Thursday, March 25, 2010


My husband, who is in Haiti, sent me flowers for my birthday. They were beautiful: two dozen red roses in a silver vase. As I looked at them, I started thinking about other flowers he has given me through the years: the time in college when the local florist ran out of roses on Valentine’s Day and he had to give me carnations instead, the Queen Anne’s lace he and my daughter used to pick for me when they would go out for a walk. Most of the flowers he’s given me, though, were bought in Haiti, where we've spent two thirds of our marriage.

I hate it that everything beautiful and ordinary about Haiti has now been tainted by destruction and pain. There was a lot that was beautiful about our lives there. And there still is a lot there that is beautiful, or so they say; I’m fifteen hundred miles away now.

I used to love buying flowers on the street. You could go to the flower market in Petionville, but we usually bought from the young men on the street near our house. They sat outside the grocery store with buckets full of bouquets they had already made, tying them up with long strips of bark.

For a few years I had “my own” flower guy, who used to come to my house every Saturday with his bucket full of flowers. I was his pratik, or regular customer. I would pay twelve Haitian dollars – under $2 US – for a bouquet every week. I probably could have bought it cheaper on the street, but there’s something to be said for home delivery, and guaranteed color on my table at Sunday dinner without having to go out looking for it.

When I first met my flower guy, he told me that he lived in Robin, high above the city. He said he got up at four in the morning to carry his flowers down the mountain. He got his flowers from a gardener, and some day hoped to be a gardener himself. I saw all of this as a symbol of hope, of beauty in the middle of hardship. I tend to do that, trying to sort random difficulties into some kind of narrative that heads in a direction that makes me more comfortable. I'm not alone in that, either. After the earthquake I read several stories that posited different symbols of hope. The Montana Hotel, which was completely flattened. A dancer who lost her leg. Apparently we're all desperate for hope and try to find it in the most unlikely places.

Usually it was just flowers that the flower merchant brought, but once he brought me a joumou – a Haitian pumpkin – and a little packet of herbs for making soup. The next week he asked me for money because someone in his family had died, and I wondered if there was a connection, if he had given me the extra gift to turn our relationship into one where he could ask me for something. Sometimes I bought a bunch of eucalyptus leaves because I like the smell and because Haitians say they keep mosquitoes away.

I don’t remember my flower guy’s name, or if I ever knew a name apart from “machan flè,” – flower merchant – which is what he used to yell as he banged on my gate on Saturday mornings. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, because his story, like all of them on this earth I suppose, got infected with pain well before the earthquake. About four years ago, he stopped showing up. Weeks went by. I decided he was dead, since I couldn’t believe he was passing up an opportunity to make money. I asked around and nobody seemed to know what had happened, though most people laughed at my gloomy speculations.

As it turned out, I was right. The word was, he had been shot and his body burned. Why? Well, he had been “with some guys who were involved in some activities.” And that was the non-answer we had to accept. So much for my symbol of hope.

My husband says the flower merchants are back on the street. Now relief workers eat at our school’s outdoor cafeteria where we used to have our lunch. Last week someone bought bouquets and put one on each table. I can imagine the doctors, fresh from dealing with the kind of pain I’ve been reading about in article after article about the wounded and amputees, looking at those bouquets. Flowers. Are they a symbol of hope or do they just cover up the bareness of the table?

Now my children and I have been evacuated from Haiti and are waiting to go back. We’re in that same little town where my boyfriend bought me flowers and was annoyed the roses were gone, the same little town where my small daughter picked Queen Anne’s lace. The spring flowers are starting to come up, but there’s snow in the forecast.

Meanwhile I had to throw away my birthday flowers. I kept them until the red turned purple, then black. If I were at home in Haiti, I would have thrown them into the compost pile, but here I just put them in the trash.


Andy Bowen said...


Janet said...

Yes. Beautiful, and very sad.