One month before she was eighteen, Pauline Atkins came to the capital as a nurse-trainee, boarding with Granny “P” until the nurses’ building was ready for occupancy.
She was popular right from the start, with a winning personality like her mother’s: friendly, vivacious, self-confident, helpful and generous. To a certain extent she was mentored by Matron, whom she respected and emulated in everything to do with work, and Pauline was not shy about putting forward her ideas for improving performance, conditions of service, and treatment of her fellow trainees; as well as about the overall conditions of patients, support staff and everything connected with the hospital.
In their community, Mr. and Mrs. Atkins were viewed as exceptional parents and, recognizing a special leadership quality in Pauline, had given free rein to her enterprising and lively spirit, producing the kind of personality that patients, colleagues, professional and office staff, as also everyone on the compound, found appealing. She cared about people, it showed, and they responded in kind. She was frank and outspoken, but in a way that did not give offense.
There was a joke on the compound that Nurse Pauline had “sweet mouth” because she drank a gallon of syrup first thing every morning. People are so-described because they endeared themselves to others by the sweet and kind words coming from their mouths, and sprinkling their speech with endearments.
She was also quite capable of taking care of herself where the opposite sex was concerned, manners having become more relaxed and young men more forward; and could defend herself from the boldest of advances without alienating the offender. As an example, she told my Uncle Lito, who was on the way to becoming a serious skirt-chaser, that “sweet” people like him and herself did not match because they both needed more steady and serious partners, when he put in an application for her attention.
Being very ambitious, she applied herself diligently to both the practical and academic side of nursing, seeking to upgrade her qualifications at every opportunity. In short, she was the ideal candidate for advanced training that Matron, now in a more responsible position on staff, envisioned as serving on the tutorial staff of the nursing school some day.
In conversations with my mother, Matron often deplored the government’s practice of importing administrative staff from abroad and selecting nurses for higher training at random, seemingly at the whim of the powers-that-be at the Establishment Department.
She set her mind and energies to promoting the day when nurses would be trained full-time locally, enter the wards to gain practical experience, continue to do advanced studies in the fields of Nursing Education/Administration, as well as other specialties, returning to man the service and eliminating the need for imported staff.
Being agriculture-oriented, she used the analogy of plant cultivation to emphasize that growth always started with putting the seed into the ground. She would say to my mother: “Eileen, they should take lessons from nature: plant the seed, feed and nurture it along the way until it reaches maturity, when it then begins to bear fruit.” She gave the example of a plant called “Scorn-the-Earth,” which had no roots but lived like a parasite off other growths, comparing it to the practice of what she described as lifting individuals off the top and sending them to become qualified for specific posts, commenting that when they did this it should surprise no one that after the investment of time and scarce funds it often happened that they turned around and looked for greener pastures, leaving us natives in the lurch and having to start the process all over again.
Matron stayed with the vision of our one day having a Nurses Training School all through the years until its eventual realization, which came about at great sacrifice on her part, as well as on the part of others, including children, spouses and families. In her case the major casualty had been her marriage, which had played out in this way.
When Jerome was six years old, Mr. Reg became serious about expanding the family and proposed that Matron take time off to have another child. He had always longed for a return to the happy early years of their marriage and it was his hope that having another child might serve the purpose of bringing back those times. She was not surprised at this request, as all through their time together he had expressed the desire for a daughter.
She revealed to Mama that she tried to convince him that this was not the right time as things were proceeding favourably for bringing the school to reality, having laid the ground work over the years; and she feared that her absence from the scene would interrupt the momentum and cause delay, or even abandonment. She had explained that she could not afford any distractions at that point when a lukewarm administration might scrap the whole project if there was not strong and persistent pressure.
She was among the few with a small voice in how things were run, mainly, she believed, due to her connection to an elite citizen like Mr. Reg. Many times she had experienced what she termed the old colonial tactic of quieting those trying to bring about changes by distracting them with personal privileges or opportunities for advancement, etc. She had countered this by cultivating a rapport with other civic-minded colleagues and, together with them, keeping up the pressure, taking advantage of every opportunity to press their case.
They thought as far ahead as one day forming a Nurses Association and strengthening their position by linking up with other such groupings in the wider Caribbean; but, for the time being, they kept a low profile in order to sidestep a growing opposition from the male population to women gaining what they viewed as “too much independence.”
She confided to Mama another strong reason for her reluctance, but one she was uncomfortable discussing with Mr. Reg, fearing he might see it as just one more excuse for putting it off; and this was a strong feeling of unfitness for nurturing a girl child. She felt a deep satisfaction and relief at the model example he was to his sons but, on the other hand, doubted her ability to perform creditably where a daughter was concerned. She admitted looking on over the years at the way Mama and Mrs. Atkins interacted with their daughters, and this had only served to strengthen her opinion of her unfitness for such a role. Besides, of course, there was no guarantee of gender in child-bearing!
At the back of her mind was the fear all along that to carry out her plans the time would come when she would have to make a clear choice between marriage and the task she had set herself. As far as she knew, no other native member of staff had ever been allowed to take a year off to have a child, as had happened in her case; and she now believed that rather than allow this a second time, the authorities would seize the opportunity to be rid of someone who had kept up a relentless pressure to bring about changes they had not been ready for.
She said it was the first time that she was faced with the dilemma of choosing between displeasing someone she cared about and performing what she saw as her duty to her people. She spoke about her compulsion to take action to bring about needed improvement in the situation of those around her, especially when no one else was doing so; and now that events were moving towards making some progress, she was afraid to give up any advantage.
It was ironic that Mr. Reg, who had been so instrumental in opening doors to many possibilities and who had encouraged and supported her endeavours, was now pressing her for a decision which might cause delay or even destroy all for which she had worked.
Mr. Reg, for his part, had confessed his puzzlement at what he termed Matron’s strange behaviour. She, who was always straightforward and decisive, was evading his appeal for commitment to a very normal expectation of a husband.
Mama gave a hearing to the views of both these dear friends, and was distressed at her inability to give consolation to either, since she sympathized with both their positions.
After a long period of uncertainty, the die was cast one day, and she was struck speechless, when Mr. Reg announced that he had taken the drastic step of threatening Matron with the ultimatum of either giving a favourable answer to his request by a certain date or he would return to live at his bachelor quarters. There was nothing my dear mother could do, knowing the nature of both parties, but wait with dread to hear the inevitable result.
Mama was later told by Matron that on the evening before the deadline for the decision, she and her husband had eaten in silence throughout supper until Jerome and the helper had left the table to prepare for bed. As she excused herself and rose to get ready for night duty at the hospital, Mr. Reg had asked her if she had an answer for him?
As he had related to Mama, she had replied quietly that she did not, and had therefore prepared herself to face the consequences. He had reported that in the short exchange that followed, her only question to him had been whether he would be taking Jerome with him. This had so shocked him that he had walked away from her without another word.
“I don’t understand how she could be so calm and matter-of-fact about what amounts to giving up our marriage. As to Jerome, how can she believe I could be so heartless as to let my son pay for her rejection of me? Don’t look so surprised, Miss Eileen! You know that is exactly what it is! A rejection! I have no choice but to face and accept that fact; but she should know I could never be so petty.
“I suppose I could console myself at the thought that she is prepared to give up Jerome also, but that is no comfort at all. What this clearly shows me is that her mind is made up.
“I know how much her work means to her and I will always do anything in my power to help her achieve her aim; but if she puts it before me, then what am I? Certainly not a husband any longer! She has no time or need for me! She knows that she can count on my support in everything she does, but that can easily be given at a distance. Besides, she is so involved that she will not even notice my absence!
“I know what you will say – that I am too hasty – that I should give her more time. But you know as well as I that time will make no difference.
“Octavia is a complicated woman. I have tried to understand why she feels so driven to take on such heavy responsibilities. I know it has to do with her upbringing and her relationship with her father. I know, also, that one of the things she has always felt is that he was capable of doing much more for his community but, for selfish reasons, was unwilling to take the trouble; and that it is up to her to make up for his neglect. I have tried, as discreetly as I can, to persuade her not to judge him too harshly, but where he is concerned she cannot even hear what anyone else has to say.
“She has little feeling for her parents, which is something beyond my ability to fathom. You know she has not visited home since she left it over ten years ago. At one time she even seemed unwilling for Jerome to be introduced to them. Her excuse was always that he was too young to travel on rough seas. It was not until he was five that I was able to persuade her to let me take him to know them – that I could convince a normally reasonable, intelligent woman like Octavia that the sea was not always rough!
“Your friend is a wonderful woman, Miss Eileen – an exceptional one – and I tell you frankly that no one will ever take her place with me! But I know that when she puts her mind to something wild horses cannot stop her; and it is useless to get in her way or you will be trampled. I have no choice but to leave her to her fate and try to make a life for myself apart from her.”
Mama said that he did all the talking and all she could do was listen until, finally, he ended by saying, apologetically : “I’m sorry to burden you like this, Miss Eileen, and thank you for being so kind and patient. I promise that when next I visit you, things will be under control and I will be better company.”
That Saturday morning Matron brought Jerome to spend what was the first of countless weekends with our family. By that time another brother, Robert Conrad, had been added to the family, and Jerome was awarded the title of “Fourth Son,” although he was a year older than Robbie. He and Mama became so close that in later years he would refer to her as one of his three mothers – Matron, his Aunt Millicent and “Miss Eileen.”
Mama and all of us embraced him as a family member, a relationship that has become everlasting. He spent every other weekend with Mr. Reg, who also often called on us those weekends he spent at our home, so he was always surrounded by a warm and nurturing environment. I once overheard his puzzled question to my mother as to why his father “moved out”; and her brave rising to the occasion with the somewhat lame reply that his mother needed more time to do her civic duty, that his father’s work was different from hers, so they had agreed to give each other space. He had nodded a solemn acknowledgement of this explanation and had never brought up the subject again.
Matron and Jerome soon developed a routine of sharing at least one meal a day together, the helper being on duty only during her absence. He and she had separate rooms, his with a double bed, as he had informed Matron that he was old enough to be on his own. This size bed became the cause for some humour in our household. At home we children each had single beds, and slept in an orderly manner. Much to our amusement, however, we found out that a single bed was much too small for Jerome, who heaved, tossed and kicked himself off the bed whenever he slept over. In his own bed at home he stretched out to fill as much space as possible and, subconsciously, tried to do the same with half the space when at our home.
Mama solved the problem by replacing the single beds with a bunk bed for my two younger brothers and spreading a “field bed” on the floor for Jerome, padding it with several blankets to make it soft until Daddy, who was in port at the time, pronounced it “ship shape”; and every morning he rolled up his bedding and put it away neatly in a corner.
When he was in port Daddy and Mr. Reg got together to provide activities for the three boys, including a football and gears. They soon launched a team along with boys living nearby, which, coached by my older brother Rodney, became “invincible,” a name they soon adopted.
Taking practice and training very seriously, they called on Mama to provide a special diet of fish, honey, fruits, snacks and desserts. Of course my mother was not limited to that diet but supplemented it with other wholesome food.
The Invincibles became fanatic and single-minded, as young boys will, playing in the empty yard across the street whenever they were not sleeping or eating. Homework and everything else became a problem when they started school, but they were happy.
(Chapter 12 in next week Friday issue of Amandala.)