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I’ll still be chic at 75!

Monday, February 18, 2013
Shirley Eligon Gobin, left, Valerie Laurent Thomas, Rhona Hunte Baptiste, Joan Springer Bharath, Barbara La Fond Jenkins, Marina Crichlow Hunte, Leila Bissoondath Capildeo, Jackie Lezama Chong Tai, Annette Wilson Wiltshire, June Williams Roach and Savi Naipaul Akal.

I have seen the future and it is chic and trim, in silk and linen and cute espadrilles. It tells naughty jokes and laughs like there is no one to ever say “Shhhh!’’


The future gathered one afternoon before Carnival at the Port-of-Spain home of Leila Bissoondath Capildeo (yes, those writerly Bissoondaths, those scholarly Capildeos) to give praise and blow out the candles on a cake with a giant number 75 on top.


This group of 11 women who graduated from St Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain in 1956 threw a reunion party—and gave me the title of Official Fly on the Wall for the event.


They were like schoolgirls again, screaming and guffawing over their autograph books and the black-and-white photographs of their class in long, floaty, white high-necked graduation dresses (décolletage was sinful) and trading memories about who had a crush on whose brother and who got whom in trouble in English class when they were supposed to be studying The Thirty-Nine Steps.


“Here’s my future,’’ I thought. This is who I want to be when I am 75.


Like travel-happy Joan Springer Bharath, tax guru and fraudbuster, who works out at the gym three times a week, and can leap, like a gazelle, up the 320 steps to the dome at the Basilica in Rome.


Like Barbara La Fond Jenkins, who won the regional Commonwealth Short Story competition in 2010 and 2011, and recently graduated with a master of fine arts degree from UWI, St Augustine. Like Valerie Laurent Thomas, who, in her fifties, earned screen and stage credits as an actress (see her in The Hummingbird Tree) and re-married at 62. Every time I see her, tall and strong like a tree, her silver hair in waves and ripples, freed of chemicals and curlers, the calypso The Party Now Start plays in my head.


Each member of the Club of 75ers has survived troubles, but that afternoon at Leila’s, I was 


basking in their light. They are more than their academic credits but omigosh, who could ignore their achievements, although like proper role models they played down their trumps. Valerie, a real gens d’Arime who grew up by the Dial, was the first girl to top the list of government exhibitioners in 1949 and win the Madoo Medal, which had certain unpleasant consequences including her appearance on the Aunty Kay radio show where the 11-year-old celebrity squawked out a few lines from a ballad she had only heard in the taxi coming to town. “I couldn’t sing and I didn’t know Forever,’’ she said. 


The Arima Boys’ headmaster Eugene Laurent’s daughter also became a fresh reason for parents to torment their children: “You see! Look who beat you—a girl from the country!’’


And sweetness herself, Leila, who lived at one time in the Naipaul house on Nepaul Street, St James (the House for Mr Biswas), because she couldn’t make the trip to town every day from Sangre Grande, won an island scholarship in languages.


Me: “Your parents must have been ecstatic.’’


“Well, they were glad they didn’t have to pay,’’ came the laconic reply.


Annette Wilson Wiltshire was “La Rosiere’’ of her graduating class, meaning she was the perfect Convent girl. Rhona Hunte Baptiste, who scandalised her peers by marrying the brilliant and irascible newspaperman Owen Baptiste, and taught English at a junior teachers’ college in Guangzhou, China for 12 years, had to remind her BFF of that holy title when La Rosiere was telling a colourful joke about a Harley Davidson motorcycle engineer meeting God and questioning his design of the female form. (Use your imagination here. I am not giving details.)


I want to tell you about Jean Dominique Permanand, who learned her ABCs writing on slate, in Success Village, Laventille (“I keep trying to live up to that name, Success!’’) and grew up to be the first woman to sit as a Justice of Appeal. 


But she made me promise to leave her out of the story. So I won’t tell you that she became interested in the law when as a child she would read the Trinidad Guardian court reports to her great-grandmother Mary Jardine. And I certainly can’t reveal that the nuns were furious she chose law over teaching or the nun’s habit itself.


But one thing no one can stop me from saying about the Club of 75ers is this: even though I did not go to COHN-VANT, I want to be just like them when I grow up.


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