs and
“How far you going?” I asked.
“Oh, a ways up de hill,” she answered in the now-familiar, sing-song
Island cadence. “You just continue along, don’t mind me, and do-on’t
worry, I’ll be tellin’ you where to let me off.”
“This is some hill to climb with such heavy bags,” I said. “Do you do it
“Oh yes, ev’ry day, ehh-vr’y day and Ohhh, Lord, it’s killin’ me!”
she exclaimed, her voice pitched suddenly to a revival-meeting soprano,
rolling merry eyes heavenward.
And after the mirth of the moment had passed complexly through her, she added,
“But God is good, God is good.”
A daunting amount further up the hill, we let her off and watched her climb a
series of tall rock steps up to a tiny, peeling robin’s-egg blue box of a
house amid close growing trees and lines of laundry.
She reminded me, as so many of the island women do, of our Ruthie.
Ruthie: Eloise Ruth Bridgeman Greaves.
As she herself would say, “How to describe Ruth?”
She is, has been so much to us all: our former housekeeper, a native
Barbadian; my children’s “Black Mother:” kind, laughing, hardworking yet
high-spirited, if not exactly God-fearing then God-wary, respectful and
observant. Loyal, loving, endlessly giving. More family than most family.
“Oh, Lord,” she said, this Bequian auntie, and instantly came the echo of
Ruth’s knee-thumping “Oh Lahrrrd!” (rhymes with “lard” ) which could
represent a sigh of resignation, a moment of insight, a yelp of frustration, a
whoop of delight, but was, almost universally, the introduction to someone’s
inappropriate behavior; some bit of gossip, complete with commentary; or some
labyrinthine tale from her other life could be from from her childhood or
young womanhood in Barbados, long ago, before she “added all this weight.”
Or brought back from her weekend in the Brooklyn-based West Indian enclave
where she rented an apartment with her husband, Gordon. Or it could be the
response to some daily bit of Wollman mischief from the children.
“Oh, Lahrrrd, Bobby!” (pronounced Buhbby, rhymes with lobby) after
some act of devilment perpetrated on John, or some entirely successful
trickery of Ruth herself. (Buckets of water behind doorways, phony phone
calls, some outpouring of sass -- “Spiteful old woman!” was one of
I think of her so much down here. Living here, I understand so much better now
how she came to have the qualities she has.
I listen to the women trading high-pitched, swift-paced, good-natured
anecdotes -- talking, laughing -- at, to and over each other -- in their loud,
chatty, shrill, and above all, unintelligible West Indian patois -- the
cashiers and clerks working in stores; the careworn country women plying
vegetables, fruits and spices, sweating under umbrellas at outdoor markets;
the mothers with children, the shop girls, hotel maids, office workers on the
buses, coming and going to work.
And I contrast them with the men -- the oversupply of taxi drivers clustered
together, hawking or hoping for fares -- as well as the overpopulation of the
unemployed -- lounging about in local cafes, on curbs, on corners, arguing,
one-upping, tomfooling, bragging, blustering, back-slapping, pontificating,
philosophizing at each other.
Then I think of earnest, reliable, forbearing and forgiving Ruth -- and her
husband, Gordon. And I hear, “Oh, Lahrrrd, that Gordon Greaves!”
(pronounced Gaahrdon -- rhymes with garden Graves -- as in, he’s going to
bury her one of these days). Ruth, resigned and surrendering to her lot. Those
simple words -- Oh, Lahrrrd, that Gordon Greaves!” -- speaking worlds
about her bossy, devious, suspicious Bajan husband, full of ineffectual
bravado, petulance and temper, idling in their Flatbush apartment,
philandering, complaining about life, waiting for his ambulance-chasing lawyer
to make him rich. Gordon, always available to criticize Ruth’s openness,
affability, her unselfishness, her many friends, her straightforward,
competent approach to almost any problem.
It was Ruth who hoarded, who saved whatever pennies Gordon couldn’t lay his
hands on to take them home to Barbados after 15 years, with the money to buy a
home and to open a small convenience (pronounced KAHN-venience) store. That
was 13 years ago, and it is Ruth who now, at 67, when she ought to be retired,
runs the store, charms the customers, keeps the help from fleeing his
tongue-lashings, silently re-works his grandiose purchase orders to salesmen.
In every little town or parish in every island we visit, there are small
groceries, called anything from “mini-marts” to supermarkets, usually
dusty, sparsely inventoried, poorly lit rooms, carrying basics from flour to
local root vegetables and spices, to Borax. Each one has its own totally
unique take on what the locals will be wanting.
So frequently I wonder just how “Greaves Stop ‘N’ Shop” in Rock Dundo
Park, Cave Hill, St. Michael, Barbados, West Indies, compares, what Ruthie
decided is important to be offering, whether or not she’s making her famous
fried chicken and selling it.
At funerals, weddings or other ceremonial events, when I see the corseted
women in their best finery, I think of Ruth and her tight girdle and
oversized, armor-quality, waist-to-neck bra that, from morning till night,
compressed her ample flesh inside a tight, white pants uniform. Sunday
mornings, as the church sermons and hymns waft over the water to our boat
lolling at anchor, I remember the size 16 “church dresses” Ruth would buy
when I’d take her to Alexander’s or Korvette’s or Caldor’s. Or the
size 8’s she took from me and jury-rigged -- letting them out, adding
gussets, laces, bindings, rickracks -- until they fit her.
When I see all the myriad island women wearing worn shoes, threadbare,
mismatched skirts and blouses, I remember Ruth in her pilled red cardigan, two
sizes too small and stretched taut across her “missile tits,” pulling
mightily against the large safety pin that struggled to hold its two sides
I now see how everything here is scrubbed, saved, restitched, used and reused:
Ruth used to take my overflow handbags and shoes and wear them year after
year. I’m sure when I visit her she’ll be carrying my old white leather
bag and wearing her favorite shoes a pair of my old-fashioned,
three-grommet Keds. They were the final items she removed, on Suey’ wedding
day, after squeezing into the royal blue sequined dress she bought a size or
two small, (it was on sale) then took apart, let out and resewed.
“Remember these, Weezie?” she chortled. “Still had a lot of good years
in them, didn’t they now?”
Tour guides in these islands tell us their lives are without welfare or
pensions or Medicare or old age homes such frills, for better or worse,
being far beyond what’s possible for struggling economies. They speak of of
sharing, of caring for their own, of charity. I recall that Ruth nursed her
mother through a pain-racked death of breast cancer. How during the years she
worked for us, on all her visits back to Barbados, she’d spend her vacation
ministering to “Auntie,” Gordon’s aunt and no blood relative a
wizened old woman, both bed- and cancer-ridden. Ruth emptied her bedpans,
bathed her, cleaned her and bore the brunt of her vitriol at having been
abandoned. Only Ruth worried about her.
And of course, that’s exactly what she did for the Wollmans all those years.
Dependable, devoted Ruth, who came to stay a year or two when I was 30 --
still married, dabbling at gourmet cooking and other such suburban hobbies --
and remained with me when, not long after, I became a divorced, full-time
working mother of three. She stayed loyally by all our sides for 15 years --
until Suey, the last Wollman, went off to college.
How to keep help
I’ll never forget, when I first interviewed Ruth, she spoke so little that I
thought she was shy, which strays about as far from the truth as, say, Bill
Clinton. She just hadn’t learned to slow down and speak “American.” For
months, I understood about every third word she said. The kids translated.
She was strong and independent and take-charge or I’d never have been
able to deal with “having help.” Ruth was my one stab at hiring a
full time live-in. I’d put out one feeler and the next thing I knew my
husband, Barry, was picking Ruth about a week in the country up at the
White Plains train station.
I knew if she didn’t work out, I didn’t have it in me to go from one
person to the next, that I wasn’t cut out to be the “boss lady” of
a domestic. I was trying the full-time-help route because I was starting to
work part-time for Gary and wanted consistent care for the children.
So, utterly unprepared for telling her what to do and when to do it, I
asked a friend how she managed this feat. She copied her methodology for me: a
series of index cards, one for every day of the work week, with the housework
apportioned appropriately. When Ruth arrived, I gave her the cards as her
entire job guideline. It worked perfectly. Or so I thought.
Years later, I think I must have been reminiscing about how well I’d pulled
off the whole thing, when Ruth, laughing uproariously, informed me:
“You think I actually used those cards, Mrs. W? Those cards went right into
the trash bin, they did! And I went about the cleaning my own way. You never
made mention of those cards again, and if you had, I’d’a been on the phone
to Central Taxi to drive me to the next train, yes I would…I would you
About year 12, I noticed the house was not as clean as it had once been.
Around year 13, I gathered my courage, pointed to the living room baseboards,
and said, “You know, Ruth, these are really kind of dusty.” (Uttering the
word “dirty’ was out of the question I’d never insult her so.)
“Maybe you could clean them more often.”
She looked at me through shocked eyes -- but not, it turned out, as if to
imply her broom had wandered, her rag had missed a nook or cranny, or she’d
run out of Fantastic. Rather it was to announce: “Mrs. W., my cleaning days
are long over. I put in all the cleaning days I had in me.”
“Well, if only you’d told me, Ruth, I might have hired someone to do it
and spared us both this little talk!”
“How long do you want me to remain at 27 Hathaway?” she’d asked me
around year 5.
“Until Suey leaves for college,” I answered.
Oh, Lahrrrd,” she trilled, mirth rumbling through her ample bosom. “This
old woman will be long gone and back to Bim when that day comes.”
She stayed and we have so many rich memories. Ruth and her daily soaps -
that inviolate time of day, the only time she was ever unapproachable.
Ruth teaching John “fisticuffs” so he might, at long last, thrash Bobby
when he turned on his beleaguered younger brother again.
Ruth, taking Suey into her bath. “I want bosoms like you, not like Mommy,”
my little girl wished, to what may be her eternal regret.
Ruth’s nicknames for the children, names that stuck for all time. Mr.
Can’t Find; Miss Fickle; Mr. Horner From the Grumble Corner.
Ruth behind the stove: preparing the children’s favorite dinner -- MY
sparerib recipe -- so many times that she still receives full credit for it.
Ruth, making her wondrous fried chicken marinated for hours the island way
in lemon juice, then garlic, onion, pepper and who knows what else --
floured and re-floured and pan fried, grease spattering hither and thither and
whither it might which posed no problem until after the Cleaning Years Were
Over. Wherever we are in these islands, I have to stop at every local
stand or café any place from where the proper odor wafts, to sample
the fried chicken. It’s always good, but never quite Ruthie’s.
When I hear island women referring to their equals as Mrs. This, or Miss That,
when I listen to the unfailing politeness and formality of the spoken
language, I remember Ruth, who lived in the same two-family brownstone for
upwards of 10 years and never, ever referred to her landlady as anything but
“Mizzz Reid.” Or one of her best Bajan friends and a staple of her
Brooklyn anecdotes -- who was, even after he died, always called “Mr.
Camberbach.” I’m sure she’d long forgotten his given name, if indeed
she’d ever learned it.
I think of Ruth whenever I note the pace of life in these islands there is
always time for a joke, for a smile, for a listen-to and I compare it to
our own chore-filled, rush-here, rush-there lives. Even in retirement, I still
have that lesson to learn.
What I do know is that this gift of retirement allows us to act on a whim,
follow a dream. And now, we’ve finally sailed down the island chain far
enough to sneak into into Barbados to surprise Ruth. The sail would be long
and smack into the wind, but a puddle jumper will take us there in 45 minustes.
I see it already she’ll be behind the counter in her store. I think
I’ll just walk in it’ll probably be late morning before lunch some
time and I’ll order 2 wings and 2 breasts. I’m sure she’ll have
‘em. The breasts anyway, for sure.
July 12, 2000
A visit to Bim
Things have a way of not happening the way you plan.
We arrived in Barbados at 9 AM, jumped into our squashy rental car and took
off for breakfast, planning to check into our hotel and search out Ruth. Mel
forgot his driver’s license, which made Gary the designated driver for the
Ten minutes out, we were buzzing along the main -- two-lane -- highway
on the left side of the road -- when Gary grazed a curb, sending Mel,
whose head kisses the roof anyway, almost through it, both literally and
“Watch your left,” he shrieked.
Pedal to the metal
Gary swerved back into place and I figured, being an excellent driver, he’d
gotten the message. Not five minutes later, we sideswiped an empty mini-bus,
the kind of local dollar bus we travel all the time, standing at the side of
the road. The driver immediately claimed we’d punctured his tire, smashed
his rim and cost him a day’s work because here in Barbados, as in most of
these islands, the bus drivers are independent contractors, sometimes
licensed, sometimes not, by the transportation authority.
The wheel rim had a small dent, but, he insisted, it would take an entire day
to fix. He launched into a stream of indecipherable explanatory language that
took me right back to Ruth’s early forays into English. He also raised
for me, instantly, the specter of Gordon Greaves -- trying to extort a day’s
pay from us without actually doing it. But he wasn’t suing us for whiplash
and loss of career at least that we know of so far.
Our wheel, however, had just about disconnected, the tie rod cracked. We were
told we’d have to call the police, who would arrive well, when they
arrived. We sat crippled, in the middle of the left-hand lane, snarling rush
hour traffic on both sides of the road and for miles back on either side
because, like a roomful of kindergartners (or New Yorkers) Bajan drivers
simply couldn’t work out a system of taking turns. Within moments we had
what resembled an unruly cattle junction.
Gary, a combination of chagrined and bored, eventually ambled out and began
directing traffic. Mel soon joined him. There they stood, Mutt (5-foot-7)and
Jeff (6-foot-2), each in his best New York traffic-cop mode one
outstretched hand halting the flow, the other tracing rapid semicircles in the
air, indicating “Move it, bub.” The sun rose higher and with it, our
temperatures. We sat there bored and sweating till after 11, until the police
finally arrived to take their interminable report.
On the road again…and again…and again
It put a bit of a crimp in our day, but by 1 PM, we had a new, albeit less
spiffy, car, as if Hertz, refusing to trust the Gringo further, had borrowed
us a car from Rent-A-Wreck. We had too little time to argue. We sped to a
spicy lunch at the harbor.
The day dribbled away and finally at 4 we parked Mel and Jackie at the hotel
and began searching for Ruth. Fortunately Barbados is not a huge island or
we’d still be looking. The fold-out Barbados map is more interested in
telling you where the Shell and Texaco stations are than they are in
delineating road names or pointing out towns or villages. Which is good,
because when you run out of gas trying to find some place, you’re usually
back at some gas pump.
We learned that Bajan men go Americans one better. If and when an American man
asks directions, a Bajan man is quite happy to give them through broad
smiles, flapping mouths and at word-speeds approaching 100 miles an hour --
but he will never tell you where you are. So the more lost you are, the more
lost you get and it keeps escalating in geometric proportion.
We started out by leaving the capital, Bridgetown, after snarling (me) through
several Friday afternoon traffic jams, and headed north for Rock Dundo Park in
Cave Hill. Both names were on the map nowhere near each other I might add.
The problem is Bajan maps show no borders as our maps have state lines
or even changes of color indicating where one parish or town or area begins
and another ends. About all they’re good for is, maybe, an elocution lesson.
The bigger problem was that Ruth’s store turns out to be nowhere near Rock
Dundo Park (even had we found it) and Cave Hill is a large area like, say,
Flatbush. We rambled around for maybe an hour, circling the same two Texaco
stations like they were the Indianapolis speedway. Finally we stopped at a
ramshackle one-room store/cum-bar/cum-someone’s home (representing in the
most graphic detail my worst dream of what Ruth’s store might resemble.)
Four men with maybe three teeth among them sat under a tin awning outside,
downing beers and playing a raucous game slapping around a pack of grimy,
fairly well shredded cards. They directed me to the owner, who, after a series
of knocks, lumbered from the bowels of the place -- and had no idea what I was
saying. Which made us exactly even.
Eventually she snaked her way back through the entrails of her shack and, at
last, passed me a tattered phone book. There I discovered that the Greaves
Stop ‘n’ Shop address is Gilkes Gap, C’ton Village, Cave Hill, St
Michael. The address is probably longer than the counter, I thought.
And what, I wondered, is C’ton Village? Was the name missing as many letters
as the card players were teeth?
No matter. None of it was on the map and we had, by that time, four of
them. It took us another hour to even place ourselves on the map by
this time it was approaching 6PM and we were already due back to pick up the
Feisties (who could by that time be very feisty, indeed.) I’d found
out C’ton Village is Carrington Village, only there are two only one on
the map the wrong one. Gilkes Gap we figured was at least as important an
area as the Delaware Water Gap.
When, at long last, we pulled into the general area of the correct Carrington
Village, we began to notice an amazing co-incidence. Almost every street sign
we passed was a goddamn “Gap.” Not, of course, Gilkes, but Wendells and
Covington and Windsor and so on and so on. We soon came to an inescapable
conclusion: a Gap is nothing more than a street. Well, in America, more like a
Way or a Trail. Looking at the terrain, we figured the name derives from a gap
between a few houses: there are a bazillion of them in Bim.
Carrington Village is, by the way, not a village at all, but merely a
neighborhood -- and one no more than two minutes out of Bridgetown even in the
worst traffic jam. We’d been, as Ruth would have put it, “Oh, Lahrrrd,
rambling around” for hours only to end up where we’d started.
And, I’ve no doubt we’d still be rambling, except that -- not far from the
actual Greaves Stop ‘N’ Shop -- we lucked into a young woman who
actually shopped there, spoke a reasonable facsimile of an English we could
understand and thus were we pointed DYEr-eckly, as Ruth would say, there.
We pulled up to a small building, on a side street er, gap off the main
road and there it was. It was after 6 and, though the store was there, alas
Ruthie was not. She’d taken off at 4, after an eight-hour day. Sitting at
the counter and chewing the fat, however, just as I might have pictured, was
Gordon: except older, wizened, a lot shrunken, weaker and vaguer than when
I’d last seen him, which, admittedly was at least 20 years ago.
Sad to say, after all the visualizing and wondering, I scarcely had time to
look around, much less poke into the shelves and bins and coolers as I’d
intended. Once Gordon realized who we were, he whisked us off to the house to
surprise Ruth. The next two days were so crammed with sightseeing that, though
we meant to, we never did get back to the store. But after months of pawing
through merchandise (or being afraid to) in such places, I could see instantly
that it was immaculate, well-lit and crammed with inventory. No crawly bugs,
moldy cheeses, empty spaces, rusty cans, grimy packages or dusty shelves.
Apparently Ruth’s cleaning days weren’t over, after all.
Home and shrine
But our Ruthie is still a real lady. And we were soon to discover -- when
she’s not working, which unfortunately, isn’t often enough a proper
Bajan matron. A landowner, a landlord. By Bajan standards, a prosperous
I couldn’t have been prouder.
We followed Gordon, in his shiny blue Buick, up the hill, this time back up to
Rock Dundo Park, where they live, not work. (It’s a street, not a park, but
still, not a gap, definitely not a gap.) The area is a proper suburban
development of about three or four curvy streets, small plots of land with
substantial (we’re talking Bim, though, not Greenwich) well-kept, pastel
stucco ranch homes.
There’s a wide iron gate in front -- that parts electronically; a roofed
lanai housing comfortable outdoor furniture, a profusion of green plants and
Gordon began shouting for Ruth, who was a long time in coming. We hid and when
she finally opened the door, I couldn’t tell if her confusion was due to the
surprise, her advancing age or maybe we’d caught her napping. Wrong. Turns
out we’d pulled her DYEr-eckly off the pot. You don’t want to be
interrupting a senior citizen’s Maalox moment!
If change ever forgot anyone it is Ruth. Her face is as unlined as the day I
met her; her spirit undiminished. Her mouth still curls into its familiar
puckish grin, her laugh is frequent and merry. Time and hard work and Gordon
may have taken their toll, but she’s paid it in her usual way -- graciously,
without much fuss. And if her body doth protest too much, she’s not going to
let you know it.
Our joy was mutual: her thrill at our bolting in from the blue, our pleasure
in her prosperity. Her three-bedroom, two-bath house is furnished in
soft carpeting, comfy couches and a thick lucite-based dining table. There’s
a wall of apricot satin drapes and I’d almost forgotten the huge
mirror-backed lucite breakfront we’d made for her before she left, which
houses her glassware, her awards, her framed poems and her vast collection
Wendy, our daughter, called the house a shrine to the Wollman Family. And
she’s not far off.
Everywhere are pictures of me and the children at all ages. On shelves, on
tables, on walls. In a prominent spot is also a large photograph of the
former Prime Minister, attached near it the framed poem Ruth wrote that was
read at her funeral. There are church and organization certificates attesting
to Ruth’s giving and her charitable works.
Even the new grandchildren are pictorially represented at their Black
Now, if only she could find the time to fly up and meet them.
Sounds good to us. We’re stocking up on sand toys and water buckets. Maybe
Uncle Bobby will demonstrate how to hide them behind the doors…