BAJAN TO DE BONE: Norma – all she wanted to do was cook
THE NAME Norma Jackman has been mainly associated with the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and with cooking.
She is now 84 and the flame has gone out from under her big pots while the passion for the party she fervently supported in the past has all but died. The peaks and valleys of an interesting life behind her, she spends her days quietly, often reflecting on Barbados, the country she loves.
Stacks of dishes, piles of cutlery, a selection of large pots and an industrial stove in a kitchen at her home are reminders of the days when she was the caterer of choice for individuals and businesses.
Norma learnt the art of cooking at the feet of two generations before her – a Barbadian grandmother and a Guyanese-born mother.
“My family was a cooking family” she said. With 14 pints of rice and seven pints of peas cooked to feed her large family, Norma’s grandmother ensured there was always food in the house. She always had the hot meal they expected, ready when her sons reached home.
Those were the “good old days” when anyone dropping in at the Jackman house could be sure they would be fed because “there was plenty food”.
“I have never as a child had one or two flying fish on my food. I used to get as much as I wanted.”
She grew up in a “big red house” on Magazine Lane, Bridgetown, where she was born and spent a happy childhood in a bustling city with streets where families lived upstairs and carried on businesses downstairs.
“In those days when my mother and they were cooking it wasn’t anything. Nowadays when you have two chafing dishes you are a caterer,” Norma said candidly.
She recalled her mother doing major catering for the weekend dances kept in homes in neighbourhoods or in small dance centres. On the menu were the rice and stew, fried chicken and fried pork chops that gave their name to the legendary “pork chop bag” in which women at Saturday night dances placed the pork chop purchased for them by a dancing partner, and took it home for their Sunday lunch.
As if savouring the memory of the delicious aroma, Norma took in a long deep breath and paused before telling about the “flat bread and the hot cross buns my grandmother used to make”.
As an adult she was in her element when she got into the big catering league, as the preferred caterer for the Democratic Labour Party, of which she was a member.
Though she exhibits no bitterness towards the party, there is no mistaking her disappointment at the way that relationship has turned out.
She says she was “the first person” who started the DLP Women’s League, and one of its first chairwomen, but complained: “I was not a teacher, so they did not want me to lead the league.”
When one party member suggested her as a possible candidate for a DLP St Michael seat, she turned it down. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go into politics’.”
The Rt Excellent Errol Barrow himself wanted her to have a role after his party won general elections, she said, but all she wanted to do was cook.
“I told Mr Barrow, ‘When you all decide to do school meals, give me a job in School Meals’.”
And she said Barrow considered her an ideal candidate for such a job, given her history of catering for the DLP. Others apparently did not. Norma said she lost out on a School Meals position at Westbury Primary School because it was given to “somebody with better qualifications”. That decision, she said, did not sit well with Barrow when he was told about it.
“Better qualifications to cook food for little children, and you all eat all of that woman’s food?” was Barrow’s reported response to the decision-maker who had overlooked Norma.
So often she meets grateful former students of the Christopher School in Christ Church, where she was eventually sent to manage the School Meals Service, and they are effusive in their praise and appreciation.
“There is not a child at St Christopher that could say I treated them bad. I taught all the children under me to eat with knife and fork.”
Out of a monthly salary of $73 she paid 60 cents bus fare daily to travel from her St Stephen’s Hill, St Michael home to the St Christopher School Meals Centre.
“The only person I did not beg for a lift was a horse and cart,” she said in typical dry Norma Jackman humorous style.
“I used to be there on mornings at seven and some nights I never got home until nine because I was doing something that I liked.”
Go-getter that she was back then, when the St Christopher job was no longer bringing the desired returns, she turned her attention to a different exploit – the concession for the Workers’ Canteen at the former Seawell Airport.
When she sits on her patio reflecting, the memories of those days point her to the mementos she has collected from that period of her life.
Norma Jackman’s canteen was a hub for locals and visitors alike.
“The airport is a learning centre. Some people come for death, some people running away from their marriage, some people running away from themselves, some people running away from their debt, some people just running.”
She observed them, and listened to them all.
She worked long hours to keep the business afloat and to play her part in Barbados’ promotion as a tourism destination.
However, it all came crashing down when her contract ended and she was forced to give up the business with an $86 000 debt hanging over her head.
Fighter that she is, Norma soon found a job selling insurance and managed to settle two big contracts before again being forced to move on.
It was back to another restaurant that ended in another failure with a resultant $83 000 debt.
This time she said: “I decided I would go hungry before I opened another business.”
She resorted to small-scale catering from her home.
Jackman is an example of a woman who has experienced the hard knocks of life and taken them with a smiling face that masked a burdened heart.
“I know what it is to be hurt,” said the mother of five boys and one girl; “I have had my children and I know I was so hurt I used to feel that blood was dripping from my heart, but I always kept a smile.”
She was fortunate to have received help from family in raising her children, one of whom is now deceased. She said they have all made her proud. But there was more than a hint of the lingering pain at the motherhood experience when she said: “If I had to live my life over again ‘I would not have a child for Onassis’ until I was mentally and physically prepared for them, because I got my children out of ignorance.”
The heart attack she suffered on April 28 this year has forced Norma to slow down. Despite all the past trials, her satisfaction comes from knowing that she was in a position to weave an indelible thread into Barbados’ tapestry through her different spheres of involvement.
This is the measure of her contentment. (GC)