On Friday, two women joined by the common thread of newspaper journalism, eased their way out of this world.
Bessie Hernandez is gone, but she leaves with us the quiet intelligence that helped build the towering architecture of the 95-year-old archives of the Trinidad Guardian.
Paulina "Brownie" Smith never worked for a day in a newspaper office, but her presence endures as a powerful imprint on the writings of her son Keith Smith in the pages of the Trinidad Express.
They probably never met; but Bessie and Paulina were connected by the shared lives of their children in the media, where the personal is often unrecognisable from the professional.
In the late 70s, at Express House on Independence Square, the then NJAC duo of Asha Kambon and Babu Ketema were the keepers of T&T's brand new history, cutting and clipping, pasting and filing the stories and photographs of the passing parade of daily news events.
In those days before Google, an informed and efficient librarian was the special friend of any reporter in need of background and contextual material.
In the Express, where history went back only as far as 1969, the tone was decidedly upstart and on the hustle, a world away from the ordered existence of the Trinidad Guardian with its library of editions, already more than 50 years old by then, featuring the early bylines of such legends as Seepersad Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Eric Roach and so many more.
With its long arms reaching back to 1917, the library of the Trinidad Guardian was legendary in the world of T&T journalism.
I never met the library, but in time I would come to know the bright, witty, feisty but ever so under-stated little woman who, for 33 painstaking years, had anchored and built this distinguished hard copy newspaper library. Until it all went up in flames in 1980, under circumstances that remain in question to this day.
Ultimately, starting over a lifetime's work would prove impossible. Bess took her leave and entered a dignified retirement where she maintained her meticulous monitoring of the nation's daily life, losing none of her almost coquettish naughtiness. Politics was her preferred daily dish, consumed always on the more progressive side.
In her delectable solitude, memories, not newspaper clippings, would frame the story for a new generation of journalists who would find their way to her through the two daughters she had gifted to the profession of journalism.
The elder was Camille Ramnarace, a Marxist and feminist who would leave the humdrum of the sub-editors Night Desk at the Express to help Maurice Bishop's Grenada Revolution as editor of the Free West Indian. Later, following her own instincts about the trajectory of that revolution, Camille would settle in Cuba, working at Granma until breast cancer came to claim her.
Bess' other daughter, Skye Hernandez, a wonderfully subtle and sensitive editor-writer, would be with Bess until the end came quietly last Friday morning, amid bunches of flowers, music, candles and poetry.
It was Skye who had led me to Bessie Hernandez, launching the conversation that would run between us for over 30 years. Her stories and anecdotes helped fill the blanks of a colonial Trinidad and Tobago where newspapers were owned by British interests, under editors with names like Jenkins and Hitchens and Barker, men recruited on contract from Fleet Street of London. These were the editors to whom T&T was an exotic place, where the young father of VS Naipaul would be encouraged to start his news reports with "Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday."
Into this world, Bess had entered, stirring a minor revolution at the Trinidad Guardian by refusing to be summoned by the tinkling of a superior's bell.
"I have a name," she declared to a higher-up. Within two-twos, the tinkler was gone, leaving the bright young newcomer in charge of an expanding universe of words.
I imagined Bess' library as a writer's sanctuary, a place to which future literary giants would flee, seeking refuge from the newsroom grind,then the only gig in town for an aspiring writer.
They were lucky. In Bessie Hernandez they would find a kindred soul, alert to the gift and needs of writers, and so very sensitive to the artistic spirit.
And then, in one of those magical mysteries of life, our encounter completed a circle that had been broken long before either Skye or I was even an idea in our mothers' heads.
It turned out that our mothers had been friends, separated in childhood when Bess' father had taken his children from Fyzabad to live with him in Port of Spain.
One Divali night, Skye and I engineered a rapturous reunion, healing the wounds of an abrupt rupture that had left two little girls wondering what had happened to each other. Today, our own children are friends, completing three generations of an enduring friendship.
A few weeks ago, we, Bess and I, spent an extraordinary day. Unintimidated by the beckoning finger of Death, and freed from the burden of carrying secrets of any kind, she regaled me, again, with stories of her life, as we chatted and laughed. And I was reminded, once again, of how history is always to be read between the lines, and how bylines can be pretty much by-the-way in capturing the stories of our lives.
One day, I hope, Skye might be moved to put her amazing gifts to writing the extraordinary story of a young woman born in Fyzabad, descendant of an emigrant from Darjeeling, who would make her way into the literary world as a quiet cornerstone in a profession inclined to undervalue the world behind the scenes.
Not Keith Smith, though.
In Keith Smith's extraordinary world of the ordinary, "Mammy" featured large as a touchstone for what was relevant and acceptable.
The amplitude of Paulina Smith's love for her son was, indeed, the wind that carried our large, wounded genius and created the space for perpetual redemption that would keep Keith Smith writing for us, until he could write no more.
Bess and Paulina did not need to meet to create the circling pools of caring generosity from which we journalists drank, undivided by newsroom address.
To Skye, Scott, Mampuru and Dwayne, and to Katherine, Gregory and Virgil, we of the media send our thanks for so cherishing those whom we, too, have loved and whose lives have so enriched our own.
• Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the
T&T Review and director of the
Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies