My Man in Havana
When we fled Cuba in 1962, my uncle stayed. He died 50 years later, without ever explaining his decision.
I gained small insights into my uncle’s life when I saw his home on a backward city street where chickens roamed freely. He was attentive to us, giving us a tour of his modest orderly household and showing us one family album. He was handy, as Cubans must be, fixing things that are beyond repair. I tentatively asked him questions that would elucidate his past for me. He laughed uneasily at my desire to get information I craved, avoiding answers. He mentioned government rations and help from the Jewish community center. Our shared Hanukkah meal consisted of food homemade from ingredients from the ration line and from the hard currency market, and “luxury” imported items donated by overseas Jewish communities. I asked to see the ration book, but it couldn’t be found.
Our third reunion was in Israel in July 2010, when my uncle visited his son who had made aliyah. My uncle was ill; time was running out. I had emailed him a copy of notes I’d gathered from interviews with my dad about their early days, before the revolution, when the brothers were growing up in a rural town east of Havana. My uncle, who worked as an accountant until he retired, remembered numbers: their home address, dates. He corrected facts but didn’t elaborate. He offered a tidbit about the “special period,” the years after Soviet communism fell and Cuba was bereft of critical support; he spoke about losing 30 pounds and his family practically starving during those years. Then he clammed up again. I don’t know if 50 years under communist rule made him cautious about saying anything that could possibly incriminate his family or whether he was a true believer in the system until he died. Now I will never know.
In the short exposures I had to my uncle, I felt a visceral blood connection, loyalty to my father and conflicting emotions of love, betrayal, and curiosity. He touched my soul when he smiled at me affectionately and called me sobrina. As I hugged him goodbye at the end of each of our three visits I cried, feeling a sad sense of impending loss. I hadn’t done enough, having started too late, conversing with him cautiously instead of risking our pleasant contact with tough questions. Were we separated by the wall of political difference between two countries and two brothers, or was it simply naturally opposing personalities and geographical distance that kept us from knowing each other?
Maybe my uncle didn’t want me to know who he really was, or what he believed; perhaps he didn’t want to openly challenge my father’s views, or maybe he never wanted to connect with any of us gusanos who abandoned him—it may have been dangerous for him to do so. Or, perhaps it was too late for a closed person like him to open up. Does it really matter anymore? Can I let him go now?
Since my uncle died, I have tried to balance love for my dad and respect for his intense disagreement with his brother’s life choices, trying to picture how my uncle may have felt. While I believe my dad’s hurt is valid, and though I will never have all the facts, I can still try to imagine my uncle’s viewpoint as an idealist and as one left behind. Removed by a generation from this conflict, I can accept him despite his attached labels: communist, atheist, intermarried. I may not have truly known or understood him, but I will always love him simply for being the uncle who held me with affection as a baby.
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