You may think you may be done with your ancestors, but, once you’ve poked them in their resting places, they keep come back to haunt you when you least expect it. A few months after I had rather solemnly proclaimed the end of this blog — and, tacitly, of my interest in old ghosts, known and unknown — I received an email from a young woman in Barcelona who said she had found something I might be interested in. Her email read: “I went to a flea market today in Barcelona, Spain, and bought a painting of a man called Francisco Adelson Vidaud Gué. On the back it says he passed away 9 June 1886, in Villa de Guantánamo, Cuba. I just got the painting because I liked it and then I googled the name and ended up on your page.” Sure enough, this name coming out of the blue (my laptop’s blue screen) had to be one of our own, Adelson Vidaud. The origin of his peculiar name remained a mystery in the old family tree, but he was now about to materialize by means of a portrait found in a city well known to our ancestors.
As the two or three faithful readers of this blog know, my forage into the genealogical woods has focused greatly on seven brothers and sisters born to a man from France and a woman from New Orleans who lived in the old province of Oriente, in eastern Cuba. One of the seven siblings, Alberto (or Albert) Vidaud Caignet, was my second great-grandfather, and he appears to have spent his life between Santiago de Cuba, the provincial capital, and La Reunión, a coffee and cacao farm whose sudden digital apparition one night prompted me to start this blog. Severo (or Sevère), his younger brother, was by contrast a bon vivant, a bachelor with an eye for women and a taste for the pleasures of travel. They had five sisters, the youngest of whom, Matilde, lived in Guantánamo and, like her two brothers, had several children, one of whom, known as Nunú, wrote a terrific account of family lore — a notebook drafted in Miami on which my own blog has drawn much. After the Revolution, many of the descendants of Alberto, Severo and Matilde left Cuba and now live in the United States as well as other countries. Two of their sisters, Carlota (an accomplished pianist who studied with Granados) and Magdalena, remained single, but yet two others, María and Juana Amelia, married Catalan men and, as Cuba obtained its independence from Spain; many of their descendants still live in Catalonia. We have reason to believe Carlota also resided with, or near, them, in Barcelona or perhaps Sitges.
Mysterious Adelson was the uncle of these seven children. Could the newly found image have once belonged to Carlota, or María, or Juana Amelia? Its purchaser told me she had bought the portrait from an “old man” in a flea market in Barcelona’s Raval district — but what, exactly, was the painting’s provenance? Where was it created? For what purpose? What did it say about its subject? Could one attach any meaning to that peculiar long-haired physiognomy? What systems of fashion was this oval gentleman invoking when he donned a black coat and vest (were they velvet?) and a rather dandyish cravat? What about those blue pants? And what could one read in the man’s bluish eyes?
My dear readers, here he is, Adelson, who heretofore appeared in this blog as Adelson Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Formerly just letters, he is now an image. But we still don’t know much about him. Let’s summarize what has already been recorded in this blog. His father was François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, born at the Château de la Dourville, not far from Angoulême, in 1764; his mother, was Anne-Julienne Tardy, born in Cap-Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) in 1780. The father left France during the Reign of Terror for Saint-Domingue; the mother, in turn, left the island apparently in the wake of slave rebellions. We don’t know when or where they met. In 1795, Aimée, as Anne-Julienne was known, married her first husband, Julien Tardy, in Philadelphia. I imagine that she ended up in Santiago de Cuba and met François there; we do know her eldest daughter was born there. But I can also imagine that she, like her siblings, ended up in Bordeaux and met her second husband there; his brothers, too, had returned to France. Whether Adelson and his brother, Adolphe, were born in France or Cuba is not altogether clear; there’s a baptism certificate that lists Adelson (or a man we think may have been Adelson) as a native of Santiago de Cuba, but Nunú, in her notebook, says both brothers were born in France. It probably doesn’t matter in the end. Like his father’s brothers and like his own nephews and nieces, Adelson must have had a transatlantic life that challenged any static notions of “old country” and “birthplace” and, perhaps, even “home.” Then again, if he had a home — a place that we can intrinsically associate him with — it had to be that coffee plantation (a euphemistic concept to which I shall return) next to that of a man named François Caignet, formerly of New Orleans, who had been active in the slave trade.This terrifying character had two daughters, Corinne and Charlotte, and they became the wives of Adelson and Adolphe, respectively. Fast forward to 1907, and lo and behold a faire-part announcing the death, in the city of Pau, of a French aristocrat, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, the Comte du Dugnon, a distant relative of the Cuban Vidauds. Our Adelson is not listed among the mourners — alas, he too was dead! — but his four daughters are all solemnly enumerated. Two of these women were single, and two of them were married to Europeans: a Spanish military man, and a French diplomat. Could the portrait of Adelson have belonged to one of them?
Surfing the web (which is the real subject of this blog), I have only found one mention of Adelson, or of someone with a name so similar that it must be him. From the 23rd to the 30th of September, 1878, at Paris’ Palais du Trocadéro, as part of the Exposition universelle internationale, there took place a Congrès international de géographie commerciale. As one can read in its “comptes rendus sténographiques,” published in book form and available online, participants came from all over the world, including now defunct entities such as Austria-Hungary, the Grand-Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the Empire of Brazil. Three men are listed under “Espagne (Colonies),” and one of them is “Adelson-Vidaud (J.), propriétaire, à Santiago de Cuba”… Following Spanish practice and unveiling a first name previously unknown to us, Adelson Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne can easily become Francisco Adelson Vidaud Gué — but how did he metamorphose into J. Adelson-Vidaud, if that’s who he was too?
After we exchanged our first emails, the young woman in Barcelona graciously agreed to send me a photograph of Adelson’s portrait. When I received it, I happened to be in Stockholm. I mentioned this to her, and she replied that, despite her Spanish surname, she was actually from there. Such convergences! Last weekend I emailed her again, and she mentioned she was back in her hometown, where it is winter. I asked about Adelson — had he, our Caribbean traveler, remained near the Mediterranean, or traveled north with her to Baltic shores? She said, “The portrait is with me in Stockholm, and on show in my living room.” I may be magnifying this, but Adelson’s eyes, which even as I write this must be staring obliquely into a Scandinavian space, somehow mirror my grandmother’s cool gray glance. As a little girl at La Reunión, she may have met E.L. Ekman, the Swedish botanist, collector of some modest leaves that triggered this blog. But much of this, as you know, is mere speculation and self-regard.