Miss Rhoda is 100 not out
Although her hands are a little shaky and her hearing slightly impaired, her memory is 100 per cent intact, 100 years after her birth.
With precision, centenarian Rhoda Johnson took her blood pressure medication from the hands of her granddaughter, Cheryl Bennett, a member of the ‘village’ that is now responsible for taking care of the ‘queen mother’, who created her own compound by giving birth to 12 children and mothering several others without blinking an eye.
“Though very poor, she gave out of her nothingness,” said Bennett, beaming with pride as she spoke lovingly of a grandmother whose philanthropic efforts saw her taking in another child every decade.
“Almost every decade there was a new child belonging to someone who had an opportunity to travel and work, or who was ill and needed somewhere safe for their children to be. In one instance, she took care of three beautiful girls whose mom had an opportunity to work overseas. She had them from their infancy until they became teenagers. In time, one of the girls became a mother, and her baby became another child for my grandma to grow.”
Grandma Rhoda concurred, declaring that she believes her longevity is attributable to her kindness to children and older people.
Born in Mt Airy, a little district in Westmoreland, Miss Rhoda, as she is affectionately called, remembers sharing herself out of the food she prepared, having to pair her meal with gravy from the pot bottom.
But, it never mattered. In fact, the more persons she helped, the more work her grandchildren had to do to satisfy their needs. “She had a roster of task for us to carry out for persons she took care of,” her grandson, Steve Bennett, told Outlook, two months after he and his family threw a 100th birthday party for Miss Rhoda.
“At every stage of our growing up and beyond, there were at least two very poor persons in the community who had no food or anyone to care for them. Out of her nothingness, she would ensure that they got one good meal (dinner) every day,” Steve added.
“My grandchildren were my courier service and persons tasked with the responsibility of cleaning and caring for the persons I took care of. It didn’t matter if they wanted to or not, it was non-negotiable; they had to do it,” said Miss Rhoda.
She added that in those days, the people in the country were loving. No locks were needed on the doors, and everyone slept without fear.
Miss Rhoda’s parents planted tobacco, potato, yam, cassava, and banana. Back then, the eating of bananas was nothing to be proud of, because in the same way salt fish and chicken back were tagged “poor people food, so was banana”.
In fact, everybody cultivated their own food and fed their own families, and coconut oil was not only used for cooking, but also to lotion the skin and straighten (press) the hair.
“The Church and the scriptures were critical in our lives, Miss Rhoda said. “We had to respect our parents, and parents meant mother and father. The village was responsible for the children,” she said, while adding that walking barefooted to church was the norm.
Most of Miss Rhoda’s working years were spent at the Mount Airy All-Age School, where she worked in the canteen as a cook. The children at the Westmoreland institution, which has become one of the best schools in western Jamaica, forever spoke of her delicious bulgar porridge, sweet potato pudding, cornmeal pudding and toto, said her grandchildren.
“She had a way of making every child feel you were getting the most and best part of every meal,” Cheryl reminisced.
Miss Rhoda’s radio station of choice is RJR, and “if anybody ever lick dem head and change her station while she was away from the radio, it would be the cause of an immediate ‘war’. In fact, her radio broke down on RJR for 20 years and she never realised until she tried to listen a hurricane advisory on another station,” Cheryl quipped.
A devout Christian, Miss Rhoda spent most of her years as the cornerstone of the St Solar Anglican Church. Her family is not sure what happened, but at some point, she started walking past the Anglican Church to attend the City Mission Church.
“The City Mission Church was ‘hot’, according to granny as she belts out her favourite chorus … ‘I am so glad, I got salvation in time’. And please never ever make the mistake of starting the chorus ... ‘Hush, hush somebody is calling my name’. The song have to start at the beginning.”
Miss Rhoda is a joy to her family. An unwritten understanding was that her children were going to be her ‘pension’. However, because of her unconditional benevolence, she is proud to see how her grand and great-grandchildren have become the ones who have lived up to that expectation.