Under the Coconut Tree

The following is excerpted from Twelve Unending Summers: Memoir of an Immigrant Child:

One warm morning in La Rivière des Nègres, my dad took me to the northwest side of the house and showed me four coconut trees. Given their size, I thought they must have been planted about six to eight months earlier.

“One of these trees,” he said, “is your coconut tree.” More specifically, he was referring to the coconut tree under which my umbilical cord is planted.

Shortly after we arrived in Haiti, I was rummaging through a suitcase and found four little plastic bags tightly packed together. I was about to open them when my mother rushed to stop me.

“These are umbilical cords from you and your siblings,” she said.

Standing in front of the coconut tree with my father, I finally put it together. Haitians who leave their countries of origin keep an African tradition: if they have children outside Haiti, they preserve a portion of the umbilical cord until they can return to the father’s native place. Then they bury the umbilical cord under a fruit-bearing tree, to link their children in a more tangible way to the country of their parents’ origin. It’s a way of making you a bona fide member of the tribe.

That ritual has become more significant to me in the past several years, even though I have not been to my home of spiritual origin since my dad passed away. The tree represents my fascination and longing for what I felt in that space—to belong to a physical place, a people, under the stars and among the trees, amid the sweet, fruity smell of the morning dew. Despite not having visited in nearly thirty years, the fact that my umbilical cord is part of the soil of that place makes me feel part of it too.

My parents did not leave me money or lands as my inheritance, but the act of saving my umbilical cord and planting it under a tree on their land was one of the greatest gifts they could have left me. Now, decades later, I can latch onto as a lifeline, something that will help me keep faith with the values of the past that have done me well in my adult life.

Twelve Unending Summers: Memoir of an Immigrant Child is due out May 22! Click here to preorder.

For another sneak peek (read the first chapter for free), click here.

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