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.

XXII – To Reconnoiter

If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, how does one go about reconnoitering its alien shores, inaccessible landscapes, impenetrable citadels and cities, quaint customs and manners — its essential opacity? Consider, for instance, the ever receding nineteenth century, an age in which men could only marry women, and women men. What a strange world it must have been.

Vidaud du D. de B., Adolphe & Charlotte CaignetAnd consider these two nineteenth-century characters, a respectable couple, it seems. The bearded gentleman is Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, and the lace-veiled lady is his wife, Charlotte Caignet Hevia. They are my third great-grandparents. Faithful readers of this blog have seen the stern-looking Adolphe before. He matters to my cousins and me because he is, in a sense, the first of our Cuban Gauls. His father was François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, who left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror with four of his brothers; unlike at least three of them, who returned to France, François No. 7 (as we call him to distinguish him from his homonymous brothers), appears to have spent the rest of his life in the Caribbean, probably in Cuba. In the earlier entry on Adolphe, I could do little more than speculate about the milestones of his life. We really just had the information that M. Vallantin Dulac provided in his “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” published online: “Adolphe VIDAUD du DOGNON de BOISCHADAIGNE, marié à Santiago de Cuba avec Charlotte COIGNET [sic], dont les sept enfants ont laissé postérité actuelle à Santiago de Cuba.” We know who the seven children are, but then there were more questions than answers. We wanted to know whether Adolphe was born in Cuba or France. We were curious about how he and his younger brother, Adelson, had come to marry two sisters, Charlotte and Corinne — a triumph of alliterative love. We thought Adolphe must have died in Cuba, but we weren’t sure. At one point — for a few minutes — we thought we had a firsthand account of a visit by an American traveler to his coffee plantation, named La Carlota — a sad instance of briefly mistaken identity. We did have a portrait of him, but it wasn’t in the best condition. To apprehend him, I could stare into his severe visage hoping to be carried by the wings of physiognomy, or I could close my eyes and think of, well, perhaps someone like Victor Hugo or Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whom I thought he resembled. But Adolphe, of course, a ghost from the past, escapes me.

As for Charlotte, what little we knew of her line was troubling. Her father, François Caignet, sold slaves in New Orleans in 1815 and later appears to have possessed a coffee plantation named Mon Repos, along with forty slaves, in Oriente province. (Many years later, the surname Caignet became well known in Cuban and Latin American broadcasting culture. Charlotte and Corinne’s younger brother, Benjamin, was the father of Félix B. Caignet, an Hugo of sorts who wrote El derecho de nacer (1948), a drama produced by Havana’s famed CMQ radio and television network. But that’s a twentieth-century story, along with much of Félix’s pioneering work for the rise of a continental soap opera tradition, “algo así como una especie de integración lagrimal,” in the words of a critic.)

The nineteenth century won’t come to an end. Its digital life is expansive. As weeks and months passed, readers of this blog, including old and newly found cousins, have kept searching for the elusive Adolphe and Charlotte. A gentleman from Barcelona, you may recall, contacted me with childhood pictures of his own grandmother, Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s daughter. He also provided me with a copy of the his father’s birth certificate. Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, as he was called, was born in Havana, where his father commanded the Presidio, in 1893. In the document, Amelia’s parents are said to be living (unlike her father- and mother-in-law, who had died in the province of Girona, where her husband was from). Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s birthplaces are mentioned as well, but their names are now given in Spanish, and Adolphe has even acquired a new first name, which we had never heard of before. The child, Rafael, is said to descend “por línea materna de Don Pedro Adolfo Vidaud, natural de Santiago de Cuba, provincia de ídem; y de Doña Carlota Cagnet, digo Caignet y Herrera, natural de New Orleans, casados y vecinos del mencionado Santiago de Cuba.” Whoever copied the original certificate seems not to have been in top form; not only is Caignet at first misspelled, Carlota’s maternal surname is changed from Hevia to Herrera. Yet one thing appears to be certain. Both Adolphe, or Pedro Adolfo, and Carlota, or Charlotte, were still living in the 1890s. And we now had official confirmation of Adolphe’s Cuban birth.

Vidaud - CohnerBesides several pictures of his grandmother, Juana Amelia, both as a child in Santiago de Cuba and a young woman in Havana, the gentleman from Barcelona sent me the photograph of his great-grandparents posted above. I was somewhat troubled by the way in which man and wife appear to be conjoined forever in their cameo-like frames, so I tried to detach them from each other, but my photoediting talents are limited to square and rectangular shapes; what some descendant — possibly Juana Amelia herself in her Catalan exile — joined together in golden circular cages, I was not able to put asunder. Apparently the two frames were contained in a rectangular case, seen here, provided by the photographer, or maybe this image is just the back of another photograph? In any event, one fine day Adolphe and Charlotte could have found themselves in Galería Fotográfica de S.A. Cohner, on calle de O’Reilly in Havana. Had they traveled to the capital for the christening of Juana Amelia’s firstborn son? Can the photo, then, be from the 1890s? My knowledge of fashion is limited — so I can’t really date Charlotte’s coiffure, for instance. But her whole demeanor — the expression under the veils — looks earlier than that to me… In any event, the studios founded in Havana and Paris (where he would get the latest technology) by the American photographer Samuel Alexander Cohner were in business for several decades and into the twentieth century, so many dates are possible with just a little flight of imagination. (The story of Cohner, tragically killed in 1869, is worth its own blog.)

The nineteenth century, living on through the web, can fork into endless paths unless the Blogger — who is dangerously related to Félix B. Caignet, master yarn spinner — can exert a measure of storytelling self-control. Let’s resort then to an old-fashioned narrative, Nunú’s notebook, with its finite number of pages. She was, after all, a grandchild of Adolphe and Charlotte, and has interesting things to say about them. Her description of her grandfather is spot on: “Mi abuelo era un anciano alto con una barba grande, blanca, un aspecto patriarcal.” Sans blague. A family tree crafted and placed by someone else at the beginning of Nunú’s notebook claims that Pedro Adolfo was born in 1820 and María Carlota (she too gains a new name!) in 1830. But, alas, Nunú’s nineteenth century does not fit altogether neatly with what other documents say. For one, her memoirs recount that Adolphe was born outside of Cuba: “Mi abuelo Adolfo Vidaud Gué y un hermano, Adelson, vinieron a Cuba y compraron tierra en las montañas y fomentaron sus cafetales. Yo creo que ellos deben haber venido a Cuba por los años del 30 al 35 del siglo pasado.” Does this mean, then, that François No. 7 and his wife, Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué — who was born in Saint-Domingue and married her first husband in Philadelphia — went to live in France after they were married, supposedly in Santiago de Cuba, and that their two children were born on the other side of the Atlantic? And would it make any sense for a boy younger than fifteen to migrate with his even younger brother to a strange island in the Caribbean? And why, then, would Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud’s birth certificate claim a Cuban birth for “Pedro Adolfo”? What a tangled web we weave even when we do not seek to deceive.

Nunú herself is aware of the difficulties of reconnoitering the past, especially when it comes to the Vidauds and the Caignets, inhabitants of several foreign countries. After telling the straightforward story of her father’s migration from Spain to Cuba, she prefaces the tale of her maternal ancestors with a caveat: “Por parte de mi mamá las cosas se complican.” It is indeed complicated. She starts with the French Revolution, but she has more questions than answers: “La revolución francesa fue a fines del siglo antepasado. Yo no sé si antes o después, ni por qué, muchos jóvenes franceses emigraban, venían a Cuba, a Sto. Domingo, a otros países de América, compraban tierras, fomentaban cafetales.” In her account, Adolphe’s father and mother, the elusive François and Anne-Julienne-Aimée, are absent. This is not surprising. Those two remain the most elusive leaves in our family tree.

If chronology and motifs are hard to pin down, at least there are some other “facts” pertaining to the Cuban Gauls. Nunú’s tale of the Caignets starts with her second great-grandfather, Francisco, or François, who settled in Santo Domingo — by which I think she means Saint-Domingue or, more accurately, Haiti — where he is the owner of “un cafetal muy grande, muy bueno.” She then writes about a slave revolt in 1841, which forced owners to leave their coffee plantations and “the island” itself. The date is perplexing, as slavery had been abolished on Hispaniola by then, even on the western side of the island, Santo Domingo, occupied by Haiti from 1822 to 1844. (Ah, my readers, I confess I’ve learned History by surfing the web.) Nunú cites “mi tía” as the source of this story, and I assume she means Magdalena Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s sixth child, a remarkable woman whom she later credits as her only teacher. In any case, much earlier than 1841 (perhaps 1814?), François Caignet, a widower, moves to Louisiana with his son, also named François. In New Orleans, the younger François marries “una señorita de padre español de apellido Hevia,” and this young lady’s mother, Nunú goes on, was “una americana.” They had five children: Carlota, Corina, Benjamín, and the twins Luisa y Cecilia. The family tree at the start of Nunú’s notebook identifies the mother of these five children as María Carlota Hevie, or Hevia, who was born and died in New Orleans. But, again, it’s all rather confusing. María Carlota’s husband is referred to as Pablo Francisco Caignet, born in Puerto Príncipe, RD — the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, improbably located in the Dominican Republic.

Be that as it may, Nunú proceeds to mention the death of María Carlota Hevia (whom she does’t mention by name) upon the birth of her twins, and François’ subsequent decision to migrate to Cuba with his five children. In a fortuitous turn of events, François ends up purchasing land adjacent to the property where the two Vidaud brothers had settled. The rest is a story of friendship and love: “Naturalmente hicieron amistad y poco después se casaron los dos hermanos Vidaud con las dos hermanas Caignet: Adolfo con Carlota, mis abuelos, y Corina con Adelson.” Nunú paints an idyllic picture of life on the numerous coffee plantations owned by these people of French descent in the cool mountains of Oriente: “La vida en los cafetales era agradable. Eran muchos vecinos amigos. Tenían sus fiestas, almuerzos, comidas. Tenían esclavos.” Like other writers before her, Nunú treats slavery not without a measure of ambivalence; even as she decries and describes the horrendous cruelty of some slaveowners, she underscores the benevolent nature of her — our — own ancestors. Not without authorial trepidation, I shall return to this subject in the future.

Caignet, François RobertOne of my genealogist cousins in Miami has skillfully traced the presence of four generations of Caignets in Saint-Domingue, from their arrival in the colony from Bordeaux (perhaps) to their migration to Louisiana and Cuba sometime after the establishment of the Haitian republic. As he observes, the Caignet family runs deeper in Saint-Domingue than the Vidauds, who only arrived after the French Revolution and didn’t stay long afterwards. Paul François Caignet — the Pablo Francisco of the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, François Caignet’s father — was born in the colony in 1791. Paul François’ father, Joseph Pierre Caignet, was born in Jacmel, on the island’s southern coast, in 1739, while his mother, Charlotte Marguerite Baudoin-Desmarattes, was also born in Jacmel, though much later, in 1763. Charlotte Marguerite is the first, as far as we can tell, of several women named Charlotte and/or Carlota in our family tree. Joseph Pierre’s father was François Robert Caignet, born perhaps in Bordeaux and buried in the parish of Sainte-Rose-de-Lima, in Léogâne — an ancient church, incidentally, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and currently being rebuilt. François Robert is also the author of a 1752 document titled “Mémoires de mes services depuis que je suis à Saint-Domingue,” available in digital form on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer, in which he identifies himself as “garde-magasin général du Roi à Saint-Domingue” and “conseiller du Conseil supérieur de Léogâne.” I have not read this document yet; his penmanship is a bit of a challenge. Most interesting for me, a renegade Catholic, is Charlotte Marguerite’s Protestant line. Her father, Joseph Jean-Baptiste Baudouin-Desmarattes, was born in La Rochelle circa 1716, and his great-grandfather was the Sieur Solon Baudoin des Marattes, whose father, in turn, was one Jacques Beaudoin, who was seneschal of the Seigneurie of the Île de Ré and who married one Anne Collard at the Temple Calviniste of La Rochelle around 1610…

Dear reader, if you’re a little confused amid so many old branches and twigs, so am I. The art of reconnoitering the past takes you into a forest as thick the ancient vegetation of Hispaniola — a landscape now virtually vanished on the Haitian side, but once upon a time, I imagine, full of trees and ferns and orchids and many-colored birds. After all, this is the island Columbus called “la más hermosa cosa del mundo” — though, of course, he famously described several other “discoveries” in equally glowing terms. Speaking about these men who served the various monarchs of Castile and Spain, we’re about to embark on an a voyage of exploration far more Historical than anything we’ve previously seen in this silly little blog. My readers, we’re about to discover an actual reconnoiterer, a man named José Antonio de Evia, or Hevia, whom we believe to be the grandfather of Charlotte Caignet. From 1785 to 1786, Hevia explored and charted the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas. But those things are in the future.

XIV – A New Year Story

Ana María y Josefina de niñasIt probably happened on the first day of 1940, or maybe 1941. My grandparents had a farm called Río Frío in the Sierra Maestra, in the outskirts of El Cobre, about an hour or so by car from Santiago de Cuba. It was not La Reunión, but now that it has been abandoned for several decades, overgrown by the forest, its main house forlorn and virtually destroyed, Río Frío has acquired an equally legendary status among members of the family. My grandmother, Carmela, living in Exile, often reminisced about Río Frío in terms that would not have been out of place in the mouths of postlapsarian Adam and Eve. I could go on an on about Río Frío, but tonight that ideal farm is only the point of departure for this brief new year story. On that first of January, Carmela and her husband, Sebastián, along with their daughters, Ana María and Josefina, were traveling by car toward Santiago de Cuba to visit Carmela’s mother, María Vidaud Trutié, who lived on calle San Félix 367, the same house where both girls had been born. Maluya, as Felicia was known, has married a soldier in Cuba’s War of Independence, but she was a proud Francophone. In order to impress her, Carmela spent most of the car trip to the city teaching Josefina, her youngest, how to wish her grandmother a happy new year in French. “Bonne année, bonne année, bonne année” — the phrase was said and repeated many times so that the little girl could learn it, and it seemed she had. As soon as they reached Maluya’s house, Carmela asked Josefina to greet her grandmother with the newly acquired words. But nothing would come out of Josefina’s mouth. I’d like to say there was absolute silence, but being a Cuban household, albeit inhabited by descendants of the Gauls, that’s hard to imagine. Carmela kept insisting. Josefina kept thinking. Everyone was expectant. Finally, the little girl opened her mouth and said to her grandmother, “Abuela, good-bye!”

Good-bye — so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu! In less than twenty years after that memorable first of January, the Cuban Revolution came to power, rapidly leading to many iterations in many families of the word good-bye. If I had to write a play or make a film about those farewells, I would choose Beethoven’s piano sonata No. 26 as its incidental music. Indeed, the three sections of “Les Adieux” — the farewell itself, the absence, and the return — invoke many a story of migration. Yet, in the case of those who left Cuba in the early sixties, that third section — which Beethoven called “Das Wiedersehen” and whose tempo he described as “Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße” (“the liveliest time measurements” or “vivacissimamente”) — will likely never be played. Fortunately, one can listen to Beethoven here, or here, and imagine that those two girls see Río Frío again.

III – Reunion, Not

I couldn’t stop with Ekman’s twigs, of course. What else would the web yield on the subject of La Reunión, the evanescent farm in long-vanished Oriente? A couple of days later, I ventured once again into the digital labyrinth and ended up in a windowless room that belonged to the Gobierno Provincial de Oriente and was devoted to the War of 1895. Its many Legajos y Expedientes — Dockets and Filings? — surveyed and catalogued the world as it existed in Cuba’s easternmost province in the middle of a terrible war and at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a picture of human and material progress, with sections devoted to Instrucción Pública (Public Education), Ferrocarriles (Railways) and Vapores (Steamboats), but it was also a landscape of political violence: Alzamientos (Uprisings), Delitos Políticos (Political Crimes), Ejército Español (Spanish Army) and Cárceles (Prisons).

But I paid attention to all this only later. My eyes went straight to Legajo 740, Expediente 16, which read: “Quejas del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por la destrucción de las propiedades del súbdito francés Albert Vidaud por los insurrectos, valoradas las pérdidas en 1035 pesos.” So there he was, my grandmother’s grandfather, Albert Vidaud, a French subject whose properties, worth just over a thousand pesos, had been destroyed by the rebels, upon which the French consul in Santiago de Cuba had lodged an official complaint, sometime in 1896. Thus, with a few clicks on a keyboard, Carmela’s old story of a devastated plantation suddenly appeared, and La Reunión, with its cacao trees and coffee bushes and thickets of eugenias, seemed to materialize onscreen. Like Karen Blixen, who had a farm in Africa, we too perhaps one day could write a nostalgic account of a farm in Cuba that we had once possessed.

But had we? In what must have been less than five seconds, my eyes scrolled down to Legajo 740, Expediente 17, which read: “Protesta del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por el incendio de los cafetales ‘Dos Hermanos’ y ‘La Reunión’, propiedad del súbdito francés Carlos Favier y Duverger. Incluye también solicitud de autorización para volver a su finca y recoger el café y cacao que estaba en pié.” Who was this Favier y Duverger, whose two plantations, one of which was La Reunión, had been burned to the ground? Who was this man intent on having his coffee and cacao picked? Who was this specter haunting our lands — or worse, my digital Oriente? Could there be two farms called La Reunión? Had my grandmother not told me the whole truth? Had I misremembered her tale?

La Reunión - SepiaHere is a picture taken at La Reunión, or so I thought, circa 1905. Not long ago I asked my mother, Ana María Esteve, to identify the five rather gloomy characters. The two children are María (the saint) and Manuel, nicknamed Manolo, my grandmother’s older siblings. The two women are presumed to be Albert’s unmarried daughters. Sitting by the man with the mustache, her father, Luisa never married because her dowry was not large enough; but according to my mother, the problem was that she had no sex appeal. The younger woman on the right is Josefa Felicia Vidaud. She was devoted to several generations of children — my grandmother (her niece); my mother and my aunt, Josefina; even myself. Fefa, as they called her, might have been a lesbian, or so my mother speculated. But what do we know? What do we know of these distant relatives? What do we know of the past itself, when it is past, and, like that man and those women and children, it too is forever dead?

As soon as I had a chance, I called Ana María, who lives in a tiny little house in Miami Springs, Fla., loves to talk on the phone, and, at the age of 79, has a remarkable memory. She too thought that La Reunión had belonged to her grandfather and been burned down during the war. Perhaps Favier y Duverger — about which there was not a peep on the web besides what was found in the war archives — had later sold it to Vidaud? But Ana María posed yet another logical question. If La Reunión had burned down in 1896, how had Carmela, born in 1904, lived there as a child? A house can of course be rebuilt. But then again, Ana María had never been to La Reunión. In fact, during her youth, every time someone suggested a visit to the old mythical place, her own father, Sebastián, would refuse, saying there was nothing to see there but ruins.

At least we had the eugenia twigs at the Arboretum. But Ana María was doubtful about that too. The label said south of Hongolosongo. The poor little village did exist, and though Ekman had misspelled its name, I’d often heard of it myself. But Ana María didn’t think La Reunión was anywhere near there at all. Short of a séance with Carmela or, equally improbable, a journey to the old provincial archives in Santiago de Cuba, it didn’t seem we’d get anywhere in retrieving La Reunión for us. But I kept googling in search for answers on the tangled web.

II – The Botanist

On the web, like in Borges’ labyrinths, one textual corridor must always lead to another, incessantly. This is especially true when you suffer from, or indulge in, sleep procrastination. The apparition of the eugenia leaves on my iPad that Thursday morning before dawn created a sense of euphoria that made me keep clicking on one link after the other. I should have gone to bed, but I wanted to know what else I’d find about La Reunión, what kind of plant the specimen preserved by Harvard was, and who, exactly, was E.L. Ekman, whose name was neatly printed at the bottom of the Harvard Herbaria label. The botanist’s identity was easy to determine, for Erik Leonard Ekman boasts a Wikipedia entry in seven different languages, and there’s quite a bit about him elsewhere on the web as well. Like Linnaeus himself, Ekman was a native of Sweden. I read all this with fascination, as I had never heard of him before and could not but instantly like such a handsome man — there were photos to be seen — and serious scientist. After all, he had left Scandinavia not in search of chocolate treats on sweet St. Lucia, but in pursuit of plants on a new and wild nation. Indeed, the Republic of Cuba was little more than a decade old when debonair Ekman sailed into Havana harbor.

My own grandmother, Carmela, born in 1904, was just two years younger than the country of her birth. She used to tell the story that as a schoolgirl — but when did she go to school, if she was raised at La Reunión? — she, like all other children, would draw Cuba’s coat of arms on the first page of all her notebooks. She once showed me how children folded the page in half to ensure their tiny patriotic drawings would exhibit a perfect symmetry.

1912 - Maria y Carmen de Granda Vidaud2Here is a picture of my grandmother taken in 1912, when she was eight. Sitting next to her is her oldest sister, María de Granda Vidaud. She grew up to be a schoolteacher and died at a relatively young age, in 1950, if I’m not mistaken. A perfect Christian, she was never married and died in the odor of sanctity, according to Carmela. She was also a pretty girl, and, at least in this image, a figure less brooding than her younger, darker sister.

In March 1916, when Ekman collected his Eugenia oxysepala Urb. at La Reunión, Carmela was just eleven years old. Could they have met? I’d like to think it’s not altogether impossible, but there’s of course no evidence to suggest a wilderness encounter between those two. Then again, who is to say that Ekman didn’t stop for a cup of coffee or chocolate at Alberto Vidaud’s house? One can easily imagine a conversation on scientific and political subjects. A war was raging in faraway Europe, Cuba was an island full of mysterious noises — those two gentlemen must have had much to talk about.  One can easily imagine Carmela, not much of a child anymore, listening in from behind a door as those two discussed Germany’s might or the flora of the Sierra Maestra.

Ekman, who originally wanted to go to Brazil, never returned to Sweden, and never in fact did he leave the Caribbean. He spent seven — or was it ten? — years in Cuba, and from there went on to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He died in Santiago de los Caballeros, at the age of 46, having made a monumental contribution to the study of plants on the island of Hispaniola. In 1991, the Svenska Stiftelsen Instituto Ekman was founded to promote cultural and scientific exchanges between Sweden and the Caribbean. They don’t seem to have a website. I’m not sure exactly how Ekman’s Eugenia oxysepala Urb. ended up in New England, but I imagine some kind of collaboration between Harvard and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. The specimens are still preserved at the university’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1980s, I would from time to time take the T from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain, where my only relatives in the city lived. I haven’t been on the Orange Line in years, but I think I remember a view of the Arboretum from the train window — the foliage so radiant in the fall, all of nature white or gray on winter afternoons. This branch of the family had chosen coldest Massachusetts over other states because government benefits were more generous there. The paterfamilias was Fernando de Granda Vidaud, my grandmother’s younger brother. I remember on one occasion he was deeply moved when I brought over a copy of a book his father, Manuel J. de Granda, had written in the 1920s, and which I had dug out from the depths of Widener Library. I now wish I had known then about Ekman’s eugenias at the Arboretum. Although he did not grow up at La Reunión, Fernando would have appreciated the fact that, not far from the drafty old house in which four generations of Grandas lived together in Exile, there were plants from Oriente — a province that, incidentally, existed only in people’s memory, as it had been divided into several smaller administrative regions sometime after the revolution.

I – Botany

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

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

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

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

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