“Ernesto, Alejandro, y Rolando.”
“Bien hecho,” I would praise Rafa for memorizing her cousins’ names.
“And now las Tias,” she’d begin bragging that she could remember her aunts’ names also, “Yulisa, Adriana, y Ad…” The names were a mouthful even for a first language Spanish speaker.
I’d help her, “Adel…”
Inevitably, Santiago would clamor into the name game with his best 2-year-old speak, repeating the names that his sister rattled off of the family members they would both be meeting in a few short weeks. This was what most of our evenings, after teeth were brushed and stories were told, sounded like.
In the quiet edge of my mind, before giving into heavy eyes each night, I’d think (and then rethink) My kids are going to Cuba. The thought seemed so far-fetched, so completely foreign because for most years of my life, going to Cuba was inconceivable. Yet here I was, thinking about my kids’ first trip to this place of antique cars and antiquated ideologies and late ancestors.
I can’t say that I was doing something noble, that this trip was about my kids learning about where they come from – let’s be honest, they are a combined age of 5. At this point in their lives, they firmly believe they come from the playground… or Disney World. Nor can I say that this was a grand notion on my part to plant the seed of understanding for their Cuban roots; it was somewhere in my intentions, but the truth was more on the surface than all of that.
I had been to Cuba in 2009, on a just-go trip; my cousin had died in a car crash and the What am I waiting for? Life is short thoughts kept poking holes in me. I was turning 30 and had only daydreamed of what Cuba would be like based on nostalgic, retold stories, and Andy Garcia movies. I was beginning to feel like if I didn’t go now, I’d never go. So it was do or die. Just Go This actual, rushed journey would be nothing like the one I had designed in my mind for 29 long years – the one that was an epic adventure back to the homeland of my parents and my parents’ parents, intimately discovering the mystery island – but it was this or nothing. I’d go – for a week or a day. It didn’t matter anymore; what mattered was going. My four day trip was’t epic but it was a start, and someday – I told myself – I’d return.
Now 6 years later, with two kids, I didn’t want that trip to be a fluke. I didn’t want Cuba to be a fluke. And if I went again, it couldn’t be just this place I went to once upon a time like the bedtime stories we read the kids at night.
I got the opening I needed when an email from Nana (my Cuban aunt-cousin*) showed up in my inbox. She told me about Ernesto, her youngest grandson, who looks at the pictures of his primos – his cousins – and asks her if they watch the same cartoons that he watches. Ernesto, who has only met me once when he was three, asks about the cousins he’s never met daily because – and here’s a bittersweet morsel of Cuban life – as any Cuban, born of there or not, can tell you:
family is created through shared stories, old memories, and love – not proximity.
I was 29 years old when I met my Cuban born cousins and though we hadn’t met until we were all adults, we knew each other well. We knew each other through our moms’ stories of their shared childhood at the Boca de Galafre house or my grandfather’s finca, El Corajal. I knew them through the tightly folded love my mom packed in the one suitcase she left with and they knew me through the stories their mom tucked away in an old armoire, to be taken out and delicately shared. An all too common truth for Cubans is that families were broken; they would only survive if we rmade it so, if wemembered them, if we spoke of them, if we told the stories. Only then, would families continue to grow together, across an ocean, indestructible by even the strongest dictator.
My children would know stories about their cousins, but the world has changed. I no longer need to tell them stories. If I want my kids to meet their cousins and if I want Ernesto to be able to, himself, ask if they watch the same cartoons, I would have to take my kids. By stitching their bond, I could continue to stitch mine and then Cuba would no longer be a fluke, a bedtime story. It would be real…
and so it begins.
~UNTIL THE NEXT BOTTLE ~
*aunt-cousin is a made up relative title. Nana (Gracia Juliana) is my mom’s first cousin, making her my second cousin, but she is 10 years older than my mom, so she’s 36 years older than me which feels more like an aunt than a cousin. So, yeah, aunt-cousin.
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