I always loved the little shabby looking house down Old School Lane in Breakers. It was located so close to the water the sea spray had formed a layer of salt crystals over the paint. It was built way before the “red-tape” of Planning Board rules. Such connection to the sea would not be permitted these days.
At the time, in the mid ’70s, the house was owned by Billy Bodden, the first publisher of the Caymanian Weekly which later emerged as the Cayman Compass. After Billy’s passing, the home fell into the hands of the defunct Sterling-Interbank, and that’s how I got my hands on it. My financial situation at the time was nowhere near having enough money to purchase a house and two acres of land, but I lucked out. All the bank required was for someone to take over the mortgage payments. No collateral necessary.
I recall like yesterday the first time I drove down Old School Lane in my yellow VW Bug loaded with moving boxes and dogs. The four locals (now my new neighbors) gave me a peering stare as I made my debut.
I paid them no mind. I was jubilant moving into my dream home, my house on the beach, no urban overtones, no traffic, no noise – except for the faint rumble of the barrier reef in the distance. On my way back to George Town for more belongings a thin, brown-skinned lady in a long cotton dress, orange sneakers, and a huge floppy thatched hat flagged me down.
“Are you lost sir?” she queried.
“No ma’am. I just purchased the little old house down the road, and I’m moving in today,” I responded.
“You mean Mr. Billy’s house . . . Well, come sit down here in the hammock and have a glass of cool water.”
She was most adamant, and there was no way of declining her invitation, so I lazed in her hammock and became rapt with the sweetest, most warmhearted person I’d had ever met in my many travels. Though Ms. Nell Connor was only in her 50s at the time, to this young buck she was old – but not frail. In fact, she was full of vigor with a memory sharp as a honed fishing knife. Ms. Nell was no ordinary woman. She was the embodiment of “Caymankind,” long before the phraseologists dreamed up the word. Her yard was a collection of pink conch shells, drying thatch, and fat-bellied cats that ignored the chickens pecking in the nearby bush. The sweet, smoky aroma of frying coconut oil emanated from her kitchen.
When I inquired as to what was cooking, Nell’s mother Ms. Aluda handed me a bowl of fried “bara” and plantains. Nell’s husband Vibert had not much to say – he was counting the week’s stamp sales. Ms. Nell was the official postmistress for Breakers. She kept her stamps, money, and postal documents in a small basket made of thatch leaves.
Once I was comfortable in my new seaside home, I’d see Nell every morning at sunrise walking in knee-deep water, collecting conch in her thatch basket or fishing with a hand line next to a bait bucket held up by a tree branch.
When I did my own fishing, I’d be sure to bring her a few grunts or snapper, or her all-time favorite, the large fish heads of a grouper or mutton for fish tea.
She would always reward me with a bowl of conch stew or minced fish, not that I expected compensation. She simply demanded that I take her goodies.
Nell was very religious, always quoting the Bible, so I tried to avoid her on Sundays or she’d give me a good reprimand for not being in church. Besides that, I never heard her say anything bad about anyone.
She often encountered the passing tourists who purchased her handmade whisk-brooms, baskets, and pink shells. Though bashfully, she’d always pose for a photo, but not before running a brush through her graying hair.
She was my personal “Xanax.” An hour’s slumber in her hammock soothed what little stress and worries I had as a young man, and her accounts of days gone by took me back to a time I was not fortunate enough to experience.
When her mother Ms. Aluda would join in, the tales just became more fascinating. Nell would say of her mother, “Oh, Mama had a memory like a card.”
Ms. Aluda was a mid-wife who had delivered some 300 babies in her time. She would ride on horseback to the far districts and stay with mother and child for a week after delivery. Her fee was seven shillings. When the mother could not pay, she was happy to come home with fresh fruits, vegetables, and salted fish. Ms. Aluda passed away in 1986 at the age of 93.
From the time I moved to Breakers, conch became much of a mainstay dish in my home, so I always had a collection of discarded conch shells in my yard. Ms. Nell would ask my permission to take them so she could clean them to sell to tourists. I had made it very clear every time she asked that she was welcome to take all she wanted, and there was no need to ask.
Thirty years later, she was still asking my permission for the shells. That’s just the kind of person she was.
I’ve never been fond of neighbors, but I do very much miss Ms. Nell, the Queen of Breakers. She passed away April 25, 2017; she was 96.
When not traveling to some far away island, George Nowak (The Barefoot Man) performs at the REEF Resort in East End and the Wharf Restaurant. Read about more of his adventures in his book, “Which Way to the Islands.”