That school year, in fact, I had stayed off the streets as much as possible and stayed at home mostly reading all the books I was able to understand from the odd collection amongst the three small bookshelves in the home of my now retired grandmother. School would soon be a thing of the past I thought as I leafed through some French volumes left to me by Miss Del Marie just before she left to return to Martinique.
Suddenly, I began hearing a faint almost imperceptible call from a female voice. Someone was calling my name in a kind of urgent but barely audible manner. But my interest in the book I had open in front of me found me more engrossed in it and succeeded in helping me ignore the female voice I thought I was hearing.
It was definitely not the voice of my Miss Polly, the sickly former Canal Zone maid my grandmother had taken in, I thought with concern, since I was sure I had seen her body recently at the Santo Tomás morgue.
I reassured myself, in fact, that I had worked on lining her coffin with my own two hands that day as she lay dressed up on another large morgue table. In that moment the thought of her brought back memories as I could see her again laid out in her usual “Sunday best” outfit. It had been a dress and turban I recognized that she enjoyed wearing when she felt well enough to announce she was going out seeking “a two day job.”
The memories of my frail charge all came rushing back to me. Although she never talked much about her past life or family I was almost sure she was from Bocas del Toro Province, but it had been hard to tell since she spoke English like all of the Westindians from the big cities of Panama and Colon. I have always been good at detecting accents in people, especially the Westindian diaspora in Panama and I could pick up a Bocas accent anywhere. At any rate, Miss Polly had great stories about her experiences in Bocas and she found an attentive listener in me- a captive and willing audience.
Recalling the days I had cared for her it seemed as though I had been attending to her all year long, but actually it had only been up to the end of my school year vacation.
In between her bouts with her failing health I had managed to accompany her on her last futile attempts at being employed on the Zone on what she used to refer to as a “one” or “two day” stint in some Canal Zone white lady’s home. Eventually, though, her aches and pains would get the better of her and she would stop looking since we would have to walk long distances to get to those Zone interviews.
Then there were her crazy stories about her exploits as a maid. Like the time she heard another younger maid tell her about how she lost a job as a cook in some white woman’s house when she cooked up a pot of rundon. The white woman came to check what her newly hired girl had cooked up for that evening’s supper and when she peered into the pot and saw what it was she asked the girl, “Now, what is that you just cooked up?”
“It rundon, Ma’am,” replied the girl feeling real proud of her handy work and expecting an encouraging word. Polly then pointed into the imaginary distance and said, “That white woman say, ‘Well you just take yourself out of here and run down the road and don’t come back!’” Miss Polly then let out an enormous peal of laughter finding the whole scene from her past life very funny, but I remained silent. I didn’t see the humor in that whole incident; in fact, I thought it very cruel of the white woman. Furthermore, she had blown a good chance to sample one of the best Westindian dishes anyone can imagine. I did, however, manage a faint smile, if only for Polly’s sake.
But, that was how Polly evidently coped with her precarious status as a domestic. She had a healthy sense of humor, I must say, when most of us, including myself, would have fallen apart or, worse yet, have resorted to hatred and resentment.
The distant and insistent woman’s voice calling me, however, snapped me back to the present.
(For the recipe to really good rundon, click here and experience culinary magic.)
This story continues.