March 11, 2005

Grub Cooper

The first part of a series written by Desmond Allen, first published in The Observer, Jamaica, last Christmas.

There are burdens no infant should have to bear, trials no child should have to suffer. Theirs is a time of tender affairs, when compassion is nature’s armour for the protection of helpless innocence. What, therefore, can be said of grown men and women who shirk their responsibility to those of whom Christ has said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not…” {{more}}

At Easter time comes a heart-breaking story of childhood stolen. It is the story of Grub Cooper whose musical genius will warm the hearts of many Jamaicans during this period, as it has done for many years now. But they will, large numbers of them, not have known of his incredible journey through adversity.

Picture this, if you can, a landlady turning out two visually impaired children – Grub and his brother Conroy Cooper – aged seven and nine, to live outside on the sidewalk because their mother was in arrears with the rent; later she ordered that they be put on a bus – destination not important; then a conductor who put them off the bus in a depressed community to wander, hungry and afraid, into the lonely night. What manner of beasts are they in whom the milk of human kindness has ceased to flow…if it ever did?

Born to luxury

Asley Beresford ‘Grub’ Cooper marked his 56th birthday in circumstances light years from times in his childhood when cold ground was his bed and hunger his constant, if unwanted companion. At the time of his birth on December 26, 1948, his mother, Velma Stephens and his father, Bertie Cooper, were living together in Linstead, St Catherine. Stephens had seven children by Cooper: Conroy, Jean, Fay (now deceased), Lynthia and a pair of twins, also deceased. Grub was the fourth child.

Bertie Cooper was a wealthy man at the time, Grub says. He was a solicitor who had much property and owned the hardware store, Leonard deCordova. He also played the violin and the piano. Stephens also played the piano. The family was living on a 10-acre parcel of land now owned by Dinthill Technical. The children enjoyed all the luxuries that money could afford. They had housekeepers, at least two at any one time. Mr. Cooper was known to go bird-shooting and change his car once a year. Importantly, Cooper had many other children – By Grub’s count at least 36 – “scattered across Jamaica and the Diaspora”.

Womanising father

Grub and Conroy were born visually impaired, with congenital cataract. He (Grub) underwent surgery to remove the cataract at three years old and then at five years old, but to no avail. The year when he turned seven was the beginning of sorrows. Stephens walked out of the home, taking five of the children with her, on grounds that she could no longer handle Cooper’s womanising. Grub and Conroy were among the five children Stephens took with her to live – in abject poverty – in Spanish Town.

Eating after the pigs

Things were hard and Grub and Conroy were sent to live with their maternal grandmother at Content in the parish. Grub recalls sleeping on the bare floor and being hungry most of the time. He also received lots of beatings. So starved was he that sometimes when his sister visited, she would sneak and cook something for him to eat, after cooking for the pigs. He drank impure water and broke out in sores. Not long after, he began to haemorrhage inside.

One day, deciding that they could not take the desperate life at Content anymore, he and Conroy decided to run away, to find their mother. A taxi-driver who knew them, saw the boys on the road and took them to the address where their mother was living. When she saw Grub’s condition, she took him to the hospital where he was admitted for two weeks. Out of hospital, he found himself living on his own as his mother had disappeared. People told him she had said she was migrating to England, but she in fact had gone to St Thomas, he was later to learn.

Bertie Cooper falls on hard times

During this time, his father fell gravely ill. Grub says some unscrupulous lawyer friends took advantage of his illness to have him sign over most of his wealth to them. From great affluence he had descended into miserable poverty and was forced to go to live with one of his sons, Sidney Cooper. Stephens returned to the address where she had left the boys at Brunswick Avenue in Spanish Town but by now had completely run out of money and the rent was in arrears. She tried to get Grub and Conroy into the Salvation Army Institute for the Blind but was unsuccessful on account of no space. The other siblings who were old enough were sent to work, but the two visually impaired children could not work and in any event were too young. Their mother sent them to live with an older brother by their father’s side, but he declined to have them. On their return to Brunswick Avenue, the landlady declared that “dem two blind one deh can’t come back in here”. “So we stayed on the sidewalk,” Grub recounts.

• More next week.