I wake up Sunday morning to the phone ringing. We are both dead asleep, and in the US I would answer the phone, but we are in Cuba and if the phone is ringing it's probably for her.
She says a few short things in Spanish then gets up.
It's your cousin, she's downstairs, waiting. Let’s go.
I didn’t know I would be meeting a new cousin; I would have set an alarm and blow-dried.
I get dressed pretty quickly and go down to meet my cousin who earns $25 a month as a psychiatrist with a caseload of 30-40 patients a day. Also, she doesn't have a car and there's no easy reliable way to get to work everyday. Despite all that, and sporting a broken foot, my cousin keeps her chin up and her fashion face forward by wearing signature cute shoes - happy black platform sandal wedges.
I had on flat sandals (thank, Mom) and pulled up pictures of my rows of strappy platformy wedge shoes I left in the US. She gasped with delight. At that point I'm sure we have bonded, forever.
She leaves and Mom and I go upstairs to get what we needed for our visit Tia Lourdes' house. Her house was only around the corner and a block away but we decided to call a taxi to help us with the 65 pound black bag of consumer capitalism comforts we were delivering.
The doorman hailed a cab and our 80-something driver looked incredibly familiar. He could have been any man his age standing outside Versailles, talking longingly of Cuba, white caterpillars of eyebrows peeking over square blackframed glasses, a cigar in one hand, the other hand over a slightly protruding guayabera’d stomach.
Mom told him this was my first visit to Cuba and I was here to see my Abuelo's sister and his face lit up.
His eyes met mine in the rear view mirror and he gave me the thumbs up. Bueno, he said, then listened to Mom tell him which of the doorways was the one to pull up in front of. He unloaded our huge bag from the trunk and left us in front of a huge set of red doors.
When I say huge I mean French Quarter huge. Which is not a surprise because Cienfuegos was founded (or rather, for fun, let's use a more modern word, "developed") by an immigrant from New Orleans in 1819, which makes me think he stayed a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, rode out the War of 1812, and then made his move to Cuba while other frontiersmen and opportunity seekers on the mainland pushed westward.
Looking on a map, later that day I saw that the French Quarter and Cienfuegos overlay almost perfectly over each other. The main church in Cienfuegos was where St. Louis cathedral would be. Across from it was the founder's house (no beignets, sigh). My Tia Lourdes lives a street down from the Pontalba apartments, only in another country. Same tall facades, same twirling ironwork, same mucky gutters. I knew exactly where I was, only that isn't where I was, at all.
Mom knocks, we giggle. I step back. A man opens the door and greets and hugs and kiss kiss kisses my Mom. I slide by him carrying the big bag and follow them down a room too grand in scale and bones to be called anything short of a "reception hall."
I recognize the man from a picture on Mom's iphone - he is a physician who visits Tia Lourdes, takes her blood pressure, makes sure she is OK. I meet him officially, then his wife, and don't mention to anyone I've met three Cuban physicians in the span of 2 hours and now believe it's true that doctor's are Cuba's #1 crop because everyone is chatting loudly in Spanish and anyway I need to greet my great aunt, the reason I am really, really here.
Tia Lourdes is occupied with still greeting my Mom. I meet Olgita who has lived in the house forever with the family and took care of both of my great grandmothers and I wonder if she isn't part of our family even if our skin looks different.
I don't ask her if we are related, I let that be (for now) and step into moment to meet Tia Lourdes.
Re-meet, actually. The first time I met her was in 1984 when she came on her only visit to the US to see her brother and sister. The day I met Tia Lourdes I was 15 and it was at my cousin's -- her niece's -- funeral. The whole thing was traumatic and overwhelming and I stayed on the periphery with nothing to say to my aunt from Cuba and whispered in English and Spanglish with family I knew better.
Into the now open spot in front of Tia Lourdes' chair I present myself with a gesture that says, "Ta-da! Melissa! In Cuba!" and lean over to hug her.
She smiles up at me to receive my kisses and then stops me, looks at me harder, really looks at me and realizes it’s ME and a huge warmth fills her eyes and we really connect.
She's loved me my whole life, across the Cold War, from here. She’s loved me in letters, in phone calls, in post cards in her prayers. This, I know more now than ever, and I kiss kiss kiss and hug her and we observe each other giddily.
She has Abuelo's eyes, his hands, his gestures, his skin. He is a 92 year old man who she hasn’t seen since 1984, so I don’t tell her she looks like her brother, the Viejo.
Our attention goes back to the room and I take a good look at the 2 pictures on the wall.
One is my Abuelo as an older teenager. I'm guessing it was when he was 17, before he left Cuba to go to school in New Orleans.
The other is a portrait of two beautiful women, laughing. One is Tia Lourdes and the other is Tia Josefina, Tiafifi. The styles look around 1940 and they look radiant.
Tiafifi jumped into the sky a few years ago and that's it. Something about seeing HER, seeing her LAUGHING, seeing her laughing HERE in Cuba hits me like a wrecking ball and I start crying big fat salty quiet tears.
Everyone is occupied chattery and happy and Mom is pulling surprise and not-so-surprise things out of the Big Black Bag so I am able to slip away and pretend to tour the house while I cry.
I don't want any of them to think the Americana is loca.