Mother Coombs in her old age

Doris & Adrian

My Grandmother, Doris, was one of two children (Doris & Claudius) who were raised by her paternal grandmother. Her mother died when she was 3 years old and her father died when she was 12.

Doris and Claudius were not encouraged to fraternize with their maternal relations who were considered of a lower social standing. They were deprived of nothing material but there was little warmth and affection in the home. Her brother, Claudius, migrated to Cuba in/around 1916 and, after a few letters, was not heard of until 1983 when his daughter, through newspaper advertisements, found her aunt.


My Grandfather, Adrian, the second of three sons, Edward, Adrian and Eustace, was raised in a warmer family environment. He was very much in touch with his cousins and other relatives. He fought in World War I as a young man and, when the war was over, he returned to his home town Ocho Rios, in the parish of Saint Ann in Jamaica. He became an important businessman in the town and owned several acres of land in the parish. In addition, he owned a department store in the middle of Ocho Rios, St. Ann which is now a tourist mecca. A large hotel actually stands on the site of my grandfather’s business place.

Adrian died in 1944 leaving Doris with five children between the ages of 1 and 13. My Mother, Sybil, was the youngest. Doris, a trained nurse, sold several acres of land and also returned to her profession in order to provide for her children.

My grandmother was determined to support her family at any cost. My mother recalls that, as a little girl of about 6 or 7, her mother took in all the laundry from one of the hotels in St. Ann one day and, along with the helper, washed all the laundry by hand. At that time Doris would have been quite old. Determined to finish the laundry that day, on completing it, my mother told me Doris collapsed on the ground exhausted.

young doris
Doris Coombs (Doldon)

Doris, who was affectionately known by all as "Mother," was a strong-willed, hardworking and determined woman whom I respect immensely. She was fiery tempered and independent. A tiny woman (about 4’9” tall) she was, nevertheless, a forceful personality. I believe that I inherited her determination, independence and strength. She lived with my family for as long as I can remember and as a young teenager I spent a lot of time with her listening to tales about long ago times in Jamaica and about the books she had read (mostly romantic ones). We had a special bond.

Mother died in 1989, the year I graduated from the University of the West Indies.

Harry & Maggie

Harry & Maggie
Harry & Maggie

A middle child in a family of eight boys and one girl, my grandfather, Harry, had the distinction of being the only child and the first person in his family to get any level of post-primary training and a job as an educator.

Harry became an Elementary school principal, starting his career in the remote rural neighbourhood of Woburn Lawn, St. Thomas in deep south-eastern Jamaica, and secured larger and larger assignments until he became headmaster of the Junior Secondary school in Porus, Manchester in Southwest Jamaica. This achievement was a huge reward for twenty-five years of commitment and unwavering dedication. But it was the more remarkable as his father and his other brothers were all farmers, rooted for the most part in the village of their birth. The fact is that in the 1930s, the only avenue for black men to advance in Jamaica was in the profession of teaching.

Affectionately known as “Teacher” by all his students and all who knew him, Harry taught each of his four grandchildren to read when they arrived at the age of 3. This early start stood us in good stead when, at age 4, we started preparatory school. In Jamaica, the school system is based on the English system, where children typically start school in the academic year after their fourth birthday. By the time we enrolled in school we were already reading at rates well beyond our age. This was an advantage I maintained throughout prep school and, by the time I went to high school, writing short stories and poetry was my favorite pastime. I inherited my love for the English language from my grandfather.

Harry was also loved for his involvement in the church. As a community leader, wherever he was assigned to teach, he inevitably became organist, choir master and a lay preacher. In retrospect, part of what gave my grandfather his unparalleled patience must have been his relationship with God which was very strong.

My father tells me of an incident when, in 1951, Jamaica was struck by Hurricane Charlie, a particularly violent Hurricane. As luck would have it, the hurricane made landfall in the southeast of the island and the little teacher’s cottage where they lived on a hill overlooking the sea was directly in its path. Predictably it battered the cottage and when the storm hit its frightening peak he sought guidance from his father as to what next to do. The advice given stoically and with no trace of emotion was "Pray my son, Pray."

I regret that I never got an opportunity to learn about this relationship or, in fact, a lot more about his personality. I think I could have benefited from some of these traits. My grandfather died in 1980 when I was 12 years old.

His relationship with his grandchildren was excellent. When we spent summers in Mandeville with him, he spent most of the days at school working. However, sometimes, he would take us to school with him and give us ‘hot’ coca cola that he kept stored in his office which would bubble up in my nose and make sneeze.

"Teacher" was an eloquent speaker

My grandfather never spoke a harsh, cruel or even impatient word in all the time I knew him. My knowledge of him as a disciplinarian all came from my father’s accounts of his relationship with Harry, both as a son and a student. Grandpa had a disciplinary strap – it was an old belt – that he called “Joe Louis,” after the famous boxer of the time. My father admitted to having been disciplined by “Joe Louis” on several occasions.

My grandmother was different from my grandfather, however. My father used to tell me that, while Harry rarely ever beat any of his children, Margaret often did as she believed in the old adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Grandma Maggie never disciplined me. But on one occasion, when my little cousin Bob behaved particularly obnoxiously, locking us out of the house, she called him into her bedroom and locked the door. We witnessed through the key-hole, the sweet old lady we lovingly called grandma living out all the tales our father had told us about her. We were all pleased because we believed he deserved it, but we also learned there was another side to grandma that shouldn’t be crossed.

Grandma Maggie was the youngest in her family. Her brothers and sisters all got a post-primary education, and were all prepared for careers in the teaching and/or nursing professions. Because of an unhealthy childhood, my grandmother was unable to enter either profession which was a constant source of regret for her. When she met Harry she was a Postal Clerk in, Seaforth, St Thomas, having left home to live with her eldest sister, Annie, herself a teacher, who, by then, had married another teacher and had three children.

Unlike Harry who was a humble man, Maggie was very proud of her social standing as she perceived it. It was a form of class-consciousness peculiar to the times and to the strong British traditions under which she came up. It also led her to spoil her grandchildren. Whenever we went to Mandeville she would be sure to have lots of sodas in the fridge for us as well as sugar cane and roasted corn.

My grandparents had lots of space in their backyard and it was always immaculately kept, with flowers at the bottom and cash crops such as yams and corn at the top. I still have glorious memories of playing in the yard.

My grandmother was a meticulous housewife. In the tradition of old Jamaica she always had two helpers to keep the house together, and she managed the house with a strong hand. I remember particularly, the breakfast table. Sue, the helper, would give my sister and I mint tea from real homegrown mint. Grandpa would always have a boiled egg for breakfast in the morning. The egg would always be served in an egg cup. After Grandpa died my grandmother was never the same. It was almost as if her personality changed. She became less interested in life. Nonetheless, she outlived him by 19 years, finally dying in 1999.

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