Aug. 31, 2005 — Judith Celestine sees a lot of life from her van, although it doesn't move. Instead, the world well, a good little piece of it in the Fort Mylner area comes to her every day. Students, laborers, office workers, retailers, young and old alike are all looking for the same thing: sustenance. And they get it from Celestine.
She dispenses her bullfoot soup, johnnycake, and all manner of Caribbean comfort food with efficiency. And, quickly gauging her customers' moods, she often adds a little milk of human kindness, or a bit of humor.
"She needs to eat inside," Celestine explains as a woman carries her soup into the van, already crowded with a couple of stoves, ice chests, supplies and a reporter perched on the only chair.
"Have a cold?" Celestine asks a sneezing young woman as she hands her a bag through the counter window. "Try to keep it over there."
"My roughest customer," she says, indicating a young man who has been half-teasing, half-complaining. "Always giving me a hard time."
"I love people," Celestine said. "I don't like to see people be hungry or distressed. I always have a good word for them." Occasionally, she gives away more than a good word. A regular customer caught short of cash may get a bargain rate. A homeless man may get a free plate of food. "Sometimes I give them a scolding, too," Celestine says.
"If you're doing something, you try to do the best you can to make people happy," she explains. "I take pride. I say I cook my food with love."
She cooks it day and night. "I prep at night," she said. "I finish in the kitchen 10 o'clock at night. I get up at least by five," to be on-site with cereal and other breakfast fare for the early morning customers.
She got into the business first by doing the cooking for a friend, Stephanos Wiltshire, but when he offered her the business, she jumped at the opportunity. She's been running the operation for three years.
Celestine learned to cook early.
"My mother had seven children. I had to cook because I was the eldest daughter. I just learned to cook from the time I was small," she said. "I can cook anything, if I put my mind to it." Home economics in school helped hone her skills, as did a few early jobs in people's homes.
But cooking is far from the only skill Celestine has and very far from being her life.
As a schoolgirl in Dominica, she fell in love with a young man named Michel Celestine. He moved to St. Thomas in 1969 to live with his sister, but he kept up a lively correspondence with the girl back home. On Aug. 15, 1970 — not that she remembers the date — she followed him to St. Thomas. For a short time he lived with some buddies and she lived with his sister. Then, at the ripe old age of 18, she married him on Jan. 2, 1971.
"He's a nice person, quiet and everything," she said. He works now as a taxi driver. When they were first married, Celestine says a little wistfully, "We had a little apartment on Seven Day Adventist Street" downtown.
Pretty soon the children started coming. First Eric, then Bernice, followed by Merrill and, finally, Micah.
Celestine was a stay-at-home mom. Or, as she puts it, "I raised my children." She stayed at home with them instead of getting a job outside the home, and she doesn't regret it. "They were respectful," she says. "All of them graduated from high school, with no problems."
Today all of them are living in Florida. Eric has his own tractor-trailer business; Bernice works for an insurance company; Merrill works for a restaurant supply company servicing cruise ships; and Micah just finished high school. Celestine sent her youngest to finish his education under the watchful eyes of his siblings. She had thought of moving to Florida herself even acquired a house there but hasn't been able to pull herself away from St. Thomas, where she is deeply involved in her church.
She is a founding member of the Trinity Baptist Church and has been on the board of directors for 25 years. She also serves as treasurer.
That's not the only office she holds.
"I'm president of the Thomasville Cooperative," she said. "That's my second term." The housing community near Bovoni on the East End is a success story in private ownership. "We run our affairs," she said simply.
Ambition has been a dominating theme in Celestine's life.
"I went to Charlotte Amalie [High School] at night after work," she said. "I went to typing school. I went to computer school." She worked as a domestic, in handicrafts, in a watch factory, in sales. She started out at Beverly's boutique as a seamstress. Then, one day, a man and his wife came into the shop. "Everything was so slow, and I convinced they to buy $500 worth" of merchandise. That convinced the boss to offer her a sales position.
Hers is the classic immigrant success story: work hard, get ahead. Not only does she have a house in Florida, she just finished building one in Dominica where she hopes to retire one day.
"I never go to court, never get a ticket on my car, never, never get in trouble," she said. "I didn't come to St. Thomas to get in no trouble. I came to make money."
Does she ever get discouraged?
Celestine drops her smile, deposits herself onto an ice chest and ponders the question for a moment.
"I have to encourage myself sometimes," she says. "You can't wallow in it. If no one else will encourage you, you have to encourage yourself."
Overall, she has plenty of reasons to be happy.
She is close to her family, visiting the children at least twice a year, talking daily with her daughter and keeping close tabs on the next generation.
"I'm a grandmother all over," she brags Bernice has three children, Merrill has two, and Eric, one.
The happiness of her life seems to spill over into everything, into her work at church, her negotiations with customers, and even into her stew pot.
"The best of it is my children and my husband," she said. "Well, first my God. God first, that's is my first priority in life, then my family."
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