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Dear Mom, Dear Daughter: Letters Across Generations and Cultures

Rocky and her mom butt heads over nearly everything, but it's also clear that they love each other unconditionally. We invited Rocky and other women to write letters to their mothers and daughters, sharing their feelings across generational and cultural divides. Write your own letter in the comments below. We will select our favorites and feature them on this page!

Legends

By Edwidge Danticat


Bronx Princess: Edwidge Danticat, Copyright Nancy Crampton

Author Edwidge Danticat.
Photo © Nancy Crampton.

Once, upon an endless night
I dreamed of telling you a story
Of pleating you a tale out of my breath
And carving it into your flesh with my hair
And since this story would be my last
I wanted it to be a perfect story
Not “perfect” in execution
But perfect only in intent

The stories my mother told were always too frightening for us
She worried, my mother did, that I would remember too much
I worry, I do for you, that you will forget
Nights of women with wings of flames
Who want to draw you out of your bed
And make you into a star
A lovely thing to be a star
But stars they are too far from us
Like New York to Port-au-Prince

Nights of Ga-li-pòt, Ga-li-pòt, Ga-li-pòt
Or three legged horses
Riding at full speed
To either snatch or rescue
Children who had lost their way

-Lost their way from where, you ask
-From their country, I say
-And what of the children who had no way to lose?
-And what of the children who had no country?
-Then the three-legged horses would not want them, I say
Because what comes too easy, nobody wants
What comes too easy does not make legends

No body is ever outright handed a pot of gold
We must cross forests, jungles, oceans
Unearth the tail end of rainbows
We must vine our hair out of windowpanes
And sleep a hundred years

-And what if the sleeping beauty never awakens with her secret?
-That, ma chè, we would call death

In our legends, we are beautiful first
A charmed vision comes to claim us
We go off to the enchanted land
Then we find out that the vision had only borrowed its face

Still we are not foolish enough to lie a hundred years and wait
Even if they say we are zombies
They say we have powders that keep the dead beneath the ground
Until they jolt awake

And what was that girl, that sleeping beauty, dear one
If not a zombie?
And what was it that gave her freedom from the sleeping sickness
If not the taste of salt on the prince’s lips?

Let no one tell you that it was the man’s breath itself
Everyone knows--or Manman knows--that it was the salt
It is always the salt that wakes the dead
And frightens away the three legged horses
And brings the children home


II

Once, while peddling at a sewing machine
Under a fan blowing dust balls into my face
In a crowded castle called a “sweat-shop”
I dreamed of telling you a story

Not like the stories my father told
Of land invasions and foreign masters
Of the Macoutes and their timid eyes
Which they hid behind X-Ray glasses

In my childhood, the Macoutes were legends
Breeders of night soil who came with their knapsacks
For children who did not do as they told
In your childhood, the Macoutes were soldiers
Transformed by the fears of a madman
Whose own mother must have told him
To listen in the night
For the machetes scraping the palmetto
So he might stay inside

A man who may have watched
As the Marines had come to our shores
And as if...
Saint Rose de Lima, please pray for us...
As if...
The consternations of our nights were not deformed enough
Now there are breeders of night soil
To frighten the adults too
Gun boats to replace the knapsacks
Bullets to succeed the machetes
And your grandfather who died in a chain gang
Chiseling a song with his fist

Tande’m, tande’m....
We must not sleep another hundred years
And wait for them to come and kiss our lips
Their kisses are not always gentle
They kiss you with their boots over there

And when you awaken?
Then what?
Ki sa?
Then what?

And this is why those stories I dream for you
Are more yours than mine

One day, there might be time for you to ponder these questions
From some office castle
Or some university tower

Do not forget the three legged horses
Do not forget the night women and their wings
Do not forget the children lost to the night’s stars
Do not forget those we have left behind

Mothers who even as they are standing over them
Are still carving stories into their daughter’s dreams
Stories that they might never be able to tell them
That they might be ashamed to tell anyone
Stories that one day they will need interpreters for
Stories that you will only acknowledge
At last
When you read them in a book

     My mother’s favorite story: An ancient one, a hundred years ancient. Of a French General, once master of the colony, who gave a massive ball for all the colored women of the capital whose men had been called away. It was the first ball that anyone knew of where so many colored women came, curious, by the General’s sudden interest in their joy. At midnight, the dancing stops, and the French General comes and soldiers dressed in cassocks part a red velvet curtain and chant a mass for the dead. Behind the red velvet curtain are rows and rows of coffins, and the French General names them each, one by one, to tell the women “Regarde, you thought you had been dancing the solo minuetquadrille when really you were dancing all this time with your dead men.”

Perhaps we have all been in the coffins with these men
And in the silencing dusk with these women
Sleeping away our hundred years of shame
Waiting for the salt


III

Once, while cradling someone else’s child in my arms
Standing at a kitchen stove stirring a soup for the child’s hunger
I dreamed of telling you a story

A story that rains with salt

I am telling you to open your mouth
And catch as much of the salt as you can

The salt sizzles on your tongue
And suddenly you understand
Why your mother is lòt bò dlo
Why she has crossed these waters
But not the truly endless waters
Just a tiny sea
And why this is not the first sea
Nor the only sea
That we have ever crossed
And why in the mirror you see her face
And in the night, you hear her voice
Drowning out the hum of vacant stars
Drowning out the Ga-li-pòt, Ga-li-pòt, Ga-li-pòt
Drowning out the machetes and gunboats
Drowning out your tears

And the story she likes to tell you best is of a mother who everyday when she came home from the castle factory would stand outside your bedroom fortress and sing you a simple song. And observing this one day, a devil waited until she was gone and came to your doorstep and tried to imitate the song. At first the voice was too low and you knew and did not come. But when your mother sang, you came. When the devil came again with a voice that was too high, you knew and did not come. But when the mother sang, you came.

Saint Rose de Lima, please pray for us...
Now I am frightened
That you will no longer know your mother’s voice
And this is why I try to carve these stories into your dreams
So that you will not be deceived by birds and wolves
Who want to take you into the night
And this is why I try to carve these stories into your dreams
So that not only will you always remember the sound of my own voice
But yours as well


IV

Once, at least once
Each night before I put my head to rest
I dream of telling you a story
I tell you this story
Not certain if you will even know
How to discern my voice
If you will stay silent or sing it back to me
But I have no choice, but to tell you this story
It is all I know
It is all I have


Edwidge Danticat's latest book, Brother, I'm Dying (Alfred A. Knopf, September 15, 2007), is a non-fiction account of the deaths of her father and her uncle. It is currently in its 6th hardback printing and was nominated for a National Book Award (making her one of the few writers to have been nominated for both fiction and non-fiction). She was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation 'Genius' Grant in 2009.

Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969, and was raised by her aunt under the dictatorial Duvalier regime (her parents left for the United States when she was four). Danticat was reunited with her parents and brothers in America when she was 12. She published her first writings two years later, and holds a degree in literature from Barnard College and an MFA from Brown University.

Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and many anthologies, and she is the co-author, with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, of two books on Haitian art: Island on Fire and Odillon Pierre: Haitian Artist (Kaliko Press). She was associate producer, with Jonathan Demme, on a documentary about Haiti called The Agronomist.

Danticat is at work on a story collection, The Port-Au-Prince Marriage Special, which will be published by Knopf in 2010.





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