My mother and I have been organizing memories and addresses. By the time this column is in your hand I will have gone to Cuba and returned. It will be a short trip—my first—in which I cram a lifetime of my bright tropical curiosity about the place in just four days. With a mother from Cuba, I lay claim to my Cuban heritage in many ways. Among them is that I grew up in a version of Havana transplanted to West Hartford, Connecticut.
Havana in these United States was the equivalent of messianic Jerusalem for my mother’s family. At the Passover Seder it was always, “Next Year in Havana.” I have a genuine longing for the place. “Next Year in Havana” gave way to Hay Cuba como te estrano. I missed Cuba too. It didn’t matter that I had never been there.
Cuba was mythic, imaginary, utopian. I grew up on the hyphen between two identities. My father’s family had a more familiar immigration. From Russia to New Haven, Connecticut via Ellis Island. My paternal grandparents both came to this country as infants. My mother’s family traced their roots to medieval Spain and came to Cuba by way of Greece and Turkey.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m afraid that all of this global hopscotching will be forgotten, or worst, meaningless to my progeny. The sturdy hyphen that bridged my identities will simply disintegrate. My children are not hyphenated. They are not bilingual. I wish they were. The older they get, the more I think I should have seen to their fluency in a different language, another culture. They think my predilection for Cuba is both odd and endearing. Sometimes they believe I’ve invented Cuba the same way I thought my mother invented it during a deep Connecticut winter.
Thanksgiving was the only American holiday when my Cuban family came down from the bleachers and actually played in the game. Christmas was out. Hanukkah was about the light and darkness, nothing more. Giving gifts around the menorah was an American invention. The Fourth of July baffled people on their third exile. But Thanksgiving was based on two groups who understood nothing about one another. This was family.
My maternal grandparents thought they could learn English by leaving the television set on all day. Mostly they stared at a jumpy screen scrolling endlessly. How do I explain this to my 21st century kids with their HD televisions? How do I describe translating As the World Turns for my grandmother?
The little English that my grandparents did pick up was severely mispronounced. How do I convey to my children that attempting to say something in English is a rite of passage in this country, not an occasion for racism? When my grandmother heard the word Thanksgiving for the first time she took to calling it Zangeelee. At their first Zangeelee in the United States we had turkey with rice and beans and plantains. We were one of those families that also had the cylinder of cranberry sauce—the one with the ribs of the can clearly indented into it. A tower of cranberry sauce in which you could stick a candle. Happy Birthday. Feliz cumpleano, Zangeelee.
In the middle of my mother and I taking inventory of our dead in Guanabacoa Cemetery, Anna calls. My mother reports that she and I are making a list of the relatives I plan to visit in Havana. When I get on the phone, Anna asks me incredulously if I still have family in Cuba. “They’re dead,” I whisper. “Of course,” she says.
But they’re not dead. Not yet anyway. I want to see these graves. My mother’s namesake died of pneumonia when she was seven months pregnant. The baby didn’t survive either and family lore has it that there is a small crib etched on her tombstone.
I need to say the Kaddish for these people there.
That tombstone is my Plymouth Rock. Cuba is, after all, where we landed in the New World. We took Anna and Adam to Plymouth Rock when they were five and two. It’s a good thing that it sits in a structure that looks vaguely like a Roman Temple or else we might have missed it entirely. “This is it?” asked my small children looking at the relatively small rock.
Will I have some of that child’s mentality when I land at Jose Marti airport in Havana? I’ve been saturated with pictures of the 1950s cars and the beautiful crumbling of old Havana that stands as proudly and triumphantly as an aging beauty queen.
“When you go to the Patronato (Cuba’s largest synagogue the city’s de facto Jewish community center),” my mother says, “don’t forget that’s where I was almost crowned Queen Esther. A rich girl won, but I was the first lady in her court.” My mother is nobody’s runner up. And neither is Cuba even in its relative isolation and half-century of time stopped.