For the first time in more than 20 years, I visited Haiti for four days (Thursday, June 9, 2016-Sunday, June 12, 2016). The last time I stepped foot on the country I was about 6 years old. I had always wanted to go back to Haiti, but I lived vicariously through the media, books, and pictures. I also dreamt about it, replaying the memories in my mind.

Cindy Similien-Johnson with her grandmother, 2012

The morning before Haitian Mother’s Day, on May 28, 2016, my grandmother, Philomene Beaubrun, passed away in Port-au-Prince. She would have been 106 years old on July 22nd. I met my grandmother for the first time in November 2012. She came to visit us in the U.S. from Haiti. As I greeted her, the first thing she asked was, “Do you remember me?” in her sing-song Creole.
“Wi, mwen sonje ou,” I replied, giving her a hug. Of course, I remembered her. How could I forget? Sometimes, I would daydream about the time when my family and I visited her in Haiti when I was a young girl. We would sit in her backyard amidst the banyan trees, eating her rich, savory meals such as Cornmeal (Mayi Moulen) served with Black Bean Sauce (Sòs Pwa Nwa), and White Rice (Diri Blan) with Chicken (Poule nan Sòs). Those early childhood memories stuck with me throughout the years.
After being away for so many years, I was in awe to be in the presence of my grandmother – a centenarian. She was 102 years old at the time. My grandmother was (and still is), as the French say, “eternellement jeune” (eternally young). She spoke of moments long ago, sang hymns, blessed her grandchildren, and imparted timeless wisdom about life, love, and loss. In 2010, she survived the devastating earthquake that plagued Haiti. In spite of it all, she still had an unspeakable joy that permeated everything she said and did.
As I prepared to leave, my grandmother held onto my hands to bless me. Her grip was so strong. The skin on the back of her hands felt delicate like a rose petal and smooth like a polished stone. As she prayed for me, the idea for this cookbook came to mind. I wanted to hold on to the precious memories of my Haitian upbringing and teach others about our rich Haitian culture, particularly its cuisine. It was then I realized how important it was to pass on memories, traditions, and stories. Consequently, I began cooking and compiling my favorite childhood recipes. Because of her influence, I wrote a series of e-cookbooks entitled, “Cook Like a Haitian, ” which are now bestsellers on Amazon.

At the funeral, people shared their personal experiences of my grandmother. She was a healer, a philanthropist, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and so much more. When asked to speak, I shared that her name actually meant “power of love.” She was the embodiment of love, expressing it to all those she encountered.

My visit to Haiti was not only overwhelming, but also eye-opening.  I found myself again and again in the faces of the people that once floated in my dreams. We shared the same almond- shaped eyes, dark cocoa skin, curvature of smiles, and twinkle in the eyes. I re-connected with cousins, uncles, and aunts, who have aged in the 20 years since I last saw them. I caught a glimpse of my grandmother in each one of them – in a smile, a laughter, the shape of the eyes, etc.

At the burial site, as my grandmother’s first grandson lifted a fist full of dirt in the air on a sunny Saturday afternoon and with a view of the mountains in the distance, he related the phrase uttered at every funeral, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” As he made this gesture, a question came to mind: What will I be known for?”

One day, every person will have to go to the place of no return. They will have to face death – the greatest equalizer. It’s no respecter of persons. Everyone – the rich and poor, the strong and weak, and the powerful and oppressed – will have to face it one day, but what will I be known for? What will you be known for? When people think of our names, what will come to their minds?

This year has seen the passing of many greats – known and unknown, including Prince, Muhammad Ali, and my grandmother. Prince was known for his genius musicality; Muhammad was known for his prowess on the boxing ring; and, my grandmother – well, she was known for her love.

“What about me? What will I be known for?” I asked myself, as my cousin released his hold of the dirt in his hands, and the wind carried the dust away. At that moment, I realized that life is not about the awards or recognition, the money or the fame; it’s really about the positive impact that one has on the lives of others.

“What you do for yourself will die with you, but what you do for others will last for eternity,” someone once said. My grandmother was a woman of unconditional love. She impacted hundreds of lives, including mine. She has left behind a rich legacy of generosity and love. Yes, she’s gone in the flesh, but, in the words of Marcus Garvey, I will “look for her in the whirlwind” of every movement that calls for love in action.

Cindy Similien-Johnson with Angela Davis, 2016

Interestingly enough, while I was in Haiti, The 41st Caribbean Studies Association Conference (CSA) also took place. Its theme was “Caribbean Global Movements: People, Ideas, Culture, Arts and Economic Sustainability.” The CSA has been everywhere in the Caribbean for 40 years and it has never been done in Haiti until this year. The day I returned from Haiti, I ran into Angela Davis at JFK Airport in NYC. She had headlined the Conference. It was a coincidence. What is she known for? Ms. Davis is best known as a radical African-American educator and activist for civil rights and other social issues.

Again, I ask the question, “What will you be known for?”

Cindy Similien-Johnson is the founder of CSJ Media Publishing, and author of the bestselling e-cookbook series and popular cooking classes, "Cook Like A Haitian." She's also the founder of the women empowerment grassroots initiative, Goal Chic.

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