My Mother’s Salmon-Pink Dress

Photo Sarah Whiting

I remember this dress my mother had. A salmon-pink dress, loose, and gradually wider towards the bottom. I watched her in that dress facing the crowd invading our house the morning of February 7, 1986. Nou mèt pran sa nou vle, she hurls as she opens the entrance door. The crowd poured in. Maybe they won’t harm anyone, she must have said to herself. The salmon-pink dress was floating around her legs following each of her movements. The women in the crowd also wore large dresses that they turned into containers as they filled them up with plates, tablecloths, silverware, and angry hopes. There was, through the door slit, the sway of the dress gripping me softly, a womb of memory I am trapped inside.

The entire week we heard waves of people marching down Rue Guerrier Street from house to house. People were stirring up the last drop of their anger, talking relentlessly and freely for all to hear about overthrowing Jean-Claude Duvalier.

We locked ourselves into an isolated bedroom that morning of February 7. We jolted at the drives of stones smashing, at our heartbeats pounding, at our fists clutching into one another. My mom, wrapped in her troubled salmon-pink dress, followed the ground quaking under our feet, while our life, dreams, and silverware were being packaged into other large dresses, none of them salmon- pink. Later that day Mother rolled up her leftover self in leftover bed sheets, tablecloths, linen, toothbrushes, new and worn-out shoes, and crispy fried goat. On the radio, the United States government has taken things in hand: Baby Doc is overthrown. We left Saint Michel to Port-au-Prince a few months later. In my mom’s suitcase, the uneasy salmon-pink dress and the remains of a slice of time waits for a new home.

Today, I carry a suitcase of my own. I have become very familiar with its weight, odors, and damaged corners. Whenever I shut myself up in my kitchen in our Saint Paul two-bedroom with a notebook, I rummage through, dig, and draw out from inside its contours the secret wounds, the fears, and the memories of a world long ago forgotten.

2010, Quakes, and Assemblages

I like to think that January 12, 2010, started out in Port-au-Prince like a fine busy Tuesday with the sun standing tall, arms and legs opened and the wind sifting through. Many begin their day with a café-au-lait. At the entrance of their houses, they chat with their neighbors about noises heard the night before or brother Raoul dating one of the neighborhood girls. Did some of them wake up in the morning feeling that this day wouldn’t turn out like any other?

26 seconds
to tear down the walls
layers of buildings to topple each other giant oak trees to lie on their best
side corpse-like
not pitied and lifeless
the way of
half a million slaughtered some decades ago

300,000 only they count

16:53: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 is global time; there is the underground quaking beneath the feet of the people thrown; bottles and cans and pans and ankles chewed and thrown. Frantz Duval throws in Le Nouvelliste Les Secondes Qui Ont Tout Changé and Eyjafjallajökull closes the airspace, its travelers are trapped and thrown; an explosion of a BP oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana; female suicide bombers detonate bombs in two Moscow subway stations; there is Katrina; there is Flint, and the invention of water; Carrefour is shaken under the cries of Hurray, yo bay li, and South Korea is thrown in as the first non-G8 nation to host a G-20 summit; We Are the World 25 for Haiti is released and an 8.8-magnitude earthquake shocks Chile; President René Préval gives three years to clear up the rubble and 190 South Korean Peacekeepers throw themselves in Léogâne with Cuba announcing a fifth field hospital; the Minnesota Women’s Press releases What Women Want; my daughter bursts out she wants to be a gymnast when she grows up. The price of gasoline in Saint Paul tops $3 a gallon; Clinton orders six warships to waters off Haiti to enforce the U.N. trade embargo; electricity is finally restored.

Right after the earthquake I told Max and Annie we’re not going back to Haiti. My daughter was three years of age, my son not yet one year old.

Who am I? I do not know. Back in the 1990s it was said that our problem was the language, of being the right skin color, of leaving the native land, and before that the problem was two men named Duvalier, and before all that no one knew where the story begins. The dream was to return to Africa. My dream was to make it to the Congo. 2010 became the passage, and it’s a lifelong passage for which I selected a small red suitcase with a zipper in the middle to put the three of us in. This is home. It sits in the upper left side of my closet, which I visit once in a while. Each year the zipper stretches itself out with expired passports, classroom pictures piling up, defunct travel permits, expired insurance cards, TPS papers, newspaper sheets yellowing, and other debris like smells of closed dark rooms, pieces of us breaking into pieces we cannot quite assemble back, steams of us disintegrating, ashes of us disappearing. Here it is, our life zipped up. If we have to leave our apartment due to an emergency, all [I have] to do is lift myself up, pick up the red suitcase from the upper left side of the closet, and begin again. Though it would be better not to carry any suitcase other than my body, which is — mostly anyway — vents, memories, and naked bones.

There are no artifacts to show that my life is not in history books. Over the years my travel-size luggage has been reduced to a small valise of old journals and letters turning yellow, the home of old IDs, expired passports, and birth certificates.

Three times a week, my daughter and I ride Bus-16 down University Avenue on our way to Headstart where she goes to preschool. She and I wait impatiently to get off the bus. As soon as we get off, we hop and skip and tootle and sing Je suis un artiste et je viens d’Haiti. In the distance between the bus stop and her day care center she is also learning not to forget C’est la mère Michelle qui a perdu son chat or Panama m tonbe. On my way back from dropping her off, I walk toward the bus stop with my body somewhere left behind a very long time ago. I sit in the bus alone and think of this poem to write one day about my mom telling her friends the family story of fleeing Saint Michel. In the Bus-16 some twenty years later, it is a lot like being thrown into the edges of another world, into the slit of times made one.

Some thirty years ago in Rue Guerrier Street, those feet floating in a white pair of nursing shoes made the way for our escape through Pastè Lubin’s property while our house was being consumed by fire. We made it in the middle of the night through fallen leaves and fresh cut grass as we dragged behind us small bags of tablecloths, linen, and bed sheets. My mom is a runaway too. Throughout the years I have seen the lines of the past within the creases of a few tablecloths and window curtains more than 30 years old. They have survived the fault lines of time with patience and stubbornness. As for the salmon-pink dress, I am content to imagine it lying in my memories, unchanged.

August 14th 2021 [the latest Haitian earthquake]. August 14th 1791 [the first meeting of enslaved Blacks that led to the Haitian Revolution]. In between and beyond, all the dislocations in the folds of time and the living hanging on the dead. Or the dead hanging on the living? Clearly, the past is not in the past and the buried is not yet dead.

Beaudelaine Pierre (she/her) is a journalist, scholar, and novelist who writes about her native Haiti and her adopted Youwès. She is co-editor, with Nataša Ďurovičová, of the trilingual anthology “How to Write an Earthquake/ Comment écrire et quoi écrire / Mou pou 12 Janvye.” This essay is adapted from her book “You May Have the Suitcase Now” (New Rivers Press, 2021).

Beaudelaine Pierre’s Suggested Reading List