When I think of my seventy-seven year old great aunt, my Tia, I picture the smallness of her life and feel, with unwavering certainty, that she has been cheated. A woman with a spirit as large as hers shouldn’t have been caged as she has been. The confines of her existence have been determined not so much by any bodily pain her untreated gallstones, incisional hernia, or her fractured hip ever caused her but more by the simple fact of her geographical location.
Cuba. Before July, all I knew of it was what years of my grandfather’s seemingly bloated, biased and impassioned stories had deposited in the recesses of my mind. It was a place of opulence and unimaginable beauty, where movie stars from the world over would vacation, where the best cigars on earth were made, and where my entire family is from. Once upon a time. Now, as of 1959, it was a place decaying from the inside out thanks to one individual: Fidel. No matter how my grandfather’s stories about Cuba start out, they always end with that simple conclusion.
I decided I had to see it for myself. So, in July, The Brit, Dochechka and I went. Cuba, a mere 90 miles south of Florida….and yet, ideologically and politically, worlds and ages apart. Communism and an embargo have widened the divide from 90 miles to an infinite expanse of shark-filled waters. I felt somewhat guilty flying in…knowing that I’d be able to just fly right back out…and leave when I’d had enough. Leave, as my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and grandparents did in the early sixties. But I felt that it was important for me to see the stories in real life.
I was surprised to discover for myself that my grandfather, the great exaggerator, had not exaggerated. It was beautiful. If one looked past the collapsing Spanish colonial architecture, the peeling paint, the filth, the beggars…one could imagine unparalleled beauty. Long ago. But now, indeed, it was decaying. Decaying as anything would if left for decades without a single day of maintenance. And that was just Havana.
In Matanzas, on first impression, it seemed slightly better. As we roamed the numbered, nameless streets for Tirrey entre Calle San Juan Bautista and Calle San Francisco (the street names my mother had given me), I felt hopeful that maybe my Tia’s house wasn’t in as bad a shape as some of the Havana homes. Also, I grew increasingly and somewhat nervously hopeful that she wouldn’t mind an unannounced visit from an American relative who she’d never met before. She didn’t have a phone. So there was no way to inform her of our visit beforehand.
After finally encountering a gentleman old enough to remember the names of the streets before they were numbered, I found her door. One unremarkable door in a line of many tall, narrow doors…all with peeling paint and tired knockers. I raised my hand to knock and paused, heart in throat, suddenly confronted with the idea that I was connected with the stranger on the other side of the door. It was a surreal feeling. And it seated itself in my churning stomach. I looked behind me to my right at the government bakery just at the corner and realized everyone inside was looking at me. A pasty white girl with a newly acquired sunburn, clearly not from around here, about to knock on la viejita’s door. I turned my back to them and knocked, sheepishly. No answer. I looked back at The Brit and Dochechka, both waiting in the rental car, and shrugged nervously. I knocked again. Nothing. A little harder. Still nothing. The nervous churning in my stomach gave way to disappointment. I couldn’t believe I’d come all this way and she wasn’t home...
I stepped over to her neighbor’s door, which was propped open and knocked there. A shirtless, weathered old man appeared from behind a sagging wall and looked at me quizzically. I pointed in the direction of my Tia’s house and asked, in Spanish, if she did, in fact, live there and if he knew where she might be right now.
He looked at me and asked, “Familia?” I nodded yes.
He smiled, “Americana?” Yes. We exchanged smiles as he told me that la viejita (the old lady) was home, but that she was very hard of hearing, so I just needed to knock harder.
And so I did. I put all my effort into it. And waited. I looked over at her neighbor who waited outside his door, reassuring me that she’d come. Just give her time. Minutes went by. Then, finally, I heard a weak voice from behind the door, “Quien es?” Who is it, she asked.
“La hija de Mamacusa.” The daughter of Mamacusa, I said into the crack of the door.
The door slowly opened, and for a moment, all I saw was darkness. I heard her voice say, comically, “Bueno, quien en el carajo es Mamacusa?” Well, who the fuck is Mamacusa? Yep, with a mouth like that, she was definitely family.
Then she stepped into the sunlight. I was immediately taken aback. For a moment, it was as if my late grandmother had stepped out from behind the door. A skinnier, more fragile looking version of my grandmother, but a striking resemblance nonetheless.
I fumbled, as I stared at her with a growing lump in my throat, for the words to describe that my mother is her dead sister’s daughter, “Mamacusa es la hija de tu hermana.”
She looked at me more closely, curiously, then connected the dots of relation a second later. Tears. Hugs. Smiles and exclamations of disbelief. And an insistent invitation to come inside…
(to be continued…)