“He made these dangerous voyages during the war.”
“Which war?… Vietnam?”
“The war to end all wars.” She laughs.
To hear her talk of WW2 was strange. I had asked her to tell me about my grandfather, a man I only ever met once during a brief visit to Trinidad in his old age, from his new home in the USA. Whatever childish hopes I had of being adored by him were quickly evaporated. The encounter was memorable only because he scolded me. As children, we were expected to be seen and not heard. My mother still remembers him scolding me. I was seven.
Papa Dyer – My Grandfather
“Your grandfather, God bless him, couldn’t handle his rum… he did a remarkable job. Even though he drank a lot.”
“Was he a soldier?
“Nothing of the sort. He was a salesman.” She laughs.
Papa Dyer would join the shipping convoys during the war, that ferried much needed goods between the islands. He ran a shop on the little Island of St. Vincent and found his third wife there. Or was it his fourth? That Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean, was affected by the second world war, demonstrated the scale and the reach of Nazi ambitions.
“I remember sitting at nights, after the sirens blared and the lights went out, how the search lights would scour the night sky looking for enemy war planes. A huge battleship at the base would make a blast each night. Quite terrifying.” I felt like it would have been a fun time for me, but I had taken her back to anxious memories.
Trinidad was of strategic value for the allied nations, as it was the southern anchor in allied command and control of the Caribbean, and for protection of the Panama Canal. Tactical and patrol aircraft were located there during the war, and it also housed a full naval base.
“There were long lines for food. I remember on several occasions, going with your great grandmother Ivy to collect food. I was being crushed between people scrambling just for half a pound of rice, or half a loaf of bread, she would use my small size to help us get to the front of the line. It was quite dangerous but exciting.”
Grandma Ivy Fernandes: another person I never knew. I had seen a washed-out picture, held in a silver frame, of the woman of Portuguese descent resting on my mum’s rustic dresser as a child.
“Your grandfather would send home packages of food for us when he could. We looked forward to those packages. We were desperate but happy.”
“Was he ever at home?”
“He would come back when it was safe. German submarines were busy off the coast, I remember hearing of boats being sunk on quite a regular basis. And when he was in Trinidad, I would only see him when it was time to sleep. He was always working.”
Papa Dyer had at least seven children that I have met. My mother being the eldest of her siblings, four aunties, and one uncle. But it was a menagerie of stepsisters, and a half-brother, a blended family before someone coined the term. It must have been chaos.
“How did he cope, with what we would call today a blended family?”
“He did a remarkable job. Even though he drank a lot.” she said it almost as a delayed acknowledgment. It had to have been hard for him.
“Was that scary for you as a child?” I asked her.
“Pa Dyer had a fuse that matched his height. He was slender, short in stature and soft spoken. He had the kindest heart, as he would insist on sharing whatever we had with his guests. But he did love his rum.”
“Was he abusive?”
“He was quick with the rod… but he would apologize almost immediately. He didn’t like disciplining us. Perhaps because Ma Ivy would yell at him.”
“Your husband was a heavy drinker as well.” I teased her.
She laughs. I could never say anything negative about my father. It was rude to speak ill of the dead. But my father was a sneaky alcoholic and abusive in other ways.
“Your grandfather, God bless him, couldn’t handle his rum. When he came home, it was either a spanking, or he would go straight to bed. I would always pray he was tired. Ma Ivy would cry every time she saw him drunk and stumbling home.” She brought the conversation back on point.
“I am sure your siblings would have different stories to tell, wouldn’t they?”
“Oh yes, and many of which you would never hear from me. Some things are best left in the past.”
“Was it a happy home?”
“We were poor. Pa Dyer’s income was as insignificant as spit in the ocean. But he ensured we had a roof over our heads, and a woman in the house to call mother.”
“You will have to tell me about your stepmothers one day. My list of grandmothers. I never knew any of them.”
“Yes, one day I will.”
“What is your earliest and happiest memory of Pa Dyer?”
“Giving me pieces of sugar cane to eat, I could have been four at the time.” She didn’t hesitate. It was a cherished memory, 83 years old and always kept within reach.
Leave a Reply