Dec 29 2009

Garbo Days

You know I love those two little rug-rat creatures of mine. They furnish dozens of adorable moments each day, doing or saying something funny or sweet. The simple extension one of their peach-soft hands upward toward me, a gesture of such complete trust, is sometimes all it takes to wet my eyes and thrust me into a state in awe. How did I ever have such beautiful children? I must have done something good.

However there are just as many dozen moments in the day when I would just like them to please be quiet and go away and leave me alone. If you listen closely, you can hear me parrot Greta Garbo under my breath, “I want to be alone.
I want to be alone.”

I’m not the first woman to know this paradox, and I won’t be the last.

You can imagine, then, the gladness and joy I experienced when one of the presents under the Christmas tree for Mère Noel was De-facto’s offer to take Short-pants and Buddy-roo to the country for a few days – without me.

He knows my fondness for going to the country house wanes in winter. It’s a lot of work to open and close the house in the warmer months, but in the cold weather that work is augmented by all things that must be undone and then done again to protect pipes and water tanks. Not to mention arriving to an unheated house. It takes at least two days for the wood stove to truly warm the walls and you have to let the fire die before you leave. The visit, then, is book-ended by hours of hovering and shivering and wearing mittens inside. My idea of nothing to do.

Late on Christmas Day afternoon I shut the trunk and waved as they drove away, and I have been alone, in my home, without another creature stirring for four days. Four days of solitude. Four days of freedom.

The quiet that stretches its waking arms throughout the apartment is delicious. I hear only the muffled voices of people in the street, an occasional sound of a neighbor in the hall, a nearby church bell ringing. No pattering feet. No screaming and crying and “Mama, watch this!” No voices in stereo vying for attention.

There are no marbles, pet-shops-creatures, Barbie shoes or other small, unidentified pieces of plastic left on the floor to torture my bare morning feet. No toys or dirty stuffed animals, no pretend stores, schools, or cars constructed of chairs, pillows and blankets to navigate when crossing my living room. Absolutely no sign of that big doll, often splayed on the couch. I’ve relegated her to a far corner upstairs.

No interruptions when I’m in the middle of something; that means complete privacy during all ablutions and eliminations.

It’s paradise.

What to do with all that time?

There’s reading, an attempt to make a dent in that pile of books on the bed table. There’s writing, on-line and off. There’s sorting and organizing those papers and things that pile up. There’s catching up with my electronic life, clearing out emails and diving deep into the blogosphere. (Ah, the sweet pleasure of unlimited time to click-through; to tumble deep into my curiosity and then into the web of information to satisfy it, without watching the clock.) There’s sleeping in, until noon. There’s complete autonomy. Decisions are all up to me. One day, I didn’t even change out of my pajamas.

I have remembered what is too easily forgotten: hours without boundary. This only fortifies my belief in the importance of solitude. I have never minded being alone. I think both my mother and father made an asserted effort to instill in me – especially, as a youngest sibling – the capacity to be content with my own company. I’m grateful; it means I’m rarely lonely. But this conditioning has its price. Without sufficient private alone time, I become awfully grumpy.

Greta Garbo is quoted as saying, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Yes. Just because I’m so delighted to be alone does not mean I’d seek permanent separation from my family; if they were gone for good I’d be shattered. I just want, from time to time, to be left alone. The sense of peace that has come over me this weekend proves the value of such solitude; I feel grounded and calm, like the old me.

A text message from De-facto just a few hours ago tells me they’re on their way home. I must admit I’m a bit terrified. The order and solace of my home will be broken, an eruption of laughter and play will bounce off these walls again. I will have to readjust.

At the end of the scene in the movie Grand Hotel, where Garbo utters those words that haunted her for the rest of her career (watch the clip here) she makes a phone call to find out what happened at the ballet. “They didn’t miss me at all,” she whispers, in despair.

It’s probably not today – since I’m pretty sure those two little girls will run strong and fast into my embrace when they return – but I know in a few years time, they won’t even miss me at all. Then maybe I might not appreciate the solitude so much. But for now, how lovely to have been left alone for a few days.

It makes all the difference.

Dec 25 2009

Loving Christmas

Yesterday morning, Short-pants was early out of bed – a rarity – and crawled in with De-facto and me for a ritual cuddle. Buddy-roo came down a bit later and heard us whispering. She lurked in the hall outside our door, sniffling.

I took the bait and asked her what was wrong. She said she’d wanted to be the first in our bed for the morning cuddle. No urging could get her to let go of her disappointment and join us under the warm covers. She alternated between crying and pouting.

For a few moments she disappeared, and returned to deliver a picture she had drawn, indicating her love for me and her papa and sister had been withdrawn. She dropped it on the bed and returned to her post outside our door.

“I don’t care if she doesn’t love me,” said Short-pants, “all that matters is how much I love her.”

I’m not making it up; she really said that. As if we needed any more evidence that she possesses that little extra dose of love, strength and wisdom, and understands how to employ it.

After a long period of silence, Buddy-roo offered a suggestion.

“Mama, you know that store over near the Pompidou, with all the toys stacked in the window?”


“You could go there and buy me something.”

“That’s one idea,” I said, in my best non-committal voice.

So this is Christmas, I thought, from one end of the range to the other.

In the spirit of both of my beautiful children, I’d like to wish all the readers of this blog – loyal and occasional – a Merry, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Navidad, and don’t forget a belated Happy Chanukah. I send warm greetings to you for the whole season; may you find all the love, strength and wisdom – and toys – you need.

And thank you for reading Maternal Dementia this year, that’s the best gift I could ask for.

Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.

Dec 20 2009

The Spectacle

An unusual cold spell and snowfall in France have not deterred us from our weekend social calendar. “Party on!” is the holiday mantra. We even ventured out of our arrondissement to attend a brunch hosted by friends who live just outside Paris. When the suburban-line RER train emerged from the tunnel we were surprised with a white cover of snow blanketing the ground. Our bravery – going beyond the city limits – was rewarded with this classic Christmas vista.

Our hostess, a friend, colleague and maman créative, also blogs about mothering. Her forte is inspiring creativity in her children. She practices what she preaches; just behind the Christmas tree was a mind-map she made with her children, a group exercise in deferring judgment as they brainstormed on their decorations for Noël. She and her partner have a family recomposée with four children, so adding Short-pants and Buddy-roo made for six kids. It was a big crew. Talk about bravery.

Except they all got on marvelously. It helps that their new apartment as a “kids wing” so there were two rooms down a long hall where they could tumble into private play. When the first course was served, they all came when called and seated themselves around the “kids table.” After devouring their servings of foie gras in oven-baked brioche (oui, ahem) they scrambled back into the bedrooms and picked up where they’d left off. We took our time finishing the sauterne.

While the second course was being dished up, one of the children was made envoy to the main room, touring our table and placing a ticket in front of each adult, pronouncing proudly the upcoming event, “Un spectacle!”

Un spectacle. Words that every parent receives with pride and horror. Great! There’s going to be a show. Shit! There’s going to be a show.
Even the most creative mothers (and fathers) harbor a deep hidden dread of the never-ending spectacle. My parents once sat through a laborious production of Christmas Around The World, a two-plus hour exposé of holiday customs in something like 56 countries. This must be a parental rite of passage.

Somebody taller than five feet suggested that the show should start after dessert. That gave us the main course, the cheese and the tarte tartin – and all accompanying beverages – to fortify us for the performance.

I tried to be discreet. When the kids joined us for the next course, I called Short-pants over to the table to remind her of something we’ve learned to practice in our spectacles at home. “Don’t forget,” I told her, “A good spectacle has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” De-facto agreed, “And you want it to be short. Always leave people wanting more.”

“And don’t forget the Salut!” Wisdom from the maman créative, “that’s the most important part.” Of course. Play up the taking of bows at the end. That is why she’s a creative mother.

The production, we could tell from the title, was the story of a discouraged caterpillar and a mocking butterfly. At least there would be some tension, necessary in good theater. The challenge was it had to be performed in the dark, which meant being staged in the only room in the apartment that had no window, the bathroom. After dessert, we four adults were squeezed in the shower and beside the washing machine, hoping that our advice about theatrical structure and brevity had been taken into consideration.

The spectacle involved puppets and flashlights and softly spoken snippets of French I could neither hear nor understand. But when the final lines were pronounced and bows were taken, I applauded wildly. As one does.

That was yesterday. Today Ricky’s in our kitchen cooking the Christmas goose (you have to say it with a British accent). In a rare Martha-Stewart moment, Lucy made knife-rests out of cinnamon sticks for the table. The girls are holed-up upstairs, cooking up something of their own; perhaps there’s a spectacle is in the making? No sign – yet – of that big doll, but I’m sure she’s gonna show.

Dec 16 2009

That Big Doll

Like a bad penny, she just keeps turning up.

It all started as a parting gift, but now she is a fixture in our home. And I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified by her.

Last summer the girls were invited to a birthday celebration. A late July party is not easy to populate; most Parisians are away on vacation. The birthday-boy’s mother was thrilled to learn that we were in town that weekend and that the both Short-pants and Buddy-roo could attend. I dropped them at the appointed hour and they tumbled through the door and made themselves at home, taking over the apartment as though it was their own. How kids fall into play so quickly.

Since we’re a take-turns kind of family, De-facto was charged with retrieving our children after the party. He returned home with two girls and one life-sized plastic doll. The boy’s mother had insisted, De-facto said, and the girls had pleaded to let her come home to their community of dolls. What could he say? (“No, thank you,” comes to mind, but in what was probably a slightly awkward moment, this didn’t occur to him.)

There’s something terribly discomforting about the doll. That she is nearly the same height as Buddy-roo wouldn’t be so bad except she has the anatomical features of someone much more mature. She has breasts – perky, pointed ones – and her waist is inhumanely narrow compared to them. She came wearing one outfit: low-rider jeans and a Daisy-Mae midriff top. When you attempt to arrange her legs so that she might be seated, they spread apart. She is a tart.

I call her that big doll, as in “please take that big doll upstairs to your room.”
Last summer, Ricky and Lucy hosted more than a few lovely, lingering, Sunday brunches in our courtyard. And of course, that big doll found her way to the table. I tried to ditch her by sliding her between the sheets of Ricky and Lucy’s bed. It got a good laugh and a few compromising photographs, but no ransom was required for her return.

When the tornado twins stayed in our home while we were gone, I’m told that big doll was a huge hit and afforded many opportunities for curious kinds of play. This might explain, too, why the birthday-boy’s mother was rather eager to find the doll a new home.

That big doll usually stands in the corner of Buddy-roo’s bedroom, and yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin, startled by her life-size presence beside the basket of stuffed animals. Weeks pass where the girls ignore her, preferring their other dolls, yet any suggestion that she might find a new place to live is met with tears and pleas for mercy.
Our next-door neighbor asked the girls if they wanted to select a few toys that they don’t play with anymore to donate to a Christmas toy-drive for needy children. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo demonstrated great philanthropic spirit. After an exhaustive inventory, they prepared a generous bag of toys and dolls that had fallen out of favor but were still in good condition. I didn’t even ask if that big doll could join the out-basket. I simply placed her on top of the bag with the other toys, in front of our neighbor’s door.

I just returned from a week-long trip to find that the bag of give-away toys had been taken, but my nemesis had stayed behind; that big doll was standing outside our door, glaring at me. It’s like a Stephen King novel; she will not disappear and she seems more evil each time I try to dispose of her. I’m not sure if our neighbor left the doll because Buddy-roo had persuaded her to, or if she just didn’t want to be seen carrying that big doll to the office.
With a style that puts the Silahis to shame, that big doll crashed our Thanksgiving dinner, turning up topless at the table after the cheese course. She managed to break one of my crystal champagne glasses while reaching for a cigar. She was the one who polished off the last of the cognac.

And I know what’s coming. We’re cooking a Christmas Goose with Ricky and Lucy this weekend; the double entendres will be too tempting. She’s so very clever, she must know I can’t possibly throw her out during the holiday season. I guess I just have to learn to live with that big doll.

Dec 10 2009

Two Wrongs

“I can’t figure out why you were at Fifth Avenue,” my mother said. This would explain her rather lukewarm response to my post about finding her childhood home. “Your aunt didn’t think that was the house, either. We lived two houses in from Third Avenue.”


Hmm. I’m pretty sure I read her email correctly. I remember going back to it again and again and again to check, before plotting out on the map where to go to trace her housing history. And what about that woman I met, at the
cuba_mailboxbrownish house? She’d recognized the names of my mother and her sisters and pointed to a house, down the road. Was she just being polite? Had she really known the maid who’d told her stories about a family with three daughters who lived down the street – only it wasn’t two doors away, but one full block down the street?

There I was penning flowery connecting-with-my-mother’s-roots posts about my trip like as though I was writing for some (ahem) Condé Nast travel blog, all the while standing in front of the wrong damn house. Let us just remember, for the record, what this blog is about. This is exactly what happens when the act of having children has extracted all your brain capacity. Before giving birth I used to be mentally sharp, but now my mind is sieve-like and feeble. And oh my, isn’t this a quintessential example?

Just as quickly as I realized that I might have misread the address, my mother acknowledged that she’s gotten a few details wrong in the last months so maybe it was her error. In the end, we agreed not to dig into our email archives to check the message. There’s nothing to win for being right.
It’s not like it’s a catastrophe. I was close enough, crossing back and forth over Third Avenue when I wandered the streets of her old neighborhood. I probably walked right by the house. I went to a restaurant just a few streets away, twice. If I ever go back, um, at least I’ll know where to go.

This morning over coffee, my mother and I looked at photographs. Clicking through my digital albums on iPhoto, I told her the story, day-by-day, of my trip to Havana. She fetched her vintage photo albums from the back of the cupboard in the living room. Square black and white photos with borders,
photo_albummounted on pages of heavy black paper, told a long-ago story of her early years in Cuba. A picture of her friends sitting on the railing of the balcony of her old school matched a shot I’d taken of it when I was there. Her graduating class, a chaperon seated behind each girl, posed on a set of stairs where I, too, stood for a picture in the interior of the schoolyard.

“That’s on First Avenue, by the ocean,” she said, tapping her finger on a picture of a three story building, “the house that’s no longer there.”

Except it was there. I’d seen it.

She’d been so certain that this house had been torn down; when she was in Havana eight years ago, the driver of her tour bus had (allegedly) taken her to it only to show her an empty lot. She assumed that any house on this corner would be a new one – and so did I.

I rushed to open my computer, and called up several photographs. We put the before and after shots side-by-side, comparing them, window by window, detail by detail – everything matched:
The current version is slightly altered by an addition on the back, and it has a more elaborate wall around the outside of the property than it used to. But it’s undeniably the same house.

So in the end, the house that I thought I saw, I didn’t see. The house that I thought I couldn’t see, I did see. Between the two of us, my mother and I read it wrong, wrote it wrong, or remembered it wrong. But somehow, the two wrongs make a right. I’m thrilled to have seen this house first-hand. Now I have a picture – in my mind as well as my camera – of at least one of her childhood homes.

Dec 6 2009

Remember Where

One last Cuba moment that seems worth the telling:

On the last night of the conference in Havana, there was a gala reception featuring the Tropicana Cabaret dancers on a stage constructed in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone got all dolled up. Papaya-champagne cocktails we placed in our hands as we entered the museum. A swarm of servers in black-vested uniforms hounded us with trays of hors d’oeuvres.
The music was live and loud, the spotlights were hot and blinding, the dancers were costumed in wild colored giant plumes (and that’s about it). I’m glad I got to see a few numbers; it seemed appropriate to sample this part of Havana’s decadent history. But my colleagues and I all agreed, we’d rather go to a club where we could dance, too. And we were hungry, because the hors d’oeuvres, though annoyingly abundant, left us wanting, um, something else.

We left the museum and walked down the street hoping to make our way to a restaurant, a paladar that I’d been to earlier in the week. We happened by the entrance to the Bacardi Building, an historic art-deco skyscraper. I remembered my mother telling me that her father’s office had been in this building, so I stopped to take a photograph. The door was open and it was light in the lobby, so I crossed the street to peek inside. A guard stood beside the curved reception desk, which was marked with an ornate capital letter B. He gave his permission for me to take pictures, and beckoned me inside.
While I was framing shots of the elegant old post box and the decorated elevator doors, he asked if I’d like to go up to the top of the tower of the building. By now my three colleagues had found me in the lobby and they, too, were admiring the marble interior. Of course we wanted to see the tower. Another guard went to fetch a key, and motioned us toward the elevator. We rode all the way to the top floor and then climbed four more flights of narrow, jangling, metal, spiral staircases until we got the uppermost balcony of the building.
There it was, the view: the nightscape of Havana. The wind was a warm blanket on my bare shoulders, and the rows of dull streetlamps blurred as they webbed out to the edge of the city, beyond my view. It was one of those moments, where you stop to consider where you are and why. I knew I was privileged to be able to visit Havana, but I was also aware of the privilege my mother’s family enjoyed when they lived there. They were expatriates, I suppose much like we are expatriates here in France, borrowing someone else’s culture to live out a dream.

Returning to the street level, I thought about Grandpa, and how he must have stood in that elevator hundreds of times. Of course the building has been renovated since he worked there six decades ago, yet it appears as though nothing significant had been changed, just a fresh coat of paint. It probably looks much the same as it did then. He must have come through that lobby every morning and every night. He walked on these floors, long ago, ages before he even knew me as the little impish grandchild who begged him always to “itch my back.”

It made me think of going to my father’s office when I was a little. It was such an other world place. I felt important when I was there, even if I was just sitting on the polished wooden chairs in his waiting room looking at the rows of leather law books lining the shelves. It smelled like cigarettes and serious business.

Later I wrote to my mother, to tell her about my impromptu visit to her father’s office building. She emailed back:

When I was little and my father worked sometimes on a weekend, I would go to the office with him. I loved having so many pencils at my disposal and a pad of paper that said Old Time Molasses Company on it. I felt so important, like a secretary! And also when I went to the dentist on another floor of the building, I would always go up to his office and say hello.

What is it about being little and going to your father’s or mother’s office that makes you feel important? Short-pants and Buddy-roo don’t know that pleasure. The only office De-facto and I go to is a virtual one, meeting our colleagues around a digital conference table, video-shots of our heads bobbing up and down on bright-colored avatars. But that’s another post.

It reminds me how many memories that we keep are associated with where they took place. When I’m in my childhood home – and I’m lucky enough to still go home to that house – I’m haunted by the stories of my past. But even if you can’t go in to the house or dorm or school or office that used to be
havana_storm yours, just being in close proximity can conjure up a cascade of feelings and facts that are otherwise forgotten. But what if you can’t go back to touch those places again? My mother’s family left Cuba in 1948, not unaware of the political unrest in the country, but still, a decade before the revolution. They never expected that they wouldn’t be able to easily return to see the touchstones of their life there. How many memories, I wonder, are locked up in all those unvisited places?

Dec 3 2009


His name was Javier. His business card had a picture of a taxi on it – a shiny new cab that looked nothing at all like the one he actually drove. I suppose I could have taken any cab, but I wanted him, the grumpy cab driver who’d slowly been drawn into my little pilgrimage. By the time he’d returned me to the hotel after visiting my mother’s old school, we were chatting away about her life in Cuba in the 1930s and 40s. He’d volunteered to drive me again, if I wanted to go back to the school, or anywhere else.

On my first day in Havana I spent hours walking around my mother’s old neighborhood. She’d given me the coordinates of two houses her family had lived in, both within blocks of each other. One of them, a house that looked out over the ocean on la primera avenida, had been torn down and replaced. I took several pictures of the view from the corner where the house would have been, imagining a younger version of my mother, standing there herself, watching the wild waves and the windy palm trees.
The other house they’d lived in was a few blocks inland and a few blocks over, just south of Avenida Quinta, the main avenue for traffic into the center of Havana. It must have been a posh address way back when – maybe it still is. Some houses are in various states of disrepair, but many of the homes are truly grand. Among them, embassies or residences belonging to consulates of the countries that have diplomatic ties with Cuba. This was something I saw all over Havana, the contrast of things abandoned and things restored, out of step but strangely at ease with each other, side by side.

She’d described this house as “the second one in from the southwest corner, with a patio and an iron gate.” I found what was technically the second house from the corner; it was mammoth, almost Soviet in construction. But it had what might have once been a patio (now filled with shrubbery) and an old iron gate.

Connected to it was a one-story, modern structure that seemed to be well trafficked, with a café and a small boutique. I walked in and found a friendly-looking black-vested waiter. I explained, in my faltering Spanish, that I was looking for the house my mother had lived in more than 60 years ago and how she’d told me it was the second house in from the big avenue. “Es aqui?”

He took me by the hand and walked out to the street. (This happened often, if I asked a local for directions, they’d drop what they were doing and offer sincere assistance; I encountered many acts of kindness in Cuba.) He explained that the parcel of land on which this cluster of buildings was constructed was once a garden. He escorted me down the street, pointing out three older, more traditional houses. One of those, he said, was probably the house I was looking for.
Well of course this made sense. It didn’t seem right that my mother’s old house would have been such a fortress, a cold cement building that now housed the offices of a government agency. As I walked down the block, it occurred to me that any one of the refurbished, newer-looking homes might have been raised on what had once been someone else’s garden, so that that my mother’s house could be further down the street than I’d expected.

Which is why I’d taken pictures of every house on that side of the street and sent them to my mother, via a Picasa link. The Internet was surprisingly accessible from my hotel, with a only a few exceptions: the emails I sent to a some select people, including her, mysteriously disappeared into the ether. My sister somehow could receive my messages without hindrance, so she acted as the go-between, forwarding the link. After studying the pictures, my mother wasn’t completely certain, but she thought one of them might be the house: an old dirtyish brown one with a balcony across the front.

Armed with that information, I called my taxi driver on the morning of my last day in Havana, and asked him if he’d be willing to do some driving and waiting while I went to explore what might have been my mothers childhood home.

By now the street where she’d lived was familiar to me, I’d passed by it dozens of times going to and from the center of Havana during the last week. Javier drove up in front of the brown house and stopped the car. “Buena suerte,” he said, out the window, as I was crossing the street. He was wishing me luck.
I started by taking more photographs, which attracted a bit of attention. When people came out of the house to see what I was up to; I asked their permission to continue. Nobody objected. One man with a friendly, round face introduced himself to me, his name was Miguel, and offered to take me inside the house. Three small children stood on the porch stoop. I knelt down and asked if it was okay to take their picture. They were unafraid, and very polite. I told them that I thought my mother may have grown up in this house, in their house, many years ago. “¿Se duerme en mi cama?” No, I don’t think she slept in your bed, I answered. We all giggled.

The house had surely been the home of one family many years ago, but now it was partitioned into many tiny apartments. I was moved by the poverty of one apartment; then another beside it was comfortably appointed. The common walls in the hallway were chipped and aged, the paint had come off unevenly, leaving a mosaic of colors. Miguel ushered me up the stairs and into an apartment that smelled of onions cooking. An older man, caramel skinned with gray hair, was hunched over on a single burner on the front balcony. He invited me to stay for lunch. I declined by pointing down to the street and waving at Javier, who was waiting for me in the car. He waved back.

Miguel told me the name of a family who had lived in the house, long ago, but it didn’t match my mother’s first or maiden names. I still couldn’t be certain that she’d lived here. But just in case, I snapped as many pictures as I could. I moved around to the side of the house, where a long driveway led to a screened-in porch with two dogs inside. I walked down the driveway to see what the back yard might have looked like, and a young woman came out and greeted me. Again, I was invited inside. Her mother sat on a couch and patted the chair beside her, motioning for me to sit. She’d known someone who lived in the house before, but the names she rattled off were nothing like my mother’s. I wasn’t getting a confirmation from anyone; I couldn’t be sure that this was the house.

When I explained that my mother was one of three daughters, and I named the three girls, the older woman got very animated. “¡Sí, sí, sí!” Yes, she remembered hearing about a family with three sisters. They lived two doors down the street, in the house that was now painted blue. I felt like a detective! At last, the clues were coming together. This house wasn’t my mother’s, but now I knew which one she had lived in.

I chatted with the women a while longer. They tried to tell me stories, I did my best to understand their clipped, Cuban accents. I took more photos. I said gracias no less than one hundred times. When I left, we embraced.
I nearly ran down the street to the blue house, which is now an office-storefront for a cellular phone company. This would have been the second house on the street. The big cement fortress had probably replaced what had once been the first house on the street, with its ample garden extending all the way to Avenida Quinta.

I had a picture of the house from an earlier visit, but it had been taken at sunset. It was hard to see. I wanted to at least get a shot of the outside with full daylight. A uniformed security guard eyed me as I raised my camera. He put his hands up to block me from taking a picture. Javier got out of the taxi and came over to help me, to explain. The guard was adamant. No photos.

But it didn’t matter, really. At least I knew which house was hers; now I had a visual bookmark for all the stories my mother has told me about her childhood.

¿Y ahora?” Javier wanted to know where to go next. I told him the address of the other house she’d live in, the one on la primera avenida. I wanted to go back one more time.

We pulled up to the corner and parked. Instead of staying in the car, as was his custom, Javier got out and followed me across the street. We stood on the sidewalk, looking out at the water. I took out my camera. He asked if I wanted him to take a picture of me.
No, gracias,“ I said.

I’d just wanted to take one more photograph, one last shot of that short stretch of beachfront, looking out at the ocean, so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo a view that their grandmother might have had while growing up on the beautiful, haunting, island of Cuba.