Starting today and continuing for the next two Fridays, this creative non-fiction article commemorating the birthday of the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley on September 7, 1919, will be carried in the 24-7. It is based on an interview with Miss Lou and other research by Michael Reckord.
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
The excitement in the children's chatter would start to build as they neared the house at 40 North Street, Kingston.
"You think we going see her today?"
"I think so. She is always there."
"No, not always."
"Well, most times then."
"You think she going have sweeties?
"I don't know, but I hope so."
"Me, too. I hope she have paradise plums."
That would be pretty much the content of their conversations on Sunday afternoons on their way home from Sunday school. The children anticipated their encounter with the nice lady behind the jalousie window.
She always had a cheerful word for them and usually sweets, too - often their favourite, the red and orange paradise plums. The children came to call her 'the sweetie lady', though later they heard she was really Kerene Robinson, 'Miss Kerrie' to family and friends.
But one Sunday she wasn't at the window and when one brave little boy called through the jalousie for her, Eura, a girl of nine, came to the window with the news that the children wouldn't be seeing the lady until the following Sunday.
"Why? What happen to her?" the boy asked.
"The baby born," said Eura.
That was the first time the children knew the 'sweeetie lady' had been expecting. A week later, they trooped into the house to see mother and baby girl. One girl had brought her doll along and announced that it was her baby. Not to be outdone, the brave boy pointed to Miss Kerrie's baby and declared "si fi mi bibi deh!"
There was general laughter and from the statement came a name which was to remain with the baby until adulthood. From that day on her mother called her 'Bibis', or 'Bibs', for short.
Her given names, Simone Louise, were taken by her grandmother from a published account of a heroic 18-year-old girl's unselfish action. While preparing to flee from the famous ship Titanic as it was sinking, the girl gave up her place in a lifeboat to a woman because she was a mother.
Though Bibis was born on North Street, when she was six years old, she and her family were living at 16 North Parade, just across King Street from Ward Theatre and beside the Salvation Army School for the Blind.
Was it because she lived so close to the theatre that Bibis got bitten by a 'performance bug'? Who knows? But the fact is that, from she was five and a half years old or so, she started playing to the public - and she continued to do so for the remainder of her working life.
She had learnt a number of poems from her cousin Eura and, one afternoon on their way from school, she told another cousin, a very slim girl ironically nicknamed 'Fatty', that she would recite the poems she knew for people to hear. Fatty was delighted with the news.
"When?" she asked.
"Now," said Bibis.
"Up there." Bibis pointed to the top step of the School for the Blind.
Eura looked around. As always, there were people walking up and down North Parade. "Then go on, nuh."
And, climbing up the steps, Bibis started reciting a long, dramatic poem about the Spanish searching for El Dorado, the City of Gold. People stopped to listen and, before long, they started throwing farthings and ha'pennies at the performer's feet as their way of showing appreciation.
Fatty got an idea. She gathered up her dress, making it into a sort of basket and started picking up the coins and accepting more from the gathering.
Unfortunately for the girls, a customer of Miss Kerrie, who was a dressmaker, was passing by. Outraged at the sight of young Bibis making a poppy show of herself, she rushed to the house and informed Bibis' grandmother, Mimi, of what was happening.
The report included the fact that Fatty had her dress raised in such a way that her underwear showed. Mimi promptly went over to collect the girls. When Fatty saw her coming she jumped from the steps. This sent all the coins she had collected flying.
"Home, you two," commanded Mimi, much to the annoyance of the audience, which had been enjoying the recitation.
That incident marked the beginning and the end of Bibi's first 'paid' performance. She was not to have another until she was 17 years old, in 1938 at a Christmas-morning concert. On that occasion, she performed poems she wrote herself. She had been doing this for many years, and all over the island - but without pay.
Her early poems were written in standard English, the language of the poems she learnt from Eura and so enjoyed reciting. Even more than reciting, she enjoyed writing and from early in her career, considered herself primarily a writer. These lines come from an early poem:
I wish ... that I could be
A poet great and with my pen
Trace paths of peace and harmony
From the uncertain minds of men.
When she was 13 and a half years old, she started writing her poems in Jamaican dialect; these were the ones that made her famous. Her first dialect poem was penned shortly before she started going to Excelsior High School, which was then on North Street, in 1936.
Next week: School and the tram.