My parents spent their entire lives in Haiti before they left. They didn’t know much about the United States except that, at that time, there were opportunities there. They basically packed two suitcases and came. That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.
As in art, there are always surprises. For my parents, one thing was snow. Cold. They’d never had to worry about being cold before! It took creativity to know how to cope with it. My mother, because of a rule in her religion, wasn’t allowed to wear pants. Other women told her that pants would help quite a bit with the cold, but she knew she had to find another way. In the end, she learned to sew these legwarmer-like things for herself, which she wore under her dresses to stay warm.
Alice Walker has a wonderful essay called “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” where she talks about women who were slaves and dying, perhaps, to paint or write. Because they couldn’t, they channeled their creativity into domestic forms of art—into their quilts, say, or gardens. I see this impulse in my mother. She could have been an extraordinary designer in another place, in another situation—she was an excellent seamstress. When we’d walk through a clothing store together, I’d pick out a dress—she’d always touch the fabric and say, “This is such cheap quality.” And she’d tell me, “I’m going to make you this dress—but better.” So we’d go to the cloth shop, buy some fabric, and she’d make me a beautiful replica of the dress.
When I was little, I bought her reasoning: It was the quality of the cloth, she wanted better for me. And it might have been. But when I got older, I realized it was just cheaper for her to make my clothes. My mother made most of the clothes I wore through high school. Until I had my own money, we didn’t buy dresses. Sometimes it was weird—I wore more dresses than other things. But these are ways people find to survive. If you can’t afford clothes, but you can make them—make them. You have to work with what you have, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. You use creativity, and you use imagination.
And that’s another thing this passage hints on: that first-generation immigrants often model artistic behavior for their children. They don’t necessarily realize it, like the father who says the immigrant life is art in its greatest form. But I realize now I saw artistic qualities in my parents’ choices—in their creativity, their steadfastness, the very fact that we were in this country from another place. They’re like the artist mentors people have in any discipline—by studying, by observing, by reading, you’ve had this model in the form of someone’s life. My mother could not have found time for creative pursuits with four children and a factory job. But she modeled the discipline and resourcefulness and self-sacrifice that are constant inspirations in my own life’s work. The things she did, the choices she made, made the artist’s life possible for me. I didn’t know it, but she taught me that being an artist makes sense.