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.


IV – Dead Family Reunion

Granda - Foto de FamiliaWhat remains after all are dead? What can I know of their past? One thing I have is images — sweet silent photographs containing a residue of that elusive dead souls’ society we call our ancestors. Here is another picture of nine dead relatives, Carmela’s family, likely taken in the early 1920s. Unlike her two sisters pictured earlier at what may (or not) be La Reunión, Maria Vidaud Trutié, the black-gowned lady in the front row, was a married woman with a loving husband and a large family of seven children. Her pregnancies were difficult, I’m told, but she dispelled morning sickness by drinking champagne. Standing right behind her is her oldest daughter, the saintly María, and right behind María is Manolo, the little boy in that earlier picture, now a young man with interesting eyeglasses and an intellectual demeanor. To María’s left, at the center of the photograph, is green-eyed meditative Carmela. The other young man is Fernando, who could never have imagined then that he’d spend more than three decades in a cold northern city named Boston, where he would die. Next to him is Emma, who died in Miami, as did little Adela right in front of her, the youngest, born in 1914, and whose Exile was spent mostly in Mexico. The other girl, to the right of her mother, is Margó, whom we know little about; she broke up with her siblings after an inheritance dispute, moved to Havana, and died there sometime before the revolution. The man in the front, my great-grandfather, is Manuel J. de Granda, a war hero of sorts and the author of two books about the process of Cuban independence.

1 - A Man in Havana, c. 1910Here again, in an earlier photograph taken in Havana circa 1910, is Manuel J., Capitán del Ejército Libertador. He did not die a romantic death, but could have. His father, Manuel de Granda y González, was born in Oviedo, Spain, had a medical degree from Salamanca, and had gone to Cuba as a doctor with the Batallón Covadonga of the Spanish Army. As a native of Asturias, he may have had the Reconquista in mind as he contemplated those Cuban rebels, the mambises, rudely seeking independence from Spain. Manuel J., his own son, was a mambí. In the hope of nipping those ideas in the bud, Manuel sent Manuel J. to Costa Rica, where his wife, Corina Odio, had numerous relatives. But it didn’t work. In Costa Rica, Manuel J. met up with Antonio Maceo, one of Cuba’s great heroes. Intent on taking part in a new war against Spain, they, with twenty-one other men, sailed out of Puerto Limón on the Adirondack, a New York-bound steamer that, after a stop in Kingston, Jamaica, dropped them off on Fortune Island, in the Bahamas. When Columbus, that other Caribbean mariner, made landfall on that little isle on 19 October 1492, he called it Ysabela, in honor of Isabel de Castilla; four centuries later, Maceo and company were fighting against another Spanish monarch of the same name, Isabel II. The island is now known as Long Key, and there they boarded a schooner named Honor bound for Oriente. They landed at a place named Duaba, near Baracoa, where one can now visit a monument to Maceo and the brave men of the goleta Honor, a name that I heard Carmela mention many times during my childhood. With much pride, my grandmother would also refer to her father’s later appointment as chief of police in Santiago de Cuba — a fact I sometimes recall as I jaywalk around downtown Los Angeles — and as a member of the Academia de la Historia de Cuba.

But what interests me most about Manuel J. is the love story and, more specifically, how he met María. Early in the course of the war, the young man was captured and taken prisoner to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a seventeenth-century fortress at the entrance of Santiago bay. There, deprived of his liberty, he met the woman who would become his wife. What prompted a young lady of French descent to visit a jailed mambí in a colonial dungeon is not clear, but Ana María Esteve thinks that María’s and Manuel’s families were somehow related, yet another twist in the family twigs I haven’t figured out yet. According to some family lore — but I find it improbable — María knew only French when she met Manuel J. in his castle prison, and decided to learn Spanish in order to speak with him. In any event, Manolo and Maluya, as they were called, were married for more than fifty years.

As an author and soldier, there’s much about Manuel J. de Granda on the web. Historians frequently cite his two books as sources for the study of Cuba’s War of Independence, and he has undergone a minor (very minor) revival as a character in a Cuban docudrama about the Honor produced by the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión, the Ministerio de Cultura and (gasp!) the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. The show explores the accidental death — or was it murder? — of James McKenney, the English captain of the Honor. It’s a complicated story, but suffice it to say that it ended with José Martí himself writing a letter to the British consul in Santiago de Cuba explaining the incident. It’s all in the past now, but the ghost of McKenney still haunts the honor of the Honor.

As for his father, Dr. de Granda, I’ve found a quick reference to his death in January 1916 — just a couple of month before E.L. Ekman went foraging at La Reunión — on a site belonging to the Conservador de la Ciudad Santiago de Cuba. It reads, “Fallece el médico, doctor Manuel de Granda y González, muy estimado por todos excomandante médico de batallón Covandonga del Ejército español que residió mucho tiempo en Guantánamo, era el padre del patriota comandante Manuel J. de Granda, que a su vez falleció en el reparto Vista Alegre el martes 2 de diciembre de 1952.” The irony is inescapable. As much as Dr. de Granda, who stayed in Cuba after independence, was “esteemed by all,” his son, the “patriot commander,” somehow trumped the paternal glories. After he died, a horse-drawn carriage transported Manuel J.’s body to Santa Ifigenia, the city’s cemetery, where Martí too is buried.

As for Maluya, María Vidaud Trutié, my great-grandmother, there’s really nothing on the web about her, but that, I hope, is being remedied as I draft this blog. After all, she is a pivotal figure in this ancestors’ tale. She is the oldest person I ever met who descended directly from one François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, born on 26 January 1764, the seventh of fourteen children, and, as far as I can tell, the first Vidaud in Cuba, the seed of my Cuban Gauls.

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.