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

Eventually I’d slam mybedroom door and change clothes (though a few times I simply put a longer skirt over the miniskirt and removed it later). In the afternoons, I hid behind novels: Anne of Green Gables, The Far Pavilions, The Clan of the Cave Bear.I wrote long, heartbroken journal entries while my homesick sister cried herself to sleep across the hall.

As hard as the adjustment was on the rest of us, it was obvious that Dad felt at home in Haiti. When he shuffled in at the end of the day from some remote village, I tried to tune out his stories of Haitian poverty and resilience. I despised his unpredictable temper, his faded, rumpled clothes and his dirt-stained fingernails. I avoided sitting next to him at dinner so that I wouldn’t have to hold his hand during the prayer. But a few months later, even I could tell that his enthusiasm had begun to falter.

After months without rain, the tiny seedling trees that he had handed out so hopefully had withered in the eviscerated soil. Farmers in the north called it the worst drought in 17 years. Creeks slowed to a trickle, then evaporated. Dad spent weeks trying to pipe water into a cement cistern so he could save the gardens. But the cement was faulty, and in the middle of the night, the walls collapsed. The farmers woke, terrified, to a shuddering explosion of water across the parched soil. It seemed to me that nothing we did mattered: Even with Dad’s help, the farmers were still poor and hungry; the trees still died.

Dad was able to hold it together until the funeral of Nosben, a promising young man whose death from sickle-cell anemia was more than he could bear. At the grave site, mourners filed past a pile of decaying bones that had been disinterred to make room for death’s most recent victim. When Dad returned home, still agitated, to squabbling teenage girls, he lost it. He picked up a wooden statue of a Haitian peasant woman struggling under an impossibly heavy load and hurled it across the room. The statue shattered when it hit the wall, the basket splitting open along the wood grain, the woman’s broken arm flying from her body.

My sisters hid behind Mom. I raised my eyebrows, my face cold. I just wanted to escape before Haiti destroyed the rest of us.

By the time we left, a year later, none of us knew how to talk about what we had just survived. We didn’t talk about the time we were evacuated from the missionary compound for fear of riots or the time we watched a man burned alive inside a rubber tire. We didn’t talk about the rural woman Dad had come close to having an affair with. For years Haiti was a subject we avoided.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I asked Dad if I could read through our family letters from Haiti. He shrugged and pulled a stack of musty Chiquita-banana boxes from the barn. Sticky with tractor grease and coagulated fruit stains, the boxes had been hidden under outgrown baseball gloves and loose bales of hay. I waited until I was alone, then gingerly brushed aside the cobwebs to find translucent orange Roman Meal bread bags full of letters, bills, church bulletins and missionary newsletters. As I sorted through the torn and separated pages, I discovered that my father had given me a gift I hadn’t anticipated—his journals.

I sat back on my heels and opened the day planner that Dad had filled with his jagged, left-handed scrawl.

“Beautiful sunset coming down the mountain,” he noted just after we returned to Haiti for the last time.

A short while later he observed, “Girls forlorn tonight.” I put my hand over my mouth and choked back a sob. I hadn’t realized that he’d noticed.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue

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