Afterword: At the Harvard Herbaria

This was written a month ago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

XXV – Miami Time Machine

Miami Palm TreesWhen 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.

1960 - Bautismo - En El CobreBut 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.

FefaAnd 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.