Marguerite Bernard, the daughter of former Cayman commissioner Ivor Otterbein Smith, had waited 65 years to see the Cayman Islands again before arriving in Grand Cayman last week and refreshing her precious memories of growing up in George Town.
Ms. Bernard left Cayman in 1952. Now 80 years old, she returned to celebrate her birthday, meet with old friends and share her memories with her family.“I always have talked about Cayman,” she said Wednesday during an interview with the Cayman Compass. “I’ve never forgotten my time in Cayman or my friends. … I just couldn’t believe I was in Cayman again.”
“When the plane touched down, she started to cry. She just burst into tears,” added Judy Bernard, Marguerite’s daughter and Commissioner Smith’s granddaughter, who is on her first trip to Cayman. “She was finally back here. It was just beautiful.
“We’ll be driving along and she’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember swimming in that bay.’ Or, ‘Oh, I remember picnicking here,’” she added.
Marguerite Bernard said that several buildings – including the post office, town hall and library – all look just as she remembered them, and she described an idyllic childhood nurtured by the island’s natural beauty.
She recalled roller skating around the post office and playing piano in concerts at Town Hall, and she said she went to school in a small thatched-roof building nestled right behind the library.“We were so young,” said Ms. Bernard, who turned 10 shortly after moving to Cayman in 1946. “Moving here, once we got in with friends, was wonderful. We had a wonderful time. My brother Brian and I loved it.”
Ms. Bernard, who was born in British Guiana, recalled birthday parties at Government House in Cayman, climbing mango trees and making chewing gum from the milk of a naseberry tree. She retains indelible memories of riding her bicycle up and down George Town’s dirt streets and can even remember times when her brother misbehaved.
“We got our water from a big cistern,” she said. “My brother would probably kill me for saying this, but he and a couple of his friends decided they would go swimming in the drinking water.
“We had chickens, and we had some orange trees out back …. There was a big guinep tree in the back, and one side was his and one side was mine. We dare not touch anybody else’s guineps.”
For Mr. Smith, of course, living on Cayman was a different experience.
The commissioner’s days were anything but carefree, and his daughter said he took particular pride in two developments. The island’s first hospital was a special area of interest, and Ms. Bernard’s appendix was removed in the modest building at some point during her stay.
The commissioner’s other passion project was enhanced air cargo service, a development which would later result in the airport on Cayman Brac bearing his name. The Brac airport – Gerrard Smith International – was originally named after Mr. Smith and another former commissioner, Andrew Gerrard. It has since been renamed for the late Charles Kirkconnell.
Ms. Bernard can recall her father sweating over every detail of the air cargo service.
“The Cable & Wireless was right next door, and he’d always be popping over there to find out what was the latest he had to know about,” she said. “It was literally a 24-hour job. Every time he turned around, there was something else that had to be done. But I think my mom didn’t let him take work home. It was just upstairs, actually. The offices were downstairs, and we lived upstairs.
“But there were lots of cocktail parties and dinner parties that Mom had to put on for different governors. And she was a very self-conscious woman. To stand up in Town Hall and give a speech, she had to rise to the occasion.”
To get home, Ms. Bernard recalled that she had to walk down a narrow road past a doctor’s house and the town jail, and she said that the family would often attend church gatherings on Seven Mile Beach. Those were small and simple, she said, and she recalled sitting in the sand while listening to sermons.
And when they were not gathering in big crowds, Ms. Bernard’s family engaged in simple pleasures. There were no movie theaters and no television, but they still found ways to entertain themselves.
“The majority of homes had verandas with swings,” she recalled. “They probably still do, but I haven’t seen any. We used to sit on them, swing and sing and really enjoy ourselves. We sang songs from here or songs that were very popular. Songs that were popular in the States, I’d say. And England too.”
Ms. Bernard later attended boarding school in Barbados, and the family moved back to British Guiana – now known as Guyana – when Mr. Smith’s tenure as Cayman’s commissioner ended in 1952.
Cayman’s chief administrators were known initially, from 1750 to 1898, as “Chief Magistrates.” From 1898 to 1959, they were called “Commissioner.” The title “Governor” was not used until Athelstan Charles Ethelwulf Long was appointed in August 1971.
After his role as commissioner ended, Mr. Smith and his family moved to New Zealand before finally settling in Vancouver, Canada, for the last few decades of his life.
The former commissioner passed away at age 95 in 2002. He was made a member of the Order of the British Empire as a result of his years of government service. But he never spoke about his honors, and for his granddaughter, the trip to Cayman has been a chance to see the world through his eyes.
“I have to tell you this about my grandpa: I only learned a few years ago that the airport was named after him,” said Judy Bernard. “He never bragged. He really felt like he was serving everybody and that was expected of him. But he never went around talking about anything he had done. It was only until I was a lot older that I was able to understand for myself what he had achieved. He was really humble.”
When they went through Mr. Smith’s possessions late in his life, the family found stacks of correspondence from Cayman and even an invitation to dine with Queen Elizabeth II aboard Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. Judy Bernard said she was struck by the beautiful penmanship of the letters and the matching sentiment.
“A lot of people wrote him,” she said. “The thing that came up over and over was, ‘Thank you for listening to us. Thank you for acknowledging our situation.’ It was always about the people.”
Mr. Smith, who worked in carpet sales and home insurance later in life, never really shed the dignity of his position. Judy Bernard said he was beloved for his kindness in the local grocery store he frequented in the last decades of his life, and she recalled the fastidious way he would dress for humble occasions.
“He was always so proper,” she said. “He would call the town dump, ‘the tip.’ He would wear his hat and his suit to the tip because he was always so proper. He was always the commissioner. So lovely.”
Mr. Smith was married more than 70 years, and Marguerite Bernard said both her parents passed away within a few months of each other. She was actually in Cayman on the anniversary of her father’s death – April 4 – and she said he’d be thrilled to see the way the island has developed.
The commissioner never made it back to Cayman, but it was never far from his thoughts. And now, to see it with its population expanded tenfold, would be something.
“He would be absolutely amazed,” said Ms. Bernard. “He wouldn’t believe it. He was always proud of the hospital and the airport, even though he didn’t like to brag about it or the OBE.”