Grub Cooper: At Christmastime comes a heart — breaking story of childhood stolen
This is a republication of the story by award-winning journalist Desmond Allen, first carried in the Sunday Observer of December 26, 2004. Grub Cooper’s story is featured among 20 outstanding Jamaicans in the eponymous book, Desmond Allen’s Greatest Hits: Wondrous Tales of Extraordinary Jamaicans. Enjoy the read:
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…”
At Christmastime comes a heartbreaking story of childhood stolen. It is the story of Grub Cooper whose musical genius will warm the hearts of many Jamaicans during this Yuletide season, 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 11, 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 will today mark 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 High School. The children enjoyed all the luxuries that money could afford. They had housekeepers, at least two at any one time. Cooper (Bertie) 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”.
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, St Catherine.
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
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 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.
On a bus to nowhere
About 6:00 pm that day, the landlady’s daughter, Miss Tiny, came to them and said her mother had instructed her to put them on a bus. She was obviously upset and did not want to do it, but said she had to follow the dictates of her mother. As far as Grub could recall, their own mother did nothing to stop it.
“Miss Tiny took us and put us on a ‘Western Flyer’ bus. It was going to Kingston but we did not know where we were going. When the conductor asked for our fare, we told him we did not have any money and he said, ‘Is awright, don’t worry’.”
Nightfall had descended and when the bus reached Greenwich Town, the conductor deposited the boys on the street and drove off. They had not eaten all day and were starving. Alone in the dark, they began to walk…to nowhere in particular. They did not know when they would see their mother or siblings again or what would happen to them.
This was 1955. As they walked slowly, aimlessly along the slum community, having no clue as to where they were or where they were going, a Good Samaritan saw them. The man had noticed the two small boys wandering the streets in the night and figured something was wrong. He walked up to them and asked where they were going. When he heard their story, he bought them something to eat then took them to the nearby Greenwich Town Police Station.
Mother could not be found
At the station, the cops on duty signed them in and put them on a long bench in the guardroom. Tired, they fell asleep immediately on the hard bench. Next morning they were given breakfast of cornbread and a cup of bush tea — the same breakfast given to the inmates in the police lock-up. Later, two cops who Grub remembers only as Louis, the driver and Basille, his female partner, began a fruitless search for their mother. When they could not find her, they took Grub and Conroy, first to Alpha Boys Home, then to Tredegar Park Boys Home and finally to Maxfield Park Children’s Home. Grub believes they were refused because of their sight impairment. The homes were not adequately equipped. Neither were they juvenile delinquents fit for approved schools. They were taken back to Greenwich Town Police Station to spend another night, while the officers figured out what to do with them the next day.
Next morning, the cops took them to Half-Way-Tree Police Station. This night they slept on a trunk with documents in a front room. They got up early and later were taken to the juvenile court on the same premises. The presiding judge, Justice Nash, listened keenly to their story. Inside his heart was breaking for them. Poor little things, he muttered to himself. What could he do to help them? He did not want them to sleep another night on the hard surfaces. He racked his brain and came up with an idea. He’d send them to the Rio Cobre Approved School where they would be safe.
At the Rio Cobre institution two or three days after, Principal Titus accepted Grub and Conroy and separated them from the general population of boys, many of whom were known to be violent. He tried to get them into a primary school in Spanish Town, but again the sight problems defeated that attempt. They spent a total of four months at Rio Cobre.
Miss Tiny comes calling
Miss Tiny had been having sleepless nights ever since she put the boys on that bus to Kingston. She often wondered what had happened to them and her conscience pricked her violently. She knew her mother was wrong to put out the boys and worse putting them on a bus, in a sense, banishing them to nowhere. This night as she thought about them, the tears began to flow and she could not stop them. Sleep did not come until near dawn and when she finally dozed off, it was only to awake shortly after. But during the sleepless hours, she had come up with a plan. She would track down the boys. Wherever they were, she would find them, she vowed silently.
Grub and Conroy did not know whether to be happy or sad when they saw that the lady who had come to see them at Rio Cobre was Miss Tiny. She expressed her regret at what had happened to them and her joy at seeing them again. On a subsequent visit, she brought her brother, Gilbert Rhodes, who was also very displeased with the way his mother had treated the boys. Their own mother (Stephens) never came and Grub says it might be that she did not know where to find them. In their little hearts, they decided to forgive Miss Tiny.
New life and hope with the Salvation Army
One day, they were taken back to the juvenile court where the judge this time recommended that they be taken to Salvation Army Institute for the Blind which was then at 19 ½ Slipe Road in Kingston. Grub recalls that a white gentleman came for them and took them to the institute. There they were put in a dormitory with 12 or so other blind or partially blind children. The place was clean and meals were certain. In fact, life here was as normal as it could be in the circumstances. “We began to realise how miserable our life was before,” Grub can now laugh. The manager of the institute, Captain Bernard Wilks, had a son Grub’s age and he ended up getting toys for the first time.
That night Grub did not fall asleep easily. So much had changed so suddenly. His mind drifted back to Linstead where he had seen his life change from one of affluence to desperate poverty, after his mother stormed out of the home. He recalled that one of the last scenes he had witnessed and which would remain with him was a nasty fight between his mother and father in the street. That was the day she walked out. His history of his father was sketchy, but he had learnt that after losing his wealth, he had ended up in jail. He still yearned to see his mother and other siblings again.
Grub looked across the room at his older brother, Conroy, and saw that the scowl he had been wearing on his face these last few days had given way to a slight smile. That told him that Conroy, too, had sensed the change. As sleep finally overcame him, Grub somehow knew that tomorrow a new dawn would rise and he would awake to new hope, a new beginning. What he did not know was that the new life he had been given would eventually lead to spectacular fame, if not fortune.
For the conclusion of this incredible Grub Cooper story, see Desmond Allen’s Greatest Hits: Wondrous Tales of Extraordinary Jamaicans, available on Amazon and locally at Urban Books and Publishers — the cutest little bookshop in town — 13 Dominica Drive, New Kingston, or contact the author at desmondallen’email@example.com