Gros Morne: The Other Side

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My mother was raised in a home similar to this pink and green wooden shotgun style house in Gros Morne, Haiti. (September 2014)

She never talked about what had happened in Haiti. She never talked about why she left home. She did not mention her family much. As a result, I never met my maternal grandparents, my mother’s older sister or her younger brother. She had left Gros Morne, when she was in her late teens, for the Bahamas and then Miami, back in the early 1970s with my father.

Haiti had been tumultuous during most of my childhood. My parents had come to the United States to seek a better life. However, Mommy, as we all call her, never spoke of the people back home. It was as if they never existed. As if she only had us, her four children. I only saw her as my mother, not as anything else.

After more than forty years, it was time to return with her children. She wanted us to finally to meet our “other side.” Her side. I’ve been to Haiti several times, but never to visit her family, only to visit my father’s people, in Port-de-Paix. In recent years, I have also had the opportunity to work with a Brooklyn-based non-profit, that is building a school in Petit Goave, which is a town located an hour and a half southwest of Port-au-Prince. Ironically, I have visited more parts of Haiti than my mother has, and she was born and raised there.

My sister, mother, grandmother's good friend and auntie in Gros Morne, Haiti (September 2014).
My sister, mother, grandmother’s good friend and  my aunt in Gros Morne, Haiti. (September 2014)

But I had never been to Gros Morne. The place where she had grown up. And so in early September of this year, Mommy, Lisa (my sister) and I, met in Port-au- Prince. They flew in from Miami, while I flew down from Brooklyn, to meet her younger brother Charlie, at Toussaint L’Overture Airport. We then set forth on a four-hour journey by car, north, to my mother’s hometown.

I spent the next few days meeting family and friends of family, in Gros Morne, a town of about 7,000 in the Northwest region of Haiti. Gros Morne was a small but busy place. It sat between beautiful green mountains, Trois Riviere, acres upon acres of farmland and rice fields. The women went to the market to purchase fresh food and other items for the household by day, while the men were entrepreneurs and bread winners.  My uncle Charlie was a barber,, farmer and landlord and had a shop in his living room. While his wife Jacqueline was a stay-at-home wife and mother. They had two children together, Sadel, 8 and Nathaline 12.

But most interestingly enough, my mother had an older sister Mirae, whom I had seldom heard my mother talk about. I knew my mother had a sister, but I did not know what she looked like, spoke like, or even how old she was. It was hard to imagine another women in the world that could resemble my mother or even act like my mother, but she did. I had discovered an entirely new family in Haiti. It was like being given a different identity. I had only seen myself as Toussaint, but I am also an Altidor.

Unfortunately, grandma and grandpa had died back in the early 2000s. I never got a chance to meet them. I would have been in college when they passed away. The story is, grandma died in ’01 and two years later, grandpa joined her. They are buried next to each other in the town cemetery, less than a five-minute walk from the home in which my mother grew up. Grandma and grandpa loved coffee. They drank it everyday. I wish they were still alive. I’d like to see if I had their traits. I’d like to hear stories about my mother as a child. I would have loved to ask them questions about our family history and how to make a marriage last for so long.

And all this time they knew about me us,  They watched us grow up through the photos  and audio cassettes that my mother had sent them over the decades.  They knew who we were, but we knew very little of them. I still have yet to sit with my mother and ask her why. Why did you keep us apart for so long? Nonetheless, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to finally connect with my family in Gros Morne.

Gros Morne, from the rooftop of my uncle's house. (September 2014)
Gros Morne, from the rooftop of my uncle’s house. The town of 7,000 sits between beautiful mountains and Trois Riviere, in northwest Haiti. (September 2014)
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Giving Back

I was out celebrating with good friends the night before. We decided to meet up in the city for drinks and good music. I had a great time.

We joked around , partied and recited old rap lyrics, as the DJ spent hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest and Leader’s of the New School’s “Scenario” and “Slam” by Onyx. I felt like I had traveled back in time, to 1993.

As the night wound down, I realized that I had to get up in the morning to supervise three middle school basketball games.  It was a struggle to say the least. An hour subway commute from Harlem to  Brooklyn on a crisp Saturday morning is not exactly what one might call fantastic voyage.

I was running a little late because of typical weekend service in Brooklyn. No trains were available for several stops, so I had to take a shuttle to my final destination. Once I arrived at the school, I immediately began to set up. The gym was already stating to fill up with families and athletes from the other schools. The neighborhoods of Bushwick, East New York and Williamsburg had all converged on our gym in Crown Heights.

As the games played on, I finally relaxed and enjoyed the scene. A peace came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was home. Very few things bring me happiness like serving my people and my community. Mothers and fathers got an opportunity to watch their sons and daughters play basketball on a Saturday morning. The countless smiles, cheers and happy faces made me feel good. I guess this is important to me because even though I played high school and college athletics, I always wanted my family see me compete, but they never did. To look up in the crowd and see your mother cheering you on must feel awesome; I can only imagine.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday mornings, children in Crown Heights can be out getting into who knows what. But not these kids, they are with us, being kids, they are safe, working in tandem with their peers and learning to be part of a team.

It was tough, just functioning on a few hours of sleep, but it is always worth it. The next Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Lisa Leslie could be playing at our gym and I was responsible for giving them the safe space to realize their talents. Someone did it for me. So how could I not give back? Personally, I suck at basketball. Football and track were my sports, but I understand the importance of giving children the opportunity to discover their abilities. I get to do that. All it takes is a key,  a light switch and a cup of coffee.

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