Homage to a Creative Elder
My father’s youngest sister, my Aunt Rezia, died recently. She had outlived my father by seven years, something she marveled at each time I saw her since his death. “I can’t believe I’m still here and your father’s not,” she would say in the same pained voice in which she recounted burying her two oldest sons, over a decade apart.
It was the end of the day, and Tante Rezia had just closed the stall where she’d been selling schoolbooks, notebooks, pens and other educational supplies in downtown Port-au-Prince for more than forty years. She was heading home when she stumbled and fell. The last two words she uttered were to a fellow vendor: “Tèt mwen.” My head.
This was both resonant and ironic, because whenever anyone in the family talked about Tante Rezia, we would talk about her head. She had an excellent memory, which also meant that she held grudges the longest. She was headstrong and was often said to have a hard head—tèt di—the kind of stubbornness that had carried her from an insular childhood and adolescence in our ancestral mountain village to a boisterous city life during which she had raised four sons and a daughter on her own, losing the two sons she did—as she often pointed out—when they were no longer in her care. She loved pens and paper. She also loved books, their smell, their shapes, the noise they made when their spines were cracked. She was a bookseller who could not read or write, but under other circumstances, she might have been a writer, an artist.
I heard about Tante Rezia’s fall and eventual coma the following morning at 3 am, after she was hospitalized in a trauma facility near the Port-au-Prince airport. My cousin Agathe, who was one of many family members keeping vigil, called to ask if I would speak to the doctor on call.
Tante Rezia had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, the doctor told me, and her prognosis was very poor. My cousin Agathe, I told her, had been warned that Tante Rezia would maybe live six more hours. The doctor would neither confirm nor contradict this. Sometimes, she said, the body takes its time. Tante Rezia’s body did take its time, the way love takes its time, the way mourning takes its time, the way art takes its time. Though she never regained consciousness, she lived for another week.
After she died, the funeral planning started in several countries, and a date was decided for the funeral based on the health concerns and travel ability of other aging family members. My Uncle Franck—Tante Rezia and my father’s youngest brother—likes to refer to the gathering of funds for family emergencies and funerals as a “marathon.” Once the marathon was done, it was decided that the funeral would be held the following Saturday.
The all-night wake at Tante Rezia’s house in Delmas the night before the funeral actually felt like a kind of marathon. The square cement house had been nearly destroyed during the January 12, 2010, earthquake. At work, Tante Rezia had nearly died: she had barely escaped a falling electric pole when she’d run out from under the covered sidewalk where her stall was. The stall would have been all right, she said, but she would have been killed. The house, like the business, was repaired through several “marathons” as well as Tante Rezia’s ingenuity. No one knew how to make money grow faster than her. Tante Rezia often traced financing her children’s education and building her house to a $100 loan from my father. She was like Midas, my father liked to say, except that she gave too much of her money away to ever become rich.
At the wake, I became reacquainted with the next generation of my father’s family, Tante Rezia’s grandchildren. Though they were not as poor as my parents had been—their fathers worked in government jobs—they were not rich either. Still, they were visibly members of a global youth culture that had spread as quickly in poor corners of the world as in rich ones. The girls wore super-tight, fashionable dresses and the boys wore hip-hop gear. Everyone was constantly texting or talking on a cellphone. I felt like Tante Rezia during her first visit to New York the winter I turned 32. Wide-eyed and in absolute awe at the cold weather and tall buildings, she called out, “Am I still the same Rezia here?” I knew I was not the same Edwidge next to my young and hip second cousins. I was now an elder, albeit a more tolerant one than the ones who were always telling them to stop getting piercings and wear less makeup and tamer-looking clothes.
The wake was tame compared with the wakes of my childhood, when card and domino games went on all night and satirical songs about each person present were composed on the spot. Still, there were plenty of young neighborhood men who made us laugh with their mournful entertainment, self-assigned artists of the comic performance at the Haitian wake. My favorite of their poetic renderings was when they complained about the lack of beer by singing a rhyme they had just made up: “Si Rezia te la, nou ta sou déja.” If Rezia were here, we’d already be drunk.
There were so many of us local and visiting family members at the wake that when we finally did lie down, some of us had to find a spot on Tante Rezia’s roof, the cousin from Canada next to the one who was living in the Dominican Republic, and all the US cousins super-curious about those Haitian cousins no one had ever heard of, but who had found us on Facebook. We were so happy in each other’s company that we spoke until dawn, when it was time to get ready for the 7 am funeral service.
Tante Rezia was the last person left from that generation in our family who was still living in Haiti. Uncle Franck had already prepaid for his funeral in New York and had a spot reserved for himself next to his oldest brother and my father in a Queens cemetery. “Even if I die here tonight,” he had told us at the wake, “you must ship my body back to New York; otherwise, I’ll lose my money.”
I remember a time, I told him, when I was 12 and had just moved to New York from Haiti, when almost everyone in the church my parents attended had their bodies shipped back after they died. It was almost a given. There would be a service in New York, but the interment would be in the person’s family plot in Haiti. Now there was as much traffic the other way. Immigrant corpses were being flown back to their adopted lands because it was easier, because everyone was already there. “It’s easier perhaps,” Uncle Franck said, “to bring Muhammad to the mountain than the mountain to Muhammad, as we’ve done here tonight.” Leaving Tante Rezia’s house as the sun rose, we were a caravan of packed cars, three generations of a scattered and occasionally reunited family.
In the Protestant church that Tante Rezia had attended for the past twenty years, she was laid out in her white coffin wearing her orange choir robe. After directing several songs in her honor, the choir director joked—as though she’d been waiting years to say it—that Tante Rezia, once an inspiring singer, it turns out, sang badly and would miss rehearsals regularly because of work, but would still insist on standing in the back row, lip synching. Again her stubbornness, her tèt di.
All of Tante Rezia’s contemporaries, her friends, told these kinds of stories. Barely five feet tall, she once talked down a tall and belligerent customer by asking someone for a chair to stand on to fight with him.
I learned about this side of Tante Rezia’s life that was unfamiliar to me because it fit neither into her visits to New York nor the times in my childhood when my brother and I would stop by her stall on the way home from school, knowing that we would leave with either a pen or pencil, a small notebook, a few coins or a sweet. The next generation’s testimonials to her humor, goodness and willfulness were relayed in the accents of the diaspora, in French, English and Spanish. These colorful voices reminded me how much of a bridge she had been between us. She was the only person left in the family who had known us all.
Whenever she introduced me to a younger family member that I had not yet met, Tante Rezia liked to say, “This is so-and-so. She’s family, but before today if you had met her on the street, you might not have known her.” I feel now that I am more likely to pass people on the street, whether in Miami or Port-au-Prince or Montreal or Santo Domingo, without knowing that they are my kin.
The older I get, the more I lose people who have known me my whole life, and who have shaped me and pushed me and encouraged me with small and large gestures, and sometimes even with their disapproval, have nourished my art. First my father, then my uncle, then Tante Rezia. Slowly they are dying off, the creative elders and the artists (manqués) in line before me, even as new branches of the family surface, each with its own standouts and leaders. At Tante Rezia’s funeral, I discovered that my family now had new poets, actors, singers, painters, beauty queens and comedians. Tante Rezia had helped shape them all, by handing out pens and notebooks, books and supplies, by paying fees, by offering a meal now and then when one was needed. Quietly, she was a patron of the arts, one of those silent supporters that every family, every artist, has and needs, but rarely recognizes as such or even acknowledges.
At the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince, as Tante Rezia’s coffin was pushed into the family mausoleum that also houses the remains of both her parents and her two sons, I remembered what the doctor had said after her fall: the body sometimes takes its time. Gratitude, too, sometimes takes its time, as do the words, images and songs we create in order to mourn. So it will perhaps take me some time to realize that what I’m feeling is partly what these young men were singing that evening at the wake, that si Rezia te la, mwen pa ta p bezwen ekri sa a: if Tante Rezia were here, there would be no need for me to write these words at all.
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