Fifty-two years ago today, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I left Cuba. As I have recounted earlier, it was a long flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. I may or may not possess real memories of that original European journey, but I do have my mother’s yearly recollection. She and I spoke on the phone just a few minutes ago, and I heard the story once again. The chronicle of departure has by now been sublimated into a few memorable feelings and events: her heartbreak, upon taking off from Santiago de Cuba, at seeing from the plane window the mud-covered province of Oriente, which had just been hit by Flora, a devastating hurricane; my father’s unexplained fall on a sidewalk in Havana just days before we were supposed to leave; a doctor’s refusal to examine him fully when he found out we were worms, as those leaving the country were called; the humiliating searches at the airport; and then the strangeness of a second airport, a nocturnal outpost in a northern latitude where we were kindly served tomato soup; her terror as the plane took off from the Western Hemisphere over the vast Atlantic, sitting in the darkened cabin and seeing my father’s Soviet-made bandage half-dropping from his chin, imagining the worse; and then, after many hours, landing at yet another airport, in the city of our final destination, on the gray cold morning of 1 November 1963 — an airport where there was no one to meet us, a solemn city in a pious country where shops and offices were closed for All Saints’ Day… Yet, despite the terrible loneliness of those first protracted hours of exile, it must be said our lives turned out rather well. We were, we are, the fortunate ones. I have crossed that same ocean many times on various kinds of interesting adventures, and will do so again in just over a month. On one occasion, my mother and I flew together happily from Miami to Madrid, and I followed her with my camera as she retraced her steps back to the old building on the Plaza de la Marina Española that housed the unfriendly pensión, now gone, where we had spent our first few months as refugees. I took pictures as she beheld the ancient black door whose threshold she, now in her late seventies, had last crossed when she was twenty-nine. Not that my parents found any comfort in it, but we were hardly the first souls in our family tree who had gone through the upheaval of migration. My own paternal grandmother was taken as a child to Cuba from her native Marbella; one of my great-grandfathers left Barcelona as a young man to start a new life in Santiago de Cuba; my second great-grandfather, a native of Oviedo, undertook a similar journey as a military doctor in a time of war. And then there were my assorted Cuban Gauls, frequent crossers of the Atlantic, who escaped poverty in Brittany at some point in the eighteenth century; or sailed from France to Saint-Domingue at the height of the Reign of Terror; or returned to cities like Pau and Bordeaux, or spent time in Philadelphia, or returned once again to Santiago de Cuba, or left their native city on the Caribbean Sea for Barcelona and Sitges, or started new families in Brooklyn… We, with our bountiful myths of exile and banishment, are the fortunate ones. Tomorrow, once again, is All Saints’ Day, and then it will be All Souls’ Day — what in the official Christian calendar in Spanish is called, rather narrowly, the Día de los Fieles Difuntos. We are saved, but so many unfortunate souls cast a shadow over our family tree. They are Cecilia and Victoria, and Marie, and Rosalie and Casimir — all, along with other men, women and children, enslaved by our unholy ancestors, deprived even of their stories of migration, relegated to mere signs in my own selfish tale.
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?
Here 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?
Ah, the storytelling power of passports! By means of just a few words and images on pages made from mere mortal trees, those tiny prosaic booklets can not only record the bearer’s origins and displacements — part biography and part travel narrative — but they can also stand, silently, subtly, as documents of political history. Consider my father’s old passport, seen here, issued by Cuba’s Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on 20 February 1962. I’m seduced by my dad’s black-and-white picture — so young, yet so solemn, possibly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to leave the country where he had comfortably grown up, enjoying a life of privilege, and where his mother, after his only brother’s death, would remain virtually alone. The passport contains a visa issued on 10 May 1962 at the Embassy of Mexico in Havana on behalf of the Colombian Consulate — or, as the visa itself states, “Embajada de México en Cuba Encargada de los Asuntos de Colombia.” By then, I think, all Latin American countries had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, except for Mexico, which would explain why visas for other parts of the hemisphere had to be processed there. At one point, apparently, we considered going to Colombia, but nowhere in the passport does one find an entry stamp for that country. Call us predictable, but the place we really wanted to go to was the United States — or, more specifically, Puerto Rico, its Spanish-speaking territory, or colony, where my mother’s sister and many of her cousins had already settled. That was the plan when Ana María, my mother, traveled all the way to Havana just five months after our passports’ issuance in order to purchase our one-way airplane tickets for Miami, from where we would then easily reach San Juan. But then politics, our old friend, struck an unimaginable coup de théâtre. When Ana María arrived at the offices of Pan American Airways in the Vedado district, she found a large crowd of people with worried looks on their faces. Oddly, the plane from Miami that was supposed to land that morning in Havana — and then fly back to the U.S., transporting more exiles — had not arrived. No one really knew why. Finally, the manager came out and got up on a desk to make a dramatic announcement: Pan Am had cancelled its flights for the day and, even worse, he suspected Pan Am would no longer fly to Cuba. It was October 1962 and the missile crisis had erupted. Nuclear war did not break out in the Caribbean, but the manager’s prediction turned out to be correct. Pan Am, which had proudly started its operations by flying between Key West and Havana in 1927, never scheduled a flight to Cuba again. As for our own family history, my mother returned to Santiago, where we would remain for yet another year. Circumstances were difficult. My parents had already quit their jobs and we were officially considered gusanos, as the counter-revolutionaries were called.
Because there was no way to fly directly from Cuba to the United States, we went to Spain instead. But making it out of the country wasn’t that easy. Again, my father’s passport tells the next chapter in the story. It holds two visas issued by the Spanish Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, one on 19 April 1963, seen here, and the second one, on 17 October 1963. They are both heavily stamped affairs, reminding me of the Poema del Cid, where documents are said to be “fuertemente sellados.” The first one must have expired before we were able to secure an exit permit form Cuba; the second had to be hastily obtained after the passage of Hurricane Flora through the eastern part of the island. A monster tempest, Flora devastated the province of Oriente, and Fidel Castro decided, as I recounted earlier, that more gusanos needed to leave as soon as possible so that their homes and possessions could go to the hurricane victims. That’s how we ended up leaving Cuba, and that’s how the most remarkable sign in my father’s passport came to appear: a blue oval rubber stamp from the Ministerio del Interior, dated 31 October 1963 at Rancho Boyero, Havana’s airport, proclaiming “Salida.” In my father’s case at least, the stamp sealed his definitive exit from Cuba, as he died in Miami in 1989 without ever going back to Cuba. There are three other stamps in the little bluish-grayish cardboard passport: an entry into Spain at Madrid’s Barajas airport registered by the Comisaría General de Fronteras; an exit from Spain, also at Barajas, several months later; and, finally, an entry into the United States, at San Juan, P.R., sealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
A Cuban citizen until 1976, I too once had a passport virtually identical to my father’s, and it bore similar stamps. But I no longer possess that passport, and its absence is yet another sad twist in Cuba’s and the United States’ intertwined political history. It was the mid-1980s and I, a stupidly romantic young man, passionately wanted to return to the stormy Ithaca to which we had said farewell more than twenty years earlier, a forbidden space of which I had no memories, really, to speak of, but which I desired. As a graduate student, collaborating as a researcher and writer for a travel guidebook published by students at my university, I had spent several summers traveling all over Europe and as far east as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. I had written about the museums and parks of London and Paris; slept in hostels and cheap pensions in a score of Italian and Spanish cities; taken trains and ferries to diacritically seductive destinations such as Zürich and Mariánské Lázně and the Åland Islands. If I had done all that, how come I couldn’t go to Cuba as well? Looking at the maps I collected at countless tourist offices, I yearned to learn the maps of Havana and Santiago de Cuba as minutely as I knew those of European cities. In Paris, I had hungrily bought a travel guidebook to Cuba. Such books were virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the time, so I treasured it. The preface was by Alejo Carpentier, who waxed dreamily in French: “L’île de Cuba est, par son étendue, la plus importante des Antilles. […] Tant à La Havane qu’à Santiago, ou à Sancti-Spiritus, ou dans la ravissante petite cité de Trinidad, on plonge dans un passé fastueux, représenté par des vieux palais, des résidences seigneuriales, des églises, des cathédrales, des ouvrages de fortification”… I soon learned that people born in Cuba could travel there. but they had to do so on a Cuban passport, regardless of their present nationality. But there was a rub. In order to obtain a new passport, you needed to forfeit the old expired one. I mailed my application to Cuban Interests Section at the Embassy of Czechoslovakia in Washington, though my mother (but not my father) kept telling me that it was all a terrible idea. As it turned out, Ana María was right. Ronald Reagan had just launched Radio Martí, and an angry Castro, in retaliation, declared that no Cuban-born person living in the U.S. would be allowed to visit Cuba. And so it was that I lost my first passport even as I gained a new one, issued on 1 April 1986 by an unidentified “autoridad” on behalf of the “Gobierno de la República de Cuba.” The thing expired before I could use it to travel anywhere, even Bulgaria, the only country for which it would have been advantageous to have a Cuban passport instead of an American one. And so it is that, for me, Cuba’s sumptuous past remains a thing for the future — except that I’m no longer as interested as I once was in seeing any of those old palaces and cathedrals. Only the decrepit railways, the first built in Latin America, earlier than anything in Spain, exert for me any kind of attraction.
A side of me still mourns the voluntary loss of my first passport. But God, by which I mean the omniscient Web, bestowed on me something far richer than my own lost little booklet. A few weeks ago, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami found not one, but three passports belonging to the sons of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français killed by a slave in 1794. As patient readers of this blog will recall, Jean-Baptiste was also the father of Anne-Julienne Gué, who at some point after the turn of the nineteenth century married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, my third great-grandfather, who in turn had migrated from France to Saint-Domingue, along with four of his brothers, at the height of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror… We still don’t know when or where Anne-Julienne and François met, but we know that she was in Philadelphia in 1795, and we also think that her siblings must have left for Bordeaux, perhaps via a port city in the United States, around the same time. Pierre, the first-born son, penned an account of his father’s murder — though, it must be said, the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué” is probably an apocryphal text… In any event, Pierre’s “Passe-port à l’Étranger,” an early example of the genre, is all too real, a lovely document crafted under the signs of Liberté and Égalité, if not Fraternité. With a little effort, one can read that it was issued in Bordeaux “le vingt trois fructidor de l’an neuf de la République, une et indivisible.” That would be 10 September 1801. We also learn that Pierre is twenty-two years old and one meter and seven-hundred-eight millimeters tall, that he has chestnut hair and gray eyes and an ordinary mouth… We also learn, not without a measure of surprise, that he is traveling back across the Atlantic to Cap-Français, “dans sa propriété,” and that he is doing so in connection with the Ministre de la marine et des colonies. But several questions emerge. Why are Pierre and his brothers, Jean-François-Marie and Pierre-Julien, returning to their birthplace, apparently on their own volition? What property could they still possess over there? Had they not relinquished what they owned once the family left Saint-Domingue? Were they not afraid to return to the land where their father had been murdered? Or am I projecting onto the history of Haiti, as the colony would soon be known, the experience of exile and dispossession I associate with the Cuban Revolution? How long will they stay there? We know that Pierre, if perhaps not his brothers, would return to live permanently in France. On at least one genealogical site I have seen, he is listed as the Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. My cousin has even found a second passport issued to him, on 9 September 1828, to travel to Amsterdam, via Paris, pour “affaires de commerce.” He is described as a négociant and is accompanied by his nineteen-year-old démoiselle, who we presume is his daughter. Almost three decades after the earlier passport, his eyes are now described as blue and his hair as gray; a bourgeois paterfamilias in his late forties, he now also sports a beard.
One hundred and seventy years and the ocean lie between the French and the Cuban Revolutions, and, as Borges would have it, the story of my father and that of Pierre Gué are now irrecoverable. Yet residues remain. Many years after his death, staying with an old friend of his in Madrid, after several glasses of scotch late into the night, I learned all about my father — but those secrets must be reserved for a Henry James-inflected novella. Even the life and times of Pierre Gué are retrievable, in some fashion, by means of the folios that recorded the milestones of his journey on earth. Indeed, in both my father’s and my their great-granduncle’s cases, republics, weak or strong, created civil codes that allow citizens to live on in the realm of graphic everlastingness. Compare that to the lives of those other transatlantic migrants, the millions of human beings transported from Africa to Cuba or Saint-Domingue without benefit of passports, on whose labor the wealth of nations was built, and who remain for the most part anonymous and unknown to their descendants.
When I visited Berlin last fall, I knew there lived in the city a man surnamed Vidaud, a descendant of Severo Vidaud Caignet who had studied theoretical linguistics at Konstanz and had apparently decided to live his life far from the family on the other side of the Atlantic. But he was probably the only one of these Cuban Gauls in Germany. In Miami, by contrast, where I’m spending a few days, I personally know of hundreds of Vidaud relatives who came here from Santiago de Cuba or Guantanamo, or who are their children and their children’s children. This is, after all, the capital of Cuba-in-Exile, the uncanny and self-possessed nation in which I now realize I mostly grew up even as I spent my childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. There were many people of Cuban descent in San Juan in the 1960s and 70s (there are fewer now, I think), but it was nothing like Miami, whose main languages as not only American English but also Cuban Spanish, heard as soon as you landed at the airport, and where bookstores such as La Moderna Poesía, established in Havana sometime in the nineteenth century, seemed to flourish not far from, if not side by side with, Books and Books, an Anglophone reader’s paradise on the corner of Aragon (no accent) and Salzedo (not Salcedo) in the heart of Coral Gables. San Juan was Puerto Rican, an amalgam of different things, but Miami was its own hybrid kind of place, more clearly bilingual and bicultural than any other city in the larger Caribbean. It was and remains, in fact, at least trilingual and certainly multicultural, if one takes into account the large Haitian community that lives here alongside people from everywhere in Latin America and Europe, not to mention other parts of North America. If La Moderna Poesía no longer exists, Books and Books is now an emporium of sorts, with a large bookshop-cum-café on Aragon plus branches all over town, including Miami Beach, and a not insignificant section of Spanish-language books, plus, as I discovered just yesterday, a new and very fine selection of French and Francophone, if not Creole, books. It was at Books and Books where I finally met my two younger Vidaud cousins, who turned out to be as smart and charming in person as their own online personas had led me to believe. Two of us, it must be said, purchased French books. (“Ah, claro, si andabas con los Vidaud,” says my mother.)
Things were slightly different in Miami in the late 1980s, when I lived here for a year. After five years in Cambridge as a graduate student, I somehow became exasperated with its progressive self-referentiality. Most importantly, quite surprisingly, I had grwon extremely curious about the idea of Cuba. It’s a long story not worth recounting here, but the origin of my passion (all spent now) was threefold. It stemmed from my recently acquired love of Cuban fiction (Carpentier, but also Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante) and a new curiosity for one’s so-called roots (a boring term, pace Mr. Haley and Dr. Gates), plus, first and foremost, a desire to find a spatial grounding for a Cuban material past that I could not tangibly access. For several years I had worked as a researcher and writer for a student travel guidebook and had the good fortune to visit cities all over Europe and beyond. I would arrive in a new town and devour its map — its lay-out, its squares and streets, all those names that at first meant nothing but soon stood for real churches, museums, palaces and castles. I wanted to do the same wih Havana and Santiago de Cuba, to possess those cities like I had Urbino or Uppsala. But traveling to Cuba was impossible. Ronald Reagan was president and Radio Martí had just been created, which prompted Fidel Castro to ban any Cuban-born citizen or resident of the United States from traveling to the island. I had already purchased a Cuban passport — and turned in my expired one — but I never got to use it. In Cuba’s default, I decided to move to Miami instead, finding refuge in my father and stepmother’s condo on S.W. 122nd Avenue. I soon discovered a city that was far more familiar than I had ever expected. I became fascinated by the fact that streets in Miami had numbers, like many thoroughfares in the Vedado district of Havana, or, in Coral Gables, vaguely Spanish names, almost as if that city were an outpost of Cuba. I taught Spanish language classes at the new FIU and the more venerable University of Miami, and I commuted by bus and rail, occasionally encountering a fellow passenger who would inquire about an address located in her old country: “¿Esta guagua va para Marianao? Ay, me equivoqué. Pensaba que estaba en Cuba.” On weekday mornings when I didn’t have a class, instead of working on my dissertation, I would lie under the sun by the swimming pool and look at the blue sky, not missing austere New England at all, but relishing instead the strange fact that the sky’s inviolate blueness extended across the straits of Florida all the way to forbidden Havana. And then there were the frequent random encounters with family members I hardly knew. One Sunday afternoon at a Lord and Taylor, we ran into Adela de Granda Vidaud, my maternal grandmother’s sister who had been my father’s neighbor in Santiago de Cuba. They had not seen each other in years, as they had lived in different territories of Cuba-in-Exile — far-flung Monterrey, Mexico, in her and her husband’s case — before finally converging in Miami, at a shopping mall yet.
But that was then and this is now. I don’t seek Cuba anymore. I still come to Miami at least once a year, but I spend most of my time at my mother’s house — a small place, but a true home — with perhaps a quick run to Books and Books. My mother has a tin box full of old photographs with the label “Cuba – Reliquias” on it, and there are more surprises therein than in the rest of the city. Consider this picture taken at my baptism on 15 October 1960 — Teresa de Ávila’s feast — at Cuba’s national shrine in El Cobre, outside of Santiago de Cuba, not far from Río Frío, my maternal grandparents’ farm. Of the eleven people shown here, nine would leave Cuba well before the decade’s end. The only two who remained were my paternal grandmother, Maruja, the second lady from the right, and my grandmother’s aunt, Fefa. That’s Fefa in the middle, the gray-haired woman holding a veiled bundle that is actually my sleeping, newly christened self. I have referred to her, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, before, but I don’t think I’ve said anything about how much she seems to have loved me, and about how she missed me after we left. She never married and therefore didn’t have a family of her own, living with my grandparents and taking care of my mother and aunt. In fact, she apparently cared for everyone who needed it. In her notebook, Nunú writes about someone from Guantanamo who was gravely ill at a hospital in Santiago de Cuba and how Fefa would bring him oranges everyday. She spoke French, of course, and, I’m told, a little Creole too because of the many Haitian workers in Oriente that she’d be in contact with. She is said to have been an assiduous letter writer, keeping in touch with her cousins, the children of Juana Amelia and María Vidaud Caignet, who lived in Barcelona. She loved the movies and would take my mother to see a varied program of films every Sunday; not surprisingly, she is credited for having fashioned my mother’s Shirley Temple hairdo when she was a little girl. And then Fefa’s world vanished with most everyone who had been a part of it. We all left, and she became an image in a tin box, a story clumsily told.
And then there is this, a blurry picture my cousin Mari posted on our secret Facebook group a few months back, when our arboreal adventure began. We don’t know who this young woman is, but we speculate it’s Fefa herself in the first decade of the twentieth century, caring as always for someone else’s children. This time, we think, it’s her nephew, a very stylish Manuel de Granda Vidaud, and her niece, a smiling Carmen de Granda Vidaud — our grandmother, a mere toddler. Who knows, perhaps this gray photograph was taken at La Reunión itself. Quite correctly, Mari noted the resemblance of this young woman to the serious person on the right of the photograph that serves as the blog’s header. That person, according to my mother, is Fefa, with her sister Luisa and their father Alberto Vidaud Caignet. But all this, again, is speculation. For all we know, this happy group may be a bunch of strangers totally unrelated to us. Yet, when the past becomes elusive, as it always does, and when the spaces of your childhood are lost, as it happens to many of us, you’re left with little more than the proverbial power of your imagination, that noble faculty whose figments need not be regarded as mere fiction. Let’s therefore declare this portrait of a lady in white to be Fefa, the caretaker, as lovingly devoted to her children as ever. If we can imagine it, it can then be true. After all, a life alone in Cuba, with all her dear children living abroad, is something Fefa could never have even imagined, and yet it happened.
Now 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.
This 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?
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.
What 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.
So on the night of 31 October 1963, after passengers had had their tomato soup and shed some tears over impossible firetrucks, the Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia took off from Gander to complete the last leg of its long intercontinental journey. My father and I slept, but my mother spent the night imagining the dangers that lay ahead. More than half a century later, comforted by the soft light of my laptop, I can imagine the dark ocean, invisible and fearsome, over which we flew… It was All Saints Day, when we finally landed in Madrid, a cold and gray city virtually shut down on account of the religious holiday. With the help of an acquaintance that we miraculously ran into at Barajas, we made it to calle Jacometrezo, where the International Rescue Committee was headquartered. They gave us some pesetas, and we, newly minted political refugees, went to the pensión on plaza de la Marina Española where we would live for several months. The next day was All Souls Day, the first full day of our lives as exiles in Franco’s Spain, a nation far more Christian — far less modern — that its former colony in the Caribbean. It was also not a rich country, and we were less rich than most everyone else — but that sad tale of an icy room and garbanzos everyday for lunch is, for now, another story.
My parents had never set foot outside of Cuba, yet they belonged to families whose members had crossed the Atlantic many times. My mother’s paternal grandfather was born in Barcelona, and one of her maternal great-grandfathers hailed from Oviedo — not to mention the tribes of Cuban Gauls and their multiple ports of call. The most recent of those European migrants was María Montoro Céspedes, my paternal grandmother. She was born in Marbella, back then a small Andalusian town from which, on clear days, one could see the coast of Africa. Her father, an artist, migrated to Cuba with his three young daughters sometime in the early twentieth century in search of new seascapes to paint. Indeed, Maruja (as she was known) proudly displayed many of her father’s marinas in her house in Santiago de Cuba. Here is a picture of Maruja taken in 1962, in the elaborate living room of that house, not quite surrounded by the soon-to-be migrants. Her last years — she died in 1965 — must have been difficult and lonely. Her husband, a magistrate, had died over a decade ago, and her other son besides my father, a doctor in Havana, had also passed away prematurely. His three children, my cousins, remained in the faraway capital with their mother, while Maruja’s own two sisters lived in Pinar del Río, as far from Oriente as one could go without leaving Cuba. I’m told she loved her tchotchkes — she was a bit of a hoarder — and her garden. A sensitive soul, she used to take long baths that started well before sunset and ended after night had fallen, as she found the twilight to be overly melancholy. Maruja never returned to Spain, the country where her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were now political refugees, desperately wanting to return to their old New World.
Such stable characters, those migrants like María Montoro who bravely traversed the ocean yet stayed put in one place! By contrast, my second great-granduncle, Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also known just as Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait and described in various documents as a “négociant français,” was a shipowner, it seems, who lived in Santiago de Cuba and Bordeaux and appears to have spent much of his life happily on board a merchant vessel. No one in my immediate family has told me anything about him, but his digital afterlife — unlike that of Maruja, nonexistent until now — allows one to construct a rich and venturesome biography. He was the oldest son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon, No. 10 in Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy, who had been born at the Château de la Dourville in 1767 and migrated to Saint-Domingue with four of his brothers during the Reign of Terror. Like his brother François Vidaud du Dognon No. 11, the priest, Pierre No. 10 eventually returned to France. He had six children, and at least two of them had children of their own — two rich and strong branches whose many leafy twigs, now branches of their own, keep blooming in France and the Americas. In Port-au-Prince, Pierre No. 10 married Marie Henriette Petit, a native of that city. The wedding took place on 22 nivôse VII (though I’m sure it didn’t snow that day in the Caribbean). Pierre returned to France with his wife sometime before 1805, the year when Luce Eugénie Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, their second child, was born. He lived until 1839 and his widow until 1854. The French Revolution must have been a real trial for Pierre, but whatever may have been lost appears to have been recovered. Both husband and wife died at the Château de Laurenzane, in Gradignan, near Bordeaux. How they ended up in that distinguished dwelling is a mystery to me, but it is interesting to read about the place’s “activités viticoles” and learn that a greenhouse designed by Gustave Eiffel was built in the premises.
Our Pierre, the French man of commerce, was born in Port-au-Prince, like his mother, in 1802. His five sisters were born in France, and it is altogether plausible to assume that he spent his childhood in those places where his parents appear to have settled: Aubeville, Pommeret, and Angoulême. But by his early twenties he is back in Saint-Domingue, where, Vallantin Dulac tells us, he married Anne-Joséphine Tardy, the daughter of Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué and her first husband, Julien Tardy. Why Pierre returned to the Caribbean is yet another mystery. How Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba around 1800, also ended up in Saint-Domingue, which her mother appears to have fled after the murder of her own father, the architect Jean-Baptiste Gué — that too is a mystery. In any event, the young couple would not stay put for long. Their first child — Pierre Paul, who would later become the comte Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, was born in Bordeaux in 1826. But their second and third children were born in Santiago de Cuba, and the fourth in Gradignan; the rest of their nine children were all born in Cuba. One of them, Étienne, migrated to Brooklyn. Most of them eventually settled in France, including Marie Anne Méloë, who married an American and, like Étienne, moved to the United States. Only one child, Émile, was married in Santiago de Cuba and appears to have remained on the island for good.
One of my cousins in Miami has combed the superb digital records of the French Consulate in Santiago de Cuba and found several apparitions of our Pierre. His florid signature is inscribed as that of a witness on various birth and death certificates. Stendhal would famously recommend reading “une page du Code civil chaque jour, avant de commencer à écrire, pour obtenir le degré de sécheresse convenable et se prémunir contre les fausses élégances du beau style romantique” — yet I find much that is inherently romantic in the truly elegant, if dry, pages of those records of the État civil I have read. Consider, for instance, this brief phrase on a birth certificate, following Pierre’s name: “négociant Français, établi à Santiago de Cuba, qui a dit avoir assisté aux derniers moments du défunt”… But my favorite record, seen here, is the birth certificate of Henriette Jeanne Vidaud de Pomerait, Pierre and Anne Joséphine’s fifth child, which I transcribe: “Acte de naissance de Henriette Jeanne, née le dix sept octobre mil huit cent trente quatre, à une heure du matin, fille de Pierre Videau de Pomerait fils, négociant demeurant ci devant à Bordeaux, Département de la Gironde, et de Dame Anne Joséphine Tardy, sa légitime Épouse”… It reads like a little novel in the making — a birth in the middle of the night, a father’s former residence in a city an ocean away, a mother’s legitimate status… And lest there could be any doubt, this: “Le Sexe de l’Enfant a été reconnu être féminin.” Vallantin Dulac tells us Henriette married one Émile Schmitt and would die childless — a twig’s end — in Pau. No year is given for her death.
Around the time of Henriette’s birth, the Almanach du Commerce de Paris, des Départemens de la France et des Principales Villes du Monde, which my cousin has also found online, describes the port of Santiago de Cuba as one of the most beautiful in the Americas, making it clear that its white population is a minority, and listing several “négocians français et étrangers” in the city, including “Videau de Pomeraite.” But that’s not all. In recent times, our Pierre has reappeared in historiographical works about the French community of Santiago de Cuba. A passport of his, issued in Bordeaux in 1825, is discussed in Paul Butel’s “Relations commerciales entre la France et Cuba sous la Restauration: l’example de Bordeaux,” while Agnès Renault, a historian at the Université du Havre, devotes a long footnote to him in D’une île rebelle à une île fidèle: les Français de Santiago de Cuba (1791-1825). Renault’s note is particularly vexing, for some information therein appears to contradict what we think we know of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, our direct ancestor and Pierre’s uncle, so I will return to it in due time. In any event, as my cousin puts it, these are all “small traces” of Pierre, yet they allow us to imagine who he must have been.
But who was he really, this merchant — this, dare I say it, patriarch? What was he like? Although I have no personal memories of María Montoro Céspedes, stories of Maruja are still relatively abundant, and one can have a glimpse of her soul (if such a thing exists) from those narrative capsules about a childhood in Marbella and the melancholy sunsets of Santiago de Cuba. But digital Pierre remains virtually unfathomable. Yet he was a contemporary of Balzac, and one may perhaps be allowed to indulge, at least briefly, in the novelist’s art of physiognomy to build a picture of the man’s character. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, you were born in Port-au-Prince, went to live in France as a child, returned to the Caribbean as a young man, married a lady of French descent also born in those parts, had nine children, witnessed several births and deaths, owned ships, crossed the Atlantic many times, achieved what appears to be a measure of prosperity, and then you died in the city of Bordeaux in 1872. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your coat looks so nice and warm, your top hat is most elegant, and your cane — well, sometimes a cane is just a cane. And now, Pierre, your face, your face, that window to your soul. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your face denotes seriousness, solidity, solemnity, but in truth, Pierre, there is only silence. I’m afraid I cannot read you, Pierre, that I can only hope for some letters, perhaps a journal hidden somewhere recounting the reasons why, at some point in your life, you must have cried. Through those inscribed pages, if they exist, we may perhaps begin really to reach you. And even then, I suspect you will remain nothing but an elusive ghost staring at the blue or gray or black waves in the middle of the ocean.