Bertha Williams stands out by the way she dresses. A short-sleeve white starched cotton blouse, buttoned down the front, covers her flat chest. She tucks it into a funneled forest green drill skirt that flattens her behind. It hangs four inches below her knees like a canopy above her large feet. Unlike the other teachers who parade along the corridors in high heels and nylon stockings, she wears flat-heel black shoes with lacings and white cotton socks rolled down to her ankles.

Diane Blackman, who sits behind me in class, nicknamed her ‘Ole-Maid Bertha.’

“Wha’ man would want to marry she?” whispers Diane. She loves to shock the rest of us first-formers with her grown-up remarks.

At St. George’s High School for girls, Miss Williams is the tallest person by a head. She is not skinny or fat. Her short graying black hair clings to her head in tight curls. To my twelve-year-old eyes, she looks as old as my forty-eight-year-old grandmother. She even has the same Limacol toilet lotion smell.

Miss Bertha Williams is our art teacher. The art room is her territory. Located in the west wing on the top floor of our two-storey wooden school building, the art room shares space with the staff room and library. Hushed voices vaporize in the corridor, as the school rule dictates. In the spacious art room, her work in progress stands on an easel near the windows in the front corner of the room. Other unframed finished work stand on the floor against the wall.

As we file into the room for our first art class, Miss Williams greets us with a smile. An easel, covered with a huge pad of white drawing paper, stands in front of the class. Tiny bottles of watercolor paints of all colors, a large bottle half-filled with water, and lots of brushes lie on a small, square, paint-stained wooden table. I have a good view from my desk in the third row to the left, near the windows. The glass windows—filling the upper half of the wall—flood the art room with natural light.

“Drawing and painting are skills you can learn,” she says, “What’s more you can have fun doing it.” She smiles and patrols the aisles between the four rows of thirty-two desks.

My first paint set sits on the desk, just above my painting book—opened at the first page. The flat tin case holds two rows of eight tiny square cakes of watercolor paints separated by a shallow trough with a paint brush. A jam bottle half-filled with water stands on the right. I follow the sound of her voice, soaking in her words. I am eager to arm my brush with color and attack the blank sheet.

Back in front of the class, she says, “Our first lesson will be a simple landscape. Wet your brush and cover it with light green paint.”

With a long-handle brush, she paints a green line midway across the white sheet on her easel. “Don’t worry if you can’t get a straight line.”

“Which color green should I use, Miss?” Bernadette Robertson says from the front row. “My set has three different greens.”

Just like Bernadette. Everybody gotta know she got the best paint set.

“Use the lightest green,” says Miss Williams.

“Wha’ the line for, Miss?” Diane Blackman says, from the desk behind me.

“The line separates earth from sky. Okay girls, let’s start with the sky.”

Step by step, Miss Williams helps us to create a sky with three large fluffy clouds and an open field with tall grass and yellow daisies. Between each step, she checks on our progress, admires our work, and helps where needed.

It’s fun! The best class I have had since starting high school. I admire my work. My blank sheet of paper is now a new world of sunshine, open air, and lightness. I jump when I hear her voice behind me.

“Good work,” she says to me, with a smile. I blush—speechless. Diane clears her throat. Miss Williams moves on.

“Girls, when you’re finished, empty the water in the sink wash out your bottle and leave it to drain.”
Waist-high cupboards line the windowless wall on our right. Three wash sinks punctuate the top of the cupboards lined with glossy vinyl, light cream in color.

The school bell rings.

“Don’t close your paint books, girls. Let the paint dry first. Practice blending colors at home. Next Wednesday, we'll add a tree and two children playing."

At home, I repaint the scene six times to get it perfect.

“You wasting the paints,” my stepfather says. “I can’t buy a paint set for you every week. You think we have a money tree in the backyard?”

“Let her paint,” says my mother. “Aren’t you glad she find something she like? Don’t worry, I’ll buy the paints.”

“You spoiling her,” he says and walks away.

I hate it when they start fighting because of me. I was seven when my father, Henry Sinclair, died from tuberculosis. He was a primary school teacher at Kingston Methodist School. I miss our adventures to the seawall, the Botanical Gardens, the zoo, and our visits to Grandma and Grandpa Sinclair in his hometown, Mahaicony.

My mother, Gloria Sinclair, married Patrick Jackson two years later. She works as a saleswoman at Bookers Stores on Water Street. She met Patrick Jackson at a Bookers staff party. He is a payments clerk in the office on the top floor.

My stepfather doesn’t care about me. His two children with my mom—two-year-old Tommy and baby June—are all that matter to him. I help my mom take care of them. I read fairy tales and West Indian stories to Tommy like my dad did for me. My stepfather has no time for such things. He spends his afternoons playing cricket with his friends at the Bookers Sports Club. I can never do anything right for him. Now, I can hide the pain with blue, green, and yellow paint. I carry my father’s surname: Maureen Sinclair. I’m going be a teacher just like my dad.

As the years crawl by, Bertha Williams becomes a fixture at St. George’s High School like the old flamboyant trees that line the avenue along Main Street in Georgetown—capital of British Guiana and ‘Garden City of the Caribbean.’ Headmistresses leave and others come, bringing new rules and ideas. A new science wing swallows up half of our games field. Our leaders fight for independence. Violence erupts between East Indians and Blacks. Riots erode our peace. An 80-day general workers’ strike prevents us from going to school. Georgetown burns. Looters trudge refrigerators on their backs to their lairs. I huddle in the dark with my mom and Tommy around a transistor radio, listening to the British governor pleading for citizens to remain calm. Through it all, Bertha Williams is my secure port.

In May 1966, our country gains independence from Great Britain. Now, we are no longer British Guiana but Guyana. We stop asking God to save our Queen. We praise Guyana, our dear land of rivers and plains. We lower the Union Jack and straighten our backs with pride as the Golden Arrowhead rises to the top of the flagpole. I am sixteen years old. Our world has changed.

Only Bertha Williams remains the same. Her obsession for trees still dominates her paintings. The palm tree is present in almost all her work. Fruit trees—mango, banana, genip, sapodilla, guava, papaw, tamarind, and others whose names I don’t know—also fill her canvas. Her flowering trees—flamboyant, frangipani, king flower, golden shower—are among my favorites. Hibiscus hedges, bougainvillea shrubs, croton plants, and buttercups add color and life to her enchanted world. At St. George’s High School, her landscapes adorn the headmistress’s office and the walls of the corridors.

Now seventeen years old in senior high, Bernadette Robertson, Diane Blackman, and I spend more time with Miss Williams. As her advance-level art students, we copy the work of great artists and experiment with other drawing and painting techniques. We perfect the art of pencil drawing and shading: the illusion of depth on a flat surface. A common passion for art bonds the four of us.

Bernadette’s father is a well-known British doctor and surgeon at the Public Hospital in Georgetown. Bernadette was born in England and had migrated to the colony with her family when she was four years old. She is the eldest of three children. Diane’s father works as a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Home Affairs. As members of the newly elected ruling government party, her family has risen to new wealth and status.

In her History of Art lessons, Miss Williams introduces us to the great nineteenth-century artists. I marvel at the landscapes of John Constable. But it is the work of the French Impressionists that changes my emotional response to works of art. Their beauty, light, and color lift my soul from the dungeons of my home and country in turmoil to the celestial skies. Pierre Auguste Renoir becomes my secret soul mate. My heart sings and dances with his Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette. But it is Vincent Van Gogh that has a special place in the heart of Bertha Williams.

“Van Gogh was considered a Neo-impressionist,” she says.

“I hear he was a madman, Miss,” says Diane.

“Who are we to make such a judgment?”

“It’s to be expected, Miss,” says Bernadette. “What sane person would cut off a part of his ear, wrap it up and send it to someone?”

“Van Gogh had a troubled life from a young age,” says Miss Williams. “He failed at achieving some of his dreams. He had problems with relationships. Some people have it hard in life. That’s all.”

“His paintings fulla nervous energy,” I say. “Look at The Starry Night—the cypress is a giant flame. The sky is like a storm at sea.”

“He use a lotta yellow and bright orange,” adds Diane. “Just like your last painting, Miss.”

Miss Williams’s face changed from light brown to a reddish brown. I wanted to kick Diane in her leg. Geez, Diane! Can’t you keep you mouth shut for once?

Later that week, we work together on reproducing Van Gogh’s Still-Life with Yellow Straw Hat. This earlier work is one of Miss Williams’s favorites. I find it an unusual arrangement of objects. My mother would never allow anyone to put their hat or pipe on her kitchen table.

Bernadette breaks the silence. “Miss, do you think my chances are good to pass the exam?”

“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think you could do it.” Miss Williams pauses at her easel, brush and palette poised in midair. Her flamboyant tree is a burst of bright orange.

“If I pass the exam, dad will let me study art in London,” Bernadette says. “I want to illustrate children’s books.”

“That’s good, Bernadette. What about you, Diane? What do you plan to do?”

“I ain’t decide yet, Miss.”

“Maureen, what about you?”

“I wanna be an art teacher.”

“That’s a good option, too.”

We resume our work. The sharp reflection of light on the matchbox in the right-hand forefront jumps out at me. It disturbs the serenity of Van Gogh’s Still-Life. Bernadette and Diane got it good. I lucky to be here. My stepfather was against me returning to high school to do advance level.

“What she want to do advance level for?” he said to my mother. “We ain’t got money to send she to university.”

“Pat, she good. She got talent. Maybe she win a scholarship,” my mother said.

He wanted me to start working after graduation. He had arranged to get me a job in the office at Bookers Stores.

“You ever thought of studying art in London or Paris, Miss?”

Diane and her big mouth again!

“I won a government scholarship once. To a British university.”

I paint the shadows of the broad-rim hat with band.

“What happened?” says Bernadette.

“Father died. I had to stay to help mother.”

“Oh, Miss! I’m sorry,” we each say in turn.

I tackle the shadows on the ivory-color earthenware jar wrapped in what appears to be a mesh of leather or rope. The jar glows against the dark background.

“I’m okay, girls. It was a long time ago.” Miss Williams dabs burnt sienna on the trunk of the flamboyant tree on her canvas board.

We continue our work in silence. Shattered dreams! Could I desert my mother? The only person who cared for me? Grandma and Grandpa Sinclair liked me, too. Van Gogh’s cypress pierces the tranquil night like a flaming sword, setting the sky of churning waves in motion.

It is January 1969. The University of London advance-level examinations in June loom nearer.

“What’s that rash around your neck, Miss?” Bernadette says.

“Nothing to worry about. It’ll clear up soon. Time’s running out. Let’s concentrate on your work.”

Two weeks later, the death of Miss Williams’s mother from pneumonia shocks the three of us.

“Why didn’t she tell us her mother was sick?” says Bernadette.

“You know Ole-Maid Bertha to talk about her business?” says Diane. “How that would-a help, anyway?”

Bernadette glares at Diane. “My father’s a doctor…. Remember?"

“You very quiet, Maureen,” says Diane, looking at me. “You okay?”

“Is going be harder for her now without her mother.” Munch’s Scream reverberates in my brain.

At her mother’s burial at the Le Repentir cemetery, Bertha Williams stands erect and calm. Dark glasses hide her emotions. Our headmistress and the teaching staff form a protective wall around her. Dressed in our school uniforms, Bernadette, Diane, and I—together with a group of other senior students—look on in silence. A single male, about Miss Williams’s age, and three older women face us from the other side of the grave.

In the months that follow, yellow and orange hues advance across Miss Williams’s canvas as the rash spreads over her arms and legs. She surprises us with her new look: a long-sleeve white blouse and thick brown stockings.

“Miss, I talked to my dad. The dermatologist at the Public Hospital can see you on Friday morning,” says Bernadette.

“I’m fine, Bernadette. Thanks anyway.”

Our art teacher’s passion for her work continues untainted. Her attention to our needs remains unfailing. We work with frenzy as the exams draw nearer. Miss Williams’s erupting skin is lost in the base coat. We pay little attention to the foreboding silk cotton tree taking shape on her canvas.

September 1969. The three of us passed the art examination. Bernadette gets an A grade. Diane and I get B grades. What a relief! What a joy! I can’t wait to thank Miss Williams and to share my achievement with her. When I learn that she's hospitalized, I decide to visit her at the Georgetown Public Hospital. As I approach the room indicated by the nurse-in-charge, an overpowering smell of decaying flesh stifles my breath. I meet our headmistress on her way out, a solemn expression on her face.

“You shouldn’t go in, Maureen,” our headmistress says. “She won’t want you to see her this way. Besides, you won’t be able to stomach the smell and sight.”

I turn back, deflated. We leave the hospital together.

“Will she be okay, Miss?”

“Her doctor doesn’t think she’ll recover,” the headmistress replies. “She’s lost the will to live.”

“She lost her mother. She has no one else.”

“I’m going to her house to get some things she asked for,” says the headmistress. “Want to come with me?”

The small wooden cottage in Charlestown where Bertha Williams lives stands four feet high on wooden stilts. Inside is dark and cluttered with paints, canvases, rags, clothing, empty cans, and boxes. Dirty pots and dishes fill the aluminum kitchen sink. The smell of turpentine and Limacol mentholated toilet lotion battle together in the stale air.

Two latches and bolts secure the wooden windows. The rusted bolts make it difficult to open the bedroom windows.

“I don’t think they ever opened these windows,” says the headmistress.

“Maybe her mother couldn’t stand the light. My grandma was the same way when she got sick.”

The hallucinatory world of William Blake engulfs me. The Great Red Dragon clings to the ceiling, waiting to devour me. I gulp in fresh air at the dining-kitchen room window—the only window that I could open. Below, in the backyard, a rotting tree trunk leans against the unpainted zinc-sheet fence. Tall, dried wild grass fills the small open space. How she live in a place like this? I sorry, Miss Williams. I didn’t know. I struggle to hold back the tears. Even though we are not wealthy, we live in a simple but beautiful home. I help to keep it clean and neat.

The headmistress saves me from the clutches of The Great Red Dragon. She joins me at the window, holding a rosary of large wooden beads and a tattered Book of Psalms.

“She said they belonged to her mother,” says the headmistress. She stares at me. “Are you okay, Maureen?”

“How did she live in this mess, Miss?” I said, willing myself not to cry.

“Taking care of a sick mother is not easy.”

“She could’ve asked me for help.”

“She isn’t the type of person to ask others for help. You should know that, Maureen. You’ve been close to her over the past two years.”

“You're right, Miss. She's very private. She doesn't like talking about herself.”

Bertha Williams is like the Victoria regia water lily that blooms in splendor above the dark muddy ponds in the Botanical Gardens.

“The painting of the silk cotton tree! She brought it home.” I head to the corner across the small dining room, near her dish cupboard. She had scrawled at the bottom—Silk Cotton Tree, Bertha Williams, 1969. Grandma Sinclair called the silk cotton tree, the jumbie tree. Never touch a jumbie tree, she had told me as a six-year-old. You’ll make the Dutch spirit angry.

Old folks believe that these ancient giant trees shelter the homeless spirits or jumbies of our early Dutch colonists and guard their buried treasures. I grew up hearing stories of people who died after trying to cut down one of these dreaded trees.

Huge buttresses and a trunk of a mottled grey and dark green dominate the 16- by 24-inch oil canvas. Thick grass and weeds sprout in the hollows of its buttresses, a refuge for snakes and other creatures. Stout branches extend like arms high overhead. The tree stands naked—no shelter for the yellow-breast, black-beak Kiskadee bird, no shade from the tropical heat. The background of brown and green tones is barren. The sky is mere streaks of light blue.

At night, as I lie in bed, Miss Williams’s silk cotton tree haunts me. It stands at the foot of my bed like a hangman. I feel its power and strength. Isolation and desolation gnaw at my soul. The scent of Miss Williams’s decaying flesh and fear of the Dutch jumbie keep me awake until way past midnight.

The disease consumes her flesh and her life. I cannot save her. I hold on to the sound of her voice, to her shy smile, to her quiet presence, to the smell of linseed oil, to the vibrant colors of her canvases. I cling to the sunlight and joy of Renoir’s paintings. I submerge myself in the world she had taught me to create. I cannot cry.

The light Atlantic breeze does nothing to abate the hot, humid October day in 1969. Diane and I stand by Bertha Williams’s open grave in the Le Repentir cemetery. Bernadette is not with us. She returned to England with her family like most of the British expatriates. Teachers, students, and parents crowd the small space around the grave. Miss Williams’s parish priest intones the last rites. The only man who had been present at her mother’s funeral now breathes heavily on my right. The grave diggers lower her coffin into the freshly-dug hole and begin covering the flower-strewn coffin with the damp black earth.

“I loved her, Mom. She loved me, too. It didn’t have to end this way,” the man next to me said to the elderly woman standing by his side. “If she had married me, I would’ve taken good care of her and her mother too.”

“Is no point trying to turn back the clock,” the woman says. “What happened, happen for the best.”

“Did it, Mom?”

I feel the pain in his voice.

“You not their kind, Sonny. You got the wrong color,” the woman replies. “Her mother didn’t want you for a son-in-law. She would’ve make your life hell.”

Diane nudges me on the left. How could we have known? I turn to look at Diane. She looks at me. We’re nineteen and still foolish. Ole-Maid Bertha. We thought we knew it all.

“May the Lord take our sister, Bertha Williams, into His Kingdom and grant her eternal rest.” The priest sprinkles holy water over the mound of fresh earth.

In September 1972, after an intensive two-year course at the Georgetown Teacher Training College, I obtain a teaching position at St. George’s. I perch five-feet-two in my black high-heel shoes in Bertha Williams’s art room facing my first class. My round-neck olive green short-sleeve dress hangs two inches above my stockinged legs. My shoulder-length wavy black hair is pushed back from my forehead with a matching green headband.

Miss Williams’s painting of a flamboyant tree, laden with bright orange flowers, hangs on the wall to the left together with works of her star students. On the wall behind me, her Silk Cotton Tree intimidates those who question its presence. Glass jars with water and tiny bottles of watercolor paints fill the desks before me. Thirty eager pairs of eyes look up at me.

“Good afternoon, class!”

“Good afternoon, Miss Sinclair!”

“Each one of you has an artist hidden inside you. In our first class, we’ll begin with a simple landscape.” I smile shyly. “Let’s have fun!”

I glance at the corner of the art room where Bertha Williams used to work. I feel her quiet presence. I see her at her easel. Her canvas is awash with life and light. The broad leaves of two overlapping banana trees cover the right foreground of her canvas. A hand of green bananas protrudes from among the leaves. The thick foliage of a mango tree laden with ripe orange-red fruits dominates the middle background. The red undulating zinc-sheet roof of a white wooden house is partially visible behind the mango tree and foliage. A plump-faced brown-skin woman calls out from an open window. Armed with her palette in her left hand and brush in her right, Bertha Williams gives life to the coconut palm in the left foreground. I smile. Bertha Williams lives on in my heart.

At the end of the day, I leave the school compound and head for our home in Alberttown. I turn left on Middle Street on my shiny new Raleigh bicycle—a gift from my proud stepfather.

In Guyana and the Caribbean, a jumbie is an evil spirit. The jumbie tree refers to the silk cotton tree, a massive tree in all aspects—height, crown, and buttress. In Guyana, as in other Caribbean countries, it is believed that jumbies reside in the silk cotton trees, hence my name, jumbie tree.

Captioned photo: Silk Cotton Tree, Santa Mission Village, Guyana.
First published in the now defunct New York-based magazine Guyana Journal December 2007 Issue.