Thursday, July 11, 2013

Grandfather's Sisters: Muñeca, Bebé and Ester

Grandfather Alberto had three sisters: Hortensia, Estrella and Ester. They were actually his half-sisters, the daughters of Mipa's second wife, Angélica Díaz y Pujols. This distinction was irrelevant: they were the only sisters grandfather ever had; and he and his brother Manuel (Macho) were the only brothers that the sisters had (after the death at 12 of Carlos Manuel García y Díaz, the only son of Mipa's second marriage).

The oldest of Grandfather Alberto's three sisters was named Hortensia, but she was known her whole life by the nickname of "Muñeca" (Dolly). Tía Muñeca was beautiful on the inside, which is where beauty is eternal. I have never known a person who was so entirely good. Thin as a ruler, rather dessicated, and with wiry white hair that at times stood on end for no other reason than it did, her sweet personality, which combined the innocence of a child with the devotion of the most doting of mothers, was made to win the hearts of children. She did not have any of her own (none of her sisters did), but lavished that untapped maternal love on the children and grandchildren of her brothers. They were her life for all of her life. I do not know if this type of maiden aunt still exists in Cuba or anywhere. I suspect not. This I do know for sure: people like her don't pass twice through our lives. If being a saint were not such a common (and hence devalued) thing today, I would call her a saint. I am lucky to have known her if only for the first eight years of my life. Indeed, I am lucky to have known all of grandfather's sisters.

Aunt Ester was the baby of the family. She had more experience of life than did Muñeca, having once been engaged  to an aviator who took off one day into the blue and was never seen again. She was by far the dominant sister, though younger by nearly 20 years than Muñeca and the middle sister Estrella (known as "Bebé"). Of the three Bebé was the only one who married. Her husband, Paco, was a professional (and anonymous) revolutionary in both 1933 and 1959. (Grandfather and he always remained on the best terms at a time in our country's history — long since past — when family came before politics).

With the benefit of hindsight (or, rather, with fifty years added to my age), it is obvious that each of the three sisters represented a different stage of emotional development: children, of course, could relate best to Tía Muñeca. But the strength of Aunt Ester was reassuring and the serenity of Aunt Bebé was just as comforting. When I say that the happiest days of my life were those I spent in Cuba, it is because of them and my paternal grandfather. That I remember as well as I do those days is no doubt because that period of my life is encapsulated forever by my departure from the island, when I was abruptly but unavoidably separated from the people who loved me and whom I loved. A childhood is generally remembered because it was very happy or because it was very sad. On both counts I remember my childhood perfectly.

My grandaunts were the living repository of our family's history. My love of history — not only of the history of our family but of the history of our country — was born and nurtured in my grandaunts' home under their tutelage and among their keepsakes. Still, much was lost of material and sentimental value in the whirlwind of Revolution which my aunts had no duplicates of. One of grandfather's two residences was looted and set on fire by the rabble (Aunt Lutty remembers a negro absconding with grandfather's bust of Napoleon); and the other, which was rented, almost suffered the same fate but was saved (the house, not its contents) at the last moment by the harried owner, who presented his property title to the would-be revolutionary arsonists (who would, in short order, confiscate his house and everybody else's in Cuba). At the vestibule of that second house, so that no one who entered it would be able to miss it, hung a framed photograph of panoramic dimensions showing Grandfather Alberto and President Batista hugging at the ceremony marking the government's purchase of the Ferrocarriles Occidentales de Cuba in 1954 (formerly a British concern); grandfather had overseen the railroad's nationalization and had been appointed its first Cuban director. One can well imagine what happened to that photograph! Fortunately, it was the only photograph that was lost. Untouched were hundreds more depicting family events which grandfather's sisters had been given through the years (as all childless aunts are). This "back-up set" survived and was mailed photograph by photograph to our grandfather by his sisters in Cuba.

They also retained some very important reliques of our family's history that they has inherited from their father Mipa: the vellum book inscribed in gold ink which contained the royal letters patent granting our forebears the titles of Count de Baynoa and Viscount de la Casa García, signed "Yo, El Rey" by Ferdinand VII, in 1820; the ribald diary which their Granduncle Enrique (García y Ziburu) kept during his sojourn to Spain in 1870s, where he exhausted his inheritance in one year, married and abandoned a Spanish woman, and returned to Cuba to live the last 50 years of his life under his older brother Francisco's roof; and less valuable but no less fascinating to a child, an album which Grandfather Alberto had assembled as a teenager entitled "Alrrededor del Mundo"  (Around the World), issued as a premium by the Susini Tobacco Co., with hundreds of handcolored cards depicting famous landmarks and typical costumes of the different countries (then only fifty as compared to over two hundred today). All these I held in my hands and examined not once but hundreds of times. And yet I wish that I could do so just one more time. The memory of a five year old, even a five year old who could read and write, does not answer the questions of one now fifty years older.

Muñeca and Ester (and Bebé until she got married) lived together all their lives: the first half with their father and the last half by themselves. For a time in the 1920s it seemed as if their father Mipa, who had twice been widowed, wanted to remarry. His daughters would have none of it: they informed their father that if he brought another woman into their mother's house, they would take her portrait down from the wall and leave forever. Mipa did not remarry. When he died in 1947, the sisters inherited their father's savings (Grandfather Alberto did not take his share). The first thing they did was to sell the house and its furnishings, including a mahogony table that could seat 30 and had the family coat-of-arms painted on its underside. With the monies they collected they moved to a suite at the Hotel "Ambos Mundos" (where Hemingway stayed while visiting Cuba till he bought a house and moved there). They gave up cooking, which, incidentally, was not their forté, and ordered all their meals from room service. Their free time was mostly spent napping. Finally, they were living like the descendants of Counts. Life was good, but it was not good for long.

Having exhausted nearly all their funds and with nothing but Mipa's pension to live on, they rented an apartment in Old Havana. They lived there until 1959 when they moved into a luxurious condo in El Vedado, which had been vacated by a fleeing member of Grandmother Rosa's family (her niece Cuca, who had received it as a wedding gift from her). It is this condo which I knew as my grandaunts' home, and which I visited almost every day with my mother and sister. (As a footnote, I also occassionally visited their former apartment in Old Havana, which they transferred to their nephew Orlando, their brother Macho's son. It was there that I saw and played with Great-Grandfather Mipa's vast collection of walking sticks carved from the rarest woods in the world. Also lost).

The tumult occasioned by the 1959 Revolution did not only give my grandaunts a new home, but a "daughter" to raise as well. My grandparents' youngest child Rosita, who was born but three months after the fall of the old regime, remained in Cuba with my aunts for nearly a decade. Her baptisimal name holds a clue to her unusual situation: "Rosa María Colombiana." The "Colombiana" was in honor of the Republic of Colombia, which had granted Grandfather Alberto diplomatic asylum at its embassy in Havana (located in the ambassador's own apartment). Otherwise, what another Aunt Ester (China), who was then completing her medical studies at the Sorbonne, had read in the Parisian newspapers the morning of January 1, 1959, would surely have come to past: "Batista's Ministers Summarily Executed by Victorious Rebels."

Grandmother Rosa, who left for Colombia shortly after Rosita's birth to be reunited with grandfather, was afraid that the barbudos might use the baby to detain her or force grandfather's return to Cuba to face revolutionary "justice." So she asked Grandfather Alberto's nephew, Orlando, to register the baby as his daughter; incredibly, on the birth certificate (which I have seen) the mother's name was left blank as if unknown! Because of this ruse, of course, Grandmother Rosa had no standing to take the baby with her to Colombia. It was agreed that Orlando would do so himself. It took eight years for him to be granted an exit visa. During that time Rosita lived with and was raised by our grandaunts. It was only in 1967 that she was reunited with her parents (one of whom she had never met and the other whom she could not remember) at the home of her sister China.

The loss of Rosita was a terrible blow to Muñeca and Ester. But they still had my mother, my sister Bárbara and me, but not for much longer. A year or so later, we, too, were granted permission to leave the country. I would never see my grandaunts again. Ester and Bebé died shortly thereafter: Ester, tragically from bone cancer in her early fifties, and Bebé, mercifully, from an embolism while sipping a cup of coffee (a very Cuban way to go). Muñeca, the oldest, lived fifteen more years, alone and nearly blind. She taught me many things, including how to sew (the most useful thing that anybody ever taught me) and how to write letters. Under her direction, I would write a weekly letter to Grandfather Alberto, whom I had not yet met. After I came to the United States, I continued this custom, except that now I was writing to her. I would send her razor blades (it was possible then) and envelopes of Sazón Accent inside my letters. She would enclose in her replies cards from Grandfather Alberto's old "Alrrededor del Mundo" album (I still have them). Everything else, of course, was stolen by her neighbors, who stalked her like a wounded faun. I don't even know where she is buried because the deed to the family pantheon at Colón Cemetery was also stolen from her. So she was not able to be reunited with her mother, father and siblings in death, and wherever she is buried is still alone. The world — and certainly our country — is not a safe place for entirely good people.

Grandfather Alberto was always very reserved about expressing his emotions in general, and rarely if ever alluded to the personal tragedy which had deprived him of everything but his life in 1959. It is almost impossible to conceive the magnitude of that loss much less to bear that loss with equanimity for 25 years, as he did to his dying day. Only once did he allow himself to utter a cry from the heart, when his youngest sister Ester died calling out his name: 

 "El Domingo, 11 de octubre a las tres de la tarde, año de 1970, falleció mi querida hermana menor Ester, y conocí esa fatal noticia el día 14 del propio mes y año por cable que me envió Paco. El Lunes, 19 de octubre 1970 hablé por teléfono con mi querida hermana Muñeca, la que me expresó que Ester antes de morir me llamó en varias ocaciones, pues deseaba hablar conmigo. Cada día desprecio más a los que de alguna manera ayudaron a esclavizar a Cuba". From Grandfather Alberto's Memorandum Book (1970-1985).

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