I spent the better part of the first hour of my second day in Cuba locked in the Spartan cold white tiled bathroom, doing yoga, letting my Mom sleep.
Both my phone and watch miraculously charged perfectly all night despite issues in Cuban-American relations, and I although I really could have used some Louis Armstrong or Gloria Estefan, I spent my morning in silence, just silence getting ready for whatever the universe sends us today.
At exactly the right time, Mom got up, and we wordlessly got ourselves ready for breakfast downstairs. The buffet dining room is almost empty when we enter – the most noticeable feature was the milling about of impatient gloved employees nonverbally wondering how much longer they would need to stand here and there and wait for whatever comes next.
Mom and I sit right down without checking out the food, and a very nice waiter greets us in Spanish and hesitates to see what language we will answer in. The other tourists seem Scandinavian, definitely quietly European but he couldn’t tell with my mom and I.
We could be anything. We’re American like that.
We answer in Spanish say hi, good morning.
He tells us to help ourselves to the buffet and ask if we have questions and I ask for café Cubano.
He looks taken aback.
He apologizes, but could I please understand, they have it and he can get it for me but its $3 extra and I need to pay ahead.
I shrug. OK.
I want what I want, I want it.
I want Cuban coffee in Cuba, I’m crazy like that.
He brings me a tiny cup of black coffee with the tiniest spoon and I sit there with it, watching people, while mom slips off to call my dad because OMG it’s been like since yesterday since they’ve talked and she needs to talk to them. I get it. She needs to check in on Abuelo he's 95, he's alone, I get it. I need to share her with the world, I get it.
I stare at the pictures on the wall, the one with the tiny head and freakishly large butt, the one with no clothes, the one with Cuba being a lady with a dignified hat and a very swollen belly filled dancing for no one in particular.
Finally, Mom returns and we walk around the buffet to see what food there really is.
Baked beans. French fries. Cereal that I’ve never seen before.
A chef making eggs who I nod at and slip away from.
Fruit that may or may not have had flies around it. Pitchers of juices, pink, white, orange, peach. Dried up rice. Strangely pink, lopsided croquettes.
A basket of bread and tray of butter. Yes.
I cut a chunk of bread – a baguette of Cuban/French bread perfection -- and put some butter on my plate join my mom who grabbed a few other things.
We put our heads together and whisper about the people at that table, about this, that and the other and the waiter comes back to ask if we need anything else.
I need more coffee, and yes, I have $3 to back it up.
He brings more coffee and then tells us, what is? We are the happiest people he’s seen, all whispering and connecting to each other. As he says that I realize my arm is twisted around my moms, leaning towards her as we listen to him.
We have no secret for him, we are just the kind of people who are like this when we are together and we are literally never together. Mom and I live 400 miles apart and have spent 10 days in Cuba over the past 25 years together; the rest of the time we have to share each other with a universe of American-made distractions.
He says he’s happy to see such a happy mother and daughter and we make him miss his family and he wishes us a good day. I
After a quick visit upstairs to make sure we had everything we needed to bring with us for the day (money, gifts, this, that, water, chargers, the other thing), we grabbed a Cubataxi downstairs at the hotel Jagua which brought us straight up Punta Gorda towards the older part of Cienfuegos, down the Prado to steep steps of the house my mom’s family has lived in for over a century.
I can’t remember who greeted us, but I can tell you those next hours with TiaLourdes were the best of the entire trip to Cuba, the best I’ve spent with her this lifetime.
When we arrived TiaLourdes was on her chair in the hallway, waiting, surrounded by Olguita and Cuci. No one is hungry, no one is thirsty or tired or in a hurry, and we have time to talk.
Mom pulls out a stack of pictures sent from family, and we pass them around in a circle. It goes something like: Oh, this is the daughter of the daughter of… and this is the brother… and this is them at… oh, who is this? WHO?
I find myself on the ground (again) in a doorway (again) and in the past, my very formal very proper TiaLourdes would have had me stand up and do something useful, but now she isn’t who she was anymore.
My Spanish is good enough to know everything that is going, but honestly the conversations wouldn’t include me even if they were in English. I don’t know who X is or why Z is going to M and when or how, so I sit and listen and watch.
TiaLourdes is slower now, and she isn’t joining in the back and forth that dances across her and around her.
I notice her ankles are swollen above her socks, and touch her ankle softly. She exhales. I touch the other swollen ankle and she looks down and me and nods so I slide her feet out of her sandals and roll down her socks off her feet to let her swollen ankles breathe. My hands move up and down her ankles and feet and then I ask for lotion and Olguita brings me some, so I add that, rubbing each of her toes, treating her like her mother and grandmother – women who have lived and died in this house – maybe did, at least I hope they did, and weren’t all twisted up in their formalities and proprieties.
This goes on for over an hour, then finally TiaLourdes leans towards my Mom, points at me and asks in Spanish, who is that?