Aunt Thelma: The Matriarch of Bermuda

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Front Street, Hamilton, Bermuda/ Image via the author

Hamilton is a modest municipality, the capital city of the modest British Overseas Territory of Bermuda. Its narrow streets buzz with scooters, compressed cars, and buses that look more like minivans in comparison to the larger caravans seen here in the States. Lining the roads is an eclectic display of architecture.

Front Street, Hamilton’s main thoroughfare, stretches along the northern edge of Hamilton Harbour and behind it the city sits perched on a gentle slope dotted with buildings that exemplify Hamilton’s blend of Western influence and native style.

Limestone storefronts are coated with vibrant, coral blues, yellows, and reds. Rooftops carved and stepped, designed to catch and funnel rainwater into underground holding tanks. Gothic Revival houses of worship standing stoically next to ramshackle take-out restaurants alongside cafes seemingly transported from the Iberian Peninsula.

Off of Front Street is a stout pier called Point Pleasant, home to a park of the same name canopied by slender Bermuda Palmettos. Standing at the tip of the Pier, known as Albouy’s Point, one has a direct view of the sailboats and luxury vessels anchored at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to the right, the craggy Harbour islands just beyond, and a clear line of sight to the coastline across the azure water.

To the immediate left along the brink of Point Pleasant, is an unsuspecting establishment peddling tokens and memorabilia to tourists not unlike myself.

Inside, an apparently middle-aged woman sat behind a desk in the center of the shop. She was surrounded by printed t-shirts, mugs, plates, bowls, shelves of local hot sauce and packaged rum cakes, miscellaneous snacks, and bottled beverages. She was just saying goodbye to a couple as we entered and perused her goods.

To be frank, there wasn’t much that interested me. What she was selling was manufactured in China, Bangladesh, or Honduras. Aside from the sauces and sweets, there wasn’t anything locally crafted.

She sat serenely watching us, hands folded in her lap. She smiled.

“Are you two on your honeymoon?”

The Bermuda accent is difficult to describe. The island hosts no indigenous people — everyone’s heritage can be traced back to foreign ancestors, though largely of the Spanish, Portuguese, British, or Caribbean variety. Some are descended from Colonial Era African and Native American slaves.

This melting pot culture has conceived an interesting vernacular of which a keen ear can distinguish traces of West Indian and Cape Verdean Creole, English, and Portuguese. It’s a peculiarity I’ll leave to the linguists. There’s something vaguely familiar about this dialect. At the same time it’s distinctly original.

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Hamilton Harbour (City of Hamilton, left)/ Image via the author

“No we’re just visiting. Actually we’re here for my birthday.”

“Oh, happy birthday. Where are you visiting from?”

“Boston.”

Not once did her face fail to exhibit a beaming smile. Her dark-toned skin glowed with a youthful vigor, masking any trace of agedness. Her voice, welcoming and maternalistic, floated through the air.

“Oh I love Boston. I’ve visited a few times over the years.” Nostalgia seemed to have an invigorating effect on her energy. “I love to shop at, hmm, what’s that place called…, oh yes, T.J. Maxx. And every time I visit, I stop for a dinner at my favorite restaurant, Red Lobster.”

I couldn’t help but smile. As a lifelong resident of Massachusetts and longtime denizen of Greater Boston, I can attest that while T.J.’s does boast some undeniable deals, the department store is hardly on anyone’s list of places to visit. I’ve never met a single soul that’s eaten at Red Lobster.

Her slight naivety was charming, unabashed, and grandmotherly. She knew what she liked and she enjoyed it when opportune. She wasn’t someone unwilling to branch out and try the new, but rather someone who’d already done so and settled happily on the fact that perhaps the simplest is best.

“Do you get to visit Boston often?”

“Oh not as much these days. And especially not during the winter.”

“Yeah it’s brutal this time of year. We’re loving this weather. Not to mention, people are so friendly here.”

People in Boston aren’t necessarily unfriendly but I’ve heard and read my fair share of stories about how it’s difficult for people to befriend locals. Boston can be cliquey. People forge loyal and lasting bonds with each other, especially those who grow up together. For outsiders looking to breach this, the task can be futile.

Arguably the most notable catalyst for Bostonian hostility, though, is transportation. Whether on a bus, train, or stuck in vehicular traffic, the Bostonian is likely to release its fury in the form of verbal profanities or obscene hand gestures. The car horn is also a prominent weapon of choice in the Bostonian’s arsenal.

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A Bermuda neighborhood/ Image via the author

Vehicles constantly beep at each other in Bermuda. Taking a cab from the airport island to our accommodations at Warwick, the orchestra of beeping along the precariously snaking roads was a familiar tune.

We came to realize, though, that the style of beeping was not in sync with that often heard in Boston. They came in short bursts, a swift succession of two or three honks, and were frequently applied even for a heavy-handed Bostonian.

These people weren’t levying automotive war against each other. They were greeting each other, simply saying hello, engaging in basic human decency. Bermuda, after all, is a small island. Like their neighboring Bostonians some 700 miles away, are a tightly knit folk.

As frequent bus riders throughout our duration, too, we came to rely on the generosity of our bus drivers who would kindly alert us of the stop nearest our intended destinations, as well as our fellow passengers who were quick to lend advice as to how to get from A to B.

Needless to say, this ubiquitous display of kinship was a happy shock.

“Oh yes, you’ll find the people here are very friendly. I always say treat everybody the way you want them to treat you,” the woman said.

“What’s your name, Miss?”

“Thelma. Everybody calls me Aunt Thelma, though. You can call me Aunt Thelma.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Aunt Thelma.”

She met our outstretched hands with hers. Her hands that were more indicative of her age than her face, which emitted vitality. Her hands were wrinkled and skeletal. Her right hand trembled as she extended it. It felt soft in mine. Her grip was barely traceable.

“Are you originally from Bermuda?”

“Oh yes, born and raised. As a young girl I lived in Washington D.C. for a short time when my father worked for the federal government. I used to tell him they should build a bridge between Washington and Bermuda.”

“I think you’re onto something there, Aunt Thelma.”

“Things were very different back then…”

She began to reminisce to herself.

“I would think so.”

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Bermuda/ Image via the author

“These are tumultuous times,” said Aunt Thelma, “oh yes, they are. That’s why I always tell my kids to treat everybody the way you want them to treat you.”

“How many kids do you have?

“Well let’s see. They live all over the place. The two boys live in Canada. And the girl, she lives in Europe. Oh yes, they’re everywhere. They come back to visit from time to time.

“Plenty of places for you to visit, along with Boston.”

“Well I don’t leave the island much anymore. My husband passed away years ago. Since then, my girlfriends and I get together now and then. We started a club way back.”

She rubbed her hands together, slowly,  as if to soothe an old ache.

“A club? That must be fun.”

“Oh yes. Like an after school club. Oh yes, we’ve been able to help some kids over the years. Some of them come from troubled homes.”

An interesting aspect of Bermuda is that it’s not particularly impoverished.

Hamilton is certainly an affluent city. Food and drink prices are almost double to what you’ll find in moneyed New England. Rent and home prices are high as well. Luxury outerwear shops are prominent pit stops for tourists. Hamilton’s wealth is perhaps most conspicuous in its advertisements; young, white males piloting high-end sailing yachts for the America’s Cup are plastered throughout. Golf, along with sailing, are two of the most popular leisure activities.

But that doesn’t mean Bermuda is universally wealthy, either. We walked through multiple neighborhoods where the houses were cramped, yards were minimal, and privacy was virtually nonexistent. In general, homelessness is on the rise.

And Bermuda is not without its criminality. According to the latest statistics I could find, courtesy of Bernews.com, “Commissioner of Police Michael DeSilva said, ‘The total crime for 2015 was 3,750 offences. This was spread evenly over the four quarters of the year, with about 937 crimes recorded in each quarter. The total represents an increase of 356 more crimes than 2014.

‘That is approximately 1 additional crime each day and equates to an increase in total crime of about 10.5%. It should be noted that 2014 recorded the lowest total crime rate since the year 2000.’”

Between 2006 and 2011 Bermuda’s murder rate increased steadily from one to eight, a harrowing statistic for a paradise island with a total population akin to that of Portland, Maine.

And, sadly, as is all too frequent with instances of crime and disproportionate wealth, systemic racism lurks beneath the surface.

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Royal Navy Dockyard, Bermuda/ Image via the author

We didn’t witness any overt racist behavior. In fact, everyone was cordial to us despite our color or theirs.

But we were almost always the only white passengers to ride the bus, indicative, perhaps, of wealth-race inequity.

According to a recent article in Bermuda’s flagship newspaper, The Royal Gazette, a local politician “pointed to 2015 arrest figures showing that out of 2,651 arrests, 2,284 were blacks — 86 per cent. Such a high number is incredibly alarming… those arrest figures are for every type of criminal offence…”

“Oh yes,” said Aunt Thelma, “whenever we ladies can scrounge up a  little extra money, we pool it together to help these kids. It’s usually the boys. And we don’t just help the kids, we help the parents too. We sit down with the kids separately, then the parents. It’s amazing how much easier it is to communicate like that.”

“That’s truly amazing, Aunt Thelma. What a cause.”

“We were even able to help send three kids to college in the U.S. And one of them was a white boy!”

“Is that right?”

“Oh yes. You’ve got to treat everybody the way you want them to treat you. Everybody. That boy comes back to visit every now and then. He even still calls me Aunt Thelma. He’ll come in here and give me a big ‘ole hug whenever he’s in town.”

Aunt Thelma would eventually tell us her age. I would’ve pegged her to be in her 50s. Maybe her 60s. Her sharp mind and memory, her liveliness, her fresh complexion, certainly indicated such.

Aunt Thelma was well into her 80s. Her hands, I realized, when she told us her age, were truly revealing of such.

Read More: “Southern Charm Stories: Welcome to the Hostess City

This means that Aunt Thelma was around to witness the bustling mobilization of Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard in the years leading up to WWII, now a significant tourist attraction that harbors cruise ships more than it does military vessels.

As a young girl in Washington D.C., she may have experienced the New Deal programs intended to plug the Great Depression. She may have also been victim to segregation and the racial severity that would eventually give way to the Civil Rights movement.

She could’ve easily been molded into a begrudging cynic having witnessed historic civil unrest, the kind that white millennials like myself could never understand, and grasping the relatively small steps and apparently massive regression as of late that have been made in its wake.

But no.

Instead she chose to treat everybody the way she wanted them to treat her.

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One thought on “Aunt Thelma: The Matriarch of Bermuda

  1. Pingback: A Drive Through the Valley of the Shenandoah | Millennial Musings

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