History Items of the Canal Zone

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Jean Coffey's Memories of the Panama Canal Zone
cronicled by
Dale C. Clarke

Maids of yesteryear

Jamaican maids raised us then raised our children. They were saints. They loved us as if we were their own children and we loved them. They prepared our meals, got us dressed and off to school in time for the bus. We knew all the maids. We could go to any house and have cold water from the ice box and later the refrigerators, and often a snack They would not let us get away with anything and any CZ kid can speak Bajan.

Every house had at least one maid. It was like having an answering machine; they were always there to take messages. I recall that one afternoon I went to Ruth Morris' house in Gatun and while I was waiting for her the phone rang and rang, but the maid, who was ironing, did not answer it. She explained to me, "Don't worry - it soon stop." I wonder where Ruth Morris is today?

The maids loved to iron and polish the brass doorknobs. They ironed sheets, towels, Dad's starched shorts and shirts, and all the mostly cotton clothes. They boiled water on small stoves and put the white clothes in with "bluing" cakes sold in the commissary. (Before washing machines) Then they spread all the white items over the bushes so they would bleach white. One new teacher came home to find her underwear spread out all over the bushes and was quite upset. Most Dads wore white suits, white shirts, black ties, white shoes, and Panama hats. The maids would not iron when it was raining for fear of catching a cold; well, in Panama it rains 9 months a year. Later, when air-conditioning came, they would only iron outside the air-conditioning.

Finally, they got used to it and would not work in a house unless it was air-conditioned. As I said, they loved to polish the brass doorknobs. The doorknobs blinded you. They used up quarts and quarts of brass polish in tin cans from the commissary. They cleaned the tile floors with kerosene until they shone.

Some families where the Mom worked, there were two maids; one cooked and took care of the children and the other one washed, ironed, and cleaned. Every night we had plantain fried in butter and we also had rice. My maid's specialty was Aroz con Pollo and rice and peas and coconut cooked with pig tail.

My mother's maids specialty was lemon merenge pie. My mother paid her maid $l5.00 per month and kept her supplied with cigarettes which she smoked lit ends in her mouth. My mother's maid took care of me from when I was a baby and then took care of my sister's three children.

Most people had a gardener whose only tool to cut grass, weed, and anything else was a machete. The kids who had horses needed someone to collect razor sharp tall, green grass and wood shavings for the stalls.

Everybody had a car washer who washed the cars once per week and waxed them every 3 weeks. They had closely guarded clients and no washer dared take another washer's client. When I moved to the U.S., I kept asking if anyone could recommend a car washer; nobody could. I asked high school kids and they declined. O.K., so I finally found the car washes. Our beloved maids gave us tea at breakfast with lots of milk and sugar; said it was good for us. One or two of the maids, unlike the others, were mean and to this day I can remember which house to avoid with a mean maid; the kind who locked the kids out until shortly before the parents returned home. But, that was a rarity.

Our maids could receive treatment at the hospital and could go to the health center for blood tests once per year and immunization shots. One of my maids I had for 23 years died in Gorgas hospital from cancer and my other maid I had for 23 years died after I left Panama. Before people retired, they made sure their maid had a good family to work for after they were gone and good maids were competively sought after. Car washers were also passed on.
We were one big family in the Canal Zone in yesteryear.

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