Saturday, January 24, 2009
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?