Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The 40-Year Wait
A Collision of Two Worlds

As a young child, Cuba was nothing more than a fictitious place that existed only the minds of my mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The representation of Cuba in the media and in school textbooks was that of an impoverished third-world country, and not the prosperous society of my family’s memories. Cuba for me simply boiled down to a variety of items in the New Jersey home of my grandmother Lola; a few framed photographs hanging on the wall of her TV room, a safe full of jewelry smuggled out of the island in the early sixties, and a dog-eared book held together by Scotch-tape, titled “Memories of the Cuba We Left Behind.”

“79 views in full natural color,” boasted the little tattered booklet. My grandmother had paged through its depictions of the Cuba that once was on countless occasions and it showed. There were no photographs of decaying facades in Havana, no depictions of tourist-only hotels in Varadero, rather, the image presented was that of a bustling nation of middle-class workers, old world architecture, clean streets and Woolworth’s five-and-dimes. I was never quite able to wrap my head around “the two Cubas.” Until the Spring of 2001, the Pearl of the Antilles was nothing more then a few dozen musty items withering away in dark drawers and dusty bookcases.

Photo: Crowds pass by a Woolworth's five-and-dime at the intersection of Galiano and San Rafael in pre-revolutionary Cuba."

After news arrived from relatives in Miami that my grandfather Gerardo’s brother Emilio and sister-in-law Cuca had finally been awarded exit visas to travel to the U.S. from Cuba for a ten-day visit, I realized that after 20-some-odd years of wondering about what Cuba had become, I’d be able to truly understand. Emilio and Cuca were for me, the embodiment of what had happened to the island. Already married with children at the time of the revolution, they had experienced the full circle of recent Cuban history: from first-world economy to third-world disaster. They had seen it all.

Photo: Gerardo Quintanal addresses a business meeting in 1960.

At first however, Gerardo wanted nothing to do with the reunion. Looking back on the Spring of 2001, his daughter Rosi theorizes that he feared the arrival of Carlos would spark his death. Eventually however, he relented to fate and agreed to meet a man and woman he hadn’t seen since the Winter of 1960.

When the door opened at the Quintanal residence on May 26, 2001, two worlds collided. Gerardo grabbed his cane and eased his tired body up from a chair in the corner of the living room and set eyes on what had become a stranger. Emilio was not the 40-year-old pediatrician who bade farewell to his brother in 1960, thinking he’d be hack in a matter of months. Rather, he was a wrinkled man of eighty who had watched over the ancestral home their father had built 60 years earlier as it decayed in a syncopated rhythm with the revolution. For 40 years, Gerardo’s chair at the head of the Sunday dinner table in Havana had sat empty – Emilio refusing to take his place at what he felt was rightfully his brother’s spot. Now, amid the manicured lawns of suburban New Jersey, the brothers Quintanal would sit together at the head of a new table, surrounded by an even larger family than the one that ceased to exist after Fidel Castro had rolled triumphantly into downtown Havana decades earlier.

Photo: Emilio Quintanal, at his residence in Cuba.

What struck me the most about the reunion that day was the initial lack of tears. I had expected a symphony of welled-up waterworks but witnessed a sort of quiet shock instead. Gerardo stood silent and wide-eyed throughout the first moments of the reunion, seemingly unable to speak. He knew he wouldn’t last past Emilio and Cuca’s return to Havana and it was alright. They had done what the Castro regime had tried so hard to prevent for so long. For seven days in May, they had rebuilt a bridge torn asunder by a revolution’s broken promises, and less than two years later, I would find myself sitting in the chair my grandfather once occupied every Sunday more than four decades earlier during those compulsory family meals in Havana.


Blissville said...

I have followed this blog for several weeks now, passed it on to others, too, and ridiculously waited without commenting. I love your combination of stories with imagery, like memory itself. Thank you!

Gabriel said...
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