By Loucil Taylor Marsland as told to Sandra Taylor Rouja.
It is a Friday evening in May, and we are sitting on the front porch of our house at Jennings Bay in Southampton. Mother is singing hymns, while rocking the little ones until they fall asleep. The sun has set, and everything in the house is ready for Sabbath. Flowers which mother cut for church sit in a bucket at the back door. The bread, roast chicken and soup sit cooling in the kitchen. The dining table is set for Saturday’s evening meal, freshly ironed white dresses hang stiffly from their hangers, and nine pairs of shoes shine in the hall, all readied by the older girls. My father is somewhere in the stables, hopefully preparing the horse and carriage for tomorrow and taking a last smoke of his pipe before coming into the house.
Between Mother’s singing all is quiet except for the roll of the rocker and sounds from field and stable. Partridge scurry through the dried sage beneath the tomato plants to their nests, and from behind the house the faint notes of the harmonica lift through the Pride of India tree as the hired help settle into the spring evening. From the porch, I can see my grandparents’ house Mount Olive, up on the hill. As the little ones fall asleep, mother puts them to bed in the cool of the house. Finally it is my turn, and as I climb up on her lap, she asks, “What do you want me to sing Loucil?” I answer, “I’m a child of the King, Mama.”
The year is 1920 and I am six years old. My mother is in her forty-second year and has already borne 12 of the 13 children she would have. She raised eight of nine daughters and one of four sons. She also has at home her first two grandchildren. Our daily life is rigidly disciplined with early morning prayers and Bible reading beginning the day. Mother would spend most of her time in the sewing room, which she had built with French doors looking out at her rose garden to the east and shaded from the heat in summer. This room was her sanctuary, where she would alternate work with sleep and the quiet rest of reading her Bible.
All of the girls, according to our age, had some set responsibility for the running of the house: cleaning, washing, ironing, baking and cooking as well as caring for the little ones. During onion season, the older girls helped with the tying up and packing. Mother also taught us to sew and crochet, and an afternoon could find several of us with her in the sewing room, mending, basting, embroidering and cutting patterns. All the while, Mother quoted from the Bible and sang hymns. Keeping such a large family well fed, ordered and dressed and religiously instructed would have been enough for any woman. But Maria Reis Simon De Costa Silva was one of those women who finding herself in a certain time and place, knew at an early age how to seize the moment and move beyond the expected roles of home and family. Mother’s vital characteristics of faith, discipline, industry, frugality, innovation and fierce independence would have destined her to break the mould wherever she happened to be. As fate would have it, the year 1890 found her at age 12 sailing to Bermuda from the Azores with her parents and four siblings.
Vovo (grandfather) Simon had already been working in Bermuda for four years with several of his brothers and nephews, then he returned to St. Miguel to collect his wife Antoinette and children. He was one of the many Portuguese farmers who came to Bermuda on contract during that period of the Island’s agricultural renewal. Once the contracts were completed, there was the possibility of working for oneself and, for the industrious, of investing in land. There was also the opportunity of learning a new language, a new culture and of exploring new thoughts in religion. Before returning to St. Miguel for his family, Vovo left the Roman Catholic Church of his forebears to join the newly-formed Portuguese Church of God. There he could read and interpret the Bible for himself in his native Portuguese, without the need of a priest, and he could be involved with the running and development of the church. So, together with several of his brothers, he took his baptism in the sea at Devonshire Bay.
At age 12, Maria my mother, could not know how these things would influence her life as she stepped from ship to dock in Hamilton Harbour and travelled to Tankfield in Paget where her father was living and farming with his brother Manuel. What she did know was that she would not be allowed to continue her schooling. As the eldest daughter, her father expected her to stay at home to help with the housework, the cooking and the care of the little ones. She loved her studies and said that had she not been born a girl, she would have wished to be a doctor. The only learning she would have over the next four years would be that of home and church. This would prepare her for the role of wife and mother which, for the Portuguese girls of her day, began as early as age 16.
Her father had chosen his nephew Manuel to be her husband and felt that an early marriage would help to temper her unusually strong will. Vova (grandmother) said that my mother got her disposition from her German grandmother, who had met her future husband in the Azores when the ship in which he and her family were emigrating to America was wrecked off the islands.
My father, who was already working for Vovo, was a fine-looking man with a poetic nature. He was five years older than mother. He soon became very attached to her, and in 1894 at age 16, they were married. Their first couple of years were spent close to my grandparents who were then living at Riddell’s Bay where my father farmed with Vovo. On a good day mother would row across the bay to take her husband his lunch in the fields. It was in the middle of the bay that she found herself going into labour with her first child and had to row herself to her mother’s house.
Soon after, my father decided to take his new family back to the Azores to his parents. These were very unhappy years for Mother, who chose to take the matter into her own hands by leaving for Bermuda on her own with her three young children; it was no small undertaking for a woman of her day. When she changed ship in New York, Manuel was waiting to join her and they returned to Bermuda as a family.
They now settled in Somerset where my father farmed for a Mr. Fowle. Our father was a hard worker but Mother was ambitious and wanted more for their growing family than he thought he needed. So she started sewing for her neighbours. Through her sewing and attendance at St. James Church, she began to interact with the English-speaking community around her. She taught herself to read and write English and decided to speak the language to her children, wanting them to begin life unhampered by the broken English which was so common with her countryfolk. At this time, she came to know Dr. John Cann of Somerset who was so impressed with her ability to master a new language and by her natural understanding of health care that he loaned her several of his medical books.
Sometime after the family’s move from Somerset to Southampton, the Seventh-Day Adventists began holding tent revival meetings throughout the Island. Mother attended them with fervour, and along with her father and her brother Manuel was baptised into the Adventist Church. She became an active and instrumental member in the early church and held weekly Sabbath School classes at their home above Jennings Bay. Her prized flower garden was kept exclusively for adorning the church on Saturdays.
Mother was also learning -from her own experiences, and those of family and friends – that she had a gift for the birthing process. Years later, she would remember with satisfaction that of the dozen of babies she had delivered in Somerset and Southampton, all were live births. This was before midwives were registered in Bermuda. Mother kept her black ‘doctor’s’ bag next to her bed. Many nights we would hear a galloping horse approaching the house, with an anxious father-to-be looking for Mother. She would quickly throw her coat over her long, white cotton nightgown, grab her bag and be off. The following day, we would watch her refill the bottle of olive oil, wash and boil the long strip of white cotton, dry them in the sun, fold and heat them in the oven before wrapping them tightly in another cloth, then placing all back in her little black bag.
Mother’s sewing room was a busy corner of the house. She had several machines including one expressly for the stitching of heavy drapes and upholstery. One summer she made all the new drapes, valences and furniture covers for an American family living at Spithead in Warwick. Mr. Huber would send his carriage and groom to collect her for a day of cutting, preparation and fitting. If we were very good, one of us would be allowed to go with her. One of her dreams was to buy her own horse and carriage for driving the family to church on Saturdays. The money from that job added to her savings and her dream was realised.
Always looking to increase her income and standard of living, Mother used her command of the English language to acquire furniture and pedal organs through mail-order catalogues for her Portuguese neighbours and friends. Her commission was made in the form of points towards items in the catalogues. It was not long before the sound of organ music could be heard from our house and we were boasting a trendy fold-away bed.
By 1920, ‘Mary’ De Costa Silva, was Mother was now generally known, was halfway through her life. During the next 20 years, she would finish rasing her children, continue caring for several grandchildren, provide a home to two of her married daughters during the Depression and increase her work with the church. She also realised a life-long ambition and bought her own home near Whale Bay, Southampton. Marriage and children, far from tempering her “unusually strong will” as her father had imagined more than 40 years earlier, had challenged her on every level.
Still there were disappointments. As her children left home to join the workforce, they also left the church which had been the backbone of her life. My father- a free spirit who preferred contemplating the bay with his dogs to sitting in church – had resisted joining the Adventist Church. When the joint care and responsibility of the growing family ceased, he moved to the shack he had built between the planting land at Evans Bay, five minutes from her house. For the remainder of their lives, my parents would visit as friends, he sharing his crop, and she sharing her meals whenever he showed up.
Mother’s faith in her God and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church became her reason for being and she remained a staunch supporter, both spiritually and financially to the end. At the age of 83, just two years before she died, she was still managing the rents from her two houses, growing her own flowers for church, making jams and chutney to sell, designing her own crochet patterns and sewing little dresses from remnants for children in the church in the Azores.
Throughout her long life, Mother rarely saw a doctor, treating herself with her own remedies and only entering the hospital twice: once when as a young wife she was thrown from a pony trap and had a concussion, and when she died at age 85 following a stroke. She would have summed up her life as one which she had lived with the natural rhythms of rest and work, interwoven with a strict discipline, faith and her beloved singing of hymns.
By Loucil Taylor Marsland as told to Sandra Taylor Rouja.