ALTHOUGH Oni Agatha Peart Ellis will celebrate her 100th birthday on July 12, she still has vivid memories of her childhood. Those memories, though, are not pleasant, because, as she puts it, she was treated like a slave who was not afforded the opportunity of a good education.
Instead, Ellis said, she was forced out of school to work for a household of 11, after the death of her mother when she was nine years old. “I didn’t have any enjoyment as a child because it wasn’t so bright with the woman that I was living with,” Ellis told the Sunday Observer.
“Because I didn’t have any relatives I had to be satisfied. I had to work very hard, and attend school less. “She had nine sons, no daughter. So I had to work right through and all of them were people who worked in the field.
I had to go and cook for each of them in the field. Then I had to cook at home, wash, iron, go to market and do all sorts of things. I used to work very hard. I was just like a nineyear- old slave, but because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, nobody, no relative, I had to be content with myself, so I lived with her until I had my first child. I was 26 when I left,” Ellis said.
Ellis said she was born in Clarendon and lived there with her mother until she was nine years old when she moved to Barton’s, St Catherine. It was shortly after moving that Ellis went to live with the woman in the community. A few weeks later, her mother died. But even after leaving Barton’s Elementary School, which she attended infrequently, Ellis said she was not allowed to work for herself, but had to continue slaving for the large household without compensation.
“I had to do everything. They worked me hard, man,” said Ellis, who revealed that she did not know her father as he died before she was born. Ellis had five sisters and three brothers, all of whom have died. She explained, too, that there was one sister whom she never knew but who heard about her and came looking for her. That sister, she said, asked the woman with whom Ellis was living to let Ellis go with her, but her guardian refused. They lost touch.
However, when Ellis turned 26 she again made contact with her sister and she and her young daughter moved in with her in Cedar Mount, another rural St Catherine community. Ellis’ sister then told her that she had a present for her and introduced her to her husband’s cousin, Philanche Ellis. The two fell in love, had six children together and became husband and wife.
“After that she became a hustler,” Ellis’ second child Marjrianna Ellis Richards told the Sunday Observer from their Point Hill home in St Catherine last Thursday. “Her schooling wasn’t up to scratch so she did higglering, she would go and buy things and sold at the market to raise her children.
Her husband didn’t have a skill either, so he did farming, and she would buy and sell at Coronation Market.” After she got married, Ellis moved with her husband to Lemon Hall, a short distance away. “He was very kind. He didn’t have any trade but he worked in the field and that is how we got through,” Ellis said. Unfortunately, her husband died in 1978. Richards described her mother as kind and considerate. “She is a wonderful mother. She is a kind lady,” Richards said.
“She thinks about her family very, very much. She loves her children, and she worked very hard to take care of us. Although my father was there, she did her part. She would go to the market and sell and throw her partner and that is how she really achieve things for herself. She would go to Old Harbour Bay, even though she was living in Lemon Hall, and she would buy fish and come and sell the fish. “She would also go in the hills of Clarendon and buy yam on her mule. Two days after, it’s back in Old Harbour or Kingston at the Coronation Market selling,” Richards said.
Richards said that whenever her mother was going to church she would not leave any of her seven children behind. “Everybody had to go to church around her and you just couldn’t skylark,” Richards said. “She would beat. You had to be well disciplined, so people in the community would tell her ‘Miss Gatha you have some set of children, they don’t let you down’.”
Richards said that her mother dedicated her life to caring for others and took care of her mother-in-law, father-in-law and her husband’s sister until they died. Above all, she said, her mother was a Christian who dedicated her life to the Lord shortly after getting married. Ellis said that it is the goodness of the Lord that has afforded her the privilege of living so long.
“He keeps me and guides me. He protects me. I couldn’t keep myself until now because I have passed through plenty sickness and He healed me. The Lord healed me,” Ellis said. Suzie Richards-Turner, Ellis’ grandaughter, told the Sunday Observer that her grandma has a wealth of experience and has taught her a lot. “She is a loving grandma. She always have a story to tell, always,” Richards- Turner said. “She gets along well with young people.
Also, she always wants persons to read a scripture for her. Anyone who visits has to read from the Bible, and she always has a word of encouragement. She has a wealth of experience. There is so much that we have learnt from her and continue to learn,” she said. Ellis, who worships at Point Hill Seventhday Church of God Reform, said that up to a few months ago she was still able to see clearly and read on her own.
However, her eyes have now become “dark” and she is no longer able to read as she would like. Today, Ellis has 46 grandchildren, 92 greatgrandchildren, eight great, great grandchildren and one great, great, great grandchild.
TOMORROW: Read Oni Ellis’ memories of Jamaica.