XXVI – A Death in the Family

Vidaud Caignet, Severo - SitgesIt happened in 1918, but we only found out this afternoon. One of my cousins in Miami discovered the clip on the web. The report in the Baluart de Sitges — dated 9 November, just two days before the Armistice — is succinct: “Through recent news from the island of Cuba, we learn of the death in Santiago of the distinguished gentleman Don Sever Vidaud, brother-in-law of our esteemed compatriot Don Rafel Llopart Ferret.” We know him better as Severo or Sévère, but here he is Sever, a Catalan permutation. His sisters, María and Juana Amelia, had both married men from Catalonia and moved to Barcelona and Sitges with them when they returned to their homeland. Rafael Llopart i Ferret, María’s husband, was an important man who had made much money in Cuba and whose son, Rafael Llopart i Vidaud, had been president of the Futbol Club Barcelona for a year. The death of his brother-in-law in Cuba — surely more distant than ever because of the Great War — was news. We know that Severo traveled frequently to Europe, going to Paris every year, according to Nunú’s notebook, where he would attend the races at the Hippodrome de Longchamp. His legend is still alive in Barcelona. Not long ago I received an email from a descendant of Juana Amelia describing him as “todo un personaje,” adding this: “Creo que era soltero y administraba la plantación cerca de Guantánamo. Tengo entendido que recogía el dinero de la plantación de caña de azúcar y se venía a París, y hasta que no se gastaba todo el dinero no regresaba a Cuba. Amaba profundamente la buena vida.” It was a coffee, not a sugarcane, plantation, and it was closer to Santiago de Cuba than Guantánamo, but much of the rest — his love of Paris and “the good life” (really!) — resounds with stories of Severo we too have heard on this side of the Atlantic. He may have been a bachelor — a fact confirmed by Nunú and several faire-parts published in France upon the death of cousins, in which he is listed as a mourner — but he appears to have treasured the theory and practice of love, and he did have several children. He cherished his nephews and nieces too, as Nunú remembers, paying for their education and such things as subscriptions to French magazines. And through it all, he remains an elusive ghost, an empty vessel into which we poured much that wasn’t true. At one point we thought he was a medical student in Paris, and we also thought that he died trying to save another man after a shipwreck… Though he’s not my direct ancestor, I can’t think of any other of my Cuban Gauls I’d rather resemble.

Perhaps because news of his death reached me on this rather gray afternoon in Los Angeles, or perhaps because of my elective affinities for this gentleman from far away and long ago, I was rather sad when I learned what I had known all along, namely that he was dead. But I wasn’t the only person to report the uncanny belated feeling. One of my cousins wrote on our Facebook page, “This first and solid record of his passing — like a death foretold — reaches me with a strange mixture of sadness and surprise.” To which I replied, “I too feel a little sad, maybe because in the Vidaud tribe no one seems to have enjoyed life as much as Severo. The war is also part of this sense of melancholy. By 1918, crossing the Atlantic, which he had done so many times, wasn’t possible” To which yet another cousin, the discoverer of the Sitges clip, had this to say: “It feels weird to finally have a range that limits the years of his adventures. I could imagine him as an eternal traveler, the same through the ages.” Indeed, Severo/Sévère was no longer who he was.

But what is this all about? Whence all this mourning and melancholia? Five thousand people just died in an earthquake Nepal, and I only have tears for a dead ancestor? Is this yet another proof of the selfishness of family ties? Or is something else going on? Could this be wistfulness? Could this be a realization that the man, digitally invisible heretofore, is not dead at all, but quietly coming back?

(To E.D. and D.V., my newly found cousins.)

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