Dreams from My Father

When the author’s missionary dad moved the family to Haiti, she was an adolescent and mad as hell. Now grown, she goes back there in hopes of understanding her difficult, idealistic parent—and herself 

By Apricot Irving
trip to haiti
The writer (second from left) with her sisters and parents in Limbé Valley, Haiti, in 1990.
Photograph: Simon Picazo

The next few months were predictably volatile. To raise funds, Dad and Mom gave slideshows about deforestation at local churches, then called us girls up front to sing in Kreyòl. I sulked and pouted. At home, Dad and I fought like hell. Once, he threw a Bible through the window because I refused to participate in family devotions. When Mom came home that night, she accused me of provoking my father and called me “the devil’s handmaiden”—words that I tearfully recorded in my diary.

A few days after my 14th birthday, I flew alone to Haiti. The rest of the family had arrived there two weeks earlier, while I was on a school trip to Baja. As the plane circled the sugarcane fields outside Cap-Haïtien, it all felt strangely familiar: the tiny, mud-walled houses; the white-sand beaches; the desolate hillsides empty of trees.

At the airport, my sisters threw their arms around me, their thin cotton dresses blowing in the wind. I noted, skeptically, that Mom and Dad seemed glad to see me. Dad had a Haitian straw hat shoved over his ears and a faded backpack slung over one shoulder. He looked sunburned and relaxed. My long hoop earrings brushed against my shoulders as I straightened my skirt. Within minutes, I realized with disappointment that my carefully teased bangs were starting to wilt in the tropical humidity. But I was confident that anyone who observed my boldly squared shoulders, teal eyeliner and world-weary half-smile would realize that I did not belong in this backward, unfashionable missionary family.

The airport was low and squalid. Incompetent ceiling fans, caked in a layer of greasy dust, rotated uselessly while customs officials rummaged through my luggage. The breeze from the sea smelled of rotting fish and garbage, -confirmation that Dad had, in fact, brought us back to Haiti to ruin our lives.

As we drove toward the Limbé Valley through the soot and noise of Cap-Haïtien, bare-chested men strained against wooden carts piled high with discarded tires and sugarcane. Children shouted, “Blan! Blan!

I sank deeper into my seat.

In the mornings—hot, humid, smelling of hibiscus and smoldering charcoal—my sisters and I dressed for school while Dad tromped off into the hills with a backpack full of seeds, a jug of water and a Kreyòl Bible to preach the gospel of trees. When strangers asked him what he carried in his macoute, he answered, “I’m carrying hope.”

This time he had struck out on his own, leaving the tree nursery in the hands of another horticulturist. He was determined to work directly with the peasant farmers to solve the problem of deforestation. His goal was to persuade them to sow tree seeds in their gardens so that the roots would hold the soil in place. He introduced drought- and animal--resistant trees that coppiced readily; even when harvested for charcoal, the trunks would send up offshoots. It was a new paradigm: trees as a renewable resource. And at least initially, the peasant farmers seemed excited. The tiny seedlings began to unfurl tentative, green-fringed leaves. Hope was in the air.

My sentiments were less optimistic. “I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d hate weekends,” I wrote in my journal, “but from here on out, they can kiss my ass. At least during the week I can keep busy with school and see other Americans, even if they despise me, but weekends are miserable in this deserted hellhole. Everyone is at a soccer match now. Talk about a dead sport.”

Determined to punish my parents for dragging me to Haiti, I fought over the dress code (they had forbidden us to wear pants or short skirts in public), and at least once a week Dad and I had a standoff at the front door.

“You’re not leaving the house wearing that,” Dad insisted, the tendons in his neck straining, his shoulders hunched into a wrestler’s stance, as if to hurl me to the floor if I tried to slip past him.

“Fine, then I’m not leaving,” I retorted, my hands on my hips. When I felt the sting of salt in my eyes, I angrily flicked away the tears—careful so as not to smudge my mascara.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue

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