Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hurricane in My Heart

This morning I was talking to my mom on the phone and she told me that my great-aunt (one of them) from Cuba, Tia Yamel, is coming in a few weeks. Tia Yamel is one of my grandmother's sisters and I say one of them because my grandmother is one of nine (6 girls and 3 boys) and my grandfather is one of fourteen (I've no idea how many girls and how many boys because I honestly cannot remember). Tia Yamel has been here many times and she recently obtained a new visa to visit for about six months. The first time "they" let her leave was in 1990 (or 1991 - I forget but I remember that I was in middle school and there were about 100 people who went to greet her an my great uncle at JFK). Tia Yamel is a widow and has no children so the government did not grant her a visa for concern that she would defect and stay with her family in the United State. She never stayed because of my great-uncle, one of her brothers, who lived there until he died two years ago. She never wanted to leave him alone even though they never lived together and he always had a young wife (I think he was married three times) who loved him and took care of him, and he had kids and grandchildren. Tia Yamel, who isone of the kindest, most selfless and warm people I have ever met, has been coming here for extended periods of time for the last few years. My mother is from a small town across the bay from the Guantanamo Naval Base. The place is called
Caimanera. The entire area was evacuated this week due to the hurricanes there. Already there is so little there and they've had to leave it behind...for now.

I went to Cuba in 2000. I traveled with my mother, my aunt (her sister), my uncle and two of my cousins. My mother has four siblings and at the time that my mom and I went there, they had all returned there since they had left in the 1960s - except my mother. I definitely get my sensitive heart from her. She was terrified of returning and was looking for me to be strong for her on her first journey back - I cried the entire time we were there. My family actually laughed at me. They loved me for my sensitivity but they laughed at me for being so silly. Naturally, this made me cry more.

Since I was small I had sort of invented this imaginary Caimanera in my mind. She described it so perfectly - their house, the playground, the park, the dock, the beach, the dirt road, the school, even the cold tiles of the floor in their house...all of it. When I got older I thought it might look like something out of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" - only a place described by my mother and Gabriel Garcia Marquez could be that beautiful. When I think about it now, my actual memory is mixed with the imaginary place that I had invented for myself. Now I'm imagining it destroyed by a hurricane and the lack of resources to repair it.

Having family in Cuba and family in Argentina I've always felt like there is a small piece of my heart this is missing. It's difficult to describe. My parents did the best they could to teach us their cultures and also to let us be "American." In reality being American just meant (and to me, it still does mean) holding on to your family ideals and traditions and having them mix with those of this country until you make them your own. My sister and I never ate peanut butter and jelly - I never even heard of it until the 5th grade. I never even ate a PB&J until my sophomore year at Boston University because my roommates dared me to try it.

I felt sad today thinking about my aunt in her house with that terrible storm outside. She lives in Santiago de Cuba, about an hour from Caimanera (or more, I can't remember). We spent one night in her house when we visited. It wasn't the same house that my mother remembered but my mom shared my aunt's bed with her like when she was little. I slept in this small bed on the second floor. The window, the kind with wooden shutters that you lock to close, was open and there was no screen on it. When I woke up in the morning to the sound of kids outside going to school there was a bird in my room. I stared at that bird for a long time before it finally decided to fly away. I was half expecting it to talk to me like that old parrot in "Love in the Time of Cholera" but it didn't. My aunt said he lived on the roof next door.

I have two albums full of images from that trip. I shot film then. I'm thinking that I'm going to fetch them from my old bedroom in my parents' house and scan some of the photographs. I also kept a diary when I was on that trip. I might share some of that here. I recently found that diary in a box in my apartment when I was doing some spring cleaning. I read it and started crying (of course) so I put it away for another day. Yes, I think that's what I'm going to do - I have to get to scanning.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing Tia Yamel. And, incidentally, I spoke with Abulin tonight - my Italian grandmother in Argentina. She's coming to visit us in November and she's staying for Christmas. I'm starting to feel the inspiration again. It is finding me and I didn't even have to really go looking for it.

Today's soundtrack:

Buena Vista Social Club - Chan Chan

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