In principio erat Planta. Yes, this story begins with two little twigs — or the digital image thereof — in the Herbaria of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Some two weeks ago, in a bout of sleep procrastination, I was mindlessly surfing the web when — Actually, the story really begins the week-end before that. On Saturday afternoons, Jim and I like to watch our cooking shows, and on that occasion we happened to catch an episode of New Scandinavian Cooking, my personal favorite. The eccentric Andreas Viestad was making chocolate-based recipes and, in a dramatic transoceanic counterpoint, the show kept shifting between a park in Oslo — Viestad likes to cook outside, no matter the weather — and a cacao plantation on St. Lucia. The idea of the bountiful Caribbean paradise must have stuck in my mind, and it silently resurfaced in the early morning hours of Thursday, September 4. Thinking of cacao half-absentmindedly, I googled La Reunión, Oriente, Cuba — or something along those lines.
Suddenly, a website showed up, and it featured a peculiar image. On the luminescent surface of my iPad, there emerged a strange and modest vision of tropical flora. The little twigs were fairly unremarkable, a far cry from the superb orchids, say, that one readily visualizes when thinking of nature in the West Indies. But what really caught my eye was the label, all those words that suggested the story of how the little twigs had made it from Cuba to Massachusetts. On 29 March 1916, one E.L. Ekman found himself on the island, in the province of Oriente, in the Sierra Maestra, in the Finca La Reunión, south of a place he spelled Hongolo-Songo. There, at an altitude of 650 meters above sea level, where they grew in thickets, he gathered his specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb., a beauteous name for an object quite ordinary in shape and color. From there, the poor desiccated things must have been transported north to Harvard, proud collector of all that exists in creation. But what about Brazil, or Stockholm, or the phrase “Plantæ Itineris Regnelliani III,” all of which could be read on the label?
What truly mattered, though, was to see, albeit merely online, a real plant from La Reunión, a mythical name in my family’s history. We — or, more accurately, my grandmother’s grandfather — had once had a cacao and coffee plantation in the mountains of southeastern Cuba. When I was a child growing up in a place called Exile (i.e., Puerto Rico), my grandmother, Carmen de Granda Vidaud, would recount the half-forgotten story of La Reunión. For reasons that I don’t quite know but were probably related to her peculiar character, she had grown up on that farm, a lonely child, while her six siblings — two boys and four girls — remained in Santiago de Cuba, living at home with their parents. Her grandfather was named Albert, or Alberto, Vidaud, and he descended, or so the story went, from emigres who had settled in Cuba sometime after the French Revolution, fleeing from the troubles in Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti. They had preserved their language, by which I mean not only the lexicon and syntax of French, but also certain verbal emphases that, years later as a young man, I would recognize in, say, a short-tempered hotel proprietor in Paris. “Il faut le dire,” the man would say, and I must say I would detect in his judgmental demeanor my grandmother’s equally superior expression, “Hay que decirlo.” Having been raised by her grandparents, Carmela, as she was known by everyone until her death at the age of 95 in Exile, learned French as a little girl. Along with a cousin also named Alberto Vidaud, like their grandfather, she was one of the few members of her generation to grow up a bilingual child. Hers was also, I believe, the last generation in Santiago de Cuba in which there were any native speakers of that tongue.
As a child, I was amused by the eccentric tales of that comical bunch, “los franceses de la calle del Gallo,” or the rue du Coq, one of the hubs of what had been a substantial and vibrant French community for much of the nineteenth century. But La Reunión was mythical, not funny, for the simple reason that it twice performed a melancholy vanishing act — or maybe it did so three times. First, around 1895, at the onset of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain — also known, lopsidedly, as the Spanish American War — La Reunión was burned to the ground by Cuban patriots who mistakenly believed that French landowning families, in a pan-European gesture of sorts, supported Spanish colonial rule. La Reunión would disappear a second time again — for good now and, with it, for us, the entire island of Cuba — after the 1959 revolution. By 1968, our whole family, including Carmela, had made its way to other parts of the world.
When those little twigs brightly popped up on my iPad, it was like an apparition. There it was, in the middle of the night, as I lay half-asleep on my couch in predawn Los Angeles, a fragment of far-away Cuba, a little souvenir, a handful of leaves from Alberto Vidaud’s cacao and coffee plantation — or so I thought.