Fifty years ago, on August 21, 1965, Merle and Ewart Walters, said their “I do’s” at the Coke Methodist Church on East Parade (Church Street), Kingston, Jamaica. Two weeks later, they came to Ottawa and have spent all their time here, except for a few months in the USA. The “golden” couple celebrated this unique milestone with a reception at the Best Western hotel on Bells Corners on Saturday 22 August. This was followed the next day with a Thanksgiving service at the Fourth Avenue Baptist Church.
Here is the story of that journey from meeting to marriage as told by several voices:
Merle had joined the Civil Service two years before and was working as a medical technologist at the Government Laboratory on North Street, a stone’s throw from the Kingston Public Hospital. She had immersed herself in the Coke Methodist Church’s Mission Band and Sunday school, as well as creative dancing classes with the Eddy Thomas troupe. On this day, July 11, 1962, Merle was just leaving a presentation at the Mico College on Marescaux Road, and was waiting at the bus stop for a bus.
For Ewart, it was a year of exciting beginnings. He had left the friendship of colleagues and the security and comfort of a government job with the Ministry of Education, and had begun a whole new world in private enterprise in journalism at Public Opinion, then a small weekly anti-colonial newspaper. Reporting on all the elements of this rapidly changing political landscape was new and stimulating. It meant, for instance, that he would now be going to sit in the press gallery at Gordon House, Jamaica’s parliament, to take notes and report on the proceedings, and in the process, learn how parliament works. On this day, Ewart was driving down Marescaux Road towards his workplace at Public Opinion which was located at the corner of West Race Course and North Race Course, not far from Merle’s alma mater, Wolmer’s High School for Girls. To be precise, he was driving an ancient Hillman Minx that had the same general shape and appearance of the Hillman Minx that was owned by Mr. KA Campbell, Merle’s father.
One of Ewart’s colleagues at Public Opinion was a young man named Winston LeFranc. The Hillman Minx Ewart was driving belonged to LeFranc who was with him that July day. Approaching the bus stop across from Mico College Ewart saw a young lady standing there waiting for a bus. Now, except for a very short period, the bus service in Kingston was very uncertain, and commuters were quite accustomed to seeking and accepting rides from passing motorists. Ewart began slowing down to offer her a ride. As the car came to a stop, LeFranc in the back seat undid himself long enough to open the back door so she would sit beside him. But, as she was to say later, while she thought she recognised both of the guys from school activities, she thought it was a better idea to sit in the front where Ewart would have his hands on the wheel. In conversing, Ewart discovered that she worked at the Government Laboratory. He called her the very next day, and, after other telephone conversations, mustered up the courage to invite her out. The occasion was a dance at St. George’s College. The evening progressed quite well and the new hit, Behold, I Saw You Standing There Before Me, by the Blues Busters, became for them a treasured song. Of course, Ewart quickly joined the drama group at Merle’s church.
Six years earlier, on Ash Wednesday 1957, Merle travelled 32 miles from Kingston with other members of her Coke Methodist Church to an event at the Morant Bay Methodist Church. The church is on Main Street, just across from the Morant Bay All-Age School and the adjacent school principal’s residence. The entrance to the house is on Main Street directly in front of the Methodist Church. At a break in the proceedings that day, she crossed the road with some church friends to the paved school yard in front of the residence which betrayed no immediate sign of life. Merle went to the far side of the house and was photographed standing there with her friend Ruby Brown. Years later, after they were married, Ewart looked at Merle’s photo album and saw this photograph in it. You can imagine his surprise. “That is my house!” he exclaimed to the now dumbfounded Merle.
Much of Ewart’s courting took place on the verandah of the home in Vineyard Town where Merle lived. If the buses stopped running, a fit, young Ewart could walk home in about a half hour. Many of his evenings were passed on that verandah. But Merle, simply, was not sure… She realised Ewart was serious. She wasn’t sure she wanted to get serious. Sensing this, Ewart abandoned all talk about moon, spoon and June, or the birds and the bees. Instead he began reading or reciting to her large chunks of texts including Milton’s Paradise Lost Books 9 and 10. Merle listened, and their conversations on the topics he read kept them speaking to each other and thinking of each other.
Like Ewart, Merle’s parents were teachers. And like Ewart’s, Merle’s mother was the disciplinarian who kept her offspring on the straight and narrow. And so, when Merle went home to her parents for Christmas holidays that year, she was taken completely by surprise by a totally unexpected turn of events. Not hearing Merle say anything about Ewart who had visited the family home in St Ann by this time, her mother inquired about him, and Merle, responding, said she thought he was much too serious and she did not think she was ready for that. To her absolute astonishment, her mother told her it was indeed time to get serious – an intervention for which Ewart is still singing her praises!
Ewart was selected to go to Canada on a journalism scholarship. Ewart flew out on a Trans-Canada aircraft, in September 1964, packing among other things, Merle’s handkerchief, doused with her favourite perfume, Entice. Setting up lodgings on Euclid Avenue with fellow student Claude Robinson, one of Ewart’ first purchases was a radio on which he often heard the Drifter’s song with the lines:
“Here in the gloom of my lonely room; I take your handkerchief and smell its sweet perfume…”
There were a few phone calls. But these were costly and Ewart and Merle kept in touch mainly by handwritten letters.
Four months after setting foot in Canada, Ewart bought a diamond engagement ring for Merle, but he would not be able to give it to her until he flew home for holidays next summer. Not to be deterred, Ewart found a way. A mutual friend was going down to Jamaica for Christmas, and since she was one of Merle’s schoolmates, he decided to send it with her. But a poor student on a stipend who had just bought a diamond ring could not afford to also pay customs duty on it. And that is how she went to Jamaica with Merle’s engagement ring on her finger!
As narrated by Ewart Walters
Photo credit: Sarah Onyango