The Common Good
November 2009

Significant Others

by Edwidge Danticat | November 2009

Can an author save her parents though her books?

My mother is offering her factory forewoman my first novel for Christmas.

“I see her reading the newspaper all the time in the booth above the sewing machines,” she says before leaving for work one December morning. “I’d like to give her a book. One of yours.”

I spend an entire day pondering an appropriate dedication for a woman I’ll never know, except through a few details my mother has mentioned. She is Chinese. She is fat, rarely impatient, and she is a newspaper reader. Finally I scribble, “To Mary, Merry Christmas. Thank you so much for being nice to my mom.”

Later that evening, we wrap the book in snowmen-covered Christmas paper, tie a red ribbon around it, then pin a card to it with both my mother’s and Mary’s names.

My mother tells me that she will tell Mary, “My daughter wrote this book.” We say it many times together. “My daughter wrote this book. My daughter wrote this book.” I imagine this daughter as a child my mother and I both share, my own dream offspring, whom I call Sophie after the tormented narrator of the novel my mother’s giving to Mary.

I once went with my mother to another factory from which she’d been laid off. We had gone there to pick up some money she was owed for making two dozen purses a day at minimum wage. The room was dim and dusty, the air laden with tiny leather and thread particles that the large overhead fans spun in a hazy whirlpool above the crammed rows of antique Singers. I couldn’t imagine my mother spending every day there, and not getting paid on top of it. But at 15, my anger was useless. I could only make vows. This would never be my life. I would never work for anyone. I would write books.

For the past three Christmases since my mother’s been working for her, Mary has given her a box of chocolates plus a bottle of cheap red wine that my brothers and I leisurely consume on Christmas Eve, during one of those long chatty sessions we called our “significant other” sessions. These were moments when we purposely gathered to talk about the people in our lives, friends we wished were lovers and lovers we wished were friends, people who were passing through or staying put, but had not been invited into our home because we were worried that they would judge our family, and by extension, us, strange. I don’t know why that fear of being unusual was so strong for us. Perhaps it was because this was something we felt so deeply about ourselves. That we were not like any other family and no other family was like ours. And though we weren’t sure where our peculiarities lay, we were certain they existed and did not want them identified, dissected, and condemned by people we might or might not love.

Looking back now, I realize that we had quite a few idiosyncrasies. We rarely talked back then, except on assigned topics—“significant others” being one of them—and we constantly touched each other, sometimes in awkward ways. I, for one, would often yank one or two strands of white hair from my father’s scalp when he was least expecting it, knowing that though it would startle him, it would also make him aware that I was paying attention to him. Just as after a fight, my father, even if he was at fault, would never apologize but buy me a particular kind of Haitian mango—mango fransik—that he knew I loved. My brothers often squeezed my mother’s plump and freckled cheeks between their fingers to say hello and wrestled my father to the ground whenever they were particularly happy to see him, shouting triumphantly while holding him in a headlock or sitting on his chest on the floor that the old man was still pretty strong.

Throughout my high school years, I would occasionally say to my brothers during some of our chats, “I am ugly. I am fat. No one is ever going to want me.” Calmly and quickly they’d reply, “Wear some makeup. Lose some weight.”

Throughout my college years, I was madly in love with a very popular choir director from my parents’ church. The only problem was that every other girl in that church was in love with him too. And he was at least partially attentive to each of them. He made me wait for hours in parks and on subway platforms and never showed up. I paid whenever we did go anywhere, even after I’d willingly given him cash in exchange for items of clothing he no longer wanted—a purple sweater, a red T-shirt that still smelled of his cologne. No matter what the weather, I slept in these garments every night, knowing that this was as close as I would ever get to him. Before I could love anyone else, I had to despise him. Then I had to make a vow. This would never be my life. I would never be the girlfriend or wife of a philandering choir director. I would have a bigger life. I would travel and see the world and write books.

Soon after I graduated from college, I began dreaming of giving my parents trips as gifts, jaunts to the few places I dreamt of going and where I thought they’d like to go. My mother wanted to go to Canada because we had family there. Eventually she, my father, and I traveled together to Vancouver, Florida, then Los Angeles, then my father and I to Haiti and my mother and I to Japan. My father only liked to “see” places, to say that he had been, but he didn’t like being away from home. Unlike my mother, who enjoyed the anticipation of a journey as much as getting there, my father could never travel with enthusiasm. Trips tired and depressed him. He found even the shortest airplane ride interminable and was bored to pieces halfway through any tour. He liked the familiar, his own furniture and sheets, his own friends nearby, or at least within phone reach.

Both my parents expressed some desire in going on their church’s annual excursion to Israel, however. But there was never enough money and, for a long time, always a minor child at home. By the time I could afford to offer them both the trip as a gift, my father had lost interest and when he was finally open to traveling again, he had developed pulmonary fibrosis and couldn’t walk five minutes without doubling over, breathless. Strangely enough, I think this is the only trip that might not have bored him. For the Bible was the only book he read, aside from mine, several chapters at a time, at different times of day. For my father, that trip to Israel might have been like a stroll though the mind of a favorite author. He would have recognized everything: Bethlehem, the hillsides of the Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes, Jerusalem.

As the trip became less and less possible due to my father’s condition, I would memorize the descriptions from the brochures and Internet Web sites. “Drive to Jaffa where Peter raised Tabitha from the dead … Descend to the Eastern shores to reach Kursi, from where Jesus drove the swine into the lake.”

I could see his face brighten when—as an incentive for him to get better—I would describe possible excursions to him, pilgrimages to Galilee, swims in the Dead Sea, immersions in the special baptismal pools in the Jordan River.

When I asked her, my mother said that Mary, her factory supervisor, never said anything to her about the novel after she gave it to her. Maybe Mary didn’t like fiction, hadn’t enjoyed my fiction. But back then I told myself that my mother’s gift had puzzled Mary, that she couldn’t reconcile the fact that my mother would still need to work in a factory when she had a one-book authoress daughter at home. The only thing I knew for sure—and maybe I was even wrong about that—was that Mary hadn’t been able to decode my mother’s message in giving her the book: This is not all there is to me. I have a bigger life. I have children and they have done things in the world. One even writes books.

A few months before my father was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, he was rushed to the hospital with what we thought was pneumonia and after several tests found a pulmonologist to whom he became quite attached. Soon my father and the pulmonologist developed a kind of familiarity so that whenever my father showed up for his appointments, Dr. Krishnan saw him ahead of everyone else.

I had a book come out around this time, which my father asked me to sign for Dr. Krishnan, whom I too had gotten to know quite well from accompanying my father on his visits. Again I pondered an appropriate dedication. Finally I decided on, “To Dr. Krishnan, thank you so much for all you’ve done to help my dad.”

I was too embarrassed to be present when my father gave him the book, asking him to do it instead when my brother Bob was scheduled to go with him. In later visits, Dr. Krishnan never said anything to me about the book. At first I thought he was accommodating my self-consciousness. It was the same discomfort I’d had about Mary seeing my first book and my mother at the same time. How could my authorship not have rescued my mother from the factory? And how could this last book, this aesthetic yet public act of creation that in many people’s eyes assigns one wealth and power, not have placed my father high on a lung transplant list, or at least in the hands of a world-renowned, miracle-working specialist who could actually reverse the dire prognosis that would eventually kill him?

I don’t know that it even made a difference to my mother and father that Mary and Dr. Krishnan never acknowledged their offerings. Their point had already been made in the giving. My daughter wrote this book. My daughter wrote this book.

It also has taken me some time to decode both my parents’ message to me in giving away those books, that my vows and theirs had been linked. For even though my parents valued their privacy so much that they always locked their bedroom door to have even the slightest disagreement, they never complained about anything I wrote, neither my misguided “truths” nor my deliberate distortions of the family stories. They could have begged me to stop writing the things I have, to avoid embarrassing them. That’s certainly what I’d expected when my first book had been published. But they hadn’t. They knew. They understood.

Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American novelist, is a 2009 MacArthur genius grant recipient and author of Brother, I’m Dying.

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