My mother is forever missing from her girlhood.
I no longer have pictures of her as a child or very young woman in Cuba, and so I must swap out the eye of a camera for the eye of memory. Over the years, I have fantasized about hiring a sketch artist — an illustrator who brings victims and perpetrators alike to life in bold charcoal strokes. I need such an artist to draw my description of my mother as a young woman.
I have seen some photographs of my mother as a girl before they drowned in our flooded basement or were deeply buried in the rubble of a chaotic move from our ancestral home in Connecticut. I am jealous of people who have photo albums and family records from which they can piece together a life. But I’m not greedy; I would be happy with a single pristine memory. But I will never stumble on a serendipitous cache of family photos from Cuba in an old attic. I will always long for a stack of pictures to organize for significance rather than chronology.
My mother’s connection to Cuba was finally severed when her parents closed the door on 25 years of living on 20 Calle Mercéd. They were only allowed to take a small suitcase between them that held a change of clothes, toothbrushes, and a jumble of memories they could never quite tease apart to comfort themselves in America.
I am thrilled when a cousin in Miami Beach sends me a photocopy of my mother’s first-grade class picture. The Xerox travels up the east coast to Boston, and there is my mother, Matilde, staring straight into the camera, seated among other six-year-olds in Havana. The picture was published in the synagogue bulletin of “Temple Moses: Sephardic Congregation of Florida,” as part of its “Rincón de Recuerdo” — Corner of Memory. For the synagogue, it was simply a snapshot of the first grade class of El Colegio Theodore Hertzel (sic), Habana Cuba, in 1941 — a relic of a Jewish Cuba that is no more. But to me that photograph is a piece of my mother’s broken psyche.
Chubby and dour, my mother is in the second row seated next to a boy designated as desconocido — unknown. It is fitting that my mother is next to this anonymous boy. So much about her life in Cuba is undisclosed, submerged in her fantasies of the Havana she has built up and presented to me over the years. Her actual story is as mysterious as Cuba itself — that jewel of an island whose forbiddenness yet proximity to her, and to me, has always been tantalizingly out of reach. “Ninety miles from the coast of Florida,” my mother mutters over and over when she is on one of her emotional jags. Her country has been on almost continuous lockdown for six decades.
In 1941, the world is about to blaze. Pearl Harbor may or may not have happened the day my mother’s school picture is snapped. My father, the American Ivy League Naval ensign, is in San Francisco on December 7, 1941, preparing to ship out on a supply vessel that will cruise the Pacific to deliver food and ammunition to battleships. He intuits heat and war and death will soon engulf the world. In 1941, across the chasm of their age difference, it seems impossible that my parents will ever meet — they will remain unknown to one another. It will be the same in their fraught marriage — always desconocido to each other.
My mother will continue to attend El Colegio Theodore Hertzel in Havana until it is time for her to enroll at El Instituto — Cuba’s version of high school. She will graduate from the Instituto and lie that she went on to attend the University of Havana. I will not figure out her deception until I am well into motherhood. And I do so only accidentally as her secret leaks out from one of her stories in which the dates of her attendance don’t align with El Revolución and the years the university was shuttered.
But in that picture from the temple, she is Matilde Alboukrek, a little girl who is aware that she lives in the rundown section of Habana la Vieja — the neighborhood of Old Havana that is close to the port. Maybe it is the same port just out of reach for the condemned passengers of the St. Louis in 1939. They are desconocidos too — people who perish as part of a numbing statistic; people who are condemned to be stateless and nameless. On that day in Havana’s port they are destined to become the souls that will disappear among the six million Jews who die in the Holocaust.
History, along with my grandfather, Abuelo, will steal my mother’s childhood from her. Abuelo will jumpstart my mother’s lifelong crippling anxiety when he tells her that should Hitler come to Cuba, he will not save his children with falsified papers or doctored baptismal records. My mother is a little girl, but she knows that those papers and those drops of water will erase the Jew in her so she can live. Abuelo will refuse her that lifeline. This is the first but not the last time her father is willing to sacrifice his daughter, to extinguish her spirit.
El Colegio Theodore Hertzel is named for the father of Zionism. At the end of the 19th century, Herzl advocated that the Jews needed a permanent homeland to escape the dangers of antisemitism. For Herzl, that place was Palestine. For my mother’s family, it was Cuba where they landed from Greece and Turkey in the early 1900s. My mother will never see the Holy Land, once a supreme wish of hers. By the time I can afford to take her, she is hopelessly terrified to take an airplane, and she can barely walk. I dream of hiring one of the many Philippine women who flock to Israel to work as nursing aides for the elderly to care for my mother on that trip that will never happen. I picture this merciful woman pushing my mother over the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City with alacrity. The destination is the Wailing Wall — bearded with vegetation. At the Wall, I see myself, as in a movie, helping my mother to her feet to breathe in the prayerful air and kiss the holy, wide, chunky blocks of stone. It is the one place on earth I would not begrudge my mother begging God to reverse the injustices in her life.
With the gratitude of a minority who has survived within a minority, my mother tells me that Cuba was friendly to its Jews until Jewish refugees from Europe began arriving on the island after the Second World War in consequential numbers. Aside from resenting the influx of Jews fleeing the Nazis, Havana had its crystalline moments of Jew-hatred. My mother remembers how frightened she was to leave her house on Good Friday. She, one of the alleged killers of the Lord Jesus Christ, was not safe on the streets of Cuba’s capital on a sanctified Easter weekend.
The blinding white flash of light from another bulky, old-fashioned camera with a hooded photographer behind it goes off, and there is my mother lovely at 12. The physical photograph is lost forever, carried away in the debris and slush of a flooded basement. But I’ve held the actual snapshot in my hand; the memory of the picture floats against the Milky Way backdrop that always happens when I squeeze my eyes shut. Here’s what I want to tell that police sketch artist: Draw my mother as the gypsy girl, or as she called herself a guajira. Folds and folds of tela — fabric — should engulf her. Abuelo was a fabric salesman; Abuela was a seamstress — a costurera. I like that my world makes sense for a minute as the Spanish word costurera echoes the English one for costume. My mother wore costumes to conceal her poverty. Abuela, she said, could make the most beautiful dresses from the raggedy remnants of fabric Abuelo brought home.
Abuela must have sewn the gypsy girl outfit — most likely as a Purim costume; Purim a holiday that revels in concealment. My mother’s head is covered in a kerchief, and she is holding a small conga drum to beat to music that only she hears. Her lips are a preview of the out-of-this-world-shade of red lipstick she will wear in a few years. My mother already resembles the beautiful woman she will grow into. Yet so much hides her body in the photograph — the brutal modesty her father imposes on her.
On the Malecón, Havana’s sea wall, my pubescent mother strolls on a Sunday afternoon with her parents, younger sister, and brother. Her father insists that she wear stockings and closed shoes; the ocean breezes are a blessing for covered legs in the afternoon heat. My mother brilliantly skirts the modesty issue by meneando el fondillo — swinging her backside — just decent enough for her father not to object.
God, how I wish I still had the actual photograph of my mother in the gypsy costume. She smiles a rare smile on Purim. This is the holiday when Jews relax into carnival-like, no-consequences joy, and honor Queen Esther, who rescued her people from certain genocide because of her luminous beauty, and trembling bravery. Did the Jews of Cuba hope for the ghost of Queen Esther to bless their sisters and brothers on the St. Louis when it was desperately docked in Havana’s harbor?
Years later, my mother will come in second at a Purim Ball in the Patronato. Her father did not have the means to donate to the community coffers and so she was not crowned Queen Esther that night. Instead, my mother is a Cinderella without the shoe that will slide her into a perfect happily-ever-after life. On that night, she realizes there will never be a prince.
But there is one picture I am able to rescue from the ruins of our Connecticut home — a black and white portrait in which my mother is no one’s runner up. Her wavy hair cascades down her back as she poses towards the future. Her lips are preternaturally dark. She is 19 forever.
Little Matilde Alboukrek in el primer grado del Colegio Theodore Hertzel, is still too young to use her wiliness, survival instinct, or beauty to live through the bleakness that her father drinks away his paycheck. Her father hits her mother, and in the corner of their basement apartment — a dark version of theRincón de Recuerdo — he tries to kiss my mother full on the mouth. I know from experience that he will not stop until he succeeds.
I swear that if I had that original photograph of my mother in her gypsy costume, I would be able to suss out the secrets that made her cry, made her hate me, made her love me. At least, that’s the fairytale I concoct. I am also haunted by images of epiphanic clarity in which Abuelo sneaks into my mother’s bedroom at night. He reeks of alcohol, and it sickens her. He is still wearing his guyabera with sweat stains under the armpits as he slides his hand under her thin nightgown.
I can hear my mother scream, No mas! Enough of these crazy stories! You’re a sick girl — enferma en la cabeza, she will tell me. I am sure she can detect the beats of the machinations I go through to figure out her story just as she heard that imaginary music so long ago. My mother is the one who will be forever heart-sick, soul-sick, and enferma en la cabeza.
I can’t stop staring at the photocopied picture of this unsmiling little girl who never wants to go home after school. It is a picture of a picture in which my mother, reduced to shades of static grays, sits next to a boy, unnamed and unrecorded for posterity.
When I bring the photocopy to my mother, she squints and says, “I think he sits at my table in the dining room. “Creo que si — Yes, that’s him.” Perhaps my mother is telegraphing me that here was the prince who would have saved her before he slipped away into some stream of history like the damned souls on the St. Louis.
Of all the nightmare scenarios that my mother conjures for herself in her now gloomy life — desconocido, to be unknown, her synonym for misunderstood — is unbearable. La vida es un sueño. I hear her sigh these words throughout my childhood. Her life, she fears, is a bad dream in which she will be as forgotten as the boy seated beside her, as forgotten as the man who eats at her table in the nursing home.
After all, who besides me, will care to remember Matilde Alboukrek as the beauty with the dark lipstick? Who will want to help me tease out strands upon strands of her life story? Other than I, who cares if she is no more than a blurry figure in a Xerox of a Xerox?
In my living room, I have started to organize a Rincón de Recuerdo. At the center of my memory corner is the photograph of my young, beautiful queen of a mother in a silver frame that I suddenly notice is tarnishing.
Image: Cuba by Michael Anranter, licensed under CC 2.0.