Desperately seeking La Reunión, I consulted with María Caridad Lecha, my cousin in Maryland with whom I share an interest in the family twigs. Mari had seen a posting of mine on Facebook, so she too was curious about the elusive ownership of the coffee and cacao plantation in the Sierra Maestra, and wanted to get to the bottom of things. All who might have shed some light on the mystery were now dead, so we called a séance to summon up the specters haunting the web. At some point, surfing the digital oceans from our respective bicoastal locations, both Mari and I had found a website titled Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon par Philippe Vallantin Dulac, and that’s where we went forthwith. M. Vallantin Dulac had thoroughly chronicled the descendants of one Jean Martial Vidaud. Born in Limoges in 1684, he was one of fourteen children of Jean Vidaud, whose many nobiliary titles, rather formidable, I will simply copy and paste: “comte du Dognon, baron de Murat et de Brignac, seigneur du Carrier, Bosviger, Saint-Priest-Taurion, Lamberterie, Aigueperse, Pommeret, Lorny, Launet, etc., lieutenant particulier au siège présidial de Limoges, lieutenant général d’épée du Limousin, chevalier de l’ordre de Saint-Lazare de Jérusalem et de Notre Dame du Mont Carmel.” Jean Martial’s mother was Anne de la Farge, whose father, Abraham, was mayor of Angoulême in 1660 and 1661 and also held the title of seigneur de Pommeret.
Vidaud, Dognon, Pommeret. For most common mortals these names mean nothing, but Mari and I had known them for as long as we could remember. Vidaud was the maternal surname of our maternal grandmother, Carmen de Granda Vidaud, so we were very familiar with that. But Dognon and Pommeret took us back directly to Alberto, or Albert, Vidaud, Carmela’s beloved cousin, nicknamed Bébé or Bebé. Born in 1912, Bebé Vidaud deserves a biography of his own, not this little blog. He came to the United States in time for World War II and served in the South Pacific. The U.S. Army records show that he enlisted in Brooklyn for the Philippine Department. His job was to read and censor, when needed, letters written in French. His own letters too were subjected to the censor’s scissors, but a surreptitious mention of parakeets in one of them allowed the family back in Cuba, where “periquitos australianos” were a thing, to guess he was stationed in Australia. For the rest of his life, Bebé would invoke “mi general McArthur” proudly, in Spanish.
Bebé, pictured here in 1971, did not return to live in Cuba, so he was spared the toils of revolution and the trauma of Exile. Instead, he went to work for Pan American Airways in Miami. Once he retired, the airline allowed him to continue traveling the world for free. He crisscrossed Europe endless times, and postcards would regularly arrive from places such as Brazil and South Africa. A bon vivant, he relished food and drink, religion and, yes, sex. Carmela, a devout Catholic, was shocked when Bebé, a divorced man in his sixties or seventies, revealed that he had a young girlfriend in Costa Rica — “mi amorcito costarricense,” he called her. But she was elated when, after his fourth trip to the Soviet Union, he was banned from entering the country again, having been caught leaving photocopies of his religious meditations, composed in a trance-like state, at the airport in Moscow. Bebé was passionate about all he undertook, and that included tracing his family tree, which, following a cue from Carmela, led him to the astounding discovery that he was the direct male descendant of Jean Martial Vidaud and, therefore, the comte du Dognon and seigneur de Pommeret, or something along those lines.
M. Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy site starts with Jean Martial because he was the only one of Jean’s fourteen children who passed on the name Vidaud to the next generation. Somehow, Carmela had figured out that her young cousin Bebé was the next count in line. I now wish that I could ask her about her methodology, but I suspect it consisted mostly of long conversations with Albert, or Alberto Vidaud, her and Bebé’s grandfather, at La Reunión, drinking chocolate on rainy afternoons or else after dinner, as Vidaud grand-père sipped his cognac. Or maybe she half-imagined the whole thing, just as I am making up aspects of her life in vanished Oriente. But Bebé, the traveler and genealogist, was the real thing. He visited France many times, consulting archives in Limoges and elsewhere. His findings included that one of the ancient Vidauds was a nun in the sixteenth century and that she had inherited a desk from her father. On one occasion, Bebé gave Carmela a cheap photocopy of the Vidaud family crest, seen here, now in Mari’s good hands. Using blue and yellow pencils, my grandmother colored the golden lion and three fleurs-de-lys on the field of azure with as much devotion, I imagine, as she devoted to drawing the coat of arms of the newly established Republic of Cuba when she was a little schoolgirl.
Delusion of grandeur, a feeling of orphanhood, the melancholy of exile, an obsession with the dead, a sense of the past, a longing for other times and places, the pleasure of storytelling, a love of mazes and puzzles, curiosity, adventurousness, boredom, sleep procrastination — these are some of the causes of this botanical fervor, this twisting and turning of twigs, this climbing up the meaningless family tree. Bebé felt it too. He died in 1989, eleven years before Carmela, and I know it broke her heart. They must have known each other for seventy years or so, and must have had countless conversations in Spanish and French — or, more often than not, in Spanish with words interspersed in French. I was there, in Exile, in Puerto Rico, during one of their last reunions. I wish I could remember the details of the strange episode he recounted, which, according to my mother, never took place. It had happened only a few months earlier. At the airport in Miami, near the Pan Am counter, Bebé was approached by a French gentleman who informed him, Bebé, that he, not Bebé, was the direct descendant of Jean Martial Vidaud and, therefore, the true comte du Dugnon and seigneur de Pommeret, etc. The conversation was short and reportedly very polite, as behooved an encounter between a French aristocrat and his distant Cuban cousin, a searcher who had fervently pursued happiness like the good American he had become.
With La Reunión up for grabs and our countship lost, I’m happy to say that at least we possess some photographs no one can take away from us, especially now that they freely float on the web. This must be one of the last pictures of some the last Vidauds in our branch of the family in Cuba. It was taken at my father’s childhood home in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba in 1962. It was three years into the revolution, after the Bay of Pigs but before the October missile crisis, yet the image appears fastidiously ancien régime. The little boy with the big ears to better hear (and record) with is me, your blogger. To my right, static in her little black dress, is Ana María, my mother, who should have been an Antonioni actress. Next to her is green-eyed Carmela, not yet sixty. And the old lady is María Vidaud Trutié, not quite a matriarch, but nonetheless imposing as she presides over four generations. Severe, inquisitive, she looks a little like I remember Bebé Vidaud, her nephew, in his last years.
Just over a year after this picture was taken, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I would leave Cuba — for my sake, they claimed — on a long one-way flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. Another revolution, that of 1789, had taken the first Vidauds, including our direct ancestor, François, to the Caribbean. But that’s another story — or maybe not, maybe it’s the same old tale of endless migration.