Minutes after returning from a shopping trip to Foster’s Food Fair supermarket in West Bay, Ethel Ebanks, 98, back at home in West Bay, was giving instructions to a carpenter renovating a spare room and to a helper, who insisted she get something to eat.
“I tell her before, I will eat when I am ready,” said the vibrant and straight-talking Ms. Ebanks, before settling into a chair to find out the purpose of my visit.
Eyeing me suspiciously without the use of eyeglasses, she said to speak up as she does not hear too well these days.
Born in 1918 to parents Ennia Elizabeth and Thomas Edwin Ebanks, Ms. Ebanks still resides in the same house she grew up in with her siblings on Town Hall Road.
During a long and colorful life, Ms. Ebanks became a successful head maid at one of Cayman’s first hotels – La Fontaine on West Bay Road. She also worked in a shoe shop, the old West Bay By-Rite supermarket, in the home, and later as a dressmaker.
“You known Melba Nixon? She took my picture shopping,” she asked unexpectedly.
When I hesitated, she quickly followed up with: “Where you from anyway, you don’t know people or what?”
That was when I quickly found out this was no ordinary 98-year-old. Ms. Ebanks is not only sharp for her age, she is an amazing woman. Her knowledge of Cayman’s society and its workings is right on target.
“I just celebrated my birthday with all these people … here I am with Franz Manderson, he’s the deputy governor, this [is] me with the Premier Alden McLaughlin, he’s a good man … you must know him,” she said, pointing at snapshots.
“Here is Loxley Banks and Joy Merren – you know Ossie? Well he married to Nancy, you must know him, he’s from Bodden Town. Here is Wayne Panton. You know Kurt Tibbetts and his wife Shirley Ann, all these people and more were at my birthday party … you voting for McKeeva Bush?” Ms. Ebanks queried, the U-turn totally catching me off guard.
I managed to get a word in: “What is your secret of getting to 98?” I asked.
“I know it’s not from eating food, so it must be hard work,” she said with a chuckle.
“I used to work hard in my young days, sweep sand, wash clothes, help my mother cook, shop and even cement work.”
She also said she and her sister built a cement grave in the front yard of their home for their younger sister who died in childbirth.
“Here is Dalkeith Bothwell, he told me something that made me laugh. You know Moses Kirkconnell? He’s the best tourism minister,” and on she went, identifying Tommy Bodden, Benny Moore, MLA Anthony Eden, Allison Ebanks, her cousin Marjorie Ebanks: “She taught at Triple C School, you know that?” Ms. Ebanks asked.
“Times in West Bay have changed,” she continued.
She said in West Bay people could once sleep outside, there were no thieves, no murderers, no electric lights, but on the other hand, plenty of mosquitoes.
Her family loved to go to church, and her mother was very particular, and they lived loving, not like today.
Recalling her childhood days, she said she liked those better.
“Those days we were safer … today you don’t know when someone will climb in your window and rape, steal or harm you … they come in and you don’t even know how they get in,” she said.
Growing up, she said, there was no electricity but that did not stop people from working hard and from the children having respect.
In her view, there is no discipline in today’s schooling.
“If I think they should use the straps in school today, yes, but not across the back,” she said.
“If you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child … if they don’t get flogged in school and their parents don’t flog them when they get older, they will fight them and us … school is where children supposed to get discipline, that’s why they coming out so bad – no discipline.”
She said her first school days were taught by Jamaican teachers in a little one-room building next to the Heritage House on Boggy Sand Road in West Bay. One teacher, she said, would beat the children across their backs with the strap.
“This was wrong because he was supposed to beat the children in their hand,” she said.
She said just before her 11th birthday, she was stricken with malaria. Evelyn Wood, a Bodden Town government nurse came to tend her.
“I got so weak my teeth starting chattering uncontrollably, it was very bad,” said Ms. Ebanks, clicking her teeth together to make the sounds she experienced during that hard time in her life.
When she was well enough to return to school, her mother enrolled her in a private school because she was not fit enough to stand the strap across her back.
In her teens, Ms. Ebanks became a working woman, employed at various places before securing a job at La Fontaine.
“They later changed it to Royal Palms, you know that” she noted.
“Those days, it was just a one-phase building, with only about eight apartments that tourists could book. Ted Hanson and Bill Crutcher, they were the carpenters and owners, and Dalmain Ebanks, Dee Dee from West Bay, he was one of the carpenters up there and he was the one who got me the job.”
Because of her dedication, Ms. Ebanks was made head maid at the hotel in no time.
She recalled how one tourist made her know she was appreciated.
“He gave me 5 pounds when he was leaving … that was a lot of money those days,” she said.
Despite having arthritis and diabetes today, Ms. Ebanks still gets around the home and outside to take care of business, and even cooks from time to time.
When she goes shopping she is treated as a valuable customer by the Foster’s staff.
“I am blessed, The people at Foster’s love my footsteps … they even bring the cart right out to the car so I can push it to the store,” she said.
She also appreciates Foster’s manager, Glen Goodison, who told the cashiers they must take her home when she is finished shopping.
“Somebody said, ‘Girl, you got it made,’” said the smiling Ms. Ebanks.
She said there is something about her that makes people just want to help.
“Maybe it’s my ugliness that people admire … and you know I can still vote,” she added with a chuckle.
Ms. Ebanks never had children, but she said those in the community were a blessing along with her own siblings.
“I am the only one left in my family; all my sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles are dead. I only have four first cousins left in this world … the only empty vault in the family plot is mine,” she said.
“You know my cousin Melba Nixon?” she asked once again.
“She took my picture shopping at Larry’s. Just to let you know, I went in to get flowers for the graves for Christmas and Larry’s Hardware sells them … We tend to our graves, especially when Christmas comes.”