Magnolia Neighbors to Remember

This is Magnolia Building today, in its restored version. My grandmother’s
two-room apartment was on the third floor where we’ve marked it with blue
stars. It extended, railroad style, all the way to the arched entrance also
marked with a blue star.

For the youth of the entire Westindian community of the district of Calidonia, the Barrio neighborhood comprised not only that enormous and most visible edifice with the strange name of a flower no one had ever seen in a Panama at that time, but the entire neighborhood surrounding that imposing building which for us youngsters came to be associated with the name “Magnolia.”

My memories of my early arrival to the neighborhood as a permanent member was around late in that sad year of 1942 as one of three kids awash in shame. Our shame came from the explanation that my young aunt gave, in graphic detail, to the neighbors for why we had landed in her clutches. I will never forget the mean spiritedness in her voice one afternoon when what seemed to me like an important person whom I later found out was the landlord approached us.

The woman inquired, “Who are these children?” Since my aunt kept us cloistered inside our small apartment under her watchful eye, sort of like a prison guard, she answered her in perfect Spanish. “These kids are my brother’s. Their mother was found in bed with another man, so we are stuck with them.” Then, as if that chilling introduction were not enough she would point to me and say, “This one! We in the family are sure is not his because at the time he was born she claimed that he was born premature. But we had suspected that when she and my brother were married she had been pregnant already!”

At the time I was perhaps about seven years of age but the landlady’s expression did not escape me as I noticed that she stood very still, almost embarrassed, for me in particular, as I listened to what should have been my flesh and blood report to a total stranger these horrible things.

At any rate, the goings on in Magnolia building became my first hand knowledge of the neighbors and the entire neighborhood. Needless to say that the news of who we were spread faster than the speed with which my aunt could have gotten those mean words out of her mouth. Sympathetic neighbors then would have me, in particular, in their eyes and the news of our parents’ divorce would reach me piecemeal as I grew to be able to roam the whole San Miguel and Calidonia district doing errands for my grandmother.

The neighbors next to us on our left side apartment were a young Westindian couple with the lady I would always remember as Fafá which I thought was a strange nickname. Her husband Lionel, however, took me in hand as one of my many surrogate uncles, someone that I could talk to and find moral support and encouragement in as I grew into the kind of man he would show so much pride for in later years whenever we would meet. They had a small son by the name of Tony a couple of years younger than us who grew up with us and who later became a Canal Zone policeman according to his proud stepfather Lionel.

Amongst the many Westindian families of Magnolia there was also Beryl Toppin who lived on our side of the building. She had been an age grade acquaintance to both my parents. Her brother Jack Toppin would ultimately serve in Panamanian politics and even become appointed “Corregidor” of Calidonia at one time in his life. Beryl who was short of stature reminded me always of my mother and she also had two children, Eric and Norma who, although not twins, seemed close enough in age to be mistaken for twins much as my sister Aminta and I had been. So, the four of us grew as extended siblings as it would become evident for the four of us in our later life years.

Mrs. Toppin, the matron and grandmother of that family had another son, Edmond, who was a Deacon and an important member of a Beji-Nite Church from as long as I could remember on the top of the nearby San Miguel Hill. As this story develops I will be mentioning more of our Westindian neighbors and their lifestyle and how we all coped on our journey through the Panama of our day.


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