No one who knew my very traditional Haitian immigrant mother could have ever mistaken her for a feminist. Although she lived in the United States for four decades—enough time to learn a thing or two about women’s lib—she also was married for 57 years to my father, a traditional Haitian man with narrowly defined notions of a woman’s place.
Manman spent much of her life raising me and my five siblings, cooking our meals, cleaning the house and otherwise fulfilling her circumscribed role of mother and wife. She never complained about having deferred her own dreams so she could help us reach ours. She did not grumble about feeling underappreciated. And she never, ever expressed any desire to burn her bra.
As a teenager, I often wondered if my mother ever wished for more; sometimes I wished for more for her. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that Marie-Denise Valbrun, my unobtrusive, unassuming, apolitical mother, had subtly but consciously shaped me into a feminist—and that she had become one, too. It started the day she committed petty theft.
Manman was waiting at a bus stop near our house in Spring Valley, N.Y., when a boy approached and asked if she would keep an eye on his bicycle while he went inside the corner grocery store. She recognized the bike instantly. It had been stolen from our front porch the week before, and I had cried about it for days. She agreed to watch it for the boy.
The boy had tried to alter my bike by removing the white plastic basket and the frilly pink plastic streamers that adorned the handlebars and matched the pink-flowered banana seat. But there was no denying it was my bike—dents, scratches and all.
Manman didn’t know how to ride a bike, but she knew how to run. As soon as the boy disappeared into the store, she grabbed the bike and ran alongside it in the direction of our house. When she arrived, she called out for me from the front yard.
Marjo, come outside. I have something for you.
I came out to the porch and saw my mother standing beside the bike, dressed in a proper skirt and blouse, breathing hard and smiling proudly. Her pocketbook was slung over one of the handlebars.
My bike! I squealed in shocked delight.
Yes, your bike, she said, laughing between breaths, as she recounted how the bike came into her possession.
I stood there speechless and incredulous that my very decorous mother had not only retrieved the bike but that she had done it so brazenly.
Well, don’t just stand there, she said, a self-satisfied melody in her voice. Come get it and take it inside.