Living in
Grenada – 2015

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

head and shoulders of a dignified man in 1922
Donald Charrington Thomson
in 1922
A word about Donald Charrington Thomson, my grandfather – something I learned about him when we paid a visit to Yvonne St. John the other day.

Yvonne is the woman who lives across the road from “Observatory,” the place where my mother spent her childhood.  In 2011, Yvonne had gone to a lot of trouble to find and give us a photo of “Observatory” – as it was before being destroyed by Hurricane Ivan.  On this trip we brought a little gift of Maple syrup for her, to thank her for that 2011 gesture, and when we had opportunity we delivered it, proceeding to stay a short time chatting.

The place where Mom’s childhood home stood is now occupied by a radio station, which Yvonne happened to mention is government-owned.

“Oh!” said I, becoming alert.  “Did the government buy that property after the hurricane?”

“No, it has always been government property.  The house itself was the official residence of Grenada’s Minister of Finance.  Always has been.  One Minister of Finance after another... they all lived there.”

Yvonne and her husband were established across the road from “Observatory” five years before Grenada achieved independence from Great Britain.  Thus, when she said “always has been,” she not only meant the years after independence, but the preceding colonial era....

Which clarified for me what my grandfather’s occupation may have been.  Surely he was, in the colony of Grenada in 1916, the colonial equivalent of Minister of Finance?  Donald Charrington Thomson may not have been a rich man, for he did not own that mansion, but he was a person of considerable social prominence.

The asute reader will by now have assembled a few inter-related facts: my mother was daughter of a “minister of finance;” she and her aunts spoke of being part of social occasions at “Loretto,” one of the biggest homes on the island; Aunt Ethel lived in a house in Gouyave that was so big that it became a seniors’ home after she died.  It should not be hard to see that my Mom and her family were part of the island’s privileged classes.

You may wish to keep that in mind when I tell you what happened in church today.

Today’s order of service was now quite familiar.  The rainbow-hatted elderly prophet took his place at the front, and muttered the occasional message.  Music was enthusiastically sung, though the keyboard player clearly doesn’t read music, and sometimes made up quite jarring harmonies to the tunes the choir and the rest of us loudly sang.  The great clang of the exterior bell came and went on schedule.  And yet the whole thing was faithful, prayerful, and devout.

Fr. Ballantyne delivered himself of a sermon about the law of God – Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, and Jesus’ great two-commandment Summary (love God and neighbour) – and about the sinfulness that prevents us from living according to its precepts.  An appropriately Lenten address, if there ever was one.

But I was distracted.  My problem was that I had talked myself into speaking to the congregation today.  At the end of the service; at announcement time.

Every week, they ask people to come forward who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.  Those who so desire then go to the front, and Fr. Ballantyne prays over them and gives them a blessing.  It’s very nice.

What I haven’t mentioned is that on February 24th – in the middle of our stay here – I reached the forty-ninth anniversary of my ordination as an Anglican Priest.  February 24th is a date that I don’t make a lot of fuss about, but I always note it.  It is important to me.

Last Sunday, when they called for anniversaries, Heather poked me and whispered, “Go up!  You had an anniversary this week!”  I declined, saying, equally quietly, “I don’t want to make myself conspicuous – any more than we already are!”

But Heather had gotten a bee in her bonnet.  Some time later – I’m not sure when – she mentioned my anniversary to Fr. Ballantyne.  He politely inquired about the date that I was ordained, and when Heather told him, “24 February, the Feast of St. Matthias,” he said, “Why that’s the date of my ordination, too!”

Well, gee whiz!!

On Friday, during the barbecue, I was chatting with Fr. Ballantyne, and mentioned our common date.  We had a good chuckle together about the awesome theme of the day: Saint Matthias is known solely as the replacement for Judas Iscariot, 1 and all Bible readings on his feast day are about the good servants of God who replaced failures: David, who replaced Saul; and Samuel, who replaced Eli.  Priests who are ordained on this day are frequently caused to wonder, “Am I the bad one that needs replacing?  Or am I the good one who replaces the failures?”  It is a sobering exercise, and Fr. Ballantyne and I nodded solemnly at one another about it.  It pleased me to have this in common with him, though he is only fifteen years ordained, compared with my forty-nine.

A thought began to form in my head that I would go up at the time when people get blessings for their anniversaries.  I would speak to the congregation; I would thank them for their hospitality, tell them about my anniversary, and tell them about the coincidence with Fr. Ballantyne’s anniversary.  I told Fr. Ballantyne my plan, and he accepted it.

But all of that had an unexpected side-effect: throughout the service my mind kept wandering to what I would say and how I would say it.  It was distracting.  I was no longer attending worship; I was a professional preparing to contribute to the occasion!

I controlled the distraction to the best of my ability...

...and then the time came.

The very young lay reader of the day asked for birthdays.  There were none.  She asked for anniversaries.  No one moved.  I took a deep breath and put up my hand.  Fr. Ballantyne caught my eye and nodded.  I stood up and walked to the chancel steps.

“May I speak?” I asked quietly.  “Please do,” he replied.

So, instead of meekly standing before him to receive a blessing, I turned and addressed the congregation.

“Last week, when people with anniversaries were asked to come forward, my wife poked me, and told me to come up here.  But I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to be conspicuous... as if a white tourist sitting near the front of the church isn’t already conspicuous!”  There was a titter of appreciation at this.  “You see, on the 24th of February I had an anniversary.  On that day, the feast of Saint Matthias, forty-nine years ago, I was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada.  When we mentioned this to Fr. Ballantyne, to our surprise and delight, it turns out that he was ordained on that day too!  Except not quite so long ago.”

Another titter – and a bit of open laughter.

“So I decided to come forward today – not only to ask Fr. Ballantyne for his blessing, but to thank you for your hospitality while we tourists have been in your midst.”

After adding a few more complimentary things about the warmth of the congregation, and telling them that we will be returning to Canada tomorrow, I turned and faced Fr. Ballantyne, and asked his blessing.  He laid his hands on my head, and extemporized a very beautiful prayer.

When he had finished, I began to return to my seat, but he stopped me.

“Now you will bless me,” he said.

He came down from the chancel step, and motioned me to step up and replace him.  I did, and extemporized to the best of my ability.

Somehow the exchange was very moving, for a lot of people.

Think of it this way: for centuries people of African ancestry have been abused by white people, but there at the altar of a church, a very black man in the full robes of a priest of God, towered over, and asked God’s blessing upon an elderly white man who is a descendent of the island’s upper classes.  A reversal of ancient symbols of power.

Then the priest willingly allows the whole thing to equalize, by stepping down and allowing me to step up.

Few could have missed the significance.

But Fr. Ballantyne wasn’t done.  “Now, all those who are travelling this week, please come forward,” he said in his beautiful radio voice.

I was just getting into my seat when Heather, Werner, and Mary all stood up and went to the chancel step.  I continued into the pew, but Fr. Ballantyne said, “You, too, Father!”

“But I’m already fully blessed!” I said, using my large-room voice.

“But you, too, are travelling tomorrow,” said that big radio voice.  A general murmur of laughter, and warmth, and approval, came from the congregation.

So I went forward and stood beneath him, beside my wife and my friends.  This blessing was just as moving – and as visually notable – as the preceding one: a black priest blessing four white people.  I felt tears come to my eyes, and I have a suspicion that I was not alone.

a church spire at evening
Parish Church of St. John the Divine, Gouyave, Grenada
– a place of blessing

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Ending with a BANG!

Monday, March 9, 2015
On board Air Canada flight #1787, from Grenada to Toronto

Our last day in Grenada began as a most relaxed and peaceful one.

We woke, had breakfast and packed.  I went online and “checked in” for our evening flight.  I called Joan from “J & B Auto Rentals” and arranged the car return.  We chatted with Morris, and thanked him profusely for his hospitality.  We spent a bit of time with Werner and Mary, who don’t leave until tomorrow, and briefly visited some acquaintances from the U.K. whom we had met in our wanderings.

This was also the day that we found Aunt Ethel’s grave.  While at the Douglaston Road graveyard, we looked around to see if my great-grandfather’s name, “Horace Hudson,” was on any of the other tombs there, but had no luck.  The climate has obliterated almost all markings older than about fifty years.

After driving down to the airport district, we caught a late lunch/early dinner, gassed up the rental car and headed to our rendezvous with Joan, our car rental lady.

There is no dedicated lot or driveway for rental cars at the Grenada airport.  Clients just arrive at the “Departures” door, park and unload, and having met the rental person right there, hand over the keys and pay.

Joan had witnessed my speedy “Grenadian” driving on my way to the airport, and teased me gently about it.  But then she became very serious.

“Your credit card is blocked,” she said.

What!???  Not three minutes earlier I had filled the car with gas, on that credit card, and it went through just fine!

With no rental office, and no place to go to settle this, we discussed the problem right there on the airport driveway.  I took out my cellphone, and phoned MasterCard in Canada.  After much to-ing and fro-ing, I was told that, at some unknown time in Grenada, my card had been compromised, so it is actually dead.  It had worked at the gas station only because they have a “chip-enabled” payment system there.  It will not work simply by a swipe, nor will it work by submitting the card number.  Ever.

I got pretty punchy during the call, because Joan is an honest businessperson, and I owed her the money, and I had no other means of paying her there on the airport driveway.  Nor did she have any sort of wireless credit card terminal, with which she could enter the payment once more while I had Mastercard on the line.  Joan had to phone her office, get them to re-submit, and then have them call her back, to tell her whether it had gone through or was once more declined.  Joan phoned.  I waited.  The MasterCard agent in Canada – having promised that she would authorize that payment, and that payment only – waited.

Eventually Joan’s office phoned back.  “It went through,” she said.  “It went through,” I said to the MasterCard agent, who looked at her screens and said, “Yes, it has gone through.”

Meanwhile, a burly security guard was lurking nearby.  His job is to keep traffic moving, and my car had not moved for a very long time.  Just when I was at extremely high stress levels, he tried to shoo me along.

I did not handle it well.  Eyes flashing, my tongue lapsing into a broken Grenadian patois, I shouted at him, “Sombody on your island is a thief!  He thiefed me.  And I am trying to pay this good woman, and because of some THIEF it has become very complicated.  We will move, but we will pay her FIRST!”

Or words to that effect.

The burly guard backed away from this half-crazed old man, nervously.

I’m calmer now, and regret that outburst.  But it is very stressful to be standing on an airport driveway arguing with a credit card agent on the other side of the world, trying to pay an honest business person with a card that someone somehow has managed to use fraudulently.

But actually, stressful stuff had only just begun.

I now needed to change into more wintery and formal clothing.  So, leaving Heather with the bags (she was going to be next), I rushed into the public washrooms.  But there were women in the men’s room: cleaners, agitated because two toilet stalls had been fouled, and badly, by someone who was very sick.  The cleaners were arguing as to who should actually touch the stuff and clean it up.  The boss ended up doing it.

So I changed right there as they argued.

Then I returned to Heather... to find her in a panic, because they had called our flight!  The announcement was the last call, in fact.

Whaaa?????  The flight’s not due out for another hour!

A desk clerk had to be found, and when she came, she confirmed that the flight was leaving at 6:30 PM, not 7:30 PM.  Then a light dawned for me: this plane does a quick turnaround.  It leaves Toronto and flies back to Toronto the same day.  And yesterday Toronto went on Daylight Saving Time!  So the plane left at the regular time on the clock but in fact it was an hour earlier than the time it would have left on this day last week.  Grenada doesn’t change their clocks, so in effect the plane landed – and intended to take off – an hour earlier.  The plane that leaves at 7:30 PM, all during the season of Standard Time, leaves at 6:30 PM – Grenada time – during the summer’s Daylight Savings!

I had “checked in” online, but did not actually look at the time on my boarding pass, since this plane always leaves at 7:30 PM – or so I thought.

So... in truth it was about to leave in less than twenty minutes, and had already boarded.  We were in trouble, and it was entirely due to my inattention.

Here, Grenadian casualness came into its own.  People were called, people made allowances, and the plane waited for us.

But by this time our stress levels were over the moon.  Escorted by a nice lady, we were rushed into and through security... and here the saddest piece of this adventure happened: in my haste and panic, I did not check my pockets until in front of the security officer.  And there I found my 35-year old “Swiss Army” knife.  My prized uber-tool.  A gift from Heather, lo these many years ago.  Always carefully packed in checked baggage so as not to set off alarms.

Sadly, I handed it over to the guard without a word, and that is the last I saw of it.

But the plane and all the ground staff were waiting, so we charged out, across the tarmac, up the stairs and made it to our seats.  Moments later the plane took off for Toronto.

And only now is my racing pulse starting to slow down.

We made it to Winnipeg the next day without further incident, and the weather that greeted us was delightfully mild, for Canada.

We went straight to the St. Boniface Hospital to greet our newest grandchild, Rose Ayla Harwood-Jones, born that day, March 10, at 8:15 AM.

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1  See Acts 1:15-26, where you can read the story of Matthias becoming one of the Twelve Apostles.  The passage is, in fact, the only time that Matthias appears in the entire Bible.
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from Melvyn H. in the U.K., May 10, 2015 11:11:39 AM CDT

Extraordinary the way you managed to rout out your ancestors – well done!

Your driving experience should prepare you for the roads of Cornwall or Wales in the UK if you ever have to drive there – they also drive like idiots.

Shirley my wife and I were in Tobago at the time of Hurricane Ivan but luckily didn’t suffer the extreme damage that Grenada did. What a shame the house was destroyed.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

from Iain L., May 7, 2015 3:02:00 PM CDT

Well, that was fun!

My favourite lines:
1.  “Oh dear.  Nobody comes to our barbecues!”  That could stand in for so many unconscious cultural clashes.
2.  “Only fifteen years ordained.”  Only!

Keep travelling, Tony – and keep telling the tales.


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