Federico Smith Ellington
I am Federico, Mrs. Ellington’s son. My younger brother Alberto, more known as Spooks, and I were adopted by our great aunt Maud E. Ellington, and her husband Charles W. Ellington. We called her “Auntie”, and him “Pa”. We lived in Santa Cruz, Canal Zone. They reared us according to the British adage: “Do not spare the rod, and spoil the child.”
Auntie and Pa were avid quadrille dancers. They traveled throughout the Canal Zone Latin American communities, Panama City and Colon City to practice and dance quadrille. Mrs. Ellington even taught quadrille to young people in Santa Cruz. She had such grace and energy. Like a ballerina, she would spin on her toes like a top. These quadrille aficionados were members of quadrille clubs that attended quadrille balls in the Canal Zone, Panama City and Colon City. These were big cultural, social and entertainment events.
One late evening after bathing and feeding Spooks and me, Auntie dressed us in our pajamas. She said prayers with us before sending us to bed.
She had asked our next door neighbors Mr. & Mrs. Richards to “look in” on us because Pa and she were attending a quadrille event somewhere.
I awoke in the middle of the night after Auntie and Pa had left for their quadrille dance. Shaking my brother vigorously, I whispered, “Spooks, Spooks!” I did not want the Richards to hear me because our bed was located beside a wall separating their quarters from ours, and near our unlocked common access door.
He would not budge, being an innocent and deep sleeper. I continued shaking my brother with increasing intensity, while whispering, “Spooks wake up.” “WAKE UP!”
When he finally awoke, I said to him quietly, “Come let me show you a trick.” Spooks looked at me confused and sleepy. But he followed my directions. I was his older brother. He trusted and was loyal to me.
I nimbly escorted Spooks to the center of the room which served as our bedroom and family dining room. It had a large and beautiful dark mahogany table draped with a white and colorfully embroidered table cloth and four matching mahogany chairs. Auntie had bought this expensive table cloth from an Indian store in Panama City. A large bunch of pretty artificial flowers in a big vase sat on the middle of the table. This centerpiece and a large grandfather type clock high on the wall beside it captivated the attention of anyone who entered this room. Pa stood on a chair to wind that clock weekly with relish. That table and clock were two of my parents’ most cherished possessions.
At the base of the table, I whispered to my sleepy eye brother, “Spooks, I am going to show you how John Wayne lights a lamp.” He looked at me bewildered, and made no comments. He really was not interested, and sleepy, but stood beside me with my encouragement.
I got a match from the kitchen. With it I approached
Auntie’s vase of flowers on her mahogany table, Spooks in tow reluctantly. “You see,” I whispered, “I am going to show you how John Wayne did it.”
I struck the match against the side of its match box. A sharp flame erupted. “S-h-r-e-e-e!” My heart jumped. I became nervous, and scared, but my curiosity overwhelmed my fear. Spooks really woke up then. He was alert, but again said nothing. He was a person of few words.
I nervously touched one petal of Auntie’s artificial flowers with the burning match. My expectations were that this petal would light up, and then I would snuff out its flame, just like how John Wayne did the lamp in one of his cowboy movies. But things did not work out as planned.
The lit petal burst into an unpredictable and uncontrollable flame which radiated instantly throughout Auntie’s flowers. The conflagration consumed her bunch of flowers, burned her precious table cloth, and scorched her deep blood stained color mahogany table. By the time the fire extinguished itself, a nasty black fire mark emerged on the ceiling directly above it.
Dismayed by the speed and destruction of the fire, I panicked. I had lost control of my demonstration. My experiment, which some would call “playing with fire”, had failed miserably. It was an unmitigated disaster!
Spooks asked, “Wha we gwen du?” He always got straight to the point. It jolted my mind to our parents’ West Indian admonition, “Chicken merry, hawk near.”
But it was too late for philosophical reflections now. I had committed a grave transgression for which there would be dire and painful consequences. So I entered a damage control mode.
I gathered the remnants of burned flowers and tarnished vase, and wrapped them in the singed table cloth to dispose of them. With my brother in tow, I quietly took them to a garbage can under building 281 across the street. No one saw us. My expectations were for Auntie, who was a leader, business woman, and nobody’s fool, to search the three garbage cans under our 276 quarters. She would find no incriminating evidence, and I would be exonerated. “Not guilty”, I thought.
My parents “cut to the chase”, and “go for the jugular” of a mischievous mind early, zapping it in the bud, as I painfully learned.
Having disposed of my incriminating evidence, I told my brother that we would swear to our parents that we “knew nothing”, and we returned to sleep.
Auntie and Pa returned home sometime after we had fallen asleep. Noticing and smelling the inescapable results of my fire, they called out to us, “Fred and Albert!” “Albert!” “Fred!” Neither of us responded initially.
We got up after they furiously shook us. “What happened here”, they asked sternly. Auntie and Pa had a way of demanding the truth. They would accept nothing less, and we knew it.
Spooks and I answered, “A-a-a-w-?” We were on target with my plan, I thought. But it quickly fell apart.
Auntie took control. She queried emphatically, “What happened here!” Her eyes flashed like steel that could pierce the defense of a seasoned liar.
Again, my brother and I denied any knowledge. We were going for broke because we knew what would happen to us if she proved my transgression. Her look intensified. She was going to get to the bottom of this.
Auntie left us, went to the Richards, and returned. I do not know what transpired there till this day. I am sure; however, they knew nothing about my fiasco. If they knew something, they would have disciplined us. And our parents would discipline us again upon their return, according to our people’s customs.
Auntie told us to sit on our bed, with Pa like a centurion standing guard in front of us. She left for downstairs of our quarters. I knew she was going to search the garbage cans for her flowers, vase and table cloth. I was sure she would not find them because I had dumped them in a garbage can across the street. So Spooks and I waited for a favorable resolution of this matter.
My eyes popped out my head, and my heart raced uncontrollably when Auntie returned with the evidence in her hands. I was so shocked, and afraid. She had searched the three garbage cans of our 276 quarters to no avail, and then went to those under building 281 across the street. I knew that I had been busted, and my punishment would be severe. I felt sick–a nauseating emptiness filled my stomach.
Auntie showed me the evidence, and demanded, “How this happened!” I told her the truth, hoping for some mercy or reduction in my punishment. Telling the truth after lying, however, had no mitigating influence on my parents’ disciplinary methods. Speaking truth is simply required in accepting responsibility for one’s behaviors and personal growth. It does not lessen or absolve one from the consequences of one’s misbehaviors.
Auntie and Pa severely punished my brother Spooks and me. As they whipped us, I immersed myself into my own thoughts with platitudes for mercy. My deep silent prayer for divine intervention, which is the only action that could dissuade them, was unanswered.
They also grounded us for one month. They dressed us in one of Auntie’s dresses. This embarrassed us, and ensured that we would not sneak out to play. We were allowed only to attend school and church. I welcomed these exceptions because I enjoyed and found comfort in these institutions. Their activities and personnel afforded me countless opportunities to grow academically, spiritually and personally, and meet my friends.
Upon completion of my punishment, I returned to living life more fully and responsibly–fully armed with the lessons Auntie and Pa taught me about playing with fire, never making the same mistakes again.