Auntie and Her “Sleeping Sickness” – Part I

My Auntie Berenice Charles (on the right) and Aunt Gweny on the left. circ. 1991

St. Paul Episcopa Church in Panama City’s Santana District hasn’t changed much even today.

Old St. Paul Episcopal Church. My Auntie really introduced
me to regular church attendance at this church and
the joy of listening to the word of God in my first Sunday School.

My Aunt Berenice always struck me as a more gifted woman than what she led on. She had a good singing voice, had taught herself to play piano, she sang in the choir at St. Paul Episcopal Church. She could write, cipher, was big and powerful and was an exceedingly good cook- a talent that would earn her work in many Canal Zone kitchens throughout her long life. I first became acquainted with my Auntie when I was eight years old under adverse circumstances- the break up of my parent’s marriage.

I, along with my younger sister, were brought to my grandmother’s home, composed of my two aunts and my grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth, to be raised by them while my parents proceeded to “get on” with their own tempestuous lives away from each other.

After the initial shock of my new situation I embarked on the task of getting to know these three women and the way they would see life in Panama. Aunt Berenice, or Auntie, as I always referred to her, was the oldest of my grandmother’s children and, perhaps, the most interesting. She did, however, suffer from a condition that I have only discovered recently had limited her in many respects from leading a completely normal life- narcolepsy. Of course, back in those post war days in Panama, what with the shortage of doctors and, worse still, the rampant ignorance about these kinds of special conditions, Auntie ever received any kind of treatment.

At first, and in the mind of a child, all that I observed was that she seemed quite normal and full of life, and that she would go about all her daily activities amazingly well- as long as she didn’t sit down! The moment she sat down Auntie would close her eyes and fall asleep. We could be in the middle of an interesting conversation, everyone talking, expressing emotions and ideas, but Auntie would sit down, and that was it, she would fall fast asleep.

I soon learned to cope with my Auntie and her sleeping sickness since everybody else seemed to be either indifferent or hypocritical about it. Growing up around her I even tried to protect her from the inevitable scoffers and cruel tongue “waggers,” who had known her for years and still derived a fiendish joy from laughing at her condition. This was especially so when she would take me to church on Sunday, to her beloved St. Paul Church to hear the famous Right Reverend Bishop Nightingale deliver one of his stirring sermons. My Auntie would settle me in one of the pews and leave to don her robe to sing in the choir. After the first hymn everyone would sit down to listen to the pastor’s sermon and Auntie would straightway fall asleep for all the church to see.

At church I never dared to nudge her or wake her up as I knew that she was always attentive to what was being said around her, although she seemed fast asleep. I discovered this about her by testing her with a little game I came up with. Being that she was a great cook and an even better baker, I was anxious to see her on Saturday evening when she would come home from her cook’s job in some Canal Zone white woman’s home to spend her one and only day off with her own family, Sunday. By Sunday evening she would be high tailing it back to her Canal Zone job so that left very little time for her to spend with us and often no time to do any cooking for her own family.

So there I was with an Aunt who could make a mean pineapple upside down cake but was too tired to cook. I would start the conversation in the kitchen. “Auntie…auntie..,” I’d say. Auntie would be sitting down near the kitchen area by now fast asleep. “AUNTIE…Auntie…,” I would insist. “WHAT!” she would say, finally roused by my nagging. I never hollered though, NEVER, since I was careful to show respect for my Auntie however strange it seemed. “What we gonna bake today, Auntie…what?” I’d say. “Get two sticks of buttá no… an’ cream it fo’ me,” she would say and then off she would go to sleep. Then, when I had accomplished that I would importune her again. “Auntie, Auntie…what next?” She would awake as nothing ever happened and say, “Did you get out the butter?” “Yes, Auntie, see here?” I’d answer. Then she’d continue her directives as I stood attentively waiting for her next set of instructions. I would proceed with the blending of the dry and wet ingredients and she would immediately return to her inevitable slumber.

Soon, however, I discovered that Auntie, no matter how profoundly asleep she seemed to be, knew exactly at what stage I was into the baking process. As soon as I was ready for my next step I would nudge her, “Auntie…auntie.” “Yes,” she would say, “Did you (do this or that, as she had ordered)?” The two of us would carry on this way, she giving me directions, me doing the cooking, until I was done and I had my reward, a delicious bowl of sugary raw dough, until the cakes or even an entire Christmas dinner was done. This routine became a ritual between us and I got to know my Auntie and how she coped with her “sleeping sickness.”

My Auntie’s story continues.

One response to “Auntie and Her “Sleeping Sickness” – Part I

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