Afterword: At the Harvard Herbaria

This was written a month ago:

Here I am, in Boston, after a number of years. I’m reading a paper at a conference at Harvard, so even though I’m staying at a hotel on Tremont Street, much of my time is spent across the Charles River in Cambridge. I did my graduate studies at the university, and I know the place as intimately as a student can. But time hasn’t stopped still — not at Harvard. My old haunts are still there, but there are several new modern buildings, and even the old ones have been transformed. The old Fogg Museum, an Italianate structure from the 1920s among whose paintings and sculptures I always felt at home, has been renovated and expanded by Renzo Piano. Gathering items from two other art collections, the place is now known as the Harvard Art Museums. Transparent, grand and intimate, it feels to me like the happiest place on earth. But I digress.

On Thursday — which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day and the conference’s first  — I had to attend an event at a new handsome structure with the rather Hitchcockian name of Northwest Building. I knew it wasn’t far from Richards Hall, the Gropius-designed graduate dorm where I once lived, so I resorted to Google Maps, hardly expecting what I found. Close to the digital marking of the said building, a rectangle popped up on the tiny bright screen elegantly marked as the Harvard University Herbaria. It was located at the northernmost end of Divinity Avenue, a place I was familiar with from my first semester at the university, when, a budding and soon-to-be fading scholar of medieval Spain, I took a course in advanced classical Arabic at the Semitic Museum. But I digress, yet again.

Faithful readers of this blog may recall its origin well over a year ago in yet another act of serendipitous googling. Searching for the coffee and cacao farm in Oriente province where my grandmother had spent her childhood, I had typed in La Reunión and an image come up. It pictured a few modest leaves and twigs collected in those distant hills, purportedly belonging to my second great-grandfather, by E.L. Ekman, a Swedish botanist, in 1916. They were specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb. — tiny and modest, perhaps, but a direct link to a mythical location in the lore of my French-Cuban ancestors. The image, as I now remembered, also showed an oval seal of the Herbarium of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Did that mean, then, that they were across the river in Boston, where the Arboretum is located — or could they, perhaps, be housed right there on the Harvard campus? Would I be able to find their actual location and perhaps even see them in all their botanical atemporality?

Harvard Herbaria - Red CabinetsI decided to investigate. On Friday just before noon, finding myself again not far from Divinity Avenue, I crossed the threshold of the Harvard Herbaria. At the reception desk, a silver-haired woman greeted me with friendly efficiency and perhaps a measure of curiosity. It didn’t seem they were used to many impromptu visitors. When I awkwardly explained what I wanted, showing her a picture of Ekman’s specimen on my iPhone, she immediately went in search of a curator who might be able to help me. After a few minutes she came back with a dark-haired man. He too turned out to be intelligent and sympathetic and invited me to his office, where he consulted his computer for a few minutes. It indicated the leaves and twigs were housed in the very building we were in. The search then entered the very real world of the actual collections. We climbed stairs and traversed long corridors on several floors, lined with endless rows of enormous, hermetically sealed cabinets, labeled with botanical terms such as Melastomateaceae and Astronidium and geographical appellations such as Mexico and C. Am., South America, Australia, Polynesia… After a couple of false starts, we finally found what we wanted. From a cabinet that read Myrtaceae, Calypranthes and West Indies, the curator extracted a large red file and took it to a table, where he then proceeded to reveal its contents.

Harvard Herbaria - LeavesThere they were, those beautiful leaves and twigs, our precious Eugenias gathered at La Reunión one-hundred years ago, neatly preserved at the Harvard Herbaria, as if waiting for me to show up one cold Friday afternoon in the very late winter of 2016 to see them. And here you can see them, once again in digital form. But I saw the real thing, lovingly cared for by men and women devoted to the arts of botany. And there they must have been too, in the flesh, back in September 1982, when I had just arrived on campus and walked for the first time to my Arabic class, a few hundred feet away in the Semitic Museum. If only I had known of their existence back then, when I was a stranger in a new place, one student among many. I remember my sense of alienation that afternoon. In a small seminar room to which I had finally come after crossing several rooms full of inscriptions and sarcophagi, sitting right across the table from me, there was another student. As we all waited for the professor to arrive, she was speaking with another student. I detected a foreign accent. Not without timidity, I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Cuba. That was the short version of her provenance, as she had previously lived in Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, and, as a doctoral student in the history of Islamic architecture, had traveled through much of North Africa and the Middle East… Now that I think about it, my little leaves too, like María Luisa, had probably traveled far and wide. After all, Ekman was Swedish and the specimens in front of me featured, just below the seal of the Harvard Herbaria, a label that read “Musei bot. Stockholm,” a passport stamp of sorts that suggested a Scandinavian sojourn before a transfer back across the Atlantic to the so-called New World.

Harvard Herbaria - BotanistAfter patiently allowing me to take all the pictures of Eugenia oxysepala Urb. that I wanted, the dark-haired botanist asked me if I was interested in seeing what the envelope contained. I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t really paid much attention to the small pocket-like thing, discreetly devoid of colors and words, neatly tucked in the lower right corner of the red file. I said yes, of course. Delicately, he unfolded the fragile white paper thing, revealing a tightly packed collection of tiny desiccated leaves. I don’t know for sure, but they appeared to have remained airless and unseen for many years — modest exiles from the tropics, silently abiding in the company of other such exiles from far-flung provinces of the vegetable kingdom in a well-secured site in these United States. The botanist looked relieved and smiled when I said I wouldn’t run my fingers through them, or throw them in the air, even if such actions appeared tempting. I was overjoyed by the unexpected apparition — my fellow migrants, sad confetti from another world. But all I could do was to take their picture and replant them here on the soil of the digital forest, knowing their story will continue to grow.


XL – Adieu

From the onset of this botanical expedition in search of the elusive family tree, I have been tempted by the idea of uprooting it all. My genealogical findings, such as they are, often strike me as embarrassing and ultimately meaningless, so why continue? Now that our visit to Israel and Palestine has left me in a biblical stay of mind, I think it makes sense to end it all right here, on the fortieth post. Just over two weeks ago we were in Jericho, of trumpet-fame, and took a cable car up to the opulent Greek Orthodox monastery built on the slopes of the Mount of Temptation. That otherwise desolate peak is reputedly the “exceeding high mountain” where the devil took Jesus after his forty days and forty nights of fasting in the Judaean desert. From there, as Matthew tells it, the devil “showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and said unto Him, ‘All these things will I give Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me.’” Such fabulous words, especially in Latin: “Haec omnia tibi dabo…” Any way, basta. I have been worshipping at this blog’s feet for too long. I have been fortunate to have had a glimpse into the kingdoms of the past — so distant and immutable, so elegant at times, but also so cruel and terrifying. But I must now return to a present where other kinds of writing beckon me.

Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, François - BaptismMany questions remain about my Cuban Gauls, but the central one concerns the life of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, who may well have been the first of our French ancestors to arrive in Cuba. We have his baptism certificate, found by one of my Miami genealogist cousins, which shows he was born in 1764 in Aubeville, site of the family’s ancestral Château de la Dourville (which, incidentally, yet another Miami cousin recently visited). We know that François, along with four of his brothers, left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror. We also know that some of those brothers, including a saintly priest (François Nº 11, the Abbé Vidaud), returned to France via Philadelphia. But we don’t really know much about François’ ultimate destiny, except that he married a woman named Anne-Julienne Gué, who was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, an architect killed during a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, and the sister of Julien-Michel Gué, the artist whom I love and who achieved a measure of fame in France. When and where the marriage of François and Anne-Julienne took place remains a mystery. She had been married before (to a man named Julien Tardy) and they had a daughter, Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba at the turn of the nineteenth century. To complicate matters for her genealogist descendants, Anne-Joséphine in turn married one of François’ nephews, Pierre, whose father, the Seigneur de Pomerait, was also named Pierre… François and Anne-Julienne had two sons of their own, and what documents we have, such as birth and baptism certificates for their children and grandchildren, appear to indicate that those boys, Adolphe and Adelson, were born in France. How they ended up in Cuba — if, in fact, they were born on the other side of the Atlantic — is, again, unknown to us. In a book on the French who settled in Santiago de Cuba after the French and Haitian revolutions, by Agnès Regnault, there’s a footnote in which a man named François Videau is described in passing as an “ancien réfugié bien connu par ses activités corsaires.” The note concerns mostly Pierre (the father, the son, a composite figure?), and there’s some other information therein that doesn’t quite fit what we know (who are Louis, François and Pierre-Julien, named as his children?), but I’m tantalized by the prospect that our François might have been a corsair of the Caribbean. If this turns out to be true, I believe I will be tempted to return to this blog forthwith. A quick visit to the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Santiago de Cuba might shed some light on the matter.

De Granda VidaudThe mysteries that still remain are to some extent visual. Consider, for instance, this image of two little ancient boys. Who are they? The photograph belongs to my dearest cousin, Mari of Maryland, and we agree they might be our grandmother’s older and younger brothers, Manuel and Fernando de Granda Vidaud. We think it might be them because we have another photograph — of Carmela, our grandmother, and her older sister, María — that somehow resembles this one, which suggests that they are companion pictures, perhaps taken on the same day, in 1912, by the same photographer in Santiago de Cuba: the boys with the boys, the girls with the girls. We have other photos of Manuel and Fernando as young men, including a family portrait in which they appear with the rest of the entire de Granda-Vidaud clan — both parents and all seven siblings. We also know aspects of their biographies, and I even knew Fernando in person when, in his seventies, he spent the last years of exile in Massachusetts. But is that you, Fernando, that little boy? Whoever you may be, little boy, you really look a lot like my mother when she was a little girl — and my sister and my niece too. Then again, what meaning should one attach to these resemblances, these aires de familia? What is the significance, really, of visibly sharing genes across space and time?

There is a much larger challenge, one which a novelist might be able to tackle far more interestingly than anyone else. We can look at the figures in the photographs, we can even know who they are, yet their minds, or souls, are bound to be not transparent. Consider a photograph of two women, posing together in some distant belle époque salon in what is probably Pau around 1910. (A copy of that photograph is in my possession, but I dare not post it as its provenance is labyrinthine.) There’s a lady sitting down and her name is Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait. She is the sister of Étienne Octave V. du D. de P., who settled in Brooklyn in the 1850s, but we have a few facts about her own life too. In his invaluable genealogy, M. Vallantin Dulac tells us she was born in Santiago de Cuba around 1841 and died in Pau on 30 July 1916 — two years before her son, Henri Pierre Lafont, a general and military attaché, died in Romania at the end of the Great War. On 10 February 1864, in Santiago, Marie Joséphine married a medical doctor named Jean Henri Lafont, who had been born in Orthez, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and migrated to Cuba. I don’t know what prompted the man to migrate to the distant Spanish colony in the Antilles (a brother who was a merchant there, as a birth certificate suggests?) or what triggered his eventual return to France (the Ten-Year War?), but everything seems to indicate that settling down in Pau, not far from his birthplace, was a good decision. After what appears to have been a distinguished medical career, Jean Henri died in that city in 1905, eleven years before his wife.

The second lady in the invisible picture stands rather solemnly behind the sitting figure, and her name is Marie Lucie Philomène Lafont. She is Marie Joséphine and Jean Henri’s youngest daughter. As I read on the web,she too was born in Santiago de Cuba, in 1871, and died in 1946 at the age of seventy-five in Artix, a village also located in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. I don’t know much about her, except that one of her descendants in France was a stupendous genealogist who was in touch with some of my cousins until his recent death. But for me the real enigma is a little girl portrayed in the picture — a photograph, a painting? — on the back wall. Who is she? Might she too be a distant relative? I’m tempted to say she may be one of Marie Lafont’s two daughters. Both of them, incidentally, boasted long names that delight me. Could our little girl be Marie Thérèse Solange Luce Flye Sainte-Marie, born in 1901, or Marie Louise Joséphine Odile Flye Sainte-Marie, born in 1903?

PositanoLet’s imagine, as I suggested, that the photograph of Marie Joséphine and Marie Lucie Philomène was taken around 1910. Let’s imagine too, at least for a moment, that the image of the little girl is one of Marie Joséphine’s granddaughters. Let’s imagine who her transatlantic cousins might be. Back in Cuba, around the same time, my grandmother was also a little girl, living with her grandparents on a coffee and cacao plantation known as La Reunión, somewhere in Oriente province not far from Santiago de Cuba. It’s always difficult to imagine one’s elders as young children, but let’s try. As I embarked on the writing of this blog, I made every possible effort to imagine my grandmother, Carmela, as a child at La Reunión. It was 1916, the height of the Great War, and a Swedish botanist named E.L. Ekman visited those fertile hills in search of specimens. My grandmother’s grandfather, I imagine, welcomed the botanist to the house and they spoke, most probably in French, about plants and the war in Europe and — yes, why not? — the splendor of Cuba, a new republic. None of this, I’m afraid, really happened, but does it matter? Years passed, many years, and a revolution took place and my grandmother left her beloved land and went into Exile. Many more years passed. And then, at the age of 95, in last days of November 2000, Carmela became sick. I was about to go on a trip, but I made a point of calling her before my departure. Sitting on the gray carpet of my apartment in Los Angeles, I heard her voice from San Juan de Puerto Rico. She, who always had spoken so assertively, could be heard now just faintly, spectrally. I wasn’t sure she knew who I was, which shocked me even as it alerted me to the fact that we were saying good-bye. Two days later I was in Rome and the telephone rang early in the morning. It was my sister to tell me that Carmela, who had so often seemed immortal, had just died. Carmen Luisa Nicolasa de Granda Vidaud, who emphatically defined herself as “católica, apostólica, romana,” would probably have liked the fact that, as she lay dying, one of her grandchildren was just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s. My travel companion and I had planned a daytrip to the Amalfi coast, and he suggested we cancel it. We still went; I insisted that being sad right then and there made no sense. The picture you see here is me, smiling, even though it was a cold and gray day in Positano, even though just a few hours earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, my dear grandmother had turned into a ghost. The next day I happened to be near Santa Maria sopra Minerva, behind the Pantheon; there, among the old gods and by the tomb of Fra Angelico, I lit a candle to honor my dead souls. Let’s redeem my image by imagining it now as the visual signature of this fortieth post and a belated act of mourning.

The specimens that Ekman collected at La Reunión made their way to the Harvard Herbaria and there they still sit. One sleepless fifteen months ago I found a picture of those same leaves, the Eugenia oxysepala Urb., on the web. The digital image of the those remnants and the lovely botanical label below describing them prompted the writing of this strange blog. But this too must come to a close. In the beginning was a Plant, and there is also one at the end. But let it be the smiling Christmas tree standing in our living room, full of lights and redolent of life. Before we too become ghosts, as we certainly shall one day, let’s imagine ourselves as everlasting souls living together forever in some glorious kingdom of the mind.

XXXIV – Reading the Leaves

All this — this search so recherché — began eleven months ago with the online vision of a few leaves housed in the Harvard herbarium, sent there from Cuba — specifically, a mythical place called La Reunión — by a Swedish botanist. Since that early-morning apparition on my iPad, the modest specimen has birthed more leaves, veritable folios of the readable paper kind, preserved and transmitted through decades and even centuries. Arboreal excrescences, they are documents of various kinds: lovingly crafted family trees; a marriage certificate from the time of the French Revolution; photographs of children wearing peculiar hats or holding communion candles; ship manifests showing the name of a solitary transatlantic passenger; a newspaper article on the death of a young man; passports bearing mournful stamps; a nonagenarian lady’s memoirs. By means of the web and its real-life ramifications, the lives and times of numerous individuals variously associated with the Vidaud surname — a family of sorts — keep growing and branching out in unsuspected ways. Softly piling upon each other, those old leaves and the stories they tell lead to more old leaves and more stories, and my Vidauds, like any other tribe that ever existed, emerge as manifold twigs on innumerable trees in an endless immeasurable forest.

In the last few weeks, four interesting leaves of paper have come my way via email or through Vidaud Reunion, our secret Facebook group. One of my genealogist cousins in Miami received from Cuba typewritten — yes, typewritten! — copies of two baptism certificates registered in the 1860s at the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, or Tiguabos, a village located somewhere near Guantánamo. And just a few weeks earlier, a cousin’s cousin — also a fine genealogist who, fortunately, has taken an interest in the Vidauds — kindly sent me two other typewritten copies of church documents — a marriage certificate from 1856, and a baptism certificate from 1849 — archived at the same parish of San Anselmo. Surely not coincidentally, all four copies are signed by Father Jean González Romero, of Santa Catalina de Ricci (Guantánamo’s cathedral), and dated April, May or July of this year. I have the impression that the old parish doesn’t exist anymore; perhaps not even the village itself does. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, San Anselmo de los Tiguabos merited an entry in Jacobo de la Pezuela’s Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba, published in Madrid in 1866. We learn that the village boasted “un templo de modesta fábrica, pero con todo lo necesario para el culto,” and that in 1857 it had a population of 155 individuals “de toda clase, edad y sexo.” It must have been near this little village that the brothers Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud de Boischadaigne started their coffee plantation, adjacent to which Paul François Caignet — arguably one the scariest ghosts in our family tree — started one of his own. In her notebook, Nunú writes that Adelson and Adolphe must have arrived in Cuba around 1830 to 1835, while Francisco Caignet, as he is also known, took a more circuitous route. In Santo Domingo — as she calls what I believe must have been Haiti, which then ruled over what is now the Dominican Republic — Francisco had “un cafetal muy bueno, muy grande.” But a slave revolt in 1841 — a questionable date, given that slavery had been abolished on all of Hispaniola — forced him to flee to Louisiana, whence he ended up migrating to Cuba after the death of his wife. He had five children, including Charlotte and Corinne, the oldest sisters, who ended up marrying Adolphe and Adelson. We have found documents that amplify and arguably correct Nunú’s version of Francisco’s migrations and labors; the Louisiana Slave Records show, for instance, that he was in New Orleans as early as 1815, where he sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie for 500 dollars.

Vidaud Caignet, Matilde - BaptismAs interesting as it is to have those little papers from Guantánamo, they complicate the story of the children of Adolphe, also known as Pedro Adolfo, and Charlotte, referred to as Carlota María. The baptism certificate seen here belongs to their daughter Matilde Juana Cecilia, born on 27 June 1860. In time, that little newborn girl would become the mother of María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, also known as Nunú, whose splendid narrative, written toward the end of her long life in Miami, I just quoted. Matilde was the youngest of the seven Vidaud Caignet siblings, the oldest of whom, Albert or Alberto, was my second great-grandfather. Because I have recounted parts of that old story a few times before, it has acquired the dusty feel of ancient history, but new and contradictory details have now emerged. For one, we always thought that Charlotte was a native of New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba, while a birth certificate — that of Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, registered in Havana in 1893 — states that Adolphe, in his turn, was born in Santiago de Cuba, not France… As for Matilde’s paternal grandparents, we always knew that “Francisco” — the elusive François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, the first of our Cuban Gauls — was French-born, but we have every reason to believe that “Dª Juliana” — Anne-Julienne Gué — was not born in France, but Cap-Français, present-day Cap-Haïtien… Confusion also reigns regarding Matilde’s maternal grandparents; we think that “D. Pablo Francisco Caignet” was born in Saint-Domingue (in Port-au-Prince, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook), not France, while “Dª María Paulina Hevia” — also identified as María Carlota or Josephina Arthemisia Caignet! — was supposedly born (and died) in New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba… Perhaps by “natural de Francia” the priest at San Anselmo de los Tiguabos meant that those persons were French citizens, not natives of France, but, even so, questions would still remain. If all of this sounds unreadable, blame the little sheets of paper, not my über-careful analysis of these matters.

Vidaud Caignet, Mª Fca. Cirila - BaptismAnd then there is the case of the second baptism certificate. Surprisingly, it belongs to a younger girl, born on 9 July 1864, who, to confound us even further, is named María Francisca Cirila, recalling an older sister also named María. The first María eventually moved to Barcelona, where she appears to have had a full and rich life until her death in 1944; as for the second María, we know only that she was born and christened. Yet another mystery are the little girl’s godparents, registered as “D. Francisco Alberto y Dª María Josefa Vidaud.” Who are they? Could they be my second great-grandparents? Alberto Vidaud Caignet appears as José Alberto in the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, but Francisco Alberto is not a name combination I have seen before. As for María Josefa, that name too is difficult to place. Alberto’s wife is named Felicia Trutié, but one of their daughters is Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our Fefa. But she could not have been born yet, let alone be old enough to be anyone’s godmother in 1864. Then again, perhaps Felicia Trutié’s complete name was also Josefa Felicia, like her daughter? But did women adopt their husband’s surnames in colonial Cuba? Or perhaps — and this is what strikes my cousin in Miami and me as most probable — this María Josefa is an altogether different character: Josefa Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, one of Adelson’s daughters and the future wife of Carlos Lecumberri — that is, the lady inscribed as Madame Carlos de Lecumberri on the faire-part of Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, comte du Dugnon, who died in Pau in 1907. And now that I think about it, could this Francisco Alberto be Adelson, Adolphe’s elusive brother? Could it be that the original manuscript, probably hard to decipher after more than 150 years of heat and humidity, really reads Francisco Adelson, and that the strange middle name was mistakenly transcribed by the modern copyist, Padre González Romero, when he (or an assistant?) typed this particular little leaf just over a month ago, on 2 July 2015? (I would not fault the good father for any of these minor transcription errors, as he appears to have far more important matters to attend to, such as assisting people in prison and reporting cases of cholera in Guantánamo.) Be that as it may, little María Francisca Cirila, the mystery child, vanishes forever.

Vidaud, Adelson - MarriageOur theory of Adelson’s accidental metamorphosis into Alberto is arguably — though certainly not conclusively — buttressed by the third little paper, which is the marriage certificate of “D. Francisco Adelson Videau” and “Dª María Juliana Caignet.” The wedding took place on 26 May 1856, not at San Anselmo del Tiguabo, but at Santa Catalina de Ricci itself, the cathedral in Guantánamo. As befits what must have been regarded as a more prestigious setting and solemn occasion, the marriage certificate deploys a more ornate lexicon and syntax than the rural baptism records; there is mention of a most illustrious, excellent and reverend archbishop and of the Holy Council of Trent, and there is also a discreet little phrase in Latin. Again, contradictions arise. Both groom are bride are said to be natives of Santiago de Cuba, which may well be the case, except that we thought Adelson’s wife, like her sister, had been born in New Orleans. More importantly, we always knew that her name was Corinne, or Corina Marie Justine, as the family tree in Nunú’s notebook has it, or a variant thereof. Could it be that the original document really reads “María Justina” and that Padre González Romero was a little confused, given that the names of the groom’s and bride’s parents are all mentioned below, and that Adelson’s mother is Juliana — Anne-Julienne, really — Gué? In any event, the fact that Adelson is not simply Adelson, but Francisco Adelson, persuades me to consider that the man listed as Francisco Alberto in María Francisca Cirila Vidaud’s baptism certificate was really named Francisco Adelson…

Cecilia Carabalí - BaptismIf I could speak to my spectral Cuban Gauls, I think I would adopt a histrionic and reproachful tone for the occasion. What a sorry séance that would be. Ah, my ancestors, what a tangled web we weave when we conceive of you as figures that can somehow be regained and understood. You are ciphers, and, in fact, there is much about your ilk that calls for permanent relegation to the the ash heap of history. Who cares about your twisted stories, your labyrinthine nomenclatures, when it appears you lacked the grace to see how blind you were? Read, if you can, this other document. On August 22 of the Year of Our Lord 1849, it reads, the priest in charge of the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, Don Luis Francisco Pérez, anointed with oil and chrism a two-year old girl whom he named Cecilia. We know so little about her. We know that she was born on 19 March 1847 and that her godparents were “D. Alberto Videau” (Adelson, perhaps?) and “Dª Justina Caignet” (Corinne, I presume). Her father’s name is missing, but we know her mother is Victoria Carabalí, an appellation that invokes an origin on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa, perhaps present-day Nigeria. We also know that both mother and child were enslaved to one man — “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” And that, I’m afraid, is all we know. No photographs, no passports, no passenger manifests — nothing much, really, to retrieve the little girl from the reticent surface of a yellowish leaf of paper. If I could speak with you, Cecilia, I don’t know what I would say, except that I feel close to your ghost and that I’m fortunate to have read your one and precious leaf.

XXVII – The Blogger in Detroit

Michigan - TreesI came to this city where I had never been before for a wedding in Jim’s family. It was a wonderful secular affair on a gray and humid afternoon in a greenhouse, and the young bride and groom pronounced the most powerful vows I’ve ever heard. Family was and is all around — Jim’s actual family, but also the idea of family; real-life siblings and nieces and grandchildren, suburban houses where people grew up, and the houses in which they now live; but also the memories contained in those houses, and the memory of those who inhabited those houses and who are now ghosts. There are ghosts all over this city — the ghosts of Kahlo and Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts and at the old Henry Ford Hospital, where Frida’s bed-ridden body lies deliriously forever; the ghosts of the prosperous men and women who collected Florentine paintings and Chinese porcelain and Greek urns for the DIA; or the ghosts of the foreign-born architects who built such landmarks as Cranbrook School or the Grosse Pointe Library… Because I have this blog and I have assiduously written new entries in every city I’ve visited since I first started it, I felt it was my blogger’s duty to pen something on Detroit. But what to write? I could say a word or two about the bottle of Bacardí at the wedding reception, marked for everyone to see with these words that Jim pointed out to me: “Establecido en Santiago de Cuba en 1862.” Or I could find a link between the city’s ruins, seen from the car window, or those of Havana, famous everywhere. Or, following the same line of thought, I could write intelligently about all those cars built here and exported there: more Cadillacs were sold per capita in Havana than in any other city in the world in 1956. Or I could say a word about the wonderful townhouses on a grassy park designed by Mies van der Rohe, which of course reminded me of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, which of course brought to mind the Bacardí headquarters never built in Santiago de Cuba. But why I say anything about any of these things when my strongest feeling is not of family trees, but of trees, trees plain and simple — not the trees designed by botany but the real trees growing green behind the house where we’re staying. It’s a late spring morning in the outskirts of Detroit. The sky is overcast, it’s chilly, rain is about to fall, and the only trees that matter are these trees right here and now, swaying gently in the air we breathe.

(To C.K. and her woods in Northville.)

XXI – The Blogger in San Francisco

SF FernsAs far as I know, there are no Vidauds in the Cool Gray City of Love, but there soon will be at least one. My dear cousin, Jorge Olivares, is leaving Maine in the not-so-distant future and settling in San Francisco to be with his husband, who is a professor here. What a wonderful world we live in. Viewed from the same-sex love angle, there has been unimaginable progress. In most American states, men can marry men, and women women, and that, dear readers, started right here in San Francisco when Gavin Newsom, the courageous and handsome mayor, one fine day decided to allow citizens to wed the men and women they loved even if the couple were two men or two women. Marriage, of course, is hardly a perfect institution, and, as many have argued, it is in many ways a bad way to organize the world. Moreover, much remains to be done in this country and around the world to fight discrimination. But all things considered, this is a step forward. We’re not in Cuba anymore — at least not in the Cuba where Pedro Vidaud grew up, or in the Cuba that persecuted men like Reinaldo Arenas, on whom Jorge has written a flawless book — and that, it must be said, is a very good thing for many of us. Another brilliant thing is San Francisco itself — its lively streets and squares, Victorian houses, impossibly steep hills, colorful cable cars, deep gray fog, brilliant blue skies. And its botany, rich enough to please anyone looking for family tree metaphors, or for those of us who like taking pictures of ferns by classically minded buildings, as I did this morning at the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park.

SF - 3Jim and I are fortunate enough to travel to San Francisco once or twice a year. They are usually very quick trips, with hardly any time to see much, including our friends and acquaintances in they, or at Berkeley and Stanford. We used to come mostly for the opera, but most recently it’s been for the ballet and — at least in my case — the Cuban dancers, in whom I see and emblem. Our recent affection for ballet has a Cuban connection. It all started a few years ago, when I wanted to see Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake at Covent Garden. Our man in London dazzled the audience with his vigor and precision. But we were not hooked just yet. It took a trip or two here. Los Angeles is all about film, and opera is not terrible, and the L.A. Phil is arguably the best orchestra in America, but in California, the place for ballet is right here at the War Memorial Opera House in the winter and early spring months. For Jim, a dancer is a dancer is a dancer, but, for me, the San Francisco Ballet is my own private Cuba by the bay. Of the nineteen principal dancers in the company, four hail from Havana: Joan Boada, Taras Domitro, Lorena Feijoo, and Carlos Quenedit. No other nationality, including the United States, is as well represented as tiny Cuba. When I see my Cubans dance — last night it was Quenedit in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Feijoo in Hummingbird, with music by Philip Glass — I am virtually transported to that island, so distant and, at least for me, abstract. These, beloved readers, are the transports of art. In “Noche insular, jardines invisibles,” José Lezama Lima celebrates the pleasures of being born in a splendid place such as Cuba: “La mar violeta añora el nacimiento de los dioses, / ya que nacer es aquí una fiesta innombrable, / un redoble de cortejos y tritones reinando.” Lezama’s verses are gorgeous, but I’m glad it’s all about birth and not the actually living there. Call me prejudiced, but in my mind Cuba, despite its purple sea and majestic tritons, is a better place to be from than to be in, and Lezama’s invisible gardens are all I need. I’d rather have Cuba in these intelligent and lofty dancers at the San Francisco Ballet. In them, Cuba lives charmingly, discreetly, quietly and, better yet, even absently. No Fidel, no Batista, no Platt Amendment, no José Martí — just these bodies that move with utmost elegance, embodying freedom, most obviously the freedom of not living in one’s own oppressive little republic.

It all began, of course, with Alicia Alonso, founder and prima ballerina assoluta (as in “absolute ruler”) of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It must have been in the late 1970s when she traveled with her company to San Juan, where we lived in Exile and the Blogger was a rather unhappy teenager in a Catholic high school. His parents were by then divorced. There was no question his mother would come, as she was otherwise occupied, but his father was available, except that he was unwilling to see Alicia Alonso dance. She, a traitor to her own class and upbringing, stood for the revolution he despised; she had helped destroy his world and forced him onboard a one-way flight out of Cuba with no return. But the father of this future Blogger was also a fair and gentle man who loved the arts and his children, so he agreed to drive his son to the Teatro de la Universidad. There, the son saw Alicia Alonso dance, but he has no distinct memories of what took place onstage. But he remembers quite vividly how, coming to pick him up after the performance, his father decided that they would both wait to see Alicia Alonso exit the theater. They waited and waited on that hot and humid night until the swan finally came out, half smiling, descending a staircase with the help of others.

Many years later, in the mid- or late 1990s, Alicia Alonso came to Southern California with the Ballet Nacional. My brother, who also lives in L.A., and I drove down to Costa Mesa to see them — or actually, at least in my case, to see her. She could no longer dance, of course, and she, a frail and pale body, now appeared to be completely blind. Proudly smiling, once again assisted by others, she walked down the aisle to her seat just before the performance was about to start. Seeing her not seeing me, I must have felt the presence of Cuba, an absence, really, and therefore a good thing. How lucky to be not there but in Orange County, just a few blocks from the foggy freeway that would take us through the night back home to cool Los Angeles.

I – Botany

In principio erat Planta. Yes, this story begins with two little twigs — or the digital image thereof — in the Herbaria of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Some two weeks ago, in a bout of sleep procrastination, I was mindlessly surfing the web when —   Actually, the story really begins the week-end before that. On Saturday afternoons, Jim and I like to watch our cooking shows, and on that occasion we happened to catch an episode of New Scandinavian Cooking, my personal favorite. The eccentric Andreas Viestad was making chocolate-based recipes and, in a dramatic transoceanic counterpoint, the show kept shifting between a park in Oslo — Viestad likes to cook outside, no matter the weather — and a cacao plantation on St. Lucia. The idea of the bountiful Caribbean paradise must have stuck in my mind, and it silently resurfaced in the early morning hours of Thursday, September 4. Thinking of cacao half-absentmindedly, I googled La Reunión, Oriente, Cuba — or something along those lines.

Suddenly, a website showed up, and it featured a peculiar image. On the luminescent surface of my iPad, there emerged a strange and modest vision of tropical flora. The little twigs were fairly unremarkable, a far cry from the superb orchids, say, that one readily visualizes when thinking of nature in the West Indies. But what really caught my eye was the label, all those words that suggested the story of how the little twigs had made it from Cuba to Massachusetts. On 29 March 1916, one E.L. Ekman found himself on the island, in the province of Oriente, in the Sierra Maestra, in the Finca La Reunión, south of a place he spelled Hongolo-Songo. There, at an altitude of 650 meters above sea level, where they grew in thickets, he gathered his specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb., a beauteous name for an object quite ordinary in shape and color. From there, the poor desiccated things must have been transported north to Harvard, proud collector of all that exists in creation. But what about Brazil, or Stockholm, or the phrase “Plantæ Itineris Regnelliani III,” all of which could be read on the label?

Harvard Herbaria - La ReuniónWhat truly mattered, though, was to see, albeit merely online, a real plant from La Reunión, a mythical name in my family’s history. We — or, more accurately, my grandmother’s grandfather — had once had a cacao and coffee plantation in the mountains of southeastern Cuba. When I was a child growing up in a place called Exile (i.e., Puerto Rico), my grandmother, Carmen de Granda Vidaud, would recount the half-forgotten story of La Reunión. For reasons that I don’t quite know but were probably related to her peculiar character, she had grown up on that farm, a lonely child, while her six siblings — two boys and four girls — remained in Santiago de Cuba, living at home with their parents. Her grandfather was named Albert, or Alberto, Vidaud, and he descended, or so the story went, from emigres who had settled in Cuba sometime after the French Revolution, fleeing from the troubles in Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti. They had preserved their language, by which I mean not only the lexicon and syntax of French, but also certain verbal emphases that, years later as a young man, I would recognize in, say, a short-tempered hotel proprietor in Paris. “Il faut le dire,” the man would say, and I must say I would detect in his judgmental demeanor my grandmother’s equally superior expression, “Hay que decirlo.” Having been raised by her grandparents, Carmela, as she was known by everyone until her death at the age of 95 in Exile, learned French as a little girl. Along with a cousin also named Alberto Vidaud, like their grandfather, she was one of the few members of her generation to grow up a bilingual child. Hers was also, I believe, the last generation in Santiago de Cuba in which there were any native speakers of that tongue.

As a child, I was amused by the eccentric tales of that comical bunch, “los franceses de la calle del Gallo,” or the rue du Coq, one of the hubs of what had been a substantial and vibrant French community for much of the nineteenth century. But La Reunión was mythical, not funny, for the simple reason that it twice performed a melancholy vanishing act — or maybe it did so three times. First, around 1895, at the onset of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain — also known, lopsidedly, as the Spanish American War — La Reunión was burned to the ground by Cuban patriots who mistakenly believed that French landowning families, in a pan-European gesture of sorts, supported Spanish colonial rule. La Reunión would disappear a second time again — for good now and, with it, for us, the entire island of Cuba — after the 1959 revolution. By 1968, our whole family, including Carmela, had made its way to other parts of the world.

When those little twigs brightly popped up on my iPad, it was like an apparition. There it was, in the middle of the night, as I lay half-asleep on my couch in predawn Los Angeles, a fragment of far-away Cuba, a little souvenir, a handful of leaves from Alberto Vidaud’s cacao and coffee plantation — or so I thought.