It was inevitable that Pauline Atkins and Eric Coburn, now both the same age, would meet. Pauline, outgoing, lively and energetic was in her element organizing work-related, as well as extra-curricular, activities in her home community. Eric, on the other hand, was studious and introverted, although just as enthusiastic. All he needed was someone to pull him out of his shell, and who better than Pauline!
It was only natural that they formed an effective alliance to bring new life into their quiet little town and only natural, too, that their association eventually developed into a love relationship. Nearly everyone was impressed by what this team was able to accomplish together; but there was one important person who withheld her opinion publicly, but whose disapproval went underground for the age-old reason of jealousy of her son’s involvement in other than family interests, that person being Eric’s mother.
Every time Eric praised Pauline, his mother never failed to call attention slyly to what she considered her assertive ways; and, being one of those persons who ruled both her husband and son by indirect methods, she could not accept anyone else’s influence superseding hers. Pauline, on the other hand, open and loving, could not understand why Mrs. Coburn avoided her, seeming not to like her.
Although shy and reserved, Eric Coburn had a mind of his own and, finally recognizing his mother’s inexplicable antagonism to Pauline, persisted in their relationship in open resistance to her efforts at discouragement. He stopped making reference to her at home, but sought every opportunity to be in her company. Mrs. Coburn, meanwhile, took her case to her husband, complaining of the woman’s hold over their son causing him to neglect his parents.
Mr. Coburn, having taken a strong liking to Pauline himself, tried without success to change his wife’s attitude towards her, and, for the first time in their married life, showed impatience with her whenever she brought up the subject of their son’s preoccupation; and, hoping his wife would come around if he discouraged her complaints, he began to show open support for his son by encouraging the friendship.
When the couple decided to become engaged, he gave his wholehearted approval, confident that his wife would accept the situation in time, but neglecting to mention it to her. Witnessing the extra closeness between father and son and their keeping her at arms’ length, however, she bewailed, with high melodrama, the fact that the two people whose welfare was her chief interest in life had turned against her because of an outsider, and that she now had nothing to live for! In silent agreement father and son decided to ride out the storm together and keep Pauline in ignorance of what was going on at home.
To someone like me, it is puzzling how two decent men could conceive the idea of withholding information like an engagement from a mother; and, even more surprising, that Pauline could be kept in the dark about her opposition to it! The only explanation I can think of is the attitude of men towards women in those days. It is obvious that they believed it to be their right to bypass her opinion and make such a decision; and that, as a woman, she would have no choice but to abide by it in due course. When the time came for their rude awakening, therefore, all my sympathy was with Pauline and I had none for them, even though I faulted what I believed to be Mrs. Coburn’s bigotry.
During this period, perhaps to avoid the stress in the household, Mr. Coburn took to taking long walks around the town after the office closed in the evenings, and passing by Mr. Stanley’s fence just before dark one evening, he was startled by the sudden noise of the barking, bad dogs unloosed by that gentleman into his yard to discourage children from trespassing during the fruit season. His walking stick dropped from his hand and, tripping over it, he fell to the ground. Coming over to check on the noise, the owner saw Mr. Coburn sprawled on the ground, struggling to get up, and rushed to his assistance. He soon discovered, however, that he had twisted his ankle and was unable to stand up. He called for someone to bring a stool from the kitchen so as to seat the Chief Clerk until he could send a messenger for one of the town’s three cars to take him home.
When the car arrived, the driver made the suggestion that Mr. Coburn be taken to the government clinic nearby for attention, but that gentleman asked to be taken instead to the office of the lone private doctor in the town.
This doctor was a retiree who paid slight attention to his practice. The government paid him to serve part-time at the clinic, as it was very difficult to obtain medical staff for what was considered a rural area. He therefore used the clinic and its staff as an extension of his practice; and, on this occasion, instructed the driver of the car to take the patient there, where he would meet them shortly. Pauline, who had initiated the emergency service, was on duty at the time Mr. Coburn showed up and assisted the medical officer in attending to him.
Mrs. Coburn found out one day about the engagement when she saw the ring on Pauline’s finger as she attended to her husband at home, and enquired about it. Surprised that neither father nor son had informed Mrs. Coburn about it and, furthermore, had kept her in the dark about that lady’s obvious objection, she was extremely distressed and decided to discontinue attending to Mr. Coburn at home, suggesting to the doctor that he be accompanied by one of her subordinates in future.
Eric pleaded with her to continue wearing the ring, assuring her of his father’s high regard for her and that his mother would come around and change her attitude when she was no longer under such pressure. She agreed tentatively to do so, but immediately submitted an application to the authorities for long leave, with the intention of visiting her uncle in the United States once it was approved, hoping that absence from the scene would give her an opportunity to think seriously about her plight, and calm the confusion that had descended on her.
Being disliked was a new experience for her, especially as she could not understand the reason for it. People in general, old and young, always liked her and it was her nature to respond generously. With Mrs. Coburn, however, she was puzzled by her antagonism and alarmed at her enmity.
What was an additional and nagging cause of distress was something she realized that neither father nor son was taking into account, doubtless unwittingly. Someone unfamiliar with our type of society might overlook what the celebrated Calypsonian describes as “discrimination in shades of the colour of the skin.” Because of this insidious practice, people of colour often indulged in the cold-blooded method of choosing mates for their children with an eye to what was referred to as “raising the colour” of their progeny. The objective was to afford their offspring a better opportunity at success in a world governed by face-value.
In the case of Mrs. Coburn, the confidence inspired by the qualification of a medium-brown complexion as against the darker skin of her husband had worked in her favour, she believed, in attracting his interest. The result was a slightly lighter shade than his father for her son, a perceived advantage she was determined he would not dissipate by mating with a darker shade if she could prevent it; and that was really another reason at the root of her disapproval of the union.
Enlightened blacks are aware of the existence of this poison in the relationships among ourselves and consciously strive to exorcise it from our midst; but its existence in what we call the outside world contributes to its perpetuation, favouring, as it does, lighter complexions.
We take heart when love enters the picture, seeing that as one element capable of triumphing over prejudice. Unfortunately, it was not strong enough in the case in question to win the day for the young people, ranged as it was against other powerful considerations.
Mrs. Coburn was determined to have her way and something that inadvertently helped her cause was Pauline’s independent spirit and her refusal to submit to such insulting and deceitful treatment.
Another development threw the whole situation out of kilt, and that was Mr. Coburn developing pneumonia due to the lack of proper nursing care. Mrs. Coburn, headstrong and opinionated, took over the care of her husband completely, against the doctor’s recommendation, refusing to allow anyone to interfere with her methods. As was predictable, his condition deteriorated when, lying in bed without exercise for an extended period of time, he first developed bedsores, then a bad cough, and finally pneumonia which, with lightning speed, brought about his death.
Before passing on, he had called on Eric to promise to take care of his mother when he was gone; and she clung to her son to make sure that he did.
In such a closely knit community, note would have been taken of any absences, and Pauline and her whole family were in attendance and providing their usual support of flowers and help with all the arrangements for the funeral. Everyone noticed how Mrs. Coburn held onto her son and remarked on his dutiful behaviour towards her. What they did not know, however, was that immediately after taking her home he had paid a call on Pauline.
That night they had spent a long time in the swing on her veranda, at which time he had pleaded his case, urging her to become his wife. Her response to his pleas was that she could not bring herself to marry into a family whose members did not all welcome her; and not, especially, since his mother had first claim on his loyalty now that she had lost her husband. He had left her in anger, declaring he would never accept that answer and that he would keep coming back until she came to her senses.
She suffered in silence for some time, but eventually got caught up in the many activities she had spearheaded in the community, keeping busy until approval for her long leave came and she started to make preparations for a visit to the United States.
As threatened, Eric Coburn did not give up, and seized every chance to persuade a change of mind; and, when he learnt of the leave approval, intensified his efforts at bringing her around to his point of view, insisting that he could afford to support his mother financially without needing to live with her. Pauline, however, tried to convince him that whether he could afford it or not, it would be wrong to abandon his mother to a lonely life apart from him.
Eric adamantly refused to consider any argument she made, declaring at last that she was the only person he would ever marry, that his proposal stood, would never be retracted, and that she could respond to it whenever she was ready, making certain to remind her that his father had desired it as much as he did. It still had not dawned on him that the power to control her future was out of his hands!
Thus, Pauline left the district for a while, having requested and been granted a transfer to the capital when she returned to the country from her long leave.
(Chapter 14 will be in Friday’s issue of Amandala)