Roger French’s Thanksgiving

French carrying his child.

Photos courtesy of Roger French. 

I am from a rambunctious Trinidadian family that has been coming to New York in waves since 1917 when my great-grandfather James French, a shipwright,  became the first to emigrate. My nuclear family was part of the last big wave of Caribbean kids and their parents who came to America between the late 1960s and the late 1970s.

In the British West Indies—in Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, among others—two of the biggest days of the year are Christmas and Boxing Day. I don’t recall ever hearing the concept of Thanksgiving as young boy in Trinidad.

While I recognize that many Caribbean immigrants have come to embrace Thanksgiving as much as they do Christmas, I do not celebrate Thanksgiving. Rather, on this day, I look forward to being alone, to think and to be free and at peace with my thoughts and spirit. They are all the things I could not experience under my father’s roof.

Dick, my father, singlehandedly ruined Thanksgiving for me. He was a diligent, hard-working man who was always gainfully employed — in Trinidad as well as America. I have no consciousness of him ever asking a friend or relative if he could borrow money to pay a bill or to buy my mother, six brothers and sisters and me food. In fact, many came to him for such handouts.

But while my father, a licensed electrician who worked on Rikers Island in the 1970s, was an excellent provider, he was also an explosively abusive man, especially to my mother and me.

I will never forget a summer day when I was barely 15, and dad got so enraged at me—rages were regular occurrences in our house—he grabbed my dinner off the table and hurled it out of our second-floor Bushwick apartment window. That was when I began to lose interest in food, or in sitting around a dinner table with family and friends.

By contrast, my mother, Nina, took quickly to the spirit of Thanksgiving in America.  She is a great cook! Everyone from our Caribbean diaspora—Black, white, Asian, and Americans who married into the family—would come to our East Flatbush home in the 1980s and 1990s for hefty servings and take-home bags. Soon, my mother would become known for her unique pigeon peas and rice, macaroni pies, potato salad, callaloo (a vegetable of leafy greens), baked chicken, steaks, sweet breads, sorrel- and ginger-beer drinks — and the annual baked turkey steeped in her special Trinidadian seasoning.

But now, having recently turned 86, mom, whom all, including her many grandchildren, call “Nines” (read Neenz), doesn’t cook much anymore. In addition to enduring my father, who died in 2020, she has battled hypertension and ovecame thyroid surgery, brain surgery, and heart episodes. Now, it’s her time to be pampered.

Today, I am as proud of being a father as of being her son. Siiri, my daughter, is my greatest inspiration. I am heartened each time I drop by Nines’s house, knowing her first words to me will be: “Where’s Siiri?”

French’s daughter Siiri.

Siiri reminds me a lot her grandmother — a mix of grace, beauty and strength. At this juncture in Siiri’s life, I see these attributes fortifying her as she helps care for her mother Lisa, a Bronx elementary school teacher, who was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer last summer.

As Lisa now undergoes chemotherapy, I see that Siiri’s love and care for her is akin to the way I was able to be there for Nines two decades ago.

So, once again,  this past Thanksgiving, I skipped the baked turkeys and gluttonous amounts of food. I also avoided the family, relatives and guests who still take over Nines’ East Flatbush house during the holiday. Instead I prayed that God blesses my mother to be free of any pain and suffering in the autumn of her life. I also prayed that Siiri and Olivia, Lisa’s younger daughter, will have a cancer-free mother for many years to come.