The lure of memories

Though neither one of us is an antique-y, living-in-the-past type, Stew and I somehow have become archivists for both sides of our family. At this stage our collection of family artifacts, documents and photos, which has survived several moves and the death of all of our parents, is both impressive and a bit strange.

Stew has a Lutheran Bible written in an indecipherable Old Norwegian Gothic script that he must have inherited from his father, who was born in Norway. As far as Stew can recall, no one in his family was particularly religious, certainly not enough to try conversing with God in Old Norwegian. So who kept the old Bible and why?

Of all things, I have a gym tee shirt from my grammar school in Cuba, as well as the Cuban passport, Pan American Airways plane ticket from Havana to Miami and the baggage claim stub from when I migrated to the U.S. in 1962. The latter three items could claim some sentimental value, but a gym tee shirt?

None of this stuff is Smithsonian-worthy, yet Stew has started the job of scanning into the computer all the family photographs–including a jumble of pictures from our 39 years together–so we can place them in one of those printed albums ordered through the Internet.

We wouldn’t think of discarding this stuff yet keeping it in boxes in the basement, helter-skelter and unexamined, seemed about as good as throwing it in the trash.

But for us archiving of family mementos is really a selfish pastime: I’m an only child, and Stew’s brother and his wife don’t have any children. So it’s not as if in 2082 one of our descendants is going to be leafing through our computer-generated album, find a picture of me standing by an incredibly ugly car and wonder what model and year it was. (A 1974 baby-blue, four-door Volvo, with a manual transmission. If someone tries to sell you one, run.)

Grandma Herminia

Selfish but interesting, sometimes even fun, for photos can be both revealing and misleading. One of my maternal grandmother Herminia accurately captures her “don’t mess with me or I’ll break both of your knees” personality.

Except I also know about her incredibly tough life. She lost her husband early on and had to raise two girls and three boys by herself, through the chaos of Cuba’s economy, in a struggling small farm outside the town of Cienfuegos in southern Cuba.  You don’t survive those circumstances by being a cream-puff.

Then I also recall her doting on me–I was the youngest grandchild–and of her phenomenal cooking skills. Anything for Alfredito. Tough? Bah! She was putty in my little boy’s hands.

Other pictures make you wonder what were the subjects thinking. A picture of Stew’s paternal grandparents Christopher and Verda, probably taken in Norway in the late 1800s, is a beauty.

It’s a very formal shot, both sitting behind a desk rapt in their own thoughts: They seem to be looking past each other. Christopher’s eyes are focused on something above, like he’s bored or just arrogant. His manicured moustache, hair style–that shock of hair combed over his forehead!–and his starchy outfit suggest a man of means or some importance. Or maybe photographs were so rare that common people dressed up for the occasion as if they were aristocrats.

Verda and Christopher

Verda’s sweet face is a true semblance of her personality. Stew once took me to visit her in a suburb south of Chicago, when she was in her early 90s, physically frail yet her mind still razor-sharp. Verda lived with Stew’s aunt and her husband.

When I met her, Verda told me how she still read newspapers from Norway, about her keeping a small Norwegian flag on her bedroom dresser and about the family dog named Marshmallow. The second time we came by, she recognized me right away, remembered my name and everything we had talked about during our first encounter.

She loved to tell stories and in my mind was the very model of sweetness and grandmotherhood. Stew confirms that no one ever had a bone to pick with Grandma Hammer.

Old photos inevitably send you careening down the “wonder what happened to them” alley.  There’s a picture of me and two school friends sitting at Varadero beach in Cuba. Judging by our ages it must have been taken shortly before Castro’s arrival. The friend on the left is Francisco, a classmate who was tall, slender and a bit effeminate. He was teased because of his mannerisms though I suspect  because of jealousy too because he was far and away the smartest guy in the class. His younger brother Augusto was short, chubby and as stolid as Francisco was willowy.

Francisco, Alfredo and Augusto

From what I’ve heard Francisco remained in Cuba and became a lawyer though he gave that up to play the piano at tourist hotels in Havana. Not an unusual trajectory, given that in Communist countries cab drivers and piano players working for tips often make better money than doctors or university professors.

Meeting up with Francisco, and comparing our parallel lives–his in Cuba, mine in the U.S.–alone would be worth the price of a trip to Cuba, assuming I could find him.

His brother Augusto left Cuba, became a citizen of Spain and a diplomat for that country. I emailed him this picture, hoping to get some updates about his brother and family.

And the guy in the middle with the Obama-size ears? Ah, yes, that’s me.

One thought on “The lure of memories

  1. Anonymous

    i remember the beautiful beaches in cuba! gosh, looking at that picture, i could see how clear the water was. did you ever go to guanabacoa? i believe that was the name. i rememember as if it were yesterday, going through a long tunnel to get there, the big waves, the fact that as a little girl i could barely pronounce that word. i also remember varadero. i have many fond memories of my dad taking me to the beach. how pictures, and reading about other people's memories, can evoke those of our own! thank you for that bit of nostalgia. i love all the pix!teresamanana te escribire sobre nuestro tiempo en japon. estamos aqui por el trabajo de mi esposo, asi que la razon no es muy fasinante, pero la vida aqui si. me encanta tu estilo de escritura.


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