‘St John Ah Come From!’
by Sandy Deane
With a sense of anticipation I set out on a bright, sunny Thursday morning to St John.
Let me confess from the outset that I was going home. My navel string is buried in Massiah Street. It was there I learnt that manners maketh boys and girls, flying paperbag kites is loads of fun, roast breadfruit topped with mello kreem is simply delicious, sucking sugar cane should never be missed, family is not limited to blood relatives and how to pitch marbles and play Chinese skip and street cricket.
As I coasted through the parish of St Phillip to my hometown, I couldn’t help the broad grin on my face or ignore the fuzzy warmth building inside, because I knew I was in for a treat. I was not disappointed. I was first struck by the immediate crisp and clean breeze and took a deep long breath. It was satisfying.
It wasn’t long before I reached my former home of more than 30 years and, as usual, it was quiet; everyone going about their business, only managing to briefly say a quick “hello” to a few walking the old, familiar way to pick up the day’s newspaper.
I w ondered where I would begin, since the rural parish is filled with well-hidden gems. So I called good old John Haynes, better known as St. John’s John. There is not a more familiar name. He readily provided the information I sought and off I went.
My first stop was the quiet district of Society, just a stone’s throw away from my beloved historic primary school, Society Primary, where former principal, Carl Springer, ensured his charges were introduced to more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
But I digress. The home of Ianthe Downey, better known as Queen Downey, was my destination. The front door was open and with one knock came a quick response, “step in.” Even before I could explain my business, I was invited to have a seat and hardly had to say much before she declared, “St. John is a blessed place.”
Downey, who has been living there for more than 51 years, could not hide her emotions as she made it clear: “I love it here.”
“St John is very, very cool. If any noise, it’s people who come in from the outside. Nobody don’t go into anybody’s house, nobody don’t thief from nobody and that is how it is.”
With a chuckle, she recalled her favourite memories of dancing many nights away at the Sandbox Dance Club in Massiah Street, which was the place for dances in the “good old days.”
“Girl I could move, the boys could not keep up. We knew how to have a good time.”
Those good times included happy times with The Dipper, Father of Independence, Errol Barrow, who represented St John for some three decades.
“I am an Errol girl. Ah mean I am a Thompson [David Thompson] girl too. Errol was always here with us eating, mingling and having fun. He was a real nice man, friendly and loving,” she reminisced.
Touting the good Errol Barrow did for the country and her hometown, she said it was time for St John to get a little “brightening up”.
“I want to see some more. Up here ain’t bright and I want my children and grandchildren to be happy here.”
With a warm handshake, she sent me on my way. As I walked to the car, I couldn’t help but notice her neighbour, retired nurse Henderson Sealy, who was in his garden.
“Good morning, mam,” he greeted as I made my way towards his well-kept garden.
“How is life in St John these days?” I asked
“I can’t make any complaints with St. John. I have been living up here most of the time and that is the truth,” he replied.
Sealy, however, admitted that the parish was changing as more people moved in, all the while telling me about his beautiful plants. His greatest wish is for the parish and wider Barbados to return to a high standard of living where respect and community spirit are alive.
“Right now, all I would like is to see the community spirit come back. Young people need to get more involved. Parenting needs to improve. A lot of children appear to be controlling their parents.”
His son, Henderson Jr, nods in agreement. He believes children are missing out on the joys of growing up in the country.
“From around December, you would start to reap the cane before the plantation, the usual childhood games – rounders, hopscotch, then mamee, as we used to call it, or what children call tags or catcher, those kind of things. You would always be running around through the gullies. I don’t think the young people know half of St John since everybody is stuck on technology. Back in my day, we didn’t have the technology but it was more fun.”
The young baker, who was loading salt bread in the oven, admitted that there was little he would change about his home town.
“Unlike town, St John is quiet and peaceful. You don’t get any stress, any problems, any noise except the occasional car passing. I am accustomed to the peace and the quiet of the entire place because I guess no matter where I go in
St. John, there is always that same ambience that you have. For me to go another place where there is noise or traffic, that would not work for me.”
We continued our conversation, happily agreeing that growing up in the parish was fun. But alas, my deadline beckoned so off I went to Gall Hill No 2 to meet a woman fondly known by all as Aunty Joan.
In less than 15 minutes I arrived. On her patio, she invited me to park in the driveway and then issued some brief instructions.
“Go right down the road, and you will see a former slave hut, take a pic and come right back.”
I chuckled and followed the order as any child raised in St John would. You never disobeyed your elders.
Indeed, I discovered the former slave hut, now painted and made cozy by its residents. I also met Whitney Jordan who told me life in St John was sweet.
“St John is a beautiful area. It’s a nice area to live in. I can leave my phone out here, all my tools on the ground, nobody from the area will steal them. It is a real quiet and easy place to live. You can still get breadfruit and yams and sweet potatoes; we share.”
I knew all too well what he was talking about as I made my way back to Aunt Joan.
“Did you see it?” she asked as I sat to chat. “I don’t really have the history but it has been there all this time.”
Joan, who is 70-years-old, was born on the very spot she constructed her spacious wall home. She can’t imagine ever leaving the parish she says is a family.
“On mornings I can call the young fellow that lives next door and he comes and open and prop open the door. The lady across the road she cooks on Sundays and brings across my lunch. The lady in the house next to that, she boils soup on Wednesdays and brings some for me. When we wash clothes and hang them on the line, somebody will come and pick them up until you get back home. We are a family.”
Like Downey and the Sealy family, she wants to see residents, old or new, stick to the strong Barbadian values of hard work, kindness and respect.
“When I was young, still going to school, there was a woman in the district; she and my mother did not use to talk. One day I passed and looked into her face and shouted ‘Mrs Gibson’ and by the time I got home my mother cut my tail. ‘You think you and Ms Gibson are company? Have respect!’ Now we didn’t have phones so I didn’t know how she got the message but she heard. Even though they did not use to talk, we still had to have respect and that is what I would like to see.
“That is what I want to see come back – the kind of caring. I don’t have to know you, I don’t have to like you, but I should respect you.”
With that strong advice, I reluctantly left this beautiful lady and it reinforced how much this generation can learn from its elders.
My time was almost up but I had to visit what could easily be described as the hottest spot in Barbados on Thursdays – Martin’s Bay. I couldn’t wait to satisfy my urge to taste fresh, delicious fish.
But I chose to distract my taste buds by taking in the beautiful sights. Not to be missed was the historic St John’s Parish Church, where tourists were gathered, taking in the picturesque view of the east coast, the legendary sun dial, even as they passed by the grave of former Member of Parliament and Prime Minister David Thompson.
From there I drove through Edgecliff where I had to smile as I heard the familiar sounds of neighbours greeting each other.
“Mrs Brewster, how yuh do?”
“Girl uh just here eating a little bittle,” came the response, as cocks crowed in the background.
Yes, I was in the delightful parish of St. John.
Within minutes I reached Martins Bay, Bay Tavern.
“Wow!” was my first reaction. There were loads of people, tourists and locals alike, some dancing to rhythmic local songs, others chatting and laughing in enjoyment and scores buried in what was no doubt delectable local cuisine.
“This is the place to be,” one tourist said saluting me with a wave.
Residents Vincent and Andrew agreed, adding that they would not change St John for the world.
But then I could wait no longer. I quickly excused myself to order my dolphin and breadfruit and after a brief wait it came. I was not disappointed and as I took the first mouthful. The only thing that I could say was “ahhh… St John Ah Come From!” firstname.lastname@example.org.