Empowerment. Engagement. Authenticity.

Pearl of Woodbrook: Glamour, Grit and Grief

Pearl and Hafeez stand smiling in their front yard in Valsayn North

Zobida Pearl Muddeen Hafeez wanted to be free.

It had been her all-consuming desire, perhaps from the moment she’d entered the world on September 20, 1927.

On the bed beside her, she heard Nyla’s voice, more breath than sound. “Go, Mammy. Go to Pa. Pa and Ma. Moonie and Dolsie. Go.”

Suddenly, she was five and running lickety-split through their backyard in Woodbrook, leaving her seven-year old sister, Dolsie dangling and terrified from the branch of the mango tree where Pearl had dared her to climb.

She wanted to be free.

Then, she was ten and pedalling as fast as she could in the opposite direction of Tranquility Primary School, where fear of teachers turned sweat cold and sour under her uniform shirt. Down Rosalino, past Carlos, Alfredo, Ana, Petra and Alberto - streets and avenues named for the Siegert family of Angostura fame – past rows and rows of two-storey houses with gingerbread trim and lace curtains. She arrowed for Tragarete Road and the Queen’s Park Oval where more than one cricketer would give her the sweet eye. Maybe she would catch the Oval Boys practicing pan under the breadfruit tree in front of the Mannette house.

She wanted to be free.

She was fourteen and burning with typhoid fever, clammy with sweat, wrung dry from weeks of diarrhea.

She was fifteen, out of school to take care of Pa. Her handsome Pa, Carnation-milk skin turned pasty white, lying in his bed, unable to move after falling off a ship at work.

Pa’s education had landed him as civil engineer with the Colonial Authorities in Trinidad. Pa had showed all them hoity-toity white people that coloured people could build upstairs houses in Woodbrook, too. No way them white people and Syrians with money allowed just any coolie or creole to move into their neighbourhood. This was Woodbrook with paved sidewalks and electric streetlights that turned on like magic when it got dark.

“Go, Mammy,” Nyla soothed and Pearl knew she must be tossing and turning, trying to be free of the horrible memory of watching Pa suffer for ten long years.

She wanted to be free.

She was fifteen and working as a cashier at Globe Cinema. Uncle Noor had told her the stories of his father, the great Haji Gokool Meah, how he’d come to Trinidad as a baby with his parents in the 1850’s, how he’d worked the canefields under white plantation owners and eventually saved enough money to buy his own shop in 1878. By 1892, he had owned most of the estates in the Diego Martin Valley.

In 1933, Gokool had built the largest cinema in the Caribbean at the corner of St Vincent and Park Streets. In that air-conditioned space, packed with a thousand people from nbalcony to pit, Pearl fancied herself a brown Princess Margaret, finger-wave curls and all.

She wanted to be free.

She was 20 and eight months pregnant with Nyla. Just as the future Queen Elizabeth II was getting married and the press was making a fuss over Princess Margaret’s social activities, Pearl was struggling to adjust to married life. Not that she had never wanted to get married but she always hoped it would be when she was good and ready.

She’d been following in her Uncle Noor’s entrepaneurial footsteps, selling embroidered baby clothes to high-end Woodbrook shops and excelling so fast at hairdressing, they had her training girls. Every bride in Trinidad wanted Pearl to do their hair and makeup.

Pa and Ma and Dolsie had decided it was her turn to be a bride.

“Go to Daddy,” Nyla was saying and Pearl wondered if she was calling Hafeez’s name.

Hafeez Abdullah Mohammed came from a long line of devout Muslim brothers who had decided to use their first names as their last to distinguish themselves. And so she had traded Muddeen for Hafeez as her last name in 1947.

The same year Moonie got pregnant by a man who didn’t want her, had the baby, then killed herself.

She wanted to be free.

If Dolsie was the good daughter, and she the stubborn one, Pearl supposed Moonie, born two years after Pearl, had been the lost one. Had everyone been too preoccupied with taking care of Pa to notice Moonie going off track? Had Ma and Pa, after Camral was born in 1931, devoted all their attention to their one and only son?

Had Pearl herself been too busy wanting to be free to be a good wife?

Hafeez was a good man, a humble man, a tolerant man. Pearl had given him three children; Nyla in 1947, Naim in 1949 and, the apple of his parents’ eye to this day, Azeem in 1955.

How all her white customers crooned over Azeem, even when, one day when he was about three, he swaggered into her salon with a cutlass and a mouthful of cuss words.

She wanted to be free.

She was thirty and in New York City for the very first time. Had left Ma to cook for Hafeez, left Nyla in charge of Naim and Azeem. She borrowed a page out of Princess Margaret’s book and went north when everyone told her to stay south. She’d donned her best fur and primped her hair and joined students at Charles of the Ritz studying hair and makeup, hob-nobbing with the Fifth Avenue socialites.

Every white university lecturer and their friends flocked to her salon after that.

By the time Nyla turned fifteen, their bungalow at the corner of Clifford Street and the Southern Main Road in Curepe was a massive upstairs house with terrazzo floors, polished cantilevers and plush carpet. Pearl’s salon, where she did hair, makeup and facials, occupied the entire bottom floor. On Sundays, Pearl would sit at the large, oval mahogany dining table Camral had made her and arrange her profits in neat bundles.

She wanted to be free.

She was 54 and feeling like a queen in her new house in Valsayn North. Everyone said she followed Dolsie to this neighbourhood of spacious bungalows and sprawling lawns. Why shouldn’t she want somewhere to grow mango and pomerac trees and hibiscus and bougainvillea like people in Woodbrook?

Besides, she was now a grandmother of four. Azeem had married Jenny, a white girl with green eyes, and given Pearl a handsome grandson, Nasser. Nyla had married Clive, a man who would never really like Hafeez but who adored Pearl. And Pearl adored him. Clive and Nyla’s daughter, Kristy, was sick as a baby and it was Pearl who accompanied Clive to Canada for her medical procedures. Nyla had Pearl’s second grandson, Reyad, during one of their absences. Naim had married Sonia, a Woodbrook girl, and had given her a third grandson, Adil.

Nasser, Reyad and Adil were for sure the three amigos of Valsayn North.

Another granddaughter and grandson had come three years later, five months apart. A girl named Kristal for Naim and Sonia and a boy named Issa for Azeem and Jenny. For a blissful, busy few years, Pearl had lived a grandmother’s dream of having a full house of children and grandchildren at 2 Woodlands Road.

Nyla was still telling her to go, go to Pa. Go To Hafeez.

Pearl could hear Hafeez reading evening Namaz, like he had done for twenty-five years as Imam of the St. Joseph Mosque. She had never missed a day of fasting during Ramadan, had always did her part as the Imam’s wife, even as she travelled to Miami and Caracas, sourcing jewellery to coordinate with the outfits and painted t-shirts her customers never stopped requesting.

She wanted to be free.

She was 78 and lying in this very bed with Hafeez. She didn’t know if he could hear her or even see herbut she lay with him, tried to still the hand that tore at the feeding tube in his nose. Too late, it was too late to apologize for how she’d always been too rough with him. Too late to say words that had never felt right between them.

“I love you.”

She heard those three simple words from Nyla now.

Did they know she loved them? Pa and Ma and Moonie? Dolsie and Camral? Nyla, Naim and Azeem? her grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Yes, she had great-grandchildren, although she couldn’t remember their names.

Life had seemed to slow to a thin stream, then a trickle after Hafeez died. She had ceased to be the sequinned dancer everyone had sworn was fifty-five at her seventy-fifth birthday party. She had tried her best to put on a good show, to smile, to small talk.

But she wanted to be free.

Pearl climbed onto her bicycle and pedalled in the direction of Woodbrook. In no time at all it seemed, she was riding those familiar streets: Carlos, Alfredo, Ana, Petra, Alberto. She heard herself singing along in a clear soprano to Mario Lanza on a radio playing somewhere.

And then she saw Pa and Ma, Dolsie and Moonie chatting in the square like they had no cares in the world. Hafeez was there, too, one foot nudging a rocking chair into lazy motion as he read the Quran in his lap.

Cow-heel soup and roast beef jostled for supremacy in the hot tropical air and, at St. Teresa’s, choir voices rose and fell in multi-part harmonies.

Pa and Ma, Moonie and Dolsie and Hafeez all looked towards her at once, smiles beaming and bright. They waved her closer.

Rosy cheeks lifted to the sun, Pearl pedalled over to them.

Just over a month shy of her ninety-second birthday, Zobida Pearl Muddeen Hafeez was finally, eternally free.

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