There are stories I have yet to tell, and one reason they have not been told is that these stories probably belong in fiction instead of in a newspaper column. Over the years I have spent much time thinking about what was happening to me and what had happened to me, and the most important thing, I submit, is not to feel sorry for yourself, and the second most important thing is not to nurse any feelings of bitterness.
Ours is a small community, and a small society, and this presents a problem for Belizean writers: it’s hard not to step on toes. I remember some years ago I wrote of a barber from my childhood who was a drunk. He was not an abusive or criminal drunk: more a quiet and pleasant drunk, I would say. I did not think my reference was hostile, but a family member of his took it that way, and proceeded to make personal attacks on me and my family. This is an example of how tricky it is to write in a small community, small society.
Even though you are supposed to reduce the danger of your offending people when you write in fiction, people can still say, well, that character must be so-and-so. I’ve done that myself. In Zee Edgell’s second novel, In Times Like These, I felt sure that one of her characters was basically Odinga Lumumba. Very few readers would have known Lumumba as well as I did, so they would not have speculated as I did. I’m just saying that even a professional writer like myself can experience the tendency, in a small community/society, to look for familiar faces and familiar places. This tendency makes the job of the writer from a small community/society more difficult.
Anyway, as time goes on, material that should have ideally been inside of fictional work, creeps into my column. In this particular case, the death of Miss Stella Graham followed by the hospitalization of my dad last week brought back memories I now feel bound to share with you.
My dad was the Postmaster General when I was a teenager growing up. I would say that my father is a relatively small and gentle man, although he has a temper. The rap against him in administrative circles was that he was “soft.” My father’s great asset was that he is an absolutely brilliant man. I kid him sometimes and say to him that he belonged in one of those “think tanks” they have in rich countries. In such institutions, people just go to work and think all day long. That’s what they get paid for – their thoughts and ideas.
But we don’t have any think tanks in Belize. My dad had to run one of the most troublesome government departments in the civil service. The problem at the Belize Post Office, in those days five decades ago before e-mail and direct phone dialing and Western Union and Moneygram, was that Belizeans in the United States were sending cash money home in the envelopes which carried their letters. No matter how the Post Office tried to warn them not to do this, how dangerous it was where their money’s safety was concerned, it was just too convenient to slip money into letters. (What Belizeans in the States were instructed and were supposed to do, was to purchase a money order and send it to their Belizean relatives for cashing here. That was the safe way to send money.)
Well, Belize was a poor, colonial country, and the knowledge that there was this cash money in those harmless-looking envelopes in the Post Office created tension, sparked temptation, contributed to dishonesty, and made the job of my father’s administration quite difficult.
I would say what made his job even more difficult was the fact that my dad was one of the very few senior civil servants who was a supporter, quietly so, of the nationalist movement, that is, the George Price-led People’s United Party (PUP). In British Honduras at that time, almost all civil servants were anti-PUP. That was my considered impression.
This story is becoming longer than I intended, so let me cut it short. As I approached graduation from St. John’s College in December of 1963, I was trying to get my dad to give me a job at the Post Office for the Christmas holidays. This was perhaps the most coveted Christmas job where high school seniors were concerned. The Post Office had to take on extra workers at Christmas because the volume of mail was much greater during the holiday season.
I was quite disappointed why my father decided not to take me on for the Christmas ’63 season, and instead got me a Christmas job at the Brodies firm on Albert Street. Belize’s “biggest and brightest store” did not provide me with a good experience in my three weeks there, so I became even more disappointed that my dad had not taken me on at his department.
The following Christmas, December 1964, he did. I was 17, and in my second year at S.J.C. Sixth Form. My classmate and rival, Carlson “Buzzy” Gough, was also given a Christmas job at the Post Office that year. I began to realize why my dad had sent me somewhere else the previous Christmas. The climate in the department was hostile to my dad amongst those who were scoundrels or sympathetic to the scoundrels, and those individuals at times sought to “vent” on me in their words and actions. In retrospect, this was a part of my growing up.
My dad is one of those British-trained, “stiff upper lip” Belizeans, so he never really discussed his work with me. On his hospital bed last week, as we discussed the late Stella Graham, I got a little bit out of him. It was basically confirming what I already knew or had surmised. There were people like Miss Stella, Mr. Carl Coleman, Mr. Mike Daniels and others who were towers of strength in his administration. I enjoy recognizing Belizeans who labor without any bouquets in their lifetimes, so amidst the hectic week that was New Year’s, we managed, at the last minute, to get in the “Remembrance” that my dad had written for Miss Stella. Thing is, because of the last minute business, we didn’t get in a picture of Miss Stella, who was a tall and statuesque lady. (By the way, Miss Stella was a maternal aunt of Belize’s legendary Miss Universe semi-finalist, Sarita Acosta.)
I will always wonder what Miss Stella thought when her head of department’s eldest son, yours truly, returned home from school as a kind of black revolutionary in 1968. Miss Stella’s mother was a Creole lady, but her father was an Englishman. Whatever she thought, she was a great, great lady, and, for me, a Belizean heroine. Stella Graham had class. She had dignity. And, she had integrity. She rests in peace, I’m sure.