XXXIV – Reading the Leaves

All this — this search so recherché — began eleven months ago with the online vision of a few leaves housed in the Harvard herbarium, sent there from Cuba — specifically, a mythical place called La Reunión — by a Swedish botanist. Since that early-morning apparition on my iPad, the modest specimen has birthed more leaves, veritable folios of the readable paper kind, preserved and transmitted through decades and even centuries. Arboreal excrescences, they are documents of various kinds: lovingly crafted family trees; a marriage certificate from the time of the French Revolution; photographs of children wearing peculiar hats or holding communion candles; ship manifests showing the name of a solitary transatlantic passenger; a newspaper article on the death of a young man; passports bearing mournful stamps; a nonagenarian lady’s memoirs. By means of the web and its real-life ramifications, the lives and times of numerous individuals variously associated with the Vidaud surname — a family of sorts — keep growing and branching out in unsuspected ways. Softly piling upon each other, those old leaves and the stories they tell lead to more old leaves and more stories, and my Vidauds, like any other tribe that ever existed, emerge as manifold twigs on innumerable trees in an endless immeasurable forest.

In the last few weeks, four interesting leaves of paper have come my way via email or through Vidaud Reunion, our secret Facebook group. One of my genealogist cousins in Miami received from Cuba typewritten — yes, typewritten! — copies of two baptism certificates registered in the 1860s at the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, or Tiguabos, a village located somewhere near Guantánamo. And just a few weeks earlier, a cousin’s cousin — also a fine genealogist who, fortunately, has taken an interest in the Vidauds — kindly sent me two other typewritten copies of church documents — a marriage certificate from 1856, and a baptism certificate from 1849 — archived at the same parish of San Anselmo. Surely not coincidentally, all four copies are signed by Father Jean González Romero, of Santa Catalina de Ricci (Guantánamo’s cathedral), and dated April, May or July of this year. I have the impression that the old parish doesn’t exist anymore; perhaps not even the village itself does. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, San Anselmo de los Tiguabos merited an entry in Jacobo de la Pezuela’s Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba, published in Madrid in 1866. We learn that the village boasted “un templo de modesta fábrica, pero con todo lo necesario para el culto,” and that in 1857 it had a population of 155 individuals “de toda clase, edad y sexo.” It must have been near this little village that the brothers Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud de Boischadaigne started their coffee plantation, adjacent to which Paul François Caignet — arguably one the scariest ghosts in our family tree — started one of his own. In her notebook, Nunú writes that Adelson and Adolphe must have arrived in Cuba around 1830 to 1835, while Francisco Caignet, as he is also known, took a more circuitous route. In Santo Domingo — as she calls what I believe must have been Haiti, which then ruled over what is now the Dominican Republic — Francisco had “un cafetal muy bueno, muy grande.” But a slave revolt in 1841 — a questionable date, given that slavery had been abolished on all of Hispaniola — forced him to flee to Louisiana, whence he ended up migrating to Cuba after the death of his wife. He had five children, including Charlotte and Corinne, the oldest sisters, who ended up marrying Adolphe and Adelson. We have found documents that amplify and arguably correct Nunú’s version of Francisco’s migrations and labors; the Louisiana Slave Records show, for instance, that he was in New Orleans as early as 1815, where he sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie for 500 dollars.

Vidaud Caignet, Matilde - BaptismAs interesting as it is to have those little papers from Guantánamo, they complicate the story of the children of Adolphe, also known as Pedro Adolfo, and Charlotte, referred to as Carlota María. The baptism certificate seen here belongs to their daughter Matilde Juana Cecilia, born on 27 June 1860. In time, that little newborn girl would become the mother of María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, also known as Nunú, whose splendid narrative, written toward the end of her long life in Miami, I just quoted. Matilde was the youngest of the seven Vidaud Caignet siblings, the oldest of whom, Albert or Alberto, was my second great-grandfather. Because I have recounted parts of that old story a few times before, it has acquired the dusty feel of ancient history, but new and contradictory details have now emerged. For one, we always thought that Charlotte was a native of New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba, while a birth certificate — that of Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, registered in Havana in 1893 — states that Adolphe, in his turn, was born in Santiago de Cuba, not France… As for Matilde’s paternal grandparents, we always knew that “Francisco” — the elusive François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, the first of our Cuban Gauls — was French-born, but we have every reason to believe that “Dª Juliana” — Anne-Julienne Gué — was not born in France, but Cap-Français, present-day Cap-Haïtien… Confusion also reigns regarding Matilde’s maternal grandparents; we think that “D. Pablo Francisco Caignet” was born in Saint-Domingue (in Port-au-Prince, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook), not France, while “Dª María Paulina Hevia” — also identified as María Carlota or Josephina Arthemisia Caignet! — was supposedly born (and died) in New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba… Perhaps by “natural de Francia” the priest at San Anselmo de los Tiguabos meant that those persons were French citizens, not natives of France, but, even so, questions would still remain. If all of this sounds unreadable, blame the little sheets of paper, not my über-careful analysis of these matters.

Vidaud Caignet, Mª Fca. Cirila - BaptismAnd then there is the case of the second baptism certificate. Surprisingly, it belongs to a younger girl, born on 9 July 1864, who, to confound us even further, is named María Francisca Cirila, recalling an older sister also named María. The first María eventually moved to Barcelona, where she appears to have had a full and rich life until her death in 1944; as for the second María, we know only that she was born and christened. Yet another mystery are the little girl’s godparents, registered as “D. Francisco Alberto y Dª María Josefa Vidaud.” Who are they? Could they be my second great-grandparents? Alberto Vidaud Caignet appears as José Alberto in the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, but Francisco Alberto is not a name combination I have seen before. As for María Josefa, that name too is difficult to place. Alberto’s wife is named Felicia Trutié, but one of their daughters is Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our Fefa. But she could not have been born yet, let alone be old enough to be anyone’s godmother in 1864. Then again, perhaps Felicia Trutié’s complete name was also Josefa Felicia, like her daughter? But did women adopt their husband’s surnames in colonial Cuba? Or perhaps — and this is what strikes my cousin in Miami and me as most probable — this María Josefa is an altogether different character: Josefa Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, one of Adelson’s daughters and the future wife of Carlos Lecumberri — that is, the lady inscribed as Madame Carlos de Lecumberri on the faire-part of Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, comte du Dugnon, who died in Pau in 1907. And now that I think about it, could this Francisco Alberto be Adelson, Adolphe’s elusive brother? Could it be that the original manuscript, probably hard to decipher after more than 150 years of heat and humidity, really reads Francisco Adelson, and that the strange middle name was mistakenly transcribed by the modern copyist, Padre González Romero, when he (or an assistant?) typed this particular little leaf just over a month ago, on 2 July 2015? (I would not fault the good father for any of these minor transcription errors, as he appears to have far more important matters to attend to, such as assisting people in prison and reporting cases of cholera in Guantánamo.) Be that as it may, little María Francisca Cirila, the mystery child, vanishes forever.

Vidaud, Adelson - MarriageOur theory of Adelson’s accidental metamorphosis into Alberto is arguably — though certainly not conclusively — buttressed by the third little paper, which is the marriage certificate of “D. Francisco Adelson Videau” and “Dª María Juliana Caignet.” The wedding took place on 26 May 1856, not at San Anselmo del Tiguabo, but at Santa Catalina de Ricci itself, the cathedral in Guantánamo. As befits what must have been regarded as a more prestigious setting and solemn occasion, the marriage certificate deploys a more ornate lexicon and syntax than the rural baptism records; there is mention of a most illustrious, excellent and reverend archbishop and of the Holy Council of Trent, and there is also a discreet little phrase in Latin. Again, contradictions arise. Both groom are bride are said to be natives of Santiago de Cuba, which may well be the case, except that we thought Adelson’s wife, like her sister, had been born in New Orleans. More importantly, we always knew that her name was Corinne, or Corina Marie Justine, as the family tree in Nunú’s notebook has it, or a variant thereof. Could it be that the original document really reads “María Justina” and that Padre González Romero was a little confused, given that the names of the groom’s and bride’s parents are all mentioned below, and that Adelson’s mother is Juliana — Anne-Julienne, really — Gué? In any event, the fact that Adelson is not simply Adelson, but Francisco Adelson, persuades me to consider that the man listed as Francisco Alberto in María Francisca Cirila Vidaud’s baptism certificate was really named Francisco Adelson…

Cecilia Carabalí - BaptismIf I could speak to my spectral Cuban Gauls, I think I would adopt a histrionic and reproachful tone for the occasion. What a sorry séance that would be. Ah, my ancestors, what a tangled web we weave when we conceive of you as figures that can somehow be regained and understood. You are ciphers, and, in fact, there is much about your ilk that calls for permanent relegation to the the ash heap of history. Who cares about your twisted stories, your labyrinthine nomenclatures, when it appears you lacked the grace to see how blind you were? Read, if you can, this other document. On August 22 of the Year of Our Lord 1849, it reads, the priest in charge of the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, Don Luis Francisco Pérez, anointed with oil and chrism a two-year old girl whom he named Cecilia. We know so little about her. We know that she was born on 19 March 1847 and that her godparents were “D. Alberto Videau” (Adelson, perhaps?) and “Dª Justina Caignet” (Corinne, I presume). Her father’s name is missing, but we know her mother is Victoria Carabalí, an appellation that invokes an origin on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa, perhaps present-day Nigeria. We also know that both mother and child were enslaved to one man — “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” And that, I’m afraid, is all we know. No photographs, no passports, no passenger manifests — nothing much, really, to retrieve the little girl from the reticent surface of a yellowish leaf of paper. If I could speak with you, Cecilia, I don’t know what I would say, except that I feel close to your ghost and that I’m fortunate to have read your one and precious leaf.

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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.

XXII – To Reconnoiter

If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, how does one go about reconnoitering its alien shores, inaccessible landscapes, impenetrable citadels and cities, quaint customs and manners — its essential opacity? Consider, for instance, the ever receding nineteenth century, an age in which men could only marry women, and women men. What a strange world it must have been.

Vidaud du D. de B., Adolphe & Charlotte CaignetAnd consider these two nineteenth-century characters, a respectable couple, it seems. The bearded gentleman is Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, and the lace-veiled lady is his wife, Charlotte Caignet Hevia. They are my third great-grandparents. Faithful readers of this blog have seen the stern-looking Adolphe before. He matters to my cousins and me because he is, in a sense, the first of our Cuban Gauls. His father was François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, who left France for Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror with four of his brothers; unlike at least three of them, who returned to France, François No. 7 (as we call him to distinguish him from his homonymous brothers), appears to have spent the rest of his life in the Caribbean, probably in Cuba. In the earlier entry on Adolphe, I could do little more than speculate about the milestones of his life. We really just had the information that M. Vallantin Dulac provided in his “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” published online: “Adolphe VIDAUD du DOGNON de BOISCHADAIGNE, marié à Santiago de Cuba avec Charlotte COIGNET [sic], dont les sept enfants ont laissé postérité actuelle à Santiago de Cuba.” We know who the seven children are, but then there were more questions than answers. We wanted to know whether Adolphe was born in Cuba or France. We were curious about how he and his younger brother, Adelson, had come to marry two sisters, Charlotte and Corinne — a triumph of alliterative love. We thought Adolphe must have died in Cuba, but we weren’t sure. At one point — for a few minutes — we thought we had a firsthand account of a visit by an American traveler to his coffee plantation, named La Carlota — a sad instance of briefly mistaken identity. We did have a portrait of him, but it wasn’t in the best condition. To apprehend him, I could stare into his severe visage hoping to be carried by the wings of physiognomy, or I could close my eyes and think of, well, perhaps someone like Victor Hugo or Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whom I thought he resembled. But Adolphe, of course, a ghost from the past, escapes me.

As for Charlotte, what little we knew of her line was troubling. Her father, François Caignet, sold slaves in New Orleans in 1815 and later appears to have possessed a coffee plantation named Mon Repos, along with forty slaves, in Oriente province. (Many years later, the surname Caignet became well known in Cuban and Latin American broadcasting culture. Charlotte and Corinne’s younger brother, Benjamin, was the father of Félix B. Caignet, an Hugo of sorts who wrote El derecho de nacer (1948), a drama produced by Havana’s famed CMQ radio and television network. But that’s a twentieth-century story, along with much of Félix’s pioneering work for the rise of a continental soap opera tradition, “algo así como una especie de integración lagrimal,” in the words of a critic.)

The nineteenth century won’t come to an end. Its digital life is expansive. As weeks and months passed, readers of this blog, including old and newly found cousins, have kept searching for the elusive Adolphe and Charlotte. A gentleman from Barcelona, you may recall, contacted me with childhood pictures of his own grandmother, Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s daughter. He also provided me with a copy of the his father’s birth certificate. Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, as he was called, was born in Havana, where his father commanded the Presidio, in 1893. In the document, Amelia’s parents are said to be living (unlike her father- and mother-in-law, who had died in the province of Girona, where her husband was from). Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s birthplaces are mentioned as well, but their names are now given in Spanish, and Adolphe has even acquired a new first name, which we had never heard of before. The child, Rafael, is said to descend “por línea materna de Don Pedro Adolfo Vidaud, natural de Santiago de Cuba, provincia de ídem; y de Doña Carlota Cagnet, digo Caignet y Herrera, natural de New Orleans, casados y vecinos del mencionado Santiago de Cuba.” Whoever copied the original certificate seems not to have been in top form; not only is Caignet at first misspelled, Carlota’s maternal surname is changed from Hevia to Herrera. Yet one thing appears to be certain. Both Adolphe, or Pedro Adolfo, and Carlota, or Charlotte, were still living in the 1890s. And we now had official confirmation of Adolphe’s Cuban birth.

Vidaud - CohnerBesides several pictures of his grandmother, Juana Amelia, both as a child in Santiago de Cuba and a young woman in Havana, the gentleman from Barcelona sent me the photograph of his great-grandparents posted above. I was somewhat troubled by the way in which man and wife appear to be conjoined forever in their cameo-like frames, so I tried to detach them from each other, but my photoediting talents are limited to square and rectangular shapes; what some descendant — possibly Juana Amelia herself in her Catalan exile — joined together in golden circular cages, I was not able to put asunder. Apparently the two frames were contained in a rectangular case, seen here, provided by the photographer, or maybe this image is just the back of another photograph? In any event, one fine day Adolphe and Charlotte could have found themselves in Galería Fotográfica de S.A. Cohner, on calle de O’Reilly in Havana. Had they traveled to the capital for the christening of Juana Amelia’s firstborn son? Can the photo, then, be from the 1890s? My knowledge of fashion is limited — so I can’t really date Charlotte’s coiffure, for instance. But her whole demeanor — the expression under the veils — looks earlier than that to me… In any event, the studios founded in Havana and Paris (where he would get the latest technology) by the American photographer Samuel Alexander Cohner were in business for several decades and into the twentieth century, so many dates are possible with just a little flight of imagination. (The story of Cohner, tragically killed in 1869, is worth its own blog.)

The nineteenth century, living on through the web, can fork into endless paths unless the Blogger — who is dangerously related to Félix B. Caignet, master yarn spinner — can exert a measure of storytelling self-control. Let’s resort then to an old-fashioned narrative, Nunú’s notebook, with its finite number of pages. She was, after all, a grandchild of Adolphe and Charlotte, and has interesting things to say about them. Her description of her grandfather is spot on: “Mi abuelo era un anciano alto con una barba grande, blanca, un aspecto patriarcal.” Sans blague. A family tree crafted and placed by someone else at the beginning of Nunú’s notebook claims that Pedro Adolfo was born in 1820 and María Carlota (she too gains a new name!) in 1830. But, alas, Nunú’s nineteenth century does not fit altogether neatly with what other documents say. For one, her memoirs recount that Adolphe was born outside of Cuba: “Mi abuelo Adolfo Vidaud Gué y un hermano, Adelson, vinieron a Cuba y compraron tierra en las montañas y fomentaron sus cafetales. Yo creo que ellos deben haber venido a Cuba por los años del 30 al 35 del siglo pasado.” Does this mean, then, that François No. 7 and his wife, Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué — who was born in Saint-Domingue and married her first husband in Philadelphia — went to live in France after they were married, supposedly in Santiago de Cuba, and that their two children were born on the other side of the Atlantic? And would it make any sense for a boy younger than fifteen to migrate with his even younger brother to a strange island in the Caribbean? And why, then, would Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud’s birth certificate claim a Cuban birth for “Pedro Adolfo”? What a tangled web we weave even when we do not seek to deceive.

Nunú herself is aware of the difficulties of reconnoitering the past, especially when it comes to the Vidauds and the Caignets, inhabitants of several foreign countries. After telling the straightforward story of her father’s migration from Spain to Cuba, she prefaces the tale of her maternal ancestors with a caveat: “Por parte de mi mamá las cosas se complican.” It is indeed complicated. She starts with the French Revolution, but she has more questions than answers: “La revolución francesa fue a fines del siglo antepasado. Yo no sé si antes o después, ni por qué, muchos jóvenes franceses emigraban, venían a Cuba, a Sto. Domingo, a otros países de América, compraban tierras, fomentaban cafetales.” In her account, Adolphe’s father and mother, the elusive François and Anne-Julienne-Aimée, are absent. This is not surprising. Those two remain the most elusive leaves in our family tree.

If chronology and motifs are hard to pin down, at least there are some other “facts” pertaining to the Cuban Gauls. Nunú’s tale of the Caignets starts with her second great-grandfather, Francisco, or François, who settled in Santo Domingo — by which I think she means Saint-Domingue or, more accurately, Haiti — where he is the owner of “un cafetal muy grande, muy bueno.” She then writes about a slave revolt in 1841, which forced owners to leave their coffee plantations and “the island” itself. The date is perplexing, as slavery had been abolished on Hispaniola by then, even on the western side of the island, Santo Domingo, occupied by Haiti from 1822 to 1844. (Ah, my readers, I confess I’ve learned History by surfing the web.) Nunú cites “mi tía” as the source of this story, and I assume she means Magdalena Vidaud Caignet, Adolphe’s and Charlotte’s sixth child, a remarkable woman whom she later credits as her only teacher. In any case, much earlier than 1841 (perhaps 1814?), François Caignet, a widower, moves to Louisiana with his son, also named François. In New Orleans, the younger François marries “una señorita de padre español de apellido Hevia,” and this young lady’s mother, Nunú goes on, was “una americana.” They had five children: Carlota, Corina, Benjamín, and the twins Luisa y Cecilia. The family tree at the start of Nunú’s notebook identifies the mother of these five children as María Carlota Hevie, or Hevia, who was born and died in New Orleans. But, again, it’s all rather confusing. María Carlota’s husband is referred to as Pablo Francisco Caignet, born in Puerto Príncipe, RD — the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, improbably located in the Dominican Republic.

Be that as it may, Nunú proceeds to mention the death of María Carlota Hevia (whom she does’t mention by name) upon the birth of her twins, and François’ subsequent decision to migrate to Cuba with his five children. In a fortuitous turn of events, François ends up purchasing land adjacent to the property where the two Vidaud brothers had settled. The rest is a story of friendship and love: “Naturalmente hicieron amistad y poco después se casaron los dos hermanos Vidaud con las dos hermanas Caignet: Adolfo con Carlota, mis abuelos, y Corina con Adelson.” Nunú paints an idyllic picture of life on the numerous coffee plantations owned by these people of French descent in the cool mountains of Oriente: “La vida en los cafetales era agradable. Eran muchos vecinos amigos. Tenían sus fiestas, almuerzos, comidas. Tenían esclavos.” Like other writers before her, Nunú treats slavery not without a measure of ambivalence; even as she decries and describes the horrendous cruelty of some slaveowners, she underscores the benevolent nature of her — our — own ancestors. Not without authorial trepidation, I shall return to this subject in the future.

Caignet, François RobertOne of my genealogist cousins in Miami has skillfully traced the presence of four generations of Caignets in Saint-Domingue, from their arrival in the colony from Bordeaux (perhaps) to their migration to Louisiana and Cuba sometime after the establishment of the Haitian republic. As he observes, the Caignet family runs deeper in Saint-Domingue than the Vidauds, who only arrived after the French Revolution and didn’t stay long afterwards. Paul François Caignet — the Pablo Francisco of the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, François Caignet’s father — was born in the colony in 1791. Paul François’ father, Joseph Pierre Caignet, was born in Jacmel, on the island’s southern coast, in 1739, while his mother, Charlotte Marguerite Baudoin-Desmarattes, was also born in Jacmel, though much later, in 1763. Charlotte Marguerite is the first, as far as we can tell, of several women named Charlotte and/or Carlota in our family tree. Joseph Pierre’s father was François Robert Caignet, born perhaps in Bordeaux and buried in the parish of Sainte-Rose-de-Lima, in Léogâne — an ancient church, incidentally, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and currently being rebuilt. François Robert is also the author of a 1752 document titled “Mémoires de mes services depuis que je suis à Saint-Domingue,” available in digital form on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer, in which he identifies himself as “garde-magasin général du Roi à Saint-Domingue” and “conseiller du Conseil supérieur de Léogâne.” I have not read this document yet; his penmanship is a bit of a challenge. Most interesting for me, a renegade Catholic, is Charlotte Marguerite’s Protestant line. Her father, Joseph Jean-Baptiste Baudouin-Desmarattes, was born in La Rochelle circa 1716, and his great-grandfather was the Sieur Solon Baudoin des Marattes, whose father, in turn, was one Jacques Beaudoin, who was seneschal of the Seigneurie of the Île de Ré and who married one Anne Collard at the Temple Calviniste of La Rochelle around 1610…

Dear reader, if you’re a little confused amid so many old branches and twigs, so am I. The art of reconnoitering the past takes you into a forest as thick the ancient vegetation of Hispaniola — a landscape now virtually vanished on the Haitian side, but once upon a time, I imagine, full of trees and ferns and orchids and many-colored birds. After all, this is the island Columbus called “la más hermosa cosa del mundo” — though, of course, he famously described several other “discoveries” in equally glowing terms. Speaking about these men who served the various monarchs of Castile and Spain, we’re about to embark on an a voyage of exploration far more Historical than anything we’ve previously seen in this silly little blog. My readers, we’re about to discover an actual reconnoiterer, a man named José Antonio de Evia, or Hevia, whom we believe to be the grandfather of Charlotte Caignet. From 1785 to 1786, Hevia explored and charted the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas. But those things are in the future.

XIX – Discourse and the Tropics

Family Tree- CuadernoThe photographs of the hatted children came to me from Barcelona, but the main source of my tale of the Vidaud Caignet siblings was Nunú’s notebook, prodigiously composed in Miami when she was in her nineties. It features a family tree in which the two brothers are named José Alberto and Luis Severo, and they are both older than Juana Amelia. Most interesting, it mentions that Alberto “had” La Reunión, while Severo had La Carlota and, later, La Luisa… What, exactly, did Nunú mean by “tenía”? Did La Reunión, the old coffee and cacao farm, so rich in other botanical specimens too, so elusive and mysterious, really belong to my second great-grandfather, after all, or did he “have” it in some other way?  I expect to return to La Reunión — in writing, if not in real life.

But let it not be said that we cannot see the forest for the family tree. It was simply by looking at the picture of the little boy, possibly Severo, in the somewhat conical, possibly faux-Ottoman, hat, that I wrote this:

“And 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.”

And then, drawing on Nunú’s journal, I wrote this:

“A prodigal son of sorts, he always returned to Cuba and, what’s more, died a hero’s death. There’s a measure of irony in his exit from this world. Severo, the transatlantic voyager, died on the short trip from Santiago de Cuba to Guantánamo as the ship he sailed on hit a rock and sank not far from the shore. A good swimmer, he tried to rescue a passenger gasping for air near him, but the effort overwhelmed him and both men drowned. I’m moved by Nunú’s succinct account of her uncle’s passing, inscribed in careful penmanship: ‘Mi tío era un buen nadador, pero vio uno que se estaba ahogando. Lo quiso salvar. No pudo. Se ahogaron los dos.’ Severo must have been wearing a hat that day as he sailed under the bright Caribbean sun. Perhaps it was a Panama hat, and it floated on the water for a period of time before sinking on the ocean bed; perhaps it was a gray day and Severo wasn’t really wearing a hat at all. Then again, wearing a hat wasn’t just about seeking protection from the sun.”

And then I had to delete this last paragraph. I reread the notebook. As it turns out, I had misread the name of the subject of this tragic episode. For some inexplicable reason, I saw “Severo” where Nunú had in fact written “Julio.” I was devastated. My misreading was my undoing. My tale of Severo suddenly lost its proper denouement. My second great-uncle’s real passing could not have matched the perfect drama of his apocryphal death by drowning not far from the rocky shores of Oriente.

More on Julio, the drowned man, known in Vallantin Dulac’s account as Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, later.

One of my dearest friends, a man who calls himself Gregorio, a Cuban-born reader and writer who now lives near Venice, follows my blog and tells me I should perhaps write — dare I say it? — a novel. Viewed from the Veneto, my Vidauds, he says, are a Caribbean clan far finer than those tacky Buendías. I’m tempted. A dreamer and a lover, Severo, like Juan Dahlmann, deserves a romantic death. Indeed, if I wrote undisguised fiction, I could recompose Severo’s death in whatever manner struck my fancy. But would that name, Luis Severo Vidaud Caignet or Sévère Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, still stand for our family ghost, the residue of a man who truly loved and lived, or would he, or it, be metamorphosed into a mere paper creature, a fabricated thing?

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.

XIII – Communicants

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

Rodiles Vidaud, Caroline - Anverso

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

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

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

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

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

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