XXXII – All Free Men

Vidaud Despaigne, Louis - NoteA few months ago, one of my cousins in Miami posted on our secret Facebook group the typewritten note you can read here. It was composed by Louis Vidaud Despaigne, my cousin’s grandfather, for his daughter, Cybèle Eugénie, on 1 August 1948 in Santiago de Cuba. As my cousin observed, the letter speaks for itself. It starts, of course, with the spectacular words of “La Marseillaise,” the song whose drama can easily persuade anyone of the glory of France and the grandeur of revolutions. Louis, or Luis, was born in El Cobre, not far from where La Reunión, the family’s now elusive coffee and cacao plantation, was located. He was the son of Severo Vidaud Caignet, and my cousin believes it’s quite possible that Louis may have accompanied his father at least once on one of his numerous trips to France. In any event, Louis’ French was reportedly impeccable and fastidious, and his love for his ancestral homeland sincere and passionate. A topographer by trade, he may have traced the contours of his native Cuban land with his eyes and hands, but his mind — or heart, or soul — appears to have dwelled on distant France. What prompted him to write this note to his daughter two weeks after Bastille Day, which would have been a more logical date for such effusive sentiments, remains a mystery to us. But Louis’ belatedness (if that’s what it was) doesn’t shy away from stylistic flights and temporal ambition. In the short paragraph that follows the anthem’s words, he cultivates his own private family tree in which ancestors — “nos aïeux” — are invoked even as France itself is both a fatherland — “glorieuse patrie” — and a mother — “mère féconde de la liberté, égalité et fraternité” — all within one sentence. Remarkably, while France is immortal, Louis knows that his young daughter, far removed from the old country, may well feel no connection with those everlasting, if distant, glories, hence the need to cite the national anthem so that she may, as he puts it, fully recognize — as one must, as dignity demands it — “la France immortelle.” Paternal hopes for the future, as the note reveals, are all about knowing or acknowledging one’s ties with old glories. Named after Rome’s Magna Mater, Cybèle is now asked to heed an even more formidable mother: the idea of France, the noble homeland of all free men on earth.

In some ways, I suppose your Blogger is no different from Louis Vidaud Despaigne. While I don’t believe in any nation’s immortality, and words such as liberty, equality and fraternity — or “ancestors,” for that matter — often appear to me doubtfully framed by quotation marks, I confess I hold France in higher esteem than most other countries. I don’t know exactly why I focus on nations, given that I am fully aware that all are defective entities, capable no doubt of glories, but also of cruelty and destruction. Consider the ties that bind France and the practice of slavery, that poisonous vine growing on our own family tree, and you will easily see how French political history is decidedly a mixed bag. As Louis himself puts it, France is the noble homeland of all free men — but not, one presumes, of enslaved persons of any sex or age. Or are we to understand that Louis, speaking for those who have found refuge there, really means all those who seek the freedom denied them elsewhere?

Yet I cherish the idea of France because it is a family matter in the best possible way, by which I mean its presence is oblique, intermittent, spectral. We don’t have to live with, or in, France; the country comes and goes, leaving us free to shape it at will. When I was a young child in Cuba, my grandmother spoke to me in French, and I’m told I learned quite a bit of the language. But then my parents and I went into exile, and by the time she rejoined us, in Puerto Rico, I had forgotten all I once knew. But maybe not, or maybe not irreversibly. What had vanished quickly came back. I took French in high school and in just a few months learned enough to feel linguistically at home at a summer course in Dijon. Letters from my parents would arrive at my dorm, the Pavillon Rameau, and I’d feel very homesick, but I knew that I was also at home, that I had found a new yet ancient dwelling. At the university cafeteria, I learned to eat yogurt — with lots of sugar — and merguez with fries and (of course) lots of mustard. Out and about in the city, I felt I understood the workings of French civility. And in class, I was an excellent student; French surely had lived on in the little gray cells that made up my memory or, who knows, my clan’s sense of itself.

Since that first trip, I have returned many times to France. In the early nineties, when I was a young instructor of Spanish and French at a prominent preparatory school on the East Coast, one of my colleagues kindly invited me to teach with him on our summer program in France. My job was to read and study a play by Anouilh with seven of our young students. Given that the program was peripatetic, those readings — not my best performance ever, I’m afraid — took place one week at the rustic orangerie of a small chateau where we were staying not far from Tours, and another week in small classroom by the beach in Dinard, on the northern coast of Brittany. Dinard… Before my departure, when I mentioned Dinard to my grandmother, she became very excited, as she remembered it as the small town in Brittany where her uncle would summer. I honestly don’t remember that uncle’s name, but it must have been “mi tío Severo,” as I believe she called the frequent transatlantic voyager who was really her granduncle. Who else could it have been but Severo, or Sévère, who traveled regularly to France and, from all we know, would not have been averse to spending his money at a lovely seaside resort? My memory of my grandmother’s memory is faint, but it hasn’t completely vanished. I just wish I could relive that vivid, yet virtually forgotten and dead, telephone conversation. But it doesn’t matter. One can and must imagine one’s own private Dinard.

The Boat from JerseyHere is a picture — a clearer memory — of my own short sojourn in Dinard. Our group had taken the ferry that morning to Jersey, and here one can see a residue of that sunny excursion: an image of some of us as we sailed back home at the end of the day. I remember three of the students portrayed here quite well, and I have little stories to tell about all three, but they will have to wait for when I decide to write a novella. Suffice it to say that we were very happy on that day, at that hour, sitting under the French flag just as the sun began to set. They were young, and I was young too, and we had spent several weeks seeing a fabulous country. A day or two later (I think), we would celebrate Bastille Day outside the walls of Saint-Malo, watching the awesome fireworks. Three years earlier, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Jessye Norman, who had been born in a country where not all men were equally free, had sung “La Marseillaise” on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. And now, in the last hours of 14 July 1992, on a beach in Brittany, I think I remember we felt like citizens of France, a country grand enough to welcome strangers, foreigners, into its ancestral memory. On that night, as the crowd sang the revolutionary anthem, I think I remember we believed in the idea of liberty for all — men, women and children, all equal, all joining together in an uncanny display of fraternity.


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.

XXVI – A Death in the Family

Vidaud Caignet, Severo - SitgesIt happened in 1918, but we only found out this afternoon. One of my cousins in Miami discovered the clip on the web. The report in the Baluart de Sitges — dated 9 November, just two days before the Armistice — is succinct: “Through recent news from the island of Cuba, we learn of the death in Santiago of the distinguished gentleman Don Sever Vidaud, brother-in-law of our esteemed compatriot Don Rafel Llopart Ferret.” We know him better as Severo or Sévère, but here he is Sever, a Catalan permutation. His sisters, María and Juana Amelia, had both married men from Catalonia and moved to Barcelona and Sitges with them when they returned to their homeland. Rafael Llopart i Ferret, María’s husband, was an important man who had made much money in Cuba and whose son, Rafael Llopart i Vidaud, had been president of the Futbol Club Barcelona for a year. The death of his brother-in-law in Cuba — surely more distant than ever because of the Great War — was news. We know that Severo traveled frequently to Europe, going to Paris every year, according to Nunú’s notebook, where he would attend the races at the Hippodrome de Longchamp. His legend is still alive in Barcelona. Not long ago I received an email from a descendant of Juana Amelia describing him as “todo un personaje,” adding this: “Creo que era soltero y administraba la plantación cerca de Guantánamo. Tengo entendido que recogía el dinero de la plantación de caña de azúcar y se venía a París, y hasta que no se gastaba todo el dinero no regresaba a Cuba. Amaba profundamente la buena vida.” It was a coffee, not a sugarcane, plantation, and it was closer to Santiago de Cuba than Guantánamo, but much of the rest — his love of Paris and “the good life” (really!) — resounds with stories of Severo we too have heard on this side of the Atlantic. He may have been a bachelor — a fact confirmed by Nunú and several faire-parts published in France upon the death of cousins, in which he is listed as a mourner — but he appears to have treasured the theory and practice of love, and he did have several children. He cherished his nephews and nieces too, as Nunú remembers, paying for their education and such things as subscriptions to French magazines. And through it all, he remains an elusive ghost, an empty vessel into which we poured much that wasn’t true. At one point we thought he was a medical student in Paris, and we also thought that he died trying to save another man after a shipwreck… Though he’s not my direct ancestor, I can’t think of any other of my Cuban Gauls I’d rather resemble.

Perhaps because news of his death reached me on this rather gray afternoon in Los Angeles, or perhaps because of my elective affinities for this gentleman from far away and long ago, I was rather sad when I learned what I had known all along, namely that he was dead. But I wasn’t the only person to report the uncanny belated feeling. One of my cousins wrote on our Facebook page, “This first and solid record of his passing — like a death foretold — reaches me with a strange mixture of sadness and surprise.” To which I replied, “I too feel a little sad, maybe because in the Vidaud tribe no one seems to have enjoyed life as much as Severo. The war is also part of this sense of melancholy. By 1918, crossing the Atlantic, which he had done so many times, wasn’t possible” To which yet another cousin, the discoverer of the Sitges clip, had this to say: “It feels weird to finally have a range that limits the years of his adventures. I could imagine him as an eternal traveler, the same through the ages.” Indeed, Severo/Sévère was no longer who he was.

But what is this all about? Whence all this mourning and melancholia? Five thousand people just died in an earthquake Nepal, and I only have tears for a dead ancestor? Is this yet another proof of the selfishness of family ties? Or is something else going on? Could this be wistfulness? Could this be a realization that the man, digitally invisible heretofore, is not dead at all, but quietly coming back?

(To E.D. and D.V., my newly found cousins.)

XX – Opacity

Notes on CubaIn this protracted foraging through the family forest, I’ve been fortunate to count with cousins and friends who find the most wonderful things and generously share them with me. Such was the case last week after I published my note on Severo, which included a reference to Nunú’s notebook, in which she, in turn, alluded to La Carlota, a farm her uncle once “had” in the mountains of Oriente. One of my cousins in Miami — a direct descendant of Severo — found a travel narrative about Cuba with a decidedly nineteenth-century flavor. The author of that book, as if foreseeing the interest of future generations in lost worlds, recounts in great atmospheric detail his visit to a “coffee estate” named Carlotta. A winter rainstorm is fast approaching, and the narrator’s party is desperately seeking shelter:

“Our tired horses were urged to their greatest speed, and, passing through a small valley cultivated in sugar-cane, we came in sight of the Carlotta, a coffee estate, belonging to a gentleman to whom we had brought letters, and galloping up its bamboo avenue, reached the house just as the storm burst on us, and its showers of drifting mists swept into every part of our volante. The estate was under the care of an administrador, a fine-looking, intelligent Frenchman, who received us with much kindness, and under his hospitable roof we soon found all the comforts of a home.”

The Anglicized, or perhaps Italianate, spelling of La Carlota — if that’s what it referred to — was rather romantic. It reminded me of Carlotta Valdes’ lonely tombstone in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, yet another story of lost worlds, or of those travelogues to any part of the Spanish-speaking world in which plazas become piazzas, as if all southern lands spoke one and the same sunny version of Latin. But two long paragraphs are devoted to “the negroes,” who are said to be treated with “due care” to their “comfort and health,” leading the author to conclude: “The French are the best and kindest managers of slaves, and on this place a great deal of order seemed to prevail in all its departments, and to an unprejudiced eye, even with his limited privileges, the negro’s state here would appear a happy one.” So much for the vision and scope of the unprejudiced eye.

But what truly surprised us — my cousin as well as other members of our secret Facebook group — was the uncanny resonance of the “Carlotta” with our own stories of the Vidauds. Our traveler goes inside the house and focuses on the owners of the estate. It’s a peaceful domestic scene: “We spent a pleasant evening with our host and wife, an American lady; they were both well-informed, and the father spoke with pride of his son’s progress in his medical studies in Paris, to which the lady listened with all a mother’s fondness.” With genealogical rashness, it took my cousin and then me just a few seconds to imagine these hospitable folks and self-satisfied parents to be Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne and Charlotte Caignet Hevia, who was born in New Orleans… My cousin immediately pictured Severo as the medical student; after all, there was at least one French-educated doctor in the family, Ernest… The name Carlotta was yet another sign that all this could be ours; Adolphe had surely named his coffee plantation for his French-American-Cuban wife… I was enthralled to have found an altogether original family story — and not just yet another reticent document from the État Civil, but a full-blown narrative, like those of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect, or François Vidaud du Dognon, the priest. Unlike those tales of violence and death, here we had a normal everyday scene — a shameful one, no doubt, but an idyllic picture nonetheless of one day in the life of a family on which a foreign visitor shows up amid “misty scuds” and is offered “all the comforts of a home.”

But our Carlotta was soon gone with the stormy weather. As it turns out, the book in which we read the story, Notes on Cuba, was published in Boston in 1844, which made it very unlikely that Adolphe and Charlotte — born in 1820 and 1830, respectively, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook — could be that blissfully married couple with a grown-up child studying medicine. Moreover, the book’s Carlotta was to be found somewhere near Matanzas, not Santiago de Cuba. Its anonymous author — identified as one F. Wurdiman, of Charleston, South Carolina — never ventured out as far east as Oriente. So, in just a few seconds, Adolphe and Charlotte, along with their son in Paris and slaves and three-hundred thousand coffee trees, vanished into thin air, just like Borges’ Averroes.

We look at the past as if through a glass, darkly, never face to face. The past may not be dead, but it is ungraspable, and therein, perhaps, lies a ghost’s freedom. I’m reminded of Édouard Glissant’s invocation of opacity in his discourse about the Caribbean — the right that we all have to escape understanding by others, to remain in our own unknowability. Adolphe and Charlotte, our dead ancestors, we hardly know you. May you rest in mist-covered peace, if you must.

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.

VI – The Atlantic Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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