XXXV – What Words Are Worth

A few months ago, my cousins and I discovered a new twig in the family tree. Her name alone was interesting. We had never run into it before in our arboreal excursions, and now its newly found consonants and vowels resounded with prestige and drama: Josephina Arthemisa Hevia. We valued her name because she was our direct ancestor, the mother of Charlotte Caignet, our third great-grandmother, who was in turn the wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. For some time, we had been trying to ascertain the true surname of Charlotte’s mother, as we had seen it listed not only as Hevia, but also as Heria, Herrera and, strangely, even Gloria. But now, by means of Charlotte’s baptismal inscription in the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the elusive name assumed a clearer definition. But what’s in a name, after all? What is it worth? “Hevia” was rather enticing because it suggested a possible link with José Antonio de Hevia, a historic personage who explored the Gulf of Mexico and gave Galveston its name in the late eighteenth century. “Josephina” too interested me for two reasons. Forms thereof reappear in the names of other women in the family, including my grandmother’s aunt, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié (our legendary Fefa), and Josefina Esteve de Granda, my dear aunt and godmother. The spelling itself was seductively interlingual — neither Josefina nor Joséphine, but some hybrid thing, as would befit a person of Spanish descent in a French city such as New Orleans. Yet the true key to the woman’s personality may well be the outlandish Arthemisa. To name one’s child after a Greek goddess struck me at first as a gesture of enlightened classicism, but was Artemis really such a glorious name? There’s nothing wrong with being the goddess of the hunt or, certainly, the protector of young girls. But when one is reminded of some versions of the Actaeon or Adonis myths in which Artemis violently intervenes, one can willfully read in our ancestor’s middle name a latent sense of cruelty.

Hevia, Arthemise - MarieWe searched for Josephina Arthemisa with passion, hoping unashamedly for a mention somewhere of her father’s name, which in the best of cases would confirm our illusions of conquistador grandeur. But, save for the aforementioned baptismal record, Josephina Arthemisa remained firmly concealed from us. One fine day, though, out of the blue, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami posted a sad find — two ancient-looking documents — on our Facebook group. Both manuscripts were written in French, yet they dated from 1816, when Louisiana was already an American state. The first one was drafted on 14 February in “la ville et paroisse de la Nouvelle Orléans, second district sénatorial dans l’État de la Louisiane.” Before Narcisse Broutin, a notary public, there appeared one Jacques Nadaud Courtier, with the purpose of registering the sale of “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée d’environ treize à quatorze ans.” The buyer’s name was Mlle. Arthémise Hevia, our very own Josephina Arthemisa, later described twice as “la demoiselle acquéreuse.” The purchasing lady, we’re told, could from now on enjoy and dispose of the said slave as her possession: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce jour, en la possession de la demoiselle acquéreuse, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour, par elle, en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété et jouissance á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” The words underscored the material worth of the child: “comme de chose lui appartenant” — like a thing belonging to her… We don’t know anything else about Marie, except that she had already been sold at least once, in December 1815, to the man who now sold her to our ancestor. Having shed the name of Josephina, Arthémise, a slaveowner, also belied the goddess’ status as the protector of girls.

Hevia, Arthémise - SignatureWe don’t know why, but just over six months later, on 2 September 1816, the enslaved girl was sold yet again. Before Philippe Pedesclaux, notary public, there appeared Demoiselle Arthémise Hévia in order to sell “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée de treize à quatorze ans” to a man named Félix James Grenier. The language concluding the sale is eerie not only because of the terrible deed it records, but also because it mirrors the words used in the previous document and surely in many other similar transactions: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce moment, en la possession du Sieur acquéreur, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour par elle en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” I’d like to think that Arthémise’s sale of Marie meant that the young woman had come to realize the horror of owing another human being, but that is wishful thinking; if that had been the case, she should have simply freed the girl. Moreover, we also know that Arthémise’s husband, François Caignet, was himself a slaveowner and trader, as evidenced in another New Orleans document from 1815, on his sale of a girl named Rosalie, as well as in the mention of his name in books about slavery in Cuba, to which I shall return. There’s also the San Anselmo de los Tiguabos baptismal record of 1849 for a girl named Cecilia; she and her mother, Victoria Carabalí, were “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” In any event, the fact remains that, as of now, we have little of Arthémise Hevia except her assertively inscribed signature — with a whimsical A and a sensual H, as seen here — on two documents indissolubly bound to the institution of slavery.

In yet another disquieting repetition, both documents pertaining to the sale of Marie allude to their issuance, in New Orleans, “l’année mille huit cent seize, et la quarantième de l’Indépendance Américaine.” Although Louisiana had been part of the United States for just over a decade and the language of the documents is still French, there appears to be a certain pride in being part of a free republic that had reached its fortieth year of independence. Yet the proclamations of liberty and equality at the heart of those documents did not include the likes of Rosalie or Marie. In Cuba also, where Cecilia was born, slavery would be the law of the land for many more years. To this day in both countries — it goes without saying — discrimination against people of African descent is hardly a thing of the past.

HortensiaWhat can I say about these enslaved girls? Can I say anything? Or is it better that I say nothing? Some readers of this blog may recall the controversy last spring surrounding Ben Affleck, who, as a guest of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, requested that the producers hid the fact that one of his ancestors had been a slaveowner. In his own defense, the actor claimed he was ashamed. But should one be held responsible for our forbearers’ sins and misdeeds? And, if so, should their merits and accomplishments, such as they may have been, be held as a sign of our own worth? My answer to both questions is an emphatic no. We should feel neither pride nor shame. We are who we are and not who they were. But are we? As I weave Cecilia, Marie and Rosalie into my tales of the Cuban Gauls, I realize the deception of my own words. Who am I to tell their stories, or even mention their names? Am I not engaging in yet another act of exploitation by capitalizing, for the sake of my silly little blog, on their value as figures in a shocking tale of bygone horrors? But are their tales even in the past? Consider the image here. A little boy sits on the hood of an American car in front of a house in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba. A woman, possessor of a kind smile, holds the boy the ensure nothing bad happens to him while his father’s camera records the scene. Her name, I’m told, is Hortensia. But why should she be holding the boy and not the camera? Did she have a child of her own? A revolution had taken place in the country, but some things appear not to have changed. Perhaps somewhere in the annals of exiled Cuban families there is a picture taken in the early 1960s of a black boy sustained by a white woman’s arm, but I haven’t seen such a picture yet. Slavery may have been abolished in Cuba in 1886, but its legacy of privilege still reigned through the twentieth century, benefitting the descendants of some families and not others. My hope is these words are worth something in the struggle to reverse all that.

XXXIV – Reading the Leaves

All this — this search so recherché — began eleven months ago with the online vision of a few leaves housed in the Harvard herbarium, sent there from Cuba — specifically, a mythical place called La Reunión — by a Swedish botanist. Since that early-morning apparition on my iPad, the modest specimen has birthed more leaves, veritable folios of the readable paper kind, preserved and transmitted through decades and even centuries. Arboreal excrescences, they are documents of various kinds: lovingly crafted family trees; a marriage certificate from the time of the French Revolution; photographs of children wearing peculiar hats or holding communion candles; ship manifests showing the name of a solitary transatlantic passenger; a newspaper article on the death of a young man; passports bearing mournful stamps; a nonagenarian lady’s memoirs. By means of the web and its real-life ramifications, the lives and times of numerous individuals variously associated with the Vidaud surname — a family of sorts — keep growing and branching out in unsuspected ways. Softly piling upon each other, those old leaves and the stories they tell lead to more old leaves and more stories, and my Vidauds, like any other tribe that ever existed, emerge as manifold twigs on innumerable trees in an endless immeasurable forest.

In the last few weeks, four interesting leaves of paper have come my way via email or through Vidaud Reunion, our secret Facebook group. One of my genealogist cousins in Miami received from Cuba typewritten — yes, typewritten! — copies of two baptism certificates registered in the 1860s at the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, or Tiguabos, a village located somewhere near Guantánamo. And just a few weeks earlier, a cousin’s cousin — also a fine genealogist who, fortunately, has taken an interest in the Vidauds — kindly sent me two other typewritten copies of church documents — a marriage certificate from 1856, and a baptism certificate from 1849 — archived at the same parish of San Anselmo. Surely not coincidentally, all four copies are signed by Father Jean González Romero, of Santa Catalina de Ricci (Guantánamo’s cathedral), and dated April, May or July of this year. I have the impression that the old parish doesn’t exist anymore; perhaps not even the village itself does. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, San Anselmo de los Tiguabos merited an entry in Jacobo de la Pezuela’s Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba, published in Madrid in 1866. We learn that the village boasted “un templo de modesta fábrica, pero con todo lo necesario para el culto,” and that in 1857 it had a population of 155 individuals “de toda clase, edad y sexo.” It must have been near this little village that the brothers Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud de Boischadaigne started their coffee plantation, adjacent to which Paul François Caignet — arguably one the scariest ghosts in our family tree — started one of his own. In her notebook, Nunú writes that Adelson and Adolphe must have arrived in Cuba around 1830 to 1835, while Francisco Caignet, as he is also known, took a more circuitous route. In Santo Domingo — as she calls what I believe must have been Haiti, which then ruled over what is now the Dominican Republic — Francisco had “un cafetal muy bueno, muy grande.” But a slave revolt in 1841 — a questionable date, given that slavery had been abolished on all of Hispaniola — forced him to flee to Louisiana, whence he ended up migrating to Cuba after the death of his wife. He had five children, including Charlotte and Corinne, the oldest sisters, who ended up marrying Adolphe and Adelson. We have found documents that amplify and arguably correct Nunú’s version of Francisco’s migrations and labors; the Louisiana Slave Records show, for instance, that he was in New Orleans as early as 1815, where he sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie for 500 dollars.

Vidaud Caignet, Matilde - BaptismAs interesting as it is to have those little papers from Guantánamo, they complicate the story of the children of Adolphe, also known as Pedro Adolfo, and Charlotte, referred to as Carlota María. The baptism certificate seen here belongs to their daughter Matilde Juana Cecilia, born on 27 June 1860. In time, that little newborn girl would become the mother of María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, also known as Nunú, whose splendid narrative, written toward the end of her long life in Miami, I just quoted. Matilde was the youngest of the seven Vidaud Caignet siblings, the oldest of whom, Albert or Alberto, was my second great-grandfather. Because I have recounted parts of that old story a few times before, it has acquired the dusty feel of ancient history, but new and contradictory details have now emerged. For one, we always thought that Charlotte was a native of New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba, while a birth certificate — that of Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, registered in Havana in 1893 — states that Adolphe, in his turn, was born in Santiago de Cuba, not France… As for Matilde’s paternal grandparents, we always knew that “Francisco” — the elusive François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, the first of our Cuban Gauls — was French-born, but we have every reason to believe that “Dª Juliana” — Anne-Julienne Gué — was not born in France, but Cap-Français, present-day Cap-Haïtien… Confusion also reigns regarding Matilde’s maternal grandparents; we think that “D. Pablo Francisco Caignet” was born in Saint-Domingue (in Port-au-Prince, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook), not France, while “Dª María Paulina Hevia” — also identified as María Carlota or Josephina Arthemisia Caignet! — was supposedly born (and died) in New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba… Perhaps by “natural de Francia” the priest at San Anselmo de los Tiguabos meant that those persons were French citizens, not natives of France, but, even so, questions would still remain. If all of this sounds unreadable, blame the little sheets of paper, not my über-careful analysis of these matters.

Vidaud Caignet, Mª Fca. Cirila - BaptismAnd then there is the case of the second baptism certificate. Surprisingly, it belongs to a younger girl, born on 9 July 1864, who, to confound us even further, is named María Francisca Cirila, recalling an older sister also named María. The first María eventually moved to Barcelona, where she appears to have had a full and rich life until her death in 1944; as for the second María, we know only that she was born and christened. Yet another mystery are the little girl’s godparents, registered as “D. Francisco Alberto y Dª María Josefa Vidaud.” Who are they? Could they be my second great-grandparents? Alberto Vidaud Caignet appears as José Alberto in the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, but Francisco Alberto is not a name combination I have seen before. As for María Josefa, that name too is difficult to place. Alberto’s wife is named Felicia Trutié, but one of their daughters is Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our Fefa. But she could not have been born yet, let alone be old enough to be anyone’s godmother in 1864. Then again, perhaps Felicia Trutié’s complete name was also Josefa Felicia, like her daughter? But did women adopt their husband’s surnames in colonial Cuba? Or perhaps — and this is what strikes my cousin in Miami and me as most probable — this María Josefa is an altogether different character: Josefa Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, one of Adelson’s daughters and the future wife of Carlos Lecumberri — that is, the lady inscribed as Madame Carlos de Lecumberri on the faire-part of Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, comte du Dugnon, who died in Pau in 1907. And now that I think about it, could this Francisco Alberto be Adelson, Adolphe’s elusive brother? Could it be that the original manuscript, probably hard to decipher after more than 150 years of heat and humidity, really reads Francisco Adelson, and that the strange middle name was mistakenly transcribed by the modern copyist, Padre González Romero, when he (or an assistant?) typed this particular little leaf just over a month ago, on 2 July 2015? (I would not fault the good father for any of these minor transcription errors, as he appears to have far more important matters to attend to, such as assisting people in prison and reporting cases of cholera in Guantánamo.) Be that as it may, little María Francisca Cirila, the mystery child, vanishes forever.

Vidaud, Adelson - MarriageOur theory of Adelson’s accidental metamorphosis into Alberto is arguably — though certainly not conclusively — buttressed by the third little paper, which is the marriage certificate of “D. Francisco Adelson Videau” and “Dª María Juliana Caignet.” The wedding took place on 26 May 1856, not at San Anselmo del Tiguabo, but at Santa Catalina de Ricci itself, the cathedral in Guantánamo. As befits what must have been regarded as a more prestigious setting and solemn occasion, the marriage certificate deploys a more ornate lexicon and syntax than the rural baptism records; there is mention of a most illustrious, excellent and reverend archbishop and of the Holy Council of Trent, and there is also a discreet little phrase in Latin. Again, contradictions arise. Both groom are bride are said to be natives of Santiago de Cuba, which may well be the case, except that we thought Adelson’s wife, like her sister, had been born in New Orleans. More importantly, we always knew that her name was Corinne, or Corina Marie Justine, as the family tree in Nunú’s notebook has it, or a variant thereof. Could it be that the original document really reads “María Justina” and that Padre González Romero was a little confused, given that the names of the groom’s and bride’s parents are all mentioned below, and that Adelson’s mother is Juliana — Anne-Julienne, really — Gué? In any event, the fact that Adelson is not simply Adelson, but Francisco Adelson, persuades me to consider that the man listed as Francisco Alberto in María Francisca Cirila Vidaud’s baptism certificate was really named Francisco Adelson…

Cecilia Carabalí - BaptismIf I could speak to my spectral Cuban Gauls, I think I would adopt a histrionic and reproachful tone for the occasion. What a sorry séance that would be. Ah, my ancestors, what a tangled web we weave when we conceive of you as figures that can somehow be regained and understood. You are ciphers, and, in fact, there is much about your ilk that calls for permanent relegation to the the ash heap of history. Who cares about your twisted stories, your labyrinthine nomenclatures, when it appears you lacked the grace to see how blind you were? Read, if you can, this other document. On August 22 of the Year of Our Lord 1849, it reads, the priest in charge of the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, Don Luis Francisco Pérez, anointed with oil and chrism a two-year old girl whom he named Cecilia. We know so little about her. We know that she was born on 19 March 1847 and that her godparents were “D. Alberto Videau” (Adelson, perhaps?) and “Dª Justina Caignet” (Corinne, I presume). Her father’s name is missing, but we know her mother is Victoria Carabalí, an appellation that invokes an origin on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa, perhaps present-day Nigeria. We also know that both mother and child were enslaved to one man — “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” And that, I’m afraid, is all we know. No photographs, no passports, no passenger manifests — nothing much, really, to retrieve the little girl from the reticent surface of a yellowish leaf of paper. If I could speak with you, Cecilia, I don’t know what I would say, except that I feel close to your ghost and that I’m fortunate to have read your one and precious leaf.

XXXIII – The Lives of Fiction

If all happy families are alike, what worth can there be in telling their stories? Or, to put it differently, does the fact that I’m telling this story mean that the Vidauds were not a happy family? These, pace Tolstoy, are in the end moot questions, given that the Vidauds of my tale were simply too many and too unknown — too unfamiliar — to each other to constitute what we mean by family, those little clusters of grapes that more often than not turn out to be sour, but which at times — perhaps when they’re safely committed to the fixity of a blog’s page — may be filtered into noteworthy wines.

So yesterday morning Jim took me to an address in Beverly Hills, where I underwent the removal of a cataract and the implantation of a new lens in my left eye. I was blind (kind of) but now can see — a little better, at least my laptop screen, which is amazing. But last evening my vision was impaired — large objects were framed by a pinkish halo — and I wasn’t able to engage in any of my habitual after-dinner pastimes, such as staring at images on the television screen, or deciphering the characters that constitute the words and sentences of the written language. That’s right, last night I couldn’t really read, which led to do something I’ve never done before: I listened to an audiobook, a concept which in my tired mind I still thought of as books-on-tape. Not wanting to exert the said tired mind too much, I chose to listen a work I know rather well (if one can claim that over any text), as I read it with students from time to time: Flaubert’s “Un cœur simple.” I confess I had never read this splendid novella until just a few years ago, when I picked up a copy of Trois contes at a bookstore in Paris and read it — devoured it — at a glass-encased cafe on the avenue de Wagram as I waited for Jim before a concert at the Salle Pleyel. That evening we heard a new work by Kaija Saariaho, whom I adore, but I remember that musical event less clearly than my own astounded reading of Flauberts’ words as he precisely narrated Félicité’s life. That evening, outside the cafe pedestrians hurried by under shiny umbrellas in typical autumnal nastiness, and inside the servers rushed brightly from table to table carrying arrogant glasses and silverware, but my heart was simply faraway somewhere in tiny Pont-l’Evêque, living the vicissitudes that befell Félicité. That evening I loved her instantaneously for many things: the kindness of her “simple” heart; her love for Paul and Virginie, the two children under her care, and even their mother, cold Mme Aubain; her devotion for Victor, her nephew and a sailor; the inner passion that made her to walk miles searching for her beloved parrot, Loulou, when she vanished. I also loved her for that imaginative mind that saw in the green and exotic creature a figuration of the Holy Ghost.

So last night, as I lay listening to a British voice reading with precision each word of the sad text, I felt something familiar that suddenly became a revelation. From a certain angle, Félicité was a literary precursor of Fefa, my grandmother’s aunt, who took care of three or four generations of children, including me, until all of us were gone. Maybe it was at first a question of nomenclature, as Fefa’s full name was Josefa Felicia Vidaud. Maybe it was a realization of the felicitous irony that neither Félicité nor Josefa Felicia had particularly happy destinies. But maybe it was just the simple fact they were two devoted souls who cherished others the way nobody really cared for them. There’s no doubt in my mind that many people loved Fefa, but, as my mother has persuaded me to believe, Fefa was no one’s primary object of love. Parents have their children, children their parents, spouses have each other, but aunts have only nephews and nieces who in turn are someone else’s husband or mother or child and whose love for a being like Fefa, as true and powerful as it might be, is secondary. Of course, there are important differences between the two characters of my tale. Unlike Félicité, who served a rather loveless woman, Fefa was family and, as such, she was rewarded with much love and appreciation. But may I be allowed to wonder for a moment whether she was, ultimately, first a foremost a glorified nanny, a woman typecast in a safe role that concealed the complexity of her soul — and, as such a reduced figure, was she, ultimately, less real that Flaubert’s Félicité?

FefaHere she is, Fefa, pictured with my mother for some formal occasion related to my parents’ wedding in 1957. She looks lovely in my eyes, but were there ever any pair of eyes that saw her as the most important person in their world, any eyes that saw her intimately as she put on her pretty dress, or followed her wherever she went, or beheld, transparently, the nooks and crannies of her mind? If someone had written Fefa’s obituary, the headline might have been very close to what I wrote above: “Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, cared for three generations of children.” But would anyone have cared for the details of Fefa’s own life? Even me, your silly Blogger, what do I know about Fefa, really? It’s all stories that come to my mind, but no true recollection of her body and soul. I know that she spoke both Spanish and French as her mother tongues, as both her father and mother were Cubans of French descent; that she knew enough Creole to speak to the Haitian workers on the farms of Oriente, of whom there were many; that she exchanged letters with her aunts and cousins in Barcelona, and had pictures of them among her few possessions; that she visited sick people in hospitals, bring them oranges; that every Sunday she took my mother to the movies…. Despite its latitude, Miami in winter can sometimes be cold, like winter in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, I suppose. Sometimes, when the temperature begins to drop, my mother will warn us about the possibility of “frisson” — as in, “cierra esa ventana que nos va a dar frisson”… Frisson was one of Fefa’s French words, and we have preserved it until now.

Shortly after the revolution, most of the children that Fefa took care of, including me, had left Cuba for good. She then lived with my grandparents in Río Frío, their farm, and was never as alone or as lonely, I imagine, as Félicité had been. When I was a child in Exile, my dream was to be reunited with my grandparents and, especially, Fefa, whom I had heard so much about. I didn’t know she was my grandmother’s aunt; I just knew she was Fefa, a person who dearly loved me and whose presence again would ensure my happiness… But sometime in the mid-1960s, Fefa suffered a serious burn from which she never recovered. I can only imagine how her body and mind — or soul — must have suffered. My grandparents eventually left Cuba, but only after Fefa died, in Río Frío. I think she was laid to rest at Santa Ifigenia, the cemetery where I’m told so many Vidauds are buried.

As readers of “Un cœur simple” will recall, Victor, Félicité’s nephew, was a sailor who ends up in Havana, of all places, where he dies of yellow fever. Knowing that he is in that distant port, Félicité invokes her own picture of Cuba as she makes every possible effort to feel close to him, her only relative — to imagine his life there: “À cause des cigares, elle imaginait la Havane un pays où l’on ne fait pas autre chose que de fumer, et Victor circulait parmi des nègres dans un nuage de tabac.” I too try to imagine Fefa’s life in a city in Cuba, and where Félicité saw a young man walking through crowds of black people and endless clouds of cigar smoke, I see as if through a foggy lens a resolute short-haired woman holding a little girl’s hand as they both get on a streetcar en route to a movie house, or a piano lesson, or a cemetery. But this life of Fefa is not real. Or is it? Such are the open lessons of fiction.

P.S. – If anyone reading this has real memories of the real Fefa, would you please consider sharing them here?

XXXII – All Free Men

Vidaud Despaigne, Louis - NoteA few months ago, one of my cousins in Miami posted on our secret Facebook group the typewritten note you can read here. It was composed by Louis Vidaud Despaigne, my cousin’s grandfather, for his daughter, Cybèle Eugénie, on 1 August 1948 in Santiago de Cuba. As my cousin observed, the letter speaks for itself. It starts, of course, with the spectacular words of “La Marseillaise,” the song whose drama can easily persuade anyone of the glory of France and the grandeur of revolutions. Louis, or Luis, was born in El Cobre, not far from where La Reunión, the family’s now elusive coffee and cacao plantation, was located. He was the son of Severo Vidaud Caignet, and my cousin believes it’s quite possible that Louis may have accompanied his father at least once on one of his numerous trips to France. In any event, Louis’ French was reportedly impeccable and fastidious, and his love for his ancestral homeland sincere and passionate. A topographer by trade, he may have traced the contours of his native Cuban land with his eyes and hands, but his mind — or heart, or soul — appears to have dwelled on distant France. What prompted him to write this note to his daughter two weeks after Bastille Day, which would have been a more logical date for such effusive sentiments, remains a mystery to us. But Louis’ belatedness (if that’s what it was) doesn’t shy away from stylistic flights and temporal ambition. In the short paragraph that follows the anthem’s words, he cultivates his own private family tree in which ancestors — “nos aïeux” — are invoked even as France itself is both a fatherland — “glorieuse patrie” — and a mother — “mère féconde de la liberté, égalité et fraternité” — all within one sentence. Remarkably, while France is immortal, Louis knows that his young daughter, far removed from the old country, may well feel no connection with those everlasting, if distant, glories, hence the need to cite the national anthem so that she may, as he puts it, fully recognize — as one must, as dignity demands it — “la France immortelle.” Paternal hopes for the future, as the note reveals, are all about knowing or acknowledging one’s ties with old glories. Named after Rome’s Magna Mater, Cybèle is now asked to heed an even more formidable mother: the idea of France, the noble homeland of all free men on earth.

In some ways, I suppose your Blogger is no different from Louis Vidaud Despaigne. While I don’t believe in any nation’s immortality, and words such as liberty, equality and fraternity — or “ancestors,” for that matter — often appear to me doubtfully framed by quotation marks, I confess I hold France in higher esteem than most other countries. I don’t know exactly why I focus on nations, given that I am fully aware that all are defective entities, capable no doubt of glories, but also of cruelty and destruction. Consider the ties that bind France and the practice of slavery, that poisonous vine growing on our own family tree, and you will easily see how French political history is decidedly a mixed bag. As Louis himself puts it, France is the noble homeland of all free men — but not, one presumes, of enslaved persons of any sex or age. Or are we to understand that Louis, speaking for those who have found refuge there, really means all those who seek the freedom denied them elsewhere?

Yet I cherish the idea of France because it is a family matter in the best possible way, by which I mean its presence is oblique, intermittent, spectral. We don’t have to live with, or in, France; the country comes and goes, leaving us free to shape it at will. When I was a young child in Cuba, my grandmother spoke to me in French, and I’m told I learned quite a bit of the language. But then my parents and I went into exile, and by the time she rejoined us, in Puerto Rico, I had forgotten all I once knew. But maybe not, or maybe not irreversibly. What had vanished quickly came back. I took French in high school and in just a few months learned enough to feel linguistically at home at a summer course in Dijon. Letters from my parents would arrive at my dorm, the Pavillon Rameau, and I’d feel very homesick, but I knew that I was also at home, that I had found a new yet ancient dwelling. At the university cafeteria, I learned to eat yogurt — with lots of sugar — and merguez with fries and (of course) lots of mustard. Out and about in the city, I felt I understood the workings of French civility. And in class, I was an excellent student; French surely had lived on in the little gray cells that made up my memory or, who knows, my clan’s sense of itself.

Since that first trip, I have returned many times to France. In the early nineties, when I was a young instructor of Spanish and French at a prominent preparatory school on the East Coast, one of my colleagues kindly invited me to teach with him on our summer program in France. My job was to read and study a play by Anouilh with seven of our young students. Given that the program was peripatetic, those readings — not my best performance ever, I’m afraid — took place one week at the rustic orangerie of a small chateau where we were staying not far from Tours, and another week in small classroom by the beach in Dinard, on the northern coast of Brittany. Dinard… Before my departure, when I mentioned Dinard to my grandmother, she became very excited, as she remembered it as the small town in Brittany where her uncle would summer. I honestly don’t remember that uncle’s name, but it must have been “mi tío Severo,” as I believe she called the frequent transatlantic voyager who was really her granduncle. Who else could it have been but Severo, or Sévère, who traveled regularly to France and, from all we know, would not have been averse to spending his money at a lovely seaside resort? My memory of my grandmother’s memory is faint, but it hasn’t completely vanished. I just wish I could relive that vivid, yet virtually forgotten and dead, telephone conversation. But it doesn’t matter. One can and must imagine one’s own private Dinard.

The Boat from JerseyHere is a picture — a clearer memory — of my own short sojourn in Dinard. Our group had taken the ferry that morning to Jersey, and here one can see a residue of that sunny excursion: an image of some of us as we sailed back home at the end of the day. I remember three of the students portrayed here quite well, and I have little stories to tell about all three, but they will have to wait for when I decide to write a novella. Suffice it to say that we were very happy on that day, at that hour, sitting under the French flag just as the sun began to set. They were young, and I was young too, and we had spent several weeks seeing a fabulous country. A day or two later (I think), we would celebrate Bastille Day outside the walls of Saint-Malo, watching the awesome fireworks. Three years earlier, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jessye Norman, who had been born in a country where not all men were equally free, had sung “La Marseillaise” on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. And now, in the last hours of 14 July 1992, on a beach in Brittany, I think I remember we felt like citizens of France, a country grand enough to welcome strangers, foreigners, into its ancestral memory. On that night, as the crowd sang the revolutionary anthem, I think I remember we believed in the idea of liberty for all — men, women and children, all equal, all joining together in an uncanny display of fraternity.

XXXI – Shrapnel

On 17 October 1914, somewhere in the north of France, Louis Edmond Henri Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, died after an explosion, surely killed by shrapnel. He was an early casualty in what later became known as the Great War. I don’t know much about this man, except that his father, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, was the comte du Dugnon, and that his older brother, Paul Joseph, inherited the title upon their father’s death in 1907, and then so did his nephew, Jean Marie Paul, after Paul Joseph died in 1913. The second and youngest brother, Louis Edmond appears listed as the Baron Louis du Dugnon in his father’s faire-part. There is no Baronne because his wife, Jeanne Marthe Vilhemmie Rommelaere, a rather invisible character in the digital world, had died by then. On the web I have found copies of their marriage bans, so I know that once upon a time Louis lived at 24, rue Taitbout — in the ninth arrondissement, a mere two or three blocks from the Opéra — while Jeanne lived at 29 (I think), rue de l’Université — just off the rue du Bac and a few blocks from the Seine and the future Gare d’Orsay, in the seventh arrondissement. I have no idea how they met, but I know they were married, at the end of winter, on 18 March 1883. M. Vallantin Dulac tells us that they had no children — a branch without twigs. Several sources show that Louis was born on 30 November 1855, so he was almost sixty at the time of his death. Like his brother, he was born in Lille, but I don’t know why their parents, who appeared to be well established in Pau, ended up living so far up north, by the Belgian border, at one point. Perhaps it had something to do with the father’s business; Vallantin Dulac tells us that Pierre Paul — who became a count only in 1882 after the death of Joseph Edmond, a childless cousin — was “commissaire de surveillance administrative des Chemins de Fer” until 1872. But all these names and dates are forking paths distracting me from my linear plotting, a military death over a century ago.

On a site solemnly called Mémoire des hommes, run by the Ministère de la défense, there is an entry devoted to our Louis Edmond Henri V. du D. de P. It states that he was a captain and that his unit was the 143rd Infantry Regiment, and there is also a mention of unqualified military glory: “Mort pour la France.” A resident of Pau, he died in a place called La Bourse, in the département of Pas-de-Calais, not far at all from his native Lille, which had just fallen to the German Army. I believe La Bourse is the town now known as Sailly-Labourse. The impressive website of Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a page dedicated to the Sailly-Labourse Communal Cemetery, featuring pictures of gray skies, green grass and gravestones, and providing an overview of the graveyard: “Rows B to G and parts of H, J, O, P, Q and R contain French graves of 1914-15, and Rows H to R contain Commonwealth graves from August 1915 to April 1917.” I don’t known whether Louis is buried there; I suspect his body was eventually transported to Pau. The CWGS also recounts the town’s role in the war: “The village of Sailly-Labourse was used for rest billets and by field ambulances for much of the First World War.” We also learn that it is close to where the Battle of Bethune took place, but that only happened in 1918.

Indeed, what remains a mystery to me is what battle Louis was wounded at. On yet another website, connected to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we read these solemn words about him: “Officier très brave, dirigeant avec beaucoup de courage les travaux de sa compagnie, chargée d’organiser des points d’appui en arrière d’une troupe exécutant un mouvement offensif. A été tué d’un éclat d’obus le 17 octobre 1917, à Mannequin.” Despite interminable googling, I have not been able to find a place named Mannequin, either town or battlefield. Perhaps toponymy is trumped by fashion; this is France, after all, and one must know where to purchase a mannequin. Perhaps there is a typographical error, and it would be one of many on that website. All things considered, judging from the date and place of his death, I would venture that Louis was wounded at either the First Battle of Arras or, more likely, the Battle of Armentières, and then, I would imagine, transported by field ambulance to the tiny village of La Bourse, where he finally died, far from the peaceful Pyrenees.

Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, LouisOn the web, where he resides in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, the ghost of Louis Edmond Henri wears forever a soldier’s uniform. The language that tells of his death is sweet and decorous — the old lie. Bravery and courage give way to the horrors of combat, but it all remains rather abstract. At this very moment and place in which I write, 3:14 a.m. in a preternaturally silent Los Angeles, I try to see and hear the éclat d’obus, the exploding shell, that killed my distant relative in the autumnal fields of France, and I can’t. The web has yielded a card — a “Partie à remplir par le corps” — from 1915, posted here, that transcribes the original record of his death in 1914. The military document is as laconic as Louis’ father’s faire-part is profuse. The grammar is different; instead of one long subject composed of relatives’ names coming together from France, Cuba, Spain and the United States, here we have mostly blanks to be filled in with cold clinical facts. Most frightening is this: “Genre de mort: tué à l’ennemi.” It is a strange phrase, this kind of death, this being killed by the enemy, an idiom from an old war, or, as Wikipédie would have it, “l’expression militaire utilisée en France sur les documents administratifs des soldats tués lors de la Première Guerre mondiale.” When everything is said and done, what we have is the skeletal record of a solitary death. The shrapnel that destroyed his body also detached him forever from the family in Pau. But not only him. The war, it seems to me, would also mark the end of a transatlantic family: there are no more faire-parts, as far as I know, where all, if only through the protocols of mourning, are reunited as one body. Fanny G. Vidaud would still cross the ocean several times, and letters would arrive in Cuba from Barcelona telling the stories of those who lived in France, and Nunú would make a record of some of these things. But the long nineteenth-century story in which persons surnamed Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait knew of each other, even if many of them never met in the flesh, would finally reach a quiet denouement.

At the idyllic La Reunión, in the distant forests of the Sierra Maestra, my grandmother, a nine-year-old girl in the first few months of the war, would hear news of the European conflict from her French-speaking grandfather, a citizen of France who, as far as I know, never once crossed the Atlantic. A few months later, as the war raged on, a Swedish botanist seeking to catalog the flora of Cuba would arrive at La Reunión and gather and label a few modest leaves, which he would then send to a herbarium in Massachusetts. Decades later, a willful insomniac not far from the Pacific, the Blogger would find an image of those luminous leaves online. It is my own private botany, and through its means I’m seeking now to revive poor L.E.H. V. du D. de P., dead for more than a century. In digital fields the poppies blow and grow, but these rows and rows of letters can do little to give some flesh to the man.

XXX – A Grammar of Mourning in France

Jayet, Luce - PortraitWhat is a family? The question has been on my mind for the past few months as I research and write on these close and distant relatives — figures ranging from my own mother, with whom I speak on the phone every evening, and, say, Fefa, my great-grand aunt whom I knew a little in Cuba, to Fanny G. Vidaud, who was Fefa’s third cousin or my second great-grandfather Alberto’s second cousin… Let’s face it, this family thing includes perfect strangers. The twigs in the family tree are so expansive that sometimes it seems as if they were growing in altogether different and far-flung woods. The Vidaud tree grows in Brooklyn as strongly as it does in Pau or in Guantánamo, but is it still one and the same tree? Can the arts of genealogical botany encompass all of us in any meaningful way? The fact, such as it is, remains that Fanny, for instance, and I do share a common ancestor, but what to make of it? As I recounted earlier, five French brothers went to Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror, and two of them, François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne (a.k.a. François No. 7) and Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (a.k.a. Pierre No. 10), were married and had children on this side of the Atlantic. The story, of course, is far more tangled and full of gaps than the sentence I just wrote would suggest. As it turns out, it seems that both brothers may have returned to France, yet later found themselves in Cuba, and suddenly they were back in France or… Be that as it may, Fanny, who descends from Pierre, and I, who descend from François, may be said to share some remarkable leaves in the book of botany. Through the work of other arboreal researchers who have posted their findings online, I can tell you that two of Fanny’s sixteen second great-grandparents and two of my two-hundred and fifty-six (yikes!) fifth great-grandparents are one and the same couple. His name is André Martial Vidaud and hers is Luce Jayet de Beaupré. (That’s her picture posted here and, truth be said, I detect a certain air de famille with both Fanny and me.) According to M. Vallantin Dulac‘s “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” André Martial was “chevalier, comte du Dognon, seigneur du Carrier, de La Dourville, etc.,” and Luce was the daughter of Barthélemy Jayet, seigneur des Bauries, identified as “un des commensaux du roi,” by which are meant some prestigious things related to dining with the king… As the reader can see, the Blogger is crafting some elective affinities here; I’m strangely fond of Fanny, so I’m willfully sending a drone into the sky to take a global picture of our distant forests and, hopefully, perhaps even a quick snapshot of our gnarly common trunk.

Vidaud de Pomerait, Comte du Dignon - Faire-partThere are indeed documents from the past in which many of these figures I’ve been invoking are made to perform a collective act whereby one can confirm, if not the existence of a family, at least a familial make-up. A death in the family, so to speak, may trigger such an act. Consider the mournful faire-part posted here. On 20 October 1907, in Pau, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, the comte du Dugnon, passed away at the age of 81. As the two final lines state, the Count was someone’s husband, father, father-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, first cousin, or yet another kind of cousin. If one reads the faire-part closely, one notices that it consists of just one sentence — one long sentence consisting of more than two-hundred and fifty words, elegantly punctuated by semicolons. What’s more, in a stunning feat of grammar, these multitudinous relatives, whose names occupy most of the faire-part, are the seemingly endless compound subject of the little single verb ont — “they have.” In fact, the subject of the sentence — the family members reunited here — contains sixty-three proper names, and that’s not even including “leurs enfants” (an untold number of children), plus a few other surnames thrown in vaguely at the end. The predicate of the sentence invokes a circumspect tale of universal mourning — an act of carefully orchestrated sympathy and mourning. All who are mentioned — this Monsieur, and that Madame, their proliferating “enfants” — “ont l’honneur de vous faire part de la perte douloureuse qu’ils viennent d’éprouver en la personne de Monsieur Vidaud Pomerait, Comte du Dugnon.” All of these variously interlocked names have the honor of sharing the painful loss that they have just suffered in the person of the Count.

The person of the Count, alas, lacks a full proper name, but the faire-part itself, it must be said, is the pinnacle of propriety. As one of our French distant cousins mentioned in an email to one of my Miami not-so-distant cousins not long ago, families back then were “très protocolaires.” The person of the Count, I repeat, is an octogenarian body casting a last autumnal glimmer over a vast number of figures performing the action of a common verb.

But who are these figures? The first three paragraphs — if those initial phrases can be called that — invoke the six members of the Count’s immediate family. Madame Vidaud de Pomerait, the Comtesse du Dugnon, was at first a mystery to me because, according to M. Vallantin Dulac’s “Généalogie,” the Count was a widower, his second wife having died by 1889. I wondered whether there could be an unaccounted-for third wife, but as it turns out, another genealogy inverts the order of the Count’s two marriages. It appears that his second (not first) wife was Delphine Chagneau, whom the Count married in Bordeaux in 1874, after the death of Claire Louisa Gallot Delesalle, his first wife and the mother of his two sons, in 1868. Listed next in the faire-part, the Baron and the Baronne Paul du Dugnon are the Count’s oldest son, Paul Joseph, who will now be the Comte du Dugnon until his death in 1913, and his wife, Herminie Ubelhart Lemgruber, who, according to Vallantin Dulac, was born in Rio de Janeiro into “une riche famille de banquiers brésiliens” and lived on 36, avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne, rechristened avenue Foch after the Great War. The Baron Louis du Dugnon is Louis Edmond Henri Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s youngest son and a widower; like his older brother, he too would die not that long thereafter, on 17 October 1914, killed by shrapnel — “un éclat d’obus” — at the onset of the war near the Pas-de-Calais. Two children, Claire (after her paternal grandmother?) and Jean du Dugnon, are listed next. They are Paul Joseph and Herminie’s children; according, again, to Vallantin Dulac, Rosa Paule Claire would go to live in Brazil, while Jean Marie Paul, only fourteen upon his grandfather’s death, would become the comte du Dugnon after his father died. Jean himself did not have any descendants; more on him, the childless count, I hope, in an upcoming entry.

The Count is then mourned by two widowed sisters and two widowed sisters-in-law, in that order. Their biographies and those of their dead husbands tell the transatlantic story of the Vidauds. Madame John Durand is Marie Anne Méloë Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Gradignan, near Bordeaux, and married to a man from Brooklyn; I still don’t know what John Durand’s relationship to Étienne Octave Vidaud (Fanny’s father and the Count’s and Marie Anne Méloë’s late brother) might have been, but his name suggests deeper ties between the Vidauds and the United States than I was aware of. Madame Henri Lafont (not Lafond) is Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait; she was born in Santiago de Cuba, where she married Henri Lafont, who was later a doctor in Pau, where he died in 1905. Madame Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Marie Bernadac, whom we have seen before wearing a formidable headdress; her husband, also a doctor like Henri Lafont, is the rather handsome man whose face I tried to read several months ago in a belated and improvised act of physiognomy. Madame Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Mariana de Arce, born in Santiago de Cuba. Émile too was born there, but lived in France before returning to his hometown.

Vidaud, Pierre HenriNext on the list of mourners are the Count’s nephews and nieces, plus the children of these, as well as some in-laws. First are the children of Étienne-Octave, the Count’s eight nephews and nieces born in Brooklyn: Robert, plus wife and children; Édouard, or Edward, a bachelor; three sisters married to men surnamed Van Nostrand, Clarke and Hunter; and three unmarried sisters, including Fanny, who — unlike her siblings, probably — must have met the Count and his immediate family on her European trips. Then comes John Durand, Marie Anne Méloë’s husband, followed by his son, Maurice, plus the latter’s wife and son. Suddenly there appear the rather mysterious Colonel et Madame Ulpiano Sánchez-Echavarría. Their name invokes the realm of operetta, but she happens to be Emilia Vidaud Arce, daughter of Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait and Mariana de Arce, and he a Teniente Coronel de Infantería, according to the Anuario militar de España, who fought for Spain during Cuba’s War on Independence. Then comes a solitary Mademoiselle Aguirre, who must be, following M. Vallantin Dulac, a certain Lola, the daughter of the Count’s sister, Fanny, who in turn was born in Santiago de Cuba and married one Elías Aguirre; Lola would die in Pau, but I don’t know why or when she moved there. (Our Brooklyn-born Fanny must have been named after her late aunt.) But one figure that stands out, simply because of the number of words attached to his name, is “le Capitaine d’Artillerie Henri Lafont, officier d’ordonnances du Général commandant la 14e division d’Infanterie.” Like his mother, Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, Pierre Henri was born in Santiago de Cuba, but died far from there, in Romania, on 29 November 1918, only less than three weeks after the Armistice. There is much about him on the Web. We know that he lived at 9, rue Montpensier, in Pau; that he had chestnut hair, gray eyes and a dimpled chin; that he died from an illness acquired on the front… The phrase “mort pour la France” often appears next to his name, and his name also appears on a plaque at the Invalides in Paris. I have also found his picture, reposted here, on several genealogical websites. It’s a melancholy countenance, that of General Lafont. I’m not sure how old he was when he arrived in France, and I wonder whether he had any memories of Cuba when, far from Pau, in the city of Iași, in eastern Romania across the border from present-day Moldavia, he knew he was dying.

The next paragraph, which is also quite long, starts with various figures whose names are only vaguely familiar to me. But their connection to the Count can be ascertained by googling and clicking with a measure of intelligence and sang-froid. Yes, you must be alert not to lose your way in the forking paths, and yes, you must be willing to trespass in other people’s woods and climb their trees. Take, for instance, Monsieur et Madame de Masfrand. Who could they be? As it turns out, she is one Marie Henriette Clara Durand, who married Léopold de Masfrand, and her parents are Jean-Michel Durand and Marie Marthe Théophile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (ah! who?), who in turn is the deceased sister of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s father — which, if my botany doesn’t fail me, makes Madame de Masfrand the Count’s first cousin, right? That Marie Anne Méloë, the Count’s sister, is married to John Durand (or is it Duran?) of Brooklyn only serves to further entwine the windblown twigs. In the end, what matters more than absolute clarity is that all are reunited in the act of mourning and the faire-part’s grammatical subject.

And then, in mid-paragraph, the faire-part invokes the various descendants, many living in Cuba, of François No. 7 and his two sons, Adelson and Adolphe. Marking Adelson’s primogeniture, his four daughters are listed first: the Mesdemoiselles Clémence and Louise Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, both unmarried; Madame de Carlos Lecumberri, whose name was Josefa, and whose husband was a lieutenant-coronel for Spain who appears to have died in Cuba’s War of Independence; and Madame Lucciardi, Suzanne, whose husband, Eugène Lucciardi, was a French diplomat stationed in La Paz, Santiago de Cuba, Sydney and Prague. (I shall come back to some of these characters in the future.) And then, finally, almost last and not quite least, are Adolphe’s two sons and five daughters: Alberto, plus his wife and children; Severo, the eternal bachelor; María, with her husband, Rafael Llopart i Ferret, children and grandchildren in Catalonia; Juana Amelia, also in Catalonia, whose husband, Rafael Calbetó i Sambeat, had already died; Carlota, who I believe may have lived with one of her married sisters; Magdalena, a pianist, who spent time in France and Spain (where she studied with Enrique Granados) before returning to Guantánamo; and Matilde, the youngest, married to Fulgencio Gonzales-Rodiles and the mother of María Magdalena, nicknamed Nunú, the notebook writer.

Vidaud Caignet, Alberto & Felicia Trutié GautierWhat remains of all these names? The Count died more than a century ago, so the likelihood that anyone still alive knew him, or knew any of the various other figures mentioned here, is little. Fortunately, the children — those enfants mentioned over and over again — and even grandchildren are a different matter. Consider the phrase “Monsieur and Madame Albert Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait et leurs enfants.” Those names and nouns invoke my second great-grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet, who owned (or not) La Reunión; his wife, Felicia Trutié Gautier, about whom I know little. This is their picture here, sitting on some veranda. They had four boys and three girls, and those children, all long dead by now, included Alberto Vidaud Trutié, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren I’m just beginning to meet online; María Vidaud Trutié, or Maluya, my great-grandmother, whose picture I posted earlier; and Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our beloved Fefa, who took care of me and whose memory is still alive on both coasts of these United States, if not in Cuba itself. Those children lived in a provincial city in a newly independent republic in the Americas and, by an act of grammar, they, now young men and women, crossed the Atlantic and became subjects in the death of an old man — a nobleman yet, like in some uncanny fairy tale — who lived in another provincial city in a far older republic that once upon a time had been the mightiest kingdom in Europe, and… The rest, I’m afraid, is blogging, by which I mean imagining things, making up stories.

If every story has a narrator and a narratee, as a distinguished Frenchman once put it, inquiring minds may want to know who tells the tale told in the faire-part and to whom it is addressed. I don’t know who authored the announcement of the Count’s death, but the their-person voice in the text fashions itself as omniscient. It knows all in the family and their degree of proximity to the Count’s person. It speaks to a figure succinctly identified as “vous” — a “you” to whom the multiple names that make up the subject of the sentence communicate the news of a painful loss. As fossilized as its formulaic language may sound, the faire-part still speaks to me. But if I identify with the “you” to whom the sad news is told, I may well assume I’m not a member of the family, if only because I was born decades later. Yet, even as I undertake the announcement of the Count’s death to you, whoever you may be, I become its new narrator, perhaps even a new subject in this ancient grammar of mourning. Strangely, belatedly, I too become a melancholy figure not unlike any other member of the family, whatever we may mean by family.

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.