I was not born to be cool. I was born to be delighted, and what a glorious destiny it is.
Many, many things please me. So often I am like a cat, transfixed and purring before a piece of string. One of the things I love best is Christmas. I don’t sneer when I hear “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I hum. Just yesterday, at the Hallmark store on Montague Street in the great borough of Brooklyn, I caught myself swinging and swaying to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
I love Christmas brazenly, and without apology. I love the lights, the music, the decorations, the sending and receiving of cards, the exchange of presents. I love the food. I love the eggnog. I love the very idea of a season set aside for joy. I realize that this takes me out of the class the sophisticated, “in-the-know,” people too intelligent to fall for twinkling lights and goodwill toward men. As I’ve confessed, I’m not cool, and it is at Christmas time that the scope, depth, and breadth of this “uncoolness” is manifested with the greatest intensity.
Please don’t take this as a plea for intervention by the Sophistinistas. I don’t want to be saved from my hokeyness. You see, I realize that if I were to be cool, I would of necessity have to be bored with everything, superior to everything, and would be expected to deploy my considerable powers of snark and irony at every social gathering. What’s more, I would have to work myself into a rage at the sight of tinsel, like all right-thinking intellectuals. It all seems like too much of an exhausting bore to me. It is so much easier to make the best of things and enjoy life’s occasional spangly charms.
Am I mistaken, or does it take wisdom and courage truly to enjoy life—wisdom to see and courage to grasp? Isn’t the secret a seizing and a sharing of those things that go unnoticed in the clamor of the world? I am reminded of the still, small voice described in the story of Elijah the prophet. Hiding in a cave, waiting to hear from God, he first heard a great and strong wind, but God was not there. The wind was followed by an earthquake, and the earthquake was followed by a fire, but God was still not there. But then Elijah heard a still, small voice and knew then that he was in God’s presence. He heard God because he was listening for Him and did not despise the tininess of the manifestation.
Striving to hear might just be one of the highest callings in life. Shouldn’t we make ourselves available to grace and to joy when they come disguised as trivialities? In my life, they have often come disguised as the thought and love that go into a gift, true friends sitting around a table singing carols, and the hush and stillness of New York after midnight mass, the sound of ancient songs of adoration still resonating all around.
This Christmas, I want to delight!
Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!
My hero doesn’t wear a cape, and he doesn’t fly, but that is his strength—he is there, always there when and where you need him, and is never flitting about. He eschews the flapping piece of fabric in favor of well-cut suits. Kryptonite doesn’t bother him, but he won’t eat soup. And like his TV twin, he jumps over tall obstacles in a single bound.
Throughout my life, he has jumped over monumental piles of ignorance with a single leap of phrase.
Take for instance the time he told me I wasn’t put on this earth to be anyone’s victim. I was a teenager. I had been crying over some unpleasant boy experience. I was going full-throttle when he looked up from his paper and said, in his laconic way, “You do know, don’t you, that you were not put on this earth to be anyone’s slave or victim. You shouldn’t let anyone treat you disrespectfully.”
My tears came to a screeching halt, like tires on a road. My mouth dropped open as I looked at him. What was he telling me? Did he just say I had a choice whether to accept or not to accept bad treatment? But I thought that suffering and then bemoaning that suffering was part of my womanly birthright—that’s what the soap operas and fashion magazines said at least. Could it be that they were wrong? He had said his peace and quickly lost interest. He resumed his affair with The New York Times as I sat there with my life upside down and my tears in suspense.
Then there was the other time, a time when I was a bit younger, perhaps 12 or 13, and I announced that I would marry early and live in a suburb like the people in the car commercial I was watching. I was fascinated by that peck on the lips the well-groomed housewife gave the husband as he walked out of the house in the morning. “That is what I want to do.”
He bent the corner of his ubiquitous paper and looking over his glasses said simply, “If I were you, I’d concentrate on my studies and on getting a profession. That prince of yours might give you four kids and then leave you for a woman with bigger breasts. Then what would you do?” Again, my mouth dropped open, and his reading was resumed without further comment.
As you probably figured out, my dad doesn’t say much, and whatever he does say is usually from behind the paper.
In his own grouchy, silent way, he was extremely attentive when I was a child. Every two weeks, when he was paid, he took me to a Cuban Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood called Victoria China, which for me was the very height of luxury living. As I ate my spare ribs and egg roll and drank my orange soda, he sat across from me, behind the paper, of course, sipping his café con leche. As I ate, his hand occasionally reached for the coffee cup. The cup would disappear behind the paper for a few moments and then be placed back into the waiting saucer. He obviously had not read any of those books about engaging your child in constant conversation and lavishing them with showy attentions. I was pretty happy with the arrangement, however, as it allowed me to gnaw on the rib bones in peace, something impossible to do when my mom was around (she, by the way, is a character, in her own right).
In the winter, he took me ice skating in Rockefeller Center. He waited, alone and cold, among the spectators as I whirled around in my little red skating skirt and fluffy white fake fur hat with the pom-pom ties under the chin. He wore neither hat nor gloves. I suppose he thought that they were for sissies and that real men should brave the cold armed only with their mustaches and their cups of coffee.
And in the summer, he drove us to Rockaway beach in our blue Buick with the vinyl seats. His polo shirt buttoned to his chin, he would sit under a tree and read a magazine and wait until my mother, cousin, aunt and I finished splashing in the water.
My parents moved to New York to escape Duvalier. They were part of the great exodus of the middle and professional classes from Haiti in the late 1950s early ’60s. The statistics are astounding: In 1964, I think there were more Haitian doctors in Canada than there were in Haiti. By the time I was old enough to understand my surroundings, my dad was working a white collar job as a social worker, but before then, when he first came, he accepted any job he could find. At one point, my father, who had been a lawyer in Haiti, worked by day as a janitor, by night as an orderly, and on Saturdays at a car wash. Once, in a fit of youthful stupidity, I asked him why he had worked so many jobs. He answered simply, “You needed food.”
His lessons have stood me in good stead throughout my life. My parents taught me the value of work, common sense, duties fulfilled, and self-pity murdered in its crib, stifled at its source, because it offends our dignity and is a waste of time.
This Thanksgiving, I lift my glass to my parents, but in particular to my dad, my beautiful Black dad. Long may he prosper.
Until this year, summer was not restful for me. I would take Anna, my daughter, from country to country (we have relatives all over) and be lost in a flurry of diapers, crying-jags, nap-time, storybooks and French fries. Even sitting on the beach was exhausting: I sat motionless and watched her without interruption, to keep her from the belly of the sea. Even when she was 9 and 10 years old, I kept an eagle eye on her.
This summer, however, I had an 11-year-old with me, and it was a different affair. Tall, strong and wise to (some of) the ways of the world, she didn’t want to drown anymore than I did, and knew that she had to eat at least something during the day that did not contain Yellow Dye No. 13. Thus, for the very first time since she was born, I was able to exhale, to think. I was able to see and hear and understand things that had always been there but that I had failed to see for the trees.
Some truth finally made itself heard over the din of the ever-clamoring, pot-banging minutiae of an attention-paying mother’s life. It all began to emerge one Tuesday afternoon, when my daughter, in the company of two friends, rode her bike around the block in Cape May, N.J.
It was to be her first time out riding without a grown-up. On her way out the door, as I fretted and peppered her with reminders, she turned to me and said, “Mom, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” At that moment, I saw something in the back of her eyes that reminded me of an episode in my life that had long mystified me but that I then suddenly understood.
Many years ago, before the husband and before the child, I remember being at a cocktail party near the U.N. I was in my early 20s and rather pathetically bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. As I stood there, trying to look sophisticated, a gray-haired, bespectacled gentleman came over and said something very strange. He said “Some people look very sweet, but when you look into the back of their eyes, you see battleship steel. Do you know that battleship steel is one of the hardest materials on earth?” He then turned away.
That Tuesday afternoon in Cape May, I finally understood, because I saw the steel in my daughter’s eyes. Over the course of the rest of the summer, I would see it again and again in the eyes of my family. During the Montreal leg of the trip, because I had time to think, I was able to see the span of life from tender youth to even more tender old-age stretch itself before me from tip to tail, like some large, indifferent cat.
In Montreal, everyone was gathered at my aunt and uncle’s barbeque. There are many children in the family now. Some are chubby little things in pull-ups, some like my daughter, are long-haired and long-legged, and some are stolid little boys solemnly pushing baby sisters into tomato plants. My aunts, uncles and parents have gray hair now and congregate around the table exchanging tales of the old days: love affairs, the moody Haitian climate, a dictator or two.
My cousins and I are straddlers—the children of the wizened ones, and the parents of the little ones. My cousins are tall, athletic and bear terrifying muscles. They talk of bike rides, soccer games and volley ball, while I dream over the latest heels and hats. But at the barbeque, in the midst of these jumbled generations, I am particularly taken by my uncle. Once stocky, he is now thinned out by cancer. Only his mustache and his eyes remain robust. He hangs on to the moose his granddaughter, resolute and tearless after a violent encounter with a tomato plant, hands him for protection. Laughing, he strokes it as he directs the action at the grill from his lawn chair. He laughs again as he catches my eye and offers his teetoling niece a whisky sour.
Still in Montreal, I visit my mother’s cousin. She is also battling cancer. It has her hair, but it doesn’t have her spirit. She is wide-eyed, talkative, waving her hands about as she rushes to tell me things about her life that she is recalling vividly, to make me a repository. She lives in a tiny, tiny, impressively neat apartment lined with books, paintings and plants. She has no one, really. She battles the beast alone. With a yawn, she tells me that she decided not to undergo the latest treatment offered her. “Pourquoi faire? Ca fait mal et d’ailleurs, cela ne m’embete pas de partir.” “Why? It hurts, and besides, I don’t mind going now.”
Yet the cancer does not progress. It seems cowed by her contempt for it. She never pets it or frets over it. Rather, she drowns it out in symphonies, loses it among the leaves of a novel, jabs at it mercilessly with her knife as she prepares exquisite little dishes. She laughs at it as she puts on her wig and perfume. Yes, she laughs, and she is a lioness.
We seem all to be made of very stern stuff, but the most intriguing thing about this steel is the lightness with which it is born. Perhaps this steel had its origin in the bowels of a ship during the middle passage. If so, it was carried over in the mind and heart of a bon vivant. We must be descended from a man or woman who was a master in the art of laughter. In a book I once read, the author describes happiness as a type of mastery, a sort of sovereignty over the soul. In other words, it is a type of steel. For my sprawling family, strength indeed seems merely to be a platform for joy.