Genesis

Through my public health work, I’ve learned something about epigenetics—the phenomenon by which factors in the environment (diet, stress, air quality, whether your grandmother smoked or not) attach themselves to our DNA and become a part of us, capable of being passed on to future generations.

I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry by which it happens, but I’m drawn to  the idea that we absorb our environment—or perhaps it’s the opposite, our environments absorb us. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just back from a week in Haiti, a country that has been a part of my environment since well before I was born. From 1927 until sometime in the late 1940s, my grandparents ran a sisal plantation outside Cap Haitien. My mother and her siblings grew up there. Talk of Haiti permeated my childhood. We learned Haitian words for body parts (boonda for rear end) and foods (my mother’s egg custard was zeffelie, Creole from les oeufs au lait).

When I was four, my parents and grandmother took me to Haiti on a trip whose particulars I remember far more powerfully than its overall structure or duration. I remember, for example, the number of the hotel room where my grandmother and I slept (12); my encounter with a young girl who pointed to a plant in the hotel garden and uttered the word fleur (and my astonishment that I could understand her); the endless drive on a dusty mountain road; the night we dined al fresco atop a steep hill while Haitians danced the limbo, and my parents ordered  succulent steaks for themselves and a tough cut of cheap beef for me, confident I would never register the affront.

Haiti is not only the locus of my mother’s childhood and site of my own first foreign journey, it’s where my father spent World War II and where my parents met. It is thus, in ways both symbolic and real, primal—the place without which my brother and sister and I would not exist.

After that 1959 trip, I did not go back, nor did my parents. Too much political upheaval, the logistics too daunting. My mother spent the rest of her life savoring the sounds and smells and tastes of Haiti. She kept plantains in her fruit bowl and limes in her refrigerator (even if she rarely ate either), and in her later years, she sometimes danced to Haitian music when my brother played the right CD. She became obsessed with the notion of her life as a bon bagaille—Haitian for a “good time”—and insisted we describe it as such after her death, which we did.

She repeatedly asked us to scatter her ashes in Haiti.

We promised we would.

Specifically: “I want to be scattered in the Caribbean north of Haiti.” The north, where Columbus landed—a place of origin not just for us but for the North American imagination.

“OK, Mom.”

By the time my brother and I made our way to Cap Haitien last week, our father, too, had died, and we combined their ashes in a pair of pill bottles and on an outing to a fish restaurant in a cove near Labadie beach, scattered our parents in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Afterward, over lunch, a fellow traveler raised his bottle of Prestige beer. “A toast to your parents,” he said. “They’re finally home.”

The day felt as if my mother had orchestrated it.

As I sat on my hotel patio the next morning, absorbing the pre-dawn sounds of Cap Haitien—roosters, the tin clang of cathedral bells, sensations my mother must have carried in her bones—it occurred to me that Haiti had long been lodged in my chromosomal matter and was now, in my 60th year, expressing itself. A latent contagion, adult-onset.

Coming here had been a pilgrimage. We’d found the pink hotel where my mother and her family had lived for two years while waiting for their house to be built, and where I’d stayed as a four-year-old, in a majestic room (# 12) surrounded by gardens of fleurs. The plantation of my mother’s youth lay off in the distance from where I now sat with a mug of coffee (strong and black the way my mother and grandmother always drank it), beyond the bay over which a bright January sun was rising, hidden as primal scenes should be. I sat, sipping coffee, remembering my mother’s memories, knowing they would soon morph into mine, were already, in fact, mine. My inheritance.

My Mother’s Caribbean

????????????????????????????????“As she told me stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.”

That’s Jamaica Kincaid, writing about her mother in the exquisite Annie John, a novella I read for the third time yesterday while flying from Grenada to Miami on my way home to Ann Arbor. Inside my copy of the book (whose cover cracked in half midway over the Caribbean, so old is the volume), I found a note I’d written to myself in an unspecified year:

“I first read this book eight years ago and fell in love with it. I picked it up again a few weeks ago on a dreary January day and fell for it all over again.”

Such is the nature of literary devotion. This time I took the affair a step further by carrying the book to and from Kincaid’s kind of island; I even coupled it with her delicate screed of an essay, A Small Place (now reviewed in the newly released  Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter). A Small Place indicts those, like me, who swoop down on beautiful islands for a mid-winter respite from our colorless lives.

“When the natives see you, the tourist,” Kincaid charges, “they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Flying over Caribbean yesterday, I spotted a larger place, the island where my own mother grew up: Haiti, whose stories she has not tired of telling, even now, in her 92nd year. She grows teary when I report by phone from Miami that I saw the dun-colored country of her childhood from the air.

At 30,000+ feet, Haiti is an unpeopled bit of geometry surrounded by an ethereal blue sea that edges into sky, into a kind of nothingness that suggests (to me at least) the state of my mother’s mind these days. I sit staring from my window at the place where my mother slept under mosquito nets and checked her shoes for scorpions in the morning and listened as the family maid, Ta Gras (from Alta Gracia), brought the morning’s coffee to my grandmother. It’s an idyll Kincaid might attack, given its context–my grandfather was managing a sisal plantation, and the U.S. Marines had recently occupied the country.

Still, these are the stories my mother fed me until I no longer knew what she was saying, and as we fly over the turquoise sea where her mind increasingly dwells, I tell myself she is laughing.