In that year of early 1956 when I met Bea, I wasn’t much more than a teenager, an older adolescent. Bea was as an older woman whose age I calculated as being in her early sixties. But she still had that glow of a young woman as her beautiful brown skin did not reveal the wrinkles of old age. Nevertheless she might have been cruising in her early eighties. But it was my first encounter with a woman who had seen the beginnings of the web of railroad tracks laid to be the only transport available in the area and all of it was run by the Chiriqui Land Company.
Those women I had met while working and this veteran would give me a first hand insight into what life was like with and without them, which never ceased to amaze me as I would listen for hours into the night as Miss Bea gave me the history lesson I needed to connect the dots on the story of the life of laborers and the women on the plantations of Bocas del Toro Province.
As we sat together all day and into the night forgetting space and time, Bea conjured up the presence of her troop of women. Again and again these spirits of long gone years reminded her of incidences she just had to tell me about. She took me into those plantations, sights which I had not seen and ones which I did remember but kept quiet. There were scenes of those women who felt protected by the hoards of workmen who had come to know them for years. Yes, they were like the same workmen I knew, who were not brawlers, nor abusive wretches, given to wrongdoing.
This woman was not talking about saints but about men, honorable men, single men, not married men protecting wives. But a group of men given to showing courtesy and gratitude for even the smallest of pleasures and blessings granted by God to man since the times of Adam. “Wh-o-o w-e-e, yes, Boy, them was the days! You see this here house? Many a days some of them Westindian men them, young boys just like you here so, would come home with me and would not stop working for me, all day man! Yes, Juni, man, working until they saw this here house way back in this bush built up, beta than any house round here.”
Our talks would drift off into prayers the night seemed to appreciate. For me those were prayers where she would invoke the darkness to let in the light of the spirits of those rugged days. She meditated at times as she tired and I still sat expecting to hear or see unsought benefits I really thought I had not yet earned being so young yet in days on this earth. “I remembah, ” she said coming alive again, “…that we women them would take turns doing the shopping for our men. For that is what we call them black men them when we was way out there. Pay day come and go and we get paid every cent. You hear me boy? Every cent they owed to us they pay us!”
The statement was a prayer giving thanks to the Lord for the men who came in those hours of our reverie to be with us. “You know, Juni, I had a pretty boy just like you,” she said at one point. I smiled trying not to interrupt as I sensed a love story in the making, at the same time feeling pleased that she found me a prize of a man good for any woman.
“Yes, me an him was in love,” she said with a longing sigh and continued her story. “For I was very young too, you know,” she continued. “He worked very hard just like you. Well, I remembah the day like it was yesterday, man. It was when them come an tell me my boy was dead. I feel it real bad, real bad. I feel like if I and him was blood family. That was the first time I feel real lost.”
This story continues.