Afterword: At the Harvard Herbaria

This was written a month ago:

Here I am, in Boston, after a number of years. I’m reading a paper at a conference at Harvard, so even though I’m staying at a hotel on Tremont Street, much of my time is spent across the Charles River in Cambridge. I did my graduate studies at the university, and I know the place as intimately as a student can. But time hasn’t stopped still — not at Harvard. My old haunts are still there, but there are several new modern buildings, and even the old ones have been transformed. The old Fogg Museum, an Italianate structure from the 1920s among whose paintings and sculptures I always felt at home, has been renovated and expanded by Renzo Piano. Gathering items from two other art collections, the place is now known as the Harvard Art Museums. Transparent, grand and intimate, it feels to me like the happiest place on earth. But I digress.

On Thursday — which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day and the conference’s first  — I had to attend an event at a new handsome structure with the rather Hitchcockian name of Northwest Building. I knew it wasn’t far from Richards Hall, the Gropius-designed graduate dorm where I once lived, so I resorted to Google Maps, hardly expecting what I found. Close to the digital marking of the said building, a rectangle popped up on the tiny bright screen elegantly marked as the Harvard University Herbaria. It was located at the northernmost end of Divinity Avenue, a place I was familiar with from my first semester at the university, when, a budding and soon-to-be fading scholar of medieval Spain, I took a course in advanced classical Arabic at the Semitic Museum. But I digress, yet again.

Faithful readers of this blog may recall its origin well over a year ago in yet another act of serendipitous googling. Searching for the coffee and cacao farm in Oriente province where my grandmother had spent her childhood, I had typed in La Reunión and an image come up. It pictured a few modest leaves and twigs collected in those distant hills, purportedly belonging to my second great-grandfather, by E.L. Ekman, a Swedish botanist, in 1916. They were specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb. — tiny and modest, perhaps, but a direct link to a mythical location in the lore of my French-Cuban ancestors. The image, as I now remembered, also showed an oval seal of the Herbarium of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Did that mean, then, that they were across the river in Boston, where the Arboretum is located — or could they, perhaps, be housed right there on the Harvard campus? Would I be able to find their actual location and perhaps even see them in all their botanical atemporality?

Harvard Herbaria - Red CabinetsI decided to investigate. On Friday just before noon, finding myself again not far from Divinity Avenue, I crossed the threshold of the Harvard Herbaria. At the reception desk, a silver-haired woman greeted me with friendly efficiency and perhaps a measure of curiosity. It didn’t seem they were used to many impromptu visitors. When I awkwardly explained what I wanted, showing her a picture of Ekman’s specimen on my iPhone, she immediately went in search of a curator who might be able to help me. After a few minutes she came back with a dark-haired man. He too turned out to be intelligent and sympathetic and invited me to his office, where he consulted his computer for a few minutes. It indicated the leaves and twigs were housed in the very building we were in. The search then entered the very real world of the actual collections. We climbed stairs and traversed long corridors on several floors, lined with endless rows of enormous, hermetically sealed cabinets, labeled with botanical terms such as Melastomateaceae and Astronidium and geographical appellations such as Mexico and C. Am., South America, Australia, Polynesia… After a couple of false starts, we finally found what we wanted. From a cabinet that read Myrtaceae, Calypranthes and West Indies, the curator extracted a large red file and took it to a table, where he then proceeded to reveal its contents.

Harvard Herbaria - LeavesThere they were, those beautiful leaves and twigs, our precious Eugenias gathered at La Reunión one-hundred years ago, neatly preserved at the Harvard Herbaria, as if waiting for me to show up one cold Friday afternoon in the very late winter of 2016 to see them. And here you can see them, once again in digital form. But I saw the real thing, lovingly cared for by men and women devoted to the arts of botany. And there they must have been too, in the flesh, back in September 1982, when I had just arrived on campus and walked for the first time to my Arabic class, a few hundred feet away in the Semitic Museum. If only I had known of their existence back then, when I was a stranger in a new place, one student among many. I remember my sense of alienation that afternoon. In a small seminar room to which I had finally come after crossing several rooms full of inscriptions and sarcophagi, sitting right across the table from me, there was another student. As we all waited for the professor to arrive, she was speaking with another student. I detected a foreign accent. Not without timidity, I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Cuba. That was the short version of her provenance, as she had previously lived in Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, and, as a doctoral student in the history of Islamic architecture, had traveled through much of North Africa and the Middle East… Now that I think about it, my little leaves too, like María Luisa, had probably traveled far and wide. After all, Ekman was Swedish and the specimens in front of me featured, just below the seal of the Harvard Herbaria, a label that read “Musei bot. Stockholm,” a passport stamp of sorts that suggested a Scandinavian sojourn before a transfer back across the Atlantic to the so-called New World.

Harvard Herbaria - BotanistAfter patiently allowing me to take all the pictures of Eugenia oxysepala Urb. that I wanted, the dark-haired botanist asked me if I was interested in seeing what the envelope contained. I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t really paid much attention to the small pocket-like thing, discreetly devoid of colors and words, neatly tucked in the lower right corner of the red file. I said yes, of course. Delicately, he unfolded the fragile white paper thing, revealing a tightly packed collection of tiny desiccated leaves. I don’t know for sure, but they appeared to have remained airless and unseen for many years — modest exiles from the tropics, silently abiding in the company of other such exiles from far-flung provinces of the vegetable kingdom in a well-secured site in these United States. The botanist looked relieved and smiled when I said I wouldn’t run my fingers through them, or throw them in the air, even if such actions appeared tempting. I was overjoyed by the unexpected apparition — my fellow migrants, sad confetti from another world. But all I could do was to take their picture and replant them here on the soil of the digital forest, knowing their story will continue to grow.

XL – Adieu

From the onset of this botanical expedition in search of the elusive family tree, I have been tempted by the idea of uprooting it all. My genealogical findings, such as they are, often strike me as embarrassing and ultimately meaningless, so why continue? Now that our visit to Israel and Palestine has left me in a biblical stay of mind, I think it makes sense to end it all right here, on the fortieth post. Just over two weeks ago we were in Jericho, of trumpet-fame, and took a cable car up to the opulent Greek Orthodox monastery built on the slopes of the Mount of Temptation. That otherwise desolate peak is reputedly the “exceeding high mountain” where the devil took Jesus after his forty days and forty nights of fasting in the Judaean desert. From there, as Matthew tells it, the devil “showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and said unto Him, ‘All these things will I give Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me.’” Such fabulous words, especially in Latin: “Haec omnia tibi dabo…” Any way, basta. I have been worshipping at this blog’s feet for too long. I have been fortunate to have had a glimpse into the kingdoms of the past — so distant and immutable, so elegant at times, but also so cruel and terrifying. But I must now return to a present where other kinds of writing beckon me.

Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, François - BaptismMany questions remain about my Cuban Gauls, but the central one concerns the life of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, who may well have been the first of our French ancestors to arrive in Cuba. We have his baptism certificate, found by one of my Miami genealogist cousins, which shows he was born in 1764 in Aubeville, site of the family’s ancestral Château de la Dourville (which, incidentally, yet another Miami cousin recently visited). We know that François, along with four of his brothers, left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror. We also know that some of those brothers, including a saintly priest (François Nº 11, the Abbé Vidaud), returned to France via Philadelphia. But we don’t really know much about François’ ultimate destiny, except that he married a woman named Anne-Julienne Gué, who was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, an architect killed during a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, and the sister of Julien-Michel Gué, the artist whom I love and who achieved a measure of fame in France. When and where the marriage of François and Anne-Julienne took place remains a mystery. She had been married before (to a man named Julien Tardy) and they had a daughter, Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba at the turn of the nineteenth century. To complicate matters for her genealogist descendants, Anne-Joséphine in turn married one of François’ nephews, Pierre, whose father, the Seigneur de Pomerait, was also named Pierre… François and Anne-Julienne had two sons of their own, and what documents we have, such as birth and baptism certificates for their children and grandchildren, appear to indicate that those boys, Adolphe and Adelson, were born in France. How they ended up in Cuba — if, in fact, they were born on the other side of the Atlantic — is, again, unknown to us. In a book on the French who settled in Santiago de Cuba after the French and Haitian revolutions, by Agnès Regnault, there’s a footnote in which a man named François Videau is described in passing as an “ancien réfugié bien connu par ses activités corsaires.” The note concerns mostly Pierre (the father, the son, a composite figure?), and there’s some other information therein that doesn’t quite fit what we know (who are Louis, François and Pierre-Julien, named as his children?), but I’m tantalized by the prospect that our François might have been a corsair of the Caribbean. If this turns out to be true, I believe I will be tempted to return to this blog forthwith. A quick visit to the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Santiago de Cuba might shed some light on the matter.

De Granda VidaudThe mysteries that still remain are to some extent visual. Consider, for instance, this image of two little ancient boys. Who are they? The photograph belongs to my dearest cousin, Mari of Maryland, and we agree they might be our grandmother’s older and younger brothers, Manuel and Fernando de Granda Vidaud. We think it might be them because we have another photograph — of Carmela, our grandmother, and her older sister, María — that somehow resembles this one, which suggests that they are companion pictures, perhaps taken on the same day, in 1912, by the same photographer in Santiago de Cuba: the boys with the boys, the girls with the girls. We have other photos of Manuel and Fernando as young men, including a family portrait in which they appear with the rest of the entire de Granda-Vidaud clan — both parents and all seven siblings. We also know aspects of their biographies, and I even knew Fernando in person when, in his seventies, he spent the last years of exile in Massachusetts. But is that you, Fernando, that little boy? Whoever you may be, little boy, you really look a lot like my mother when she was a little girl — and my sister and my niece too. Then again, what meaning should one attach to these resemblances, these aires de familia? What is the significance, really, of visibly sharing genes across space and time?

There is a much larger challenge, one which a novelist might be able to tackle far more interestingly than anyone else. We can look at the figures in the photographs, we can even know who they are, yet their minds, or souls, are bound to be not transparent. Consider a photograph of two women, posing together in some distant belle époque salon in what is probably Pau around 1910. (A copy of that photograph is in my possession, but I dare not post it as its provenance is labyrinthine.) There’s a lady sitting down and her name is Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait. She is the sister of Étienne Octave V. du D. de P., who settled in Brooklyn in the 1850s, but we have a few facts about her own life too. In his invaluable genealogy, M. Vallantin Dulac tells us she was born in Santiago de Cuba around 1841 and died in Pau on 30 July 1916 — two years before her son, Henri Pierre Lafont, a general and military attaché, died in Romania at the end of the Great War. On 10 February 1864, in Santiago, Marie Joséphine married a medical doctor named Jean Henri Lafont, who had been born in Orthez, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and migrated to Cuba. I don’t know what prompted the man to migrate to the distant Spanish colony in the Antilles (a brother who was a merchant there, as a birth certificate suggests?) or what triggered his eventual return to France (the Ten-Year War?), but everything seems to indicate that settling down in Pau, not far from his birthplace, was a good decision. After what appears to have been a distinguished medical career, Jean Henri died in that city in 1905, eleven years before his wife.

The second lady in the invisible picture stands rather solemnly behind the sitting figure, and her name is Marie Lucie Philomène Lafont. She is Marie Joséphine and Jean Henri’s youngest daughter. As I read on the web,she too was born in Santiago de Cuba, in 1871, and died in 1946 at the age of seventy-five in Artix, a village also located in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. I don’t know much about her, except that one of her descendants in France was a stupendous genealogist who was in touch with some of my cousins until his recent death. But for me the real enigma is a little girl portrayed in the picture — a photograph, a painting? — on the back wall. Who is she? Might she too be a distant relative? I’m tempted to say she may be one of Marie Lafont’s two daughters. Both of them, incidentally, boasted long names that delight me. Could our little girl be Marie Thérèse Solange Luce Flye Sainte-Marie, born in 1901, or Marie Louise Joséphine Odile Flye Sainte-Marie, born in 1903?

PositanoLet’s imagine, as I suggested, that the photograph of Marie Joséphine and Marie Lucie Philomène was taken around 1910. Let’s imagine too, at least for a moment, that the image of the little girl is one of Marie Joséphine’s granddaughters. Let’s imagine who her transatlantic cousins might be. Back in Cuba, around the same time, my grandmother was also a little girl, living with her grandparents on a coffee and cacao plantation known as La Reunión, somewhere in Oriente province not far from Santiago de Cuba. It’s always difficult to imagine one’s elders as young children, but let’s try. As I embarked on the writing of this blog, I made every possible effort to imagine my grandmother, Carmela, as a child at La Reunión. It was 1916, the height of the Great War, and a Swedish botanist named E.L. Ekman visited those fertile hills in search of specimens. My grandmother’s grandfather, I imagine, welcomed the botanist to the house and they spoke, most probably in French, about plants and the war in Europe and — yes, why not? — the splendor of Cuba, a new republic. None of this, I’m afraid, really happened, but does it matter? Years passed, many years, and a revolution took place and my grandmother left her beloved land and went into Exile. Many more years passed. And then, at the age of 95, in last days of November 2000, Carmela became sick. I was about to go on a trip, but I made a point of calling her before my departure. Sitting on the gray carpet of my apartment in Los Angeles, I heard her voice from San Juan de Puerto Rico. She, who always had spoken so assertively, could be heard now just faintly, spectrally. I wasn’t sure she knew who I was, which shocked me even as it alerted me to the fact that we were saying good-bye. Two days later I was in Rome and the telephone rang early in the morning. It was my sister to tell me that Carmela, who had so often seemed immortal, had just died. Carmen Luisa Nicolasa de Granda Vidaud, who emphatically defined herself as “católica, apostólica, romana,” would probably have liked the fact that, as she lay dying, one of her grandchildren was just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s. My travel companion and I had planned a daytrip to the Amalfi coast, and he suggested we cancel it. We still went; I insisted that being sad right then and there made no sense. The picture you see here is me, smiling, even though it was a cold and gray day in Positano, even though just a few hours earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, my dear grandmother had turned into a ghost. The next day I happened to be near Santa Maria sopra Minerva, behind the Pantheon; there, among the old gods and by the tomb of Fra Angelico, I lit a candle to honor my dead souls. Let’s redeem my image by imagining it now as the visual signature of this fortieth post and a belated act of mourning.

The specimens that Ekman collected at La Reunión made their way to the Harvard Herbaria and there they still sit. One sleepless fifteen months ago I found a picture of those same leaves, the Eugenia oxysepala Urb., on the web. The digital image of the those remnants and the lovely botanical label below describing them prompted the writing of this strange blog. But this too must come to a close. In the beginning was a Plant, and there is also one at the end. But let it be the smiling Christmas tree standing in our living room, full of lights and redolent of life. Before we too become ghosts, as we certainly shall one day, let’s imagine ourselves as everlasting souls living together forever in some glorious kingdom of the mind.

XXXIX – The Blogger in Zürich

Villa WesendonckWe’re in Zürich for a few days on our way back to Los Angeles. I’ve been here before a few times — twice as a researcher and writer for travel guidebooks — so it’s not a city I view as alien to me. In fact, despite its apparent bourgeois smugness — the flawless national and cantonal flags everywhere, the opulence of the shops on the immutable Bahnhofstrasse, the blue trams silently gliding along as if the streets were made of soft Alpine waters — it is a city I’ve always liked since my first visit at the age of sixteen. Then, if not now, it struck me, a child of the wild Americas, as the epitome of European charm and order. But never before had I been to the Villa Wesendonck, pictured here. Built as a private residence, it is now the site of the outstanding Museum Rietberg, devoted to the arts of Asia and other parts of the world. In the late 1850s, the villa and the surrounding park served as the setting for Richard Wagner’s liaison with the poet Mathilde Wesendonck. Her husband, Otto, a wealthy industrialist, had extended Wagner and his wife an invitation to stay in a cottage — the Villa Schönberg — on the villa’s grounds, and Wagner, eternal fugitive, had gladly accepted. He named it his “Asyl,” and there, in the peaceful land of Switzerland and with the hospitality of a generous patron, the great composer began to work on Tristan und Isolde. We ignore the exact nature of Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendock’s friendship, but we at least have the passionate Wesendonck Lieder,  in which he set to music five of her poems. In the text of the second song, “Stehe still,” she writes: “So I, in sweet oblivion, / May take full measure of my joy; / See bliss within another’s eyes, / Immerse my soul within another’s, / Another’s being that mirrors mine; / An intimation that hope’s goal is near.” The poem, of course, is better in the German original, but even this awkward version still conveys the amorous loftiness that may have in the hearts of Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, who dwelled near each other in a peaceful villa not far from a quiet lake in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In this city in the heart of Europe, just about to return home, I’ve been thinking of my own Vidauds, the subject of this laborious blog. Some of the most interesting among them were also born and lived in those remote decades. Some crossed the Atlantic many times. Some, like Wagner and Wesendonck, must surely have loved other bodies and minds. And then I despair at coldness of my treatment of their spectral lives. How can I even think of retrieving them for the past without being able to know their hearts? Should I simply discard this silly little blog and imagine them — Adolphe, Charlotte, María, Alberto, Severo, Fanny, even the older Anne-Julienne and Julien Michel, plus the elusive François V. du D. de B. — not as silly little names stuck in the twigs of the family tree, but as full-blown figures who may live again in the realm of fiction? As I approach the biblically sounding fortieth post, it may well be time for to put an end to this relentlessly equivocal botany — to turn, as it were, a new leaf — and write a novel, where truth resides.

XXXVIII – The Blogger in Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, 2A brief sojourn in Jerusalem. I’d never been here before, but I’m not the first descendant of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne to have made his way to the holy city. (More on that pilgrim in a minute.) Jim and I arrived in Tel Aviv, our first stop, on the first day of Chanukah — a fortunate coincidence that allowed us to eat at least one of the traditional jelly doughnuts almost every day, and participate in the ritual lighting of the menorah on two different evenings at our hotels — a wonderfully renovated Bauhaus edifice on Tel Aviv’s Boulevard Rothschild, and a mansion from the British-mandate era in Jerusalem’s German Colony. We put on our skullcaps and, guided by our kind hosts, pronounced some Hebrew words, including “Amen,” and even lit some candles. It felt lovely to me, a non-Jew, because of the intimate strangeness of it all, and because the holiday seems so mellow compared to the frenzied spirit of Christmas in the United States. A non-Christian, I nevertheless enjoyed seeing some of the places linked to the religion I grew up with — from the childlike Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was part of a tour around Palestine we took last Saturday, to the lugubrious Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. There, in a cavelike enclosure, I stood in the sole company of a nun kneeling by the silent grave from which Jesus is said to have resurrected. And just this morning, very early, I made my way up to the otherworldly Dome of the Rock, from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. It was cold and windy and few people were there — just a small group of American tourists, plus other visitors of indeterminate provenance escorted by men carrying machine guns. It was somewhat disconcerting when a group of young men, custodians of the splendid golden dome, began loudly and relentlessly to recite “Allahu akbar!” A non-Muslim, I wasn’t sure how to read those famous words in that particular setting. The skies had turned gray and it had started to rain.

Jesus famously proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world; my Jerusalem, by contrast, is emphatically terrestrial. After taking numerous selfies, guided by Google Maps, I threaded my way in the cold rain — an unexpected baptism of sorts, as I had no umbrella — to the Via Dolorosa. There, where Jesus purportedly suffered his agony, I felt virtually nothing. Yet I recalled with pleasure the Hebrew inflections of one of our Jerusalem guides, Paul, a handsome young man from Tel Aviv — his protracted pronunciation of Dologhrohza — and I relished the orientalist proclivities of the an ancient-looking advertisement placed above the trilingual street sign: “Hamedian Gallery / Specialized in old Russian icons / old Oriental carpets, old jewellery / & antiques / Via Dolorosa 36.” I remembered too our tour of Palestine on Saturday. After stops in Ramallah and Jericho, we were taken to the very spot on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. Wearing white robes, pilgrims from Nigeria immersed themselves in the muddy waters, just a few feet from the country of Jordan, on the other bank. There too, according to my mother, Alberto Vidaud Centeno, my grandmother’s cousin whom everyone knew as Bebé, had once donned a white robe and happily walked into the river to commemorate his Christian faith. He was a religious man, but he was also an indefatigable traveler who loved our vast mysterious planet. Many years before me, pious and curious Bebé had surely wandered in the same streets of the Old City where I now walked. If there’s a heaven, there’s no doubt in my mind Bebé is there. Regardless, blessed are the adventurous, for theirs is the kingdom of this world.

XXXVII – To Have Paris

Picasso - FacebookSince Friday, 13 November 2015, when bombs exploded in different parts of the city, the world of cyberspace has been crying for Paris. In these three weeks I too have felt a number of emotions, but none perhaps stronger than wonderment. Why is the suffering of Paris such a source of digital tears, while the world remains nonplussed about the terrorized inhabitants of Baghdad or Beirut, and doesn’t appear to care much, if at all, for the passengers of the Russian plane that broke apart over the Sinai Peninsula? Very few people posted the cedars of Lebanon on Facebook or tweeted about the lost citizens of St. Petersburg, but we made the French flag take over the web as if we were all children of Casablanca who would always have, or want to have, Paris. I confess I too posted my own tragic version of the thing: a weeping woman from the Musée Picasso, photographed by me on a cold rainy afternoon last December, now recast urbi et orbi in glorious digital tricolor courtesy of Mr. Zuckerberg & Co. Then it all felt quite indiscreet and charmless — sentimental jamboree — and I took it down in less than twenty-four hours.

Gué - Dame blanche, 2But now, dear reader, I give you this other image — not that it amounts to much either. In my search for my own Paris to mourn, I remembered a long-dead character in the family tree, Julien-Michel Gué, who was the youngest sibling of my fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué. Like his six older brothers and sisters, Julien-Michel was born in Saint-Domingue (in July 1789, no less) but, after the violent death of his father, the boy, along with the rest of the family, “returned” to France and settled in Bordeaux. He was just a child at the time, so I wonder whether as an adult he ever thought of his native island, or whether, like France generally did through much of the nineteenth century, he consigned the old remote colony to oblivion. Three of his brothers visited Saint-Domingue just a few years after their departure, but we have no evidence to suggest Julien-Michel ever did. An artist, as I wrote year in Paris, he studied with David and was a runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1815. He also traveled quite a bit through other parts of Europe, it seems, accompanying Victor Hugo on an Alpine journey… But on that Friday three weeks ago when bombs exploded throughout Paris, I kept thinking of the image posted here, which I had found months earlier on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It’s an engraving of the set for the first act of La Dame blanche, the opéra-comique by François-Adrien Boieldieu, which Julien-Michel designed apparently for its premiere at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris in 1825. Based loosely on several works by Sir Walter Scott, the opera centers on a mysterious Scottish castle and features a spectral figure known, the eponymous White Lady… The work was an enormous success for much of the nineteenth century, and there are a couple of modern recordings, including one conducted by Marc Minkowski — but it wouldn’t be farfetched to dismiss the whole thing as silly Romantic stuff. Yet, for me, three weeks ago, viewing Paris from a distance of several thousand miles, the little engraving was my pleasurable link to the wounded city. As it turns out, the work’s libretto was written by Eugène Scribe, who for me, back in the twentieth century when I spent much time in the city, was merely the address — 11, rue Scribe, near the Opéra — of the bustling American Express office, now gone, where I picked up my mail almost every morning… Whoa, such preternatural convergences between Paris and moi…

Such silly romantic reveries, really, this digital transit of mine across the worldwide web and through my fading memories. Julien-Michel Gué, despite his colonial origins and provincial ties, appears to have settled in Paris for good. It was, after all, the capital of the nineteenth century, and there I imagine he imagined he could have the life he wanted. He died on 13 December 1843 and is buried in the city. In fact, I think I saw an online image of his Parisian gravestone just a few weeks ago, but now that too is gone — or maybe I imagined it. There, dear reader, in the realm of imagination, is a key to why many of us were moved by the events of 13 November. We can’t have anything forever; not even Paris is immortal. When terror reigns in the city, we sense the foretelling of our own deaths. Morbidly, we see ourselves mourning own inevitable dispossession.

XXXVI – All Saints and All Souls

IMG_3718Fifty-two years ago today, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I left Cuba. As I have recounted earlier, it was a long flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. I may or may not possess real memories of that original European journey, but I do have my mother’s yearly recollection. She and I spoke on the phone just a few minutes ago, and I heard the story once again. The chronicle of departure has by now been sublimated into a few memorable feelings and events: her heartbreak, upon taking off from Santiago de Cuba, at seeing from the plane window the mud-covered province of Oriente, which had just been hit by Flora, a devastating hurricane; my father’s unexplained fall on a sidewalk in Havana just days before we were supposed to leave; a doctor’s refusal to examine him fully when he found out we were worms, as those leaving the country were called; the humiliating searches at the airport; and then the strangeness of a second airport, a nocturnal outpost in a northern latitude where we were kindly served tomato soup; her terror as the plane took off from the Western Hemisphere over the vast Atlantic, sitting in the darkened cabin and seeing my father’s Soviet-made bandage half-dropping from his chin, imagining the worse; and then, after many hours, landing at yet another airport, in the city of our final destination, on the gray cold morning of 1 November 1963 — an airport where there was no one to meet us, a solemn city in a pious country where shops and offices were closed for All Saints’ Day… Yet, despite the terrible loneliness of those first protracted hours of exile, it must be said our lives turned out rather well. We were, we are, the fortunate ones. I have crossed that same ocean many times on various kinds of interesting adventures, and will do so again in just over a month. On one occasion, my mother and I flew together happily from Miami to Madrid, and I followed her with my camera as she retraced her steps back to the old building on the Plaza de la Marina Española that housed the unfriendly pensión, now gone, where we had spent our first few months as refugees. I took pictures as she beheld the ancient black door whose threshold she, now in her late seventies, had last crossed when she was twenty-nine. Not that my parents found any comfort in it, but we were hardly the first souls in our family tree who had gone through the upheaval of migration. My own paternal grandmother was taken as a child to Cuba from her native Marbella; one of my great-grandfathers left Barcelona as a young man to start a new life in Santiago de Cuba; my second great-grandfather, a native of Oviedo, undertook a similar journey as a military doctor in a time of war. And then there were my assorted Cuban Gauls, frequent crossers of the Atlantic, who escaped poverty in Brittany at some point in the eighteenth century; or sailed from France to Saint-Domingue at the height of the Reign of Terror; or returned to cities like Pau and Bordeaux, or spent time in Philadelphia, or returned once again to Santiago de Cuba, or left their native city on the Caribbean Sea for Barcelona and Sitges, or started new families in Brooklyn… We, with our bountiful myths of exile and banishment, are the fortunate ones. Tomorrow, once again, is All Saints’ Day, and then it will be All Souls’ Day — what in the official Christian calendar in Spanish is called, rather narrowly, the Día de los Fieles Difuntos. We are saved, but so many unfortunate souls cast a shadow over our family tree. They are Cecilia and Victoria, and Marie, and Rosalie and Casimir — all, along with other men, women and children, enslaved by our unholy ancestors, deprived even of their stories of migration, relegated to mere signs in my own selfish tale.

XXXV – What Words Are Worth

A few months ago, my cousins and I discovered a new twig in the family tree. Her name alone was interesting. We had never run into it before in our arboreal excursions, and now its newly found consonants and vowels resounded with prestige and drama: Josephina Arthemisa Hevia. We valued her name because she was our direct ancestor, the mother of Charlotte Caignet, our third great-grandmother, who was in turn the wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. For some time, we had been trying to ascertain the true surname of Charlotte’s mother, as we had seen it listed not only as Hevia, but also as Heria, Herrera and, strangely, even Gloria. But now, by means of Charlotte’s baptismal inscription in the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the elusive name assumed a clearer definition. But what’s in a name, after all? What is it worth? “Hevia” was rather enticing because it suggested a possible link with José Antonio de Hevia, a historic personage who explored the Gulf of Mexico and gave Galveston its name in the late eighteenth century. “Josephina” too interested me for two reasons. Forms thereof reappear in the names of other women in the family, including my grandmother’s aunt, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié (our legendary Fefa), and Josefina Esteve de Granda, my dear aunt and godmother. The spelling itself was seductively interlingual — neither Josefina nor Joséphine, but some hybrid thing, as would befit a person of Spanish descent in a French city such as New Orleans. Yet the true key to the woman’s personality may well be the outlandish Arthemisa. To name one’s child after a Greek goddess struck me at first as a gesture of enlightened classicism, but was Artemis really such a glorious name? There’s nothing wrong with being the goddess of the hunt or, certainly, the protector of young girls. But when one is reminded of some versions of the Actaeon or Adonis myths in which Artemis violently intervenes, one can willfully read in our ancestor’s middle name a latent sense of cruelty.

Hevia, Arthemise - MarieWe searched for Josephina Arthemisa with passion, hoping unashamedly for a mention somewhere of her father’s name, which in the best of cases would confirm our illusions of conquistador grandeur. But, save for the aforementioned baptismal record, Josephina Arthemisa remained firmly concealed from us. One fine day, though, out of the blue, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami posted a sad find — two ancient-looking documents — on our Facebook group. Both manuscripts were written in French, yet they dated from 1816, when Louisiana was already an American state. The first one was drafted on 14 February in “la ville et paroisse de la Nouvelle Orléans, second district sénatorial dans l’État de la Louisiane.” Before Narcisse Broutin, a notary public, there appeared one Jacques Nadaud Courtier, with the purpose of registering the sale of “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée d’environ treize à quatorze ans.” The buyer’s name was Mlle. Arthémise Hevia, our very own Josephina Arthemisa, later described twice as “la demoiselle acquéreuse.” The purchasing lady, we’re told, could from now on enjoy and dispose of the said slave as her possession: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce jour, en la possession de la demoiselle acquéreuse, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour, par elle, en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété et jouissance á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” The words underscored the material worth of the child: “comme de chose lui appartenant” — like a thing belonging to her… We don’t know anything else about Marie, except that she had already been sold at least once, in December 1815, to the man who now sold her to our ancestor. Having shed the name of Josephina, Arthémise, a slaveowner, also belied the goddess’ status as the protector of girls.

Hevia, Arthémise - SignatureWe don’t know why, but just over six months later, on 2 September 1816, the enslaved girl was sold yet again. Before Philippe Pedesclaux, notary public, there appeared Demoiselle Arthémise Hévia in order to sell “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée de treize à quatorze ans” to a man named Félix James Grenier. The language concluding the sale is eerie not only because of the terrible deed it records, but also because it mirrors the words used in the previous document and surely in many other similar transactions: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce moment, en la possession du Sieur acquéreur, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour par elle en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” I’d like to think that Arthémise’s sale of Marie meant that the young woman had come to realize the horror of owing another human being, but that is wishful thinking; if that had been the case, she should have simply freed the girl. Moreover, we also know that Arthémise’s husband, François Caignet, was himself a slaveowner and trader, as evidenced in another New Orleans document from 1815, on his sale of a girl named Rosalie, as well as in the mention of his name in books about slavery in Cuba, to which I shall return. There’s also the San Anselmo de los Tiguabos baptismal record of 1849 for a girl named Cecilia; she and her mother, Victoria Carabalí, were “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” In any event, the fact remains that, as of now, we have little of Arthémise Hevia except her assertively inscribed signature — with a whimsical A and a sensual H, as seen here — on two documents indissolubly bound to the institution of slavery.

In yet another disquieting repetition, both documents pertaining to the sale of Marie allude to their issuance, in New Orleans, “l’année mille huit cent seize, et la quarantième de l’Indépendance Américaine.” Although Louisiana had been part of the United States for just over a decade and the language of the documents is still French, there appears to be a certain pride in being part of a free republic that had reached its fortieth year of independence. Yet the proclamations of liberty and equality at the heart of those documents did not include the likes of Rosalie or Marie. In Cuba also, where Cecilia was born, slavery would be the law of the land for many more years. To this day in both countries — it goes without saying — discrimination against people of African descent is hardly a thing of the past.

HortensiaWhat can I say about these enslaved girls? Can I say anything? Or is it better that I say nothing? Some readers of this blog may recall the controversy last spring surrounding Ben Affleck, who, as a guest of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, requested that the producers hid the fact that one of his ancestors had been a slaveowner. In his own defense, the actor claimed he was ashamed. But should one be held responsible for our forbearers’ sins and misdeeds? And, if so, should their merits and accomplishments, such as they may have been, be held as a sign of our own worth? My answer to both questions is an emphatic no. We should feel neither pride nor shame. We are who we are and not who they were. But are we? As I weave Cecilia, Marie and Rosalie into my tales of the Cuban Gauls, I realize the deception of my own words. Who am I to tell their stories, or even mention their names? Am I not engaging in yet another act of exploitation by capitalizing, for the sake of my silly little blog, on their value as figures in a shocking tale of bygone horrors? But are their tales even in the past? Consider the image here. A little boy sits on the hood of an American car in front of a house in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba. A woman, possessor of a kind smile, holds the boy the ensure nothing bad happens to him while his father’s camera records the scene. Her name, I’m told, is Hortensia. But why should she be holding the boy and not the camera? Did she have a child of her own? A revolution had taken place in the country, but some things appear not to have changed. Perhaps somewhere in the annals of exiled Cuban families there is a picture taken in the early 1960s of a black boy sustained by a white woman’s arm, but I haven’t seen such a picture yet. Slavery may have been abolished in Cuba in 1886, but its legacy of privilege still reigned through the twentieth century, benefitting the descendants of some families and not others. My hope is these words are worth something in the struggle to reverse all that.