NEW YORK — Among the ceremonial duties of the consul-general of Barbados in New York is a charming custom rooted in the colonial history of that island nation. When a Barbadian here turns 100, the consul attends the birthday party, and each subsequent one, bearing flowers and a proclamation celebrating the person’s life and longevity.
The ritual expresses appreciation for the elderly and pride in Barbados, which claims to have one of the highest percentages of centenarians in the world.
One Barbadian, however, is not playing along.
Mae Bishop is 101. According to her birth certificate, she will turn 102 on May 16. But with the feistiness and independence that have characterized her long life, she has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that she has lived a century.
Last year, when the consulate asked if the consul general, Lennox O. Price, could make a birthday call to her home in the Crown Heights neighbourhood in New York’s Brooklyn borough, her family did not respond. The consulate has put in another request this year, but family members say they are unlikely to grant it, in deference to what Bishop’s younger daughter called her “little idiosyncrasy.”
“It’s vanity,” said the daughter, Colba Hylton-Springer, explaining that her mother, who was born in Barbados, had learned a hard lesson here in her adopted country. “In this society, you are over the hill, and she never felt over the hill.”
For Bishop’s 100th birthday in 2008, the family held a party and allowed the previous consul general, a family friend, to attend. But it decided to respect Bishop’s sensitivities by sending invitations that referred to “the 70th anniversary of her 30th birthday.”
Bishop did quick work on the greeting cards she received that mentioned a 100th birthday, tearing out the offending number and leaving the rest of each card intact. During the party, Hylton-Springer recalled, her mother turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know what they’re going to do when I’m 100, because they’re making such a big fuss now.”
On a recent afternoon, receiving a reporter at her home, Bishop said she was feeling under the weather and not inclined to talk much. “I don’t feel good at all,” she said cordially. “But thank you for coming.”
Yet Odle-Baril and her sister, Hazel Bishop Alexis, say she has made her position clear. “She is still fighting, not resigning herself to others,” Hylton-Springer said. She added, “You have to respect it.”
The New York consul’s visits, which began in 2004, mirror a long tradition in Barbados, where the governor-general, who serves as the head of state, pays a call to residents on their 100th birthday, and then every anniversary from the 105th on. At the centenarian’s request, the governor can also solicit a congratulatory card from Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, which governed Barbados until its independence in 1966.
“We love our centenarians!” exclaimed Patricia Layne, the governor’s private secretary. “We’re very proud of them.”
Last year alone, 32 Barbadians turned 100, Layne said. The oldest living Barbadian is James E. Sisnett, a retired sugar factory engineer, who celebrated his 110th birthday in February.In New York, consular officials say they are aware of at least four Barbadian centenarians in the region, and of three others who have died in recent months.
The current consul’s most recent visit was to Eurita Xavier, who turned 102 on February 25. A winter storm forced a rescheduling, and on March 3, Price and his cultural and community affairs officer, Linda Watson-Lorde, showed up at the Isabelle Geriatric Centre, a nursing home in the East Harlem neighbourhood, with a bouquet and a proclamation. Xavier, an immigrant who worked for many years as a seamstress, read part of the tribute aloud.
As he tucked into a chocolate cupcake, Price said, “These are individuals who have made a contribution to Barbadian society, and it’s our way to honour that contribution, to let them know they have not been forgotten.”
Being remembered has never been a problem for Price’s holdout, Bishop. Her family says she has always been strong-minded, quick-witted and fastidious about her appearance. “Even 10 years ago, she wouldn’t come down the stairs without her wig, her eyebrow pencil, her makeup,” Hylton-Springer said. “And she always wore heels.”
She came to New York in 1957 after her daughters graduated from high school. The move was intended to reunite the family — her husband, a merchant seaman, had based himself in the city — and to give the girls a better life, Hylton-Springer said.
Bishop worked in the hotel industry, retiring in 1976 as an assistant housekeeper in the linen room at the former Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue. She has lived since 1966 in a two-story town house she owns.
Bishop remained robust and extremely healthy into her 90s, her daughters said, and always looked far younger than her years. But over time she became self-conscious about her age.
“She started to say she wasn’t really that age, that her mother died when she was young — which was true — and that nobody knew her real age,” Hylton-Springer said. The birth certificate, she would say, was wrong.
“We humour her because she deserves it,” the daughter said.
These days, Bishop suffers from arthritis and fatigue and spends most of the time in her bedroom, going downstairs for special occasions; Alexis takes care of her with the help of health care aides.
Barbadian consular officials are still hoping they will be invited to attend this year’s party, which Hylton-Springer said would be a small family gathering. As for mentioning their mother’s age, the daughters employed a strategy last year that seemed to work.
“We didn’t say anything,” Hylton-Springer said. “Everybody knows.”