Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Greatest Compliment

I really wanted a drink. Not surprisingly there weren't any to be found in the fridge of the parsonage where my mother lived, so I put on my sandals and ventured into the heat of the Dominican sun, past the wrought iron gates of the churchyard and the whitewashed stone and brick wall to which it clung. I could see myself twenty years earlier at that wall painting on the once proud "Mahaut Gospel Tabernacle" sign.  (How chipped and faded it now looked.) Just a few steps away, juxtaposed to the MGT edifice and the Catholic church, was a modest home with a tiny ragtag bar slapped onto  its face. I ducked through the entrance, intruding upon the proprietor (a middle-aged looking woman with a colorful traditional head wrap) as she stood chatting with another lady leaning against the counter. They looked like they could be sisters.  "Good afternoon," I said, taking the few steps that separated the threshold from the counter. (The place was big enough for three, but just barely.) "Good afternoon," they replied in unison, turning towards the voice with the foreign accent. I asked the shopkeeper if she had any Kubuli beer. She began to say yes but paused and looked at me like I was vaguely familiar. Then, as the light of recognition switched on in her eyes, she squinted and asked, "You're Preacher's son, aren't you?"

Folks there used to call my dad Preacher. In the early eighties he packed up our family and tossed all of the trappings of middle-classed Canadian life into a container and headed off to serve in the land of my birth as a minister at the Pentecostal church in Mahaut. Mahaut is a tough little village near Dominica's capital, Roseau.  Its eponymous river stinks with waste in the heat and runs over into the streets during the rainy seasons; its shanty town houses are hunched up against dangerously narrow streets, forcing you to teeter onto the edge of the gutter anytime more than one car or a truck blows through in utter disregard for life or limb. On an island of less than seventy thousand it overflows with life: trees and flowers, chickens and goats and dogs, saints and hoodlums, hustlers and drunkards, whores and children, all huddled unto a few square miles of mountainside along the Caribbean sea. It's a slum but its people are proud, resourceful, gritty and happy.

My father died in 1989 at the age of 49. The day of his funeral it quickly became evident that the church where it was to be held would be too small; the whole works was moved to a nearby school. The partitions separating the auditorium from the adjoining rooms were removed. People overflowed into the schoolyard and out onto the street where loud speakers were placed with long cables snaking back to the lectern, where sermons, eulogies, songs, laughter and wails of grief were offered up to him. The massive turnout was unusual for such a small island and given that he wasn't a politician or a celebrity. He was a simple evangelical minister, yet he stood out amidst the others; he visited the people in the hospital and when they found themselves in prison; he played dominoes in the local shops, and knew the names of their children; he gave them rides into town, and employed them in the contracting business he ran nearly full-time. People of every type were there and they all revered my father, Pastor Samuel Augustine, not as a minister but as a man.

"Yes, I am Pastor Sam's son," I replied. It was my turn to squint; I didn't remember her. Should I? Perhaps she once attended the church and knew me as a young man, or maybe it was simply that she had caught wind of my arrival through the grapevine and had put two and two together. "I find he looking like him, oui!" the other exclaimed. I do look like him, especially when I put on weight and grow a beard, which I had. The resemblance sort of bothered me in my rebellious teenage years, but now I consider it a great compliment to be compared to him in almost any way. The compliment that followed however, was the greatest I've ever heard bestowed upon a man: "He loved us so much."

I am the Son of Samuel


  1. Beautiful, beautiful. Good writing, tons of emotion, colorful descriptions, natural dialogue with touch of dialect. You should certainly devote yourself to writing and I am sure will do well. Please, send us more.

    1. Thank you! I'm working hard at the craft. It's nice to have such a positive response; very encouraging.

  2. Excellent. Hoping to see more of these. :-)

  3. Amazing and beautiful story.