No one ever said motherhood was easy. These days, mothers dash by car from one after-school activity to another, juggling work commitments and school runs, managing their kids’ screen time and meeting an innumerable host of other challenges.
But climbing up 30-foot palm trees to collect rope-making material to help feed the family is probably not among the struggles many modern-day mums in Cayman have.
Carmen Conolly, 83, remembers watching in trepidation as her mother climbed palm trees to harvest thatch to make rope to trade.
As a little girl, Conolly always had a fear of her mother Elma Wood falling into a hole while searching for ‘tops’ to make ‘strand’ for rope in the cliff lands of East End.
Tops, the new unopened leaves of the Silver Thatch Palm, had to be harvested. This frequently meant a long trek inland in East End, to areas known as ‘thatch walks’ where large numbers of the Silver Thatch Palm grew. The route often led through cliff land and mosquito-infested wetlands.
Many other families on island did the same work, according to a National Trust fact sheet on thatch rope making. Family groups would set out at first light and spend the whole day cutting tops and carrying them home on their backs or by donkey in baskets, also made of Silver Thatch Palm. The leaves were hung in bundles to dry for a few days before being split into strands. Three strands were twisted together to make a rope, about 150 feet long, on a handmade machine. The women who twisted rope traded it with nearby countries, especially Jamaica.
Conolly’s mother often trekked inland with other women to collect tops, driven by sheer determination, strength, stubbornness and mouths to feed.
Conolly said she fretted the morning she learned her mother would be making the trip inland alone and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince her not to go.
As she watched her mother fade away in the morning mist, the little girl quickly put on the pair of rubber and thatch-string ‘whomper’ slippers that her grandfather had given her and bolted out the door. Just before she stepped into the cliff land, Conolly caught up with her mother.
“Carmen, where are you going? You can’t walk over the sharp cliff,” she recalls her mother saying. The child replied, “I can’t go back home, I afraid.” Her mother held up the thatch basket and said, “See this basket, it’s for bringing tops, not for you. You will have to walk the cliff if you are coming along.”
“Mummy walked me into the cliff, collected her tops and came out with the basket on top of her head … from that day she took me to the cliff with her,” Conolly said.
That was not all the child did with her mum. Her mother taught the girl how to sew and clean, and anytime she was baking the cakes, young Carmen was called to beat the sugar and stir the pot.
One day, Carmen was raking the yard when it suddenly came to her that she was tired of cleaning yard and raking leaves and had better stop to go inside and rest. Then it dawned on her, she was not working hard. What her mother went through was hard work, she realised.
“I started to cry and said, precious mama, she had to work so hard to raise us two children. I knew if mama was still alive, I could supply her with so much,” she said. “At least I gave her lots of love.”
Years later, when Carmen was an adult, her mother fell and broke her hip. After that, she had a stroke, lost one leg to gangrene and died at age 88.
Conolly married when she was 26 and went on to raise three children, Ervin, Kenross and Laverne, while her husband was at sea.
Like her mother, Conolly has been a very active member of her community.
Although retired, she passes her crafting skills to others in the community. She volunteers at the seniors outreach programme in East End, and is actively involved with young people islandwide through school crafting programmes.
“I just love helping people, I enjoy it. I am a prayer warrior … they don’t call the minister, they call me,” Conolly said.
Over the years, her maternal qualities have led lots of East End boys to call her ‘mother’ or ‘mama’.
“All the boys of East End call me mama. I love it. I just love people,” she said.