Grandma Bessie

I wonder what life was like for my grandparents.  They grew up in the early 1900s without cable television, internet, cellular service and social media.  Even more unfathomable, common conveniences like refrigeration, electricity, running water and motorized vehicles were unknown.  Dad often reminded us that these islanders found happiness not in possessions but in their faith in God, their family and their community.

On February 26, 1903, Pa Wes and Ma Lilla gave birth to my grandmother.  With three older sisters and an older brother, Bessie Caroline completed this Curry family.  Their ancestors date back to a Curry line, loyalists during the American Revolutionary War that resettled in the British Colony of the Bahamas.  The Currys with jet black hair and olive complexion, were known for their striking features.

Unfortunately, at the young age of 10, Bessie lost her mother to what is believed to be a kidney infection.  Perhaps this tragedy prepared Bessie for her road ahead.  At age 21, Bessie married a handsome, young seaman, Howard Lowe.  He served as first mate aboard the Abaco mail boat Priscilla.  Fifteen months later a baby boy, John Wesley Lowe – my Dad, was born.

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Three years into their marriage, Bessie had to deal with death tragedy again. Howard, age 29, sustained an injury on the boat. The infection soon dealt a fatal blow.  A grieving widow with a toddler faced an uncertain future.

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Bessie Caroline Curry Lowe – far right (date unknown).

Bessie clung to her faith in God during this dark valley.

Her late husband, Howard, had been the Clerk for the Church of God assembly on the island  of Green Turtle Cay.  Bessie’s house stood next to the church building.  Her father-in -law, John Aquila Lowe, served as pastor of what is known as the oldest Church of God assembly outside the United States.

My dad recalled in his journal…

Mother was a dear Christian lady.  She kept the church building clean.  It  adjoined our property; therefore, it was convenient for her.  She also attended to the kerosene lamps.  She made sure they were filled with oil and prepared for services.

Eventually Bessie’s father, Pa Wes, moved in to help his widowed daughter and grandson.  He slept in the upstairs bedroom of this New England style cottage complete with a dormer window that overlooked the public dock and harbour.

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Grandma Bessie’s Green Turtle Cay home where dad was born in 1925 (May 2013).

A few years ago, I had the privilege  to climb that narrow stairway up to the open room. I peered out over Settlement Creek.

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Stairway to Pa Wes’ room with a view.

Pa Wes became a father figure to his grandson John the next 10 years.

Around 1940, Pa Wes’ health began to decline.  Bessie decided to sell the home that her husband had built and the three family members set sail for Nassau.  Upon arrival, my dad John (now age 15) sought employment to support his mother.  Pa Wes passed away within the year.  Once again Bessie dealt with a loved one’s death.  Before long, her Nassau path crossed with a fine Green Turtle Cay carpenter, Ashbourne Lowe. Earlier in life, he had lost his spouse, Irene, daughter of Jeremiah Gates and Jessie Isabel Lowe.

In February 1942, Bessie and Ashbourne tied the knot at the Epworth House (Ebenezer Methodist Church parsonage) in Nassau.  The newlyweds headed back to Green Turtle Cay.  Dad remained in Nassau with his step grandmother, Mildred Pearce Lowe.  Dad saved his money earned and purchased a small parcel of land in nearby Shirlea subdivision.

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Shirlea home built by Grandpa Ashbourne Lowe.  Mom standing on the porch.  Grandma Bessie sitting in the rocking chair (c. 1950)

Two years later, in 1944, back in Green Turtle Cay, Bessie and Ashbourne were blessed with a baby girl, Janet.  Over the years, this new family of three would visit Nassau to see Dad.  During this time,

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Bessie Curry Lowe holding daughter, Janet (c. 1944).

Ashbourne built a modest home for Dad on his Shirlea parcel of land.  They stayed with Dad in this new house for a few months before Dad and Mom were married.

On Green Turtle Cay, Ashbourne and Bessie’s home was near the water’s edge.  Known today as Sunset Cottage, this modest home represented another fine piece of handiwork by Grandpa Ashbourne.

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My sister, Paula, in front of Sunset Cottage (May 2002).

 

A former Green Turtle Cay resident, Estella Curry Lowe, recalls:

I remember visiting your grandmother Bessie’s home on occasion when I would go to play with Janet. We swam off the little beach near their home.  I remember Ms. Bessie as a quiet, reserved woman.  One feature I do remember well.  Each time I went there, Ms. Bessie was always cleaning the house, or the surrounding area – a very tidy lady.  She and her husband, Mr. Ashbourne Lowe, got along well with everyone on the Cay.

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Dad, Grandma Bessie and Janet (c. 1944).

My sister, Paula, tells:

Grandma Bessie was a special, godly person in my life.  She lived most of her life on the island of Green Turtle Cay, Abaco in the Bahamas.  She did not have an easy life without the conveniences that we had in the city of Nassau.  Widowed when my dad John was two years, she remarried in his late teens.

After a brief illness at age 64, she went to Heaven in July 1967.  I had graduated from high school the prior month.  I felt heartbroken by her sudden death.

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L to R – Janet, Paula, Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Ashbourne (c. 1956).

She and my step grandfather, Ashbourne, whom I called Grandpa, had just moved to Nassau the prior year.  I wanted to build our relationship now that she was nearby – hard to do while living on another island.  As a child, I visited her twice on Green Turtle Cay. The last time was during the summer of 1962.  I will always remember that special trip…

On a Saturday evening in July 1962 my parents, brother and I boarded Captain Sherwin Archer’s boat, the Almeta Queen in Nassau.  We rocked across the shipping lanes of New Providence channel at night, headed to see Grandma in Abaco for a summer vacation.  To add to the excitement for this 10 year old, Grandma had no idea we were coming!

Other relatives on the boat included cousins on both sides of the family – Buddy Lowe, Berlin Key and Craig Roberts.  Buddy and Berlin transported two small motor boats on the deck of the Almeta Queen.  They planned to lower these boats into the water at Marsh Harbour and head towards New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay.

I peered out of the porthole in our tiny cabin that night. My mother recalls her trepidation as the ship leaned heavily to one side due to cargo that shifted.  Mother says her knowledge of these cousins’ boats as cargo onboard brought comfort during this overnight passage through rough, deep ocean waters.  She also remembers sharks in the water as we disembarked from the dock.

Early the next morning, the Almeta Queen arrived at Marsh Harbour. The crew lowered the two boats. Craig and Berlin jumped in one boat while Buddy and our family filled the other.  On this early Sunday morning, we motored off to Green Turtle Cay.  The cool, morning breeze blew on our faces.  This was my second visit to the Cay.  My first visit was by sea plane several years prior.

As we neared the shoreline of the New Plymouth settlement on the Cay, we spotted Grandma on the rocks.  There she emptied her pot of fish bones into the ocean.  Boiled fish and grits was the traditional Sunday morning breakfast for these islanders.

Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Ashbourne’s wooden house was near the ocean complete with an upstairs storage room filled with junk.  I loved to climb the stairs and sift through the treasures.  I slept in my Aunt Janet’s bedroom downstairs that faced the street.

For this Nassau girl, Green Turtle Cay seemed such a tiny island with narrow streets.  We walked around the island without any fears.  Only a handful of cars and trucks were on the island.  Life was beautifully simple.  A rainwater tank collected water to drink, for baths and laundry.  I admit that the taste of rain water was less than desirable. We bathed upstairs in a galvanized, washing tub. Hot water, boiled in a kettle, was carefully transported up the steps by Grandma.  Aunt Janet still has the pitcher and basin that Grandma used for washing hands downstairs.  No indoor toilets existed although carpenter Grandpa had begun the process to convert a downstairs bedroom into a modern bathroom. In the meantime, we had to use a pail or the out house – if you could endure the stench and the spiders! 

A modest kitchen was just off the dining room.  Equipped with a sink, it had a bucket underneath to catch the dirty dishwater.  All major cooking and baking occurred in the outside kitchen, detached from the main house – the common layout during this era, for safety and cooling reasons.

In the yard, I inspected her chicken coops with laying hens. Curly tail lizards seemed to run around every corner.  They could escape under the house raised off the ground.  Near the rainwater tank I noticed more galvanized tubs with a scrub board.  Grandma was a human washing machine.  The summer sun provided more than enough heat to air dry the laundry pinned on clothes lines propped up by wooden poles.

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L to R – Paul (my brother),  Grandma Bessie, Paula – Green Turtle Cay (July 1962).

For breakfast, we dined on cornflakes with a careful balance of canned evaporated milk and water.  Sugar cubes from her cabinet provided a sweet touch.  These were a first for me.   The Cay had no overstocked grocery store.  No supercenter of our life today. 

Small convenience stores sold the staples. Sugar, flour, butter, and cheese, were weighed on scales and often sold by the pound.  I felt ecstatic when Grandma asked me to go to Ms. Eva Saunders’ store for supplies.

During this trip, both my younger brother who turned seven and cousin Craig Roberts celebrated their birthdays with a homemade jam layered cake made by one of the ladies on the Cay.

Grandma’s hair was thin. She wore a hair net. When she went to church, she wore a brim hat.  We swam in clear turquoise waters.  Looked for shells and soaked up the summer sun.  When Grandma joined us, I was surprised to see her swim in her dress. She did not own a swimsuit. 

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Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Ashbourne with Janet (c. 1956).

 

In the years that followed, Grandma and Grandpa would visit Nassau for weeks at a time, usually during the summers or Christmas time.

My sister speaks of one particular visit:

When I was six years old, Dad had purchased his first black and white television in a console cabinet. Grandma loved to watch the Art Linkletter show. At bedtime, she would read to my brother and me from our big Bible Story book. 

Grandma would often ship boxes of fruit to Dad via the mail boat. Sometimes an extra surprise like cocoa plum preserves was tucked inside.  One box yielded a hand made head band for my sister, a reward for good grades in school.

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Grandma Bessie, Paula, Janet (c. 1958).

Grandma Bessie was skilled with her hands.  A Green Turtle Cay cousin loved her tasty raisin pies.  Another remembers Grandma’s  zesty lemon pies and guava jam layer cakes – with icing, of course.  Bessie and her sister-in-law, Mira Lowe Roberts, baked cakes and pies and sold them by the slice.  My siblings loved the smell of her homemade bread.

Grandma Bessie’s daughter, Janet, noted her mother’s cleaning techniques:

Down on her knees, Momma scrubbed the floor using dried turbot skins (queen triggerfish) and a bucket of water.  Pails of white sand were toted from the beach to give the yard a fresh, clean look.

Besides her skill as a baker, she was a talented seamstress.  The majority of her dresses were handmade.  Dad said that many of his shirts as a young boy were made from flour sacks.   My sister treasured a handmade quilt from fabric scraps.  Quilting was a favorite pastime of the ladies on Green Turtle Cay.  Grandma also crafted shell necklaces to sell.

About 1965, Grandma and Grandpa moved to Nassau permanently.  Their daughter Janet had secured a job with Johnson Brothers on Bay Street.  The three rented an upstairs dwelling in Sears Addition. In May of that year, my parents, my three older siblings, Grandma, Grandpa and daughter Janet cruised to Miami.  Grandma had struggled with thyroid issues.  Now a goiter surgery awaited her in the United States.  In Miami, they met up with family friend and minister, Earle Weech.  He provided transportation and comfort to the anxious family.  He coordinated a trip to Miami’s Sea Aquarium and Crandon Park Zoo to occupy their minds while grandma was in the hospital.

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L to R – Paula, Janet, Grandma Bessie, Grandpa Ashbourne, Paul (May 1965).
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L to R – Paul, Mom, Jonathan in (stroller), Paula, Earle Weech, Janet, Grandpa Ashbourne – Crandon Park Zoo (1965).

 

Two years later, Bessie and Ashbourne travelled to Titusville, Florida to visit with Ruth Tedder, Bessie’s niece, her sister Emmie’s daughter.  On the trip back by boat to Nassau a passenger commented to Bessie that her eyes looked yellow.  Soon she was admitted to the Rassin Hospital (now the Doctors Hospital).  After several weeks in the hospital, Dr. Meyer Rassin, (the Surgeon General for the Royal Air Force stationed in Nassau during World War II) who took up residency, recommended the family seek treatment in the United States.   Earle Weech accompanied the worried travelers. Prior to the trip, they moved from Sears Addition to a home in Centerville owned by her nephew, Anthony Roberts.

On the operating table in Miami, the surgeons concluded she might live a month.  She was brought back to Nassau.  Grandma passed away a few days later on July 27, 1967 at the age of 64.

Here’s what my cousin, Iva Lowe Scholtka, gives:

At the Cay, they lived next door to us.  I’d go to the church and help Bessie clean the lamps on the wall.  She always had a smile on her face.  She kept her house so clean  that you could eat off the floor.

In Nassau, I went to see her in the hospital.  She had cancer of the liver.  Her skin was as yellow as a pumpkin.  I will never forget that.  She took my hand and said “I’m going” and then she pled, “Please be a friend to my Janet.”

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Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Ashbourne (circa 1966).

My sister concludes:

Forty years had passed before I had the opportunity to return to Green Turtle Cay.  In May 2002, my deceased husband, Leroy, knew that I longed to return to Dad’s birthplace. 

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Leroy and Paula on return to Green Turtle Cay (May 2002).

 Leroy’s health was in rapid deterioration.  This became our last vacation together. While on the ferry to Green Turtle Cay that day, we passed the cluster of rocks where Grandma stood back in the summer of 1962.  My emotions flooded.  In a flashback, I saw the many  wonderful memories with my loving Grandma.

 

5 thoughts on “Grandma Bessie

  1. A fitting tribute to your Grandmother Bessie. Thank you for the introduction to another special Green Turtle Cay lady. I have had the privilege to meet her two children and some of her grandchildren whose lives speak to her honor.

  2. On this Leap Year day, 2016, I study your photos in this article. With the help of Iris Lowe Powers, I know the location of the July 1962 photo of Paul, grandma Bessie, Paula—on the narrow road outside grandma Bessie’s house on their right. Now named ‘Sunset Cottage’, I believe the street wears the name tag ‘Key West’ today. The house behind them in the photo was razed and a new house built by Ruby Lowe and Johnny Pinder for their retirement. This house belongs to Gloria Sawyer & David Chiodo today. Appropriately named ‘On the Rocks’, its perch above the lapping sea is unique. I’ve enjoyed renting ‘On the Rocks’, so close to the sea. The steps on the right of the photo lead to the house that Bessie’s older sister, Edie Curry and Robbie Saunders and family owned. This house has been restored by owners Brian & Caroline Woodson Sawyer, proprietors of ‘Sundowners Tavern’. We see the Abaco mainland in the background. Sunset Cottage now belongs to Nassau residents, Jim and Margaret French.

    A comment on the photo of the narrow stairway to the upstairs open room that the new owner allowed you to climb. In 1949, my parents rented this house beside the Church of God for a two-week GTC visit. Dad’s cousin, Meredith Sawyer & Beulah Saunders, owned it at that time—they had moved to Nassau for employment. My younger sister and I climbed those stairs and looked out of the dormer window at the creek. No window screens. Open, the planned windows brought sea breeze ventilation—silence with salt air. Still my preference to invite, rather than a/c noise to restrict and shut out… This may have been my first Abaco visit. Many times drawn back since then.

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