New Priests and Monkey Paws

A priestly ordination. Image wikipedia

She visited the old Santana Church on her own this time and when she returned she was absolutely buoyant, radiant in fact. Almost half talking to herself as she entered through the door she continued glorifying God and how she had just seen the most beautiful sight. As usual, Mamí and I were the only ones home and it quickly became apparent that Miss Polly had participated in an ordination ceremony in which several new priests had been confirmed in a special Mass.

The look on her face was one of ecstasy and hope and she said, “The service was so beautiful, all those young men sitting there ready to serve God.” Suddenly she looked in my direction and suggested out loud saying, “Juni, why don’t you become a priest?”

The thought of even becoming a Catholic priest, when the idea hit me, seemed like something far out of my wildest dreams if only because I had never seen a black priest being ordained in the Catholic Church, not in Panama at least. A moment later, however, she would have thought over her wish and said prophetically, “No, you will like women too much;” and with that she smiled at me and released me from any pressure she might have put me under in considering the priesthood for a career.

There were times that summer when, after observing me buzzing around the house cooking and cleaning and helping my grandmother as well as tending to her, Miss Polly would interrupt my activity with a story or two. One day she recalled some of her childhood in what I believe was Bocas. “Juni, you ever eat monkey meat?” she said with a slightly mischievous gleam in her eye. I hesitated and responded, “No, Miss Polly,” remembering that I was always careful about revealing my taste for wild meat around my Aunts and grandmother.

“Well, I had a monkey serve me rice once, you know,” she said having piqued my interest. “When I was a little chile…that was back in them days when people use to eat out of calabash…my muddah cook up some rice and monkey meat and decided to play a trick on me. She say, ‘Polly, look how the monkey grab the rice!’ as she hand me the calabash.” She continued her story with a soft chuckle. “When I look upon my calabash I see a curl up monkey paw on top of de rice, with a handful of rice wrap up tight in his fist,” and then she broke out in ripples of laughter at seeing my look of absolute horror and probably remembering her own shocked innocence.

It may have been days or maybe weeks later that Miss Polly stopped staying over at our house. One day she just didn’t show up any more and I was left wondering what had happened to my dear friend. I asked my grandmother but she gave me some kind of evasive answer and left me thinking that she might have found a relative to stay with.

One day my grandmother asked me to accompany her somewhere and as usual I obeyed blindly. Before we stepped out of the door she reminded me to pick up my trusty upholsterer’s hammer and tacks, which my father had left me before leaving Panama for good. We soon wound up at the Santo Tomás Morgue and that is the first time I would see Polly again after what seemed a long time. She was dressed in her Sunday best blue dress with her favorite church going turban placed artfully on her head. She was laid upon one of the morgue tables all cleaned up and dressed as if at any moment she would get up and tell me to go to Beji-Nite service with her. Her face radiated peace as if she was only asleep.

I said nothing about how I felt to my grandmother who proceeded calmly to give me a few orders. “Look son, and take your tools and fix up Miss Polly’s coffin here,” she said. She then placed a bundle of white material on the other empty morgue table in front of me and unfurled the brand new piece of white satin in front of me. “Ok Mamí,” I said, “ready to get to work.” “You see that coffin there? I want you to line it with this material. I hope it is enough to do the job,” she said. “Don’t worry, Mamí, it is enough. I will get the job done,” I said reassuringly and went to work immediately. My grandmother stood around silently observing me work.

There I was in the company of my dear dead friend, Miss Polly, and a plain wooden coffin to spruce up for its eternal occupant. I worked diligently ruffling the satiny material just so to transform a rudimentary wooden box into a fit resting bed for my beloved friend. Strange but, throughout this experience, I still believed she was just asleep, that she would awake at any moment and ask me to fetch her something.

What seemed like a couple of hours later my grandmother showed signs of impatience as I was putting the finishing touches on the now beautified coffin. “I tried my best Mamí but it still needs a little more work,” I confessed to her. “No son, it is jus fine! No need to do anymore. It looks perfect to me,” she said giving me one of her reassuring looks. But I still insisted that it was not enough and hammered and hammered faster and faster. “Come now take up your tools, son, and let’s go home and you have to wait for me there,” she ordered and I obeyed instantly. The ride home was in complete silence as I was thinking to have to take a bath and then she would come back and pick me up later to attend the funeral she seemed to be arranging.

That moment never arrived, however, as I was never allowed to participate in Miss Polly’s funeral. To this day I know not where they had laid her to rest so I have never been able to visit her at her grave site. “My grandmother saw to that!” I have often thought repressing some resentment at their conspiracy, my grandmother’s and my Aunt Berenice, to deny me the duty of putting closure to my feelings of friendship with Miss Polly.

A few days later, however, Miss Polly visited me in a dream in which I caught up with her as she walked up one of the many paths surrounding Santo Tomas Hospital. I ran after her as her pace was quick and determined. She seemed to know exactly where she was headed. “Miss Polly, Miss Polly!” I said trying to catch her attention. “Miss Polly, I want to go with you!” I pleaded. “Juni,” she snapped, “you go on back to your Mamí. She needs you! You cannot go where I am going.” She was so insistent and discouraging, a mood I had never seen in her, that I stopped in my tracks and she disappeared into the distance.

My grandmother told me that my dream signified that Miss Polly did not want me to join her in the land of the dead, and wanted for me to go back to my world. She was saving me from not ever waking up again.

This story continues.

3 responses to “New Priests and Monkey Paws

  1. Hi,

    That's some story; what a mind!
    This is so funny. I have not been able to open mail and as soon as I do I read about you working on caskets. I remember making some change helping my friend TUMBU in Colon, Barnishin the KIASkets and drinking Kentucky cream.


  2. We had a neighbor in Rainbow that when one of their relative in Limon died, they made a casket right in their backyard.

    I remember looking from our backyard and watching them saw wood , use sand paper, shalak and give it all the finishing touch.

    And right in the back of their home in Rainbow was this casket standing there for everyone to see for a day or two.

    In Rainbow, with the backyards facing each other, and a large circle in the middle, one neighbor who was a bit touchy did not like looking at a casket. She complained but no one paid her any mind.
    Soon after the casket was removed very quickly and sent to Limon, where it was used .
    I was a child and it was the first time I saw someone making a casket. I felt sad looking at the casket and when I asked my parents about it, they told me it was for the neighbor's relative in Limon.

    I do not believe that was the last casket I saw them make.

    I also remember sneaking into a Protestant church located in the Main section of Rainbow City one afternoon with some of my friends, and right near the altar was this open casket with a dead person.
    We ran out of there all screaming.

    And for days we would all comment that we saw the dead person in our sleeps .


  3. Humberto,

    You always manage to make me laugh with your memories of Colon.


    There are some people in this world that are profoundly impacted by the sight of a casket, especially through their backyard view. I can't say I blame your neighbor for objecting. Those were times, however, when death was a frequent visitor to the homes of many Silver families.

    This wouldn't be the last time I'd see neighbors or relatives preparing a casket for a deceased relative right in their backyard.