This photo was taken on June 6, 1958, the day I was baptized. I love this photo. It contains a rich tapestry of cultural, historical and personal details. The humanist in me can spend hours attempting to decipher what it meant to be human to these people at this particular point in time, and, in trying to find the answer, explore the question for my own life. In a sense, studying this photo is a meditation.
I was baptized in one of the oldest churches in Old Havana, Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, which means Holy Christ of the Good Voyage. It was a church founded within the city walls, so that sailors could attend mass and pray before setting off on another sea voyage. Cuba, because of its geographical position, saw a great deal of maritime activity, including pirates, as well as genuine traders, and, because of its natural coastal assets, it provided great harbors for larger vessels, who used it as a stop over on their way to Mexico or South America. This picture shows part of the old church walls and the massive door, that belie the size of the small church.
The photo is comprised mostly of extended family, with a few friends thrown into the mix. In many ways, it's easy to tell that this photo was taken in the 1950's: The hairstyles, the cat's eyes glasses, the singed waist dresses, the plaid shirts the boys are wearing and the mary jane shoes on the little girls are dead giveaways. Then I see veils: My godmother, Mama Lala, with the beautiful white chantilly lace mantilla covering her head, my aunt Olga, with her black veil still draped over her shoulders, just behind my father, a distant relative clutching her handbag and her veil, and finally, behind my Aunt Olga, a second cousin wearing both, cat's eyes glasses and a veil. The new merging with the old.
The men's clothing is also revealing. There are those in suits, like my father, looking so dapper in his white linen suit; my godfather, in a sports jacket, definitely a younger look. And then there are those wearing the "guayabera," the traditional and elegant shirt of the tropics. The guayabera is typically made of white cotton or linen, with vertical pleats running in the front and back, and four pockets in front (to hold guayabas, guavas, which is how it got its name). Cuban housewives would spend endless hours getting those shirts perfectly pressed. But then, it was chic to show a few creases in the back - not enough to look rumpled, but wrinkled enough to show that you didn't care.
So many relatives assembled for this event. I wonder if any of them had an inkling on this day of the turbulent decades that lay ahead for themselves and for their country. I wonder if they realized, that as this family was celebrating an ancient and sacred ritual, their way of life would abruptly come to an end in a few short months. Did they know what was coming? Did they realize the scope of what was happening in Cuba in the months prior to Fidel's revolution? Is there a societal lesson in this photo? What is my lesson? Is the lesson the importance of acknowledging traditions and rites of passage as a way to justify our existence. Or is it not to cling to the past too strongly? Is it simply to live in the moment?
I set aside those thoughts, and, instead, dwell on my mother's scant recollections of this day. She said that she remembers feeling that her energy was finally coming back after the difficult birth, and she remembers feeling happy. As I get older, I make a greater effort to capture memories as feelings, instead of simple impressions or chronological events. It seems my mother managed to learn that trick a lot sooner that I did. Is this, once again, the lesson to be drawn from this photo? To remember to feel and live in the moment?
I think I'm both, an idealist as well as a realist. I believe that it's essential to live in the moment, while acknowledging the importance of personal history in order to understand our actions in the present. What a remarkable way to be reminded of such a basic life lesson, and with so many family members gathered into one photo to impart it! And, don't they all look fine?
We bought a car for John. He's done his penance on our old 1998 Saturn SL2. As amusing as it's been to watch him contort his body in order to get into that old Saturn, it was time for him to get newer wheels which he'll be taking to college in the Fall.
The "new" previously-owned car is a 2007 Mitsubishi Galant. It has 18,500 miles on it and was driven by a little old lady to church on Sundays . . . just kidding about the little old lady part. David, looking over my shoulder as I type, was quick to point out "You drove it to church on Sundays, Mom?"
Just a little joke, on my birthday, no less, about my being old. Smarty Pants. Just for that, David, now you'll get the Saturn to drive around for the next two years. I'm really going to enjoy watching you get into that little car.
This is the transcript for the Elizabeth Alexander poem that she read yesterday at Barack Obama's inauguration. Praise song for the day, indeed!
Each day we go about our business, walking
past each other, catching each others' eyes or
not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is
noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn
and din, each one of our ancestors on our
tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing
the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky;
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin.
"We encounter each other in words, words spiny
or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the
will of someone and then others who said, "I
need to see what's on the other side; I know
there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We
walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us
here, who laid the train tracks, raised the
bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices they would
then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self.
"Others by first do no harm, or take no more than
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond
marital, filial, national. Love that casts a
widening pool of light. Love with no need to
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise
song for walking forward in that light.
One of my oldest friends got married last weekend. The snow was coming down fast that day, and the wind was gusty. We were worried about the driving conditions, so we left the house early. We arrived without incident and then spent some time trying to park. We couldn't see the curb from all the snow and ice that had accumulated and the parking lot hadn't been plowed yet. Then, when we got out of the car, I had to use an umbrella so my hair wouldn't get plastered from the wet snow. But I didn't care about the weather. I wouldn't have missed this wedding for the world.
Our early arrival gave us the opportunity to settle in, take in our surroundings and people watch. The church started to fill and gradually I began to recognize faces I hadn't seen in 25 years. Slowly, the scent of still blooming Christmas poinsettias began to reach me, and I became aware of the sounds of the organ, softly playing Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. There was family there, but mostly there were so many friends. Bianca is one of those rare individuals that manages to conserve friendships throughout her life, and when she announced her wedding plans, we came eagerly, from all over the country, in spite of the weather, and, oh, so happily. She looked lovely. Her Joe is a handsome guy, and they seem so much in love.
The wedding and reception were wonderful, understated, and very classy. The conversation at our table sparkled. We talked about Obama. Everything from the elections to the Inauguration, to the formidable task that awaits him, to his beautiful daughters. We spoke of travel and places we've seen. The tipsy deacon at our table was very funny. I've never had such good conversation at a wedding; Bianca knew that we would "click."
And then we got loud, we sang love songs so the bride and groom would kiss, a twist on the old clink-the glasses-with-the-spoon tradition ("She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . ") and we laughed. And then Bianca and Joe danced their first dance to "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole. And it was magical.
It was snowing this morning when I woke up. It was snowing when I got out of the shower. It was snowing after I finished blow drying my hair. It was snowing when I got dressed and ready to go to work. I wimped out. I just couldn't face the commute to work with this lousy weather. I took a flex day instead, then spent a good part of the day answering e-mails. This is not good. Why does it seem to get harder and harder to accept these winters?
Then, to asuage my guilt, I decided to be productive and put away all the Christmas decorations, which were still strewn all over the house.
Here's the view from our Living Room window. Now that the Christmas tree is gone, I can go back to sitting by my chair in the mornings while I eat my oatmeal. It's a very pretty view, as long as I don't have to go outside.
Our snow covered back yard . . .
Christmas is over. Where are my helpers?
The candy canes are off the tree, and no one wants to eat them. I guess I'll take them to work tomorrow.
Jaifa (pronounced Haifa, like the city in Israel) and I lived catty corner from each other. We took piano lessons together and made our First Communion at the same time. In this picture, we were performing a dance number for a Spring program that our church had organized (Jaifa is the one of the left).
We saw each other almost every day since, in Cuba, the hours after dinner were spent chatting with neighbors in their porches. I was the one that went to her house always, because she was not allowed to come to mine. I left Cuba before I was old enough to realize that she was growing up in a very unhappy home.
I had consigned Jaifa to the sweet memories of my childhood, but she re-emerged in my 30's when she came from Cuba and ended up married to my cousin. They lived in Florida, and soon gave birth to a beautiful little boy, whom they named Carlos. I saw her a couple of times during visits and came to the realization that we would never again be close. We had grown up and had become very different people. The innocence of childhood was gone. I did not approve of her, and found it very difficult to be around her so I kept my distance.
Then, in 1992, on a sad October day, after Hurricane Andrew had ravaged the city of Miami, I received a phone call from my family telling me that Jaifa had committed suicide. She drove her car into a canal and drowned herself. Her little boy was asleep in the back seat. He never woke up. The newspapers called her a victim of the stress induced by the hurricane. My relatives never believed it. Perhaps the hurricane was the straw that broke the camel's back, but Jaifa was troubled; it was only a matter of time before she did something outrageous, only no one imagined she would take her own life and that of the son she adored.
The family drama was worthy of a book. Who knows, maybe some day I'll write it. Still, after all the years that have passed since her death, my capricious mind refuses to forget even the tiniest detail of our pre-adolescent relationship. Today would have been her 51st birthday and I wish she was around. I mourn for her. Wherever you are, Jaifa, I wish you peace. Happy birthday.
The Three Kings Day is also known as Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word which means “appearance.” The Catholic Church celebrates Epiphany as the first appearance of Christ to the Gentiles. According to Webster's Dictionary, epiphany also means "an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking."
The light of Epiphany is as bright as the star that guided the Magi to the baby Jesus. When we see it, it is so awesome! I pray for a year of epiphanies. May they teach me, and humble me, and guide me through the complicated labyrinth of life.
Today is the 10th day of Christmas, and we are still very much enjoying our Christmas tree. We continue to celebrate this holiday at our house until January 6th, Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The kings, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, are sure to leave small presents for my not-so-little children on this day, honoring the traditions of Cuba, the country of my birth.