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.
When Manman came to New York in 1968, a year after my father, she went to work as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a kindly couple, themselves émigrés from France, and their 10 children. When we joined our parents and our new baby sister in the U.S. the following year, Manman switched to working days for the French family so she could be at home with us in the mornings and evenings. She cooked us hot breakfasts and dinners, kept an immaculate house and pressed our school clothes every night.
Though her labor inside and outside our home contributed to our family’s well-being, Papa was considered the real breadwinner, and thus the boss. Then, at age 49—six years after she liberated my bike—she got a job on the maintenance staff of the local community college and our family dynamics shifted.
She wore a uniform to her first “real job” and was compensated with a paycheck instead of cash. That made her very proud and moved her closer to equal footing with Papa, who also received a regular paycheck and wore a uniform to his factory job. Manman suddenly felt relevant in our household and the world.
Papa was in many ways an unapologetic male chauvinist, but after Manman got her job, he began letting her have more say and even insisted on teaching her how to drive. His impatient shouting, “Stop! Hit the brakes! Not the gas, the brakes!” prompted her to get professional lessons. And when Papa complained that it was a waste of money, she ignored him and used her money to hire a driving instructor who didn’t yell at her.
Manman’s latent feminism was taking root.
There were setbacks along the way. She gave up driving after her first car accident. Still, when Papa complained about having to chauffeur her around, she’d simply call a taxi and pay for it herself.
My four sisters and I did our parts to help her burgeoning independent streak. After one rude taxi driver told her to learn to speak some “goddamn English,” we taught her some choice English curse words to use the next time a driver mouthed off. When one did, Manman proudly recounted for us how she had taken him to task.
“I say to him, ‘Hey stupid mister, you are very sh-t. You better hold your chicken.’ ”
It was a nice try. In Haitian Kreyol, “hold your chicken” means something like “get a grip.” My sisters and I were glad Manman fought back, even though we’d nearly died laughing about the exchange. Teaching one’s mother to curse in a language other than her native tongue may not be a typical rite of passage, but it was a priceless bonding moment that helped us connect with our very strict and reserved mother who didn’t take to all that American-style hugging and other public displays of affection like randomly exclaiming, “I love you.” Still, we knew she loved us more than she could ever say.
Cursing out the taxi driver was also an important moment because it was a clear case of my mother demanding respect. As a teenager, it annoyed me that Manman always deferred to people she saw as authority figures—doctors, teachers, employers, bank tellers, even the cashiers at the supermarket. No matter how badly they treated her, she treated them courteously. When I urged her to strike back at the rudeness, she’d remind me that we were guests in this country and that we had to be nice to all Americans. Even still, when I took it upon myself to dole out tongue-lashings on her behalf, I would sometimes catch her watching me with admiration.
As an adult, I came to admire what I failed to recognize in her when I was a teenager: her steady dignity, her quiet ambition, her strength. Over time, Manman became a stalwart student of Oprah and the outspoken women on The View. She began expressing feminist-like beliefs even if she didn’t fully embrace feminist ideology: Married women should have their own bank accounts. Living with a man before marrying him was not inappropriate. Husbands should share in the household chores. She even rejected the notion that only marriage and children could make a woman feel whole, or relevant, or give her life meaning. No wonder she didn’t mind cleaning houses and classrooms; she was determined to send her daughters to college so we wouldn’t have to clean houses for a living or rely on a man for support. My sisters and I are all professionals with advanced degrees, thanks in no small measure to our mother.
Manman came a long way from her simple, seaside Haitian village of dirt roads, pastel-colored houses and subservient women. A massive brain aneurism eventually forced her to retire early from her beloved job at the community college, and over time her body was ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and other serious ailments. She died in October at age 79. I spent the last five months of her life with her trying unsuccessfully to prepare myself for her passing.
These days, I comfort myself with the image of her running beside my stolen bicycle, dressed in her proper skirt and blouse. Manman, the first feminist I ever knew.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.