Monday, April 15, 2024

A trailblazer


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Ena Collymore-Woodstock’s life of service is a priceless inheritance, which two generations of her family have firmly grasped and are expending.

The 100-year-old Jamaican, a retired lawyer and judge is seeing her daughter Marguerite Woodstock-Riley and her granddaughter Amanda Riley follow in her footsteps, and even though she quips “I feel it is time we had a doctor now,” she is quietly gratified that they are inspired and influenced by her example.

The centenarian, who lives between Barbados and Jamaica, remains active, though she walks with some assistance. Engaging her in conversation, it is not only her power of recall that leaves the listener in awe, but the electrifying spirit of a woman who has blazed many a trail and laughs about her journey all the while she is recounting it.

“I must give you this joke,” she said, as she began to tell the story about landing her first job.

“The Government Service (in Jamaica) used to take you in up to age 20 and I was going to be 20 and I had not yet applied.” In the rush to secure work before that deadline, she responded to an advertisement for a male clerk at the Court office in Spanish Town, Jamaica.

“Up to now I can’t stop laughing,” said the still attractive mother and grandmother whose self-made-up face and well-coiffed hair belie her age. 

“Only men were in the office in those days and when I turned up, everybody was looking at the application.” Still laughing, she tells about the reactions by people in that office as well as the others on the outside peeping in to see “this young miss who applied for the job of male clerk” in the court office.

Her job was a typist and again she laughed, relating how: “They gave me cases to type and asked me ‘is it all right’?” because one of the cases was called rape. I said ‘no, everything is all right’, but I did not know what rape meant.”

Collymore-Woodstock has recorded several other firsts. She was among the first women from the Caribbean to join the British Army during World War II. That small group of women went to Britain from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.

Life in the camp where they lived in 1943, along with several other soldiers was rough and tough but this soldier from Jamaica braved it. Functioning in a man’s world back in Jamaica, on arrival in England, she made it clear to her superiors that she had no intention of returning to a typewriter. She wanted action; to be out there with the men.

She got her wish and was trained and worked as a radar operator, often being not far from the front lines.

After three years’ service with the British Army, she pursued her dream of becoming a lawyer by entering Grays Inn and earning her law degree. It was the one thing she had wanted to do from those days at elementary school in Jamaica.

At Grays Inn, she distinguished herself as the only female student on the debating team and also as the only woman serving on the executive of the Students’ Union.

On retirement from the bench in Jamaica at age 60, the woman hailed as “the smiling barrister’ and the “petticoat on the bench” when she first took up duties in Kingston in 1950, was lauded as “the lady who gave efficiency, dedication and devotion to duty.”

Many Jamaicans remembered then, the curiosity attached to having the first female magistrate sitting on a bench in Jamaica.

But Collymore-Woodstock had no difficulty with being in that position. With a chuckle she said: “I locked up just as much as the men.” But there was also a lot of compassion. She allowed no one to see the tears she fought to hold back that may have given away her sensitivity, when presiding over cases in juvenile court especially when she was listening to evidence about physical and mental cruelty inflicted on children.

“Fighting tears was a problem” she confessed, but went on to explain: “I did not want to see in the papers next day ‘Juvenile Court Judge cries.”

In the post-retirement years, Collymore-Woodstock served as a judge in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in Anguilla.

With her mother smiling radiantly, beside her, Marguerite Woodstock-Riley talked about the unspoken influence of “Mummy” who never pushed her in one direction or another. “With everything, you learnt by example, because we actually never had a conversation that you should do this, or you should do that.”

Like her mother, Woodstock-Riley became a lawyer and a Soroptimist. Unconsciously, she was influenced by the pioneering life of the woman who as a Soroptimist, was very strong on issues and once crusaded for equal rights for children born out of wedlock and their maintenance as well as equal pay for women.

“Sometimes I have done something and I look back and ask myself ‘why am I doing this?” Then consciously she traces it back to her mother.

“Mummy was excellent in that way in living by example and not by dictate. But it worked, we all got involved.” Woodstock- Riley has two older siblings, an artist sister and architect brother who are also heavily engaged in community activities.

Woodstock-Riley has also made her mark in Soroptimism and has held the prestigious position of president of Soroptimist international as well as heading Soroptimist in Barbados.

She attributes that level of achievement to the influence of a mother who taught her children to speak out, get involved with their community, and try to make a difference, cultivate friendships and embrace family.

“I certainly learnt a balance from her because she worked extremely hard, but she always enjoyed life,” Woodstock-Riley said. “She did it all and she enjoyed it and she taught us without limitations to always think things are possible.”

That spirit of boldness and adventure is evident in 30-year-old Amanda Riley. “I did not grow up with grandma, but almost everything my mother said about her experience growing up with her mother, I have experienced growing up with mine.”

“I did not grow up in the courthouse, but I grew up in her office, watching her do her cases and she outrightly said ‘don’t do law if that is not your passion. Don’t do it because grandma did it or don’t do it because I did it.”

Amanda, who has been a lawyer for five years now and has joined Soroptimists, also reflects on the joy she has seen exhibited by her own mother as she goes about her business as lawyer and Soroptimist.

“Grandma genuinely enjoyed her work and that is something that has been instilled in the grand kids” she said, with a loving gaze at her grandmother.

“I would say the giving back part is a huge theme in our family. You cannot have a full life if you are only living for yourself. You have to live for other people.” This is a profound lesson passed on by a grandmother who possesses “a selflessness” she has imparted to two generations of her progeny.

Her daughter and granddaughter concur she is the matriarch whose life
has been full, because the centenarian herself continues to display “an amazing joy of life.” (GC)


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