When my mom and her siblings would talk to or about their mother they would often refer to her as Tere (short for her nickname, Teresa). Their cousins also called their mothers by their (nick)names. Weird that they didn’t just call their moms some version of “Mom,” right?
Nonetheless, there was someone else that my mother, her siblings, and their cousins called Mamá: their grandmother, Catherine “Edelanive” Mondesi. Though Catherine’s actual children were Julio (a.k.a. Papa Gil), Clemintina (a.k.a. Clemina), Fide (real name: Maria Sebastiana), Tere (real name: Maria Anastasia), and Isa (real name: Elizabeth Juana) it was Catherine’s grandchildren that knew her so affectionately as Mamá.
I never quite understood this and would periodically ask my mom why she called her mother Tere and called her grandmother Mamá. For my own self-interested reasons I would often follow that up with an inquiry as to why I was not allowed to call my mother by her name. I can’t say I ever got a clear answer to either of those questions but I’m sure it’s some West Indian cultural thing that faded out with my generation.
No matter what you call Catherine, it’s always been clear that she was an important person – perhaps the most important person - in the lives and memories of my mother and everyone else who called her Mamá. I don’t know a lot about her other than that she was from St. Lucia, she was the matriarch of the family, she always covered her long hair with a kerchief tied in the style of women from her island, and that her last name was always known in the family to be Mondesi. As far as her first name is concerned, she’s been referred to as Catherine, Catarina, Catalina, and Edelanive. Since we don’t have much information about her life before she came to Panama this serves as something of a dilemma when trying to track down birth certificates and other records. Nonetheless, I finally gave it a try.
In March I found an email contact for the National Archives of St. Lucia and wrote to request a search for records pertaining to a Catherine-or-Catarina-or-Catalina-or-Edelanive Mondesi born on or around January 1, 1877. People in the family were confident her birthday was January 1st as they had celebrated her on that day until she passed away in the 1960s. I wasn’t as confident about the year; I lifted it from a document my mother had, the exact origin of which she does not remember. This document also listed my great-grandfather’s name, birthdate, and island of origin (Joseph Louis Colomb, 8 Oct 1857, also from St. Lucia).
After several emails back and forth the lovely people at the National Archives of St. Lucia reported that they did not have much luck in finding records that matched the information I had for my great-grandfather. However, they did find a baptism record for “a Catherine born Jan 1, 1877 child of Clementine Jules.” The archive research assistant asked, “Do you think that’s her?” I really couldn’t be sure. I excitedly wrote back, “Could be her! We don’t know anything about her parents names so I can’t say Clementine is or isn’t the right name for the mother. So the last name is Jules, not Mondesi? Was this Catherine born in or near Soufriere?” The research assistant responded by explaining that this was the only Catherine on record to have been born in Soufriere on that date and it was possible that she had taken the name Mondesi (she wrote “Mondesir,” actually) from her father, who was not identified on the baptism record, later on. I asked for a copy of the record to be sent to me, mailed out my little check for $25, and waited for it to come in the mail.
Finally, an envelope from the National Archives of St. Lucia arrived last week. I opened it carefully and tried to use my intermediate knowledge of Spanish to understand the original French. Of course I tapped into additional resources with the help of Google Translate and my wonderful French friend Sylvine. We arrived at the following translation:
The year eighteen hundred and seventy seven, on January 28, we the undersigned court have baptised the child Catherine, natural child of Clementine Jules, in Zenien, born on January 1st of this year – Simon Joseph Godfather, Godmother Catherine Jean Jacques, who did not sign.
As I wrote to Sylvine when I thanked her for correcting the Google translation, “We don’t have anything concrete to say that it’s definitely my great-grandmother, but there’s nothing to rule it out either!” There are a couple of pieces of information that allow me to be hopeful that this just might be Mamá. Keeping in mind the mother’s name on the baptism record is Clementine Jules, is it a coincidence that our Catherine named her first son Julio and her first daughter Clemintina? I hope that interviewing my great-aunt Isa, Catherine’s last living child, next month will help to connect more of these dots.