A few months ago, one of my cousins in Miami posted on our secret Facebook group the typewritten note you can read here. It was composed by Louis Vidaud Despaigne, my cousin’s grandfather, for his daughter, Cybèle Eugénie, on 1 August 1948 in Santiago de Cuba. As my cousin observed, the letter speaks for itself. It starts, of course, with the spectacular words of “La Marseillaise,” the song whose drama can easily persuade anyone of the glory of France and the grandeur of revolutions. Louis, or Luis, was born in El Cobre, not far from where La Reunión, the family’s now elusive coffee and cacao plantation, was located. He was the son of Severo Vidaud Caignet, and my cousin believes it’s quite possible that Louis may have accompanied his father at least once on one of his numerous trips to France. In any event, Louis’ French was reportedly impeccable and fastidious, and his love for his ancestral homeland sincere and passionate. A topographer by trade, he may have traced the contours of his native Cuban land with his eyes and hands, but his mind — or heart, or soul — appears to have dwelled on distant France. What prompted him to write this note to his daughter two weeks after Bastille Day, which would have been a more logical date for such effusive sentiments, remains a mystery to us. But Louis’ belatedness (if that’s what it was) doesn’t shy away from stylistic flights and temporal ambition. In the short paragraph that follows the anthem’s words, he cultivates his own private family tree in which ancestors — “nos aïeux” — are invoked even as France itself is both a fatherland — “glorieuse patrie” — and a mother — “mère féconde de la liberté, égalité et fraternité” — all within one sentence. Remarkably, while France is immortal, Louis knows that his young daughter, far removed from the old country, may well feel no connection with those everlasting, if distant, glories, hence the need to cite the national anthem so that she may, as he puts it, fully recognize — as one must, as dignity demands it — “la France immortelle.” Paternal hopes for the future, as the note reveals, are all about knowing or acknowledging one’s ties with old glories. Named after Rome’s Magna Mater, Cybèle is now asked to heed an even more formidable mother: the idea of France, the noble homeland of all free men on earth.
In some ways, I suppose your Blogger is no different from Louis Vidaud Despaigne. While I don’t believe in any nation’s immortality, and words such as liberty, equality and fraternity — or “ancestors,” for that matter — often appear to me doubtfully framed by quotation marks, I confess I hold France in higher esteem than most other countries. I don’t know exactly why I focus on nations, given that I am fully aware that all are defective entities, capable no doubt of glories, but also of cruelty and destruction. Consider the ties that bind France and the practice of slavery, that poisonous vine growing on our own family tree, and you will easily see how French political history is decidedly a mixed bag. As Louis himself puts it, France is the noble homeland of all free men — but not, one presumes, of enslaved persons of any sex or age. Or are we to understand that Louis, speaking for those who have found refuge there, really means all those who seek the freedom denied them elsewhere?
Yet I cherish the idea of France because it is a family matter in the best possible way, by which I mean its presence is oblique, intermittent, spectral. We don’t have to live with, or in, France; the country comes and goes, leaving us free to shape it at will. When I was a young child in Cuba, my grandmother spoke to me in French, and I’m told I learned quite a bit of the language. But then my parents and I went into exile, and by the time she rejoined us, in Puerto Rico, I had forgotten all I once knew. But maybe not, or maybe not irreversibly. What had vanished quickly came back. I took French in high school and in just a few months learned enough to feel linguistically at home at a summer course in Dijon. Letters from my parents would arrive at my dorm, the Pavillon Rameau, and I’d feel very homesick, but I knew that I was also at home, that I had found a new yet ancient dwelling. At the university cafeteria, I learned to eat yogurt — with lots of sugar — and merguez with fries and (of course) lots of mustard. Out and about in the city, I felt I understood the workings of French civility. And in class, I was an excellent student; French surely had lived on in the little gray cells that made up my memory or, who knows, my clan’s sense of itself.
Since that first trip, I have returned many times to France. In the early nineties, when I was a young instructor of Spanish and French at a prominent preparatory school on the East Coast, one of my colleagues kindly invited me to teach with him on our summer program in France. My job was to read and study a play by Anouilh with seven of our young students. Given that the program was peripatetic, those readings — not my best performance ever, I’m afraid — took place one week at the rustic orangerie of a small chateau where we were staying not far from Tours, and another week in small classroom by the beach in Dinard, on the northern coast of Brittany. Dinard… Before my departure, when I mentioned Dinard to my grandmother, she became very excited, as she remembered it as the small town in Brittany where her uncle would summer. I honestly don’t remember that uncle’s name, but it must have been “mi tío Severo,” as I believe she called the frequent transatlantic voyager who was really her granduncle. Who else could it have been but Severo, or Sévère, who traveled regularly to France and, from all we know, would not have been averse to spending his money at a lovely seaside resort? My memory of my grandmother’s memory is faint, but it hasn’t completely vanished. I just wish I could relive that vivid, yet virtually forgotten and dead, telephone conversation. But it doesn’t matter. One can and must imagine one’s own private Dinard.
Here is a picture — a clearer memory — of my own short sojourn in Dinard. Our group had taken the ferry that morning to Jersey, and here one can see a residue of that sunny excursion: an image of some of us as we sailed back home at the end of the day. I remember three of the students portrayed here quite well, and I have little stories to tell about all three, but they will have to wait for when I decide to write a novella. Suffice it to say that we were very happy on that day, at that hour, sitting under the French flag just as the sun began to set. They were young, and I was young too, and we had spent several weeks seeing a fabulous country. A day or two later (I think), we would celebrate Bastille Day outside the walls of Saint-Malo, watching the awesome fireworks. Three years earlier, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jessye Norman, who had been born in a country where not all men were equally free, had sung “La Marseillaise” on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. And now, in the last hours of 14 July 1992, on a beach in Brittany, I think I remember we felt like citizens of France, a country grand enough to welcome strangers, foreigners, into its ancestral memory. On that night, as the crowd sang the revolutionary anthem, I think I remember we believed in the idea of liberty for all — men, women and children, all equal, all joining together in an uncanny display of fraternity.