It probably happened on the first day of 1940, or maybe 1941. My grandparents had a farm called Río Frío in the Sierra Maestra, in the outskirts of El Cobre, about an hour or so by car from Santiago de Cuba. It was not La Reunión, but now that it has been abandoned for several decades, overgrown by the forest, its main house forlorn and virtually destroyed, Río Frío has acquired an equally legendary status among members of the family. My grandmother, Carmela, living in Exile, often reminisced about Río Frío in terms that would not have been out of place in the mouths of postlapsarian Adam and Eve. I could go on an on about Río Frío, but tonight that ideal farm is only the point of departure for this brief new year story. On that first of January, Carmela and her husband, Sebastián, along with their daughters, Ana María and Josefina, were traveling by car toward Santiago de Cuba to visit Carmela’s mother, María Vidaud Trutié, who lived on calle San Félix 367, the same house where both girls had been born. Maluya, as Felicia was known, has married a soldier in Cuba’s War of Independence, but she was a proud Francophone. In order to impress her, Carmela spent most of the car trip to the city teaching Josefina, her youngest, how to wish her grandmother a happy new year in French. “Bonne année, bonne année, bonne année” — the phrase was said and repeated many times so that the little girl could learn it, and it seemed she had. As soon as they reached Maluya’s house, Carmela asked Josefina to greet her grandmother with the newly acquired words. But nothing would come out of Josefina’s mouth. I’d like to say there was absolute silence, but being a Cuban household, albeit inhabited by descendants of the Gauls, that’s hard to imagine. Carmela kept insisting. Josefina kept thinking. Everyone was expectant. Finally, the little girl opened her mouth and said to her grandmother, “Abuela, good-bye!”
Good-bye — so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu! In less than twenty years after that memorable first of January, the Cuban Revolution came to power, rapidly leading to many iterations in many families of the word good-bye. If I had to write a play or make a film about those farewells, I would choose Beethoven’s piano sonata No. 26 as its incidental music. Indeed, the three sections of “Les Adieux” — the farewell itself, the absence, and the return — invoke many a story of migration. Yet, in the case of those who left Cuba in the early sixties, that third section — which Beethoven called “Das Wiedersehen” and whose tempo he described as “Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße” (“the liveliest time measurements” or “vivacissimamente”) — will likely never be played. Fortunately, one can listen to Beethoven here, or here, and imagine that those two girls see Río Frío again.