By Judy Bolton-Fasman
When my Cuban–born mother married my much older American father, she was thrilled to say goodbye to the cold-water flats and acrid subway stations of the Brooklyn to which she had immigrated. Over a half-century later, I walked the streets of Havana where my mother had dreamed of a rich life in America. Her fantasies of a star-spangled, Doris Day-Rock Hudson life included the two-story colonial in suburban Connecticut in which she eventually lived.
I looked for that same sort of luxury that my mother said she grew up with in Old Havana on la Calle Mercéd 20 — my mother’s house, the storied address of my childhood. For me, all things Cuban began and ended there. It was the place where my mother would be young forever. It was the place where my grandparents shut the door on twenty-five years of possessions and walked away forever. It was the place where my mother said she shined the marble stairs better than the maid. This was my mother’s world and when I knocked on Number 20’s heavy door it was the last moment before I fully understood that she had invented her comfortable Cubana life — a life that featured a tony apartment house where my mother and her family occupied both floors. She said there was a maid’s room where Amelia the housekeeper ironed the delicate house linens.
A pregnant woman answered the door and I stepped into the small, dark place that almost certainly had not changed since my mother lived there. The four-room apartment was crowded with maroon brocade furniture. A big screen television, the focal point of the living room, broadcast in garish colors and ran without the sound. Like my parents’ bedroom on Asylum Avenue, the place felt existentially noisy with so much stuff crammed into that small space. The furnishings were obviously gifts that their relatives in America brought them.
I looked beyond the woman who now lived in my mother’s apartment and saw the open-air courtyard between the dining room and the rundown kitchen. Courtyards were common in Cuban apartment buildings and this one was a dingy space. It was also the place where the shochet — the kosher butcher — slaughtered the live chickens that Abuela brought from the marketplace.
I thanked my host profusely and tried to offer her money for the impromptu visit. As soon as I held out the cash I felt like a fat cat gringa buying memories that weren’t quite mine. The only relatives I had left in Cuba were now under tombstones at Guanabacoa cemetery.
I sat on the stoop, my head against the heavy wooden door — my tears came as suddenly as a cloudburst. It was the kind of crying that darkens the mind like the night sky. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw a dashboard of pulsing light. I cried with the recognition that the melancholy dancing I did with my mother. As a child, I thought my mother missed a grand home in Havana. But my mother’s apartment in Cuba struck me as one of the saddest places in the Cuban capital.
When I returned from the trip my mother admitted that moving to the apartment in Old Havana was a step up from her family’s previous residence where there was a communal bathroom in the hallway and prostitutes flirting outside the building.
It’s no surprise that my mother was willing to shed her Sephardic Jewish name—a name with some history to it—to marry my father and become Mrs. K. Harold Bolton. In Spanish, with its emphasis on the second syllable, the name Bolton had heft. With that Anglicized last name my mother’s family knew that she landed her much wished for Americano fino — her refined American.
I had parted a sad rusty iron curtain on a life that my mother never had in her querida Cuba. There was no maid, there was no second floor to which to repose. Instead, this was where my mother secretly pretended to dance with the boys she was not allowed to date. Left arm extended, right arm on her stomach. This is the way she danced in our living room in Connecticut. I heard her cry out, Hay Cuba, como te estraño. Oh Cuba, how I miss you.
I continued to walk around Havana, taking in its gorgeous ruins. Cuba was an aging beauty queen that rose above decades of neglect and poverty. The place was translucent with pastel colors and prism-like light. Even the façade of Calle Mercéd 20 was painted in light green. There was also the hunger of the people for all things that I, as an American, might be able to offer them. The requests were humble. Kids came up to me and asked me for caramelitos and plumas — candies and pens. I gave them a couple of pens that wrote in purple ink from a frilly Boston nail salon. The women in a state-run pharmacy flagged me down on the street and asked if I had any medicine in my purse.
The cab driver who took me to the University of Havana asked if I had any antacids or aspirin I could spare. His wife had migrañas and he was desperate to help her.
“There is nothing here,” he said. “Look at this old Lada that I drive. Every morning I pray it will start. Estoy aburrido de esta vida.”
His was a lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia my mother had. She too was aburrida with the life she led. She wanted to go back to a Cuba of warmth and ocean and Purim balls. To a Cuba of lavishness she could almost touch. But as we drove I told him how much my mother missed Cuba. “What is there to miss here anymore? Tell your mother not to come home.”
The driver took me to the University of Havana’s iconic staircase that fanned down to the street. The stairs, beyond repair like the ones at Calle Merced, were roped off and a man who saw me looking around offered an impromptu tour. He was tall and called himself a mulatto. “There’s no racism here like in the United States,” he said proudly.
Like all of my mother’s stories, her time at the university had contradictions — contradictions that contributed to a crumbling history with an idiosyncratic yet improbable logic all its own. Just as there are two stories of creation in Genesis, there are at least two versions of my mother’s time at the University of Havana. In the first she was the meek, young student whose father only let her leave the house with enough money for bus fare and a Coca-Cola. In the second, she was the heroine who was determined to get an education at any cost. She was the social work student who went above and beyond expectations to get diapers and formula for her clients.
My freelance tour guide began his presentation detailing the events of late 1956. “The university closed down at that time for three years. On March 3, 1957, the president of the university’s student body, José Antonio Echevarría, was murdered storming Batista’s presidential palace.”
My mother had always referred to Echevarría as “Manzanito” — little apple. The name was a reference to his cheeks that she said were full and red. In her version of history, Batista’s henchman gunned down Manzanito only steps away from the famous staircase leading up to the University of Havana. My mother said that she was taking a quiz in a nearby classroom when she heard the gunshots.
“Are you sure Echevarría wasn’t murdered on campus,” I asked the tour guide.
“No, Señora. He died at the presidential palace.”
“And classes were suspended in November of 1956?”
“Claro que sí — of course,” he said.
I paused on the word claro. Aside from its idiomatic meaning, it was also the word for “clear.” A certain clarity had come into focus.
“You’re sure of the dates.”
I quickly did the math and that was five months unaccounted for in my mother’s life. The gunshots she said she heard from her classroom in the fall of 1956 never rang out on campus.
“So your mother studied here before she left for America?”
“Yes,” I said distractedly. “She was a student at the School of Social Work. She graduated third in her class.”
He looked puzzled. “Señora, there is no School of Social Work here.”
“But that’s what she told me she studied!”
He looked away.
“She was secretary of the student council and graduated third in her class. She might have ranked higher if she hadn’t flunked gym.”
“Señora, sometimes Cubanos in exile pass off their made-up stories as the truth.”
I thought of my father who always chided that the Cuban exiles he met claimed they had sugar plantations.
I walked with my new companion in a stunned silence until we came to a small café with a big banner behind the bar that announced the Federación Estudantil Universitaria — The University Student Federation. The man told me Echavarría’s story again. And again I felt the sting and the sadness of my mother’s lies.
“Can you give me something for my wonderful history lesson?” the man asked.
Everything in Cuba was about bartering. The black market in Havana is darker than Noche Buena — the Christmas Eve sky. People trade anything from sex to American dollars for a pound of meat or a cup of oil. Worried that I didn’t understand, the man held out his hand for emphasis. As I was giving him the little cash I had on me, my taxi driver pulled up.
“Ladrón,” yelled my driver who got out of the car.
The two men faced each other. “It’s okay, he can keep the money it isn’t that much,” I said.
“He stole from you.”
“He showed me some Cuban history,” I said scared and frustrated that the word for landmark or monument was not in my kitchen Spanish vocabulary.
“Que Hijo de mala madre,” said my driver when we got back in the car. “Don’t you know not to go with strange men?”
I knew. But in Havana my curiosity trumped common sense.
“I thought you were right behind me,” I said apologetically.
We drove on in silence to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
As I was getting ready to give my driver the fare, he told me, “I have a mother-in-law in Jersey City who sends my family money whenever she can. It helps more than you can imagine,” he said. “Gracias mi hija,” he said when I tipped him thirty percent and gave him a half a bottle of Advil.
For the longest time, I never doubted my mother’s stories; never considered she needed a paper trail leading back to a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Havana. I shared her illusions about studying at the university well into my adulthood. Apparently so did the people who allowed her to make her way into a Master’s degree program in Spanish literature at the local American college. She said her transcripts were trapped behind another rusting iron curtain that permanently clanked shut on Cuba.
But my mother’s ultimate goal was to declare her financial independence from my father. Dad must have known that the balance of power would shift forever once my mother had an actual degree with which to get a job. Yet my father never betrayed the fact that my mother had pulled together a professional life that was also pegado con chicle — stuck together with gum. She had finally stepped into to a life of upward mobility—an upward mobility of her own making.
Judy Bolton-Fasman has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and many literary venues. She has also completed a memoir entitled “Asylum.” To see her work, please go to judyboltonfasman.com.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.