Afterword: At the Harvard Herbaria

This was written a month ago:

Here I am, in Boston, after a number of years. I’m reading a paper at a conference at Harvard, so even though I’m staying at a hotel on Tremont Street, much of my time is spent across the Charles River in Cambridge. I did my graduate studies at the university, and I know the place as intimately as a student can. But time hasn’t stopped still — not at Harvard. My old haunts are still there, but there are several new modern buildings, and even the old ones have been transformed. The old Fogg Museum, an Italianate structure from the 1920s among whose paintings and sculptures I always felt at home, has been renovated and expanded by Renzo Piano. Gathering items from two other art collections, the place is now known as the Harvard Art Museums. Transparent, grand and intimate, it feels to me like the happiest place on earth. But I digress.

On Thursday — which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day and the conference’s first  — I had to attend an event at a new handsome structure with the rather Hitchcockian name of Northwest Building. I knew it wasn’t far from Richards Hall, the Gropius-designed graduate dorm where I once lived, so I resorted to Google Maps, hardly expecting what I found. Close to the digital marking of the said building, a rectangle popped up on the tiny bright screen elegantly marked as the Harvard University Herbaria. It was located at the northernmost end of Divinity Avenue, a place I was familiar with from my first semester at the university, when, a budding and soon-to-be fading scholar of medieval Spain, I took a course in advanced classical Arabic at the Semitic Museum. But I digress, yet again.

Faithful readers of this blog may recall its origin well over a year ago in yet another act of serendipitous googling. Searching for the coffee and cacao farm in Oriente province where my grandmother had spent her childhood, I had typed in La Reunión and an image come up. It pictured a few modest leaves and twigs collected in those distant hills, purportedly belonging to my second great-grandfather, by E.L. Ekman, a Swedish botanist, in 1916. They were specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb. — tiny and modest, perhaps, but a direct link to a mythical location in the lore of my French-Cuban ancestors. The image, as I now remembered, also showed an oval seal of the Herbarium of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Did that mean, then, that they were across the river in Boston, where the Arboretum is located — or could they, perhaps, be housed right there on the Harvard campus? Would I be able to find their actual location and perhaps even see them in all their botanical atemporality?

Harvard Herbaria - Red CabinetsI decided to investigate. On Friday just before noon, finding myself again not far from Divinity Avenue, I crossed the threshold of the Harvard Herbaria. At the reception desk, a silver-haired woman greeted me with friendly efficiency and perhaps a measure of curiosity. It didn’t seem they were used to many impromptu visitors. When I awkwardly explained what I wanted, showing her a picture of Ekman’s specimen on my iPhone, she immediately went in search of a curator who might be able to help me. After a few minutes she came back with a dark-haired man. He too turned out to be intelligent and sympathetic and invited me to his office, where he consulted his computer for a few minutes. It indicated the leaves and twigs were housed in the very building we were in. The search then entered the very real world of the actual collections. We climbed stairs and traversed long corridors on several floors, lined with endless rows of enormous, hermetically sealed cabinets, labeled with botanical terms such as Melastomateaceae and Astronidium and geographical appellations such as Mexico and C. Am., South America, Australia, Polynesia… After a couple of false starts, we finally found what we wanted. From a cabinet that read Myrtaceae, Calypranthes and West Indies, the curator extracted a large red file and took it to a table, where he then proceeded to reveal its contents.

Harvard Herbaria - LeavesThere they were, those beautiful leaves and twigs, our precious Eugenias gathered at La Reunión one-hundred years ago, neatly preserved at the Harvard Herbaria, as if waiting for me to show up one cold Friday afternoon in the very late winter of 2016 to see them. And here you can see them, once again in digital form. But I saw the real thing, lovingly cared for by men and women devoted to the arts of botany. And there they must have been too, in the flesh, back in September 1982, when I had just arrived on campus and walked for the first time to my Arabic class, a few hundred feet away in the Semitic Museum. If only I had known of their existence back then, when I was a stranger in a new place, one student among many. I remember my sense of alienation that afternoon. In a small seminar room to which I had finally come after crossing several rooms full of inscriptions and sarcophagi, sitting right across the table from me, there was another student. As we all waited for the professor to arrive, she was speaking with another student. I detected a foreign accent. Not without timidity, I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Cuba. That was the short version of her provenance, as she had previously lived in Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, and, as a doctoral student in the history of Islamic architecture, had traveled through much of North Africa and the Middle East… Now that I think about it, my little leaves too, like María Luisa, had probably traveled far and wide. After all, Ekman was Swedish and the specimens in front of me featured, just below the seal of the Harvard Herbaria, a label that read “Musei bot. Stockholm,” a passport stamp of sorts that suggested a Scandinavian sojourn before a transfer back across the Atlantic to the so-called New World.

Harvard Herbaria - BotanistAfter patiently allowing me to take all the pictures of Eugenia oxysepala Urb. that I wanted, the dark-haired botanist asked me if I was interested in seeing what the envelope contained. I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t really paid much attention to the small pocket-like thing, discreetly devoid of colors and words, neatly tucked in the lower right corner of the red file. I said yes, of course. Delicately, he unfolded the fragile white paper thing, revealing a tightly packed collection of tiny desiccated leaves. I don’t know for sure, but they appeared to have remained airless and unseen for many years — modest exiles from the tropics, silently abiding in the company of other such exiles from far-flung provinces of the vegetable kingdom in a well-secured site in these United States. The botanist looked relieved and smiled when I said I wouldn’t run my fingers through them, or throw them in the air, even if such actions appeared tempting. I was overjoyed by the unexpected apparition — my fellow migrants, sad confetti from another world. But all I could do was to take their picture and replant them here on the soil of the digital forest, knowing their story will continue to grow.

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XXIX – I Dream of Fanny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XIII – Communicants

In a sense, the story of distant relations this blog seeks to tell began all by itself in the fall of 1990 in central Maine. I had joined the faculty of Colby College on a one-year appointment as a visiting professor of Spanish. I didn’t know many people in Waterville, the small city where the school is located. Looking back, this was probably a good thing; I needed to concentrate on finishing my doctoral dissertation even as I was teaching a few new courses, including my first literature class ever. One person I did know on campus was Jorge Olivares, who was chair of the department of modern languages and, as it soon became obvious, an admirable colleague. Like me, Jorge was Cuban and came from Oriente — specifically from Guantanamo, just east of Santiago de Cuba.

Rodiles Vidaud, Caroline - Anverso

Rodiles Vidaud, Caroline - ReversoI had not taken too many of my possessions with me to Maine, as I’d be there just for a few months. But I did have a box of photographs, a few of them quite old. I must have been bored and/or in a procrastinating mood (or perhaps I was a little homesick) on a certain Sunday afternoon early in the semester when I decided to look at my melancholy collection of black-and-white pictures. Discreetly tucked among those images of people and landscapes was a little first communion card, yellowed by time. One side bore a printed Spanish inscription, but the reverse, to my surprise, was delicately handwritten in French. It read, “Souvenir de la 1re Communion de Caroline Rodiles Vidaud, Guantanamo, 16 Août 1903.” I knew the surname Vidaud, of course, but I had no idea who little Caroline might be, or why one of our relatives, as she appeared to be, would be living in a town other than Santiago de Cuba. The next morning after my first class, I placed the card in Jorge’s campus mailbox. As he was from Guantanamo, I thought he would perhaps find it to be an interesting object, if nothing else. Little did I suspect what the old memento would reveal. When I ran into him that afternoon, he told me that Caroline, the mysterious first communicant, was really his great-aunt Carolina. After a couple of phone calls to mothers and grandmothers in warmer latitudes, we confirmed that he and I were indeed related. Carolina was the daughter of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, who was the sister of Alberto, or Albert, my grandmother’s grandfather. So Jorge and I were second cousins once removed, or something along those lines. If the long reach of the Cuban Gauls extended to northern New England, what other stories could there be?

Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud SistersHere she is now, courtesy of Jorge. The young lady in the middle is sweet Caroline, whose full name was Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud. She is flanked by her sisters — Matilde on her right and María Magdalena on her left. There were other siblings, including a brother named Jean, who, Jorge tells me, loved to attend funerals in Guantanamo. They all spoke French to each other, except to Fulgencio, yet another brother, who Jorge heard had learned the language but forgotten it. María Magdalena, born in 1889 and known as Nunú, was Jorge’s grandmother. As I have recently learned, she had a notebook in which she recorded personal memories and family stories. I haven’t read it, but if it’s anything like this silly little blog of mine, it’s probably a collection of bottomless communicating vessels, not unlike the worldwide web, this flat yet mysterious labyrinth of interlinked clickable rabbit holes through which one suddenly finds oneself flowing onto distant shores and landing in remote eras, remembering and imagining and writing, happily mixing metaphors, all in the company of strangers who happen to be inhabitants of one’s family tree, dwellers in the same forest of blood ties and in-law relationships. And so it happened that one fine day my own blog popped up on the screen of a lady in Miami, a relative of Jorge though not of mine (but then again, who knows?). She too is interested in genealogy and got in touch with me, generously sharing a series of documents, including slave records pertaining to the “señores Vidaud y Caignet” (more on that soon) and one memorable page from Nunú’s notebook.

Nunú's HojaHere it is now, the page from Nunú’s notebook, in which she lovingly reminisces about a specific religious experience in her teenage tears, in a style that reminds me of Teresa de Ávila, my favorite literary saint. I’ll simply translate her clear and heartfelt words. It concerns a first communion, but, more importantly, her own faith and practices. “It happened so long ago. I must have been around seventeen. As I looked at a first communion stamp from a cousin of mine in Barcelona, I suddenly felt something rather strange in my heart, a very powerful and yet very sweet sentiment of love for God, which made these French words come to my lips from my heart.” She explains, “Back then I always prayed in French.” And then, through the working of those vessels that flow from heart to lips to hands, she wrote down her prayer, first in French and then in Spanish translation: “Oh, my God, God of Love, let my whole life be a constant act of love and constant submission to your Holy Will.” Her language and religiosity remind me of my own grandmother, Carmela, who often invoked “mon Dieu Tout-Puissant” — nothing less — to speak of, or to, God, and never expressed a wish without punctuating it with a reverent “con la gracia de Dios.” When one of her grandchildren misbehaved, she’d tell the story of how her grandfather, Albert, had taught her all about “Moi-Même,” that inner voice that speaks to you when you have done something wrong. “¿Qué te dice Moi-Même?” — that was the question in the face of misdeeds. I have a hard time relating to Nunú’s and Carmela’s extreme fervor and devout manners, but, it must be said, I envy their resolute certainty. Their faith in God must have been reassuring through their long lives in exile. Both Carmela and Nunú died at the age of 95 in cities far from where they were born, instead of the country where they would surely have spent their entire lives had it not been for the Revolution.

María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud and Carmen Luisa de Granda Vidaud were certainly not the first members of their family to leave Cuba. Nunú herself mentions her cousin, the first communicant in Barcelona, who I suspect was Rafael Calbetó Vidaud, born in Havana, the son of Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, sister of María Vidaud Caignet. Like María, Juana Amelia also married a man from Catalonia, Rafael Calbetó y Sambeat, who was Comandante del Presidio de la Habana in the early 1890s and published a report about his work there. They also settled in Spain sometime in the 1890s. (As it happens, a gentleman from Barcelona, Juana Amelia’s grandson, also found my blog and contacted me, providing some lovely photographs and much valuable information, to which I hope to return soon.) María and Juana Amelia must have missed their faraway birthplace, but Nunú and Carmela lost their country. We may soon again have an American embassy in Havana, and that in my book is a good thing. But the happy republic, imperfect as it was, in which those ladies were born and lived and where they expected to die — that world to which they never returned — is gone forever.

Vidaud, Pierre - First CommunionAnd then here is this boy, this unsmiling light-eyed creature, photographed on what appears to be his first communion, sometime in the 1930s. My cousin Mari found the picture and posted it on our secret Facebook group with the question, “¿Quién puede ser este niño?” It didn’t take us long to find out who he was. The photo was dedicated by the child, Totó, to Fefa and Mercedes. We knew Fefa had to be Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt, who never married and, as I recounted earlier, devoted her life to taking care of three generations of children, including me. As for Mercedes, she was a sister of Bebé Vidaud, our family’s first genealogist. To make a long story short — which is, after all, the fate of all ambitious genealogical accounts, which could be endless in a terrifyingly Borgesian way — well, the boy Totó was identified as Pedro Vidaud Gonzales-Rodiles, son of Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, the little stamp girl, and her first cousin Pierre Vidaud Trutié. Pierre was in turn Fefa’s brother and my grandmother’s uncle, etc., and had studied engineering at Tulane, a name that my grandmother would pronounce as if it were a French word. Curiously, Jorge’s branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, had joined in holy matrimony with our branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Albert Vidaud Caignet… What follows I mostly learned from Jorge — though before I read what he wrote, I always suspected a tale of secrecy as well as the nature of the secret. Totó/Pedro lived in Camagüey along with his parents and sister Carlotica, who was probably named after Charlotte Caignet Hevia, her grandmother, wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Living not far from the city at the Central Manatí, Jorge’s family used to visit them from time to time. Jorge remembers that the children spoke French to each other and possessed such bourgeois accoutrements as tennis racquets and a violin that belonged to the boy, but which had been his father’s own violin. Jorge remembers how the father became infuriated when he and his brother, instead of playing the violin, would play with it. Carlotica grew to be a very religious young woman and, my mother tells me, held an important leadership position in the Juventud Católica Cubana. She never married and remained in Cuba after the Revolution. Jorge tells me she was condemned to prison because of her religious activities, but was allowed to serve her term at home so that she could take care of her mother. Carolina — the little girl whose first communion was celebrated in 1903, just a year after Cuban independence — lived long enough to see the arrival of socialism on the island. She died in Cuba in her eighties, but Carlotica still lives in Camagüey, on calle Libertad, where a neighbor of my mother’s in Miami Springs, Fla., was once a student boarder — but that’s most certainly another story. At the age of ninety-one, Carlotica still teaches French; a relative who saw her not long ago tells me that her students “hang on to her every word.” She also tells me that they toured the Iglesia de la Merced, and that Carlotica, who preserves her sense of humor, warned her that “la colección de mierda de las catacumbas compite con el Louvre.”

Dare I say what I know of Pedro’s story? No one is asking me to, but not to tell would be perpetuating secrecy. Pedro worked for Pan American Airways in Camagüey. Jorge’s brother, Alberto, remembers an occasion in which Pedro took them to the traffic control tower at the airport. Although Camagüey was only Cuba’s third largest city, it had an international airport, and Pan Am itself had been flying to Cuba — the Key West-Havana route — since its inception in 1927. Pedro continued to work for the company in New York City. My grandmother spoke often of him, and I grew up hearing how much she admired Pedro Vidaud, who worked for Pan Am in New York, and was trilingual and ever so intelligent and handsome, tall, with light-colored eyes. What a pity he had decided to remain a bachelor, my grandmother would say from time to time. Ah, Pedro’s ambiguities. For me, it was a good thing to find out recently that he had a longtime companion, as people used to say. The two of them went to live in Chile after Pedro’s retirement, and Pedro died there, far from Cuba and from New York, but close, I hope, to someone he loved. I never met Totó/Pedro, but I wish I had. I hope he was happier in life than he looked on the day of his first communion. I hope this brief communiqué of what little I know of his life works as a kind of séance through which we can reach him wherever his soul is resting now, if such a thing as the soul exists. Or better yet, I hope someday a notebook written by Pedro Vidaud himself resurfaces somewhere in the antipodes — a notebook where he might have told his own story.

X – Slavery and Brotherly Love

Rereading the last entry on Étienne O. Vidaud and his Brooklyn descendants, it occurs to me that I need to add yet another reason to those I listed earlier for these botanical expeditions up and down the family tree — or trees, really, many trees, since at some point one needs to ask, you know, maybe young Erving Wheelock Vidaud and I have common ancestors, but are we in any way part of one family? Let’s call it, then, the family wood, a thick maze of trunks, branches and twigs, and half-visible rhizomes too, a garden of forking paths as wild and mysterious as the forest primeval. But I digress. Or maybe not. “The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight” — that’s what Longfellow wrote in the 1840s, when this country was still a young republic. So here it is, the newly identified reason for all this hiking and foraging. I believe that by finding these early Cuban-American Gauls, this first wave of Vidauds, I imagine I take possession of this land and its history, this space and time — or, to put it less histrionically, I move the date on my certificate of citizenship from 1976 back to the 1850s, or even earlier.

This is not recent history. More than fifty years before Étienne settled in Brooklyn, three of his father’s uncles resided temporarily in the United States. Once again, I’m afraid I have to lead the fearless reader into an onomastic labyrinth, a private fraternity where names, in Borgesian fashion, multiply and uncannily mirror each other. Consider, for instance, François Vidaud du Dognon, the priest, not to be confused with his older brother, our François, i.e., François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, from whom we (our little clan of genealogists) descend. As it turns out, their father, André Martial Vidaud, had fourteen children, and five of them, as if to seed some confusion in the genealogist’s plot, were named François. So we, the descendants lost in the family forest, in a taxonomical gesture less poetical than that of Linnaeus, have assigned numbers to each organism. Fortunately, M. Vallantin Dulac’s account is rigorously precise in these matters, and he is the head botanist through all this. Our François, born at the Château de la Dourville in 1764, is No. 7, while the priest, born in the same place in 1768, is No. 11. Yet another François, No. 3, died at the age of ten, in 1770, the day before his older brother, Jean, No. 2, died at age 11. The two other brothers sharing the same name remain more of a cypher to us. Of François No. 8 we know the names of his godparents, but that’s about it. As for the oldest sibling, François No. 1, my cousin Mari found a reference to him in a book titled Êtats détaillés des liquidations faites par la Commission d’indemnité, etc., etc., in which he is described as an “émigré.” We know this is a reference to No. 1, specifically, because it mentions as his heir “le comte Dudognon (Michel)” — and we know from M. Vallantin Dulac that François No. 1 had a son named Michel Vidaud du Dognon, baptized in 1782, who must have inherited the title of count from his father. The fact that François No. 1 is described as an émigré persuades us to believe that he must have been one of the five brothers who, including François No. 11, the priest, left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that François No. 11 with brother Jean Michel, No. 6, and quite possibly François No. 1, were the first Vidauds to set foot in the U.S. — specifically, Philadelphia.

Indeed, as I recounted in an earlier post citing M. Vallantin Dulac, the risky position of François No. 11, the Abbé Vidaud, during the Reign of Terror propelled him and four of his brothers to cross the Atlantic and seek refuge in the colony of Saint-Domingue. But that sense of security did not last, as the Abbé, serving as préfet épiscopal, would find out. The problem, as Vallantin Dulac would have it, was slavery: “De là, échappant à une mort certaine infligée par la révolte des esclaves en ce pays, et pourtant ayant tant combattu les abus de cet esclavage, il dut s’enfuir à Philadelphie qui réfugiait tant d’exilés français.” And from Philadelphia, as I also mentioned earlier, the Abbé Vidaud, together with Jean Michel, No. 5, and a second François who we think must have been No. 1, returned to France after the Empire’s proclamation. The three brothers neatly completed the three sides of a transatlantic triangle, thereby undoing their status as migrants or, arguably, further replicating it.

At present, we don’t know much about the Abbé Vidaud’s Philadelphia sojourn — perhaps it lasted as long as three years? — but, given my genealogist cousins’ talents, I suspect we will find more. What we do have is a glimpse into what happened in Saint-Domingue. As with Jean-Baptiste Gué, there exists a full-blown narrative of terrible events. The text is titled “Précis des évènements arrivés à la députation envoyée au Port-au-Prince lors de la descente des Français,” and it’s dated Pluviôse An X, the winter of 1802. (Victor Hugo, to whom I’ll come back in a later entry, was born on 14 Ventôse X, a month later, corresponding to 26 February 1802.) Its author is Jean-Baptiste Gemon, captain of the frigate La Guerrière, which, as the text begins, has sailed into port in a time of turmoil. I’m no historian, but this appears to be the the period when Jean-Jacques Dessalines starts the struggle that will result in the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. The episodes recounted by Gemon appear to foretell the Massacre of 1804, which, not to quibble with words, Wikipedia describes as “a genocide […] carried out against the remaining white population of French Creoles,” and Wikipédia somewhat downgrades to “assassinat de tous les Créoles” and “bain de sang.” Gemon’s account is difficult to follow, not just because of its subject matter — a series of bloodbaths — but also because of its focus on discreet events separated from the larger picture against which they occur. Without alluding to any historical causes, he narrates how, on 3 Ventôse, white men “furent liés deux à deux et rangés derrière leur prison où un détachement, s’avançant rapidement, les égorgea impitoyablement.” Anybody who has sung “La Marseillaise” may have felt a certain aesthetic frisson upon reaching the last lines of the first stanza, in which the “féroces soldats” are coming right into your arms in order to “égorger vos fils, vos compagnes” — but this is the real thing now. There is slitting of throats, but the tale’s hero, the Abbé Vidaud, the priest of the village of Petite-Rivière, does as much as he can to stop the violence. Even as he omits the sins of slavery, Gemon praises “M. l’abbé Videau-Dugnon,” calling him “respectable ministre d’un Dieu de paix” and “cet homme sublime.” On 5 Ventôse, white men are rounded up, stripped naked, and tied by their necks and arms, upon which the Abbé intervenes in their defense: “Emporté par un zèle héroïque, l’abbé Vidaud-Dudognon, ne voyant plus que la couronne du martyre, voulant ou terminer ses jours, ou sauver ces malheureux, s’élance au milieu des cannibales … ” The crown of martyrdom, accusations of cannibalism — where have we seen all this before? As in the best Christian drama, the Abbé then faints. The enemies, terrified by the priest’s “profond évanouissement,” are overwhelmed by “un saint respect, une terreur religieuse,” and, as if by a miracle, they give up. In the text’s one footnote, Gemon gives us the denouement; the Abbé must seek refuge in the United States, but returns to France in 1805, where he chooses obscurity over any kind of ecclesiastical honors, devoting his life to relieving the suffering of others. He serves at the small chapel of Notre-Dames-des-Bézines in Angoulême, where, according to an 1857 history of the chapel by Alexis de Jussieu, he dies in 1845. In a footnote of his own, Jussieu reminds his reader that the Abbé Vidaud descended from Jean Vidaud, a consul of Limoges, who on 20 October 1605 witnessed Henry IV’s solemn entry into the city… But I digress, encore.

As interesting as the Abbé’s story may strike us to be, François No. 11 strictly speaking is not one of our ancestors; he had no children, and thus no one descends from him. But one of his brothers, François No. 7, is a different matter. His two sons, named Adelson and Adolphe, as if enraptured by alliteration, married two sisters named Corinne and Charlotte Caignet. My grandmother’s grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet, is one of Adolphe and Charlotte’s seven children. The sisters’ father was one François Caignet, who was the son of yet another François Caignet, who, as we saw before, was known to have been in New Orleans in 1815, where he sold a mother and child as slaves. François Caignet, the son, had a farm in Oriente named Mon Repos, but his repose rested on the forced labor of others. In “État des propriétés rurales appartenant à des Français dans l’île de Cuba,” a consular report drafted in 1843 in Havana for the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, someone surnamed Caignet is indeed mentioned as the proprietor of Mon Repos, a sixty-hectare coffee plantation, and the owner of forty slaves. It is terrifying to think that the purchase of that lovely-named property — indeed, its sustenance — was built on the institution of slavery, a despicable commerce that seems to have taken the first François Caignet from Saint-Domingue to Louisiana. Weren’t all men created equal? Was this an honorable way to engage in the pursuit of happiness? Whatever happened to liberty, equality and fraternity? Could it be that we, the Americans who descend from the Cuban Gauls, could have a slave trader as our first ancestor in this nation?

Gué, Anne-Julienne - MarriageAnd then one fine morning, I woke up to a fresh discovery by my cousin Mari, posted on Facebook and staring at me like a radiant full moon from my iPad. I’m not sure how she did it, but she had found positive proof that another ancestor — a woman, a girl really — had been in the United States two decades prior to the slave trader Caignet. Mari’s find was contained in the “Marriage Registers of Holy Trinity Church of Philadelphia, Pa.,” edited in 1913 by the Rev. Thomas Cooke Middleton of Villanova College for the twenty-fourth volume of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. In that church, on 14 January 1795, a man named Anthony Tardet de Larochell (or La Rochelle), son of Anthony Tardet, married a woman named “Anna Julia Gué, daughter of John Baptist Gué, of Cap François.” We’re not sure how it happened, but it seemed to be a self-evident truth that, after the tragic death of her architect father in 1793, Anne-Julienne Gué had somehow made her way north to the City of Brotherly Love, where, at the tender age of fourteen, she became someone’s wife. We were confused because the names and dates didn’t fully match M. Vallantin Dulac’s account. In his version of things, Anne-Julienne’s first husband is François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, and Julien Tardy — not quite the same name as Anthony Tardet — is her second husband. But if the Philadelphia marriage record is correct, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, it is very unlikely that someone as young as Anne-Julienne could have been married, had two children, Adelson and Adolphe, and presumably become a widow before the age of fourteen. M. Vallantin Dulac mentions that François married Anne-Julienne in Saint-Domingue, and that her third child, Anne-Joséphine Tardy, was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1800 — but these claims became problematic in light of the Philadelphia marriage record. Alas, a genealogist’s edifice is built on quicksand, and his family trees are exposed to all kinds of hurricanes, and nothing may end up being what it first appears to be.

But one thing was clear. By the iPad’s eerie light, as I reflected on these things, I could proudly hail Anne-Julienne Gué, if only for a brief moment in the 1790s, as our first American. And even though I wasn’t a believer, I could even like much of what I read in the twenty-fourth volume about Holy Trinity, a church that had been organized for German Catholics — as opposed to St. Mary’s, which was English — but had welcomed (like St. Mary’s itself, as argued by the Rev. Middleton, whom I’m citing here) “the French too, of whom a great number flocked to that city, — refugees for the most part from France and her West Indian settlements during the horrors of the Great Revolution in that country […] thus making that church cosmopolitan rather than distinctively sectional in character.” Indeed, the records of Holy Trinity are truly catholic in their embrace of people born in multiple European countries and Caribbean islands. What’s more, as its website recounts, its churchyard inspired the end of Longfellow’s Evangeline. Far from Acadia, the heroine, yet another Francophone exile, finds refuge in Philadelphia, where she, a Sister of Mercy and an old woman, is finally reunited with Gabriel, her dying lover. They’re buried together: “Still stands the forest primeval; but far away from its shadow, / Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping. / Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard, / In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed.”

Gué, Anne-Julienne - BaptismMy fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué is the mother of us all, but could we learn anything else for sure about her? Yes, we could, and in fact did. Just a few days after Mari’s discovery, my cousin Vidaud from Miami, a French speaker and a patient and subtle paleographer, found in the Archives nationales d’outre mer — a wonderful digital trove if there ever was one –the florid document reproduced right here for all to peruse. It’s the baptism certificate of little Anne-Julienne, a brief first-person account in which the priest states that on 15 November 1780 he baptized Anne-Julienne Gué, who had been born on 10 October, and was the legitimate daughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, an architect, and Jeanne-Marie Lavit, his wife. Recorded too are the names of the child’s godparents, and everyone’s proudly assertive or slightly hesitant signatures. Most prominently inscribed is the capital G in Gué’s tiny surname. Thirteen years later, the architect would be dead and most his children — or perhaps only Anne-Julienne — en route to exile in Philadelphia. By the turn of the century, most of those children — but not Anne- Julienne — appear to have crossed the Atlantic and settled in Bordeaux. We shall return to Pierre and the rest of them, but we continue to search for specific details regarding Anne-Julienne’s marriage to François V. du D. de B., No. 7; the birth of their children, Adelson and Adolphe; their own deaths. After all, those two, Anne-Julienne and François, are our first couple.

IX – Brooklyn

We, the people who descend from the Cuban Gauls, reside now in not small numbers across these United States. As an extended family of sorts, we cover the land from sea to shining sea, from California all the way east to Florida and north to Maine, and then Massachusetts and New Jersey and Maryland and Kentucky — not to mention New York, where Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait migrated to from Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, and where many of his descendants, I imagine, are probably still to be found. Born in 1826, Étienne was the third son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Port-au-Prince, and Anne-Joséphine Tardy, born in Santiago de Cuba. (She, in turn, was a granddaughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français.) Étienne was a half-cousin (it’s complicated) of my grandmother’s grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet. What prompted him to leave Cuba for the United States — instead of France, as most of his siblings did — is a mystery to me. Why he settled in Brooklyn is yet another mystery. Described by M. Vallantin Dulac as a “négociant armateur” (a shipowner entrepreneur?), Étienne actually appears to have engaged in less glamorous occupations upon first arriving in the United States. In the 1857 edition of Trow’s New York City Directory, he is listed as a “clerk” working at 18 Beaver St., New York, and living at 298 Union St., Brooklyn; in 1872, he has risen to “imp.” (importer, but of what?), working at the same place, but now living at 349 Union; in 1880, he is a “mer.” (merchant). Then again, in Trow’s 1879 edition, in the section titled “Wilson’s New York City Copartnership Directory,” Étienne O. Vidaud (as he is now called) is listed next to Frederick Barnstorff of Barnstorff & Co., located on 34 Broadway. As several mentions of it — variously related to the arrival of a ship from Bremen, Germany, or the importation of honey and molasses from Cienfuegos, Cuba — in the Marine Intelligence section of the New York Times reveal, Barnstorff & Co. was indeed a shipping-related concern.

In New York, Étienne married Mary E. Scott Boyd, who, in C.H. Browning’s Americans of Royal Descent (1883), styles herself as the Countess de Pomeray — which I don’t quite understand, since her husband had two older brothers, Pierre-Paul (the real count, according to M. Vallantin Dulac), who died in Paris only in 1907; and Ernest, who was a medical doctor in Pau, where he died in 1912. Who knows, maybe Étienne told Mary he was a French count, and she fell for the glamor of a European nobiliary title. In any event, he and the fausse-Comtesse had eight children, the eldest of whom, Josephine Susan, was born in Brooklyn in 1854. Our first American, Étienne died on 2 June 1888 and is buried in Orange, N.J.

The second of Étienne’s children was Robert Pomerait Vidaud, born in 1860. He married one Florence Wheelock at her parents’ residence on 161 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, on 26 April 1883, less than a month before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. They were married by Henry Ward Beecher, which makes me wonder what, if anything, the famous preacher knew about the Vidauds’ links to slavery in the Caribbean. The New York Times saw fit to print a description of Miss Wheelock’s wedding dress — “Her costume was of white satin en train, with high corsage trimmed with duchesse lace; her veil was caught at the side with orange blossoms” — as well as of the house’s look, where “the parlors were tastefully decorated with flowers and tropical plants.” (Ah, botany, you again!) Were the tropical plants chosen as a reminder of Robert’s father’s birthplace, or were they just in vogue at American weddings in the 1880s? I suspect the latter. There must be a picture somewhere of the happy couple, perhaps posing by the exotic blooms, but I haven’t found one. A successful businessman — a broker in hatter’s fur — and member of the Rembrandt Club of Brooklyn, among others, Robert P. Vidaud, as he came to be known, died in Glen Ridge, N.J., in 1936. Only one tragedy darkens his life’s digital record.

R.P. Vidaud & Son - AdRobert and Florence had two children. The oldest was Erving Wheelock Vidaud, born in 1885. As recorded in the Secretary’s Third Report for the Harvard College Class of 1906, Erving “prepared for college” at the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, N.Y. Given that his second great-grandfather was an architect, I like the fact that Erving went to Hackley, the same school from which the great Philip Johnson would also graduate two decades after him. After Harvard, Erving returned to New York, and in 1910, according to The American Hatter, Robert, who by then had become “the well-known broker in hatters’ fur,” admitted his son Erving to partnership. The firm, known henceforth as R.P. Vidaud & Son, was located at 13 Washington Place in Manhattan. This is all NYU territory nowadays, I believe, but in the 1910s it must have been the hatter’s fur district, given the number of similar firms located on that one street; one can see their ads in The American Hatter. How did Robert, a man whose paternal side of the family hailed from tropical Saint-Domingue and Cuba, end up as a broker in wintry furs, of all things, is a mystery to me. And what took Erving eventually to Philadelphia and Washington, when he was his father’s partner in R.P. Vidaud & Son in New York — that too is a mystery.

Vidaud, Mary - WeddingSo many mysteries! But at least the press recorded a few things that shed some light into the lives of these ghosts. According to the New York Times, Erving was an usher at his sister’s wedding. Mary Vidaud, Smith College Class of 1911, married Heermance Montague Howard, Williams College Class of 1910, on 18 April 1914 at the Church of the Savior in Brooklyn. A reception was held at 161 Joralemon, the same house where Mary’s parents, Robert and Florence, had been married. Mary’s paternal grandfather, Étienne, was surely baptized a Catholic in Cuba, but her father, Robert, according to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 8 December 1936, was a “life member of the Unitarian Association” and held several important positions at the Church of the Savior. So Mary was now married in a Unitarian church. This departure from Popish ways makes sense also if one considers that Mary’s mother was a Wheelock, an old Massachusetts family who had crossed the Atlantic and arrived in what is now the United States more than two centuries before Étienne sailed north from the Caribbean. Indeed, Florence Wheelock’s fifth great-grandfather was Ralph Wheelock, born in 1600 in Shropshire, England, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he obtained both a bachelor and a master of arts degree. The Wheelock Family genealogy site describes the university at the time as “the center of the dissenting religious movement that gave rise to Puritanism.” Sans blague. In 1637, Ralph Wheelock and his wife, Rebecca, sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving in a still very new New England. Boston had been founded only in 1630, and Harvard itself was just one year old. “A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard, / The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,” is how Seamus Heaney would put it some 350 years later — but I digress.

Vidaud, Erving - Death N.Y. TimesLess that six months after Mary’s wedding to Heermance Howard, war broke out in Europe and tragedy struck in the Vidaud family. Once again, my main source is the ever reliable Times. The house on Joralemon St. had been empty for the summer when the newlywed Mary and a servant returned from Garden City, N.Y., where, according to the New York Tribune, the Vidauds had a summer home. Upon entering the house, they smelled gas and then, in what must have been a horrible shock, found Erving, the family’s only son, lifeless in his bedroom. At the time of his premature death on 30 September 1914, Erving was a member of Brooklyn’s Hamilton Club, the Harvard Club of New York, and the University Club in Washington, D.C. — a successful young man, it seems. But was it that cold in Brooklyn that early autumn day that all windows in the house on Joralemon St. were closed? What really happened is yet another mystery. In any event, Erving was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Lot 3073, Section 25, to be joined by his father and mother only in 1936 and 1946 respectively. (Incidentally, must one be Cuban to find the Times headline announcing the death somehow terribly funny?)

R. Vidaud DiesAfter his son’s death, Robert P. carried on with his trade. In its August 1918 issueThe American Hatter describes a meeting of business leaders held after the war: “One of the most important gatherings ever held in this country took place at Atlantic City, December 2nd to 7th, when all of the War Services Committees representing the nation’s industries came together at the call of the United States Chamber of Commerce for a War Emergency and Reconstruction conference.” Standing for the Hatters Fur Industry — as opposed to the Fur & Wool Felt Hat Manufacturers or the Straw and Panama Hat Industry — was “R.P. Vidaud, of the American Hatters & Furriers Co., Inc.” No more R.P. Vidaud & Son, after the tragedy; in fact, Robert went to work for someone else’s company. Or perhaps the firm had ceased to exist even earlier. Perhaps Erving, uninterested in his father’s fur business, had gone to Washington D.C. to start a new job as a salesman for the Firestone Tire Company. Automobiles and tires were a new thing; I suppose it must have been exciting to be a part of the new industry. Or the job may have taken him to Philadelphia, where the Harvard Club of New York lists him as living in 1913-14, at 615 North Broad Street. All this too, at least for now, remains a mystery.

Did the Vidauds of Brooklyn ever think of Cuba? Old Étienne must have, of course, since he was born there, but I don’t know what kind of relationship his children or grandchildren had with the faraway island. They surely heard of José Martí, a New Yorker of sorts, and his struggle for Cuban independence, but did they ever read “El puente de Brooklyn,” his essay on American technological might in which he also enumerates immigrants from all over the world? But there’s no mention of Cuba in Robert’s obituary — or in any other document pertaining to him that I’ve seen, for that matter.

One of Étienne’s children, Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, born in 1862, appears to have been a passionate, even fearless, traveler, but her trips, from what I can see, where consistently Europe-bound. Ship manifests from Ellis Island show her arriving back in New York from various European ports on at least eight occasions: 1903, on the Noordam from Rotterdam; 1910, the Madonna from Marseilles; 1916, in the middle of the war, the Saxonia from Liverpool; 1920, the Rochambeau from Le Havre; 1924, the Suffren again from Le Havre; 1927, the Providence from Marseilles; 1930, the Westernland from Antwerp; and 1931, when she was 69, the Pennland from Southampton. Through all of these sea voyages, the ship manifests also show that her marital status remained resolutely single. I suspect Fanny may have visited her transatlantic Vidaud cousins — the children of Étienne’s various siblings who left their native Cuba to settle “back” in France — in Pau, where most of them lived, and surely those in Paris, where she spent a substantial amount of time. The 1903 Annuaire of the École des hautes études pratiques lists her as a student in its Section des sciences historiques et philologiques. Most other students were French men, but there she is: “Vidaud de Pomerait (Fanny), née à New-York le 18 août 1862, Américaine.” And there too is her address, rue de l’École-de-Médecine, 4. I shall visit that street soon, and I shall return to Fanny G. Vidaud in this blog, for I detect in her a kindred spirit.

As for Cuba, could there still have been any meaningful connections for the Brooklyn Vidauds? Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt known as Fefa, loved the Vidauds of Barcelona, but I think she must have regarded her more remote North American cousins — those English-speaking Protestants — as nothing but strangers. Then again, there is an Ellis Island record from 1912 that has Erving returning to New York on the S.S Sixaola, a passenger and cargo ship. The digitalized document is virtually illegible, so I cannot really tell where the ship sailed from, but various websites indicate that the Sixaola normally traveled from New York to Jamaica, Cuba, Central America and back. Let’s therefore imagine that one fine day in the spring of 1912 Erving Wheelock Vidaud, our distant French-Cuban-American relative, sailed into Santiago de Cuba and slowly made his way to the tree- and flower-rich Sierra Maestra and reached La Reunión, redolent of coffee and cacao, and there he met Alberto Vidaud Caignet, his grandfather’s half-cousin, and chatted with Carmela, my shy and perspicacious seven-year-old grandmother, whose own brother, Fernando de Granda Vidaud, would die in old New England, where I too would spend nine years of my life.

Étienne and his descendants were not the first Vidauds in these United States. Albeit not permanently, people surnamed Vidaud were present in this country as early as the turn of the nineteenth century, and I will soon try to retrace their footsteps. But, for now, I am strangely comforted by the ghostly presence of Étienne & Co. as they walk in some of my — their, our — old haunts. My brother, a student at Pratt Institute and a Williamsburg pioneer in the 1980s, lived in Brooklyn for years, not that far from Joralemon Street, and I often visited him there from Cambridge, where I was a graduate student. Also in that preternaturally remote era, my sister was an undergraduate at Boston College. We would meet downtown, do some shopping perhaps, and say good-bye at the Park St. T station; she’d take the Green Line back to B.C. and I the Red Line to Harvard Square. I would then walk across the Yard — autumnal, or snow-covered, or radiantly verdant — back home to my apartment. I didn’t know it at the time, but Erving W.V. had lived in Holworthy Hall during his senior year. That red-brick building was, or is, just steps from another red-brick building in the Yard, Thayer Hall, in whose basement, eighty years after Erving’s time, I would spend an entire summer editing a student travel guidebook to “Europe,” a sentimental abstraction to which I was as devoted as Fanny G.V. seems to have been several decades before me. All that is past now, but when I think of our tutelary digital specters, the past is not dead at all.

V – Bluish Blood

Desperately seeking La Reunión, I consulted with María Caridad Lecha, my cousin in Maryland with whom I share an interest in the family twigs. Mari had seen a posting of mine on Facebook, so she too was curious about the elusive ownership of the coffee and cacao plantation in the Sierra Maestra, and wanted to get to the bottom of things. All who might have shed some light on the mystery were now dead, so we called a séance to summon up the specters haunting the web. At some point, surfing the digital oceans from our respective bicoastal locations, both Mari and I had found a website titled Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon par Philippe Vallantin Dulac, and that’s where we went forthwith. M. Vallantin Dulac had thoroughly chronicled the descendants of one Jean Martial Vidaud.  Born in Limoges in 1684, he was one of fourteen children of Jean Vidaud, whose many nobiliary titles, rather formidable, I will simply copy and paste: “comte du Dognon, baron de Murat et de Brignac, seigneur du Carrier, Bosviger, Saint-Priest-Taurion, Lamberterie, Aigueperse, Pommeret, Lorny, Launet, etc., lieutenant particulier au siège présidial de Limoges, lieutenant général d’épée du Limousin, chevalier de l’ordre de Saint-Lazare de Jérusalem et de Notre Dame du Mont Carmel.” Jean Martial’s mother was Anne de la Farge, whose father, Abraham, was mayor of Angoulême in 1660 and 1661 and also held the title of seigneur de Pommeret.

Vidaud, Dognon, Pommeret. For most common mortals these names mean nothing, but Mari and I had known them for as long as we could remember. Vidaud was the maternal surname of our maternal grandmother, Carmen de Granda Vidaud, so we were very familiar with that. But Dognon and Pommeret took us back directly to Alberto, or Albert, Vidaud, Carmela’s beloved cousin, nicknamed Bébé or Bebé. Born in 1912, Bebé Vidaud deserves a biography of his own, not this little blog. He came to the United States in time for World War II and served in the South Pacific. The U.S. Army records show that he enlisted in Brooklyn for the Philippine Department. His job was to read and censor, when needed, letters written in French. His own letters too were subjected to the censor’s scissors, but a surreptitious mention of parakeets in one of them allowed the family back in Cuba, where “periquitos australianos” were a thing, to guess he was stationed in Australia. For the rest of his life, Bebé would invoke “mi general McArthur” proudly, in Spanish.

Bébé Vidaud, 2Bebé, pictured here in 1971, did not return to live in Cuba, so he was spared the toils of revolution and the trauma of Exile. Instead, he went to work for Pan American Airways in Miami. Once he retired, the airline allowed him to continue traveling the world for free. He crisscrossed Europe endless times, and postcards would regularly arrive from places such as Brazil and South Africa. A bon vivant, he relished food and drink, religion and, yes, sex. Carmela, a devout Catholic, was shocked when Bebé, a divorced man in his sixties or seventies, revealed that he had a young girlfriend in Costa Rica — “mi amorcito costarricense,” he called her. But she was elated when, after his fourth trip to the Soviet Union, he was banned from entering the country again, having been caught leaving photocopies of his religious meditations, composed in a trance-like state, at the airport in Moscow. Bebé was passionate about all he undertook, and that included tracing his family tree, which, following a cue from Carmela, led him to the astounding discovery that he was the direct male descendant of Jean Martial Vidaud and, therefore, the comte du Dognon and seigneur de Pommeret, or something along those lines.

Vidaud Family Crest - AbuelaM. Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy site starts with Jean Martial because he was the only one of Jean’s fourteen children who passed on the name Vidaud to the next generation. Somehow, Carmela had figured out that her young cousin Bebé was the next count in line. I now wish that I could ask her about her methodology, but I suspect it consisted mostly of long conversations with Albert, or Alberto Vidaud, her and Bebé’s grandfather, at La Reunión, drinking chocolate on rainy afternoons or else after dinner, as Vidaud grand-père sipped his cognac. Or maybe she half-imagined the whole thing, just as I am making up aspects of her life in vanished Oriente. But Bebé, the traveler and genealogist, was the real thing. He visited France many times, consulting archives in Limoges and elsewhere. His findings included that one of the ancient Vidauds was a nun in the sixteenth century and that she had inherited a desk from her father. On one occasion, Bebé gave Carmela a cheap photocopy of the Vidaud family crest, seen here, now in Mari’s good hands. Using blue and yellow pencils, my grandmother colored the golden lion and three fleurs-de-lys on the field of azure with as much devotion, I imagine, as she devoted to drawing the coat of arms of the newly established Republic of Cuba when she was a little schoolgirl.

Delusion of grandeur, a feeling of orphanhood, the melancholy of exile, an obsession with the dead, a sense of the past, a longing for other times and places, the pleasure of storytelling, a love of mazes and puzzles, curiosity, adventurousness, boredom, sleep procrastination — these are some of the causes of this botanical fervor, this twisting and turning of twigs, this climbing up the meaningless family tree. Bebé felt it too. He died in 1989, eleven years before Carmela, and I know it broke her heart. They must have known each other for seventy years or so, and must have had countless conversations in Spanish and French — or, more often than not, in Spanish with words interspersed in French. I was there, in Exile, in Puerto Rico, during one of their last reunions. I wish I could remember the details of the strange episode he recounted, which, according to my mother, never took place. It had happened only a few months earlier. At the airport in Miami, near the Pan Am counter, Bebé was approached by a French gentleman who informed him, Bebé, that he, not Bebé, was the direct descendant of Jean Martial Vidaud and, therefore, the true comte du Dugnon and seigneur de Pommeret, etc. The conversation was short and reportedly very polite, as behooved an encounter between a French aristocrat and his distant Cuban cousin, a searcher who had fervently pursued happiness like the good American he had become.

1962 - Vista Alegre - 2With La Reunión up for grabs and our countship lost, I’m happy to say that at least we possess some photographs no one can take away from us, especially now that they freely float on the web. This must be one of the last pictures of some the last Vidauds in our branch of the family in Cuba. It was taken at my father’s childhood home in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba in 1962. It was three years into the revolution, after the Bay of Pigs but before the October missile crisis, yet the image appears fastidiously ancien régime. The little boy with the big ears to better hear (and record) with is me, your blogger. To my right, static in her little black dress, is Ana María, my mother, who should have been an Antonioni actress. Next to her is green-eyed Carmela, not yet sixty. And the old lady is María Vidaud Trutié, not quite a matriarch, but nonetheless imposing as she presides over four generations. Severe, inquisitive, she looks a little like I remember Bebé Vidaud, her nephew, in his last years.

Just over a year after this picture was taken, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I would leave Cuba — for my sake, they claimed — on a long one-way flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. Another revolution, that of 1789, had taken the first Vidauds, including our direct ancestor, François, to the Caribbean. But that’s another story — or maybe not, maybe it’s the same old tale of endless migration.

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.