Between the Lines
Messages from my Family in Cuba
Copyright 2020 by Katarina WongC
essay was originally included in the Bronx Memoir Project
Anthology [Vol. 3], which was a compilation of memoir essays
created by attendees of their Bronx Memoir Project (BMP) workshops.
I was 13, I only knew my mother’s side of the family from the
letters that appeared in our mailbox in distinctive red and blue
striped envelopes. Tight, cursive handwriting declared my mother’s
full name: Lucia Capin Wong, the only time I ever saw her family name
attached to ours. The weeks it took those letters to cross the ninety
miles between Cuba and Florida made each envelope feel like a winning
A letter from Cuba!” my sisters and I would cry as we ran in
with the mail.
Give it to me!”
Mom would stop
whatever she was doing to hurry over. She’d carefully slice
open an edge of the envelope, smooth out the pages, and read their
contents. Sometimes it would be a single letter; sometimes the
envelope would contain several letters from different relatives.
stories about their lives would unfold from those onion skin thin
sheets. Who got married, who was pregnant, who went to Havana, how
the tobacco crops were. Sometimes part of a letter would be
mysteriously redacted in heavy black marker. My family were mostly
poor, rural people. What
state secrets could they possibly know? I
never saw my mother writing back, although I knew she always did. I
imagine her sitting at our dining table late at night when the house
was finally quiet, the kitchen cleaned, my sisters and I tucked in
bed, and dad watching TV in another room. Maybe then, exhausted from
cleaning houses during the day and working as a caterer at night, she
would finally have a few moments to pull out similar thin sheets of
paper and tell her family about her life in America.
the envelopes from Cuba showed up a bit fatter than usual, and that
was cause for extra excitement.
A letter from Cuba! I think it’s got photos!”
sisters and I would gather tightly around her as she pulled a chair
to the kitchen table. We were eager for the show-and-tell about to
that? Is that tía
Raquel? Is that
grandpa?” we’d demand.
niñas! Let me
read the letter first!”
translate the letter to us then carefully spread the images across
the floral tablecloth. We would lean in to examine those black and
white peeks into our family’s lives. Mom would point out who
was who, etching their faces in our minds and in hers.
by the photographs, she would tell us about her life in Cuba. “I
remember,” her stories would begin. “I was walking home
at night. I was very young -- maybe five? -- and I had to pass by the
the soldiers kept their horses. I was so scared of them, especially
the big, black stallion. He looked like he wanted to trample me. I
would always run past as fast as I could! This photo of your cousin
Mayra is taken right next door to where those horses were kept.”
heard versions of her stories before, but it didn’t matter.
Like a favorite fairy tale, I never tired of them and each photo
added details to the sketches I had drawn in my mind of our family.
On those special afternoons letters, photos, memories all intertwined
to become an invisible, unbreakable thread that mended the space
between Florida and Cuba and, if only temporarily, the hole in my
sisters and I first went to Cuba in 1979. Our grandfather was dying
and Mom managed to get special permission to take us to meet him.
mother came to New York in 1960 as a 26-year old eager to see the
world, but then got stuck here when relations between the two
countries broke off six months after. On her return to Cuba nearly 20
years later, she found one generation had grown old and another had
sprung up. Life had gone on without her, and there was much she
needed to catch up on despite the letters we received.
me, the photos seemed to come alive during that visit. My relatives
were both familiar and unfamiliar, like a figment of a vivid dream.
That visit, so bittersweet, was the only time I would see my
grandfather, but it was also the start of other relationships.
my tía Raquel
got a phone line, and Mom would dial and dial and dial until we
finally were able to get through. Sometimes it would take hours or
even days, but then…
excited voices would crackle through the poor connection, and I
imagined my aunt and cousins pressed up against the heavy rotary
phone receiver, straining to hear Mom on the other end. Calls were
prohibitively expensive, so my mother only called once or twice a
year and spoke especially fast, never allowing herself more than a
couple of minutes. Those voices helped sustain her between letters
and her next visit many years later.
the 1990s Mom and I were traveling to Cuba regularly —
sometimes once a year, sometimes every three years, depending on who
was in the Oval Office — and I began to understand the longing
that still inhabited my mother. Those trips reminded me that part of
my heart was beating there. The more I returned, the louder I heard
2014, my relatives began to have email access, and their messages
started to pop up in my inbox. In the past, our letters were a
one-way reporting of events. Now I’m able to have conversations
with them the way I do with everyone else in my life.
come to know that my aunt Emma loves the cinema, that she spends her
vacation every December at the Latin American film festival in
Havana, carefully taking notes on each movie. When she found a lump
had grown back in her breast, I was able to communicate with her
quickly about her cancer treatment, offer encouragement in the days
post-chemo, and get the news of her remission the same day she heard.
emails with my cousin Omara focus on practical matters. We write
about her job in television production and where they’re
filming next, what her mother Raquel needs (“Could you bring a
battery-powered lamp for the blackouts? Underwear? Canned food?”),
and how hard it is to find toilet paper one month, eggs another, the
general disappearance of a host of other necessities.
know Omara loves Nutella and biographies of historic women; that my
artist friends Aylén and Liz need paint brushes and their dog
Dante was ill; that my friend Valentina is partial to parmesan
cheese, the kind in the green cylinder, and is dating someone new. I
tell them about my boyfriend, my cat, how the dark the winter days
depress me and how happy I am when the first green signs of spring
appear. Back and forth, we reveal ourselves to one another through
large and small details of our lives.
I see their names in my inbox, I feel the same surge of excitement I
did as a child, and I hurry home after work to call my mother.
I heard from Cuba!”
Who wrote?” I imagine her sitting at her kitchen table still
covered in a floral tablecloth, as I sit down at mine in New York
City, the evening light softening into night. I put her on speaker
and her voice fills the room.
do they say?”
a second, just a second! Let me open the email,” I reply before
reading the latest message.
am an artist and am shifting my practice to focusing on writing.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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