“Did you eat breakfast?” Every time I hear this question, I flash back to when I had just arrived in the United States.
As my dad navigated his way onto the highway after picking me up from the airport in July of 1989, two things were very clear in my seven-year-old mind. First, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, well Port-au-Prince anymore, not with these tall buildings all around me. And second, I did not want to be here. Brooklyn, NY was very different from Martissant, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was so bright! How did people sleep in this place? I mean you had traffic lights, street lights, awning lights, building lights. I expected the ground to have lights too. The whole city was like a big candle. It was downright fascinating. But even more so, it was scary. Night time is supposed to be dark.
I sat in the back of my dad’s 1985 Oldsmobile in my blue, laced, ruffled dress and peered out the window, trying my best not to cry. Where was I? What did my mom get me into? I kept replaying over and over again the last conversation we had as I was about to board an American Airlines 747. “Don’t worry. Just be good. You will love New York. Just don’t stress your dad.” That last part was the most prevalent in my mind since she kept repeating it. “Don’t stress your dad. This is a good opportunity. You will get to wear these dresses every day when you move to New York.”
As she spoke, I glanced down at my outfit. I loved that dress. Toine, my mom who I never called “mom,” and I went to buy it just the day before I left. My dress was sky blue with three rows of ruffled lace in the upper breast area. It was one of my special occasion dresses. Those dresses I only got to wear to weddings, or when we had to take pictures to send to my dad in New York. Not only did I get to wear that beautiful sky blue dress, but everything else I had on was also reserved for special occasions. My hair was done in what I later called the holy trinity. Two braids on the sides, and one in the front. Each braid with its own light blue bow at the base, and a dark blue barrette at the tip. I looked down at my legs, covered with white stockings flowing into black patent leather shoes. I felt like a million bucks.
As Toine raved about the beauty of New York, it never occurred to me that she had never been there, and thus was not a good reference as to the magic that it held. She went on about how I would get to eat meat everyday. Really? I liked meat! We only got to eat meat once or twice a week in Haiti. Most days we ate herring and sardines. Chicken was a Sunday dish and not an every Sunday thing either. Meat everyday? Perhaps New York wasn’t so bad after all. I was convinced. She waved me off, I kissed her on the cheek, and said goodbye to my brother. I asked her one last time why my younger brother, Fenzy—whom we all called Zizi—was not coming with me. She answered that he would come later. As I thought of the prospect of meat everyday, I was almost able to muster up a smile as I boarded the plane, alone.
That feeling of possibility went out the window the minute the plane landed at JFK and the reality of the situation came crashing down on me. I was moving from Haiti to live with strangers: my father and his wife. I had never met him. Was he even really my father? How would I know that I was being picked up by the right person? Though I had seen pictures and heard stories, I had no desire to know him. “What had my mom gotten me into?” I asked myself once again. I was upset. I felt as if I had been conned. So as I sat in the back of my dad’s Oldsmobile that July evening, I didn’t love any of it as my mom had promised. I wanted to be home, with Toine, my brother, cousins, and friends. I sat in that car, praying, and trying with all my might not to cry. I didn’t want to be yelled at by my dad.
I’d hardly communicated with my dad prior to arriving here. It was too expensive to call, so in order to keep in touch, Toine, Zizi, and I would sit around a tape recorder telling him about ourselves and our lives. We would tell him how we were doing in school and what our needs were. My mom would give us a list of all the things to tell him. For example, we would say, “Papa, How are you? Please send money. We need shoes for school. I am not feeling well, and I am sick, please send money. Please send money so we can afford to buy and drink milk like the kids in New York.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized the manipulative games my mother and father were playing.
I only spoke to my father live perhaps three times, each conversation about a minute or so and none too pleasant. “Alo papa, koman’w ye. How are you dad?” And he would respond sounding annoyed, “Speak up! What is wrong with you? I cannot hear you. “ My fear of crying in front of him stemmed from those three minutes of previous conversation. All I remembered was that he did not have a kind voice, so I feared him before I even met him. He sensed that, and he took it personally, which only made him that much more defensive and abrasive.
As I sat in the back of that car that felt way too big for my body, I wondered about the woman sitting next to my dad. My mom had mentioned her. Marie Carmel. Her name was pretty, but her voice and accent didn’t match. She had this roughness about her. I didn’t sense meanness, there was just no finesse in the way she spoke. I almost chuckled as I thought back to how in Port-au-Prince, folks would make fun of people that sounded like her. Haitians in Port-au-Prince consider themselves more Eklere, or enlightened then the rest of Haiti. I guess that’s the same all over; most New Yorkers feel a tad superior in terms of panache than someone from, say, Alabama. So whenever someone sounded the way Marie Carmel sounded, they referred to them as Mounn Monn. Mountain people. Never did it occur to them that most of them started off in the mountains or the country. Nor that due to a horrible tragedy, many of them would be moving back.
That’s Haiti, though. Everyone wants to feel better than the next person. I guess those are the results of years of slavery. The rule in Haiti is: every maid has a maid. People are constantly trying to prove to themselves that their situation is not that bad. What better way to do that than to find someone worse off than you?
Marie Carmel and my dad began speaking quickly to each other. It was hard to follow. Though they mostly spoke in Creole, there were interjections of English words that threw me off. Marie Carmel turned around to face me and then asked me, “do you know you have a younger brother?”
Actually, I did not. My mom had failed to mention that little piece of information. Later on, I realized she didn’t even know. Yes, she knew my dad was married. But that was what he had to do. He needed a wife because he hadn’t been back to Haiti since Zizi was born in 1983. So six years later, of course he had to start a family. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t love my mom or that they weren’t still together. “No,” I answered in a low voice, to which my dad quickly responded, shouting, as he turned a curb, “What’s the matter with you? Speak up. Do we look like we bite”?
I wanted to shout, “yes”. But I managed to hold back. To my surprise, Marie Carmel stuck up for me and said, “Stop yelling at the girl.” Then she looked back at me, smiled, and said, “His name is Ricardo. He looks just like you. His lips are pink like yours.” As we pulled up to the two story, brick house, I was proud of myself. I did not cry, at least not on that July evening.
But as the days progressed, it became harder and harder to fight back the tears. Living in this strange place with my newly discovered father, stepmother, and half-brother was a complete shock to my system. Though I was amazed by the buildings, the big two-bedroom apartment with a big kitchen, and a bathroom with a toilet that flushed, I would have done anything to be back in our two-room shack in Haiti. I knew those people, I knew that place. Here, I felt so lost and scared. But even as a child, I was not a crier. I always put on a brave face, even when I was shaking in my dress, and forced myself to go through the motions. My only joy was Ricardo. I loved that little boy immediately. Though he bit me on a couple of occasions, I forgave him instantly. He was teething after all. He knew not what he did.
Marie Carmel was nice, but she confused me, though that was no fault of hers, really. I mean, what was I supposed to call her? For weeks I avoided calling her anything. If I needed to tell her something, I would make sure that I was facing her, just so I wouldn’t have to say her name. To call her by name, I thought, would be rude. You never call an adult by their name. I knew she wasn’t my mom, but then, here was my brother calling her mama. So I was torn and scared to call her the wrong thing. After about three weeks, I bit the bullet and called her mom. My dad heard me and called me into his room. He sat me down, and in a stern voice asked, “How many mothers do people have.” I knew I was in trouble. I had no idea exactly where the conversation was going, but I knew I had done something wrong. I answered, “One.” He followed by saying, “OK, you’re a smart girl, so would you mind telling me the name of your mother?” Ahhhh. My eyes lit up, and I said, “Toine”. He proceeded with his speech that I could only have one mother. Since I couldn’t call Marie Carmel “mom” anymore for fear of my dad, I decided to return to not calling her anything. I can laugh about these conversations today, but they terrified me back then. My dad is so logical that it can be downright daunting. But then again, some would say the same about me.
As the weeks and days progressed, my dad did his best to make conversation. But I was still terrified of him. He’s an imposing man in person, and those three minutes of conversation back in Haiti had a long-lasting impact on me. I could not bring myself to be comfortable with him the way he wanted, or even the way I wanted. I don’t think my dad was able to imagine how hard it must have been for a seven-year-old to be introduced into such an environment with no warning, very little finesse, and almost no time for transition. Haitians back in the day had the attitude of “life happens, just deal with it,” so it didn’t matter how young I was, there were no excuses.
It’s almost as if we expect life to be hard. Struggle is the norm, so any hint of positivity, is a blessing. This attitude toward life can even be seen in the way we answer basic, everyday questions. If a neighbor asks how you are, the appropriate response is, “Nou pa pi mal non,” we are not so bad. Because the assumption is it could be worse. It took me a long time to appreciate this Haitian attitude. I always held the notion that it could be worse, so as opposed to wallowing in misery, I focused on my blessings. The danger in that attitude is that one can become complacent, but that’s not Haitian either. While on one level we struggle with the worst of the worst situation, we constantly strive for better. This dichotomy has been instrumental to shaping who I am.
Even at that age, I was more Haitian than I ever knew because I made the best of the situation. I knew that I wanted my dad and I to have a better relationship, and I knew I wanted to be happier. But I had neither, and no idea how to go about achieving either goal.
After a few weeks of being in the US, it became abundantly clear that there was no going back. I grew sadder by the day. In retrospect, it’s not that life was horrible, I just missed home. I missed Haiti. Had I not been Haitian, I would probably have been a depressed child. But such words don’t exist in our vocabulary. Depression is something that white folks have the luxury of because they have money. This is actually a problem in our way of thinking, though, as mental illness does affect our community and is too often left untreated.
Now that I think about it, I can’t believe there was a point in my life when I actually had an aversion to eating. But that summer of 1989, I rarely ate, I was so homesick. And when I did finally eat, I would throw up. I missed the food from home. Breakfast here was child’s play. In Haiti, breakfast was as strong as dinner. It consisted of morue, codfish and boiled plantains, corn meal or banana porridge, boiled eggs, coffee and bread. I mean real coffee. In Haiti, even kids drink coffee. You’re supposed to. Now, when I think about it, coffee is an appetite suppressant, and since most people didn’t have enough to eat, the coffee was probably the secret to keeping us from becoming hungry too early in the day, since for most Haitians, breakfast is the only full meal of the day.
My dad is one of those people who yells whenever a situation is outside of his control. He felt my not eating was a direct attack on him in some way. Now that I am older, I can empathize with the way my father must have felt, but at the time, I just thought he was crazy and mean. The way he saw it, I was not just rejecting the food, I was rejecting him. That made him upset and, of course, hurt. Coupled with his worries about my health, it was a recipe for disaster.
So by the time school rolled around in September, he had issued a decree that I was to eat breakfast every morning before going to school. You might think this simple enough. But it was torturous because I had no appetite. I only ate when I had to. Even though I feared my father, I also knew that I couldn’t possibly eat before school and risk what it would do to my stomach. Luck was on my side because my dad worked nights and didn’t get home until I was about to leave for school, or after I had already left. So most mornings I was safe and didn’t have to eat.
Eating is such a joyous activity. But for seven-year-old me, there was nothing joyous about it. I couldn’t get over the fact that my Toine and Zizi were not here. I had never been away from them for so long. In the two months I had been here, I spoke to them once. I overheard my dad talking to my mom one time asking, “What kind of mother are you? Your child is in another country and you only call her once in two months?” My dad was harsh, but as I grew older, I began to see that he was not a mean person. He has a heart of gold and is very sensitive. He sees everything. As more time went by, I became preoccupied with that conversation. How come my mom doesn’t call me more? How come when I do speak to her, all she says to me is, “be good; don’t give your dad any trouble?” Thinking about those things did not help my appetite.
School didn’t help my appetite either. The first day I walked to school, which was a block and a half from my house, I felt like a million bucks. I was dressed in a red satin and lace dress, red tights, black shoes, red bows, and red barrettes. Yes, I was all red. I was looking forward to school. Over the summer my dad had taken me to get registered and they informed him that though I was testing at a fifth grade level, I was going to be placed in the third grade because that’s where seven-year-olds went. My dad was upset, but there was nothing he could do about it. I was placed in a Creole-English bilingual class. I walked in and every eye was on me. Some kids chuckled and others smiled, but all I heard were the chuckles. I wondered what they were chuckling about, but lo and behold, I picked up on it within seconds. Everyone, with the exception of about four kids, was wearing jeans and T-shirts or other casual clothing. So I quietly sat down and buried my head in my books.
At recess a girl named Manouchka came to talk to me. She was cool. Everyone liked Manouchka, and like me, she had a big gap in her front teeth. She told me that I was wearing the “Just come” outfit. Just come is the term that was used to describe newly arrived Haitians. She went on to explain that kids did not dress up so dressy for school here. You wore regular clothes. That was hard for me to wrap my brain around. In Haiti we wore uniforms to school. But it was understood that your school attire must always be the best it can be. Education is what set you apart, so you have to dress your best to receive the best. I listened to her, but I didn’t believe her.
So every morning, I would dress up for school in one of my finest outfits and go. I mean, this is what I came to this country for. To wear pretty dresses all the time. How could she try to take that away from me? So I avoided Manouchka. At lunchtime, I would sit in a corner. The food was nasty, and I still had no appetite anyway. But school wasn’t all bad. It was my getaway, too. It was my getaway from being home, where I would be forced either to eat with or talk to my dad. Two things I just could not do.
One morning, just as I was about to leave, my dad walked in. As I kissed him good morning and tried to dash out the door, he asked, “Did you eat this morning?” My heart jumped, but I kept my cool. “Yes, Dad,” I answered, my stomach in knots. He glanced around the room quickly and asked me what I had eaten. I told him I had a banana cut up in cornflakes, like he had shown me. Then he asked me to close the door and come back into the kitchen. He asked me where I had gotten the banana from. I answered that I had gotten it from the top of the fridge where we kept the bananas. He pulled down the banana bunch and asked me again, “You got it from this bunch?” I was shaking, but I said yes. He asked me how long ago. I replied about ten minutes ago. He looked at the banana cluster and sat me down. “Nadege,” he explained, “when you pull a banana from the bunch, the area from where you pull it is lighter than the other part. See how the rest is black, but when I pull a banana from the cluster, that area is yellow? It will eventually turn black like the rest, but not within ten minutes. I will ask you one more time, did you eat?”
I was a stubborn little child, so I swallowed hard, and repeated again, “Yes.” So he put the bananas on the table and said, “Let’s wait ten minutes to see if it’s enough time to turn black all around again.” As we waited, he asked, “Oh, by the way, where did you put the peel?”
I knew I was dead! But I had to stick to the story, so I said, “The garbage can.” As he bent over the garbage to look for the peel, I started to cry because I knew it was over. I mean really? How would I get around this? There was no banana peel in the garbage can! Had I been older, I might have told him that I ate the peel, or perhaps that I flushed it down the toilet. He would have asked why, and for the former, I could have said, “I read somewhere that the skin is the most nutritious” and for the latter, I could have answered, “Convenience. I so happened to be in the bathroom when I took the last bite.” But I wasn’t older and I wasn’t that quick on my feet.
That breakfast debacle taught me that if you are going to lie, lie well. Plan your lies. Step outside of the lie and look around. Look from all angles and ensure you are ready to receive and cover all sides of the lie. Minimize the clues that you’re lying.
But the bigger lesson was that lying is not worth it. It’s stressful and unnecessary. If I had simply said, “No dad, I did not eat,” while he would have been upset, the incident would have been less traumatic. I mean after all, the man was only looking out for me. Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day.