I’m half Cuban. My mother was born in Havana, and lived in the Miramar district. It’s the middle class suburban part of the country. She was part of a community of Jewish Cubans whose ancestors settled there, thanks in part, to a US immigration quota imposed during the early 1920’s. Jews from the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia, Russia, etc – heading for US asylum were diverted to Cuba. “Hotel Cuba”. It was their pit stop to wait it out until they could be allowed US entry. When it was lifted, some left Cuba. Others stayed. My family stayed. Ana, my mom, was born in 1928.
Although I always knew my mother as a stay at home mom in living in the suburbs of New York City, she had an entire history before I came along that in hindsight made her seem like another person. Married and divorce with a little son by the age of 21, she was a single mother and business woman in the 1950’s. Quite a pioneer. Although it’s not as glamorous as it seems. My mother’s relationship with her son dissolved over the years due. It’s not pretty.
During her store’s residency in the Havana Hilton, she became friendly with Fidel Castro’s sidemen. They’d trek through the lobby on any given day, heading for their offices in the top floor of the hotel. She’d often see Castro himself. It didn’t take long for one of his minions to tell her personally, “Take your son, and get out of Cuba.” This was 1959.
When my mother came to America via Miami, Florida, I presume, (I hold a passport card of her’s from back then, her Havana address listed, her stamp of US residency marked Miami), she established a little shop in White Plains, NY. It wasn’t long before she met my father, got married, closed down her store and had me. That’s the Ana I knew. The mother who stayed home and wrestled with her demons. The mother with the Cuban accent, lost and isolated among the American suburban mothers in the neighborhood. The mother who was determined to be there for her daughter so she wouldn’t make the mistakes she made with her son. The mother whose general obstinance and hard headed ideas made her family think she was impossible. The mother dealing with mental illness exacerbated by the sadness of leaving the country she loved – Cuba.
Cuba and its mysterious, enigmatic world hovered over my life. It was the Berlin Wall of the Caribbean – a lost world faded with my mother’s aching. Instead of a wall, it was 90 miles of ocean.
“Do you see the Capitol in Washington DC? We have a buildings like that in my country.”
“When they open up relationships with Cuba, I’m going to show you where Iived.”
“In my country, it would get so hot, we’d sleep on the marble floors.”
The loss of Cuba caused her to bargain. She was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia when I was a baby. When she was in the throes of illness, she would write letters to President Nixon trying to convince him that if she was made Ambassador to Cuba, she would insure there would be better relationships between the two countries. Then, she’d spend the evening, listening to slow sons and Afro-Cuban music in the dark, coming in from WADO radio New York. During those evenings, you’d leave her alone. She was back in Cuba in her mind. It was a very strange childhood, judged by some members of my family to be difficult. To me, it was a lesson in understanding those in pain, coupled with the reason why my dad never left her. “Who would take care of her? You don’t leave someone when they are ill,” he once said.
My mother passed away in 2009. She was 81 at the time. Her mental illness mellowed out over the years. Yet, she had always hoped to see this day come. Just reading the headline from the New York Times sends tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry she’s not here. After a lifetime of hearing my mother pine for Cuba, pray for relations and pretend, in her own mentally distorted way, that she could make a difference – it’s all coming true.
I’m giving it a few more years. Let the dust settle a bit. I want to go to the country my mom always talked about, find her home and look for her father’s grave.
What a day.