A Christmas gift of memories

Cedric Levy was born in 1925 and has lived most of his life in Cayman.

Every time my father told this story I would sit with the rest of my four sisters and one brother and awe at his sharp recollection of names, places and events.

A Christmas gift of memories

Cedric Levy gives his sister Ariel a hug celebrating the Christmas season under the almond tree. Photo: Jewel Levy

My sisters would always say, ‘Why don’t we record these things. His generation will soon be gone and there will be no one who remembers,’ and that is how this story came to be told.

Cayman used to be one of the poorest places on the face of the earth, according to 81-year-old Cedric Levy.

His account of years gone by to his five children under the almond tree one night this December left much to be remembered.

‘Could it be changed like how it is today? I never thought I would ever live to see the day,’ said Cedric, known by close friends as Pauldo.

‘I tell you children, what we went through to survive in these islands was not a good thing. If you all think Hurricane Ivan left nothing, the 1932 storm swept the island bare.

‘Back in the 1920s there were no cars, no electricity, no water, no food and no clothes, it was nothing in Cayman. The people were few, but what few were here were Caymanians. No Jamaicans, no Americans, no Filipinos, no Japanese, or Haitians, no sir. The big difference today there is plenty in the land and plenty to help eat it too.’

A hush descended on the gathered group as we waited for daddy to continue his fascinating story.

Just then my sister Cecile broke the silence of contemplation, ‘Boy Daddy I am sure glad I was not born in those times.’ To which he responded, ‘If you did you would have wished you had been born a rat and a cat had eaten you,’ Cedric said, laughing, and we all joined in.

‘You don’t have any private life in Cayman no more, no sir, everything is exposed. Mind you, that is not from Hurricane Ivan but the eyes and ears of everyone else.

‘In those days down in Cumber Avenue Bodden Town where you children grew up, it was nothing but bush land. Before that it was worse. I remember the Lion Tongue being so thick; storm breeze could not blow through.

‘It was plentiful and there was nothing you could make from it.

‘I remember the first well, which was located in the front of your home Jewel. It practically served the whole community. Everybody drank it, used it to bathe, wash clothes and dishes. I remember before going to school in the morning I had to go to the well and get one bucket of water to put in the kitchen for Mama Nettie.

‘Sometimes when I went there to get water and looked under the ledge, I would see the biggest snake taking his morning swim, we had to share the water with him too.’

A question.

‘But daddy the older folks lived longer drinking that water,’ said Trilby.

‘It wasn’t too healthy I can tell you that,’ said Cedric. ‘Brackish water is not healthy because it gives you bladder and kidney stones from all the calcium from the rocks. But we had to drink it. You could do no better in those days because you did not know how to get it anywhere else, unless it rained and you had drum. But where in the hell were you going to get a drum from? That was the big question. You had to go out there with a cut-open scrapped-out calabash bin or something to catch a few drops.

‘As for food, smoked and buried was the fridge in those days.

‘What little food we had was smoked and buried in a hole and dug up when needed. A big fire was lit in the caboose all day and the meat smoked until it became dry. Pond fowls, rabbit, fish, turtle, beef or pork, all were salted and put on the line in the smoke kitchen to cure. Mind you, no flies were going in there, if they did they would have became a part of the smoked meat of the day. Bacon was also done that way. See the bacon you get today is not no good. What we used to get in those days was good bacon. Today’s bacon it is full of salt,’ he said.

‘The things we used to get in those days are so much more different from what we get today. My God! The food tasted different! I never ate salt mackerel from the time that good mackerel stopped coming to Cayman. I remember Alfred Connor and Mr. Biddle, them shop days when good mackerel was available. The mackerel in those days used to come to Cayman in big sealed barrels with pickles. It would make the best stew pot you ever did want to taste. The mackerel you get today you can’t eat it. It stinks like dog and taste like castor oil.

‘Salt beef, when you picked it up out of the pickle barrel, it was the prettiest thing. Cornbeef in the can was red and pretty with no fat and you could eat it just so. Now I think they are canning up, what you call them animal’s children with the two short feet in the front? Kangaroo! Yes that is it.’ ‘hahahahahahahahaheeheheheheheheh.’

‘You go in the supermarkets today and you see two kinds of saltbeef. The white looking one is the cow and the one that is boneless and red that is the horse,’ Cedric said, laughing.

‘Did they not eat horse here in those days daddy?’ I asked.

‘Horse! Well we never killed any horses here to eat only what came from foreign. You can go now in the supermarkets and buy horse meat,’ he said.

‘But it does not have horse written on the package daddy,’ said Cecile.

‘No,’ he affirmed. ‘They do not do that but it is horse.’

‘We used to say we would not eat big sea cats (octopuses), but go to the deli it is a delicacy today. That is sea cat cut up there with a little dye on it, hehehhahahahah. Put it in hot water, pull off the buttons, cut it up, put a little dye on it and call it crab. Why did we not think of that?

‘I was only seven-years-old when my mother decided that she had had enough of the islands and we were all moving to Honduras where my father seemed to have dropped anchor. To me he was supposed to be working in the United States. How he ended up in Honduras is beyond me.

‘I remember it as if it was plain as today; the boat we went down on was the Arbutus, Captain Warren Schooner.

‘When we left Cayman it was baaaaaad, but boy! Oh boy! When we got back after 1932 storm it was worse. I can laugh about it now, but children it was rough.

‘We almost starved to death. There was not a mouth full of food to be found in the land. The little food that we were getting from Jamaica and Belize to keep the couple of people of the island alive was not very much.

‘I can remember it just as good as if it was today. The night that the schooner dropped anchor in George Town Harbour in 1933. It would be the first time I saw electric light.

‘How that came about was Charles Hislop and has family had brought an old engine from Nicaragua and they had cranked it up somehow and managed to get lights in George Town.

‘I always lie down in night and wonder how people could be so smart in those days to navigate those boats through those treacherous waters between here and Honduras. No instruments or anything; the only thing that Joe Blinky and them had in that little pilot house on that schooner was a kerosene lantern to read the compass to find the way. I tell you children those captains were 10 times better than these today. What they were doing with the little they had says much. They used to know how to pick the time that there would be no hurricanes to leave from one country to the other.

‘I remember Captain Joe Blinky tying me and my brother Franklin to the mast head on the deck to keep us from going overboard.

‘Oh boy! What a trip when we made that journey from Honduras in 1933 to return to Cayman.

‘The little food that we were getting from Jamaica and Belize to keep the couple of people of the island alive when we arrived was not very much. I remember having to eat the flour at night, because it was filled with so many worms. They would go right through the sieve and back into the flour. Government was giving this around to try and keep the people alive. Every Saturday morning we had to go out to the old Post Office in Bodden Town to collect the little givings. There were no bags to be found, people took their pillow cases. That was if they had one. At the Post Office they would put in the sugar and tie that round.

‘Did not know much about candies them days so most of the sugar got eaten before we reached home,’ Cedric said, chuckling.

‘Then they would put in the cornmeal and tie that round, then the flour, tie that round and last the coffee beans, which was taken home parched and pounded. That was the weekly allowance. Whatever you were able to gather off the land after that was yours.’

My sisters and I wanted to know why England didn’t send help.

‘England! Hush about them my children; they never even knew we were here. They never cared whether we were in the land of the living or not. If it meant getting help from our mother country I would not be here to tell this story.

‘It could not have been anywhere on earth that was poorer than Cayman in the 30s and 40s.

‘Ninna, a good friend of the family told us this after we returned from Honduras.

‘She said ‘I was writing a letter to send to your mother from your Grandparents Bella and James who said they were starving to death.’ They told her write and tell Nettie they were starving. She said to her Uncle James, ‘how do you spell that?’ Uncle James responded don’t worry how to spell it just put it down just so.’

We all laughed.

‘To have something extra to eat me and my brother Elwood would take our baskets in the morning and follow the road that went through by Mary Lou’s house in Cumber Avenue, which residents called lookout, past Conwell Solomon’s cane field picking guavas on the way until we came out in Northward by Ervin Watler’s house.

‘I remember the first Americans coming here during 1942 when they were having the war. There was no landing strip in those days so the planes landed out at sea.

‘They would come in sea planes tracking submarines and call into the base that the American government had set up in George Town; that is where the old Town Hall is now located. The base was later turned over to the Cayman Islands government and used for a school.

‘It was also the first time that Caymanians saw beer was when the Americans came here.’

‘So what did you all drink to get drunk daddy?’ said Trilby.

‘They used to get rum in the barrels them days. It was not in bottles; they would bore the barrel, put the faucet into it and bottle it off for the drinkers.

We asked if rum was made in Cayman.

‘Cayman never made anything. In fact there was nothing to make it out of. We did not have nothing those days I tell you children.

‘We did have a lot of kitchen dances all over the island. Those were good, I know, because I was the leader and flute player of the band.

‘I always wanted to go back to Rotan one day to see how it had changed from when I was seven years old, plus my youngest sister Joyce was born there.

‘I remember one morning this baby crying in the house where we were living in Honduras. I knew when I went to bed that night there was no baby in the house,’ Cedric said, smiling. ‘Next day I found out it was my sister Joyce who had been born.

‘My mama brought her to Cayman in her arms with the rest of us. We had to go through all kinds of things to get citizenship for her when we got back to Cayman.

‘Where we were living in Honduras was in a bad state. I remember Ray Frederick, Swan Frederick’s son saying to my mother, ‘Aunt Net you not going to take these children back to Cayman yet.’ My Ma would reply, ‘soon.’ We came back. He did not. He died over there,’ said Cedric, solemnly

We couldn’t believe things could be worse somewhere other than Cayman and asked if it was.

‘It was what? You have to double that up,’ said Cedric, returning to his jolly mood.

‘A couple years ago I had the chance to return to Rotan, Honduras. When I got there it had also changed, it is now a moving sea of boats. Boats, boats and more boats. No different from Cayman except we have taxis clogging up the harbour.

‘All I could hear was ‘hire me, no me, me.’ One little fellow making a real nuisance of himself gave me no other choice but to say, ‘do not worry I will ride with you.’ That made him as happy as a lark. When I got in his boat I told him to take me to the key across the water. When we were getting to the key I said to him ‘stop the boat here, do not go out in that deep water over there.’ His response was, ‘but you told me you have been gone from here since 1933 and you still remember that deep water was there.’

‘I can remember because our home in that time was anchored right on the west edge of that deep water.

‘We stayed there, took pictures, and then I told him, take me over to Candy Town. He said ‘you know that too?’ The only persons we knew in Candy Town when I was living there were Millicent and Harrison. Millicent was Wilford and Clifford Moore sister.

‘We went further in the bush to Calabash Bite. That was the first trip. The second trip last year took me to even more places that I knew as a child.

‘Because of the hard life in Honduras my mother started to disagree with my papa about the place he had brought us. My papa had a wretched life, it could not be worse, put that along with a disagreeable woman, it the worse thing in the world.

‘I remember my brother Elwood being with the country fever. He was so sick that they bought clothes to bury him in. My father took us out in the harbour to live in a little house that was surrounded by water. When the tide rose it would come right through the floor. We lived there in that little old house in the sea until we returned to Cayman.

‘Cayman is not the Cayman I knew long ago, no sir re Bob. Who would have ever thought that Cayman would become the country it is today, certainly not all of those who have passed on before me. Sometimes I wish they could only get a glimpse.

‘I sit here today with lots of food in my kitchen to eat, plenty to drink, light to see and transportation to easily take me where I want to go. Some of my friends and family long-gone, would have marvelled at the modernised Cayman.’

Celebrating his 81st birthday not too long ago Cedric, the fourth of six children was born to Nettie and Attwood Levy of Bodden Town. He married Audrey Whittaker and between the two had six children. Today he spends time under the almond tree telling stories of old to his six children and many grandchildren. He still enjoys Christmas time with his four siblings, sisters Ariel and Joyce, and two brothers Wilson and Elwood.

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