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

After my last trip to Haiti, I didn’t want to come home. I had gone to collect stories—from earthquake and cholera survivors, from childhood friends—and after a week of potholed roads, windswept, eroded mountains and fresh-caught fish drizzled with lime, I felt alive and inspired. Once again, Haiti had mesmerized me with its all-contradictions-at-once insistence on life. I had interviewed peasant farmers and been out to sea with fishermen on cell phones; I had bargained in Kreyòl, cupped a fledgling parrot in my hands, laughed with friends and cried at the stories of strangers. The last morning, I woke at 5 am to a cacophony of roosters and cicadas and realized I wasn’t ready to leave. When I confessed this to my sister, whom I had talked into coming with me, she laughed and said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

At 13, when my parents informed me that they wanted to return to Haiti as missionaries, I was furious. It had been five years since we’d last lived there, and I was ensconced in an elite Southern California prep school that had given me a scholarship. I was loath to relinquish horseback-riding lessons, rock-climbing courses and trips to Catalina Island. In Haiti, I would be consigned to a three-room school with two dozen other missionary kids. Instead of dances, we would have Bible dress-up days. Halloween, a pagan holiday, would go uncelebrated. To make matters worse, when I lived in Haiti, I always stood out: My red hair and pale, freckled skin marked me as a foreigner, and I hated the taunts of “Blan! Blan!” when my sisters and I left the compound. Poised on the edge of adolescence, I was deeply self-conscious. I wanted to blend invisibly into the crowd; in Haiti, this was impossible.

My father, on the other hand, seemed to thrive in that same spotlight. He was shy and awkward in the U.S.—he’d worked as an organic vegetable farmer and forest ranger before becoming a missionary—but in Haiti, he was in his element. Neighbors grinned and encouraged his fumbling Kreyòl. People laughed at his corny jokes. He was still awkward, but in Haiti no one seemed to mind. The improvisational nature of -agricultural-development work, where everything was dependent on weather and politics, suited him fine. As a farmer, he understood that life was unpredictable.

Most important, Dad felt as if he could make a difference in Haiti. In the early 1980s, he had managed a tree nursery in Limbé that supplied 500,000 seedling trees a year to Pan-American Development Foundation projects in the north of Haiti. Planting trees was urgent work: Without roots to hold the soil in place and a canopy of leaves to slow the torrential tropical rainstorms, fertile topsoil washed away with each new storm, leaving the gardens sparser and the peasant farmers hungrier. In Haiti, Dad felt useful.

As a teenager, I couldn’t have cared less. Whenever Dad talked about reforestation, I rolled my eyes. I didn’t understand why he had to be the one to save Haiti. I thought he suffered from an overactive ego and told him as much. My mother and sisters tried to play peacemaker, but Dad and I had little patience for each other.

Eventually, we took a family vote on whether or not to return. Dad reminded us of the things we’d loved about Haiti as kids: the beach trips, the green-throated lizard on the dining room wall, our friends in the missionary compound. I folded my arms and glared at him, unconvinced. My sisters wavered. Mom reminded Dad that the country had undergone a series of military coups and riots after the demise of the Duvalier dictatorship; in 1990, Haiti wasn’t the safest place to take three young girls. The final vote was four to one against the move, yet somehow Dad overruled us. Mom sighed and grumbled that she had married Atlas—he carried the whole world on his shoulders. “There goes my life,” I scrawled bitterly in my journal.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue

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