In a sense, the story of distant relations this blog seeks to tell began all by itself in the fall of 1990 in central Maine. I had joined the faculty of Colby College on a one-year appointment as a visiting professor of Spanish. I didn’t know many people in Waterville, the small city where the school is located. Looking back, this was probably a good thing; I needed to concentrate on finishing my doctoral dissertation even as I was teaching a few new courses, including my first literature class ever. One person I did know on campus was Jorge Olivares, who was chair of the department of modern languages and, as it soon became obvious, an admirable colleague. Like me, Jorge was Cuban and came from Oriente — specifically from Guantanamo, just east of Santiago de Cuba.
I had not taken too many of my possessions with me to Maine, as I’d be there just for a few months. But I did have a box of photographs, a few of them quite old. I must have been bored and/or in a procrastinating mood (or perhaps I was a little homesick) on a certain Sunday afternoon early in the semester when I decided to look at my melancholy collection of black-and-white pictures. Discreetly tucked among those images of people and landscapes was a little first communion card, yellowed by time. One side bore a printed Spanish inscription, but the reverse, to my surprise, was delicately handwritten in French. It read, “Souvenir de la 1re Communion de Caroline Rodiles Vidaud, Guantanamo, 16 Août 1903.” I knew the surname Vidaud, of course, but I had no idea who little Caroline might be, or why one of our relatives, as she appeared to be, would be living in a town other than Santiago de Cuba. The next morning after my first class, I placed the card in Jorge’s campus mailbox. As he was from Guantanamo, I thought he would perhaps find it to be an interesting object, if nothing else. Little did I suspect what the old memento would reveal. When I ran into him that afternoon, he told me that Caroline, the mysterious first communicant, was really his great-aunt Carolina. After a couple of phone calls to mothers and grandmothers in warmer latitudes, we confirmed that he and I were indeed related. Carolina was the daughter of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, who was the sister of Alberto, or Albert, my grandmother’s grandfather. So Jorge and I were second cousins once removed, or something along those lines. If the long reach of the Cuban Gauls extended to northern New England, what other stories could there be?
Here she is now, courtesy of Jorge. The young lady in the middle is sweet Caroline, whose full name was Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud. She is flanked by her sisters — Matilde on her right and María Magdalena on her left. There were other siblings, including a brother named Jean, who, Jorge tells me, loved to attend funerals in Guantanamo. They all spoke French to each other, except to Fulgencio, yet another brother, who Jorge heard had learned the language but forgotten it. María Magdalena, born in 1889 and known as Nunú, was Jorge’s grandmother. As I have recently learned, she had a notebook in which she recorded personal memories and family stories. I haven’t read it, but if it’s anything like this silly little blog of mine, it’s probably a collection of bottomless communicating vessels, not unlike the worldwide web, this flat yet mysterious labyrinth of interlinked clickable rabbit holes through which one suddenly finds oneself flowing onto distant shores and landing in remote eras, remembering and imagining and writing, happily mixing metaphors, all in the company of strangers who happen to be inhabitants of one’s family tree, dwellers in the same forest of blood ties and in-law relationships. And so it happened that one fine day my own blog popped up on the screen of a lady in Miami, a relative of Jorge though not of mine (but then again, who knows?). She too is interested in genealogy and got in touch with me, generously sharing a series of documents, including slave records pertaining to the “señores Vidaud y Caignet” (more on that soon) and one memorable page from Nunú’s notebook.
Here it is now, the page from Nunú’s notebook, in which she lovingly reminisces about a specific religious experience in her teenage tears, in a style that reminds me of Teresa de Ávila, my favorite literary saint. I’ll simply translate her clear and heartfelt words. It concerns a first communion, but, more importantly, her own faith and practices. “It happened so long ago. I must have been around seventeen. As I looked at a first communion stamp from a cousin of mine in Barcelona, I suddenly felt something rather strange in my heart, a very powerful and yet very sweet sentiment of love for God, which made these French words come to my lips from my heart.” She explains, “Back then I always prayed in French.” And then, through the working of those vessels that flow from heart to lips to hands, she wrote down her prayer, first in French and then in Spanish translation: “Oh, my God, God of Love, let my whole life be a constant act of love and constant submission to your Holy Will.” Her language and religiosity remind me of my own grandmother, Carmela, who often invoked “mon Dieu Tout-Puissant” — nothing less — to speak of, or to, God, and never expressed a wish without punctuating it with a reverent “con la gracia de Dios.” When one of her grandchildren misbehaved, she’d tell the story of how her grandfather, Albert, had taught her all about “Moi-Même,” that inner voice that speaks to you when you have done something wrong. “¿Qué te dice Moi-Même?” — that was the question in the face of misdeeds. I have a hard time relating to Nunú’s and Carmela’s extreme fervor and devout manners, but, it must be said, I envy their resolute certainty. Their faith in God must have been reassuring through their long lives in exile. Both Carmela and Nunú died at the age of 95 in cities far from where they were born, instead of the country where they would surely have spent their entire lives had it not been for the Revolution.
María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud and Carmen Luisa de Granda Vidaud were certainly not the first members of their family to leave Cuba. Nunú herself mentions her cousin, the first communicant in Barcelona, who I suspect was Rafael Calbetó Vidaud, born in Havana, the son of Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, sister of María Vidaud Caignet. Like María, Juana Amelia also married a man from Catalonia, Rafael Calbetó y Sambeat, who was Comandante del Presidio de la Habana in the early 1890s and published a report about his work there. They also settled in Spain sometime in the 1890s. (As it happens, a gentleman from Barcelona, Juana Amelia’s grandson, also found my blog and contacted me, providing some lovely photographs and much valuable information, to which I hope to return soon.) María and Juana Amelia must have missed their faraway birthplace, but Nunú and Carmela lost their country. We may soon again have an American embassy in Havana, and that in my book is a good thing. But the happy republic, imperfect as it was, in which those ladies were born and lived and where they expected to die — that world to which they never returned — is gone forever.
And then here is this boy, this unsmiling light-eyed creature, photographed on what appears to be his first communion, sometime in the 1930s. My cousin Mari found the picture and posted it on our secret Facebook group with the question, “¿Quién puede ser este niño?” It didn’t take us long to find out who he was. The photo was dedicated by the child, Totó, to Fefa and Mercedes. We knew Fefa had to be Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt, who never married and, as I recounted earlier, devoted her life to taking care of three generations of children, including me. As for Mercedes, she was a sister of Bebé Vidaud, our family’s first genealogist. To make a long story short — which is, after all, the fate of all ambitious genealogical accounts, which could be endless in a terrifyingly Borgesian way — well, the boy Totó was identified as Pedro Vidaud Gonzales-Rodiles, son of Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, the little stamp girl, and her first cousin Pierre Vidaud Trutié. Pierre was in turn Fefa’s brother and my grandmother’s uncle, etc., and had studied engineering at Tulane, a name that my grandmother would pronounce as if it were a French word. Curiously, Jorge’s branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, had joined in holy matrimony with our branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Albert Vidaud Caignet… What follows I mostly learned from Jorge — though before I read what he wrote, I always suspected a tale of secrecy as well as the nature of the secret. Totó/Pedro lived in Camagüey along with his parents and sister Carlotica, who was probably named after Charlotte Caignet Hevia, her grandmother, wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Living not far from the city at the Central Manatí, Jorge’s family used to visit them from time to time. Jorge remembers that the children spoke French to each other and possessed such bourgeois accoutrements as tennis racquets and a violin that belonged to the boy, but which had been his father’s own violin. Jorge remembers how the father became infuriated when he and his brother, instead of playing the violin, would play with it. Carlotica grew to be a very religious young woman and, my mother tells me, held an important leadership position in the Juventud Católica Cubana. She never married and remained in Cuba after the Revolution. Jorge tells me she was condemned to prison because of her religious activities, but was allowed to serve her term at home so that she could take care of her mother. Carolina — the little girl whose first communion was celebrated in 1903, just a year after Cuban independence — lived long enough to see the arrival of socialism on the island. She died in Cuba in her eighties, but Carlotica still lives in Camagüey, on calle Libertad, where a neighbor of my mother’s in Miami Springs, Fla., was once a student boarder — but that’s most certainly another story. At the age of ninety-one, Carlotica still teaches French; a relative who saw her not long ago tells me that her students “hang on to her every word.” She also tells me that they toured the Iglesia de la Merced, and that Carlotica, who preserves her sense of humor, warned her that “la colección de mierda de las catacumbas compite con el Louvre.”
Dare I say what I know of Pedro’s story? No one is asking me to, but not to tell would be perpetuating secrecy. Pedro worked for Pan American Airways in Camagüey. Jorge’s brother, Alberto, remembers an occasion in which Pedro took them to the traffic control tower at the airport. Although Camagüey was only Cuba’s third largest city, it had an international airport, and Pan Am itself had been flying to Cuba — the Key West-Havana route — since its inception in 1927. Pedro continued to work for the company in New York City. My grandmother spoke often of him, and I grew up hearing how much she admired Pedro Vidaud, who worked for Pan Am in New York, and was trilingual and ever so intelligent and handsome, tall, with light-colored eyes. What a pity he had decided to remain a bachelor, my grandmother would say from time to time. Ah, Pedro’s ambiguities. For me, it was a good thing to find out recently that he had a longtime companion, as people used to say. The two of them went to live in Chile after Pedro’s retirement, and Pedro died there, far from Cuba and from New York, but close, I hope, to someone he loved. I never met Totó/Pedro, but I wish I had. I hope he was happier in life than he looked on the day of his first communion. I hope this brief communiqué of what little I know of his life works as a kind of séance through which we can reach him wherever his soul is resting now, if such a thing as the soul exists. Or better yet, I hope someday a notebook written by Pedro Vidaud himself resurfaces somewhere in the antipodes — a notebook where he might have told his own story.