January 9, 2009
A tribute to Mary Josephine Banfield

by Dr. A. Cecil Cyrus 09.JAN.09

It was one of Shakespeare’s characters who lamented that “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” It is a sad fact that within the past few weeks we have lost to death several friends and acquaintances, an occurrence which I cannot recall noting before in all my 45 years in St Vincent. Today, we are here to say farewell to yet another of St. Vincent’s upstanding , revered citizens, Mary Josephine Banfield. It is uncanny that husband and wife should die on the same day, Christmas Eve: Josephine at 5:15 a.m. and Leon at midday, 8 years apart. It was as if they were dating all over again!

In April 1964, four months after we came to live in St. Vincent, my wife and I were intrigued by the interest and anticipatory excitement in an event unique to St. Vincent, namely, the double wedding of two sisters to two friends, Leon Banfield and Josephine, and Chris Gonsalves and Margaret Sardine. I had taught both grooms at the Boys’ Grammar School. Within two years a friendship sprang up between the Banfields and us, the Cyruses, as we became neighbours at Montrose in 1966. Then we had the joy of not only monitoring Josephine’s two pregnancies, but of delivering her firstborn, Astrid, in our Clinic in 1967, and her twins, Ann Marie and Robert, in 1976. Robert, so characteristic of the male, refused to be born so soon on the heels of his considerate sister, at 2 o’clock in the morning! He condescended to do so only after a good cursing from me, which his dad taped, unknown to me, and which provided so much fun over the years! We had the honour of being godparents to them. As our respective children grew up together, Jo and Leon became our closest friends in the course of time, and she and Kathryn were like sisters.{{more}} Their home at Indian Bay was a sanctuary from the demands of medical practice. Moreover, it was there that we first met her parents, the gracious Mrs. Ena Sardine and Mr Frank Sardine (known affectionately as Kruger), sisters Margaret and Lenore, and brothers David and Tony and their spouses. Indeed, the Banfield’s home was a great social meeting place for persons of all races and ages from many different parts of the world.

Mary Josephine Banfield was born on 16 September 1941. After attending the Girls’ High School for two years, she completed her secondary education in England, and then attended Bedford College there to study Catering. In 1964 her parents opened the Grand View Hotel, and she assisted them in its management and that of the kitchen until 1986. Thereafter, she did her own catering from home

It was Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony who noted that: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” How true this is in our St Vincent. We live in a world that thrives on the bad aspects of people’s characters, as we choose to forget the preponderance of pleasant attributes also. It is, indeed, regrettable, nay, sad that it is only when death challenges that we try to recall the good which was so obvious before, staring us in the face. It is so glaringly the right thing to do, to tell other persons of the good that we see in them, to acknowledge their righteousness when they are still alive and vibrant, and so, bring cheer to their hearts and encouragement for them to continue to sow the seeds of virtue. Yet, how many of us here today can admit to this kindly Christian attitude towards our fellowmen?

It was not long in our relationship that Kathryn and I concluded that Josephine was, indeed, the most wonderful and genuine of persons. She was a loyal friend, a sincere, simple, unsophisticated, true lady without any airs or hypocritical pretentiousness, almost self-effacing in her modesty. She was always so gracious, kind, considerate, generous and sensitive and attentive to the needs of the less fortunate. A charming hostess, she delighted so many palates with her professional, alluring lunches and especially celebrated high teas, which not only showed off her culinary and catering skills, but also endorsed the elementary fact that formal training is so vital for one’s best performance in any field of endeavour. It is not an exaggeration that Jo entertained at her house most of our personal house guests who visited from abroad, with an invitation to swim at Indian Bay and to dine later at her table. This consideration was not confined to us, but to her other friends. And so, she became well-known, admired and even loved by so many strangers to the island. I recall, as if it were yesterday, when she first entertained us to lunch, how intrigued and impressed Kathryn and I were at her unique, attractive decoration of the dining table with ordinary, simple breadfruit leaves. I must confess that we were not long in copying this free type of table decoration!

Her rum punch was renowned for its near-lethal uppercut. And I speak as one of its victims, as I recall Monday, 1st May 1973, May Day, when I and three others who will remain unnamed, drank generously of this seemingly innocent, enticing potion, and then the world suddenly became a wonderland, a place where we felt no pain. That single experience sufficed for the rest of my life at the Banfield’s, as I took evasive action when that beverage was offered. One experience was enough. Never me again! While we are on the subject of food and drink, it is only fair to share with you the fact that Jo had a very healthy appetite, did not bolt her food, but took her time to ingest it, still allowing herself time and space for second helpings!

Despite her full-time jobs of being attentive daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother, yet, Jo found time to engage happily in service to the community. She was a member of the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army for more than 20 years. She was a founder-member of Soroptimist International of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for 21 years. As late as December 2008 she sold many tickets for their annual Cocktails and Carols, telephoning my wife repeatedly for more tickets. This, despite the sad fact that she was too ill to attend the function herself. What greater manifestation of selflessness, commitment and loyalty could there be? In addition, she was pleased to help whenever called upon to lend a helping hand in any other community matters.

In her heyday Jo was a stunning beauty whose tall, attractive slenderness, elegance and regal bearing propelled her to the prestigious annual national title of Carnival Queen in 1962. She used to amaze with her exceptional memory for birthdays of not only her family but of acquaintances, and also for other special events. Everyone accepted the finality of her information on all such matters whenever there was doubt.

I was thrilled when I first heard her husband, Leon, refer to, or called her by the lovely nickname of “Mother Goose.” From that day onwards, long ago, that was how I addressed her by this nickname of endearment, for that was what it was, a terse summation and appreciation of the many roles she played in life, especially as a loving, caring daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and friend.

She did fulfil her allotted roles in life, and had the supreme joy and assurance of knowing that she and Leon had ensured their physical immortality by having their three children. Moreover, she must have felt quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that, mercifully, she had lived long enough to savour the near-heavenly joy of five grandchildren to Astrid, Robert and spouses, and to see her eldest grandchild, Sabrina, attend the university of the West Indies, so as to equip and fortify herself with that greatest of assets, EDUCATION, that powerful emancipator, the prevention and treatment of especially poverty and many of the other ills of this world. We hope that Ann Marie and Kyle will, in due course, contribute to this physical immortality of the Banfields with one or more offspring.

Occasionally, I lament the seeming unfairness of life, and challenge the fact that so many of the good citizens around us are taken from us so untimely, while some others without virtue are spared for seemingly disproportionately long periods. But, as John Greenleaf Whittier reprimands in one of my favourite hymns, a philosophical treatise of soothing reassurances, rock-like faith and profound thoughts:

“Who fathoms the eternal thought?

Who talks of scheme and plan?

The Lord is God! He needeth not

The poor device of man.

And if my heart and flesh are weak

To bear an untried pain,

The bruised reed He will not break,

But strengthen and sustain.”

It is rarely that I visit friends or acquaintances at death’s door, because I care to recall and see forever only the happy faces that I once knew. But I was impelled to pay two visits to Jo during her last four days. And, as we held hands at the first visit on the Saturday morning, I admonished her for threatening to leave the scene before we fired a grog on my birthday on 6 January. She replied with that characteristic wordless, charming smile as she squeezed my hand, gestures which communicated her acceptance of the imminence of the end. I left her bedside comforted that she was fully prepared for the hovering inevitable. And so, a second visit on Tuesday, though distressing, caused us less pain, despite the fact that she was not aware of the presence of Kathryn and me. It was amazing how she faced up to that killer disease for several years, with true Christian calm, dignity and fortitude, especially during her many visits to the hospital for repeated blood transfusions. There was no griping nor wallowing in self-pity. Her ever-present calm prevailed at all times, even as she became increasingly dependant on others around her for help.

Farewell, dear friend, our beloved Jo. You have fulfilled your life’s mission, lighting the paths of all those who knew you, enriching us all by the righteousness of your life. At last, you and Leon will be as one again, as we, other puny mortals, linger yet a little longer before we join you both in that eternal peace, quiet and love that heaven offers. You will be forever immortal as you continue to live in the hearts of all those to whom you endeared yourself, for the greatest worth of a man or woman is the perpetuation of love and respect for him or her.