My first memories of anything to do with gardens or flowers are also of my mother. I remember her dressing me to go off to church on Mother's Day. She was pinning on me a red rose and she explained to me the Cuban custom to wear a red rose in honor of a live mother and a white rose in memory of a deceased. Of course, this, like so many other things she told had no meaning until so much later.
The truth is that we often miss the opportunity to know our parents because they are our parents. It is only if we have them when we are old that we can share stories as mature adults. It is unfortunate that we missed knowing them when they were young, vibrant and glamorous.
My mother grew up in a little backwater town some 60 kilometers outside of Havana named Guanajay. She was the eldest of eight children and was born in 1918. Her father was a cigar roller and had done so in parts of Cuba and in Tampa but when he married he settled down to raise the family. Her mother was a simple woman who took care of an extended family like her own mother.
As you might imagine my mother was not prepared to be anything other than a wife and mother. She certainly had no idea of what lay in store for her in Cuba much less the life she would later live in the US. Somewhere along the line she dated and partied in manners traditional to the Cuba of the 1940's. She met my father who had returned from failed attempts at the movie industry in Mexico City and as a gold miner in Nogales, Arizona.
barely a month after I was born
Mother was in her thirties when she had me and had so wanted more children so I would have a sibling. That was not to be. I grew up the focus of a lot of attention and expectations. I don't have many memories of that youth except when I look at these photos that spark so many thoughts of our life in Cuba. Mother accused me of ruining her figure. I always knew her round and maternal rather than svelte and sexy. Yet, when I see these pictures I see such a Cuban beauty and a stature of glamor that she earned along the way.
Dashing in Varadero, 1953
Pissed at me at Carnaval in Havana, 1953
Giving me "look" at my second birthday with her parents and part of the clan
She was the typical housewife and mother, cooking and cleaning and dealing with an extensive family. My father made a good living and we lacked nothing, but that would not last. Politics would enter our lives as my father got in trouble with the Batista government only to wind up with Castro in the hills fighting the guerrilla war. Upon Castro's triumph my father rose to power and came down just as fast when he criticized the government. Father out of the country left a load of work for my mother solve. Mother stepped up to the plate to deal with lawyers, officials and other people and papers to leave the country and try and salvage whatever personal items we could take. Through unprecedented courage and fortitude she put me on a plane and got me out of Cuba alone. She was jailed trying to take our TV set to her father. Once you declared your intentions to leave the country, Castro expected everything to be left to Cuba without exception.
Learning to live in the US
We were eventually reunited as a family in the US and quickly left Miami for Chicago. Father knew the return to Cuba was not going to be anytime soon and we moved as far away from the Miami Cuban Community that fomented much but accomplished little other than maintain the poor Cubans on the island in an American imposed embargo.
Mother was forced to work to help out and the only thing she could do was sew. She went to work in a factory as seamstress and learned that she had a voice and choices for her first time in her life because she earned a living. My parents experience serious marital problems due in part to the role switching that was taking place. Father was no longer the all powerful voice and he was not sensitive to the role Mother was developing for herself. Multiple separations ensued with Father leaving for California only to have us join him a year later.
Escaped Chicago to the warmer climes of California
Father reached for the bottle more and more and Mother put up with it because of love, history and duty. Soon after my return from University in France Mother decided to leave him for good. Too many years of booze, a see-saw marriage and fearing for my future ended it all. I graduated college and she graduated into a life of her own.
My return from University years in France
Mother never looked back. She never remarried either. She had me, her family and her life to keep her going. I often begged her to meet someone so she would have the companionship that she deserved from a loving man. She in her wisdom explained, that what she wanted a hunk. She wanted someone charming and good looking and she felt all she could get was another old man needing a cook and a laundress. She was probably right but I was sad for it.
Always game for a party
Saying goodbye again to go to graduate school
In 1992 I returned to Graduate school, 16 years after my undergraduate degree. Mother was not happy to see me go yet again, but she put up with it as I explained it was for my future. She was stoic and came to visit with faltering health. When I graduated friends who were going to take her to the ceremony were stuck in traffic and the only choice was for her to march with us. I rolled her on a wheelchair through the entire Penn campus and into the stadium.
Graduation day May 1995
She lived 34 years in the US and never learned English; this was a major regret of her life. She was very concerned that not speaking English would keep her from becoming an American citizen. Due to her advanced age she was interviewed in Spanish and granted American citizenship. This country never had a better supporter. She had managed it all on a 4th grade education. She was no luminary but she was loving and kind and made everyone feel good and welcomed. Sorry if I have digressed from garden talks but I felt that she needed her 15 minutes of fame. You see, she was the first flower of my garden.
Elena Hilaria Cabrera Muñoz