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Reunion With a Family Treasure From My Cuban Homeland

AS I stood waiting at Gate 26, Concourse D, in the Cincinnati airport, I was nervous as I thought about the arrival of a woman I had not seen in 30 years and would soon be bringing to my home. Her name was Mercedes, but the family had always called her Bebita. My grandfather's sister was her mother, but more importantly she was my godmother.To be a madrina (godmother) was not taken lightly in my Cuban family. And in the 1956 black-and-white photos I had studied, I remembered her face as she held me, a newborn. She was solid, round-cheeked, with thick, jet-black hair and full lips. As I thought of that old photo, I wondered what Bebita looked like today and how we'd get along so far in time and place from that earliest encounter. When my family - the whole extended clan - left Cuba in 1961, Bebita and her mother Cheche had stayed behind. They lived in my grandparents' large Havana home, protecting it and our various possessions, awaiting our imminent return. As months of hope turned into years of disappointment, and as idealistic socialism was replaced by repressive communism, the two women bravely held on. For me, through all those 30 years while I was growing up in Miami just 90 miles to the north, it was as if an invisible cloak of secrecy had descended over the lives of those in Cuba. We wrote to Bebita, received veiled messages that censors wouldn't confiscate, and worried about her situation. We sent medicines she asked for, but they never arrived. It seemed the only way we could openly communicate was through the second-hand messages of those who had escaped the island's grip and come to Miami. Then we'd hear about new hardships in the lives of the aging mother and her devoted daughter. For 10 years now I had been writing Bebita myself, straining my Spanish to the limit, sharing my life, photos of the children, and telling her of my desire to somehow meet again. In turn, she sent, written on fragments of yellowed paper rummaged from the decaying house, her heartfelt wishes for our happiness and elegantly phrased descriptions of historic Cuban landmarks that were slowly succumbing to disrepair and abandonment. She wanted me to have pride in the history of the country I had lost. Her keen intelligence always shone through, but with helpless unease I sensed the barrenness of her life, especially after the death of Cheche at age 95. Finally, after months of red tape and a $600 fee, Bebita received a 30-day travel permit to come visit her scattered family in the United States. Now, with my husband and four daughters, I awaited the moment when we would all meet. Bebita emerged from the airplane sitting in a wheelchair looking as if she, too, did not know what to expect. Shyly we embraced. Then we were quickly taken in hand by her cousin, Santos Ojeda, a Cuban pianist living in Cincinnati. As Bebita and Santos, who had been childhood buddies, retraced old memories, I sat and studied this visitor from my past. SHE was, compared with my old photo, a mere wisp of that sturdy matron. Though only 69, there was about her a frailty and a sense of deprivation, both physical and social. Her graying hair was thin, gone was the shiny thickness. Her hand-sewn skirt and Chinese cotton blouse hung loosely on her angular frame. A car accident 25 years ago had battered her feet, but she could walk slowly with a metal cane. I felt dismayed by her apparent weakness and yet, as she turned to me asking something about my daughters, I noticed the resemblance that her eyes had to mine. They were that same unusual shade of green that no one else in the family seems to have. We are related, I realized with a jolt. Sitting in the Cincinnati airport, I never would have imagined it possible to feel the past reaching right into the present and to know I was connected beyond all distances and time to the country of my birth. Though she was tinged with the signs of hardship and years of lonely suffering, I felt in the gaze of Bebita depths of calm that radiated peace. She laughed, and from that moment we became fast friends. Her frailty did not prevent her from possessing a quick liveliness. Like a child on holiday, she took hold of each day with enthusiasm, eager to learn about the world of microwaves (increibles," she said, incredible) and mini-vans ("un coche bonito a beautiful coach). "Mira," she said, wanting us to look as she retrieved a small plastic bag from her purse. "This is how much coffee we get every 15 days." I looked down at the two-ounce bag of coffee mixed with chicory, and thought of the coffee bars in Miami where Cuban exiles indulge their passion for strong cups of espresso. "Things are bad now," she explained. "There is much we cannot get. Fidel is preparing us much sacrifice. We feel the pinch of Russian abandonment." I thought how swiftly the nightly news stops being mere politics once we are personally involved. Bebita, I could see, would have much to teach us all. That first night in our home, as she began pulling from her suitcase ancient family photographs, brittle newspaper clippings, and jewelry from a past century, I realized that Bebita had become the family archivist and conservator. Little by little, the tables, couch, and chairs were covered with Bebita's memorabilia. Such an odor of antiquity clung to them that one of my daughter's declared, "What's that smell? I like it," as she fingered a picture of her great-great grandmother standing erect in a floor-length tailored skirt and a blouse of handmade lace. Bebita and I sat for hours studying the papers and pictures. As she talked I felt as if I had walked into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel peopled by characters out of my own family whose past lives now paraded before my imagination. THERE were people like my great-grandmother, Mary Rooney, who left Ireland at age 18, married a Catalan militiaman in St. Augustine, and settled in Havana. She was an imposing, blue-eyed senora, for years the family matriarch. Or the great-grandfather on the other side, a debonair man with a pointed mustachio who fenced for pleasure and headed Cuban diplomatic delegations to Washington, Rome, and Mexico City. Bebita, knowing time was short, poured out her hoarded knowledge like a river of time upon my lap. Despite the tropical flavor that emerged from her stories, I noticed that American connections continually crisscrossed these generations of Cubans. Relatives studied at American schools, friends came from the states to work for Merrill Lynch or General Electric, and clipped articles from the English language newspaper of the day were included in Bebita's piles. Cosmopolitan, pre-Fidel Cuba, once the jewel of the Caribbean, had, for better or worse, been intimately tied to the US. Then, abruptly, we reached the end of family tranquillity. Bebita brought out a magazine from 1961 full of smiling photos of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Politics had intruded and, like millions of other exiles, our lives had been irreparably changed. But there was no bitterness in Bebita's tales. What emerged most clearly as we sat and talked was her deep love for her country and enduring family pride. And all the time that Bebita was with us, there was a gaiety in the house as Cubans appeared at our door to meet a compatriot who had so recently come from their homeland. Our meal times became times of fun, the children repeating Spanish words for bread and butter, and Bebita trying to follow our conversations in English. I cooked filling meals of meat and potatoes, homemade rolls, and the cinnamon coffee cake she thought "exquisito." I was trying to fill out her meager frame. She loved to sweeten her large cups of cafe con leche with spoonfuls of sugar, which Cuba had once supplied us and now could no longer provide adequately for its own people. Bebita will not stay in the US. In good times and bad, Cuba is her home. I tried not to think of the loneliness she would face or the sadness I would feel when she left. We went shopping for things she would never again have a chance to buy, mentally balancing each item's desirability against its weight in an agonizing arithmetic imposed by Cuba's 40-pound limit on incoming baggage. We bought sneakers, clothespins, a toilet seat, concentrated dish detergent in two-ounce packages, and, most importantly - provisions of powdered milk, bouillon cubes, and Cuban coffee vacuum-packed in foil. To her, our house seemed like a toy store. Seeing our children's typical accumulation of dolls, Lego blocks, and games filled her with wishes for the Cuban children she knew. Soon, all four of our girls were running through the house grabbing lightweight toys for Bebita to take. In addition to her purchases and the toys, Bebita plucked from our trash things she considered wonderful. She happily set aside several empty two-liter plastic soda bottles, Styrofoam meat trays, plastic cup lids, and an empty plastic squeeze bottle. These would be luxuries to people where everything is either rationed or unavailable. The night before her departure, Bebita called my husband over to thank him for her stay with us. She presented him with two small boxes of Havana cigars, a gift perhaps more costly than we can know. "Will you come to Cuba someday?" she asked in slow Spanish. "I want to very much," he replied in equally slow English. "We will come and see you in your home as soon as it is possible." She replied simply, "That gives me hope to keep on going." I sat in the next room trying to believe that day will come. Bebita has returned to Cuba now, moving against a human current running mostly the other way. She will take her place amidst all those silent, patient Cubans who keep hope buried in their hearts. Bebita, I realized while missing her, is our family treasure, our collective memory holding on tenaciously to the gilded past for those of us who are unable to remember or who are just pressing on, not daring to look back. As long as women such as Bebita persevere, we who are refugees, whatever our nationality, can learn courage and gain hope so that we will never abandon our homelands, or despair.

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