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)

Going Back to Haiti

I have only been to Haiti three times. My last visit, was in April 2012. I have made a pledge to myself, to visit at least once a year from here on out. The Earthquake on January 12, 2010 was in my eyes is this generation’s most tragic story of human loss. Was I there? No. But to watch the news and hear reports of thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands dead or missing was staggering. Like so many others, I was compelled to get involved by using my gifts, blessings, talents and opportunities to reach out to the people back home. But even before the Earthquake, Haiti had endured a decade of deadly storms, mudslides, floods and political unrest that seemed to have no cause or an end.

My first visit to Haiti as an adult in 2004 changed had a great impact on my life. I noticed that the people (my family to be specific) did not have much in the way of material wealth, but their resourcefulness, resilience, courage, strength and laughter were something that truly inspired me. They welcomed me into their humble abodes with open arms, hugs, kisses and smiles. They shared everything. No running water was available, like many families. Thus, someone would fetch water from a nearby stream and warm it up each morning so that I could have a warm bath (outside). We all bathed outside. This is the way they lived. No running water and no electricity (with the exception of a gas powered generator which they used at night).

We were considered fortunate, as the only house on the entire block with electricity. And that was their reality, 24/7. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Port-au-Prince. We went to soccer matches played on gravel roads, listened to live Haitian hip hop rap battles on rooftops. We walked through the streets of Carfour and met my cousin’s friends and neighbors. He even took me to the neighborhood gym, with weights made of pales of cement and used make-shift weight benches. This was their Haiti and now my experience of it.

I left Port-au-Prince with a totally different view of the world. While I complained about the things I did not have, in the way of material riches, I should have been praying to God to give me the strength of my brothers and sisters in Haiti. My experience was so profound, that I actually stopped going to church; I didn’t know what to pray for. After visiting my family abroad, I realized I had everything I needed. People at my church back home would cry on the altar, while pastors laid hands on them, to bless them with the ability to pay their water and light bills? Really? How could I return to Miami, get in line at the altar and pray to God for luxury?

Obviously, not everyone who visits their relatives back home come away with the same experience. Some people get on the plane and never return. Some people get caught up in the rat race and forget about the struggle of others. Living in middle-class America is not easy. We have bills and obligations to meet. We have our own lives and struggles too. I’m not here to be the judge of what is more important. However, if you have family back in Haiti, their should be some since of duty to at least stay connected.

I tried my best to stay in touch. I said that I would go back each summer, but I would not return to  Haiti for seven years.

A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.
A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.