Haitian Boy Meets Mommy
By: Isnel Othello
Jean-Pierre stepped in front of the house that belonged to the parents he had not seen since his mother gave birth to him eight years ago. He was obviously anxious. It took him so long to get here, but then again he felt rushed. One minute he was in Haiti. The next moment he was in the Bahamas. The sudden displacement had caused him to mature too soon because at eight years old, he swore he was a man. And now finally in the United States and about to meet the parents he did not have any memories of, his body felt heavy— he was burdened with regrets.
It was the companion Jean-Pierre had been traveling with who knocked on the door. He gave it three knocks. No answer. Then another three. Waiting for someone to just answer the door was nerve-racking. The anticipation was killing him. Just get it over with. In an attempt to keep himself calm, he squeezed his hands into a fist. Applying such pressure to his body was a coping mechanism. He also tried to distract himself by concentrating on the door knob. Besides this unfamiliar environment, the round, metal door knob was new to him. Though the shanty house he had lived in back in the Caribbean had a front door, it was without a door knob. People had walked in and out of that house with ease.
So there he was. Standing in front of this house with this doorknob; all the apprehension in the world was beating on his head. Images from photos of his parents raced before his eyes. All sorts of emotions ran throughout his body. When the door finally opened, a woman came out and like a train wreck; his silent panic came to a grinding halt.
“Jean-Pierre,” the woman yelled from overzealous joy. “You arrived!”
But the boy backed away and tried to hide behind the man he was standing next to. She came around the man, hoisted Jean-Pierre with her short arms and gave him a squeezing hug. The boy did not embrace her and instead of wrapping his arms around her upper body; he let them dangle in midair. She shook and shook his body. After she brought his wee figure back to the ground, she invited the boy and the man inside the house. She led Jean-Pierre and the man to the living room and told them to sit. The boy sat next to the man. His mother sat on a chair across the room.
“Sak pasé?” She asked in their Haitian Creole tongue.
“No, I do not have time for small talk.” The man replied. “I have important business to attend to. If you do not mind, I would like to receive my payment and leave.”
She stood up. “Then let me get it.”
Before walking away, she placed her right hand on top of Jean-Pierre’s head and rubbed it gently. He pulled away.
“Are you happy to finally be home?” The man asked Jean-Pierre.
The boy did not reply. He was told to call the man “Uncle” if anyone had asked him during their trek from Haiti to the Bahamas and then to the United States. Jean-Pierre lifted his head and took a glimpse of his new surroundings. This was his new home. But he quickly brought his head down right as his mother reentered the living room.
“Here you go,” she said before offering the man a white envelope.
The man got up, grabbed the envelope, opened it and started counting the money. “If you ever need my service again, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
“I do not have another,” she said, turning her head to look at the boy. “He is the only one.”
“But you do have other relatives in Haiti and if you…”
“I understand,” she interrupted.
The man abruptly left without saying good-bye to Jean-Pierre. The boy was going to miss him though he wouldn’t admit this to himself. There were a bunch of people he missed and this man was just like the other individuals that hid in the black space behind his head. Now this woman—his estrange mother, was set to reemerge from that black space.
“Come to me.” She demanded Jean-Pierre. He stood up and reluctantly walked towards her. “Are you cold?”
He gave no response. Mother and son stood in the middle of the living room with two feet of empty space separating them from each other. Unable to say a word, he endured the stillness—his silence was the only thing shielding him from being disappointed by whom she was and who she wasn’t. He did not dare to stare into her eyes, and instead, he took notice to the smudge that was on her shirt; it sat right above her stomach. It looked like a brown colored food stain that had decided to permanently stay despite numerous attempts at washing it away. So big, her clothes seemed to have swallowed her entire body. The top garment was white with blue stripes going down to her stomach, the bottom was all blue. As for Jean-Pierre, he was wearing a spotless button-down white and beige short-sleeve plaid shirt and matching dress-up short pants. His socks and shoes were also new. They were one of the many outfits his mother had sent to the Bahamas for him to wear.
“Are you cold?” She asked again.
He dropped his head, his eyes landed on her feet. Her toes were large. He wondered if his feet truly came from hers. Her skin was a few shades lighter than his. Jean-Pierre was not tall but his thin shape stretch his body, as African as the other Haitians living in the Caribbean. Taller than he was, his mother looked short, a little heavyset, and resembled more of an African-American. His eyes were oval. Hers were round. He had a puffy nose. Hers was skinny.
“Okay,” she said after giving up on getting an answer out of the boy.
She sighed and walked a few steps to the kitchen.
“So are you going to come here or just stand there,” she asked him.
He did as she instructed. Once he was at the table, he continued to avoid any eye contact. He looked at the half empty walls. They were this burnt-colored wood he was unfamiliar with. The living room was decorated with a brown couch, two end tables, and a glass coffee table in the middle. Below was a light brown square carpet; on top of the small table was a sculpture of Mother Mary with her arms wrapped around a baby Jesus. Next to the sculpture was a set of English textbooks neatly positioned at the corner.
“Your eyes are everywhere except on me,” she said to him.
He turned his turned but his eyes were not focused on her.
“Do you speak good English?”
“Wi,” he said before transitioning from his native tongue to the English language he was taught while attending a Catholic school in Haiti. “I mean yes.”
“You have not seen me for eight years, your entire life and you been here for 45 minutes.” She revealed. “All I get is 1, 2,” she raised her right hand and started counting her fingers, “4 words out of your mouth? But I am glad your aunts did what I told them to do. It would have been no use for you to come here and not know the English language. It took me a very long time to speak good English. I did not know good English when I wrote you those letters but now I almost speak like a American. What did you do with the letters I sent you?”
He did not say a word.
“Why are you not answering me boy?” She paused for his response but quickly said, “It is rude not to look at someone when you are talking to them. I guessed Ma Pa missed on teaching a couple of things to you.”
He turned to face her. But his eyes landed on his lap.
“How was your trip? I know you were supposed to be here sooner, but these things are unpredictable. They usually last a longtime. But I am surprised he was able to get all the immigration papers as quickly as he did. He is good, you know. Did Uncle take care of you?”
“Yes,” Jean-Pierre finally said.
“Are you afraid to look at me?”
He squeezed his hands, almost cutting off the blood flow from his fingers.
“I am your mother,” she went on. “Do you know that? You may call me Mommy just like the American children call their mothers. This is America. You are expected to behave like an American. Do you know that? Look at me when I talk to you. Pick up your eyes.”
“Yes,” he said. He picked up his eyes to look at her and with great difficulty; he tried to make himself believe this woman was actually his mother, attempting to associate those automatic feelings a son would have for a mother.
“Yes what,” she asked.
“Yes, Mother,” he told her before looking away.
“No,” his mother yelled as she slammed her hand on the kitchen table. She paused, and then continued to speak in a lower tone. “That is not how I want to be addressed. I said for you to call me Mommy. Mother sounds old. Look at me. Do I look old?”
“No, Mommy,” he said. He picked up his eyes and looked at her. The word Mommy had trickled inside his head, passed through his ambiguous assumption of her and landed on his tongue. Then it came out of his mouth, tasting like bad medicine.
“Did you call any of your aunts Mommy?”
“No, Mommy.” Yuck.
“What did you call them?”
“I called Ma Pa Ma and Aunty Oga Matant.”
She squint her eyes. “They are not your mothers. I am. They are my sisters and your aunts. You were supposed to call them Matant or Aunty. Not Ma, Mama, Mommy or Mother.” She sighed and crossed her arms. “I suppose she did not tell you a word about me or your father. I am the one that your body came out of. Did she read the letters I sent you? Did she teach you any values? I wrote a list”
He opened his dry mouth but nothing came out.
“You know your father and I left Haiti for you.” She continued to say.
She reached across the table to lay her hand on his cheeks. He flinched. She pulled away.
“If we did not leave Haiti and send for you, you would not be here. You would have died. Haiti is not a good place to raise children, you know.”
Following his parents’ departure, his mother gave his aunt Ma Pa a list of things she wanted the boy to learn in her absence. The first thing she wrote down was her name. The second was his father’s name, followed by God, respect, school, discipline. Haiti was the last word she wrote down. Ma Pa told Jean-Pierre stories of how his mother had grown up. She told him how his mother met his father, Titu—he threw a rock from a slingshot up in the air and it landed on her head. They were lovers at an early age. His parents got married in Port-au-Prince. Titu was an auto mechanic who played the guitar as a hobby and wanted to be in a professional Kompa band. She told him that his father gave up that dream once he was born. They relocated to Saint Louis after dictator Baby Doc lost more than just his mind. But since Saint Louis did not have many vehicles, it was impossible for Titu to find any work as an auto mechanic. He became a farmer, though Haitian agriculture was not prosperous either. Fed up by Baby Doc’s dictatorship, Titu paid a human smuggler to get him and his mother on a boat to the United States.
“So I suppose you would like to go back?” His mother asked. He felt stale. “Aren’t you going to say anything about the food I made for you?”
He looked at the food that was on the table. He did not smell any aroma coming out of it. The boy grew up thinking that any meal that did not have an inviting scent was wasteful eating. Jean-Pierre looked at the winkles that were piling on his mother’s forehead and grabbed the fork.
“No!” She yelled at him.
He let go of the fork.
“Pick up the spoon,” she said. “Eat the soup first.”
He looked at the bowl of soup and felt noxious. It was not the same pumpkin-flavored vegetable and spaghetti soup Ma Pa used to cook for him.
“It’s joumou soup with an American flavor. Go ahead,” she urged, “Taste it. You will like it.”
He picked up the spoon and tasted the soup but he quickly dropped it, grabbed the fork and began eating the other plate of food: chunks of goat meat, okra, white rice and bean sauce.
“I see you like the kabrit better.” She said with a smile.
But he was done after eating half of what was on his plate.
“Finish the whole plate. Look at you, you’re skinny. Eat.” She demanded.
“No,” he said.
“What! How dare you speak to me like that!”
“My stomach is full,” he said. He lifted his shirt and pulled it up to his face. He felt bloated. “I can’t eat anymore,” he said, continuing to hold his shirt up to his face.
“Stop this,” his mother yelled. She reached across the table and pulled his shirt down. “You are being a big baby, now stop this.”
“My stomach will explode,” he yelled.
Out of frustration, he slammed both hands on the table. The bowl shook. Some of it splattered on his mother’s face. She jumped up, grabbed him by the ear and marched him to the bathroom. She squeezed his ears so hard that his entire head burned in sensational pain. But as much as he begged her to leg go and despite how much his face was soaked from his tears, she did not. After she opened the bathroom door and thrust him inside, she slammed the door close. Frustrated, Jean-Pierre walked towards the tub, got inside and laid there in the fetal position. He heard her footsteps fade away into the kitchen, then another door slammed. After a while, he had stopped crying. He decided to run away. Back to Haiti. So he jumped out of the tub and sprang to his feet. Then he opened the door and ran to the bedroom to get his clothes. His mother was nowhere in sight. His small suitcase was not there either. He turned his head and walked over to the closet. The damn suitcase was not there either but he saw a lot of his mother’s garments hanging on a wooden rod. There was nothing but work uniforms, they must be the only clothes she wore. No wonder she was so evil, Jean-Pierre thought.
All of a sudden a smile popped on the boy’s head. He was going to get revenge on his crazy mean old Mummy by pulling all her ironed out uniform and pulling them down to the floor. He grabbed one garment and then grabbed the other. The more garments he grabbed and dropped to the floor, the more the smile on his face grew. Then he stopped and started stomping on the clothes that were on the floor. This was fun but not the same fun he used to have in Saint Louis.
Up and down his body went. The higher his head leaped into the air, the harder his feet fell, mashing his mother’s garments on the dusty floor. But after a ten minute cycle of jumping up and down and mashing her clothes on the dirty floor, Jean-Pierre was exhausted. But he was still angry at Mommy, so he walked back to the closet and stopped short of pulling the brown pants he saw hanging on the wooden rod. He assumed it belonged to his father. The assumption of his father, who he had yet to see, brought his emotions to shift. He grabbed the pants and tried them on without taking his own clothes off. He saw a man’s shirt hanging at the end of the closet, grabbed it and put it on without taking his shirt off. He liked how the shirt smelled. It made him feel closer to his father even though he had yet to see him. But the button down brown shirt was large enough to swallow his entire body. The long sleeves made him feel like he had extra wings to fly. So he climbed on his parents’ bed and started jumping up and down; the more he jumped the more the bed became a horrid mess. As he jumped up and down the bed, he started flapping his arms as if he actually could fly. But all of a sudden it stopped.
“What is all this mess!” His mother emerged into the bedroom yelling.
Jean-Pierre quickly jumped off the bed and stood quietly in stale shock.
“Clean this mess.” She demanded.
“Yes, Mommy,” he said.
“Oh now you call me Mommy,” his mother yelled.
She stood over him with her arms crossed. He moved frantically from one side of the room to the other, picking the garments off the floor. He tried to pick them all up at once, piling a bunch in one shoulder and attempted to put more on the other side. But as he picked up the clothes and put them on one side, the clothes that were on his other side fell. His mother tried not to laugh. She walked toward him, grabbed the garments he was holding and piled them on the bed. Then she asked him to pick the rest off the floor. Afterwards, they folded the clothes together.
“You look like your father,” his mother said. “But you act like me.” She continued to fold the clothes as she spoke. “I am sorry to leave you alone, especially after being away from you for so long. But I have to work. Your father has to work. In America you need money more than you need love to take care of a family.” She looked down at Jean-Pierre and smiled. “But you can take care of yourself, right? You have been taking care of yourself since you were born, Bòt Tutu.”
She dropped the shirt, grabbed Jean-Pierre’s left cheek and squeezed. Then she picked up the same shirt and resumed folding it. Jean-Pierre did not think she knew his nickname.
“I bet you thought I did not know your nickname,” she told him. “Did you know I gave you that name?” He shook his head no. “You want to know why?” He widened his gaze. “Well, when you were about to be born, the midwife could not pull your body out of me. You were stuck. You were a big boy.” She stopped to look at him, “But now you are skinny.” Then she continued to fold the clothes. “The midwife pulled. Your father made her stop because he did not want her to break your body or kill you. I was worried you were going to die. It was a scary moment that lasted forever.”
She paused, looked up at the ceiling and brought her fingertips to her lips. After the silence, she brought her head down and continued to fold the clothes again.
“The midwife says to us all, Ban m’ kouto an ak koupe.” She quickly put the shirt she was folding over her mouth, stopping herself from bursting with laughter. After his mother composed herself, she repeated what the midwife said in English, as it sounded funnier told in a different language “She said, ‘Give me the knife and I will cut him. Half will come out and the other half will always stay with you.’ I would have to walk around Port-au-Prince with half of you under me just like this.” She dropped the shirt she was folding and finally burst out the laughter she was trying to withhold. Then she began walking around the bedroom in circles, tilting like a penguin from side to side.
He got behind his mother and started mimicking her. The two giggled uncontrollably as tears cracked through their eyes. Suddenly she stopped, turned around and kneeled down, staring straight into Jean-Pierre’s wide gaze.
“I was afraid I had forgotten how to be your mother,” she said in a sympathetic whimper.
And Jean-Pierre had forgotten how to be a son. She gave him a hug and finally, the boy wrapped his arms around his mommy.