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.

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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.

XXXVI – All Saints and All Souls

IMG_3718Fifty-two years ago today, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I left Cuba. As I have recounted earlier, it was a long flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. I may or may not possess real memories of that original European journey, but I do have my mother’s yearly recollection. She and I spoke on the phone just a few minutes ago, and I heard the story once again. The chronicle of departure has by now been sublimated into a few memorable feelings and events: her heartbreak, upon taking off from Santiago de Cuba, at seeing from the plane window the mud-covered province of Oriente, which had just been hit by Flora, a devastating hurricane; my father’s unexplained fall on a sidewalk in Havana just days before we were supposed to leave; a doctor’s refusal to examine him fully when he found out we were worms, as those leaving the country were called; the humiliating searches at the airport; and then the strangeness of a second airport, a nocturnal outpost in a northern latitude where we were kindly served tomato soup; her terror as the plane took off from the Western Hemisphere over the vast Atlantic, sitting in the darkened cabin and seeing my father’s Soviet-made bandage half-dropping from his chin, imagining the worse; and then, after many hours, landing at yet another airport, in the city of our final destination, on the gray cold morning of 1 November 1963 — an airport where there was no one to meet us, a solemn city in a pious country where shops and offices were closed for All Saints’ Day… Yet, despite the terrible loneliness of those first protracted hours of exile, it must be said our lives turned out rather well. We were, we are, the fortunate ones. I have crossed that same ocean many times on various kinds of interesting adventures, and will do so again in just over a month. On one occasion, my mother and I flew together happily from Miami to Madrid, and I followed her with my camera as she retraced her steps back to the old building on the Plaza de la Marina Española that housed the unfriendly pensión, now gone, where we had spent our first few months as refugees. I took pictures as she beheld the ancient black door whose threshold she, now in her late seventies, had last crossed when she was twenty-nine. Not that my parents found any comfort in it, but we were hardly the first souls in our family tree who had gone through the upheaval of migration. My own paternal grandmother was taken as a child to Cuba from her native Marbella; one of my great-grandfathers left Barcelona as a young man to start a new life in Santiago de Cuba; my second great-grandfather, a native of Oviedo, undertook a similar journey as a military doctor in a time of war. And then there were my assorted Cuban Gauls, frequent crossers of the Atlantic, who escaped poverty in Brittany at some point in the eighteenth century; or sailed from France to Saint-Domingue at the height of the Reign of Terror; or returned to cities like Pau and Bordeaux, or spent time in Philadelphia, or returned once again to Santiago de Cuba, or left their native city on the Caribbean Sea for Barcelona and Sitges, or started new families in Brooklyn… We, with our bountiful myths of exile and banishment, are the fortunate ones. Tomorrow, once again, is All Saints’ Day, and then it will be All Souls’ Day — what in the official Christian calendar in Spanish is called, rather narrowly, the Día de los Fieles Difuntos. We are saved, but so many unfortunate souls cast a shadow over our family tree. They are Cecilia and Victoria, and Marie, and Rosalie and Casimir — all, along with other men, women and children, enslaved by our unholy ancestors, deprived even of their stories of migration, relegated to mere signs in my own selfish tale.

XXIX – I Dream of Fanny

Vidaud, Fanny - Rochambeau Manifest - 1914Let’s just say it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a young lady without a husband or children, but with some money, has nothing better to do than to cross the Atlantic — many times. From a certain angle, such seems to have been the destiny that Fanny Georgiana Vidaud crafted for herself. Of the seven other children descended from Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait — who was born in Bordeaux and migrated via Santiago de Cuba to Brooklyn in the 1840s — and his American wife, Mary E. Scott Boyd — also known at least briefly (and strangely) as the Countess de Pomeray — none seems to have journeyed abroad as much as Fanny. As I described in that earlier post, Fanny G. Vidaud was a traveler. Her digital afterlife comprises records of multiple arrivals in New York from various European ports — Le Havre, Liverpool, Rotterdam — on ships whose names, decades later, sound impossibly romantic: the Saxonia, the Rochambeau, the Westernland… She was an immigrant’s child reconnected to her father’s birthplace, if not to the island where he had spent some time, and I wonder what went through her mind as she sailed back to the United States on each of those occasions, on ships that also transported new immigrants. Did Fanny feel at home as she beheld the growing skyline of her hometown? Or was she a stranger, at home elsewhere, on the other side of the ocean? Or where there many places worthy of being called home? Or was she essentially an unhoused soul, with no place truly to call hew own? And can we have any insight into any of this, after all these years?

If Fanny’s ghost lives on in the digital universe, her spirit is virtually gone by now. There might be letters waiting somewhere to be read, but mostly what remains are cold official documents that don’t allow us to retrieve her mind transparently. Then again, soul, ghost, spirit, mind — what are these things, anyway? At least we have some hard facts. We know about her professional vocation. She trained to be, and went on to work, as a kindergarten teacher. On 24 May 1890, the New York Times reported on the commencement exercises of the Workingman’s School of the Society of Ethical Culture, held the evening before in its building at 109 W. 54th Street. The school had been founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, born in Germany, the son of a rabbi, and eventually the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University. The Workingman’s School is now the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. On its website, children narrate the school’s history on video, and we’re reminded of ECFS’s founding principles: “Compelled by charity, idealism and pedagogy, Adler emphasized moral education, psychological development and integration of the creative and manual arts with academics.” Indeed, the Times article described such a scene: “In the various rooms of the building were displayed specimens of the works of the pupils, including designs for fancy work, models in wood, metal, and plaster, which reflected great credit on the methods of teaching employed in the school.” Among the fourteen graduates of the Normal Kindergarten Class was Fanny G. Vidaud. What prompted her to attend the Workingman’s School is a mystery. But, born as she was in 1862, she was in her late twenties when she graduated, which makes me think it was her own decision, a turn of events — I wish to think — connected to deeply held beliefs in the promise of education to effect social reform. Perhaps it was also her own sense of independence — the notion that a woman ought to have not just a room, but a profession of her own. Perhaps it was also the need to ensure a livelihood.

There is much written on Professor Adler, but very little on Fanny. The records I find online are reticent and intermittent. Yet they testify to her long career as a teacher and her continued thirst for learning. More than a decade after the note in the New York Times, she is listed in the Harvard University Catalog of 1890-91 as a kindergarten teacher taking a summer course in Physical Training — everything from calisthenics to fencing and swimming: “Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, Kindergartner, Mrs. Scribner’s School, New Brighton, N.Y.” (New Brighton, I learn via Google, is on Staten Island.) In 1903, as I noted previously, she is a student in the Section des sciences historiques et philologiques of Paris’ École des hautes études pratiques — one of the few women registered there. And there she is again, Fanny Vidaud, now 61, in April 1924, arriving in Plymouth, England, from New York on the Cunard Line’s Ausonia, described in the passenger manifest’s column for “Profession, Occupation or Calling of Passengers” as a teacher, while most other women are listed as housewives. And there she is, yet again, in 1928, sailing from Greenock, Scotland, to Montreal on the White Star’s Doric: Fanny G. Vidaud, 55 ( but wasn’t she 66 by then?), listed in the alien passengers’ manifest as a citizen of the United States and a teacher. But finally, in 1930, as she arrives on the Red Star Line’s Pennland from New York once again in Plymouth, her profession is now recorded as “Nil.”

We don’t know the specific reasons for all those transatlantic journeys, but it is easy to imagine that Fanny would visit her numerous Vidaud relatives — uncles, aunts, cousins — in Bordeaux and Pau, and tour the multiple sights of the various cities in which she spent time. It may have been the Gilded Age in wealthy America when she started crossing the Atlantic, but Europe still possessed the cultural capital one was expected to cherish. But I think — maybe I know — that wasn’t all.

Vidaud, Fanny - Passport Application - 1915A citizen of the world, as I envision her, Fanny chose to play an active role in the Great War. Three passport applications obliquely tell a story of concern for others regardless of borders. On 17 April 1915, well before her own country entered the war, Fanny Vidaud, “a native and loyal citizen of the United States,” applied for a passport to travel to France for the explicit purpose of conducting “relief work among refugees.” Tellingly, the name of a second country, England, and the intended reason for visiting it — “pleasure” — are crossed out, almost as if she had realized at the last minute what really mattered in a time of emergency. Also crossed out are those patriarchal phrases that all single and childless women like Fanny needed to contend with at the time: “accompanied by my wife;” “minor children.” But as much as I would like to find out, I don’t know exactly how Fanny spent that period of time — over a year, it seems — in France. Did she stay with her family in Bordeaux or Pau, or was she elsewhere? In August 1916, as the war rages on, she ventures across the Atlantic on the Saxonia from Liverpool back to New York. I don’t know why. But then, on 18 May 1918, before the war is over, Fanny applies for a new passport to return to France. This time she plans to engage in “war relief work.” She stays there until 1920; on 17 January she applies for yet another passport, at the United States Passport Bureau in Paris, to travel back home, or “home.” This third application affords a tiny glimpse into her life abroad. We learn she had arrived in Bordeaux in August 1918, and that she now lives at 144bis, boulevard Montparnasse, in Paris. Filling in the application’s blank spaces, she also states that she has been residing in France “for the purpose of Relief Work, on behalf on Independent.” Six months later, in July 1920, just as she had done in January 1914, she sails back to New York from Le Havre on the Rochambeau, an ocean liner of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, named after the French nobleman who had taken part in the American Revolutionary War — a Franco-American figure of sorts, I suppose, like Fanny herself to some degree, or the Statue of Liberty, greeting those arriving from other lands.

In the next ten years or so, Fanny would return to Europe a few more times. A fourth passport application — the last one I have found — is dated 2 March 1922 in New York. It tells a story of peace regained. Fanny states that she plans go to France and England (“Visit to Relatives”) and to Italy (“Travel”). Like the other passport applications she has completed before, this one also requests that she tell the immigration story of her father. Once again, Fanny must write down that her father’s name is E.O. Vidaud, that he was born in France, that he died on 2 June 1888, and that “he emigrated to the United States from the port of Santiago, Cuba, on or about 1845; that he resided 45 years uninterruptedly in the United States, from 1845 to 1888, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; that he was naturalized a citizen of the United States before … ” She knows the year, 1858, of the naturalization ceremony, but ignores the court in which it was held, so she impatiently scrawls the word “Unknown” across the blank space. There is only so much one can know, or there is only so much one can be bothered to recall. Or am I imagining things? Am I seeing a rebellious mind where there was none?

Vidaud, Fanny - PictureThere she is, Fanny in her late fifties, wrapped in furs for her passport photograph in 1922. The Description of Applicant affords a few specific details about her physical appearance. She is five feet one inch tall; her hair is white; her eyes, hazel; her complexion, fair; her nose, large. Her eldest brother, Robert, is the witness, and the passport, once issued, will need to be delivered at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn. At the time, I believe Robert is living in New Jersey, so it’s arguably not altogether surprising that he would be staying at a hotel in New York. But what about Fanny? Where does she live? There is much that I don’t know about her last decade. I have a feeling that she, an expatriate of sorts, may not have had a permanent home of her own anywhere. Her addresses change, and she appears to move to other parts of the city and even other states, apparently to stay with family members. In 1928, returning from Scotland to the United States on the Doric, her address is listed as 15 Hubbard Woods, Illinois, with a note specifying that this is where her sister, Mrs. J.R. Montgomery, lives. Indeed, Marion Vidaud had married John Rogerson Montgomery, a lawyer from Chicago, in 1912 and moved to that city’s northern suburbs. In 1930, Fanny returns to New York from Antwerp in 1930, and the ship’s manifest has her living at 609 W. 51st Street. Yet that building, it appears, was not anyone’s home, but the address of the Brambach Piano Co., for which her brother, Edward E. Vidaud, had been working for since 1919. Three years later, in 1931, Fanny is back in Europe and, upon her return to the U.S. from Southampton, her address is again her sister’s house near Chicago. And then, in 1938, suddenly, we have a record of her death in Braintree, Massachusetts. How did she end up there? Was she living alone, or was she lodging in someone else’s house? To me, all the years I lived in Boston, Braintree was simply a name, the end of the Red Line in the opposite direction from Harvard. Had I known about Fanny, had I known that she died there, I would have taken the T to Braintree and … Perhaps I’m looking at all this too dramatically. The past, such as it is, may be partially regained, but it often remains illegible and must be performed on an oneiric key.

I dream of Fanny because the patterns of her life resound with some of the stories of the Vidaud family that I find most compelling. Like Fefa, whose third cousin she was, Fanny cared for children; like Bebé, she embraced the world beyond her native shores. But I dream of her because she moved from place to place as if borders did not exist, embracing, it seems, life elsewhere, everywhere. In dreams, I see her sailing across the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas, neither here nor there nor anywhere. Nowhere.

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.

XXVI – A Death in the Family

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

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

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

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

XXV – Miami Time Machine

Miami Palm TreesWhen I visited Berlin last fall, I knew there lived in the city a man surnamed Vidaud, a descendant of Severo Vidaud Caignet who had studied theoretical linguistics at Konstanz and had apparently decided to live his life far from the family on the other side of the Atlantic. But he was probably the only one of these Cuban Gauls in Germany. In Miami, by contrast, where I’m spending a few days, I personally know of hundreds of Vidaud relatives who came here from Santiago de Cuba or Guantanamo, or who are their children and their children’s children. This is, after all, the capital of Cuba-in-Exile, the uncanny and self-possessed nation in which I now realize I mostly grew up even as I spent my childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. There were many people of Cuban descent in San Juan in the 1960s and 70s (there are fewer now, I think), but it was nothing like Miami, whose main languages as not only American English but also Cuban Spanish, heard as soon as you landed at the airport, and where bookstores such as La Moderna Poesía, established in Havana sometime in the nineteenth century, seemed to flourish not far from, if not side by side with, Books and Books, an Anglophone reader’s paradise on the corner of Aragon (no accent) and Salzedo (not Salcedo) in the heart of Coral Gables. San Juan was Puerto Rican, an amalgam of different things, but Miami was its own hybrid kind of place, more clearly bilingual and bicultural than any other city in the larger Caribbean. It was and remains, in fact, at least trilingual and certainly multicultural, if one takes into account the large Haitian community that lives here alongside people from everywhere in Latin America and Europe, not to mention other parts of North America. If La Moderna Poesía no longer exists, Books and Books is now an emporium of sorts, with a large bookshop-cum-café on Aragon plus branches all over town, including Miami Beach, and a not insignificant section of Spanish-language books, plus, as I discovered just yesterday, a new and very fine selection of French and Francophone, if not Creole, books. It was at Books and Books where I finally met my two younger Vidaud cousins, who turned out to be as smart and charming in person as their own online personas had led me to believe. Two of us, it must be said, purchased French books. (“Ah, claro, si andabas con los Vidaud,” says my mother.)

Things were slightly different in Miami in the late 1980s, when I lived here for a year. After five years in Cambridge as a graduate student, I somehow became exasperated with its progressive self-referentiality. Most importantly, quite surprisingly, I had grwon extremely curious about the idea of Cuba. It’s a long story not worth recounting here, but the origin of my passion (all spent now) was threefold. It stemmed from my recently acquired love of Cuban fiction (Carpentier, but also Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante) and a new curiosity for one’s so-called roots (a boring term, pace Mr. Haley and Dr. Gates), plus, first and foremost, a desire to find a spatial grounding for a Cuban material past that I could not tangibly access. For several years I had worked as a researcher and writer for a student travel guidebook and had the good fortune to visit cities all over Europe and beyond. I would arrive in a new town and devour its map — its lay-out, its squares and streets, all those names that at first meant nothing but soon stood for real churches, museums, palaces and castles. I wanted to do the same wih Havana and Santiago de Cuba, to possess those cities like I had Urbino or Uppsala. But traveling to Cuba was impossible. Ronald Reagan was president and Radio Martí had just been created, which prompted Fidel Castro to ban any Cuban-born citizen or resident of the United States from traveling to the island. I had already purchased a Cuban passport —  and turned in my expired one — but I never got to use it. In Cuba’s default, I decided to move to Miami instead, finding refuge in my father and stepmother’s condo on S.W. 122nd Avenue. I soon discovered a city that was far more familiar than I had ever expected. I became fascinated by the fact that streets in Miami had numbers, like many thoroughfares in the Vedado district of Havana, or, in Coral Gables, vaguely Spanish names, almost as if that city were an outpost of Cuba. I taught Spanish language classes at the new FIU and the more venerable University of Miami, and I commuted by bus and rail, occasionally encountering a fellow passenger who would inquire about an address located in her old country: “¿Esta guagua va para Marianao? Ay, me equivoqué. Pensaba que estaba en Cuba.” On weekday mornings when I didn’t have a class, instead of working on my dissertation, I would lie under the sun by the swimming pool and look at the blue sky, not missing austere New England at all, but relishing instead the strange fact that the sky’s inviolate blueness extended across the straits of Florida all the way to forbidden Havana. And then there were the frequent random encounters with family members I hardly knew. One Sunday afternoon at a Lord and Taylor, we ran into Adela de Granda Vidaud, my maternal grandmother’s sister who had been my father’s neighbor in Santiago de Cuba. They had not seen each other in years, as they had lived in different territories of Cuba-in-Exile — far-flung Monterrey, Mexico, in her and her husband’s case — before finally converging in Miami, at a shopping mall yet.

1960 - Bautismo - En El CobreBut that was then and this is now. I don’t seek Cuba anymore. I still come to Miami at least once a year, but I spend most of my time at my mother’s house — a small place, but a true home — with perhaps a quick run to Books and Books. My mother has a tin box full of old photographs with the label “Cuba – Reliquias” on it, and there are more surprises therein than in the rest of the city. Consider this picture taken at my baptism on 15 October 1960 — Teresa de Ávila’s feast — at Cuba’s national shrine in El Cobre, outside of Santiago de Cuba, not far from Río Frío, my maternal grandparents’ farm. Of the eleven people shown here, nine would leave Cuba well before the decade’s end. The only two who remained were my paternal grandmother, Maruja, the second lady from the right, and my grandmother’s aunt, Fefa. That’s Fefa in the middle, the gray-haired woman holding a veiled bundle that is actually my sleeping, newly christened self. I have referred to her, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, before, but I don’t think I’ve said anything about how much she seems to have loved me, and about how she missed me after we left. She never married and therefore didn’t have a family of her own, living with my grandparents and taking care of my mother and aunt. In fact, she apparently cared for everyone who needed it. In her notebook, Nunú writes about someone from Guantanamo who was gravely ill at a hospital in Santiago de Cuba and how Fefa would bring him oranges everyday. She spoke French, of course, and, I’m told, a little Creole too because of the many Haitian workers in Oriente that she’d be in contact with. She is said to have been an assiduous letter writer, keeping in touch with her cousins, the children of Juana Amelia and María Vidaud Caignet, who lived in Barcelona. She loved the movies and would take my mother to see a varied program of films every Sunday; not surprisingly, she is credited for having fashioned my mother’s Shirley Temple hairdo when she was a little girl. And then Fefa’s world vanished with most everyone who had been a part of it. We all left, and she became an image in a tin box, a story clumsily told.

FefaAnd then there is this, a blurry picture my cousin Mari posted on our secret Facebook group a few months back, when our arboreal adventure began. We don’t know who this young woman is, but we speculate it’s Fefa herself in the first decade of the twentieth century, caring as always for someone else’s children. This time, we think, it’s her nephew, a very stylish Manuel de Granda Vidaud, and her niece, a smiling Carmen de Granda Vidaud — our grandmother, a mere toddler. Who knows, perhaps this gray photograph was taken at La Reunión itself. Quite correctly, Mari noted the resemblance of this young woman to the serious person on the right of the photograph that serves as the blog’s header. That person, according to my mother, is Fefa, with her sister Luisa and their father Alberto Vidaud Caignet. But all this, again, is speculation. For all we know, this happy group may be a bunch of strangers totally unrelated to us. Yet, when the past becomes elusive, as it always does, and when the spaces of your childhood are lost, as it happens to many of us, you’re left with little more than the proverbial power of your imagination, that noble faculty whose figments need not be regarded as mere fiction. Let’s therefore declare this portrait of a lady in white to be Fefa, the caretaker, as lovingly devoted to her children as ever. If we can imagine it, it can then be true. After all, a life alone in Cuba, with all her dear children living abroad, is something Fefa could never have even imagined, and yet it happened.