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.

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.

XXIV – This Blog

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

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

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

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

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