A moment in the life of Firstina Baillou
Firstina Baillou passed away at the age of 104. I was sad to hear of her passing, but at that age death is imminent. I am blessed to say I knew Firstina Baillou, a resident of Sweetings Cay which is just off Grand Bahama Island in The Bahamas. Well I didn't really "know her", but I shared a moment with her, a very special moment. I was invited along in 2009 to Sweetings Cay with Chantal Bethel, Laurie Tuchel and Lauren Austin to interview a 103 year old woman. My colleague Dave Mackey was filming the trip for an upcoming production for the Grand Bahama Heritage Foundation.
I love Sweetings Cay, and hadn't been since before the hurricanes so I jumped at the opportunity to tag along.
When we got to the Firstina Baillou's little home I was not surprised as to what I saw, as I had walked the main road of Sweetings Cay many times. Leaving the boat it was only a few yards to the one road through town, and about ten more feet to the front door of her tiny little home on the other side of the road, which is truly ocean front property.
She was sitting in the corner in an easy chair with a warm hat and sweater on. Her skin showed the years upon her but I was surprised by the childlike quality that emanated from her glowing face. There was something so energetic about Firstina.
We were all introduced and visiting artist Lauren Austin sat in front of the matriarch to begin the interview and pulled open her sketch book and began to draw Firstina as they talked. About four or five of Mrs. Baillou's family were in the small home with us, spanning a few generations no doubt; her daughter sat behind her on the arm of her chair, and her grandson , Rev. Pedyson Baillou stood in the room across from her helping field questions and answers, as well as some of her grandchildren were in the back area of the two room house.
Dave instructed me to sit next to Mrs. Baillou and to hold the microphone close so he could get adequate sound from the interview. I sat in a chair adjacent to Firstina. I sat quietly, but she must have sensed me because as as soon as I sat she immediately reached out to see who was there. She grabbed my hand, said nothing, and Lauren and the others began asking her questions about her early life at Old Freetown.
What was most incredible was that Firstina never took her hand off my hand for the entire hour or so we were in her home. She never asked who I was, she just never let go. Even when she turned to check that her 78 year old daughter was still at her side, she would turn her body, but never let go of my hand. From time to time she would just stroke the skin on my hand as she answered questions.
I still remember her skin and hand, and how it felt. The years of work, but with so much gentleness and strength. Her eyes, then blind with cataracts, showed so much light and life that when she told us about her past, the stories about her children and grandchildren, when she smiled or giggled I could almost see a glimpse of her as a young girl.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and our interview ended, and we had to get back on the boat to make the shallows before tides changed. We bid our farewells, and the last time I saw her it was her slight little figure leaning against the doorway entrance 'listening to us' leave, and as if watching us leave. I'd wished I'd taken that photo, as it was a classic.
The settlement of Sweetings Cay, along with all her family and friends will most certainly miss Firstina Baillou. What a gift and how wonderful to have captured some of her history and that conversation on tape; and the image of her loving presence on paper and pencil.
Through the Heritage Foundation's research we've learned that her husband was the great grandson of Scipion Baillou, a slave brought from Africa to the Baillou plantation in Nassau who later landed on Old Freetown’s shore in Grand Bahama. What a journey.
I am richer to have had that moment with Firstina Baillou. May the memory of her, and her history live on.
Publicist, writer, photo-journalist; and co-founder/ editor of one of The Bahamas’ leading news sites, TheBahamasWeekly.com, Robbin Whachell is a successful entrepreneur and pioneer in online marketing. Aside from being a recognized media personality and community builder, she is known for her networking and social media skills, and has a background in information management and film.