Upon hearing news of the death of an older cousin, I immediately recalled times spent in the lakou (yard) of his late grandmother, whom everyone knew as Aunt Boots – the family matriarch and piercer. I call her that since she had done all our ears at the most tender age to assure the making of girls in Haiti. I remember running around freely with the scent of roasting coffee beans swarming us. She had a coffee and peanut butter business. On Saturday afternoons, grownups sat on wicker ladder-backed chairs, catching up on the latest news, and family matters. This was a refuge where we, as children, were allowed to be children who played while being repeatedly told to stay clear of the huge cauldron that fumigated the entire neighborhood.

I had not spoken to this cousin in ages, yet felt the need to attend the funeral — shameful that I have been something of a delinquent family member because the last time I saw him eons ago was at another cousin’s wedding. Nearly a decade ago, his brother had made the trek to Boston from Montreal without fanfare to attend my maternal grandmother’s funeral. He came he said, “because you show up for family.” The diaspora may have spread us all over the Americas and the rest of the world, but that did not mean abandonment when it matters.

"Cendre" Painting and photo: Gina Athena Ulysse

Putting aside all my other responsibilities, I suddenly grew melancholic, focused on a sense of duty – a commitment to not only properly show up, but be fully present. I made the call to offer my condolences. His brother quickly pacified my obvious deep sense of regret. He was happy to hear my voice despite the occasion. It was a peaceful death, he told me. In the week that followed, I became hyperaware of some Haitian mourning rituals. Conversations with my mother were about who’s who in our large family tree as well as periods of mourning, cultural codes concerning dress and proper behavior at funerals. I found myself making tons of phone calls for plans for an extended family road trip. Who could take off work? Who would drive with whom? What kind of car should be rented? Of course, there would be a kotizasyon, give whatever you can. It’s not about the amount. C’est le geste qui prime. Indeed, it is the gesture that counts.

My first memory of anything related to mourning in the family ironically has to do with the food served at receptions held after wakes and funerals. I seem to only remember that we were served finger sandwiches or patés flaky savory pastries. The adults drank té jenjanm (ginger tea) or coffee, always black, with or without sugar. There was also Cola Champagne, Tranpé (moonshine with bitter herbs, usually cerasee), Prestige–our national beer, and Rhum Barbancourt. The young ones were guaranteed hot chocolate. Sometimes, our infamous pumpkin soup made its culinary appearance.

What color am I supposed to wear? I was uncharacteristically concerned with being respectable. Rebel me sought motherly advice. She had been shopping for stockings and trying to find the right outfit. “Well, it depends,” as she began a litany of mourning dress codes in Haiti, “If you are immediate family, you wear black. Young children can wear white, or black and white, or even grey. You could wear purple, if you want, or a print. Nothing too bold. Cover your shoulders. These days, these things don’t matter as much because people wear anything to funerals. Just don’t wear red!” I had a conversation with her godchild, the deceased’s brother who underscored this point, “absolutely no one should wear red unless you are the killer or assassin of the dead person”. In deeper mourning than I knew, I opted for black.

During the wake, as his pictures flashed across the screens, the weight of the loss was evident in the faces of his wife and children. Incessant tears welled up and streamed down already stained cheeks. Pictures of him with school buddies growing up in Haiti. Mother reminded me that his nickname was Little Lion, a play on his name Lyonel. Wedding pictures. More talk of the aunt who could not attend but had played matchmaker. Pictures of him holding his newborns, with friends, coaching a youth soccer team, at his job. He was always smiling and loved to laugh. As he peacefully rested in a casket, his youngest brother demanded if anyone knew whether Death was male or female. With his usual bravado, he dared anyone to answer. What would he do if there was ever an encounter? “Death keeps taking too many of your own,” he lamented. How would he express his anger? His brutal honesty and fierceness demanded our attention in different ways. In so many instances, I found myself choking up on tears. There was an abundance of love.

At the service, his pastor offered a beautiful sermon. A dear friend recited a fitting eulogy while his children and nieces paid him greater homage. Everything had been delayed by weeks. His family generously waited because people would be traveling from afar to pay their respects. Amidst this despair that resonated, some of us were reconnecting in new ways. It took this moment for us to gather again. There was also laughter among the tears as memories of siblings, cousins, came through to reveal the ties that bind immigrant communities despite the thousands of miles that separated us. To be sure, we are far from a monolith. These days, the diasporic lakou has been redefined composed of an even wider range of family structures, incomes, livelihoods, and tastes. We represent and inhabit different social worlds and religious practices. Now, there were new generations born on this side of the water who had never been to our beloved Haiti. Family stories became quilted tales that could only be woven together from different bits by those who had been there back in the day. We all know only too well that memories fade.

The last day, in a private chat with his eldest brother, I realized why I have been flooded with such sorrow. “Gina,” he said, “don’t you remember when we used to come to visit you and your sisters before we migrated? We use to bring you candy and cookies and we would hide them in our pockets, we made you run around looking, but you knew they were there.” I went to the funeral, not out of obligation, but the purest form of gratitude because my departed cousin was part of my most salient recollections of happiness in an elusive childhood.

Back on U.S. soil, in these times when we are too cavalier about the dead, his younger brother offered these last words, “in our culture when a death occurs, it becomes everybody’s business.”


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