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.

XXXIII – The Lives of Fiction

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?

FefaHere 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?

XXX – A Grammar of Mourning in France

Jayet, Luce - PortraitWhat is a family? The question has been on my mind for the past few months as I research and write on these close and distant relatives — figures ranging from my own mother, with whom I speak on the phone every evening, and, say, Fefa, my great-grand aunt whom I knew a little in Cuba, to Fanny G. Vidaud, who was Fefa’s third cousin or my second great-grandfather Alberto’s second cousin… Let’s face it, this family thing includes perfect strangers. The twigs in the family tree are so expansive that sometimes it seems as if they were growing in altogether different and far-flung woods. The Vidaud tree grows in Brooklyn as strongly as it does in Pau or in Guantánamo, but is it still one and the same tree? Can the arts of genealogical botany encompass all of us in any meaningful way? The fact, such as it is, remains that Fanny, for instance, and I do share a common ancestor, but what to make of it? As I recounted earlier, five French brothers went to Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror, and two of them, François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne (a.k.a. François No. 7) and Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (a.k.a. Pierre No. 10), were married and had children on this side of the Atlantic. The story, of course, is far more tangled and full of gaps than the sentence I just wrote would suggest. As it turns out, it seems that both brothers may have returned to France, yet later found themselves in Cuba, and suddenly they were back in France or… Be that as it may, Fanny, who descends from Pierre, and I, who descend from François, may be said to share some remarkable leaves in the book of botany. Through the work of other arboreal researchers who have posted their findings online, I can tell you that two of Fanny’s sixteen second great-grandparents and two of my two-hundred and fifty-six (yikes!) fifth great-grandparents are one and the same couple. His name is André Martial Vidaud and hers is Luce Jayet de Beaupré. (That’s her picture posted here and, truth be said, I detect a certain air de famille with both Fanny and me.) According to M. Vallantin Dulac‘s “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” André Martial was “chevalier, comte du Dognon, seigneur du Carrier, de La Dourville, etc.,” and Luce was the daughter of Barthélemy Jayet, seigneur des Bauries, identified as “un des commensaux du roi,” by which are meant some prestigious things related to dining with the king… As the reader can see, the Blogger is crafting some elective affinities here; I’m strangely fond of Fanny, so I’m willfully sending a drone into the sky to take a global picture of our distant forests and, hopefully, perhaps even a quick snapshot of our gnarly common trunk.

Vidaud de Pomerait, Comte du Dignon - Faire-partThere are indeed documents from the past in which many of these figures I’ve been invoking are made to perform a collective act whereby one can confirm, if not the existence of a family, at least a familial make-up. A death in the family, so to speak, may trigger such an act. Consider the mournful faire-part posted here. On 20 October 1907, in Pau, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, the comte du Dugnon, passed away at the age of 81. As the two final lines state, the Count was someone’s husband, father, father-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, first cousin, or yet another kind of cousin. If one reads the faire-part closely, one notices that it consists of just one sentence — one long sentence consisting of more than two-hundred and fifty words, elegantly punctuated by semicolons. What’s more, in a stunning feat of grammar, these multitudinous relatives, whose names occupy most of the faire-part, are the seemingly endless compound subject of the little single verb ont — “they have.” In fact, the subject of the sentence — the family members reunited here — contains sixty-three proper names, and that’s not even including “leurs enfants” (an untold number of children), plus a few other surnames thrown in vaguely at the end. The predicate of the sentence invokes a circumspect tale of universal mourning — an act of carefully orchestrated sympathy and mourning. All who are mentioned — this Monsieur, and that Madame, their proliferating “enfants” — “ont l’honneur de vous faire part de la perte douloureuse qu’ils viennent d’éprouver en la personne de Monsieur Vidaud Pomerait, Comte du Dugnon.” All of these variously interlocked names have the honor of sharing the painful loss that they have just suffered in the person of the Count.

The person of the Count, alas, lacks a full proper name, but the faire-part itself, it must be said, is the pinnacle of propriety. As one of our French distant cousins mentioned in an email to one of my Miami not-so-distant cousins not long ago, families back then were “très protocolaires.” The person of the Count, I repeat, is an octogenarian body casting a last autumnal glimmer over a vast number of figures performing the action of a common verb.

But who are these figures? The first three paragraphs — if those initial phrases can be called that — invoke the six members of the Count’s immediate family. Madame Vidaud de Pomerait, the Comtesse du Dugnon, was at first a mystery to me because, according to M. Vallantin Dulac’s “Généalogie,” the Count was a widower, his second wife having died by 1889. I wondered whether there could be an unaccounted-for third wife, but as it turns out, another genealogy inverts the order of the Count’s two marriages. It appears that his second (not first) wife was Delphine Chagneau, whom the Count married in Bordeaux in 1874, after the death of Claire Louisa Gallot Delesalle, his first wife and the mother of his two sons, in 1868. Listed next in the faire-part, the Baron and the Baronne Paul du Dugnon are the Count’s oldest son, Paul Joseph, who will now be the Comte du Dugnon until his death in 1913, and his wife, Herminie Ubelhart Lemgruber, who, according to Vallantin Dulac, was born in Rio de Janeiro into “une riche famille de banquiers brésiliens” and lived on 36, avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne, rechristened avenue Foch after the Great War. The Baron Louis du Dugnon is Louis Edmond Henri Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s youngest son and a widower; like his older brother, he too would die not that long thereafter, on 17 October 1914, killed by shrapnel — “un éclat d’obus” — at the onset of the war near the Pas-de-Calais. Two children, Claire (after her paternal grandmother?) and Jean du Dugnon, are listed next. They are Paul Joseph and Herminie’s children; according, again, to Vallantin Dulac, Rosa Paule Claire would go to live in Brazil, while Jean Marie Paul, only fourteen upon his grandfather’s death, would become the comte du Dugnon after his father died. Jean himself did not have any descendants; more on him, the childless count, I hope, in an upcoming entry.

The Count is then mourned by two widowed sisters and two widowed sisters-in-law, in that order. Their biographies and those of their dead husbands tell the transatlantic story of the Vidauds. Madame John Durand is Marie Anne Méloë Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Gradignan, near Bordeaux, and married to a man from Brooklyn; I still don’t know what John Durand’s relationship to Étienne Octave Vidaud (Fanny’s father and the Count’s and Marie Anne Méloë’s late brother) might have been, but his name suggests deeper ties between the Vidauds and the United States than I was aware of. Madame Henri Lafont (not Lafond) is Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait; she was born in Santiago de Cuba, where she married Henri Lafont, who was later a doctor in Pau, where he died in 1905. Madame Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Marie Bernadac, whom we have seen before wearing a formidable headdress; her husband, also a doctor like Henri Lafont, is the rather handsome man whose face I tried to read several months ago in a belated and improvised act of physiognomy. Madame Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Mariana de Arce, born in Santiago de Cuba. Émile too was born there, but lived in France before returning to his hometown.

Vidaud, Pierre HenriNext on the list of mourners are the Count’s nephews and nieces, plus the children of these, as well as some in-laws. First are the children of Étienne-Octave, the Count’s eight nephews and nieces born in Brooklyn: Robert, plus wife and children; Édouard, or Edward, a bachelor; three sisters married to men surnamed Van Nostrand, Clarke and Hunter; and three unmarried sisters, including Fanny, who — unlike her siblings, probably — must have met the Count and his immediate family on her European trips. Then comes John Durand, Marie Anne Méloë’s husband, followed by his son, Maurice, plus the latter’s wife and son. Suddenly there appear the rather mysterious Colonel et Madame Ulpiano Sánchez-Echavarría. Their name invokes the realm of operetta, but she happens to be Emilia Vidaud Arce, daughter of Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait and Mariana de Arce, and he a Teniente Coronel de Infantería, according to the Anuario militar de España, who fought for Spain during Cuba’s War on Independence. Then comes a solitary Mademoiselle Aguirre, who must be, following M. Vallantin Dulac, a certain Lola, the daughter of the Count’s sister, Fanny, who in turn was born in Santiago de Cuba and married one Elías Aguirre; Lola would die in Pau, but I don’t know why or when she moved there. (Our Brooklyn-born Fanny must have been named after her late aunt.) But one figure that stands out, simply because of the number of words attached to his name, is “le Capitaine d’Artillerie Henri Lafont, officier d’ordonnances du Général commandant la 14e division d’Infanterie.” Like his mother, Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, Pierre Henri was born in Santiago de Cuba, but died far from there, in Romania, on 29 November 1918, only less than three weeks after the Armistice. There is much about him on the Web. We know that he lived at 9, rue Montpensier, in Pau; that he had chestnut hair, gray eyes and a dimpled chin; that he died from an illness acquired on the front… The phrase “mort pour la France” often appears next to his name, and his name also appears on a plaque at the Invalides in Paris. I have also found his picture, reposted here, on several genealogical websites. It’s a melancholy countenance, that of General Lafont. I’m not sure how old he was when he arrived in France, and I wonder whether he had any memories of Cuba when, far from Pau, in the city of Iași, in eastern Romania across the border from present-day Moldavia, he knew he was dying.

The next paragraph, which is also quite long, starts with various figures whose names are only vaguely familiar to me. But their connection to the Count can be ascertained by googling and clicking with a measure of intelligence and sang-froid. Yes, you must be alert not to lose your way in the forking paths, and yes, you must be willing to trespass in other people’s woods and climb their trees. Take, for instance, Monsieur et Madame de Masfrand. Who could they be? As it turns out, she is one Marie Henriette Clara Durand, who married Léopold de Masfrand, and her parents are Jean-Michel Durand and Marie Marthe Théophile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (ah! who?), who in turn is the deceased sister of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s father — which, if my botany doesn’t fail me, makes Madame de Masfrand the Count’s first cousin, right? That Marie Anne Méloë, the Count’s sister, is married to John Durand (or is it Duran?) of Brooklyn only serves to further entwine the windblown twigs. In the end, what matters more than absolute clarity is that all are reunited in the act of mourning and the faire-part’s grammatical subject.

And then, in mid-paragraph, the faire-part invokes the various descendants, many living in Cuba, of François No. 7 and his two sons, Adelson and Adolphe. Marking Adelson’s primogeniture, his four daughters are listed first: the Mesdemoiselles Clémence and Louise Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, both unmarried; Madame de Carlos Lecumberri, whose name was Josefa, and whose husband was a lieutenant-coronel for Spain who appears to have died in Cuba’s War of Independence; and Madame Lucciardi, Suzanne, whose husband, Eugène Lucciardi, was a French diplomat stationed in La Paz, Santiago de Cuba, Sydney and Prague. (I shall come back to some of these characters in the future.) And then, finally, almost last and not quite least, are Adolphe’s two sons and five daughters: Alberto, plus his wife and children; Severo, the eternal bachelor; María, with her husband, Rafael Llopart i Ferret, children and grandchildren in Catalonia; Juana Amelia, also in Catalonia, whose husband, Rafael Calbetó i Sambeat, had already died; Carlota, who I believe may have lived with one of her married sisters; Magdalena, a pianist, who spent time in France and Spain (where she studied with Enrique Granados) before returning to Guantánamo; and Matilde, the youngest, married to Fulgencio Gonzales-Rodiles and the mother of María Magdalena, nicknamed Nunú, the notebook writer.

Vidaud Caignet, Alberto & Felicia Trutié GautierWhat remains of all these names? The Count died more than a century ago, so the likelihood that anyone still alive knew him, or knew any of the various other figures mentioned here, is little. Fortunately, the children — those enfants mentioned over and over again — and even grandchildren are a different matter. Consider the phrase “Monsieur and Madame Albert Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait et leurs enfants.” Those names and nouns invoke my second great-grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet, who owned (or not) La Reunión; his wife, Felicia Trutié Gautier, about whom I know little. This is their picture here, sitting on some veranda. They had four boys and three girls, and those children, all long dead by now, included Alberto Vidaud Trutié, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren I’m just beginning to meet online; María Vidaud Trutié, or Maluya, my great-grandmother, whose picture I posted earlier; and Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our beloved Fefa, who took care of me and whose memory is still alive on both coasts of these United States, if not in Cuba itself. Those children lived in a provincial city in a newly independent republic in the Americas and, by an act of grammar, they, now young men and women, crossed the Atlantic and became subjects in the death of an old man — a nobleman yet, like in some uncanny fairy tale — who lived in another provincial city in a far older republic that once upon a time had been the mightiest kingdom in Europe, and… The rest, I’m afraid, is blogging, by which I mean imagining things, making up stories.

If every story has a narrator and a narratee, as a distinguished Frenchman once put it, inquiring minds may want to know who tells the tale told in the faire-part and to whom it is addressed. I don’t know who authored the announcement of the Count’s death, but the their-person voice in the text fashions itself as omniscient. It knows all in the family and their degree of proximity to the Count’s person. It speaks to a figure succinctly identified as “vous” — a “you” to whom the multiple names that make up the subject of the sentence communicate the news of a painful loss. As fossilized as its formulaic language may sound, the faire-part still speaks to me. But if I identify with the “you” to whom the sad news is told, I may well assume I’m not a member of the family, if only because I was born decades later. Yet, even as I undertake the announcement of the Count’s death to you, whoever you may be, I become its new narrator, perhaps even a new subject in this ancient grammar of mourning. Strangely, belatedly, I too become a melancholy figure not unlike any other member of the family, whatever we may mean by family.

XXVIII – Passports and Revolutions

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - PassportAh, the storytelling power of passports! By means of just a few words and images on pages made from mere mortal trees, those tiny prosaic booklets can not only record  the bearer’s origins and displacements — part biography and part travel narrative — but they can also stand, silently, subtly, as documents of political history. Consider my father’s old passport, seen here, issued by Cuba’s Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on 20 February 1962. I’m seduced by my dad’s black-and-white picture — so young, yet so solemn, possibly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to leave the country where he had comfortably grown up, enjoying a life of privilege, and where his mother, after his only brother’s death, would remain virtually alone. The passport contains a visa issued on 10 May 1962 at the Embassy of Mexico in Havana on behalf of the Colombian Consulate — or, as the visa itself states, “Embajada de México en Cuba Encargada de los Asuntos de Colombia.” By then, I think, all Latin American countries had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, except for Mexico, which would explain why visas for other parts of the hemisphere had to be processed there. At one point, apparently, we considered going to Colombia, but nowhere in the passport does one find an entry stamp for that country. Call us predictable, but the place we really wanted to go to was the United States — or, more specifically, Puerto Rico, its Spanish-speaking territory, or colony, where my mother’s sister and many of her cousins had already settled. That was the plan when Ana María, my mother, traveled all the way to Havana just five months after our passports’ issuance in order to purchase our one-way airplane tickets for Miami, from where we would then easily reach San Juan. But then politics, our old friend, struck an unimaginable coup de théâtre. When Ana María arrived at the offices of Pan American Airways in the Vedado district, she found a large crowd of people with worried looks on their faces. Oddly, the plane from Miami that was supposed to land that morning in Havana — and then fly back to the U.S., transporting more exiles — had not arrived. No one really knew why. Finally, the manager came out and got up on a desk to make a dramatic announcement: Pan Am had cancelled its flights for the day and, even worse, he suspected Pan Am would no longer fly to Cuba. It was October 1962 and the missile crisis had erupted. Nuclear war did not break out in the Caribbean, but the manager’s prediction turned out to be correct. Pan Am, which had proudly started its operations by flying between Key West and Havana in 1927, never scheduled a flight to Cuba again. As for our own family history, my mother returned to Santiago, where we would remain for yet another year. Circumstances were difficult. My parents had already quit their jobs and we were officially considered gusanos, as the counter-revolutionaries were called.

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - VisasBecause there was no way to fly directly from Cuba to the United States, we went to Spain instead. But making it out of the country wasn’t that easy. Again, my father’s passport tells the next chapter in the story. It holds two visas issued by the Spanish Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, one on 19 April 1963, seen here, and the second one, on 17 October 1963. They are both heavily stamped affairs, reminding me of the Poema del Cid, where documents are said to be “fuertemente sellados.” The first one must have expired before we were able to secure an exit permit form Cuba; the second had to be hastily obtained after the passage of Hurricane Flora through the eastern part of the island. A monster tempest, Flora devastated the province of Oriente, and Fidel Castro decided, as I recounted earlier, that more gusanos needed to leave as soon as possible so that their homes and possessions could go to the hurricane victims. That’s how we ended up leaving Cuba, and that’s how the most remarkable sign in my father’s passport came to appear: a blue oval rubber stamp from the Ministerio del Interior, dated 31 October 1963 at Rancho Boyero, Havana’s airport, proclaiming “Salida.” In my father’s case at least, the stamp sealed his definitive exit from Cuba, as he died in Miami in 1989 without ever going back to Cuba. There are three other stamps in the little bluish-grayish cardboard passport: an entry into Spain at Madrid’s Barajas airport registered by the Comisaría General de Fronteras; an exit from Spain, also at Barajas, several months later; and, finally, an entry into the United States, at San Juan, P.R., sealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Díaz Esteve, Roberto - Pasaporte CubaA Cuban citizen until 1976, I too once had a passport virtually identical to my father’s, and it bore similar stamps. But I no longer possess that passport, and its absence is yet another sad twist in Cuba’s and the United States’ intertwined political history. It was the mid-1980s and I, a stupidly romantic young man, passionately wanted to return to the stormy Ithaca to which we had said farewell more than twenty years earlier, a forbidden space of which I had no memories, really, to speak of, but which I desired. As a graduate student, collaborating as a researcher and writer for a travel guidebook published by students at my university, I had spent several summers traveling all over Europe and as far east as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. I had written about the museums and parks of London and Paris; slept in hostels and cheap pensions in a score of Italian and Spanish cities; taken trains and ferries to diacritically seductive destinations such as Zürich and Mariánské Lázně and the Åland Islands. If I had done all that, how come I couldn’t go to Cuba as well? Looking at the maps I collected at countless tourist offices, I yearned to learn the maps of Havana and Santiago de Cuba as minutely as I knew those of European cities. In Paris, I had hungrily bought a travel guidebook to Cuba. Such books were virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the time, so I treasured it. The preface was by Alejo Carpentier, who waxed dreamily in French: “L’île de Cuba est, par son étendue, la plus importante des Antilles. […] Tant à La Havane qu’à Santiago, ou à Sancti-Spiritus, ou dans la ravissante petite cité de Trinidad, on plonge dans un passé fastueux, représenté par des vieux palais, des résidences seigneuriales, des églises, des cathédrales, des ouvrages de fortification”… I soon learned that people born in Cuba could travel there. but they had to do so on a Cuban passport, regardless of their present nationality. But there was a rub. In order to obtain a new passport, you needed to forfeit the old expired one. I mailed my application to Cuban Interests Section at the Embassy of Czechoslovakia in Washington, though my mother (but not my father) kept telling me that it was all a terrible idea. As it turned out, Ana María was right. Ronald Reagan had just launched Radio Martí, and an angry Castro, in retaliation, declared that no Cuban-born person living in the U.S. would be allowed to visit Cuba. And so it was that I lost my first passport even as I gained a new one, issued on 1 April 1986 by an unidentified “autoridad” on behalf of the “Gobierno de la República de Cuba.” The thing expired before I could use it to travel anywhere, even Bulgaria, the only country for which it would have been advantageous to have a Cuban passport instead of an American one. And so it is that, for me, Cuba’s sumptuous past remains a thing for the future — except that I’m no longer as interested as I once was in seeing any of those old palaces and cathedrals. Only the decrepit railways, the first built in Latin America, earlier than anything in Spain, exert for me any kind of attraction.

Gué, Pierre - PassportA side of me still mourns the voluntary loss of my first passport. But God, by which I mean the omniscient Web, bestowed on me something far richer than my own lost little booklet. A few weeks ago, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami found not one, but three passports belonging to the sons of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français killed by a slave in 1794. As patient readers of this blog will recall, Jean-Baptiste was also the father of Anne-Julienne Gué, who at some point after the turn of the nineteenth century married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, my third great-grandfather, who in turn had migrated from France to Saint-Domingue, along with four of his brothers, at the height of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror… We still don’t know when or where Anne-Julienne and François met, but we know that she was in Philadelphia in 1795, and we also think that her siblings must have left for Bordeaux, perhaps via a port city in the United States, around the same time. Pierre, the first-born son, penned an account of his father’s murder — though, it must be said, the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué” is probably an apocryphal text… In any event, Pierre’s “Passe-port à l’Étranger,” an early example of the genre, is all too real, a lovely document crafted under the signs of Liberté and Égalité, if not Fraternité. With a little effort, one can read that it was issued in Bordeaux “le vingt trois fructidor de l’an neuf de la République, une et indivisible.” That would be 10 September 1801. We also learn that Pierre is twenty-two years old and one meter and seven-hundred-eight millimeters tall, that he has chestnut hair and gray eyes and an ordinary mouth… We also learn, not without a measure of surprise, that he is traveling back across the Atlantic to Cap-Français, “dans sa propriété,” and that he is doing so in connection with the Ministre de la marine et des colonies. But several questions emerge. Why are Pierre and his brothers, Jean-François-Marie and Pierre-Julien, returning to their birthplace, apparently on their own volition? What property could they still possess over there? Had they not relinquished what they owned once the family left Saint-Domingue? Were they not afraid to return to the land where their father had been murdered? Or am I projecting onto the history of Haiti, as the colony would soon be known, the experience of exile and dispossession I associate with the Cuban Revolution? How long will they stay there? We know that Pierre, if perhaps not his brothers, would return to live permanently in France. On at least one genealogical site I have seen, he is listed as the Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. My cousin has even found a second passport issued to him, on 9 September 1828, to travel to Amsterdam, via Paris, pour “affaires de commerce.” He is described as a négociant and is accompanied by his nineteen-year-old démoiselle, who we presume is his daughter. Almost three decades after the earlier passport, his eyes are now described as blue and his hair as gray; a bourgeois paterfamilias in his late forties, he now also sports a beard.

One hundred and seventy years and the ocean lie between the French and the Cuban Revolutions, and, as Borges would have it, the story of my father and that of Pierre Gué are now irrecoverable. Yet residues remain. Many years after his death, staying with an old friend of his in Madrid, after several glasses of scotch late into the night, I learned all about my father — but those secrets must be reserved for a Henry James-inflected novella. Even the life and times of Pierre Gué are retrievable, in some fashion, by means of the folios that recorded the milestones of his journey on earth. Indeed, in both my father’s and my their great-granduncle’s cases, republics, weak or strong, created civil codes that allow citizens to live on in the realm of graphic everlastingness. Compare that to the lives of those other transatlantic migrants, the millions of human beings transported from Africa to Cuba or Saint-Domingue without benefit of passports, on whose labor the wealth of nations was built, and who remain for the most part anonymous and unknown to their descendants.

XXIV – This Blog

Me in Madrid - 1963 - BWNow that I have posted so many pictures of family members when they were children, thereby violating their right to remain invisible figures, it is only fair that I post a photograph of my own younger self. Voilà. That’s me in Madrid in the very late autumn of 1963, the only child of Cuban refugees in the cold European capital ruled by Francisco Franco. A pinkish rubber stamp on the back reveals that the photograph was taken at the Estudio Fotográfico Peñalara, on calle Preciados, 17, whose telephone was 92 55 81. There is also a number that looks like a California zip code: 90647. My mother’s words are there too, a handwritten dedication to my maternal grandparents and great-grandmother back in Cuba: “Para mis abuelos y mi Bisa, con el cariño de Roberto Ignacio. Madrid, Dic. de 1963. A los tres años de edad.” I don’t known whether the picture was sent to the faraway island and recovered when my grandparents went into exile, or whether we kept it and took it with us to Puerto Rico, where we migrated to soon thereafter. The studio’s location on Preciados was not far from where lived, a pensión named La Montañesa on Plaza de la Marina Española. My mother recounts going with me to Galerías Preciados, the department store on that same street and now gone, and running into Sofía de Grecia, the future queen of Spain, who was there shopping for buttons. Sofía was pregnant, as my mother would soon be. What the princess needed buttons for remains a mystery.

I don’t think I have any real memories from the few months we spent in Madrid, except perhaps two vague images that may or may not be actual recollections of the thing itself, but memories of stories I later heard. One concerns our first and only snowfall in the city. It suddenly began to snow — quite softly, as I recall — and my father and another man from Cuba living at our pension went outside to see what the strange powder from heaven was like. They made little snowballs and threw them at the window by which my mother and I were huddled. There are no pictures of any of that. The second memory is of an event that happened many times. It’s cold but there’s a bit of sun, and my father takes me to play in the gardens of the Palacio Real, just a few blocks from our pensión. I am only a little child, so my angle of vision is limited to the grass and the little white fences that divide the garden into smaller plots. Many years later, as a student working on a travel guidebook to Spain, I found myself on that spot, the Jardines de Sabatini, and the little white fences against the grass struck me as familiar objects I had seen before. When I later mentioned this to my father in Miami, he confirmed that, yes, in those few months when we were political refugees in Spain, he would take me every afternoon to play in the royal gardens. Time was regained, if only obliquely and vaguely. I’ve been told that I was mostly an unpleasant child, a veritable Prince-in-Exile who cried loudly and frequently. I disliked the food served in Madrid’s public dining halls for the poor, where we regularly had lunch. A true Cuban, I wanted black beans, but the workers at our dining hall regarded that as nourishment for pigs and told us so, serving garbanzos instead. On one occasion, my mother was served a huge piece of bone in her garbanzos; when she pointed that out, they told her, “Hoy le tocó hueso, señora.” I despised strangers and shut my eyes whenever someone said that I had beautiful eyes. I’m now sorry for my poor parents, who had to go everywhere with me and my crying self.

While in Madrid, my father could not have a job. Taking any kind of employment would have meant that we had decided to remain in Spain and trumped our efforts to secure entry into the United States. Therefore, my parents had little money but much free time in their hands. Every weekday morning my father would visit the very modern building of the U.S. Embassy on calle Serrano to inquire about the status of our Green Card application. He became acquainted with a foreign service employee who had also gone to a Jesuit school, a common life experience that supposedly helped expedite our case. I would be left in my mother’s care all day, a routine that revolved around her searching for a warm place to be. Like in some sad novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, our room in the pensión lacked any form of heat, which sent us out into the city to seek the shelter of well-heated spaces such as department stores and, almost daily, the Museo del Prado. If exile was a long gray cloud that hung over my parents, the Prado must have been my own early silver lining. As my mother recounts in a notebook where she records her memories of leaving Santiago de Cuba and surviving in Madrid, my favorite spot at the Prado was the room in which Las Meninas then hung. At the time, a mirror was placed in front of the painting. My favorite practice was to stand in front of the mirror, with the canvas behind me, and see myself as yet another minuscule figure in that melancholy realm of royals and servants and a sleeping dog. I can’t recall exactly what I saw, but I can imagine myself standing next to the Infanta Margarita, a girl only a few years older than me, a child as quiet and perhaps as unhappy as I must have been far from my grandmothers and great-grandaunt, my own old maids of honor now absent. In truth, I don’t have any real memories of those first visions of the strange canvas full of canvasses, but I have returned to Madrid many times — in fact, it’s the only city I’ve been to at least once in every decade of my life — and many times stood in front of the gray princess, my old playmate. To this day, in my university lectures, there is no subject I relish as much as Velázquez’s artifact of self-regard.

Which brings me to this blog. May I use this blog to reflect for a moment on what this blog is, or is about, or seeks to accomplish? This blog about discovering, mapping and possessing a series of spaces on both sides of the Atlantic: Madrid, for one; but also Barcelona, where some members of the family went to live; Newfoundland, where we spent a few desperate hours; Haiti, where some ancestors fled to and died, at least one of them violently; Philadelphia, the free city in which at least one of them, a young refugee, was married; New Orleans and New York, where some practiced honest crafts while at least one engaged in shameful trades; Puerto Rico, to which we arrived as exiles but where my brother and sister were both born. And it’s about France, of course, the birthplace of many of those ancestors, the land from which they migrated but also the idea, if not the actual place, to which they kept returning for decades. But first and foremost, I suppose, this blog is about reclaiming Cuba, a country to which I have no special desire to return, or even visit, but which I still think is mine. From time to time, I dream of Cuba. Just two nights ago I dreamed I went there without a passport. I sort of just walked in, like people do who cross the border into Tijuana. The landscape was full of royal palms, as if the battered republic had become a lush and endless repetition of its coat of arms. I suppose this particular dream came about because everyone seems to be going to Cuba these days. They can have that pretty island, but can they tell such stories about it as I can? In my dream, if I remember it correctly, people — virtual strangers all of them — knew who I was because they had read this blog.

Me in Madrid - 1963This blog is also a time machine — a failed one, like they all are. It’s about excavating the past and trying to preserve it, which ultimately, pace Proust, can’t be done. It’s a museum of half-truths and yellowed images and defective, if unrelenting, storytelling. The old coffee and cacao plantation called La Reunión, where is it? The many ships that transported these folks back and forth across the Atlantic, aren’t they all sunken by now? The many letters and diaries penned in Cap-Français or Sitges or Bordeaux, can anyone read them? The past has passed. Consider this. Even if we eventually find out where Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne was born — either France or Cuba, a mystery that obsesses my genealogist cousins and me — what would that arduously acquired knowledge really mean? My own links with the ancient white-bearded man are tenuous at best. True, he was my second great-grandfather, but, if my arithmetic is correct, I have thirty-two of those; Adolphe, in turn, must have hundreds, if not thousands, of direct descendants by now. Whatever he was, I am not; or I am not only what he was; nor am I the only one who is some of what he was. Consider this too. Even if we reconstruct his biography profusely and delicately, the man is dead and won’t come back. I can write and you can read about him even as we stare into the looming absoluteness of non-consciousness. And even if those ties that link Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne with this Blogger may be twisted and turned into a string of words and images signifying something, what will they mean when we are all dead, when no one clicks on this link anymore, when the web itself collapses under the burden of its own infinite links?