XXX – A Grammar of Mourning in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VI – The Atlantic Ocean

Previously, on “The Cuban Gauls”: your three-year-old Blogger is flying over the North Atlantic on a Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia. The turboprop-powered airliner has just taken off from Gander, where the new Cuban exiles were served tomato soup. Sitting next to him is his father, Roberto, who had fallen two days earlier as he walked in Havana, badly injuring his chin against the sidewalk. The father is now asleep, and the cheap Soviet bandage is falling off his chin. Next to him is Ana María, his mother, who can’t sleep. She’s thinking of what the doctor back in Havana told her when he found out that the small family was leaving the country and its members were, in effect, counter-revolutionaries: “So you are worms? In that case, we cannot conduct any further tests. Make sure you take your husband to a hospital as soon as you get to Madrid, as he may have a brain tumor.” On this night, flying over the black and cold Atlantic, my mother feels very alone. But that, for now, is another story.

Flash forward. Los Angeles, 3 October 2014, 6:58 p.m. I’m on Platform 2 at Union Station, waiting for the Gold Line train that takes me to Jim’s house, where I spend the week-ends watching Scandinavian cooking shows, etc. A day earlier, on Facebook, I announced I was probably discontinuing this blog, as I have a far more important writing project to complete. But then there’s a beep on my cellphone. It’s an email from a gentleman near Miami surnamed Vidaud. With lovely politesse, he tells me that his grandfather was one Louis Vidaud, born circa 1882, and that he has two octogenarian aunts, one who thinks she was born in La Reunión. In his family, he tells me, “there has also been this story about the tragic loss of the plantation and Louis Vidaud‘s ties to it.” I’m now on the train, going through Chinatown, my head spinning as I reread the email with its ghostly invocation of the farm in the Sierra Maestra and those who dwelled there. Later that evening, I receive a second email, this one from a twenty-five-year-old man in Miami, who descends from Sévère, or Severo, Vidaud Caignet, my grandmother’s grandfather’s brother. This young man’s knowledge of the Vidauds in Cuba is far vaster than mine — I have now learned much from him — but he has seen that I’m posting old family photographs, and he wonders whether I might have one of Severo. He also tells me he has “an old and terrible photocopy” of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, the father of both Severo and Alberto Vidaud Caignet, my grandmother’s grandfather. As it turns out, Mari has a copy of that image too.

Vidaud, Adolphe - RestoredHere he is, Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, a copy of a copy of a copy, the white-bearded and stern-looking residue of a Victorian paterfamilias. He had a brother named Adelson. The two brothers married two sisters surnamed Caignet (M. Vallantin Dulac misspells it as Coignet). Adelson and Corinne had four daughters, but I don’t know anything about them at this point. According to M. Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy, Adolphe had seven children who “ont laissé postérité actuelle à Santiago de Cuba.” His chronicle, as far as it concerns our branch of the family, ends there, but we know the names of those seven brothers and children, and the names of many of their many children, and of their children’s children, etc. We are, indeed, members of that posterity. But we don’t know much about Adolphe himself. Vallantin Dulac states he was married in Santiago de Cuba, but says nothing about his birthplace or that of Adelson. Were they born in France or in Cuba? How did they end up marrying two sisters? What did they do in Santiago? When did they die?

What follows is a bit of a leaf storm in the family tree, a veritable forest of French names, three or four twigs called François. We do know from Vallantin Dulac that Adelson and Adolphe’s father migrated to Saint-Domingue in the wake of the French Revolution. François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne (thank heaven for copy and paste) was born in 1764 at the Château de la Dourville, near the village of Aubeville, which in turn is located 22 kilometers southwest of Angoulême, in the Poitou-Charentes region. Our François was the grandson of Jean Martial Vidaud and Anne de la Farge, and son of Jean André Vidaud, comte du Dugnon, and Luce Jayet. He was one of fourteen siblings, twelve of whom were born in the same ancestral château. At the time of the Revolution, according to the Wikipedia entry on Aubeville, “le fief de la Dourville était la propriété de messire Vignaud du Dognon.” At the time of the Revolution, too, such terms as “fiefdom” and “my lord” would have begun to sound terribly antique. At the time of the Revolution, during la Terreur, one of François’ younger siblings, a priest also named François, fled the country and sought refuge in the colony of Saint-Domingue. That’s how the Vidauds first came to traverse the cold and gray Atlantic. It was the first of many such crossings. The good priest François Vidaud du Dognon would end up fleeing Saint-Domingue for Philadelphia. Even though he did much to fight the abusive treatment of slaves, M. Vallantin Dulac tells us, he still had to leave the island “échappant à une mort certaine infligée par la révolte des esclaves en ce pays.” Ah, those rebellious slaves — more on them later. After the Empire was proclaimed in 1804, the Abbé François, with two of his brothers, returned to France, becoming a cathedral canon in Angoulême, where he died in 1845.

Could our François be one of the two brothers who returned to France with the priest? One of them — again, Vallantin-Dulac recounts — was Jean Michel Vidaud, chevalier du Dognon, seigneur de Pommeret, later comte du Dognon. He was divorced from his wife on 1 messidor II, after leaving for Saint-Domingue, but remarried her on 14 prairial XII, upon his return to France, and I mention this because I adore the revolutionary calendar. The second brother who accompanied the priest back to France was named François, like the father of Adelson and Adolphe. M. Vallantin Dulac doesn’t say so, but I’m inclined to think that it must have been one of the two other brothers named François, perhaps the eldest, born in 1758, but more likely the one born in 1765… Because we have our François down as marrying one Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué in Cap-Français (maybe), which is present-day Cap-Haïtien, sometime in the mid-1790s (maybe), because in the late 1790s (maybe), that same lady (whom sources seem to call just Julienne), marries one Julien Tardy in New Orleans (maybe). If the genealogies are correct, Julienne Tardy (née Gué) and her husband Julien are (back?) in Santiago de Cuba, where their daughter, Anne-Joséphine Tardy, is born at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her half-brothers are Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. But could these boys have been born in France after Anne Joséphine’s birth in Cuba, in which case François would have been Julienne Gué’s second, not first, husband? More on that, too, later.

Our sources are vague and at times contradictory, mistaken and perhaps even apocryphal. In my imagination, at least, François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne marries Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué, sixteen years his junior, in Cap-Français, where she had been born. They flee for Santiago de Cuba, where he dies, and then she ends up in New Orleans, where she, a very young widow, marries Julien Tardy. Or perhaps François and Julienne flee for New Orleans, where he dies and she remarries, leaving then for Cuba with her new husband and her two Vidaud boys, Adelson and Adolphe. Both versions of this story of marriage, childbirth, widowhood and navigation are vertiginously extreme. But the Gués seem to have been a family to whom remarkable things happened.

Consider, for instance, the tale of Jean-Baptiste Gué, Julienne’s father, a native of Brittany, who crossed the Atlantic before the revolution and became an architect in Cap-Français, in the prosperous colony of Saint-Domingue…