A Mother Holds Her Knife by the Blade

Mélissa Laveaux

When I was conceived, death was looming in my parents’ minds. Of course, I cannot remember my conception any more than I can recall my birth. Everything I know is what I’ve heard from my sister or cousin, and what my grandmother shadily muttered under her breath.

I was born in Montreal, at Notre-Dame hospital on 9 January 1985. My birth is intimately connected to my first experience with death. I’ve collected a composite of facts that have been consistent with most versions of my arrival. For starters, everyone agrees that I arrived too early. An Aquarius was expected, but it was a Capricorn who arrived – slipping out into the world from between the thighs of my unwed mother. She had reconciled with her deserting husband, who had knocked her up while she was dying of cervical cancer. In a grave tone, her doctor had suggested that she hasten plans for the care of my sister following my mother’s inevitable passing. Her diagnosis was transcribed into a thick pile of documentation.

My sister, Cassandre, was seven when I was born. Like myself, she was a precocious reader. She distinctly remembers the documentations: test results, ultrasounds and MRIs. She remembers spending long evenings on her knees, praying in charismatic Haitian church services, wrinkly priestly hands wavering over my mother’s dying womb, the song of prayer in tongues, our dad’s return to the household.

Our parents had divorced when she was small, and most of her early childhood memories are of her and our mother alone. Cassandre often jokes about how much better things were until I showed up. She was the child that tore them apart, while I was the culprit that brought them back together, my sister would often say. No one knows who took the first step towards reconciliation. For as long as I’ve known them, neither of my parents are big talkers. The little they do choose to share with me has fallen into the indispensable categories of authoritative, informative and/or comedic. Brief exchanges held a world of caution behind a guarded wall of restraint, for fear of making me too soft. But silence strengthens character. As my exchanges with my parents have dwindled to the point of becoming mute over the years, it feels more appropriate to address my progenitors by their given names.

And so, while my mother, Rose, was heading towards her terminal phase, my prodigal father, Pierre, returned to care for my older sibling Cassandre. Although Rose had longed for her womb to carry up to five boys, she wasn’t disappointed to birth just one girl child. I grew up being told that it was not only a miracle that she managed to carry a second child to term, but that she also managed to give the middle finger to cancer.

Rose and I have our differences. While I may find many things about my mother jarring since our falling out some years ago, to this day, I remain in awe of her grace in the face of adversity, her penchant for dramatic exits and entrances, and her unflinching belief that the party will only end when she says it does. I am grateful to her for passing on this stubbornness to the family’s only known Capricorn.

As I recount a story that has been told a thousand times, I must note it is a bit odd that I only learned of it when I was 14. By then, my parents had chosen not to disclose the event of their relationship’s second death. Despite lengthy and recurring shouting matches over long distance phone calls and through the house’s floor boards, I was never led to believe that this breakup was remotely eventful. “It’s none of your business,” they simply replied. I understood little why a couple would remain together if they were unhappy…until it came to the end of my own marriage some years later.

I did retain, however, that in January of 1985, my mother was a high school French teacher to a class of delinquents – with a specialty in orthopedagogy. When her water broke, a charming young man exclaimed in a thick Joual: “Ma’am you just pissed yourself!” This was not her first childbirth. She wasn’t alarmed, only annoyed at this inconvenience.

Pierre was not in town when Rose went into labour. In fact, they would not fully reconcile or live together until we all moved to Toronto when I was two. Why should he be allowed to move back in? My mother no longer thought she was dying, and he no longer served a purpose. It was a typical reasoning of people who had escaped Jean-Claude (Papa Doc) Duvalier’s dictatorship as teenagers in Haiti some twenty years before – pragmatic and sensible. You take what you need and you trust the one who has proven to be trustworthy. At that time, Rose deemed Pierre neither needed nor trustworthy and even if he had been, there was no way for him to drive down 13 hours from Sault-Sainte-Marie in rural northern Ontario, to make it to my birth on time. Rose calmly asked her student to call the principal. But the principal refused to drive her to the hospital. Why? The reasons ranged from overcrowded high schools in Quebec, to being short- staffed, to the plain fact that he was deeply racist and had proven to be so throughout her career at the school. She attempted to hop onto public transit to get closer to downtown Montréal. However, Rose was denied service by the driver, who could not help but notice her condition. Feeling particularly concerned about the spacing and timing of her contractions, “In this weather?” he asked. There was a seasonal ice storm and it was progressively getting worse.

According to records, the day’s weather started at -13°C with an average of 15 inches of snow falling steadily throughout the night and winds gusting at 17 miles per hour on the afternoon of January 8. But by the next morning, the temperature had dropped by 10 degrees, climbing again only after I’d first set my eyes upon the world. To get to the hospital, my very Haitian mother swallowed her pride, and called her brother-in-law to beg for a ride. No one has ever detailed the hour-long exchange between the two in the car. But I imagine that he did not offer any reassurance.

What I remember of this man from family holiday was a husband who barely spoke to his wife unless he needed food; who barely spoke to his children unless they needed scolding or a good dad joke; who never lifted a finger, if only to pour my dad, his buddy from the old country, a shot of precious Barbancourt “tafya”, the best rum on the island.

On the day my mother went into labour, this man did more for me than I’ve ever seen him do since I came out of the womb. He simply picked her up from work and dropped her off on the hospital parvis so she could give birth alone, speeding off the minute she was out of the car. Perhaps this was his best. I doubt he was able to offer much more support at the many births of his own children born in and out of wedlock.

At the hospital, my mother immediately regretted the epidural they had pressured her to get. They insisted that she needed relief after an eventful journey to the hospital while in labour with an impatient baby. She has since, never ceased to remind me: “I felt nothing, I pushed too hard, you only hurt afterwards.”

RECIPE FOR SOUP JOUMOU

Soup joumou is the Haitian Independence Day soup. It is served in Haiti and its diaspora, to represent the birth of the first black republic on January 1. It was a soup served to the French during colonial times, that slaves were not permitted to consume. Haitian slaves fought for 12 years after receiving their blessings from the ancestors, in a vodou ritual ceremony performed by priestess Cécile Fatiman. It is a hearty soup that eats like a meal, and when properly preserved, it often lasts longer than a week. It replenishes and gives you the strength to fight another day. It is the soup we conceived, fashioned and reclaimed. It is the soup that proclaims the old Haitian adage – Freedom or death! This soup is part of the story of my birth because I was an unexpected child. But when the possibility of existence was promised to my mother, she fought like hell to secure my passage into this world. Like the foremothers and fathers of the Haitian revolution, my mother spoke of sacrifice, and the pain of the labour she was numb to during childbirth, one she was aware of after the pain-killers effects receded.

Time of preparation: 24 hours (like my birth)
Serves: 6-8 or less… but who’s counting?

First, make Epis

Step 1:
Throw everything together in the order of solid, then dry, and then wet.
First, chop all the herbs, onion, garlic and bell pepper into small cubes

IngredientQuantity
fresh thyme1fistful
fresh (or dried) oregano1fistful
habanero or scotch bonnet chili1 
flat leaf parsley1fistful
fenugreek ground1tbspn
cumin ground1tbspn
coriander ground1tbspn
cloves ground1teaspn
paprika1teaspn
red bell pepper1 
green bell pepper1 
red onion large1 
lime + shave in some lime peels1 
whole garlic head12 if you love garlic
apple cider vinegar3tbspn
black pepper as needed
salt as needed
olive oil1/2cup or as needed
chicken or veggie bouillon cubes2 

Chop everything into easy-to-blend pieces. Throw dry spices and bouillon cubes in the blender with salt and pepper. Add the wet ingredients (olive oil, vinegar, lime juice).

Step 2: Blend and put in a jar. Store in the fridge for up to 2-3 months (if you used enough vinegar). Use as marinade for everything.

Ingredients Quantity
beef (a tender, fatty cut) or seitan for vegetarians1kg
large lemons2to wash the meat
Epis wet spice rub1cup
squash (heirloom but butternut or pumpkin are ok)1large 1-2 kilos
red onion1large
shallots3 
garlic cloves6 
bouquet garni (dried thyme, bay leaf, rosemary)1 
bouillon cubes2 
cloves6 
scotch bonnet pepper1 
carrots5 
celery stalks5 
chinese cabbage3 cupschopped
rutabaga1large
sweet potato1large
pasta (grana duro is preferable or else it’ll turn to mush)1cup
parsley for garnish  
plastic or glass container to marinate meat in fridge for 24hours  
olive or peanut oil for pan  
cumin seeds  
coriander seeds  

Next, make Soup joumou

Step 1: 24 hours before serving.
Chop your beef or vegetal protein into bite-size cubes. Clean the meat with lemons or limes. Rub one-inch-size pieces of your protein (beef, chicken, tofu, seitan, or any other cruelty-free protein you would like) with the epis and let it soak up the juices and spices by leaving it in a large tupperware or ziploc bag in the refrigerator overnight.

Step 2: Preferably the night before, or earlier in the day, so it is out of the way
Heat up the oven real hot. Wash the squash and pierce with cloves. Roast squash 40-60 minutes, removing from the oven when the surface is very tender. Remove skin and cut into large chunks. Store in the fridge for the next day.

Step 3: New Year’s Day!
Roughly chop onions and garlic. In a large non-stick soup pot (Dutch oven, preferably), heat olive or peanut oil. Once hot, throw in the bouquet garni, salt, pepper, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds). Once brown, throw in the meat and brown for 10 minutes. Remove meat from the pan and set aside.

Step 4:
Add a little more oil so nothing sticks. Once hot, add in chopped shallots, all chopped vegetables (carrots, cabbage, sweet potato, rutabaga) and scotch bonnet (whole or de-seeded depending on your taste), except for the squash. Brown the vegetables in the oil full of the marinated meat flavour until it starts to soften. Pick up your roasted squash bits from the fridge, mash them up and throw in the pot along with 2-4 cups of meat or veggie bouillon and a few more spoons of epis. Add meat, cover and simmer with leaves of cilantro and flat leaf parsley on top for one hour. Add in pasta and keep to the cooking time on the packaging. If you can’t do gluten make dumplings with gluten-free flour such as buckwheat with oil, baking powder, milk, salt and parsley. Use the same cooking time as pasta!

Step 5:
Serve a bowl of freedom!

Mélissa Laveaux is a queer Haitian Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Paris for the last decade. Releasing three albums under the label NOFormat!, she’s recently established her music publishing imprint Twanèt. After creative residencies in Colombia and Rome at the Villa Médicis, Mélissa released her most recent album ‘Radyo Siwèl’, a reawakening of traditional and lost resistance songs that served Haitian people during a 20-year US military occupation that changed the country forever. An avid cook, Laveaux is working on a larger body of work around different encounters with death throughout her life and the different foods she would have served at those respective funerals, entitled ‘Chadèk: a journal of sweet and savory aches.’

 

*Image by Mòje Ikpeme