The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

December 18, 2011

1961


John and I just returned from a three-day trip to Havana, a place we’ve both wanted to visit for a long time. It had been planned for a few months, although it was definitely eclipsed by our news of Will in November! This trip was fascinating, thought-provoking, and utterly unforgettable for me. I’m struggling to process it all. There are so many things I want to write about what we saw and experienced, what an isolated and passionate and crumbling and confusing country it is. How deeply I love it, and how much it makes me appreciate my own freedom. But if I could write only one story about those three days, this would be the one.

The Russian Lada was at least 30 years old, with red carpeting tacked over the dashboard and not a seatbelt to be seen. Before we got in, Alberto explained that after he’d been rear-ended, his mechanic was able to remove the back half of another Lada and attach it to the front half of his. Now the exhaust pipe was acting up and would need to be fixed. This didn’t surprise us, considering all the exhaust blanketing the air in Havana.

It was December 10, our second day in the city, the second of three total, and the only afternoon we had free during a busy schedule with our tour group. (Going with a specially licensed “people-to-people” tour was the only way the U.S. government would allow us to enter the country.) Alberto, our 66-year-old tour guide, a retired scientist and devoted revolutionary, had kindly offered to drive us to my mother’s childhood house if we paid for the gas. And so, clutching the maps she’d drawn for me and the old scanned photos I’d printed, I got in the front seat and John in the back, and off we rumbled, heading for a destination just a few miles away but 51 years back in time.

***

My mother is Cuban. She was born on the island, and she left it in 1961, at age 12, as part of the Operation Pedro Pan exodus. More than 14,000 children were sent out of the country by their parents to escape the communist revolution that had occurred in 1959 and was steadily encroaching on people’s freedoms. People with wealth were particularly affected, and my mother’s family fell into that category; my great-grandfather’s sugar-cane farm was appropriated by the government. Many children were sent to the USSR or the island’s rural interior for reeducation, no matter their parents’ wishes, and people suspected of being counter-revolutionary were spied upon and denounced. Thousands of people saw no choice but to flee, and with a few suitcases and some hidden money and jewelry, they left on planes to “vacation” in the States or Central America. They were never able to return. They left behind their friends, jobs, homes, possessions, pets, their entire lives. Most of them, including my family, had to rebuild those lives from scratch, depending on the generosity of the U.S. government, churches, and other exiles to gain a foothold in a new country.

By the mid-60s, every single person in my mother’s extended family had left the island except for one cousin. My oldest aunt left alone, then my mother left alone; she was told she was going on vacation in Miami, and when she arrived, the relative with whom she was staying told her the truth. The rest of the family was able to join them a few months later. I believe that only three of my relatives have ever returned to Cuba. I was the fourth.

***

Our goal that warm, cloudy Saturday was to find two houses situated next door to each other, one that had belonged to my mother’s family and the other to her grandparents, who were like second parents to her. The neighborhood had been green and gracious, with gardener-tended flowerbeds and gleaming, elegant homes. When we parked our car in the intersection near the houses, we found that now, like so much of Havana, the neighborhood is crumbling. There are weeds and broken sidewalks, rusted chain-link fences, houses with peeling paint and falling plaster. Some houses are in better repair than others, but the overall feel is one of shabbiness.

My mother’s house had been bright white and well-kept, with massive arches and a beautiful side yard and terrace. Now it’s gray and decrepit, only a shadow of its former self… it was a haunting thing to see. With Alberto as our translator, we knocked on the door and spoke with the old woman who lives there. She allowed us in, although she didn’t permit photos (John was able to take some clandestine video with his iPhone). Inside the house was dark, sparsely furnished, and melancholic, a giant cockroach dead in the corner. Even if we’d been able to take photos, I don’t think I could’ve showed them to my mother. The old woman explained that she’s unable to care for the building, and as we left, Alberto muttered that it will fall to the ground in 10 years if it isn’t repaired.

Cuba is a country of contradictions, and in a place where everyone is supposed to be economically equal, it’s surprising to see the disparities. My great-grandparents’ house is beautiful and well-preserved. It’s painted a tropical salmon pink, with the same colorful Spanish tiles in the porch floor that were there when my mother played jacks on them. The 30-something woman who lives there now rents rooms to visitors. She was a bit reserved at first, but she allowed us in to explore and take photos. She has a computer and polished antique furniture. Her husband is a carpenter. The rooms are painted bright colors; the crown molding is still intact. The floors are spotless black and white tile. Using the floor plan my mother had drawn me, we walked from room to room, and I was able to identify them all: my great-grandparents’ bedroom, my great-grandfather’s office, the stairs to the servants’ quarters. The house felt happy and loved. When we left, the owner agreed to pose for a photo with me. She smiled and rubbed my arm when I tearily thanked her for the gift of seeing the house and told her it was one of the best days of my life.

***

The first thing I did when I returned to Chicago was email the photos of the houses and the neighborhood to my mother. They were very difficult for her to look at, although seeing her grandparents’ well-cared-for home made her happy. Amazingly, she recognized the chandelier in the foyer and two pieces of furniture, a dresser and a dining-room hutch. They have remained in the house since my great-grandparents last locked the front door behind them in 1961.

All my life I have lived with the ghost of Cuba. But it’s a pale specter compared to the ghosts that haunt actual Cuban exiles who long so much for their island home. For me, Cuba has been a mythical, legendary place, the setting for countless tales of my mother’s childhood, her memories of her close-knit family, and also stories of struggle, danger, and desperation. When I look at the photos I took and imagine the past, I’m filled with a vast, palpable sadness for my family, the decisions they had to make and the great loss they endured. I’m also filled with pride at their courage.

I can’t ever know what it would feel like to close the door on a life and start over in a strange country with nothing, or to place my child on an airplane alone, not knowing when I would see him again. But now I know what it feels like to stand where my mother stood almost 51 years ago, suitcase in hand, waving goodbye to her dog and thinking excitedly of her “grownup vacation” to Miami to visit her aunt. I know where my grandmother pruned her rosebushes and where my great-grandparents sat on the porch after dinner. I know the park where my aunts and uncles played, and the pink house across the street where the boy who’d marry my aunt lived. I know the palm trees lining the streets. I stood on the same black-and-white tiled floors. I stood on the same floors.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Stephanie said...

I think you should write a book about this.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Jessamyn said...

Stephanie has an excellent idea, there.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

Wow. This is AMAZING. I had no idea about your ties to the country... I'm fascinated by it and have no reason such as yours. This post had me riveted. Amazing!

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Dannette said...

Similar to you my mother left Havana in Christmas Eve 1960 and I was able to go to her homeland earlier this year for a week trip. It was great to see where my mother grew up, houses, church, great grandmother's house, etc. I thank you for your writing as I can relate to so well. Cuba has always been this untouchable place and I am forever greatful that I was able to go there this year. Thanks again!

10:44 PM  
Anonymous Dannette said...

PS. My mother - remarkably was able to leave Havana in what she calls pre-Pedro Pan. As she was older and her aunt and father were able to put her on a plane for Operation Pedro Pan happened. Amazing that they were able to this.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Thank you for all the comments--I've written about this subject on and off for more than 15 years, and there might be a book in there yet!

Dannette: Thank you for commenting. I'm so glad you were able to visit, too!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Utterly gorgeous post.

3:30 PM  

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