No Island is an Island: Chapter 6: Go Team Cuba.

Being my crazy American self, I let a few tears go and don't fight them back. Being here in Cuba is a Big Deal. Tiafi and Abuela and Miriam left here but never got to come back.

One hundred times Abuela told me "I want you should see Cienfuegos" and nod her head firmly until I understood I wouldn't really know her until I saw where she came from. I could never promise her this, I couldn't bear making such a promise and having to uphold it.

But here I am, in one of the places she lived and my crying stops as I'm absorbed into the details of the architecture the molding the doors that horses could walk through the floors the doors the long hallway.

 I follow the sun down the hall and pass one enclosed patio and keep walking to the back of the house where Olgita is starting lunch in the makeshift kitchen. I've already discovered there isn't running water; I'm not sure how she cooks and I don't want to ask. She explains something anyway, pointing at a hot plate and saying something about my Mom, then showing me the dark empty pantry.

 No triscuits, no boxes of happy cereals, no cans of food-o-olios or boxes of saltines or spray cheese.

She keeps talking about something but she's going fast and my mind can't keep up and she's explaining in great detail something about the wall in front of us that makes no sense at all to me so I slip away gently and find my Mom. I feel like a child dashing back to hide under her Mom's skirts, only I'm hiding behind her Spanish.

Excuse me, Mom? I think Olgita just told me she painted the whole wall black back there but it isn't black, it's yellow and I think I lost something big in the story.

Mom tells me there had been a fire many years ago and Olgita made due with shortages and some how restored it all. From what I could see, Olgita would win a DIY championship in the US, if we ever have one. Go Team Cuba.

I stay in the office room where Tia Lourdes receives guests. The two doctors were still there and their almost 16 year old daughter got up to give me a chair.  She comes back minutes later with a tiny dark cup of Cuban coffee.  I take some happily and in one sip see it is bitter and that is odd in this land of sugar.  There are several packs of Splenda in my purse but I don't reach for them and bear the hardship.

The first doctor, the gentleman, asks about me and I tell him I teach American History and Foreign Policy and Social History.

He nods with a graveness and asks permission to ask a question. Of course.

So he asks, "What do you do with all the nationalities?"

I answer thoughtfully, sentence by sentence, pausing so my mom can translate.  "The US has always been a country of immigrants from all over.  I have immigrants from all over the world in my classes at school." 

He nods, I continue, "Most immigrants go where they already know someone and they learn about the US and learn English and become American that way. There are communities of Cubans in Miami and Puerto Ricans in Orlando and..." I keep going on for a few more examples and gauge his response, trying to figure out what his real question is.

"So people don't have to let go of their culture and their family to become American."

His face lights up, he nods, then ask, "How, then, do you know that you're American?"

My Mom translates this with her eyebrows up, wondering, too what I'll say.

I shrug, "I guess you're as American as you want to be. Right now, coming here to Cuba, I've never felt more American in my whole life."

A few minutes later, as garlic smells filled the room from the kitchen the doctors and their daughter excused themselves to let us have a family meal.

Like a play of carefully coordinated exits and entrances, Olgita's father enters at exactly this time.

 Mom recognizes him. He was the trusted family companion who walked her down the street to and from school among other trusted errands.  He is stiff and silent and my Mom hugs him and I take his picture.

I didn't catch his name but heard they call him "Cuco" which is also my grandfather's nickname.  I wonder, again, if we are family but no one offers any explanations and I don't ask.

Too quickly a horn honks for him, it is his ride, they take him off to where he was going.

Time for lunch. It was the four of us - Tia Lourdes, Olgita, Mom, myself.

The table was set with bowls of food -- yellow rice, fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes, chicken, bananas from the tree in the backyard.  Each cup of water was covered by a plastic lid that seemed to be rescued from a Pringle's can.  I hesitate before drinking the water but I go for it anyway.

Tia Lourdes sat next to me and drank a bowl of soup.

I filled my plate and ate as much as I could, too sober and emotional to taste anything or even try to lose myself in these non-Chikfila fried potatoes.

When the pause comes I ask Mom to ask Tia Lourdes something I really need to know. 

She translates with her face flat, not judging me (thank you) and asks Tia Lourdes, "Melissa wants to know if you saw the food fight at Miriam's funeral."

Permelia Pentacost and the Other Boleyn Sister

As summer winds down I face what I need to face, taking care of tasks big and small. This is 'something" to do, but it isn't everything, it isn't nearly enough, I need more, I have to be engaged, I have to have something to think about.

That's why I love

 Just a few hints give me the names and more hints and minutes later I'm knee deep in a boom of relatives on my father's side who settled along the German Coast Louisiana in the early 1600.

Because this is NOT a video game I don't have to plant crops or build hospitals for them.

That would be cool, but this is easier. No surprise hurricanes will come through; in fact as I go through who arrives where, who the meet and marry, and how long families stay put, I can see the forces pushing and pulling them from Europe to America and then to smaller communties within it.

 Through a twisted hint from the back of a century old family photo I find the curious name Permelia Pentacost.  I wonder if the father was a revivalist preacher, if he changed his name to escape something.

Later (hours? days? have I slept?) I find a wife who has 5 children in Tennessee and then left them all behind -- or maybe she brought a daughter? but not her husband because  she was married at Nauvoo right on the evening of the famous Mormon slaughter, survived the slaughter and was buried in Utah thirty years later.

Every bit of this research is delicious, it tastes so good I have to shout out to my kids.

Zoe! Another ancestor who fought in the Civil War! This one on the.... Union.  Don't forget last night the one we found who fought for Alabama. We definitely fought on both sides, but we have to see if our ancestors fought each other.

She waves a feeble "thanks" at me and leaves me to my work.  As a history professor, researching history is work. It absolutely has to be, it has to count, so yes. Mommy is working on her iPad - iPhone - Mac (all three at the same time) stringing invisible people into a web of a family.
I chirp at no one in particular "oh my GRANOLA these women had 14 kids each?!" and "can you believe this name? Nimrod Stillwell? Why? WHY?"

Zoe sighs and Zack ignores me.

Minutes later I have to talk again. I have to share my excitement

 Zack! My ancestors were part of the war of 1812! and the Revolutionary War! I can be a Daughter of the American Revolution.  Isn't this awesome?

Awesome for you, he says, still unconvinced that what I'm doing is as satisfying as MarioKart.

They stare at the TV and ask what we are going to do, next, after Mommy stops compulsively mining for data, looking for gold.

 I don't answer the children and instead follow every research link, critically analyzing each bit of data before I accept it to merge in files (how could this mother be born after their child? How could this man be his own son's mother? Huh?)

Then I found some true treasure.

 Behold, the OTHER Boleyn Sister, is my daughter's 15th great-grandmother.

But since the kids don't seem too excited, I'll keep it to you, to me and let it unfold itself into a Forrest Gump romp through history.

The American Maze: Popcorn for Everyone

Recently my Abuelo sponsored a few events for the children in the bilingual preschool program at Hispanic Unity,  our favorite organization which empowers new Americans with language skills, employment referrals and access to social services as they navigate the American maze. Thanks to excellent timing I was able to take my kids and visit his charity in action at Hispanic Unity.

The magician's program was for 10am, but we arrived at 10:05.  The staff snuck us into the room full of preschool kids. Abuelo, wearing a coat and tie, stayed standing for the show while the rest of us slipped down on too-small chairs and giggled. 

Don't ask me about all the specifics of the magician's act, I was quite busy not watching it by taking pictures and whispering. I do remember the part where the magician had a lizard that kept squirting water every time she turned her heads. One kid shouted out in an imperfect English translation of what was going on, "He is throwing the water at the kids!" A skinny pigtailed girl standing in the back of pack of kids explained whole scene in rapid quiet Spanish to a tiny  girl who couldn't see because of the taller kids in front of her.

The English-speaking magician moved on to part of her act with a magic coloring book. 

The kids play along and giggle. Most of them understand what she's asking them to do; a few turn to their neighbors with frowning faces. They fake their way through the normal kids-magic-show-craziness by doing what everyone else is doing, stomping their feet, waving their hands, shaking their heads. Our collective magic works, we fix the coloring book, and the magician moves on to the next part of her act.

There will be popcorn, she says, popcorn for everyone. 

The kids don't look too excited.

 The magician pulls out a clear container that when she flips one way it's filled with popcorn; when she flips it the other way all we can see is plain unpopped dried corn.

She keeps talking, saying something about how everyone could have popcorn after the show ends but how she couldn't find any corn to pop, then pretends not to see the popcorn become kernels of corn.

A little girl in the front, a tiny one, maybe even the one who had been sitting in the back a few minutes before, stands up and points at the container and announces, "Maiz!"

Her Spanish was so delicate and perfect you could hear the accent mark over the letter "i" - the one that makes the word sound like "ma-eeeez" instead of "maze."

A bunch of small powerful voices joined her, pointing and shouting in their perfect Spanish "ma-eeeez" at the suddenly terrified magician who was looking on the ground around her.

Mice? Mice? She asked the adults, not kidding, but keeping in her character but showing concern that there might be rodents swarming around her legs.

 A lesser person would've shrieked and jumped on a table, I'm sure. 

"Maiz means CORN" a bunch of kids translated loudly for her, laughing with her. 

That day those bilingual children all took a step forward right then, sticking together and navigating the American maze. (I hear there's popcorn for everyone at the end.)

A Nice Kick in the Face

While I was at Tita's house and Tita was in California, I had an afternoon of pizza and pastelitos and story telling and story gathering with my cousins, the children of Abuelo's sister Tia Fifi.

By the time they were leaving  mind was full, I knew something I hadn't known before, and the old and new pieces of the story - our story - and I wanted to push pause and sit down and start writing and rewriting right then.

But of course I couldn't, even though I had my Mac, my faculties, my imagination (but no red wine because as a guest in my Mom's house I was afraid of opening the wrong bottle, the expensive one) but not one drop of the miraculous God-particle of intention, the force which makes stories go from imaginary to material.

I knew that after they left I would clean up, I would call my Mom and tell her about the day, and then I would sit with Abuelo at dusk watching the birds. I knew I would fall into another quiet writingless evening, the latest in a long streak of silence and I had no problem at all with that.

As Eduardo walked out the door, in between hugs, he asked again when my next book would be done.

I said I was working on it, I'd know when I had an ending. I said something like  "Just like Marvin's Book, I knew when it was over.  I'm sure I'll know the ending to this when I see it. Or it hits me. I'm open to that."

I thought he would nod, I thought he would be pleased by that. He was my older cousin, so mature and worldly in ways both Cuban and Miami.

He frowned a little and proclaimed, "I'll tell you one thing I know for sure. My father didn't spend 18 years as a political prisoner in Cuba for you to just have some nice visits to Cuba."

I held my hand up to my own cheek and said ow, thanks, I think that's just the kick I needed to get writing. 

He laughed and left, they all left, and later I again didn't write.

Not that night or the next night, or the next few nights when I slept with the balcony door open to ocean and let myself be deafened to sleep by the her relentless roar.

A week later the pain in my jaw, the numbness on half my face, the invisible swelling I've attributed to an invisible punch and not something worse, has improved.

With every word I write it feels a little better, like I've chosen the right thing to believe in.