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Detour: Haitian Houses, II
August 16, 2014
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
W. B. Yeats
A bit bourgeois, cream colored and dull -- this was the Ethéart house, where we lived for some unknown span of time between 1950 and 1952, in Pacot once again, across from the Lyle? Lisle? estate, a large enclosed property, its long driveway leading up to a gingerbread mansion with attendant servants’ quarters and other outbuildings. I could appreciate the pride with which Americans who lived in this house pronounced its title and the fact that our house had no such cachet. We didn’t stay there long, but just as I thought of leaving the Ethéart house out altogether, memories came crowding in.
This was the house in which I wanted to die because my mother, consumed with desire, had fed us canned corn on the cob since Haiti produces only field corn. As I remember, only my father and I got sick with what must have been botulism. I turned my mother out of my room, no thought that this would pass, that I might get better, came to me. I was eleven years old and I wanted to die. Plain and simple. And this was the house in which I fleetingly thought my mother was dead because she had fallen off the toilet, confined to an airless room of its own, no more than a closet, called le confort, the comfort. She had fainted and tipped over into the hallway where she lay absolutely still on the cold yellow title. My father and I stared down at her. That’s when I said it, the first thing that came into my head, “Is she dead?” What excuses can I muster? It was the middle of the night in which something had gone bump. It was shock which kept my reaction so entirely free of emotion. And this in turn shocked my father and haunts me still, for I loved my mother very much.
So the Ethéart house, though more ordinary than our first two pink houses, was still a Haitian house, and we were still adjusting, still missing things, looking backwards. Perhaps we always would be, always a foot in two countries. Corn on the cob would never be on the menu here; the most unusual bathroom arrangements were still to come. And our school on the Champs de Mars, which occupied a much older Haitian house, leaked so badly that everyone had to be sent home when it rained in the morning, as it did one day, though this was very unusual. The phones were not working, but because of the teledjòl (ultra-rapid word-of-mouth network), everyone showed up, parents, chauffeurs, maids, until only one child, a girl in my mother’s 5th grade class, was left. Perhaps it wasn’t raining where she lived on the outskirts of town. So my mother brought Mary Ann home to lunch. Her parents must have been reached eventually because she spent the night and woke to see a monster, eyes bulging, ears back, head flattened, squeeze through the narrow wooden shutters in my bedroom. Just that once. On subsequent sleep-overs, Mary Ann would recognize Princess, a resourceful cat who, like herself, was perfectly adjusted to the Ethéart house.
It’s the strangest thing: I can’t remember the other bedrooms. One or two? I think there must have been two, because I believe this was the first time I had a room of my own -- off white, large and cool with a lot of dark wood. I would have been happy there for several weeks leading up to Mary Ann’s first visit in which I lay, flat and alone for hours, with a case of walking pneumonia, except that I was not allowed to read. I think I must have disobeyed because I remember reading the Victorian comic novel, Helen’s Babies, and working on my stamp collection. It wasn’t the stamps I liked so much as the names of places they came from: Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius. I cried easily because of weakness during this time, but my room was fine, and the house itself represents stasis, an interim in which our new life in Haiti no longer felt raw. It looked as though things were going to work out for us. The Pillsbury agency my father had taken over was intact, bolstered by its very name: la farine Roi du Nord, King of the North flour. Who could this king be but Haitian revolutionary hero, Henri Christophe? So went Haitian thinking, and customers liked my father because he spoke French and was less hurried than most Americans, because he had soon learned to slow down, to sit for a while in a hot room behind a bakery, sipping sugary black coffee, catching up on les enfants, exchanging quotations of poetry, before getting down to business. We still had our old Ford coupe, and my mother had not yet learned to drive, but she had been offered a job at Union School where my sister and I were making friends, some of whom, like Mary Ann, would be lifelong, and doing well.
We had been put up for membership at the Pétionville Club which eventually provided dice games and poker for my father, bridge games for both my parents, slot machines available to any child tall enough to pull the handle, square dancing, American movies of the 30s and 40s, plausible hamburgers, 4th of July baseball games, and, for children, long Friday afternoons turning blue and wrinkled in the turquoise pool, diving, swinging from trees, running wild up and down surrounding hillsides, dodging golf balls, signing chits for innumerable cokes, dreadful Haitian Kolas, ice cream, and other snacks -- all completely unsupervised, except for passing waiters and perhaps a bonne (nanny) or two looking after very young children. Our fathers wouldn’t arrive until early evening; our mothers meanwhile outdid themselves taking turns serving each other high tea and gossip at the Colony Club, off limits to both men and children. A silver, or in my mother’s case silver-plated, tea service was de rigueur.This club, with its inappropriate and embarrassing (to me now) name, was in fact a lending library, its varied collection topped off by the latest American bestsellers.
O what a world of profit and delight! I may have occasion to repeat these words spoken by Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s play of that name, so close does his exclamation come to what Haiti was to us during this period. Not that there was ever much in the way of material profit beyond a decent living with enough left over for expensive educations for me and my sister. But Haitian art, music, dance, language, history, politics, indeed every aspect of the country’s rich and complex culture, from dress codes to social classifications, to names for variations in skin color, to dating practices, interaction with servants and dressmakers, preponderance of poverty and illiteracy, bouts of intermittent electricity, the freedom of unregulated traffic, and on and on, to which we were exposed, must also be counted as profit. We became acquainted with the ugly American. Cruise ships docked in the bay; tourists descended in loud shirts and bermuda shorts no Haitian at that time would wear, man or woman. Loud mouths they had too, wanted everything for nothing, were full of criticisms of our adopted country. Haiti was backward, smelly, dirty, and poor; they couldn’t wait to get back on board, and we were just as happy to see them go. “Lowest form of animal life,” my father said.
Some of these tourists were our own New York friends, happy to accept free room and board for overlong stays, as well as the attentions of what they deemed underpaid help, but couldn’t stand the poverty which implied some moral failing in us who faced it daily. This enormous subject is more than I want to take on here. Did we develop thick skins? Defenses against these accusations? Inevitably. I was a child and will for the moment let myself off. I know my father thought about these things. He knew Haiti better than any of us because of his wide reading in Haitian history and economics, his many Haitian and Syrian business and social friends, as well as acquaintances, from all social levels, in both Port-au-Prince and the outports; because of his criticism of articles in TIME; because of his questioning of U.S. policies affecting Haiti, the ignorance and ineffectiveness he noted in many of these, and in local U.S. government officials; because of his gregarious nature which led him to roam around town on Saturday mornings, dropping in on a friend for a chess game, hanging out in bars and hotels. He liked to analyze, to explain how he saw things. My version of his answer to how he could “stand it here” goes something like this: He hadn’t come to Haiti to do good, to lift Haiti out of illiteracy and poverty. He thought less about the plight of Haitians than about going to the poorhouse himself. He accurately saw his financial situation as unstable, subject to fluctuations in world markets, Haitian politics, rumor (Pepsi Cola could not be sold in Haiti because word had spread that it made men impotent), and other elements beyond his control. His reasons for moving to Haiti were personal, if not selfish: the opportunity came his way, he loved to travel, he loved French, was romantic and literary, curious and adventurous; he was dissatisfied with his job in New York; he liked the idea of being in business for himself. What about a better life for his family, the avowed motivation of so many immigrants? That too, no doubt, a welcome by-product.
My mother’s hankerings for what could not be had abated, but did not entirely subside. During a vacation in the cool mountain town of Furcy, the sight of elderberries growing thick and wild brought to mind cobblers made of this fruit during her childhood in Oklahoma. My father pointed out that undernourished Haitians must be leaving these berries for us to harvest because there was something wrong with them. But this was nonsense. They just didn’t know how good they were. The American ambassador and his wife came to lunch, the berries black and bursting with sweet, rich juice were delicious, but several of us, including my friend Mary Ann, suffered gastrointestinal distress the next day, and investigation proved that something, I don’t remember what, in the composition of Haitian soil makes it dangerous to eat elderberries grown there. A little chagrinned, but still proud of her cobbler, my mother was relieved to hear that the ambassador and his wife had not been affected.
I don’t have dates to back me up, or my parents alive to corroborate or dispute my memories, whether clear or hazy, in which corn on the cob, a new friend, a book I read when I had pneumonia, a rainy morning, and poisonous elderberries have become emblems, of what? We ate a crazy salad with our meat when we lived in the Ethéart house, our existence international, cosmopolitan, colonial, provincial, sophisticated, secure and precarious all at once. Every day at Union School (our union consisting mainly of our parents’ wish that we learn in English and their ability, as a privileged elite, to pay the tuition which I believe was $40 a month), we sang the Haitian national anthem, which begins Pour le pays, pour les ancêtres, For the country and the ancestors, harking back to a slave revolt and, further still, to African ancestor worship, while children in Haitian schools recited Nos ancêtres les Gaulois, Our ancestors the Gauls, from a set French curriculum. We children were awash in absurdities, infused with the buzz of adult conversation, our ears ringing with French, American, and Haitian popular songs, like Cerisier Rose et Pommier Blanc, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Good Night Irene, and The Tennessee Waltz. At our innocent and well-chaperoned birthday parties, we danced to Si vous avez des cornes, des cornes, des cornes, If you have horns. A betrayed husband, the song says, should display his horns proudly, a sign that his wife has hot blood.