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.


XVIII – Crowned Heads

Bernadac, MarieCall me shallow, but more often than not as I face these old photographs, I disregard the latent lessons of physiognomy and focus instead on the plainly visible systems of fashion. As I behold the ancient folks in my family forest, I’m readily fascinated by those fabulous threads, and nothing mesmerizes me like the hats and veils, assertively solid or sublimely gaseous, both proper and playful, that crown their heads. The lady seen here is Marie Bernadac, the second wife of Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, whose figure I sought to dissect in the previous entry. What can I say about Marie? Digital records are vague. She was born before 1850 and died after 1913, but that’s all I’ve been able to find. Yet it’s easy to surmise in her a picture of nineteenth-century provincial normalcy  — or so her life appears to me right here and now on this rainy Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, as I quickly type these words riding north on the Pasadena freeway in the speedy strangeness of an Uber car… My hatless self looks at Marie Bernadac, and her shy smile is an overture to her inner life. Maybe she had not been photographed many times before; maybe she was less than proud of her less than perfect teeth; maybe she was a passionate reader who disliked being distracted from her novels and books of poetry… But her hat — I have no words for that operatic meringue, her own private, prêt-à-porter Matterhorn. As strange as this may sound, Marie Bernadac, if I had been a woman in a previous life, I wish I could have worn a crown as formidable as yours. In Vidaud posterity, Marie, you will now forever be known as the Lady with the Hat, and that, believe me, is far more real than the oblivion in which most members of your tribe now dwell.

Vidaud Caignet, Amelia - Girl With HatBut how I wish photographs were emblems of transparent minds, icons that spoke actual words, watersheds of real stories and literal sentiments. An amateur genealogist in Barcelona not long ago read my blog and kindly emailed me three pictures of children. The girl seen here is Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, my correspondent’s grandmother, born in Guantánamo in 1851. She is also the sister of Alberto Vidaud Caignet, my grandmother’s grandfather, who was born, it seems, in 1848. Like their sister, María Vidaud Caignet, whose son at one point headed the Futbol Club Barcelona, Juana Amelia ended up spending much of her life in Spain. As I recounted earlier, she married Rafael Calbetó y Sambeat, who was Comandante del Presidio de la Habana in the 1890s. A married couple with a young son, they went to live in Catalonia; he, after all, had been born in Viella, in the province of Girona. But here Juana Amelia is just a child, posing with a blooming and wavy hat poetically displayed by her well-shod feet. I don’t know exactly when the picture was taken, but I suppose it must have been sometime before 1860. To be honest, as a childless person myself, I’m rather clueless about the age of children, or about what may be transpiring in their little minds. But I have the impression that Juana Amelia, despite her serious demeanor here, is a timidly happy creature inhabiting her own innocent wonderland. I wonder how much she knew about the slaves that she surely grew up surrounded by — those other, far less fortunate, lives on the island of Cuba. Perhaps she had her own servant who accompanied the family to the photographer’s studio, and then, after all the posing and clicking was done, picked up the florid hat from the floor, and then, many years later, finally no longer a slave, died an unrecorded death.

Vidaud Caignet, Amelia - With BoyAnd here we have her again, little Amelia (as it appears she was known) in a feathered hat with an anonymous child — “un niño desconocido,” as my correspondent puts it. It is not farfetched at all — in fact, it makes sense — to assume that the little boy in the top hat is one of her brothers, either Alberto Vidaud Caignet, my second great-grandfather, or, more probably, Severo Vidaud Caignet, born in 1849, the only other boy among the seven siblings. Severo is arguably the most interesting character in our family tree, and I hope to return to him (and his direct descendants) again, but suffice it to say for now that he’s a bit of a legend, a gentleman who traveled to Europe many times, a bon vivant who appears to have shocked — at least a little — his more conventional relatives in Cuba, France and Spain. He appears as a bachelor in the faire-part announcing the death of his aunt in Auch: “Monsieur Sévère Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait,” plain and simple, without a wife or children. (His older brother appears as “Monsieur et Madame Albert Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait et leurs enfants,” a paterfamilias, while Amelia, by then a widow, is “Madame veuve Calbetó, née Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, et ses enfants.”) Years ago, when I taught French at a prep school in New Hampshire, a colleague and I took a group of students to France and we spent a week in Dinard, on the northern coast of Brittany. When I told my grandmother — she was in her late eighties then — about this part of our itinerary, she mentioned that one of her great-uncles (or was it an uncle, or a cousin?) used to summer there. I like to imagine that man was her tío Severo, and I like to imagine too that this little boy is Severo, or Sévère, himself, posing already with an finely crafted product of elegant millinery, one of the many hats he must have worn during his life. But what do I know? Most sources indicate that both Alberto and Severo were older than their five sisters, and this boy looks younger to me than the girl whose hand he is delicately holding. Maybe the accepted chronology needs to be revised in light of these hats? Or maybe a boy at that age looks smaller than a sister born two years later, since girls are said to grow up faster?

Vidaud Caignet, Amelia ? - With Funny HatAnd then there is this. The Vidauds and the Caignets were French, after all, so I suppose there must have been some Orientalist blood in their bluish veins. This vaguely Ottoman hat, if that’s indeed what it is, must have been the playful sartorial expression of some Eastern dream, placed on a boy’s head as he held some kind of magic flask in his hand. Perhaps we can imagine this is the older brother, Alberto, but most likely this is also Severo, sporting longer and wavier hair. Perhaps we can imagine how that exotic object awakened in the boy what appears to be his passion for luxury and voluptuousness, if not calm. In her wonderful notebook, María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, known as Nunú, reminisces about her uncle Severo, corroborating some of what others have alluded to. He traveled to France almost yearly, she says, and loved horse races, spending much time (much money?) at the Hippodrome de Longchamp in Paris. But the prodigal uncle always returned. Nunú writes about yet another sibling, a younger child, her aunt, Magdalena Vidaud Caignet, who was partially disabled from having contracted what must have been polio as a child. After her mother’s death in 1893, Magdalena went to live with her sister Matilde, Nunú’s mother, and took charge of her nieces’ education. In this, Severo played a beneficent role. From his trips, he would bring his sister what Nunú describes as “buenos libros” and “buena música.” He also paid for her subscription to the Musée des familles, the illustrated journal published in Paris until 1900, in which, in Nunú’s words, they could read “buenos artículos” about science, literature, and the arts. “Estudiamos también botánica,” Nunú adds, and this is a fact I’d love to know more about, given this blog’s origin in the realm of botany. Did they go out into the fields and forests of Oriente (if not the actual so-called Orient), collecting specimens like E.L. Ekman did, and if so, did they wear hats like the Swedish botanist must have? There’s no evidence of this anywhere to be found, but one can always imagine.

Vidaud du D. de P., Ernest - OlderIn Cuba or, more probably, France, Severo must have met the good doctor, the handsome scientist, Ernest V. du D. de P., the husband of Marie Bernadac, the Lady with the Hat. All that was far away and long ago. Writing this as I travel on the subway from Hollywood to downtown L.A., I wish I could reconstruct a half-truthful dialogue between both men, who were surely wearing hats when they first met. Or maybe not, as Severo would have visited Ernest in Pau or Paris, and the older man would not have been wearing a hat at home, and his maid would have taken the Cuban visitor’s hat when she greeted him at the door. I also wish I could find out what Ernest told Marie the first time she saw her in that voluptuous hat of hers. (I wish too, I confess, I could pry a little into their bedroom.) Here is a picture of Ernest, taken it seems sometime in the early twentieth century. Everything seems to indicate that this image is part of the same photograph of Marie Bernadac, but someone must have decided that husband and wife needed to be rendered separately on the web. Ernest is portlier than in his previous picture; wearing his bowler, he looks a little like Hercule Poirot, that other semifictional character. It was the Belle Époque, and the Great War would soon break, and Ernest, I regret to say, would soon be dead. What happened to this hat? What happened to Marie’s? Whatever happened to hats? I’ve read they went out of fashion with the mid-century rise of the automobile. My train is speeding beneath Los Angeles and, looking up from the iPhone on which I’m writing this, I see a couple of people — an absent-minded man and a surly young woman — wearing baseball caps. From time to time I too wear a baseball cap, and I wear other kinds of hats, mostly made of straw, but none as interesting as those objects my spectral relatives once placed on their heads. My station is next. I will soon be exiting into a mostly hatless world.

III – Reunion, Not

I couldn’t stop with Ekman’s twigs, of course. What else would the web yield on the subject of La Reunión, the evanescent farm in long-vanished Oriente? A couple of days later, I ventured once again into the digital labyrinth and ended up in a windowless room that belonged to the Gobierno Provincial de Oriente and was devoted to the War of 1895. Its many Legajos y Expedientes — Dockets and Filings? — surveyed and catalogued the world as it existed in Cuba’s easternmost province in the middle of a terrible war and at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a picture of human and material progress, with sections devoted to Instrucción Pública (Public Education), Ferrocarriles (Railways) and Vapores (Steamboats), but it was also a landscape of political violence: Alzamientos (Uprisings), Delitos Políticos (Political Crimes), Ejército Español (Spanish Army) and Cárceles (Prisons).

But I paid attention to all this only later. My eyes went straight to Legajo 740, Expediente 16, which read: “Quejas del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por la destrucción de las propiedades del súbdito francés Albert Vidaud por los insurrectos, valoradas las pérdidas en 1035 pesos.” So there he was, my grandmother’s grandfather, Albert Vidaud, a French subject whose properties, worth just over a thousand pesos, had been destroyed by the rebels, upon which the French consul in Santiago de Cuba had lodged an official complaint, sometime in 1896. Thus, with a few clicks on a keyboard, Carmela’s old story of a devastated plantation suddenly appeared, and La Reunión, with its cacao trees and coffee bushes and thickets of eugenias, seemed to materialize onscreen. Like Karen Blixen, who had a farm in Africa, we too perhaps one day could write a nostalgic account of a farm in Cuba that we had once possessed.

But had we? In what must have been less than five seconds, my eyes scrolled down to Legajo 740, Expediente 17, which read: “Protesta del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por el incendio de los cafetales ‘Dos Hermanos’ y ‘La Reunión’, propiedad del súbdito francés Carlos Favier y Duverger. Incluye también solicitud de autorización para volver a su finca y recoger el café y cacao que estaba en pié.” Who was this Favier y Duverger, whose two plantations, one of which was La Reunión, had been burned to the ground? Who was this man intent on having his coffee and cacao picked? Who was this specter haunting our lands — or worse, my digital Oriente? Could there be two farms called La Reunión? Had my grandmother not told me the whole truth? Had I misremembered her tale?

La Reunión - SepiaHere is a picture taken at La Reunión, or so I thought, circa 1905. Not long ago I asked my mother, Ana María Esteve, to identify the five rather gloomy characters. The two children are María (the saint) and Manuel, nicknamed Manolo, my grandmother’s older siblings. The two women are presumed to be Albert’s unmarried daughters. Sitting by the man with the mustache, her father, Luisa never married because her dowry was not large enough; but according to my mother, the problem was that she had no sex appeal. The younger woman on the right is Josefa Felicia Vidaud. She was devoted to several generations of children — my grandmother (her niece); my mother and my aunt, Josefina; even myself. Fefa, as they called her, might have been a lesbian, or so my mother speculated. But what do we know? What do we know of these distant relatives? What do we know of the past itself, when it is past, and, like that man and those women and children, it too is forever dead?

As soon as I had a chance, I called Ana María, who lives in a tiny little house in Miami Springs, Fla., loves to talk on the phone, and, at the age of 79, has a remarkable memory. She too thought that La Reunión had belonged to her grandfather and been burned down during the war. Perhaps Favier y Duverger — about which there was not a peep on the web besides what was found in the war archives — had later sold it to Vidaud? But Ana María posed yet another logical question. If La Reunión had burned down in 1896, how had Carmela, born in 1904, lived there as a child? A house can of course be rebuilt. But then again, Ana María had never been to La Reunión. In fact, during her youth, every time someone suggested a visit to the old mythical place, her own father, Sebastián, would refuse, saying there was nothing to see there but ruins.

At least we had the eugenia twigs at the Arboretum. But Ana María was doubtful about that too. The label said south of Hongolosongo. The poor little village did exist, and though Ekman had misspelled its name, I’d often heard of it myself. But Ana María didn’t think La Reunión was anywhere near there at all. Short of a séance with Carmela or, equally improbable, a journey to the old provincial archives in Santiago de Cuba, it didn’t seem we’d get anywhere in retrieving La Reunión for us. But I kept googling in search for answers on the tangled web.

II – The Botanist

On the web, like in Borges’ labyrinths, one textual corridor must always lead to another, incessantly. This is especially true when you suffer from, or indulge in, sleep procrastination. The apparition of the eugenia leaves on my iPad that Thursday morning before dawn created a sense of euphoria that made me keep clicking on one link after the other. I should have gone to bed, but I wanted to know what else I’d find about La Reunión, what kind of plant the specimen preserved by Harvard was, and who, exactly, was E.L. Ekman, whose name was neatly printed at the bottom of the Harvard Herbaria label. The botanist’s identity was easy to determine, for Erik Leonard Ekman boasts a Wikipedia entry in seven different languages, and there’s quite a bit about him elsewhere on the web as well. Like Linnaeus himself, Ekman was a native of Sweden. I read all this with fascination, as I had never heard of him before and could not but instantly like such a handsome man — there were photos to be seen — and serious scientist. After all, he had left Scandinavia not in search of chocolate treats on sweet St. Lucia, but in pursuit of plants on a new and wild nation. Indeed, the Republic of Cuba was little more than a decade old when debonair Ekman sailed into Havana harbor.

My own grandmother, Carmela, born in 1904, was just two years younger than the country of her birth. She used to tell the story that as a schoolgirl — but when did she go to school, if she was raised at La Reunión? — she, like all other children, would draw Cuba’s coat of arms on the first page of all her notebooks. She once showed me how children folded the page in half to ensure their tiny patriotic drawings would exhibit a perfect symmetry.

1912 - Maria y Carmen de Granda Vidaud2Here is a picture of my grandmother taken in 1912, when she was eight. Sitting next to her is her oldest sister, María de Granda Vidaud. She grew up to be a schoolteacher and died at a relatively young age, in 1950, if I’m not mistaken. A perfect Christian, she was never married and died in the odor of sanctity, according to Carmela. She was also a pretty girl, and, at least in this image, a figure less brooding than her younger, darker sister.

In March 1916, when Ekman collected his Eugenia oxysepala Urb. at La Reunión, Carmela was just eleven years old. Could they have met? I’d like to think it’s not altogether impossible, but there’s of course no evidence to suggest a wilderness encounter between those two. Then again, who is to say that Ekman didn’t stop for a cup of coffee or chocolate at Alberto Vidaud’s house? One can easily imagine a conversation on scientific and political subjects. A war was raging in faraway Europe, Cuba was an island full of mysterious noises — those two gentlemen must have had much to talk about.  One can easily imagine Carmela, not much of a child anymore, listening in from behind a door as those two discussed Germany’s might or the flora of the Sierra Maestra.

Ekman, who originally wanted to go to Brazil, never returned to Sweden, and never in fact did he leave the Caribbean. He spent seven — or was it ten? — years in Cuba, and from there went on to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He died in Santiago de los Caballeros, at the age of 46, having made a monumental contribution to the study of plants on the island of Hispaniola. In 1991, the Svenska Stiftelsen Instituto Ekman was founded to promote cultural and scientific exchanges between Sweden and the Caribbean. They don’t seem to have a website. I’m not sure exactly how Ekman’s Eugenia oxysepala Urb. ended up in New England, but I imagine some kind of collaboration between Harvard and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. The specimens are still preserved at the university’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1980s, I would from time to time take the T from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain, where my only relatives in the city lived. I haven’t been on the Orange Line in years, but I think I remember a view of the Arboretum from the train window — the foliage so radiant in the fall, all of nature white or gray on winter afternoons. This branch of the family had chosen coldest Massachusetts over other states because government benefits were more generous there. The paterfamilias was Fernando de Granda Vidaud, my grandmother’s younger brother. I remember on one occasion he was deeply moved when I brought over a copy of a book his father, Manuel J. de Granda, had written in the 1920s, and which I had dug out from the depths of Widener Library. I now wish I had known then about Ekman’s eugenias at the Arboretum. Although he did not grow up at La Reunión, Fernando would have appreciated the fact that, not far from the drafty old house in which four generations of Grandas lived together in Exile, there were plants from Oriente — a province that, incidentally, existed only in people’s memory, as it had been divided into several smaller administrative regions sometime after the revolution.

I – Botany

In principio erat Planta. Yes, this story begins with two little twigs — or the digital image thereof — in the Herbaria of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Some two weeks ago, in a bout of sleep procrastination, I was mindlessly surfing the web when —   Actually, the story really begins the week-end before that. On Saturday afternoons, Jim and I like to watch our cooking shows, and on that occasion we happened to catch an episode of New Scandinavian Cooking, my personal favorite. The eccentric Andreas Viestad was making chocolate-based recipes and, in a dramatic transoceanic counterpoint, the show kept shifting between a park in Oslo — Viestad likes to cook outside, no matter the weather — and a cacao plantation on St. Lucia. The idea of the bountiful Caribbean paradise must have stuck in my mind, and it silently resurfaced in the early morning hours of Thursday, September 4. Thinking of cacao half-absentmindedly, I googled La Reunión, Oriente, Cuba — or something along those lines.

Suddenly, a website showed up, and it featured a peculiar image. On the luminescent surface of my iPad, there emerged a strange and modest vision of tropical flora. The little twigs were fairly unremarkable, a far cry from the superb orchids, say, that one readily visualizes when thinking of nature in the West Indies. But what really caught my eye was the label, all those words that suggested the story of how the little twigs had made it from Cuba to Massachusetts. On 29 March 1916, one E.L. Ekman found himself on the island, in the province of Oriente, in the Sierra Maestra, in the Finca La Reunión, south of a place he spelled Hongolo-Songo. There, at an altitude of 650 meters above sea level, where they grew in thickets, he gathered his specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb., a beauteous name for an object quite ordinary in shape and color. From there, the poor desiccated things must have been transported north to Harvard, proud collector of all that exists in creation. But what about Brazil, or Stockholm, or the phrase “Plantæ Itineris Regnelliani III,” all of which could be read on the label?

Harvard Herbaria - La ReuniónWhat truly mattered, though, was to see, albeit merely online, a real plant from La Reunión, a mythical name in my family’s history. We — or, more accurately, my grandmother’s grandfather — had once had a cacao and coffee plantation in the mountains of southeastern Cuba. When I was a child growing up in a place called Exile (i.e., Puerto Rico), my grandmother, Carmen de Granda Vidaud, would recount the half-forgotten story of La Reunión. For reasons that I don’t quite know but were probably related to her peculiar character, she had grown up on that farm, a lonely child, while her six siblings — two boys and four girls — remained in Santiago de Cuba, living at home with their parents. Her grandfather was named Albert, or Alberto, Vidaud, and he descended, or so the story went, from emigres who had settled in Cuba sometime after the French Revolution, fleeing from the troubles in Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti. They had preserved their language, by which I mean not only the lexicon and syntax of French, but also certain verbal emphases that, years later as a young man, I would recognize in, say, a short-tempered hotel proprietor in Paris. “Il faut le dire,” the man would say, and I must say I would detect in his judgmental demeanor my grandmother’s equally superior expression, “Hay que decirlo.” Having been raised by her grandparents, Carmela, as she was known by everyone until her death at the age of 95 in Exile, learned French as a little girl. Along with a cousin also named Alberto Vidaud, like their grandfather, she was one of the few members of her generation to grow up a bilingual child. Hers was also, I believe, the last generation in Santiago de Cuba in which there were any native speakers of that tongue.

As a child, I was amused by the eccentric tales of that comical bunch, “los franceses de la calle del Gallo,” or the rue du Coq, one of the hubs of what had been a substantial and vibrant French community for much of the nineteenth century. But La Reunión was mythical, not funny, for the simple reason that it twice performed a melancholy vanishing act — or maybe it did so three times. First, around 1895, at the onset of Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain — also known, lopsidedly, as the Spanish American War — La Reunión was burned to the ground by Cuban patriots who mistakenly believed that French landowning families, in a pan-European gesture of sorts, supported Spanish colonial rule. La Reunión would disappear a second time again — for good now and, with it, for us, the entire island of Cuba — after the 1959 revolution. By 1968, our whole family, including Carmela, had made its way to other parts of the world.

When those little twigs brightly popped up on my iPad, it was like an apparition. There it was, in the middle of the night, as I lay half-asleep on my couch in predawn Los Angeles, a fragment of far-away Cuba, a little souvenir, a handful of leaves from Alberto Vidaud’s cacao and coffee plantation — or so I thought.