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.

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.

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.

As I read on, I was surprised by how deeply Dad had internalized the suffering of the Haitian farmers. As the drought worsened and his friends along the mountain paths grew weak from AIDS and tuberculosis, with no crops to sell to pay for their medical care, Dad gave out more and more loans—with no hope of repayment. One afternoon, when he learned that a six-month-old baby was about to die of AIDS, he hid in the thin shade of a guava bush and stared out over the denuded hills. Solitary mango trees stood over the clearings as smoldering charcoal fires drifted into lazy plumes. He could see all the way down the flood-scarred valley to the faint blue edge of the sea. He put his head in his hands and sobbed.

For the first time, I saw Haiti through Dad’s eyes. I no longer saw the country as my competition—only regretted that I had tried so hard to thwart his attempts to help. A man of few words, terrified by strong emotions, he didn’t know then how to vocalize his despair. I knew him only by his anger and his high expectations. I didn’t understand, as my mother later explained to me, that when the topsoil in Haiti washes away, part of my father goes with it.

In 2003, I returned to Haiti with Dad, along with my mother and my husband. We hiked to the villages where Dad used to pass out tree seeds along with Bible verses translated into Kreyòl. Everyone along the path knew his name and came out to greet him with big grins and firm handshakes. A few farmers took us to see tree-covered ridges that had been reforested as a result of Dad’s persistent prodding. Far more hillsides were still barren and despoiled, but it was a beginning. It wasn’t the rapid, recognizable result that Dad had once hoped for, but it was incremental change—the kind that lasts.

My husband, who had never been to Haiti, had heard me confess how much I hated living there as a teenager, but he surprised me by noting how often I smiled in Haiti—far more often than when we were at home together in Oregon. Mom just laughed: “She’s like her father. She feels at home here.”

Over the past 10 years, I have returned to Haiti several times. Each time I leave, I feel a sense of loss. Lush, verdant Oregon seems empty and quiet by comparison. Even after the earthquake, which I covered for Public Radio International’s This American Life, I came home with a renewed sense of admiration for the Haitian people—their resilience, courage and ability to laugh in the face of overwhelming odds.

On my most recent visit, I explored the country without Dad, for the first time in 30 years. My Kreyòl is nowhere near as fluent as his, but as I fumbled my way through boat trips and motorcycle rides, ate smoky kasavand savored the sweet-sour tang of abricotfruit, I realized how much I had inherited. It was Dad who had taught me to care about the earth and to value the stories of those who tended the soil. And while I would never have believed it as a teenager, I was finally converted to the gospel of trees.

In Gonaïves, an arid region just over the mountains from where I had grown up, I hiked for hours in the humid glare of the sun, past schoolchildren in matching uniforms, past old women with bundles of firewood balanced on their heads, to see a new soil--conservation site that Dad had insisted be planted with trees. The drought- and animal--resistant seedshad been sown by peasant farmers less than a year earlier, but already the glossy, dark-green leaves were as high as my waist. Those trees, like the Haitianpeople, had defied the odds. In a land of mountains beyond mountains, in a country both devastated and proud, maddening and beautiful, squalid and unimaginably heroic, the trees were survivors. The branches trembled delicately as a wind blew down the mountains and stirred the dry soil. 

APRICOT IRVING is at work on a memoir.


Click here to read writer Krista Bremer's piece on traveling to Tripoli to meer her new in-laws.

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First Published Wed, 2012-02-01 10:53

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