Written By: Abigail Suzahns
My roots are planted in a place where native palm trees tickle the toes that form from underneath clouds that protect ripe, juicy coconuts from overheating in the sun. Coconuts hide beneath their protective palms until my people pluck the fruit from its hiding place and crack the coconut open, to savor its warm, sweet nectar and make candies from the stringy snowflakes that hide inside. My branches have extended up and down a coastline where the climate ranges from a sun so hot that it makes sweat weigh down on your skin like armor and wind so cold that it makes icicles form on your lashes. My flowers bloom in cement, a mostly grey landscape dotted with brick or slick glass buildings that stretch way up into the sky and wave hello to the sun.
My parents, brave pilgrims and pioneers of their families, were born in the land of tickling palm trees. Their playgrounds were a Caribbean landscape full of farm lands and genuine farm-to-table feasts, long before farm-to-table was a trending fad. Their beginnings were humble but it forced them to be creative and adaptive; making excellent use of everything that was around them in order to not just live but thrive and succeed.
Still lakes filled with waters warmed by the rays of the sun were the perfect place to rinse off a load of laundry by day and a fun place to soothe and relax aching joints and muscles by night. Their dream catchers were fireflies that lit up the night sky and the way home whenever generators blew and the power went out (a daily occurrence). My parents and other kin whispered wishes into the air of reaching a land where street lights never went dark, water defied gravity and flowed freely and consistently from pipes that stretched way up into the sky andmeals were filling and complete with a meat based protein on every plate – rather than an egg or avocado substitute. The messenger fireflies carried the childhood dreams in the air and raised them up until they reached the place where wishes are granted and dreams come true. My parents didn’t know it at the time, but their farm land play grounds and red-clay dirt sandboxes were direct connections to heaven. Every inch of Caribbean land is a depot to utopia; the closest thing to paradise mankind has ever seen.
The wishes of pilgrims were granted and, in time, both my mother and father were transported to the land of milk and honey to dwell in the city that never sleeps. While at first the welcome was a harsh one – where work days seemed endless and outdoors was not a place to live and play in but merely a stop to pass by on your way to the next work station – through hard work they also got to see and experience what, to them, were the exotic parts of American, city life. They got to dance the night away to their favorite bands, watched movies at The Commodore, sat through live Yankee games at the historic stadium in the Bronx, visit the iconic Statue of Liberty, explore the wonders of the galaxy at the Hayden Planetarium and even had some time to have a Dominican picnic at Rockaway Beach (complete with pan-fried chicken and ripe, sweet plantains). The toil and struggle seemed worth it for indoor plumbing, 24 hours/7 days a week of electricity and ample opportunity to make money and have beef, chicken, pork, fish at every meal with enough left over to have the next day or help feed a neighbor.
My mother was especially industrious; hard-working, savvy, and loved living like a tourist. Though New York was her new home – it was not Regina’s native land; and every street, avenue and intersection held a wealth of opportunities and excitement just waiting to be discovered. My sister and I were raised with the same sense of awe and wonder for Brooklyn and New York City that my mother had. We couldn’t build forts in a back yard but we had hours of fun hanging sheets across the couches in the living room of our apartment in one of the city’s public housing complexes in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The few times we were allowed outside, we turned street and park benches into stages from which we would greet and perform for our adoring public. Cardboard boxes made for amazing hiding places and every morning I woke up to the shadow of the Twin Towers, my guardians of daybreak, rising up my bedroom wall as the sun peeked his way up behind them to wake me up with a kiss on the cheek. My sister and I had many play dates with the sun and our windows; we would un-wrap wire hangers, tie strings to them, cast them out the window and go fishing from our fifth floor apartment. On stormy days, with heavy winds and rain, I’d tie a blanket to my neck, stand in front of my open window to let the wind flap around my blanket, lift me up and fly. The cement ground beneath me was merely a trampoline, throwing me ever higher up in the unlikely event that my feet would ever come to touch the ground.
My city is never more beautiful, however, than after a snow fall. The urban landscape gets a fresh coat of white making every inch of its surface sparkle. A hush falls over the city as the fresh carpet of snow muffles everything from footsteps on the pavement to tires making their way through fresh-fallen flakes; it’s also just plain pretty. It’s a privilege to be the first person to walk through and make footsteps in fresh snow. Disturbing the cool, white fluff feels almost mischievous and looking back to view your tracks you get a real sense of what it’s like to really make your mark in this city. Plus, people will follow your footsteps all day and thank the brave soul that made a way to prevent them from slipping and falling in the snow. However, if you do get stuck on a snow mound, don’t worry – after a storm, no one is a stranger and anyone who sees you struggling to get around is happy to go over and lend a hand.
Sprinkled into my fantastic, imagined super-hero lifestyle were trips back to heaven on earth where my ancestors beckoned to me and their roots reached up to embrace me the second my feet touched the ground that paved over the soil where they once walked and played and planted visions of what their descendants would grow up to become. If the United States is a place where my imagination could run wild, the Dominican Republic is a place where all my senses are heightened and activated to almost beyond human capacity. I could wrap myself in a living dream every second I was there.
My extended, island family was always so impressed by how unfazed I was by what they considered the inconveniences of island living. Going back ‘home’ was a bit like traveling back in time but I was developing my parents’ adventurous spirit and I loved it. I never bathed in the lake but my bath water was fetched from the well. Every day after my incredible típico breakfast, made from items bought by morning vendors who sang about their wares and brought them right to our door (“¡Pan de agua!” “¡Traigo huevos!” “¡Maní, maní!”) and a hot chocolate so delicious I didn’t mind savoring it in 90º heat, I’d follow my feast with a warm bath using water brought into the bathroom in a five-gallon bucket that sat outside while we ate – being warmed by the gorgeous glow of the smile from my tropical sun.
Even mosquito bites were a small price to pay for getting to interrupt the melody of Dominican accents with my Catholic-school English, Language Arts grammar. A quick mental adjustment and a tuning of my ear would bring me back to the melody and soon I’d be harmonizing to the sing song Spanish – with its missing s’s and r’s- with a gorgeous Dominican brogue of my own. The native language coming from my throat was familiar, authentic and gave the nourishment and pleasure of mother’s milk to my body and tongue.
Thank God for vanishing electricity interrupting the monotony of sedentary city living by forcing us to run wild and play tag with the tropical breezes that burst through our front doors to find us and lure us outside. In the silence of no radio, fans blowing or catchy TV jingles I could hear Doña Inez singing a church hymn while she hung her wash on the line outside. I saw the parade of little chicks running away from the car turning down the road, back to their home with the little girl who lived in the house across the street from us. The little chirps and tweets of baby fowl filled the air as they waddled their way underneath the front gate to their nesting places. If the lights were not back on by nightfall, we turned on candles and flashlights and traded stories with our neighbors while grandma put food on a portable charcoal grill; we ate pollo al carbón on those nights. As we waited for dinner, I would dance with the fireflies and, unlike those of my parents, whispered wishes to them to let me stay and dance with them in paradise for all of my days.
In Brooklyn I’m a street-smart, book-smart, singer/actress, tourist, back-packer who soaks in everything happening around her and lets it inform the ways I see the world, interact with people and make sense of what’s in front of me so I can plan for what’s ahead of me. In Santo Domingo I’m an indigenous princess, the pride of my people, I’m care free and happy accepting everything around me as it is, because it is; I am a kid again. The totality of the remarkable woman that I am is a result of tripping up and down the Atlantic Coastline – catching snowflakes on my tongue in one place and drinking fresh sugar cane juice sold by the side of the road in another. Acknowledging any part of me at the expense of another would be like giving up a limb – it would make me incomplete. It isn’t as simple as checking a box on a form or filling in a circle on a scan sheet, identity cannot be reduced to bubbles on a page. Identity is the sum of the experience that creates a sense of belonging in you, wherever that might be.
Bio: Abigail Suzahns is the author of Living A Lifetime in 625 Days published by Tate Publishing, Inc. Abigail is a native New Yorker but recently claimed her dual citizenship with the Dominican Republic as a result of having parents who were both born on her beloved island. Claiming dual citizenship was important to Abigail because she wants to be a voice for la Republica not just as an interested observer, but as a native son working to uplift what is her very heart and soul. Abigail is an MFA in Creative Writing student at The City College of New York, CCNY