XXXVIII – The Blogger in Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, 2A brief sojourn in Jerusalem. I’d never been here before, but I’m not the first descendant of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne to have made his way to the holy city. (More on that pilgrim in a minute.) Jim and I arrived in Tel Aviv, our first stop, on the first day of Chanukah — a fortunate coincidence that allowed us to eat at least one of the traditional jelly doughnuts almost every day, and participate in the ritual lighting of the menorah on two different evenings at our hotels — a wonderfully renovated Bauhaus edifice on Tel Aviv’s Boulevard Rothschild, and a mansion from the British-mandate era in Jerusalem’s German Colony. We put on our skullcaps and, guided by our kind hosts, pronounced some Hebrew words, including “Amen,” and even lit some candles. It felt lovely to me, a non-Jew, because of the intimate strangeness of it all, and because the holiday seems so mellow compared to the frenzied spirit of Christmas in the United States. A non-Christian, I nevertheless enjoyed seeing some of the places linked to the religion I grew up with — from the childlike Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was part of a tour around Palestine we took last Saturday, to the lugubrious Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. There, in a cavelike enclosure, I stood in the sole company of a nun kneeling by the silent grave from which Jesus is said to have resurrected. And just this morning, very early, I made my way up to the otherworldly Dome of the Rock, from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. It was cold and windy and few people were there — just a small group of American tourists, plus other visitors of indeterminate provenance escorted by men carrying machine guns. It was somewhat disconcerting when a group of young men, custodians of the splendid golden dome, began loudly and relentlessly to recite “Allahu akbar!” A non-Muslim, I wasn’t sure how to read those famous words in that particular setting. The skies had turned gray and it had started to rain.

Jesus famously proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world; my Jerusalem, by contrast, is emphatically terrestrial. After taking numerous selfies, guided by Google Maps, I threaded my way in the cold rain — an unexpected baptism of sorts, as I had no umbrella — to the Via Dolorosa. There, where Jesus purportedly suffered his agony, I felt virtually nothing. Yet I recalled with pleasure the Hebrew inflections of one of our Jerusalem guides, Paul, a handsome young man from Tel Aviv — his protracted pronunciation of Dologhrohza — and I relished the orientalist proclivities of the an ancient-looking advertisement placed above the trilingual street sign: “Hamedian Gallery / Specialized in old Russian icons / old Oriental carpets, old jewellery / & antiques / Via Dolorosa 36.” I remembered too our tour of Palestine on Saturday. After stops in Ramallah and Jericho, we were taken to the very spot on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. Wearing white robes, pilgrims from Nigeria immersed themselves in the muddy waters, just a few feet from the country of Jordan, on the other bank. There too, according to my mother, Alberto Vidaud Centeno, my grandmother’s cousin whom everyone knew as Bebé, had once donned a white robe and happily walked into the river to commemorate his Christian faith. He was a religious man, but he was also an indefatigable traveler who loved our vast mysterious planet. Many years before me, pious and curious Bebé had surely wandered in the same streets of the Old City where I now walked. If there’s a heaven, there’s no doubt in my mind Bebé is there. Regardless, blessed are the adventurous, for theirs is the kingdom of this world.

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.

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.

XXIV – This Blog

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

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

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

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

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

XXIII – What I Know

But first, what I don’t know, or what I thought I knew, or what I was about to know but didn’t and still don’t. I thought we might know by now that we’re descendants of José Antonio de Hevia, who in the mid-1780s reconnoitered the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, and did other nifty things such as naming what came to be known as Galveston after Bernardo de Gálvez, viceroy of New Spain, whom he served. Hevia, also known as Evia, was an important man, no doubt, if you care for such things as the Spanish Empire (nope), exploration (yes), and cartography (oh yes). My genealogist cousins and I thought that our third great-grandmother, Charlotte Caignet Hevia, was probably this illustrious man’s granddaughter. After all, how many Hevias could there have been in New Orleans, where she was born? A cousin’s cousin even sent me an email in which she ventured that, as descendants of the valiant Hevia, we might even qualify as Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution or as members of the Florida Pioneers… But one of my Miami cousins, more cautious and definitely savvier than me in all things arboreal, wanted solid proof, so he contated someone in New Orleans to dig for actual documentation that might corroborate any family claims to late-Spanish imperial connections.

Seek and ye shall find — or not. My cousin’s person in Louisiana readily discovered an entry for Charlotte’s baptism in a tome titled Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Her name appears as Maria Carlotta Paulina, and her birthdate is given as 18 September 1818, twelve years earlier than what the family tree in Nunú’s notebook states. Her father is Pablo Francisco Caignet, a native of Cap-Français, and this name struck us as peculiar. Why should the man hitherto known to us as François, who was born in a French colony, suddenly appear to have a Spanish name in a city that by 1819, when the christening took place, was already part of the United States? But the real mystery was the identity of Charlotte’s mother, a woman named Josephina Arthemisa Heria. If Heria could easily be resolved as a misspelling of Hevia, we soon discovered that we could not find any other references to any lady in Louisiana or anywhere else named Josephina Arthemisa. In his impressive Familias cubanas, the Conde de Jaruco devotes several pages to the name Hevia in Havana. There it is stated that José Antonio de Hevia, along with two brothers, left their native Galicia and settled in Cuba in last third of the eighteenth century — but, alas, none of their children or grandchildren is named Josephina Arthemisa. The name is also absent from other Louisiana genealogical collections, and searching for her on the web, which I have done compulsively, has yielded nothing. This is all that I know about her: she was a “native and resident of this city,” as her daughter’s baptism record in New Orleans puts it; she married a man named François, or Pablo Francisco, Caignet, whom other records show to have sold a mother and child as slaves in New Orleans itself in 1815; she had five children, and, sadly, she died giving birth to the last two, who were twin girls. After her death, François, or Pablo Francisco, migrated to Cuba with all five children — named María Carlota, Corina Marie Justine, Benjamín, Luisa and Cecilia in Nunú’s notebook — and settled in Oriente in the vicinity of the coffee plantation owned by Adolphe and Adelson Vidaud, two brothers who may have been born in Cuba, or in France, and who eventually married the oldest sisters. Whether Josephina Arthemisa Heria, or Hevia, had any family ties to José Antonio de Hevia, or Evia, is still a matter for further research. But it is her I want to know more about, not the reconnoiterer. If her first daughter was born in 1818, Josephina Arthemisa was probably a child before the Louisiana Purchase, which means, I suppose, she must have been French by birth — or would she have been a subject of Spain, given her apparent Spanish ancestry? Yet, at least for the time being, she remains the first of our first ancestor to have been born in what is now the United States. We are immigrants; we came to this country just a few decades ago. To know that we have deeper roots here than we at first suspected gives our certificates of naturalization and (in my case) citizenship a nifty retroactive patina. That much I know, or think I know.

Esteve, Ana María - NiñaWhat I know for sure is that this little girl pictured here was once upon a time the person who would eventually become my mother. Yes, let’s change the subject by climbing up and down the family tree in remembrance of things past (or not past).  My mother became an American citizen, just like Josephina Arthemisa may have done more than two centuries ago. Like her parents, Sebastián Esteve Marzán and Carmen de Granda Vidaud, Ana María was born in Santiago de Cuba. She may not be a Daughter of the American Revolution (yet), but her hairdo in this picture mimics that of Shirley Temple, the little American star born in Santa Monica, not far where I write this. In this picture, she wears the uniform of the Colegio Jesús María, but a few years later she became a student at the Sagrado Corazón, one of those upscale schools run by the religious congregation founded by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat in Amiens at the turn of the nineteenth century. My grandparents weren’t rich, or so my grandmother used to claim, but they must have felt that their daughter merited a solidly refined upbringing; according to my mother, her own mother cared for that kind of social prestige. I don’t know this for a fact, but those nuns of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacré-Cœur, charged with educating aristocratic girls in the wake of the French Revolution, sought to preserve the customs and manners of the defunct Ancien Régime. Some of those niceties traveled across the Atlantic and were well and alive in Santiago de Cuba in the late 1940s, when my mother attended the Sagrado Corazón. If a girl ran into the Madre Superiora in a hallway, my mother recalls, she had to curtsy in an act of submission and politesse; the said Madre Superiora, a dark-robed vision, stood for the King of France and the hope of monarchical restoration. That Cuba was a Caribbean island and, at least nominally, a republic appears to have mattered little in the school’s everyday life. Given the absurdity of it all, everyone should have expected the Cuban Revolution, but apparently many did not. When it finally did come, the Religiosas del Sagrado Corazón lost their precious schools. Many, perhaps most, of their alumnae, including my mother, left for exile. Others did stay in Cuba, including Vilma Espín Guillois, who later married Raúl Castro, younger brother of Fidel, along with whom he attended the Jesuit-run Colegio Dolores, Santiago de Cuba’s fancy school for boys, where my father was a student too — but that’s another story, or many stories.

This I know too: the girls who studied at the Sagrado Corazón, in Santiago de Cuba or Havana, would never shed the highly stylized calligraphy their scrupulous nuns has taught them. Many years later, an exile in Puerto Rico, my mother, against her Catholic background, courageously divorced my father (that’s another story, or novel, too). He, in turn, moved to Miami and married another woman, a wonderful person who had not only studied at the Sagrado Corazón, in Havana, but had also in fact been a nun in that order for many years. In the late 1970s, when their marriage took place, people still wrote and received letters. At the time, I was an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., very much an inhabitant of that epistolary culture now vanished. My stepmother sent me a letter, and when I first saw the envelope addressed to me by her in my dorm mailbox, I thought it came from my mother. Uncannily, both of my father’s wives shared the same handwriting.

My mother turned eighty last November, but she still boasts that peculiar calligraphy. In fact, from her little house in Miami Springs, Florida, surrounded by tropical plants, she continues to pen letters, including long missives inserted in Christmas cards. In a sense, the past has not passed. Perhaps she even looks a little like the girl she once was. But I wonder whether those twins, Luisa and Cecilia Caignet Hevia, somehow resembled my mother when they were little children. I wonder what Josephina Arthemisa’s handwriting looked like. Might there be letters somewhere, full of secrets and revelations?

What else do I know? By surfing the web, I have now learned that the Association Mondiale des Anciennes et Anciens du Sacré-Cœur (they must have gone coed) has thirty-nine national chapters. There is one for Cuba and another for Cuba-in-Exile, the only country in the world so strangely duplicated. These things I know, or sort of know, but I don’t know what they mean, or what it may mean that I’m writing them down — someone else’s private memories. Neither do I know what is gained, or lost, by clicking on the little blue rectangle at the bottom of the screen that reads Publish, as I’m about to do. Perhaps a reader somewhere may have some knowledge of the elusive Josephina Arthemisa Hevia from New Orleans and will contact me. Or perhaps this is it: what I know now is all I’ll ever know, and I’ll just have to invent my own stories of little girls and botanists, etc.

XXII – To Reconnoiter

If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, how does one go about reconnoitering its alien shores, inaccessible landscapes, impenetrable citadels and cities, quaint customs and manners — its essential opacity? Consider, for instance, the ever receding nineteenth century, an age in which men could only marry women, and women men. What a strange world it must have been.

Vidaud du D. de B., Adolphe & Charlotte CaignetAnd consider these two nineteenth-century characters, a respectable couple, it seems. The bearded gentleman is Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, and the lace-veiled lady is his wife, Charlotte Caignet Hevia. They are my third great-grandparents. Faithful readers of this blog have seen the stern-looking Adolphe before. He matters to my cousins and me because he is, in a sense, the first of our Cuban Gauls. His father was François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, who left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror with four of his brothers; unlike at least three of them, who returned to France, François No. 7 (as we call him to distinguish him from his homonymous brothers), appears to have spent the rest of his life in the Caribbean, probably in Cuba. In the earlier entry on Adolphe, I could do little more than speculate about the milestones of his life. We really just had the information that M. Vallantin Dulac provided in his “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” published online: “Adolphe VIDAUD du DOGNON de BOISCHADAIGNE, marié à Santiago de Cuba avec Charlotte COIGNET [sic], dont les sept enfants ont laissé postérité actuelle à Santiago de Cuba.” We know who the seven children are, but then there were more questions than answers. We wanted to know whether Adolphe was born in Cuba or France. We were curious about how he and his younger brother, Adelson, had come to marry two sisters, Charlotte and Corinne — a triumph of alliterative love. We thought Adolphe must have died in Cuba, but we weren’t sure. At one point — for a few minutes — we thought we had a firsthand account of a visit by an American traveler to his coffee plantation, named La Carlota — a sad instance of briefly mistaken identity. We did have a portrait of him, but it wasn’t in the best condition. To apprehend him, I could stare into his severe visage hoping to be carried by the wings of physiognomy, or I could close my eyes and think of, well, perhaps someone like Victor Hugo or Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whom I thought he resembled. But Adolphe, of course, a ghost from the past, escapes me.

As for Charlotte, what little we knew of her line was troubling. Her father, François Caignet, sold slaves in New Orleans in 1815 and later appears to have possessed a coffee plantation named Mon Repos, along with forty slaves, in Oriente province. (Many years later, the surname Caignet became well known in Cuban and Latin American broadcasting culture. Charlotte and Corinne’s younger brother, Benjamin, was the father of Félix B. Caignet, an Hugo of sorts who wrote El derecho de nacer (1948), a drama produced by Havana’s famed CMQ radio and television network. But that’s a twentieth-century story, along with much of Félix’s pioneering work for the rise of a continental soap opera tradition, “algo así como una especie de integración lagrimal,” in the words of a critic.)

The nineteenth century won’t come to an end. Its digital life is expansive. As weeks and months passed, readers of this blog, including old and newly found cousins, have kept searching for the elusive Adolphe and Charlotte. A gentleman from Barcelona, you may recall, contacted me with childhood pictures of his own grandmother, Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s daughter. He also provided me with a copy of the his father’s birth certificate. Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, as he was called, was born in Havana, where his father commanded the Presidio, in 1893. In the document, Amelia’s parents are said to be living (unlike her father- and mother-in-law, who had died in the province of Girona, where her husband was from). Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s birthplaces are mentioned as well, but their names are now given in Spanish, and Adolphe has even acquired a new first name, which we had never heard of before. The child, Rafael, is said to descend “por línea materna de Don Pedro Adolfo Vidaud, natural de Santiago de Cuba, provincia de ídem; y de Doña Carlota Cagnet, digo Caignet y Herrera, natural de New Orleans, casados y vecinos del mencionado Santiago de Cuba.” Whoever copied the original certificate seems not to have been in top form; not only is Caignet at first misspelled, Carlota’s maternal surname is changed from Hevia to Herrera. Yet one thing appears to be certain. Both Adolphe, or Pedro Adolfo, and Carlota, or Charlotte, were still living in the 1890s. And we now had official confirmation of Adolphe’s Cuban birth.

Vidaud - CohnerBesides several pictures of his grandmother, Juana Amelia, both as a child in Santiago de Cuba and a young woman in Havana, the gentleman from Barcelona sent me the photograph of his great-grandparents posted above. I was somewhat troubled by the way in which man and wife appear to be conjoined forever in their cameo-like frames, so I tried to detach them from each other, but my photoediting talents are limited to square and rectangular shapes; what some descendant — possibly Juana Amelia herself in her Catalan exile — joined together in golden circular cages, I was not able to put asunder. Apparently the two frames were contained in a rectangular case, seen here, provided by the photographer, or maybe this image is just the back of another photograph? In any event, one fine day Adolphe and Charlotte could have found themselves in Galería Fotográfica de S.A. Cohner, on calle de O’Reilly in Havana. Had they traveled to the capital for the christening of Juana Amelia’s firstborn son? Can the photo, then, be from the 1890s? My knowledge of fashion is limited — so I can’t really date Charlotte’s coiffure, for instance. But her whole demeanor — the expression under the veils — looks earlier than that to me… In any event, the studios founded in Havana and Paris (where he would get the latest technology) by the American photographer Samuel Alexander Cohner were in business for several decades and into the twentieth century, so many dates are possible with just a little flight of imagination. (The story of Cohner, tragically killed in 1869, is worth its own blog.)

The nineteenth century, living on through the web, can fork into endless paths unless the Blogger — who is dangerously related to Félix B. Caignet, master yarn spinner — can exert a measure of storytelling self-control. Let’s resort then to an old-fashioned narrative, Nunú’s notebook, with its finite number of pages. She was, after all, a grandchild of Adolphe and Charlotte, and has interesting things to say about them. Her description of her grandfather is spot on: “Mi abuelo era un anciano alto con una barba grande, blanca, un aspecto patriarcal.” Sans blague. A family tree crafted and placed by someone else at the beginning of Nunú’s notebook claims that Pedro Adolfo was born in 1820 and María Carlota (she too gains a new name!) in 1830. But, alas, Nunú’s nineteenth century does not fit altogether neatly with what other documents say. For one, her memoirs recount that Adolphe was born outside of Cuba: “Mi abuelo Adolfo Vidaud Gué y un hermano, Adelson, vinieron a Cuba y compraron tierra en las montañas y fomentaron sus cafetales. Yo creo que ellos deben haber venido a Cuba por los años del 30 al 35 del siglo pasado.” Does this mean, then, that François No. 7 and his wife, Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué — who was born in Saint-Domingue and married her first husband in Philadelphia — went to live in France after they were married, supposedly in Santiago de Cuba, and that their two children were born on the other side of the Atlantic? And would it make any sense for a boy younger than fifteen to migrate with his even younger brother to a strange island in the Caribbean? And why, then, would Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud’s birth certificate claim a Cuban birth for “Pedro Adolfo”? What a tangled web we weave even when we do not seek to deceive.

Nunú herself is aware of the difficulties of reconnoitering the past, especially when it comes to the Vidauds and the Caignets, inhabitants of several foreign countries. After telling the straightforward story of her father’s migration from Spain to Cuba, she prefaces the tale of her maternal ancestors with a caveat: “Por parte de mi mamá las cosas se complican.” It is indeed complicated. She starts with the French Revolution, but she has more questions than answers: “La revolución francesa fue a fines del siglo antepasado. Yo no sé si antes o después, ni por qué, muchos jóvenes franceses emigraban, venían a Cuba, a Sto. Domingo, a otros países de América, compraban tierras, fomentaban cafetales.” In her account, Adolphe’s father and mother, the elusive François and Anne-Julienne-Aimée, are absent. This is not surprising. Those two remain the most elusive leaves in our family tree.

If chronology and motifs are hard to pin down, at least there are some other “facts” pertaining to the Cuban Gauls. Nunú’s tale of the Caignets starts with her second great-grandfather, Francisco, or François, who settled in Santo Domingo — by which I think she means Saint-Domingue or, more accurately, Haiti — where he is the owner of “un cafetal muy grande, muy bueno.” She then writes about a slave revolt in 1841, which forced owners to leave their coffee plantations and “the island” itself. The date is perplexing, as slavery had been abolished on Hispaniola by then, even on the western side of the island, Santo Domingo, occupied by Haiti from 1822 to 1844. (Ah, my readers, I confess I’ve learned History by surfing the web.) Nunú cites “mi tía” as the source of this story, and I assume she means Magdalena Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s sixth child, a remarkable woman whom she later credits as her only teacher. In any case, much earlier than 1841 (perhaps 1814?), François Caignet, a widower, moves to Louisiana with his son, also named François. In New Orleans, the younger François marries “una señorita de padre español de apellido Hevia,” and this young lady’s mother, Nunú goes on, was “una americana.” They had five children: Carlota, Corina, Benjamín, and the twins Luisa y Cecilia. The family tree at the start of Nunú’s notebook identifies the mother of these five children as María Carlota Hevie, or Hevia, who was born and died in New Orleans. But, again, it’s all rather confusing. María Carlota’s husband is referred to as Pablo Francisco Caignet, born in Puerto Príncipe, RD — the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, improbably located in the Dominican Republic.

Be that as it may, Nunú proceeds to mention the death of María Carlota Hevia (whom she does’t mention by name) upon the birth of her twins, and François’ subsequent decision to migrate to Cuba with his five children. In a fortuitous turn of events, François ends up purchasing land adjacent to the property where the two Vidaud brothers had settled. The rest is a story of friendship and love: “Naturalmente hicieron amistad y poco después se casaron los dos hermanos Vidaud con las dos hermanas Caignet: Adolfo con Carlota, mis abuelos, y Corina con Adelson.” Nunú paints an idyllic picture of life on the numerous coffee plantations owned by these people of French descent in the cool mountains of Oriente: “La vida en los cafetales era agradable. Eran muchos vecinos amigos. Tenían sus fiestas, almuerzos, comidas. Tenían esclavos.” Like other writers before her, Nunú treats slavery not without a measure of ambivalence; even as she decries and describes the horrendous cruelty of some slaveowners, she underscores the benevolent nature of her — our — own ancestors. Not without authorial trepidation, I shall return to this subject in the future.

Caignet, François RobertOne of my genealogist cousins in Miami has skillfully traced the presence of four generations of Caignets in Saint-Domingue, from their arrival in the colony from Bordeaux (perhaps) to their migration to Louisiana and Cuba sometime after the establishment of the Haitian republic. As he observes, the Caignet family runs deeper in Saint-Domingue than the Vidauds, who only arrived after the French Revolution and didn’t stay long afterwards. Paul François Caignet — the Pablo Francisco of the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, François Caignet’s father — was born in the colony in 1791. Paul François’ father, Joseph Pierre Caignet, was born in Jacmel, on the island’s southern coast, in 1739, while his mother, Charlotte Marguerite Baudoin-Desmarattes, was also born in Jacmel, though much later, in 1763. Charlotte Marguerite is the first, as far as we can tell, of several women named Charlotte and/or Carlota in our family tree. Joseph Pierre’s father was François Robert Caignet, born perhaps in Bordeaux and buried in the parish of Sainte-Rose-de-Lima, in Léogâne — an ancient church, incidentally, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and currently being rebuilt. François Robert is also the author of a 1752 document titled “Mémoires de mes services depuis que je suis à Saint-Domingue,” available in digital form on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer, in which he identifies himself as “garde-magasin général du Roi à Saint-Domingue” and “conseiller du Conseil supérieur de Léogâne.” I have not read this document yet; his penmanship is a bit of a challenge. Most interesting for me, a renegade Catholic, is Charlotte Marguerite’s Protestant line. Her father, Joseph Jean-Baptiste Baudouin-Desmarattes, was born in La Rochelle circa 1716, and his great-grandfather was the Sieur Solon Baudoin des Marattes, whose father, in turn, was one Jacques Beaudoin, who was seneschal of the Seigneurie of the Île de Ré and who married one Anne Collard at the Temple Calviniste of La Rochelle around 1610…

Dear reader, if you’re a little confused amid so many old branches and twigs, so am I. The art of reconnoitering the past takes you into a forest as thick the ancient vegetation of Hispaniola — a landscape now virtually vanished on the Haitian side, but once upon a time, I imagine, full of trees and ferns and orchids and many-colored birds. After all, this is the island Columbus called “la más hermosa cosa del mundo” — though, of course, he famously described several other “discoveries” in equally glowing terms. Speaking about these men who served the various monarchs of Castile and Spain, we’re about to embark on an a voyage of exploration far more Historical than anything we’ve previously seen in this silly little blog. My readers, we’re about to discover an actual reconnoiterer, a man named José Antonio de Evia, or Hevia, whom we believe to be the grandfather of Charlotte Caignet. From 1785 to 1786, Hevia explored and charted the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas. But those things are in the future.

XX – Opacity

Notes on CubaIn this protracted foraging through the family forest, I’ve been fortunate to count with cousins and friends who find the most wonderful things and generously share them with me. Such was the case last week after I published my note on Severo, which included a reference to Nunú’s notebook, in which she, in turn, alluded to La Carlota, a farm her uncle once “had” in the mountains of Oriente. One of my cousins in Miami — a direct descendant of Severo — found a travel narrative about Cuba with a decidedly nineteenth-century flavor. The author of that book, as if foreseeing the interest of future generations in lost worlds, recounts in great atmospheric detail his visit to a “coffee estate” named Carlotta. A winter rainstorm is fast approaching, and the narrator’s party is desperately seeking shelter:

“Our tired horses were urged to their greatest speed, and, passing through a small valley cultivated in sugar-cane, we came in sight of the Carlotta, a coffee estate, belonging to a gentleman to whom we had brought letters, and galloping up its bamboo avenue, reached the house just as the storm burst on us, and its showers of drifting mists swept into every part of our volante. The estate was under the care of an administrador, a fine-looking, intelligent Frenchman, who received us with much kindness, and under his hospitable roof we soon found all the comforts of a home.”

The Anglicized, or perhaps Italianate, spelling of La Carlota — if that’s what it referred to — was rather romantic. It reminded me of Carlotta Valdes’ lonely tombstone in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, yet another story of lost worlds, or of those travelogues to any part of the Spanish-speaking world in which plazas become piazzas, as if all southern lands spoke one and the same sunny version of Latin. But two long paragraphs are devoted to “the negroes,” who are said to be treated with “due care” to their “comfort and health,” leading the author to conclude: “The French are the best and kindest managers of slaves, and on this place a great deal of order seemed to prevail in all its departments, and to an unprejudiced eye, even with his limited privileges, the negro’s state here would appear a happy one.” So much for the vision and scope of the unprejudiced eye.

But what truly surprised us — my cousin as well as other members of our secret Facebook group — was the uncanny resonance of the “Carlotta” with our own stories of the Vidauds. Our traveler goes inside the house and focuses on the owners of the estate. It’s a peaceful domestic scene: “We spent a pleasant evening with our host and wife, an American lady; they were both well-informed, and the father spoke with pride of his son’s progress in his medical studies in Paris, to which the lady listened with all a mother’s fondness.” With genealogical rashness, it took my cousin and then me just a few seconds to imagine these hospitable folks and self-satisfied parents to be Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne and Charlotte Caignet Hevia, who was born in New Orleans… My cousin immediately pictured Severo as the medical student; after all, there was at least one French-educated doctor in the family, Ernest… The name Carlotta was yet another sign that all this could be ours; Adolphe had surely named his coffee plantation for his French-American-Cuban wife… I was enthralled to have found an altogether original family story — and not just yet another reticent document from the État Civil, but a full-blown narrative, like those of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect, or François Vidaud du Dognon, the priest. Unlike those tales of violence and death, here we had a normal everyday scene — a shameful one, no doubt, but an idyllic picture nonetheless of one day in the life of a family on which a foreign visitor shows up amid “misty scuds” and is offered “all the comforts of a home.”

But our Carlotta was soon gone with the stormy weather. As it turns out, the book in which we read the story, Notes on Cuba, was published in Boston in 1844, which made it very unlikely that Adolphe and Charlotte — born in 1820 and 1830, respectively, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook — could be that blissfully married couple with a grown-up child studying medicine. Moreover, the book’s Carlotta was to be found somewhere near Matanzas, not Santiago de Cuba. Its anonymous author — identified as one F. Wurdiman, of Charleston, South Carolina — never ventured out as far east as Oriente. So, in just a few seconds, Adolphe and Charlotte, along with their son in Paris and slaves and three-hundred thousand coffee trees, vanished into thin air, just like Borges’ Averroes.

We look at the past as if through a glass, darkly, never face to face. The past may not be dead, but it is ungraspable, and therein, perhaps, lies a ghost’s freedom. I’m reminded of Édouard Glissant’s invocation of opacity in his discourse about the Caribbean — the right that we all have to escape understanding by others, to remain in our own unknowability. Adolphe and Charlotte, our dead ancestors, we hardly know you. May you rest in mist-covered peace, if you must.