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.

Advertisements

XVII – Physiognomy and Love

Vidaud, Ernest - EditedThis is the face of Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait. If I were Balzac, I would deploy my craft to read the passions inscribed on that visage, but I am no physiognomist. Yet I see curiosity and concentration in those dark eyes — an attempt to capture the world beyond one’s own body. He was, after all, a physician, a scientist in the nineteenth century, a man in an age of progress, and his eyes must have been open to observe and record the ebbs and flows of natural phenomena. His eyebrows and nose invoke the rigors of geometry, a will to measure and encompass the shapes of the earth — the complex botany of the Sierra Maestra, the grass- or snow-covered Pyrenees, the endless surface of the Atlantic Ocean. His forehead denotes intelligence, but also impatience; this man is not a sweet enlightened spirit, but rather the possessor of a sharp rational mind. The ears are mostly invisible, but they perceive all sounds; the lips, not quite uncovered either, are nevertheless poised to speak, demand, protest. Below the eyes, on both sides of the nose, the skin is flat and pale, as if to showcase bones and veins. But look at the hair — the virile mustache, the wild beard, the firm lovely waves on top. All that hair tells its own story not of passions but of Passion. The body may be hidden by thick Victorian garb, but we have read the intimate journals of the men and woman of that era, and we know better. The hand itself is naked. Sometimes an index finger is just an index finger; but sometimes it points to that which dares not to be depicted, as its flash — its luminous revelation — would breech photographic decorum of a certain kind.

This is what remains of Ernest V. du D. de P., who was born in Santiago de Cuba circa 1833, the sixth son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait and Anne-Joséphine Tardy. (In this, M. Vallantin Dulac’s chronology seems to be off; that of M. Alain Garric strikes me as more credible.) Following his peripatetic father and mother, he must have spent his childhood between Cuba and France. As if to honor his life on two continents, he married twice: first, Emilia de Arce, in Santiago de Cuba; and then Marie Bernardac, in Pau. That he was a doctor all sources seem to agree on. His own son, Joseph-Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also a doctor, was decorated with the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre during World War I. Our Ernest appears to have had a long life; sources suggest he was in Paris as late as 1912. Those are the facts, such as they are. Another such fact is my love for Ernest, though I’m not sure exactly what that means. What kind of love can one feel for one’s first great-grandfather’s second cousin, who also happens to be one’s second great-grandfather’s half-nephew, and who has been dead for over a hundred years? It’s complicated, as Facebook would have it, but such are the complexities of loving a distant relative, someone you only know from afar. Maybe my love is banal, as in the English and French usage of the verbs “to love” and “aimer” — I love chocolate, j’aime Brahms… My love of Ernest is probably no stronger than that, but it’s certainly stranger. It’s the love one feels for a specter, mostly invisible but ever so real, who, by means of the digital apparition of its face, decides to haunt you.

XVI – The Migration of Souls

So on the night of 31 October 1963, after passengers had had their tomato soup and shed some tears over impossible firetrucks, the Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia took off from Gander to complete the last leg of its long intercontinental journey. My father and I slept, but my mother spent the night imagining the dangers that lay ahead. More than half a century later, comforted by the soft light of my laptop, I can imagine the dark ocean, invisible and fearsome, over which we flew… It was All Saints Day, when we finally landed in Madrid, a cold and gray city virtually shut down on account of the religious holiday. With the help of an acquaintance that we miraculously ran into at Barajas, we made it to calle Jacometrezo, where the International Rescue Committee was headquartered. They gave us some pesetas, and we, newly minted political refugees, went to the pensión on plaza de la Marina Española where we would live for several months. The next day was All Souls Day, the first full day of our lives as exiles in Franco’s Spain, a nation far more Christian — far less modern — that its former colony in the Caribbean. It was also not a rich country, and we were less rich than most everyone else — but that sad tale of an icy room and garbanzos everyday for lunch is, for now, another story.

1962 - Vista Alegre - 1 - CMy parents had never set foot outside of Cuba, yet they belonged to families whose members had crossed the Atlantic many times. My mother’s paternal grandfather was born in Barcelona, and one of her maternal great-grandfathers hailed from Oviedo — not to mention the tribes of Cuban Gauls and their multiple ports of call. The most recent of those European migrants was María Montoro Céspedes, my paternal grandmother. She was born in Marbella, back then a small Andalusian town from which, on clear days, one could see the coast of Africa. Her father, an artist, migrated to Cuba with his three young daughters sometime in the early twentieth century in search of new seascapes to paint. Indeed, Maruja (as she was known) proudly displayed many of her father’s marinas in her house in Santiago de Cuba. Here is a picture of Maruja taken in 1962, in the elaborate living room of that house, not quite surrounded by the soon-to-be migrants. Her last years — she died in 1965 — must have been difficult and lonely. Her husband, a magistrate, had died over a decade ago, and her other son besides my father, a doctor in Havana, had also passed away prematurely. His three children, my cousins, remained in the faraway capital with their mother, while Maruja’s own two sisters lived in Pinar del Río, as far from Oriente as one could go without leaving Cuba. I’m told she loved her tchotchkes — she was a bit of a hoarder — and her garden. A sensitive soul, she used to take long baths that started well before sunset and ended after night had fallen, as she found the twilight to be overly melancholy. Maruja never returned to Spain, the country where her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were now political refugees, desperately wanting to return to their old New World.

Such stable characters, those migrants like María Montoro who bravely traversed the ocean yet stayed put in one place! By contrast, my second great-granduncle, Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also known just as Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait and described in various documents as a “négociant français,” was a shipowner, it seems, who lived in Santiago de Cuba and Bordeaux and appears to have spent much of his life happily on board a merchant vessel. No one in my immediate family has told me anything about him, but his digital afterlife — unlike that of Maruja, nonexistent until now — allows one to construct a rich and venturesome biography. He was the oldest son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon, No. 10 in Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy, who had been born at the Château de la Dourville in 1767 and migrated to Saint-Domingue with four of his brothers during the Reign of Terror. Like his brother François Vidaud du Dognon No. 11, the priest, Pierre No. 10 eventually returned to France. He had six children, and at least two of them had children of their own — two rich and strong branches whose many leafy twigs, now branches of their own, keep blooming in France and the Americas. In Port-au-Prince, Pierre No. 10 married Marie Henriette Petit, a native of that city. The wedding took place on 22 nivôse VII (though I’m sure it didn’t snow that day in the Caribbean). Pierre returned to France with his wife sometime before 1805, the year when Luce Eugénie Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, their second child, was born. He lived until 1839 and his widow until 1854. The French Revolution must have been a real trial for Pierre, but whatever may have been lost appears to have been recovered. Both husband and wife died at the Château de Laurenzane, in Gradignan, near Bordeaux. How they ended up in that distinguished dwelling is a mystery to me, but it is interesting to read about the place’s “activités viticoles” and learn that a greenhouse designed by Gustave Eiffel was built in the premises.

Our Pierre, the French man of commerce, was born in Port-au-Prince, like his mother, in 1802. His five sisters were born in France, and it is altogether plausible to assume that he spent his childhood in those places where his parents appear to have settled: Aubeville, Pommeret, and Angoulême. But by his early twenties he is back in Saint-Domingue, where, Vallantin Dulac tells us, he married Anne-Joséphine Tardy, the daughter of Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué and her first husband, Julien Tardy. Why Pierre returned to the Caribbean is yet another mystery. How Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba around 1800, also ended up in Saint-Domingue, which her mother appears to have fled after the murder of her own father, the architect Jean-Baptiste Gué — that too is a mystery. In any event, the young couple would not stay put for long. Their first child — Pierre Paul, who would later become the comte Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, was born in Bordeaux in 1826. But their second and third children were born in Santiago de Cuba, and the fourth in Gradignan; the rest of their nine children were all born in Cuba. One of them, Étienne, migrated to Brooklyn. Most of them eventually settled in France, including Marie Anne Méloë, who married an American and, like Étienne, moved to the United States. Only one child, Émile, was married in Santiago de Cuba and appears to have remained on the island for good.

Vidaud de Pomerait, Henriette - Birth certificateOne of my cousins in Miami has combed the superb digital records of the French Consulate in Santiago de Cuba and found several apparitions of our Pierre. His florid signature is inscribed as that of a witness on various birth and death certificates. Stendhal would famously recommend  reading “une page du Code civil chaque jour, avant de commencer à écrire, pour obtenir le degré de sécheresse convenable et se prémunir contre les fausses élégances du beau style romantique” — yet I find much that is inherently romantic in the truly elegant, if dry, pages of those records of the État civil I have read. Consider, for instance, this brief phrase on a birth certificate, following Pierre’s name: “négociant Français, établi à Santiago de Cuba, qui a dit avoir assisté aux derniers moments du défunt”… But my favorite record, seen here, is the birth certificate of Henriette Jeanne Vidaud de Pomerait, Pierre and Anne Joséphine’s fifth child, which I transcribe: “Acte de naissance de Henriette Jeanne, née le dix sept octobre mil huit cent trente quatre, à une heure du matin, fille de Pierre Videau de Pomerait fils, négociant demeurant ci devant à Bordeaux, Département de la Gironde, et de Dame Anne Joséphine Tardy, sa légitime Épouse”… It reads like a little novel in the making — a birth in the middle of the night, a father’s former residence in a city an ocean away, a mother’s legitimate status… And lest there could be any doubt, this: “Le Sexe de l’Enfant a été reconnu être féminin.” Vallantin Dulac tells us Henriette married one Émile Schmitt and would die childless — a twig’s end — in Pau. No year is given for her death.

Almanach de CommerceAround the time of Henriette’s birth, the Almanach du Commerce de Paris, des Départemens de la France et des Principales Villes du Monde, which my cousin has also found online, describes the port of Santiago de Cuba as one of the most beautiful in the Americas, making it clear that its white population is a minority, and listing several “négocians français et étrangers” in the city, including “Videau de Pomeraite.” But that’s not all. In recent times, our Pierre has reappeared in historiographical works about the French community of Santiago de Cuba. A passport of his, issued in Bordeaux in 1825, is discussed in Paul Butel’s “Relations commerciales entre la France et Cuba sous la Restauration: l’example de Bordeaux,” while Agnès Renault, a historian at the Université du Havre, devotes a long footnote to him in D’une île rebelle à une île fidèle: les Français de Santiago de Cuba (1791-1825). Renault’s note is particularly vexing, for some information therein appears to contradict what we think we know of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, our direct ancestor and Pierre’s uncle, so I will return to it in due time. In any event, as my cousin puts it, these are all “small traces” of Pierre, yet they allow us to imagine who he must have been.

Vidaud de Pomerait, PierreBut who was he really, this merchant — this, dare I say it, patriarch? What was he like? Although I have no personal memories of María Montoro Céspedes, stories of Maruja are still relatively abundant, and one can have a glimpse of her soul (if such a thing exists) from those narrative capsules about a childhood in Marbella and the melancholy sunsets of Santiago de Cuba. But digital Pierre remains virtually unfathomable. Yet he was a contemporary of Balzac, and one may perhaps be allowed to indulge, at least briefly, in the novelist’s art of physiognomy to build a picture of the man’s character. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, you were born in Port-au-Prince, went to live in France as a child, returned to the Caribbean as a young man, married a lady of French descent also born in those parts, had nine children, witnessed several births and deaths, owned ships, crossed the Atlantic many times, achieved what appears to be a measure of prosperity, and then you died in the city of Bordeaux in 1872. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your coat looks so nice and warm, your top hat is most elegant, and your cane — well, sometimes a cane is just a cane. And now, Pierre, your face, your face, that window to your soul. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your face denotes seriousness, solidity, solemnity, but in truth, Pierre, there is only silence. I’m afraid I cannot read you, Pierre, that I can only hope for some letters, perhaps a journal hidden somewhere recounting the reasons why, at some point in your life, you must have cried. Through those inscribed pages, if they exist, we may perhaps begin really to reach you. And even then, I suspect you will remain nothing but an elusive ghost staring at the blue or gray or black waves in the middle of the ocean.