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.


XXIX – I Dream of Fanny

Vidaud, Fanny - Rochambeau Manifest - 1914Let’s just say it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a young lady without a husband or children, but with some money, has nothing better to do than to cross the Atlantic — many times. From a certain angle, such seems to have been the destiny that Fanny Georgiana Vidaud crafted for herself. Of the seven other children descended from Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait — who was born in Bordeaux and migrated via Santiago de Cuba to Brooklyn in the 1840s — and his American wife, Mary E. Scott Boyd — also known at least briefly (and strangely) as the Countess de Pomeray — none seems to have journeyed abroad as much as Fanny. As I described in that earlier post, Fanny G. Vidaud was a traveler. Her digital afterlife comprises records of multiple arrivals in New York from various European ports — Le Havre, Liverpool, Rotterdam — on ships whose names, decades later, sound impossibly romantic: the Saxonia, the Rochambeau, the Westernland… She was an immigrant’s child reconnected to her father’s birthplace, if not to the island where he had spent some time, and I wonder what went through her mind as she sailed back to the United States on each of those occasions, on ships that also transported new immigrants. Did Fanny feel at home as she beheld the growing skyline of her hometown? Or was she a stranger, at home elsewhere, on the other side of the ocean? Or where there many places worthy of being called home? Or was she essentially an unhoused soul, with no place truly to call hew own? And can we have any insight into any of this, after all these years?

If Fanny’s ghost lives on in the digital universe, her spirit is virtually gone by now. There might be letters waiting somewhere to be read, but mostly what remains are cold official documents that don’t allow us to retrieve her mind transparently. Then again, soul, ghost, spirit, mind — what are these things, anyway? At least we have some hard facts. We know about her professional vocation. She trained to be, and went on to work, as a kindergarten teacher. On 24 May 1890, the New York Times reported on the commencement exercises of the Workingman’s School of the Society of Ethical Culture, held the evening before in its building at 109 W. 54th Street. The school had been founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, born in Germany, the son of a rabbi, and eventually the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University. The Workingman’s School is now the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. On its website, children narrate the school’s history on video, and we’re reminded of ECFS’s founding principles: “Compelled by charity, idealism and pedagogy, Adler emphasized moral education, psychological development and integration of the creative and manual arts with academics.” Indeed, the Times article described such a scene: “In the various rooms of the building were displayed specimens of the works of the pupils, including designs for fancy work, models in wood, metal, and plaster, which reflected great credit on the methods of teaching employed in the school.” Among the fourteen graduates of the Normal Kindergarten Class was Fanny G. Vidaud. What prompted her to attend the Workingman’s School is a mystery. But, born as she was in 1862, she was in her late twenties when she graduated, which makes me think it was her own decision, a turn of events — I wish to think — connected to deeply held beliefs in the promise of education to effect social reform. Perhaps it was also her own sense of independence — the notion that a woman ought to have not just a room, but a profession of her own. Perhaps it was also the need to ensure a livelihood.

There is much written on Professor Adler, but very little on Fanny. The records I find online are reticent and intermittent. Yet they testify to her long career as a teacher and her continued thirst for learning. More than a decade after the note in the New York Times, she is listed in the Harvard University Catalog of 1890-91 as a kindergarten teacher taking a summer course in Physical Training — everything from calisthenics to fencing and swimming: “Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, Kindergartner, Mrs. Scribner’s School, New Brighton, N.Y.” (New Brighton, I learn via Google, is on Staten Island.) In 1903, as I noted previously, she is a student in the Section des sciences historiques et philologiques of Paris’ École des hautes études pratiques — one of the few women registered there. And there she is again, Fanny Vidaud, now 61, in April 1924, arriving in Plymouth, England, from New York on the Cunard Line’s Ausonia, described in the passenger manifest’s column for “Profession, Occupation or Calling of Passengers” as a teacher, while most other women are listed as housewives. And there she is, yet again, in 1928, sailing from Greenock, Scotland, to Montreal on the White Star’s Doric: Fanny G. Vidaud, 55 ( but wasn’t she 66 by then?), listed in the alien passengers’ manifest as a citizen of the United States and a teacher. But finally, in 1930, as she arrives on the Red Star Line’s Pennland from New York once again in Plymouth, her profession is now recorded as “Nil.”

We don’t know the specific reasons for all those transatlantic journeys, but it is easy to imagine that Fanny would visit her numerous Vidaud relatives — uncles, aunts, cousins — in Bordeaux and Pau, and tour the multiple sights of the various cities in which she spent time. It may have been the Gilded Age in wealthy America when she started crossing the Atlantic, but Europe still possessed the cultural capital one was expected to cherish. But I think — maybe I know — that wasn’t all.

Vidaud, Fanny - Passport Application - 1915A citizen of the world, as I envision her, Fanny chose to play an active role in the Great War. Three passport applications obliquely tell a story of concern for others regardless of borders. On 17 April 1915, well before her own country entered the war, Fanny Vidaud, “a native and loyal citizen of the United States,” applied for a passport to travel to France for the explicit purpose of conducting “relief work among refugees.” Tellingly, the name of a second country, England, and the intended reason for visiting it — “pleasure” — are crossed out, almost as if she had realized at the last minute what really mattered in a time of emergency. Also crossed out are those patriarchal phrases that all single and childless women like Fanny needed to contend with at the time: “accompanied by my wife;” “minor children.” But as much as I would like to find out, I don’t know exactly how Fanny spent that period of time — over a year, it seems — in France. Did she stay with her family in Bordeaux or Pau, or was she elsewhere? In August 1916, as the war rages on, she ventures across the Atlantic on the Saxonia from Liverpool back to New York. I don’t know why. But then, on 18 May 1918, before the war is over, Fanny applies for a new passport to return to France. This time she plans to engage in “war relief work.” She stays there until 1920; on 17 January she applies for yet another passport, at the United States Passport Bureau in Paris, to travel back home, or “home.” This third application affords a tiny glimpse into her life abroad. We learn she had arrived in Bordeaux in August 1918, and that she now lives at 144bis, boulevard Montparnasse, in Paris. Filling in the application’s blank spaces, she also states that she has been residing in France “for the purpose of Relief Work, on behalf on Independent.” Six months later, in July 1920, just as she had done in January 1914, she sails back to New York from Le Havre on the Rochambeau, an ocean liner of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, named after the French nobleman who had taken part in the American Revolutionary War — a Franco-American figure of sorts, I suppose, like Fanny herself to some degree, or the Statue of Liberty, greeting those arriving from other lands.

In the next ten years or so, Fanny would return to Europe a few more times. A fourth passport application — the last one I have found — is dated 2 March 1922 in New York. It tells a story of peace regained. Fanny states that she plans go to France and England (“Visit to Relatives”) and to Italy (“Travel”). Like the other passport applications she has completed before, this one also requests that she tell the immigration story of her father. Once again, Fanny must write down that her father’s name is E.O. Vidaud, that he was born in France, that he died on 2 June 1888, and that “he emigrated to the United States from the port of Santiago, Cuba, on or about 1845; that he resided 45 years uninterruptedly in the United States, from 1845 to 1888, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; that he was naturalized a citizen of the United States before … ” She knows the year, 1858, of the naturalization ceremony, but ignores the court in which it was held, so she impatiently scrawls the word “Unknown” across the blank space. There is only so much one can know, or there is only so much one can be bothered to recall. Or am I imagining things? Am I seeing a rebellious mind where there was none?

Vidaud, Fanny - PictureThere she is, Fanny in her late fifties, wrapped in furs for her passport photograph in 1922. The Description of Applicant affords a few specific details about her physical appearance. She is five feet one inch tall; her hair is white; her eyes, hazel; her complexion, fair; her nose, large. Her eldest brother, Robert, is the witness, and the passport, once issued, will need to be delivered at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn. At the time, I believe Robert is living in New Jersey, so it’s arguably not altogether surprising that he would be staying at a hotel in New York. But what about Fanny? Where does she live? There is much that I don’t know about her last decade. I have a feeling that she, an expatriate of sorts, may not have had a permanent home of her own anywhere. Her addresses change, and she appears to move to other parts of the city and even other states, apparently to stay with family members. In 1928, returning from Scotland to the United States on the Doric, her address is listed as 15 Hubbard Woods, Illinois, with a note specifying that this is where her sister, Mrs. J.R. Montgomery, lives. Indeed, Marion Vidaud had married John Rogerson Montgomery, a lawyer from Chicago, in 1912 and moved to that city’s northern suburbs. In 1930, Fanny returns to New York from Antwerp in 1930, and the ship’s manifest has her living at 609 W. 51st Street. Yet that building, it appears, was not anyone’s home, but the address of the Brambach Piano Co., for which her brother, Edward E. Vidaud, had been working for since 1919. Three years later, in 1931, Fanny is back in Europe and, upon her return to the U.S. from Southampton, her address is again her sister’s house near Chicago. And then, in 1938, suddenly, we have a record of her death in Braintree, Massachusetts. How did she end up there? Was she living alone, or was she lodging in someone else’s house? To me, all the years I lived in Boston, Braintree was simply a name, the end of the Red Line in the opposite direction from Harvard. Had I known about Fanny, had I known that she died there, I would have taken the T to Braintree and … Perhaps I’m looking at all this too dramatically. The past, such as it is, may be partially regained, but it often remains illegible and must be performed on an oneiric key.

I dream of Fanny because the patterns of her life resound with some of the stories of the Vidaud family that I find most compelling. Like Fefa, whose third cousin she was, Fanny cared for children; like Bebé, she embraced the world beyond her native shores. But I dream of her because she moved from place to place as if borders did not exist, embracing, it seems, life elsewhere, everywhere. In dreams, I see her sailing across the Atlantic between Europe and the Americas, neither here nor there nor anywhere. Nowhere.

IX – Brooklyn

We, the people who descend from the Cuban Gauls, reside now in not small numbers across these United States. As an extended family of sorts, we cover the land from sea to shining sea, from California all the way east to Florida and north to Maine, and then Massachusetts and New Jersey and Maryland and Kentucky — not to mention New York, where Étienne Octave Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait migrated to from Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, and where many of his descendants, I imagine, are probably still to be found. Born in 1826, Étienne was the third son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Port-au-Prince, and Anne-Joséphine Tardy, born in Santiago de Cuba. (She, in turn, was a granddaughter of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français.) Étienne was a half-cousin (it’s complicated) of my grandmother’s grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet. What prompted him to leave Cuba for the United States — instead of France, as most of his siblings did — is a mystery to me. Why he settled in Brooklyn is yet another mystery. Described by M. Vallantin Dulac as a “négociant armateur” (a shipowner entrepreneur?), Étienne actually appears to have engaged in less glamorous occupations upon first arriving in the United States. In the 1857 edition of Trow’s New York City Directory, he is listed as a “clerk” working at 18 Beaver St., New York, and living at 298 Union St., Brooklyn; in 1872, he has risen to “imp.” (importer, but of what?), working at the same place, but now living at 349 Union; in 1880, he is a “mer.” (merchant). Then again, in Trow’s 1879 edition, in the section titled “Wilson’s New York City Copartnership Directory,” Étienne O. Vidaud (as he is now called) is listed next to Frederick Barnstorff of Barnstorff & Co., located on 34 Broadway. As several mentions of it — variously related to the arrival of a ship from Bremen, Germany, or the importation of honey and molasses from Cienfuegos, Cuba — in the Marine Intelligence section of the New York Times reveal, Barnstorff & Co. was indeed a shipping-related concern.

In New York, Étienne married Mary E. Scott Boyd, who, in C.H. Browning’s Americans of Royal Descent (1883), styles herself as the Countess de Pomeray — which I don’t quite understand, since her husband had two older brothers, Pierre-Paul (the real count, according to M. Vallantin Dulac), who died in Paris only in 1907; and Ernest, who was a medical doctor in Pau, where he died in 1912. Who knows, maybe Étienne told Mary he was a French count, and she fell for the glamor of a European nobiliary title. In any event, he and the fausse-Comtesse had eight children, the eldest of whom, Josephine Susan, was born in Brooklyn in 1854. Our first American, Étienne died on 2 June 1888 and is buried in Orange, N.J.

The second of Étienne’s children was Robert Pomerait Vidaud, born in 1860. He married one Florence Wheelock at her parents’ residence on 161 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, on 26 April 1883, less than a month before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. They were married by Henry Ward Beecher, which makes me wonder what, if anything, the famous preacher knew about the Vidauds’ links to slavery in the Caribbean. The New York Times saw fit to print a description of Miss Wheelock’s wedding dress — “Her costume was of white satin en train, with high corsage trimmed with duchesse lace; her veil was caught at the side with orange blossoms” — as well as of the house’s look, where “the parlors were tastefully decorated with flowers and tropical plants.” (Ah, botany, you again!) Were the tropical plants chosen as a reminder of Robert’s father’s birthplace, or were they just in vogue at American weddings in the 1880s? I suspect the latter. There must be a picture somewhere of the happy couple, perhaps posing by the exotic blooms, but I haven’t found one. A successful businessman — a broker in hatter’s fur — and member of the Rembrandt Club of Brooklyn, among others, Robert P. Vidaud, as he came to be known, died in Glen Ridge, N.J., in 1936. Only one tragedy darkens his life’s digital record.

R.P. Vidaud & Son - AdRobert and Florence had two children. The oldest was Erving Wheelock Vidaud, born in 1885. As recorded in the Secretary’s Third Report for the Harvard College Class of 1906, Erving “prepared for college” at the Hackley School, in Tarrytown, N.Y. Given that his second great-grandfather was an architect, I like the fact that Erving went to Hackley, the same school from which the great Philip Johnson would also graduate two decades after him. After Harvard, Erving returned to New York, and in 1910, according to The American Hatter, Robert, who by then had become “the well-known broker in hatters’ fur,” admitted his son Erving to partnership. The firm, known henceforth as R.P. Vidaud & Son, was located at 13 Washington Place in Manhattan. This is all NYU territory nowadays, I believe, but in the 1910s it must have been the hatter’s fur district, given the number of similar firms located on that one street; one can see their ads in The American Hatter. How did Robert, a man whose paternal side of the family hailed from tropical Saint-Domingue and Cuba, end up as a broker in wintry furs, of all things, is a mystery to me. And what took Erving eventually to Philadelphia and Washington, when he was his father’s partner in R.P. Vidaud & Son in New York — that too is a mystery.

Vidaud, Mary - WeddingSo many mysteries! But at least the press recorded a few things that shed some light into the lives of these ghosts. According to the New York Times, Erving was an usher at his sister’s wedding. Mary Vidaud, Smith College Class of 1911, married Heermance Montague Howard, Williams College Class of 1910, on 18 April 1914 at the Church of the Savior in Brooklyn. A reception was held at 161 Joralemon, the same house where Mary’s parents, Robert and Florence, had been married. Mary’s paternal grandfather, Étienne, was surely baptized a Catholic in Cuba, but her father, Robert, according to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 8 December 1936, was a “life member of the Unitarian Association” and held several important positions at the Church of the Savior. So Mary was now married in a Unitarian church. This departure from Popish ways makes sense also if one considers that Mary’s mother was a Wheelock, an old Massachusetts family who had crossed the Atlantic and arrived in what is now the United States more than two centuries before Étienne sailed north from the Caribbean. Indeed, Florence Wheelock’s fifth great-grandfather was Ralph Wheelock, born in 1600 in Shropshire, England, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he obtained both a bachelor and a master of arts degree. The Wheelock Family genealogy site describes the university at the time as “the center of the dissenting religious movement that gave rise to Puritanism.” Sans blague. In 1637, Ralph Wheelock and his wife, Rebecca, sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving in a still very new New England. Boston had been founded only in 1630, and Harvard itself was just one year old. “A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard, / The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,” is how Seamus Heaney would put it some 350 years later — but I digress.

Vidaud, Erving - Death N.Y. TimesLess that six months after Mary’s wedding to Heermance Howard, war broke out in Europe and tragedy struck in the Vidaud family. Once again, my main source is the ever reliable Times. The house on Joralemon St. had been empty for the summer when the newlywed Mary and a servant returned from Garden City, N.Y., where, according to the New York Tribune, the Vidauds had a summer home. Upon entering the house, they smelled gas and then, in what must have been a horrible shock, found Erving, the family’s only son, lifeless in his bedroom. At the time of his premature death on 30 September 1914, Erving was a member of Brooklyn’s Hamilton Club, the Harvard Club of New York, and the University Club in Washington, D.C. — a successful young man, it seems. But was it that cold in Brooklyn that early autumn day that all windows in the house on Joralemon St. were closed? What really happened is yet another mystery. In any event, Erving was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Lot 3073, Section 25, to be joined by his father and mother only in 1936 and 1946 respectively. (Incidentally, must one be Cuban to find the Times headline announcing the death somehow terribly funny?)

R. Vidaud DiesAfter his son’s death, Robert P. carried on with his trade. In its August 1918 issueThe American Hatter describes a meeting of business leaders held after the war: “One of the most important gatherings ever held in this country took place at Atlantic City, December 2nd to 7th, when all of the War Services Committees representing the nation’s industries came together at the call of the United States Chamber of Commerce for a War Emergency and Reconstruction conference.” Standing for the Hatters Fur Industry — as opposed to the Fur & Wool Felt Hat Manufacturers or the Straw and Panama Hat Industry — was “R.P. Vidaud, of the American Hatters & Furriers Co., Inc.” No more R.P. Vidaud & Son, after the tragedy; in fact, Robert went to work for someone else’s company. Or perhaps the firm had ceased to exist even earlier. Perhaps Erving, uninterested in his father’s fur business, had gone to Washington D.C. to start a new job as a salesman for the Firestone Tire Company. Automobiles and tires were a new thing; I suppose it must have been exciting to be a part of the new industry. Or the job may have taken him to Philadelphia, where the Harvard Club of New York lists him as living in 1913-14, at 615 North Broad Street. All this too, at least for now, remains a mystery.

Did the Vidauds of Brooklyn ever think of Cuba? Old Étienne must have, of course, since he was born there, but I don’t know what kind of relationship his children or grandchildren had with the faraway island. They surely heard of José Martí, a New Yorker of sorts, and his struggle for Cuban independence, but did they ever read “El puente de Brooklyn,” his essay on American technological might in which he also enumerates immigrants from all over the world? But there’s no mention of Cuba in Robert’s obituary — or in any other document pertaining to him that I’ve seen, for that matter.

One of Étienne’s children, Fanny Georgiana Vidaud, born in 1862, appears to have been a passionate, even fearless, traveler, but her trips, from what I can see, where consistently Europe-bound. Ship manifests from Ellis Island show her arriving back in New York from various European ports on at least eight occasions: 1903, on the Noordam from Rotterdam; 1910, the Madonna from Marseilles; 1916, in the middle of the war, the Saxonia from Liverpool; 1920, the Rochambeau from Le Havre; 1924, the Suffren again from Le Havre; 1927, the Providence from Marseilles; 1930, the Westernland from Antwerp; and 1931, when she was 69, the Pennland from Southampton. Through all of these sea voyages, the ship manifests also show that her marital status remained resolutely single. I suspect Fanny may have visited her transatlantic Vidaud cousins — the children of Étienne’s various siblings who left their native Cuba to settle “back” in France — in Pau, where most of them lived, and surely those in Paris, where she spent a substantial amount of time. The 1903 Annuaire of the École des hautes études pratiques lists her as a student in its Section des sciences historiques et philologiques. Most other students were French men, but there she is: “Vidaud de Pomerait (Fanny), née à New-York le 18 août 1862, Américaine.” And there too is her address, rue de l’École-de-Médecine, 4. I shall visit that street soon, and I shall return to Fanny G. Vidaud in this blog, for I detect in her a kindred spirit.

As for Cuba, could there still have been any meaningful connections for the Brooklyn Vidauds? Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt known as Fefa, loved the Vidauds of Barcelona, but I think she must have regarded her more remote North American cousins — those English-speaking Protestants — as nothing but strangers. Then again, there is an Ellis Island record from 1912 that has Erving returning to New York on the S.S Sixaola, a passenger and cargo ship. The digitalized document is virtually illegible, so I cannot really tell where the ship sailed from, but various websites indicate that the Sixaola normally traveled from New York to Jamaica, Cuba, Central America and back. Let’s therefore imagine that one fine day in the spring of 1912 Erving Wheelock Vidaud, our distant French-Cuban-American relative, sailed into Santiago de Cuba and slowly made his way to the tree- and flower-rich Sierra Maestra and reached La Reunión, redolent of coffee and cacao, and there he met Alberto Vidaud Caignet, his grandfather’s half-cousin, and chatted with Carmela, my shy and perspicacious seven-year-old grandmother, whose own brother, Fernando de Granda Vidaud, would die in old New England, where I too would spend nine years of my life.

Étienne and his descendants were not the first Vidauds in these United States. Albeit not permanently, people surnamed Vidaud were present in this country as early as the turn of the nineteenth century, and I will soon try to retrace their footsteps. But, for now, I am strangely comforted by the ghostly presence of Étienne & Co. as they walk in some of my — their, our — old haunts. My brother, a student at Pratt Institute and a Williamsburg pioneer in the 1980s, lived in Brooklyn for years, not that far from Joralemon Street, and I often visited him there from Cambridge, where I was a graduate student. Also in that preternaturally remote era, my sister was an undergraduate at Boston College. We would meet downtown, do some shopping perhaps, and say good-bye at the Park St. T station; she’d take the Green Line back to B.C. and I the Red Line to Harvard Square. I would then walk across the Yard — autumnal, or snow-covered, or radiantly verdant — back home to my apartment. I didn’t know it at the time, but Erving W.V. had lived in Holworthy Hall during his senior year. That red-brick building was, or is, just steps from another red-brick building in the Yard, Thayer Hall, in whose basement, eighty years after Erving’s time, I would spend an entire summer editing a student travel guidebook to “Europe,” a sentimental abstraction to which I was as devoted as Fanny G.V. seems to have been several decades before me. All that is past now, but when I think of our tutelary digital specters, the past is not dead at all.

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.