If all happy families are alike, what worth can there be in telling their stories? Or, to put it differently, does the fact that I’m telling this story mean that the Vidauds were not a happy family? These, pace Tolstoy, are in the end moot questions, given that the Vidauds of my tale were simply too many and too unknown — too unfamiliar — to each other to constitute what we mean by family, those little clusters of grapes that more often than not turn out to be sour, but which at times — perhaps when they’re safely committed to the fixity of a blog’s page — may be filtered into noteworthy wines.
So yesterday morning Jim took me to an address in Beverly Hills, where I underwent the removal of a cataract and the implantation of a new lens in my left eye. I was blind (kind of) but now can see — a little better, at least my laptop screen, which is amazing. But last evening my vision was impaired — large objects were framed by a pinkish halo — and I wasn’t able to engage in any of my habitual after-dinner pastimes, such as staring at images on the television screen, or deciphering the characters that constitute the words and sentences of the written language. That’s right, last night I couldn’t really read, which led to do something I’ve never done before: I listened to an audiobook, a concept which in my tired mind I still thought of as books-on-tape. Not wanting to exert the said tired mind too much, I chose to listen a work I know rather well (if one can claim that over any text), as I read it with students from time to time: Flaubert’s “Un cœur simple.” I confess I had never read this splendid novella until just a few years ago, when I picked up a copy of Trois contes at a bookstore in Paris and read it — devoured it — at a glass-encased cafe on the avenue de Wagram as I waited for Jim before a concert at the Salle Pleyel. That evening we heard a new work by Kaija Saariaho, whom I adore, but I remember that musical event less clearly than my own astounded reading of Flauberts’ words as he precisely narrated Félicité’s life. That evening, outside the cafe pedestrians hurried by under shiny umbrellas in typical autumnal nastiness, and inside the servers rushed brightly from table to table carrying arrogant glasses and silverware, but my heart was simply faraway somewhere in tiny Pont-l’Evêque, living the vicissitudes that befell Félicité. That evening I loved her instantaneously for many things: the kindness of her “simple” heart; her love for Paul and Virginie, the two children under her care, and even their mother, cold Mme Aubain; her devotion for Victor, her nephew and a sailor; the inner passion that made her to walk miles searching for her beloved parrot, Loulou, when she vanished. I also loved her for that imaginative mind that saw in the green and exotic creature a figuration of the Holy Ghost.
So last night, as I lay listening to a British voice reading with precision each word of the sad text, I felt something familiar that suddenly became a revelation. From a certain angle, Félicité was a literary precursor of Fefa, my grandmother’s aunt, who took care of three or four generations of children, including me, until all of us were gone. Maybe it was at first a question of nomenclature, as Fefa’s full name was Josefa Felicia Vidaud. Maybe it was a realization of the felicitous irony that neither Félicité nor Josefa Felicia had particularly happy destinies. But maybe it was just the simple fact they were two devoted souls who cherished others the way nobody really cared for them. There’s no doubt in my mind that many people loved Fefa, but, as my mother has persuaded me to believe, Fefa was no one’s primary object of love. Parents have their children, children their parents, spouses have each other, but aunts have only nephews and nieces who in turn are someone else’s husband or mother or child and whose love for a being like Fefa, as true and powerful as it might be, is secondary. Of course, there are important differences between the two characters of my tale. Unlike Félicité, who served a rather loveless woman, Fefa was family and, as such, she was rewarded with much love and appreciation. But may I be allowed to wonder for a moment whether she was, ultimately, first a foremost a glorified nanny, a woman typecast in a safe role that concealed the complexity of her soul — and, as such a reduced figure, was she, ultimately, less real that Flaubert’s Félicité?
Here she is, Fefa, pictured with my mother for some formal occasion related to my parents’ wedding in 1957. She looks lovely in my eyes, but were there ever any pair of eyes that saw her as the most important person in their world, any eyes that saw her intimately as she put on her pretty dress, or followed her wherever she went, or beheld, transparently, the nooks and crannies of her mind? If someone had written Fefa’s obituary, the headline might have been very close to what I wrote above: “Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, cared for three generations of children.” But would anyone have cared for the details of Fefa’s own life? Even me, your silly Blogger, what do I know about Fefa, really? It’s all stories that come to my mind, but no true recollection of her body and soul. I know that she spoke both Spanish and French as her mother tongues, as both her father and mother were Cubans of French descent; that she knew enough Creole to speak to the Haitian workers on the farms of Oriente, of whom there were many; that she exchanged letters with her aunts and cousins in Barcelona, and had pictures of them among her few possessions; that she visited sick people in hospitals, bring them oranges; that every Sunday she took my mother to the movies…. Despite its latitude, Miami in winter can sometimes be cold, like winter in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, I suppose. Sometimes, when the temperature begins to drop, my mother will warn us about the possibility of “frisson” — as in, “cierra esa ventana que nos va a dar frisson”… Frisson was one of Fefa’s French words, and we have preserved it until now.
Shortly after the revolution, most of the children that Fefa took care of, including me, had left Cuba for good. She then lived with my grandparents in Río Frío, their farm, and was never as alone or as lonely, I imagine, as Félicité had been. When I was a child in Exile, my dream was to be reunited with my grandparents and, especially, Fefa, whom I had heard so much about. I didn’t know she was my grandmother’s aunt; I just knew she was Fefa, a person who dearly loved me and whose presence again would ensure my happiness… But sometime in the mid-1960s, Fefa suffered a serious burn from which she never recovered. I can only imagine how her body and mind — or soul — must have suffered. My grandparents eventually left Cuba, but only after Fefa died, in Río Frío. I think she was laid to rest at Santa Ifigenia, the cemetery where I’m told so many Vidauds are buried.
As readers of “Un cœur simple” will recall, Victor, Félicité’s nephew, was a sailor who ends up in Havana, of all places, where he dies of yellow fever. Knowing that he is in that distant port, Félicité invokes her own picture of Cuba as she makes every possible effort to feel close to him, her only relative — to imagine his life there: “À cause des cigares, elle imaginait la Havane un pays où l’on ne fait pas autre chose que de fumer, et Victor circulait parmi des nègres dans un nuage de tabac.” I too try to imagine Fefa’s life in a city in Cuba, and where Félicité saw a young man walking through crowds of black people and endless clouds of cigar smoke, I see as if through a foggy lens a resolute short-haired woman holding a little girl’s hand as they both get on a streetcar en route to a movie house, or a piano lesson, or a cemetery. But this life of Fefa is not real. Or is it? Such are the open lessons of fiction.
P.S. – If anyone reading this has real memories of the real Fefa, would you please consider sharing them here?