I grew up in Barbados in the 1950s and lived their for the first 18 years of my life.
I enjoy an ongoing, deep love affair with Barbados.
Barbados is a country whose historical and international fame and importance bears no relation to its tiny size but instead to several other factors.
So I was truly sad when, in my later years, I had to make the decision to settle in my other home country, Canada.
Very shortly after my birth at a local clinic in 1948, my parents took me home to the place where our family would live for the next 13 years, St. Paul’s vicarage on Bay Street, in the city of Bridgetown.
St Gabriel’s School
As a tiny girl of about 4, I started attending St. Gabriel’s School. I have wonderful memories of my father driving me back to school after my lunch break at home and regularly stopping at the Bico shop on Bay Street to buy me a chocolate bar.
I remember entering the school hall for morning assembly and watching the lighting of the first candle of the large, advent wreathe hanging from the ceiling. Christmas was in the air!
I remember a Community of the Resurrection priest coming to the school to tell us about the missionary trip abroad he’d just returned from, and singing the hymn ‘Jesus shall reign where’re the sun’ with him.
Between the ages of about 7 and 8, my class often elected me to be ‘form captain’. Occasionally, I had to issue 2 or 3 warnings to some very talkative and unruly boys in our class. I warned them that if they continued to ignore my request to stop chatting in line, I’d report them to our lovely headmistress, Sister Marion. We children all knew that she was where the buck stopped! The Anglican religious order that administered the school was, I believe, the sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
I would be the first of my siblings to wake up with my father around 5.30 in the morning. He would make a pot of tea for my mother and for me (I was allergic to milk and cocoa). He’d pour me a very weak cup and then he’d go upstairs with a tray for my mother. On the tray there would always be a hot pot of tea, milk and sugar and —very important —a silver vase with a beautiful rose for my mother. He’d specially grown it in our rose garden.
Once my father had gone upstairs, (by now the sun had fully risen) I would take my tea and go outside to the two large dripstone pots in our front yard. I wanted to investigate the progress of the small zinnia plants that I’d planted from seed. As they reached the budding stage, I could never contain my unbridled eagerness to find out if the bulbs had turned to blossoms!
Regular visits with our many cousins were a very important part of our childhood.
We had many cousins both on my mother’s and my father’s sides. My father would regularly squeeze 4 – 6 of us children into his rather ancient car and drive us 5 minutes away to swim at the Aquatic Club. I remember one particular occasion when a sudden ocean swell loomed ahead and my father shouted: ‘Hold hands and duck (dive under)!’
Several members of my mother’s family worked at and owned sugar plantations. We were regular visitors at one that my uncle managed. Many were the nights in the crop season when we kids would hear the screams of fire engines and see the glow of a newly–begun cane fire not far away. We would watch in awe as the overseers and workers mounted the water trucks and hurried to the scene.
One of my cousins who lived in the country was blessed with a vivid imagination. As a young boy, he loved to sit us cousins down in the dark outside his parents’ garage and frighten us to death with ghost stories. We must have enjoyed it, as all of us (of various young ages) would quickly fall in with his game.
On one of these occasions, my cousin’s mother emerged out of the dark and surprised him with a dose of his own medicine. Suddenly, she appeared out of nowhere, loudly whispering his name in suitable, quiet, ghostly fashion!
High drama ensued as my cousin jumped up like a parched pea from the concrete garage floor. After that, his regular ghost stories continued; but the storyteller was now a fraction more subdued.
This same cousin had a pet hen called Goopie. Sadly, the day came when Goopie died. My cousin organized a full-blown funeral for the hen, procession and all. Of course, we all participated reverently and eagerly.
Opposite St. Paul’s church itself, along the upper section of the driveway to the vicarage, there were one or two stone tombs that had seen better days. As sunset descended, our cousin couldn’t resist another ghost story or two, frightening the daylights out of us children by announcing: “Watch out for the ‘duppies’!” (ghosts) as we ran for our life back home.
There are several memories of my childhood at St. Paul’s. There was the exquisitely decorated Altar of Repose on Maunday Thursday, and the Good Friday Three-Hour Service which was always attended by a jam-packed congregation.
I also remember how at 12 noon every single day of our lives, every member of our family, including us toddlers and small children, would stop whatever we were doing to pray the full Angelus (Hail Mary).
I remember very often as a child hearing the revving of motor cycle engines coming up the hill from Bay Street to our home. They were ridden by police officers sent from Government House to deliver special invitations from the various governors of the time to my parents.
Art Lessons in Dunlow Lane
When I was about nine, I took art lessons. To reach my teacher’s home studio, I was allowed to take the very quick shortcut from our vicarage through Dunlow Lane. My teacher was Miss Vi Spencer. Miss Vi cut a most dignified figure with her erect posture and distinguished, aging face, her gray hair always meticulously coiffed. The only shampoo (and conditioner) she ever used was blue kitchen soap, she allowed us to know!
Her nephew Kit (Christopher Spencer) was part of the Spencer household. Many an evening, as a young child about to go to bed at night, I would listen to Kit playing the piano at their home with great beauty. Not surprisingly, years later he would be awarded a Fellowship in the prestigious Royal College of Organists, England.
Around the same age, my parents sent me to piano lessons with Mr. Gerald Hudson, organist at St. Michael’s Cathedral, also an FRCO, and the music teacher at my next school, Queen’s College.
Unlike my older brother John, I was not cut out for the instrument of the piano even though I’d never ever dream of being without my classical piano CD’s. The trouble was that I never practiced enough, preferring to practice tennis, work at my art, and study the humanities for my upcoming 9 ‘O’ Level exams. Mr. H.’s piano practice regimen was therefore well outside my reach. He once explained to me that he was required to practice each scale 700 times!
One morning, Mr. Hudson suggested that I stop wasting my parent’s money. Never was I happier! He and I remained fond friends until he died.
One other thing about my music lessons: I was terrified of lizards. Mr. Hudson adored them. As reptiles, lizards are attracted to the sounds of a musical instrument. One morning, I sensed a lizard crawling down the wall behind where I was sitting. I screamed! Mr. Hudson was most taken aback by my reaction. ‘I don’t like lizards’, I protested. He calmed me down saying that every afternoon at 4 pm the lizards joined him and his wife for afternoon tea. “They are very fond of sponge cake”, he explained.
In 1955, my violent namesake, Hurricane Janet, reached the shores of Barbados. As the hurricane raged, I remember trying to peep through any chinks in the 3-layer upstairs windows of our house. Each window had an outside wood shutter. Inside that, there was a glass sash window. And inside the glass window was a strong 2-piece, metal window that clasped shut in the middle.
St. Paul’s church acted as a hurricane shelter for many busy days, the memories of which stay with me.
When I was 9, I gained entrance to Queen’s College, at that time a school for about 300 girls (no boys!).
I recall several events like the interschool sports, our water sports at the Aquatic Club, and dancing in the school gym during lunch break with a student (Janice Millington?) playing all the current pop songs on the piano.
I love to laugh. And during my 9 years at Q. C., I enjoyed daily ‘belly’ laughs. Many of these were thanks to the regular antics of two extremely lively and mischievous girls in my class.
I myself, though quiet, could also be mischievous. Having observed the doings of some teachers, I would allot nicknames to them which the wider school would then adopt. Of course, the source of these would remain undisclosed.
I remember Lady Adams telling me off for stuffing my school hat in my desk. (Prince Philip said he loved our broad-brim Panama hats.)
Mr. David Fields, who became one of Canada’s most eminent physicians, was the first math teacher who was able to make sense of mathematics for me. “I’m not interested in the answer, Jan, as long as you understand the method.” (What beautiful common sense, I thought!)
Lessons in Posture and Behaviour
I recall our French teacher, Mrs. Gilmore, regularly telling us off for our poor posture, manners, etc.
One girl in our class knew her socially. At the beginning of one French class, at the class’s request, she invited Mrs. G. to give our form a talk on manners etc. This way, there wouldn’t be much time left for learning French. On this particular occasion, Mrs. G. fell totally for the bait! Naturally, my 2 ‘special-antics’ friends kept playing to the audience! Only with huge effort did we manage to suppress our constant, explosive giggling.
And then there was dear Mrs. Jordan with her high-high heels and long-long earrings as she delivered our Geography ‘contours’ lessons.
Naturally, I will never forget the Cuban crisis of 1962 or the assassination of President Kennedy the next year. My memory of our Head Girl’s sister telling me the mind-boggling news will always remain vivid.
In fact, at age 15, this event impacted me profoundly. I wrote an article for the school magazine and I wrote Jacqueline Kennedy a letter of sympathy in which I suggested that she come to Barbados for a break. I received from her a black-engraved card thanking me. I learned that sometime later, Mrs. Kennedy had spent time with her friend in Antigua. And several years later, I learned that Jackie Onassis had attended mass at my Catholic church on the west coast of Barbados.
Daughter of an Anglican Priest
My father, Canon Frank Pemberton, made following Jesus very easy and attractive for me. He was never ‘holier than thou’, instead living his life out of his heart’s conviction and genuine love for Jesus. He was a truly compassionate man, forgiving fully all who made mistakes, even the very worst ones. And he had an uncommon ability to make people of all ages and backgrounds laugh out loud. Our cousins always loved being around ‘Uncle Frank’.
That said, there were 4 things he would never tolerate whether from a king or a pauper and especially from anyone in a position of influence: falsifying the truth, bullying, obscene language, and blaspheming God’s name.
Later, as a teenager, I told my father that his sermons were too long. After about 12 minutes, I would drop coins on the concrete church floor to make my point. My dad assured me quietly that my protests made absolutely no difference to him.
One day Cyrus, the well-known motorcycle policeman, stopped Daddy for exceeding the speed limit.
On another occasion, a man driver on Broad Street ‘cursed’ me loud and clear for driving in a manner that clearly displeased him. But then all of a sudden his indignation turned to loud and merry laughter, having recognized the car license M540 as belonging to my father for whom he seemed to have a deep respect. A heartfelt apology, every bit as loud as his cursing, quickly followed.
From my earliest days as a small child, and for as long as I can remember, my father had many distinguished persons wanting to meet with him for advice and wisdom. Our phone would ring from morning till evening.
From a very young age, we children were taught to answer the phone politely and handle all callers respectfully, without any regard for who the caller might be.
Dignity and respect for others were values my parents drilled into us kids. I remember at age 15 being very definitely told off for not stopping to greet a poor, unknown visitor chatting to my parents in our living room as I quickly passed by in the hallway a full 12 – 15 feet away!
For us children, an impressive trademark of my parents was that they treated millionaires and paupers, kings and regular folk, in exactly the same way.
A significant part of our education took place at the dinner table every evening. My parents had independent opinions on every important matter and encouraged us children to fearlessly express our own, provided we did this in a way that was not arrogant or overpowering or in any way disrespectful of others.
Conversation during dinner was always very lively, with a good deal of laughter and jokes thrown in. A wide variety of topics were always discussed, and our discussion continued after dinner for another hour or so as we enjoyed desert on the verandah before either dropping with sleep or going off to finish our homework.
Like any person who lives out their convictions, my father had enemies. As a young curate, he was involved with ending pew rental at St. Cyprians. And years later at St. Philip, he ordered that the girls and boys from the 2 Reform Schools no longer be made to sit in the balcony of the church but downstairs right smack in the middle of the general congregation. He and the boys at Dodds enjoyed a very special, close relationship. Later on when I had my own daughter, he would regularly take her, aged 2, with him on his visit to their Reform School to see the chickens, cows, and other animals they raised on their farm.
As a very young child, I remember him mounting his bike around 5.30 am every Monday morning and leaving St. Paul’s vicarage to deliver the Anglican service on Rediffusion. Thirty minutes later, I’d hear his voice over the radio: ‘We begin with the hymn.’ My mother always greatly looked forward to my Father’s radio sermons and services. It was obvious that they provided her with the inspiration she needed for the week ahead.
My mother was never a shrinking violet, however. She would not hesitate to correct my father when she thought he was wrong. Her reasoning was that he too, although a priest, nevertheless had ‘a soul to save’ just like anyone else.
In 1974, my father died suddenly, less than 6 hours after he’d recorded what would be his final Rediffusion service. We found a note in his study that said: ‘I am going back to my Maker as we all must do. Pray that I do so consciously.’ God granted his wish. He was in full possession of all his faculties as the Lord very quickly and very suddenly welcomed him home.
This is a glimpse of growing up in Barbados in the 1950s, a Barbados I knew and loved as a child and young adult, and remain in love with even as I write. Its intelligent, kind, hope-filled and faith-filled people, its rich culture, and its natural beauty provided a truly strong foundation that has stood me in excellent stead for these 75 years of my own rich and fulfilling life.