Finding Family In Havana

One afternoon Lynette, Adrian, Eric, and I take off to see if we can track down her mom's childhood home and a relative of the family by marriage. We have a vague idea of the grid structure of Havana, but eventually have to ask a policeman which way to go to get to this address. We don't have much time, and we find out that it is a good 15 or 20 minute walk from where we are. We are torn, because we don't know if we'll get another chance to do this, so we decide to go for it. It will be the first time we are late, but unfortunately not the last.

 

We trek down the streets of Havana, all staying together, sweat soaking our clothes and trickling down our backs. The old architecture continues to amaze. This was once a beautiful place. It's as though the clock stopped after the revolution, and Cuba is just making do until some future age of hope. We count down the letters from K street to D street, make a sharp left and begin looking for house numbers. We've chosen to see if we can find the relative first, hoping she is home. She's the closest to where we are staying, and will be all we have time for today.

 

Shortly we spy the house number, and Lynette exclaims "this is it!!". We enter the courtyard and ring the bell. We wait, but there is no response. We ring both bells, and finally someone hollers from upstairs. Lynette answers from below peering up the side of the house. She says we are here to find Vitalia and that we are family from the states, but then there is no answer. We ring the bell again and stand back to peer up into the balcony. Finally, when we are on the verge of leaving, the door swings open, and a spunky old little lady, a younger version of Lynette's Abuela Fela appears.

 

Excitedly Lynette explains who we are, and Vitalia welcomes all of us with open arms in typical Cuban fashion. It turns out that she knows the Lord, and her sweet face reflects this. I snap a few photos amidst mild protesting (after all she hasn't had time to get pretty for photos), and we explain that we have to run because now we are going to be late back to the dorm for sure. Before we go we invite her and all the family to the family day on Sunday. She promises to come and to try and bring several of the other family members. They will be so excited to hear about it, she says. We say quick, but thankful goodbyes. I'm just glad she was home and finally, for the first time in Lynette's life, she is able to make contact with family on

the other side.

 

Today there is a lot of anticipation, because it is family day. Those of us who have family in Cuba have invited them to come eat lunch with us, that is if we have been able to find them. Fortunately, Lynette found some of hers earlier in the week, Vitalia, who has invited other family members, and all told seven of them come from Lynette's family. Katie, Liz, Maura, and Debbie all have family come too.

 

The fatted pig has been killed for the occasion, and there is plenty of food for everyone. Not everyone is able to eat, though, because it is an emotional time. Lynette's great aunt and cousins who came are all emotional - her great aunt says she never thought she would meet Lynette in her lifetime. That is almost true. But not quite. It is the same story for tens of thousands of family who were split by the revolution, and struggle to cross the divide today. But at the moment, the divide has been crossed, and conversation flies fast and thick.  Too soon, the lunch ends and the family leaves with promises of rejoining us for the Sunday evening service.  

At  the Sunday services it is hot, especially up in the balcony where I am getting some good perspective shots. True to their promise, Lynette's great aunt, 2nd cousin, 3rd cousin and her baby, and Vitalia all come. It is a sweet time for Lynette and the last time she will be able to see them before leaving Cuba.

 

On the last day of our time in Havana, Lynette and I head out to try and meet two of her great aunts that weren't able to make it for the family day because they are so old. We are also looking for her mom's house, where her mom grew up when she was little. We rent a taxi from the Havana Libre, and are off. After a few missed turns, we finally land on the street that her mom once played on as a kid.

 

The taxi lady waits for us, and we run down the street. It is a magical moment, and even I get emotional being there with Lynette as she see for the first time the place her mother was as a child. We get to go inside because the current tenants are home, and I snap a few shots while Lynette talks to them. Lynette's grandma who fled to Miami during the revolution, used to live in the bottom portion and run a private school in the upper portion.  When Castro took over, he shut down the school.  There are many memories here, but regrettably we're late, so we thank the tenants and run back to the taxi. We make a quick stop by the Revolution Plaza where Castro apparently gives speeches to the country and where a huge image of Che is emblazoned on the side of a building. Then, after twenty minutes of driving around lost, finally find her great aunts' house on her dad's side.

 

It turns out to be the place her dad and uncle were born. The chair they used to rock her dad in still sits in the living room. It's like another time, and these two wispy old women are it's last breath. One of them says it's ugly and I say no it's beautiful, because there are so many memories here, and so much from before. She says yes, it's a reminder of the previous era when things were different. I think about all the families that have been living like this, some never again seeing their relatives, sitting on two sides of a 90 mile stretch of water.

 

How many stories could be told? We stay as long as we can, but we are already late - twenty minutes will have to do for now. Perhaps in the future there will be another reunion, if they live a little while longer. After hugs all around we jump in the taxi and are whisked to the airport. We are over an hour late, and Liz is not happy, and everyone is worried. I feel really badly, but my feelings are tempered by the fact that Lynette was able to see part of her family and her heritage that she may never see again.  What relational opportunities do we miss in life because we just can't fit the timei into our "schedules"?  When we look back, the only thing that will be important is the time we were able to spend with each other.  Everything else will fade, but those moments last forever.  

 

(CLICK PHOTOSO TO ENLARGE)

Lynette finds a part of her family in Cuba for the first time.

Lynette finds a relative of her family by marriage for the first time.

Family Day - our gathering for families that have met, many for the first time, from the U.S. and Cuba.

Lynette's extended family in Havana at Family day. These are all family she met for the first time.

Pig is on the menu.

Ham anyone?

Continuing the reunion at evening church service.

A hot but joyful assembly.

Riding in Havana.

José Martí memorial honoring a hero of the revolution.

Che Guevara likeness by the José Martí memorial.

The street in Old Havana that Lynette's mom lived when she was a kid before the revolution.

The street in Old Havana that Lynette's mom lived when she was a kid before the revolution.

Looking for her mother's childhood home.

About to connect with personal history.

Standidng in front of her mother's and grandmother's home in Havana.

The two story home of Lynette's mom during childhood.

Gracious tenants allow us to explore the house. Upstairs used to be a school run by Lynette's grandma, and living quarters were downstairs. They are now two separate apartments.

Built in 1924.

The interior courtyard.

Saying goodbye to the home and current tenants.

The street in Old Havana that Lynette's mom lived when she was a kid before the revolution.

Where Lynette's mom used to organize neighborhood games as a kid.

Approach to Lynette's dad's home in Havana.

The great aunts are home. Two sisters who still live in the same house since before the revolution.

Meeting for the first time in the flesh.

Meeting for the first time in the flesh.

Disbelief and happiness. They never thought they'd get a chance to meet.

Original Kodak Brownie camera in the box, and the rocking chair Lynette's dad used to be rocked in.

The house Lynette's dad and uncle were both born in.