XIII – Communicants

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

Rodiles Vidaud, Caroline - Anverso

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

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

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

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

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

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


VII – The Architect

A couple of days after finding the online image of E.L. Ekman’s twigs in the Harvard Herbaria, and after having exhausted all possible googling combinations for retrieving La Reunión, I decided to reread M. Vallantin Dulac’s “Généalogie de la Famille Vidaud” as carefully as possible in search of more clues to the problematic farm. That’s when I first noticed the name of Jean-Baptiste Gué, mentioned in passing in the short paragraph about François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Our François V. du D. du B., we’re told, “émigre à la Révolution à Saint-Domingue avec quatre de ses frères, et y épouse Julienne GUÉ, née à Fort-Dauphin en 1780, fille de Jean Baptiste, architecte à Fort-Dauphin puis à Port aux Princes.” In what must have been yet another sleep procrastination ploy, not thinking that I’d really find anything, I googled “Jean-Baptiste Gué architecte,” the name and profession of our ancestor’s father-in-law, which is to say our ancestor too. To see where my idle surfing took me, click right here on the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué, 1800.” What I found on that new digital shore was astonishing. This was not your usual skeletal chart, but rather a full-blown narrative of some extraordinary events.

As far as I knew, Bebé Vidaud had limited his genealogical research to the Vidauds, and had not really looked at their in-laws. I myself had never heard of these Gués, this previously unseen seed in the family forest. To gild the fleur-de-lys, Jean-Baptiste Gué was an architect, the profession I might perhaps have chosen had I not been a mathematical zero. It was also the career Ana María would have pursued had her parents allowed her to attend the University of Havana instead of the local Universidad de Oriente. With a few clicks on the keyboard, I recovered an architect ancestor, a figure that spoke of happiness to us.

But Pierre Gué had described his father’s life as a tragic story. I think I suspected why, but the text’s editor provided a clue: “Cette histoire a été écrite par Pierre Gué au début des années 1800 dans les termes et avec les idées de l’époque. Certains termes peuvent donc étonner ou choquer le lecteur.” What terms in an early nineteenth-century work set in the French colony of Saint-Domingue could “astound” or “shock” a modern reader? This could only be a tale of race and slavery, and indeed it was — of the bloodiest kind. Morbidly, I devoured each word of Pierre’s reverent account of his father’s life.

One of numerous siblings, Jean-Baptiste had been sent to Saint-Domingue from his native Brittany at the age of twenty with nothing but a “pacotille,” a load of cheap goods to be sold in the colony. He first settled in Fort-Dauphin, present-day Fort-Liberté, near the Dominican border, and there he met his wife, Jeanne-Marie Lavit, whose father was an architect from Nancy. They were married in 1778 (earlier than Vallantin Dulac said). Young Jean-Baptiste, whose rapport to “belles lettres” had been neglected, had by contrast a talent for mathematics and became an architect himself. Pierre, the first of seven children, was born in 1779. Soon thereafter, Jean-Baptiste moved his young family to Cap-Français, known as the “Paris des îles” for its commercial vitality and opulent lifestyles. He was then appointed Architect and Surveyor of the city and its surroundings, in charge of the cathedral, the governor’s palace, a military fortress. Life was good, but lest we suspect this state of things will last, narrator Pierre injects an ominous prolepsis: “Hélas! il était loin de penser qu’il nous préparait un refuge momentané et qu’un jour, tout près de là, violemment arraché à la vie, reposerait sans honneurs, sa dépouille mortelle !…”

As a literature professor, I am tempted to engage in a close reading of Pierre’s text, to examine every phrase: the momentary refuge; the violent snatching of life; the mortal remains. Is Pierre Gué a Romantic author? Perhaps, but let history, for one, trump fiction. What follows concerns the French Revolution and its aftermath in the Caribbean — the slave revolts that eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti. It is a story I’m familiar with, if only because I assign Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World to my students from time to time. But there’s not a semblance of the novelist’s marvelous-real artifice in Jean-Baptiste’s plainly narrated demise. It’s 1793 and Louis XVI has been guillotined; Polverel and Sonthonax, revolutionary civil commissioners, have arrived in the colony; the slave revolts are all too real. Pierre devotes much of his text to recounting what he perceives to be the rebels’ sheer brutality. As the city burns, their house is vandalized. Armchairs, beds and mirrors are thrown out, and so is, predictably, a sonorous emblem of European civilization: “Le piano de ma sœur, lancé dans la rue, vint presque tomber à nos pieds.” Pierre doesn’t mention the sister’s name, but we may presume the destroyed piano belonged to the oldest daughter, Anne-Julienne, future wife of François V. du D. de B. and thus our direct ancestor. Later, two of the family’s women slaves, “fidèles et sensibles,” find that the children whom they had nursed as babies have sought refuge in a hospital; they sob and cover them with kisses. But the narrative moves inexorably toward the violent death of Jean-Baptiste. With eyes covered and kneeling down, the architect is executed by men armed with muskets. Inside the house, his wife and children hear the shots. It is no wonder that by 1800, when Pierre writes his account, most of the family appears to have left the island and crossed the Atlantic — for the first time, really,since all of them except for Jean-Baptiste had been born in Saint-Domingue. They settled in Bordeaux, one of the axes of the triangular slave trade, but a bourgeois environment where they must have felt safe.

Reading the tragic history of Jean-Baptiste Gué, one of course feels for him and his wife and their innocent children. But the notion of the architect as a slaveowner, no matter how typical it may have been, is not an easy image to reconcile oneself with. Yet Pierre’s text simply confirmed what I always suspected, which is that my ancestors had been closely connected to the practices of slavery. When I was a child in Exile, my grandmother once told me a story that concerned another child, a little black girl she played with when she was growing up at La Reunión. I cannot recall the point of the story with any precision, but it must have taken place at the time when Ekman was carefully gathering his botanical specimens in the Sierra Maestra. Lowering her voice, Carmela described how children in her milieu would be assigned at birth a black child of their same gender with whom they could play, etc., as they grew up. Slavery had been abolished in Cuba only in 1886, less than twenty years before my grandmother’s birth in 1904. Slaves were a thing of the recent past, and certain attitudes were not quite dead yet.

Malepart de Beaucourt - Portrait of an ArchitectYesterday morning I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and did what I do most weekdays, which is to turn on the TV on some news channel as I check Facebook on my iPad. And there it was, this image you see right here, this man in lovely eighteenth-century whites and blues. My newly found twenty-five-year old Vidaud cousin from Miami, whose deep surfing of the web rivals Captain Nemo’s undersea adventures, had made a curious announcement the day before in our secret Facebook group: “Yo tengo un retrato que muy posiblemente sea de nuestro ancestro Jean-Baptiste Gué. Es imposible confirmarlo pero es muy muy posible que sea él. Pronto lo pondré. How is that for a teaser!” How was that for a shock? The portrait was now posted there, but could this man inhabiting the screen be Gué himself? The artist is François Malepart de Beaucourt, from Quebec, and the canvas, painted in 1787, is titled Portrait of an Architect, Master of a Masonic Lodge in Cap-Français, Saint Domingue, and it is housed in Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. My cousin’s thinking persuades me that this resplendent figure could very well be Jean-Baptiste Gué himself. He was born circa 1754, and is thus the correct age, plus he was the architect of Cap-Français. The Masonic connection is yet to come, but I suspect, from things I’ve recently read, that it’s inscribed in the very name of La Reunión. Truth be said, I love the tools of his precise metier, plus the columns and dark skies and low hills behind him. But I don’t detect much of an air de famille on that oval visage. Then again, I’ve never seen such a ghost before. I keep looking at his image, wanting to view myself in the man, seeking to understand this revenant from the heart of darkness.

V – Bluish Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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