Marta – our culinary master here at Babalu – and I met through the internet as Cubiche bloggers on opposite coasts. Through a short period of time, we sent each other a few emails, read each other’s writing and linked each other’s blogs a few times. Then one day I post a photo of my father’s old school house in Cuba and I get an email from her saying “My mom says thanks for posting a picture of her schoolhouse.” We then learned that we were connected not just through this thing called the internet and blogging, but that her family and mine had a history, a long history. You can read a bit about that history here and here.
I was looking forward to seeing Marta and her crew at this year’s Cuba Nostalgia Convention but nothing could have prepared me for the moments I’m about to describe.
After her arrival and our hugs and tears and after being introduced to her son Adam and after hugging and kissing Amy AKA Kikita, Marta takes me by the hand and says “I have something for you.”
“Ay, Marta,” I said. “You know you didn’t have to…”
“It’s just a little something,” she says as she reaches into her bag and pulls out a small, thin book.
On the cover of this little book is a photo of one of the houses in Manati – one of the five houses where both our families lived. There I am holding this little treasure in my hands, Cuba Nostalgia Convention in full swing all around me, and of course, tears start to flow. I hadn’t even opened the book yet.
The small, beautiful book in my hands tells the story of how Marta and I met and how our families have been connected for almost a century. As I flip through the pages tears are flowing and all sorts of emotions are dancing around in my being. Marta, too, is teary eyed.
Then, as I’m turning a page roughly in the middle of the book, I see Marta break out a small, delicate smile through her tears.
There’s a very old picture there of a man sitting with a baby girl on his lap next to a woman standing behind a suited little boy. He’s a big man with broad shoulders and large hands and his suit somehow seems small on him. The woman looks to be pregnant and the boy, the boy looks familiar to me somehow.
As I read the text that accompanies the photograph, my knees weaken, my tears turn into an out and out sob and my heart races.
The man’s name is Valentin Prieto and he’s my grandfather.
At the age of 43, amid the rumblings and rumbas of the Cuba Nostalgia convention, I saw my grandfather, my father’s father, for the first time. A life time of hearing stories of the man, a lifetime of hearing my father’s regrets that he never got to see me or I he, a lifetime of comparisons not just in name but in character, encapsulated right there in front of me in a photograph in a small, thin book written by someone who just a few years ago was a perfect stranger.
And there, on the very same photograph, a picture of an aunt I never met, of an uncle Ive always looked up to and admired and a grandmother whom I didn’t really get to spend enough time with, but who spoke with the “z” and who sewed clothes for me and who always slipped me a crisp fiver behind my father’s back and who always, always, showered me with affection. A grandmother who, in the photo, is carrying my father in her womb.
It was Marta who introduced me to my grandfather for the very first time in my life. And for that I am and will be forever grateful.