On Mothers’ Day – Remembering Ma Ursula’s Bakes – A Queen of “Recess” Industry
Gabriel Christian, Esq.
In the unsteady aftermath of the Covid 19 pandemic I have reached back into the brighter days of memory. Days of a simpler, better and more stable time on our beloved island home of Dominica.
One of the sturdy elements of that memory is that rescued from our days at the Roseau Mixed Infant School of the 1960s and the legendary ladies who came at recess time to sell eats. In those days, our school principal was one Floss Christian, popularly known by all who knew her as “Aunty Floss.” Be it known that even people who were not related to her would call her “Aunty Floss.” How that happened I do not know.
We, as children, called those treats or snacks we ate at break-time “recess.” In those days we had no KFC, pizza, Mars bars, potato chips or M&Ms. The most formidable “recess” lady of that era was Ma Ursula of Cork Street who lived across from our school.
Ma Ursula was of a rich deep brown hue, with slightly bowed but sturdy legs. She was an ample woman; buxom. Her face always wore a beautiful ebony sheen from which gleamed the single gold tooth which was a mark of some high standing in the culture of our island at that time. To have a gold tooth marked you as a person of some substance or that you had traveled to Panama, Curacao, or Aruba.
Ma Ursula’s home, which doubled as the recess factory of the day, was always humming when we went by to buy our recess. The home itself was recessed within a cocoon of rusting corrugated fencing and wood which made up the sides of yard enclosures for the modest homes in Roseau of that time. On the path to the home, I recall a dirt beaten alley dotted with small river stones deposited by the Roseau River which once made its way along that pathway over the centuries.
On approach to Ma Ursula’s nicely appointed little house, which was gaily painted in green and yellow, one could hear the sizzling of a trying pan and the clatter of cooking pots. She always wore a nice working dress and mostly had slippers on her feet. She would be busy cooking up some guava jam, coconut tablet or frying bakes.
Ma Ursula’s bakes were fried flour dough, light, savory and delicious – oft times with pockets of air within the crispy delicacy. The more air pockets one’s bakes had, the higher the quality was according to our thinking back then. Other vendors of “recess” sold cold dumpy bakes. Ma Ursula’s bakes were prized for always being fresh, crisp, and delicious. She also made delicious coconut squares and peppermint sweets square with a red dot at the center.
She would say “How many bakes you want, little Christian? ” Ma Ursula knew my name as our father was a fire officer at the Dominican Fire Brigade Headquarters which was around the corner on Bath Road. I could only afford one bake usually; thrusting my penny into her hand. A bakes (we always used the plural form “bakes’) was about a penny – which in our day was two cents not one cent as is now the case in the US. Bake in hand, one would bite it quick, lest a bake-less classmate pounced on you to mop you. To “mop” was to beg another classmate for a piece of recess. I had to share my bakes with my sister Esther who attended mixed school with me, so I often had none to spare.
Another element of precious memories of the “recess” era revolve around the sense of community as personified by Ma Ursula and her gracious manner. It also spoke to her kindness that she would often lend us a US Army knapsack that somehow, she had gotten hold of. I was told that either a son or relative of hers was in the US Army and had sent her what was a fine green military knapsack, with sturdy canvas straps and rivets.
We would borrow that bag from her whenever we went to camp. The first to borrow that bag was our oldest brother Wellsworth, who attended Saint Mary’s Academy (SMA) with her older son Celaire. Wellsworth was one of the first SMA cadets. He was therefore a regular camper in need of a good knapsack.
Ma Ursula also had a sister who was of a lighter complexion and who cooked up recess too. She was equally pretty, smiling and kind. But Ma Ursula had the name and was the showpiece of that yard where she ran her “recess” factory. There were three other friendly boys other than Celaire who grew amidst that zone of delightful industry; Kelvin, Rennick and a younger one with memorable eyes whose name escapes me. They all attended the prestigious Saint Mary’s Academy, if I can recall.
Stores in Dominica in those days did not sell knapsacks of that kind owned by Ma Ursula, if at all. So, it was a high honor and privilege to be allowed use of Ma Ursula’s backpack or knapsack. Such sharing among our close-knit community was emblematic of the time. As said earlier, our oldest brother Wellsworth at that time was a Saint Mary’s Academy Sea Scout and later a cadet. Later, when I became a cadet at the Dominica Grammar School in 1972, I continued the tradition and would borrow the knapsack or what they now call a backpack. As a cadet at the Grammar School, I climbed Mount Anglais with that knapsack and trekked up to the Boiling Lake with it strapped to my back, navigating over huge muddy tree roots and seemingly impenetrable jungle.
After each use we would lovingly and carefully wash that gift of a bag kindly shared with us. Cleaned up nicely, we would dutifully return that prized possession safe and sound to Ma Ursula. I wonder whatever became of it.
Today, we have Kentucky Fried Chicken and I hear that we have a Subway sandwich shop in Roseau and Ma Ursula is no more. However, I think we have lost much in the way of local industry, grace, and kindness – one toward another.
Ma Ursula and the food vendors who served masses of school children and the public in that era were our titans of industry. They were our symbols of commercial wizardry by and for the common folk. They brought us pride and joy through feeding us with their culinary delights born of local products and native culinary ingenuity.
One day we can have a more modern factory making local treats as we did back then. That kind of self-reliance is going to be needed to survive the fallout from the COVID 19 pandemic. We cannot subsist off imported chicken and foreign made treats all our lives. As self-reliance advocate Marcus Garvey and our own traditional bakers and recess makers taught us, we must learn to do for self. We must seek to emulate those like Ma Ursula, and others of her noble generation, who did so much with so little.
Indeed, I have fond memories of when we lived in the reign of our own local royalty. In Dominica we had our Queen Mothers who did much with little and gave us the pride of industry on our own beloved island. On Mother’s Day 2023 we remember Ma Ursula, our own mothers of modest means who stretched the loaves of bread and fried fish (as Christ did) to feed and nurture us. Let us always honor and remember them. In so doing we can prepare ourselves for the resurrection of our best hopes for Dominica and a better world.
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I thank you for such a wonderful tribute to our deceased and dearly beloved Mom and Aunt on the celebration of Mother’s Day 2023.
However, for clarification purposes, Ma Ursula is the same person/lady profoundly known as Miss Marie to most students who attended the SMA during the ’60s and ’70s.
The name Miss Marie derived from the name of our eldest brother, David Marie, aka Midget was also a student in the ’60s.
Many thought she was married and greeted her as Miss Marie with great respect and admiration.
She was the mother of Kelvin and Rennick Thomas.
Meanwhile, her only sister, Agatha Norris, was the mother of Clifford Celaire, aka Bala, Mitchel Paul, and deceased Michael Paul, aka Soundproof by Calypso fame and Ronald Paul.
Gabe, there’s one crucial element not mentioned regarding collaborative work and industry.
The basket used to sell the delicacies was handcrafted by the school of people with disabilities at the time, which your Mom managed…
Can you clarify something for me?
When I started to read this article from
my friend I thought he was referring to Ms Marie who used to sell bakes and tablets at the SMA in the 60’s . I was a student there from 1962 – 1967.
Gabriel lost me for a while when he described Ma Ursula. However when the names of Celaire and yours were mentioned are we talking about the same lady?
Please let me know as I still recall how we used to wait for recess to run to get our bakes
Miss Marie is Ma Ursula..
Good evening my dear friend.
I am in Chicago visiting the grandkids.
I have just finished reading your article about the bakes lady. As usual I enjoyed reading it and you are so gifted with an ability to describe any story and to put it into words.
I got a little confused about the lady you were describing. However when I read the names of Celaire and Renick I thought about Ms Marie who used to sell her bakes and tablets at the front gate of the SMA. Yes these were good old times and yes some students would wait at the very end to buy their bakes and actually “take off” to avoid other students wanting to beg them
for a piece. What good nostalgic moments – Authentic!
i was so curious about the person selling the bakes that I had to ask Renick for confirmation. And ergo I got the answer in a jiffy.
Best Regards to the family and keep on doing the good works of illuminating us in your writings.
Nice memories Gabe!! My dad had one of those backpacks but we called it a haversack back then. Thought it was England but I imagine the American military had something similar. Just looked it up. The term is of French origin.
Great memories of our prized recess time.
The tradition continues in my community. Every Sunday morning the men, young and old still look forward to buying their bakes and Accra. One can still get tablet, coconut cheese, peppermint and ginger on any day. Normally orders can be placed for any amount to be sent overseas for family and friends. So the legacy continues. Thanks for sharing the memories
All is not lost. Though the cost has moved up to $1 each which is ‘the norm’ in these times.
Wow Gabu .. you’ve gone and done it again. So many emotions reading this article. We lived two streets away from Ma Ursula and you also remember on of the chaskòt to Astaphans passed through her yard do it was route well traveled by us. Bala was the Coach and defacto Manager of Kensbro United, the only team I played for during my whole football career in DA so I was always at their home. Life throws a lot of curveballs because two years ago after doing an Ancestry DNA test it turned out that Coach Bala and I are first cousins, children of twoo siblings. Long story .
Hey you forgot the twin boys Michael and Mitchel. And the kid with the memorable eyes was Junior.. he died young from sicklecell anemia but not before pioneering the “cut-tshirt” fashion craze that took DA by storm. Somehow he also was savy enough to convince me that sticking a needle through my earlobe to put an earing would be a good idea and “look enhancer” to my “dwòl” personality. AND somehow I believed
Steelpan who are you exactly?
Once again you had me smiling after reading your article on Ma Ursula on cork street, however she was not the mother of Celaire but his aunt, celaire mother which you describe was Agatha and she had Clifford celaire, Michael and Mitchell Paul(twins) and Ronald, Ursula had an older son name David, followed by Kelvin and Rennick Thomas (with Tilly Thomas). Your description of the shacourt leading to Astaphans was right on point and everything else
This article just brought back so many sweet memories.
At the SMA in those days when school ended late in the afternoons we used to go for lunch at Mondesire whose shop was next to the Green Pharmacy now owned by the Jolly’s.
At Mondesire their lime squash was so quenching and authentic as well as having their own special sandwich.
In those days too we used to go to the Eric’s bakery to get butterflaps and other special cakes.
Those were the good old days and sometimes somehow even being in a different place we yearn to have these delicacies all over again.
Oh, so sweet memories. Gabriel thank you for bringing out this good sense of fellowship in us.
When I started to read the article I instantly thought that Gabriel was referring to Ms. Marie. He continued to mention the name of Ma Ursula and then I said this is referring to another person. However as I continued reading and saw the names of Celaire and Renick being mentioned I sensed that I was not wrong. Immediately I sent a message to Renick and he confirmed the obvious.
Oh Ms. Marie how sweet you were in the service you delivered to us boys at the SMA. I was a student there from 1962 – 1967 and we feasted on your bakes and tablets.
Gabe you were right. Coming from
out of Roseau in those days and not being blessed with financial means we resorted to hanging out with those students who could afford to buy more of the bakes .Some of us waited until the recess bell was about to ring to end the period to rush to get the bakes to avoid less students begging off you.
Love it. Nice piece, Gabe.
That is better.I remember a lady coming to the Grammar school to sell bakes(johnn cakes) in the 70s.I do not know if it was the same Ma.Ursula,but that lady was an expert in making bakes.I don’t how the lady would get the bakes to appear so big,and one bite the bakes would get flat like an exercise book page.Dr Curvin Ferreira,Allan Paul,Nelson Pierre,Larry Bardouille,Lockhart Sebastien,Felix Gregoire,theBruney Brothers,Felix Wilson to name a few were all victims of that bakes.Today we would right in calling it the Smart Bakes.
Stop wasting your time. Go to school!!
And we had Miss Marie, Celaire’s late mother, at the St. Mary’s Academy selling her darling sweet bakes and cheese cakes as well, back in the seventies..
Bakes and cocoa tea, (kako), was (about 95% of the time), our main breakfast at home, during my primary school days, and i really enjoyed it!! In fact i would give up bread for bakes. Guess as a child it tasted nicer. We, (my brother and i), would supplement that, with all sorts of fruits before and after school; ripe bananas, guava, grapefruits, “pois do”, apricot, etc, etc. We were not affluent, but those days were really enjoyable!!
As an adult, i still enjoy my hot bakes and cocoa tea at home. We did not know what is KFC, SUBWAY, etc, etc, etc,..! L