Carolyn Cooper | Yvonne Skeffrey – a Jamaican at home in the Bahamas
Jamaica has lost another woman of distinction. On April 22, Dr Yvonne Skeffrey died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 90. Her heart just stopped beating. It was her nurse, Trudy, who gently broke the news: “One of the ladies gone.” I immediately asked which one. Dr Ouida Skeffrey and, more recently, her sister Yvonne were my neighbours.
Almost two decades ago when I moved next door, Ouida welcomed me. I enjoyed chatting with her over the fence. She was a constant gardener and would come out most mornings to do a little pruning. There really wasn’t a fence between us. It was an assortment of makeshift barriers including metal railings.
I decided on my own to install a proper chain-link fence with a cut stone base. After construction started, I asked Ouida if she would consider contributing to the cost. She drily told me I should I have consulted her if I wanted her input. That’s classic Ouida. All the same, she did cover part of the cost.
OUTSTANDING PUBLIC SERVICE
The exceptional Skeffrey family has given outstanding public service in the medical field. By the time I met Ouida, she had retired from her practice as an optometrist. Yvonne had specialised in family medicine; their mother Violet had been a public health nurse; and their father, William, a pharmacist. The Gleaner archives are quite a rich source of miscellaneous information. In my research on the Skeffrey family, I came across a report headlined ‘Drug Store Larceny’. It was published on Friday, November 28, 1930.
The punctuation is rather erratic: “Cecil Clarke who is in custody at the Central Police Station, was again arrested by Detective Wilson on a charge of shop-breaking and larceny of a quantity of goods valued £6, the property of Mr. William Skeffrey, druggist, along North Street. The complainant’s establishment was broken into rece ntly and a large quantity of powder, soap, perfumery, and other things stolen.” Almost a century ago, the pound went a far way.
Much to my amusement, I discovered that The Gleaner used to have an ‘Airport Reporter’ who tracked the comings and goings of important people. The social pages of the newspaper were, clearly, our original social media. But far less democratic than all those sites that can now give everybody visibility! Then, I wonder how many people got busted because of this regular airport report.
On Friday, September 16, 1949, ‘Airport News’ announced that, “Miss Yvonne Skeffrey who had been here for the past three months on holidays, left yesterday for Miami on her way to New York to resume her studies at Manhatanville (sic) College of the Sacred Heart. She is a past student of Wolmer’s School.”
A devout Catholic, Yvonne attended what was then a strictly religious college. In a December 1970 article by Linda Greenhouse, cleverly headlined, ‘Manhattanville: Catholic and catholic’, the New York Times reported that the college had dropped ‘of the Sacred Heart’ from its name. It seemed no longer relevant for an independent liberal arts college. I’m not sure Yvonne would have approved.
After graduating from Manhattanville in 1951, Yvonne entered The University College of the West Indies (UCWI) to study medicine. In the 1950s, UCWI was still a college of the University of London. The establishment of similar colleges in Africa was part of a process of lingering colonialism. Nevertheless, these institutions gave students the opportunity for tertiary education at home, instead of being forced to travel abroad.
The imperial history of UCWI did not impede the growth of both national and regional consciousness. As students sat in classes with their counterparts from all over the Creole-Anglophone Caribbean, they learned that they shared a common identity. They were citizens of the wider Caribbean, not just their country of birth. And long before dating apps allowed viewers to swipe right or left, The UCWI enabled romance across national borders and in the flesh.
Just a few of the marriages that blossomed, even if they did not all flourish, include the following: Peter Carr, Trinidad and June Smith, Jamaica; Archie Hudson-Phillips, Trinidad and Angela Lewis, St Lucia; Rudolph Collins, Guyana and Viv Brown, Jamaica; Hugh Wynter, Jamaica and Dorothy King, Barbados; Lawrence Mann, Guyana and Juliette Jessamy, Trinidad; and Duke Pollard, Guyana and Velma Brodber, Jamaica.
ANOTHER KIND OF ROMANCE
After graduating from The UCWI, Yvonne went to work in the Bahamas. It might have been another kind of romance – the glamour of travel. She made the country her home. To mark the 40th anniversary of Independence of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, the Medical Association hosted a ‘Special Physician Recognition Ceremony’. Dr Yvonne Skeffrey was among those honoured for giving more than 40 years’ service to the nation.
Yvonne used to come to Jamaica every Christmas. My sister, Donnette, would also come for the holidays. Ouida and I would keep each other updated on when the sisters would arrive. I would look out one morning and there was Yvonne. In 2019, she decided to come home for good. Her health was failing and so was Ouida’s. The sisters’ physician was Dr Shantell Neely, a Bahamian who came to medical school at UWI in 2002 and remained after marrying a Jamaican she met on campus, Andrew James.
As a child, Shantell knew Yvonne in the Bahamas. They both attended the St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Nassau. Across the generations, the lines of affiliation intersected: a Jamaican doctor who once served in the Bahamas lovingly cared for by a Bahamian doctor in Jamaica. An inspiring fulfilment of the promise of regional integration sustained for so long by The University of the West Indies!