Diana Galloway’s outfit on her 100th birthday gave immediate notice that she was ready to paint the town red – her favorite color. She wore a red pant suit with gold trim and a gold church hat adorned with swirling red-and-gold bows. The ensemble was created by Jeweline Roberts-Riley, dress designer for many Festival queens in Montserrat. She ensured that Diana also got the royal treatment, and the centenarian looked her Sunday best . . . even on a Tuesday.
May 17, 2022, was a red-letter day in the Rosedale section of Queens, New York, as Diana officially reached her milestone. She was celebrated by family, friends and even strangers. During a service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Reverend Steve Foster lauded Diana’s journey to “five score” – well surpassing the Biblical benchmark of “three score and 10.” Diana received a birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II and letters of congratulations from Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. and Montserrat Premier Joseph Farrell, who also delivered well-wishes via Zoom on behalf of the people of Montserrat.
Diana’s journey to 100 has taken her from the tiny enclaves of Cotton Ground and Jack Sweeney in northern Montserrat to the beaches and coves of Curacao and the bright lights of New York City. She has been the beneficiary of great fortune and amazing genes. Diana has earned the label of senior citizen, but she’s still a junior member of her family. Her sister Mathilda is 101, and her aunt, Margaret “Liz” Piper, is 102.
Diana still enjoys a mean game of dominoes and occasional shot of brandy. She used to toil in her garden for hours, but she’s no wallflower. She is proud and feisty, even in her advanced age. When she returned home from the hospital in early 2020 she noticed that an elevated toilet seat with side grips had been installed in her bathroom. “What is this sh–?” she asked, the irony not lost amid her candor. “I don’t need it!”
Diana once played in a women’s cricket league, and her life in many ways has paralleled the sport. She is an all-rounder. She has patiently built her innings, avoiding reckless choices. She navigated through her nervous nineties, including a serious illness at 97 that required the aforementioned hospitalization. “We thought we were going to lose her,” admits her niece and caretaker Cherolyn Galloway.
But Diana persevered to reach her glorious century. Instead of raising a bat she raised a glass to toast what has been an amazing odyssey.
The area of Jack Sweeney in St. John’s is one of the final visuals for airline passengers before landing at John A. Osborne Airport. At the western end of the airstrip is Montserrat’s only tunnel. During Diana’s childhood there was no airport, no tunnel, and most of the roads were still dirt paths.
Diana Ann Lucinda Galloway made her debut May 17, 1922. She was the fourth of 10 children born to John Galloway and wife Sarah (nee’ Ponteen). Diana first lived in Cotton Ground near Drummonds Village on the slopes of the Silver Hills. Later on she moved to Jack Sweeney, about a mile and a quarter south.
“We had to tie out sheep and goat,” Diana says. “Me and my sisters had to carry cow milk from Cotton Ground to Jack Sweeney.”
The Ponteen and Galloway families have a long legacy in Montserrat. Many became luminaries, such as Farrell, Montserrat’s premier; Sir Howard Fergus, historian, former Speaker of the House, Acting Governor and educator; Jim Galloway, famous masquerader; Margaret “Teacher Ann” Browne, longtime educator; and J. Emmanuel Galloway, managing director of the Galloway Group Inc., which owns Tropical Mansion Suites and Galloway Hardware.
Diana attended St. John’s Anglican Church School. In those days all primary schools in Montserrat were parochial-based. Diana did not attend secondary school. St. John’s, due to its distance from Plymouth, was a virtual entity at the time. Very few students from the north attended the coveted “grammar school” in town – and for many young women, a life of blue-collar work was the expectation. However, at age 25, Diana received a tremendous opportunity.
THE CURACAO YEARS
When Diana traveled to Curacao in 1947, she followed the lead of elder sister Mathilda, who arrived two years earlier. The Curacao rush in the 1940s and ’50s was sparked due to employment opportunities created by oil refineries. Curacao did not produce oil. But nearby Venezuela did. When oil is unearthed it is in the form of crude and needs to be refined into gasoline and diesel. Shell Oil had a refinery in Curacao; Esso had one in Aruba.
Young men from around the Caribbean – many just out of school – were recruited to work in the refineries. There was also a phosphate mining company in the southern town of Newport that employed many immigrant men, including Montserratians. Young immigrant women were brought in to work as live-in housekeepers, mostly for the Dutch (“Makamba”) big-wigs in the oil companies. Diana and Mathilda were among them. Two other Galloway sisters – Mary (aka “Sister”) and Susan – would also work in Curacao. Mathilda says she earned 50 guilders a month, about U.S. $27. It seems like a pittance, but cost of living was relative, and a live-in job meant no lodging and utility expenses.
Many people in Curacao spoke four languages: English, Dutch, Papiamento and Spanish. Diana doesn’t speak Dutch or Papiamento but still utters a few words in Spanish, with “caliente” one of her favorites. By the way, the mentholated lotion Alcolado Glacial – which became a staple in Montserrat households – originates from Curacao.
Neither Diana nor Mathilda has children. A major reason is the fact that unmarried immigrant women who became pregnant were deported from Curacao. Working there was a privilege, and many were careful not to jeopardize the opportunity. Being expelled and sent back to Montserrat was a source of embarrassment and social disgrace. Diana says she doesn’t regret not having children, and even implied that it was worth the sacrifice.
“Those days we knew that we needed to make a living for ourselves and help the others back home,” she says.
And that she did. Although Diana was not the eldest of her siblings, she became the unofficial matriarch. Her relatives were overjoyed whenever she returned to Montserrat.
Icilda Stanley, Diana’s niece, says she couldn’t wait for Diana to open her valise: “Whether it was a doll that we couldn’t get in Montserrat or dresses that nobody else had, we wanted whatever was in [the suitcase] for us.”
Diana supported the family in ways that transcended gifts. She played a crucial role in the upbringing of several nieces and nephews and is grateful they in turn have attended to her well-being. “If it wasn’t for them I would probably be in a nursing home,” Diana says.
During their time in Curacao, Diana and her sisters spent their off days together, going to the movies, visiting the island’s renowned beaches, and going to church. In fact Diana was confirmed in Curacao in 1953. Another pastime they participated in was cricket. Diana and Mathilda played for the Curacao women’s team against squads from Aruba and St. Maarten. Diana traveled to Aruba with the team but says she has never visited Bonaire, the third of the “A-B-C” islands.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Caribbean exodus to Curacao tailed off. For one, many Montserratians were now opting for England as their place of migration. Also, due to technology and other factors, the Curacao oil refineries saw a reduction in the work force.
ON TO NEW YORK
Diana spent two decades in Curacao, then migrated to New York in 1968 when her employers returned to Holland. Diana’s younger sister Irene (Beth) was living in New York and filed Diana’s immigration paperwork. Mathilda remained in Curacao and still lives there.
Upon arrival to the Big Apple, Diana roomed with her cousin, Eleanor “Lucy” O’Garro, in the Bronx. Later on she rented an apartment in the same building in Harlem – 153 West 139th Street – where her sister Beth resided. The New York winter was a rough welcome for Diana, who had enjoyed tropical temperatures her entire life.
“I knew it was going to be cold but not that cold,” she says of the frigid weather, which was especially punishing while waiting for the bus. “I had to go buy a coat. We used to go to Alexander’s and Macy’s.”
Diana got a job at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan working in the laundry department. She would end up working there until 1987. While at Mount Sinai she was a member of Labor Union 1199. In the summer of 1982, the union held a strike, demanding a 10 percent pay raise. Diana was on the picket line. They chanted: “Hey, hey, what do you say? 1199 all the way. Hey, hey, what do you want? 10 percent. And what do you want it for? To pay the rent. And when do you want it? Now!”
The strike lasted only three days as the union prevailed.
Diana’s half-century in New York has been eventful. She has had many close friends, including Mary Daniel-Galloway, her sister-in-law. Mary was married to Diana’s younger brother Nicky. Mary and Nicky lived in Queens, and they were the ones who convinced Diana to purchase her current home in Rosedale.
Diana and Mary were inseparable, especially when it came to shopping. Their trips would take up most of the day. Armed with a bevy of coupons, they would visit stores such as Pergament, Alexander’s, Macy’s, Crazy Eddie and Key Food. They would seek out the best bargains and were not shy about requesting rain checks when an item was out of stock.
Diana’s cousin Henrietta Browne was also a close confidante. Boston Carnival, held the weekend before Labor Day, was a customary retreat for Diana. She would begin preparation weeks in advance, stocking up on saltfish (to make her signature saltfish cake) and assorted spirits. Henrietta, who lived in Boston, always looked forward to Diana’s visits and the goodies she brought. The trip to Boston was part revelry but mostly reunion as Diana would reconnect with many Montserratians.
TIME FOR REFLECTION
Having an abundance of family and friends means love . . . and loss. Living a long life means outliving loved ones. In 1971, Diana’s sister Beth died at 45. In 1981, Diana’s mother Sarah passed away in Montserrat at age 86. Her father John died seven years later. Of Diana’s nine siblings, only two remain: Mathilda and Jane (Cherolyn’s mother). Diana’s dear cousin Henrietta has also passed on. Diana also lost two close relatives – grand-nephew Herman and nephew Arthur, who were both only in their 40s.
“She always wears black or dark-colored clothes when someone close to her dies,” Cherolyn says of her aunt.
Diana’s home has been a sanctuary for many, as she has allowed many migrating Montserratians – family, friends and strangers alike – to stay there until they found a place of their own. Diana grew close to her neighbor Jacinth Heron, who entrusted Diana to take care of her son Jason, who has autism. “She’s one of a kind,” Jacinth says of Diana.
James “Blue Boy” Silcott, a fellow Queens resident and former taxi driver in Montserrat, has known Diana for almost 40 years. He helped her relocate from Harlem to Queens and was one of the regular attendees at her annual Memorial Day weekend parties to celebrate her birthday.
“She always had a lot of food, a lot of drinks,” he says. “She didn’t really dance too much but she made sure everybody was OK. She’s a family-oriented person. She’s very patient, very kind-hearted. Her parties were jam-packed. And Christmas was always great. She used to set up everything just like in Montserrat. Jumbie table, everything.”
Diana, who has spent a lifetime attending to the welfare of others, is now able to sit back and be the recipient of well-deserved reverence. Her 100th birthday abounded with phone calls, visits and messages on social media. Family and friends shared humorous stories about the woman of the century. She received many cards and presents. But the gifts she will most cherish aren’t wrapped with bows, ribbons and decorative paper.
The gift of gratitude. The gift of family.
The gift of life.