Memories of Cuba: My Grandmother’s Forgetting

Published

In many Afro-Caribbean families, it is elderly women who manage precious knowledge. What happens to the stories when their memory fades? In this updated text, originally published in German on ZeitOnline, Marny Garcia Mommertz recounts both the transmission (and lack thereof) of embodied memories that her Cuban grandmother has gifted her.

A close-up of tiles, almost all covered in darkness except for two rays of light that cross through and show the pattern of the tiles more clearly.
Esquina de Tejas” means “corner of tiles” in Spanish. / Photo by Clémence Garcia-Lindenmeyer.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has kept newspaper articles and family photographs in a dark green carry-on suitcase. Every time I visit her in Havana and lift the suitcase from her closet, I learn new things about our family. A few years ago, a photo I couldn’t remember caught my eye. It shows my grandmother standing in her apartment dressed in a washed-out gray, white, and black striped jumpsuit, her long arms hanging loosely down the sides of her body. The color of her white sandals stands out against the faded floor tiles and her dark brown, almost black feet. She wears her afro in pressed curls.

Her gaze passes the camera lens and beams at the person taking the picture. When I show her the picture, she laughs. My mother and I brought the jumpsuit with us in 1998, when I was three years old. It was the first time my mother and I had ever traveled to Cuba. My father had given us money and clothes for her and the rest of the family. He himself could not travel with us having fled the island for political reasons in the late 1980s.

I watch my grandmother as she pries open her large dark brown wardrobe. She reaches in and proudly pulls out her overalls. I ask if she still wears it and get a snorting laugh: “Of course!”

As she begins to tidy up the closet and I lie on her bed, I ask her questions about my first visit to Cuba—about her life, her childhood. What had her relationship with her mother been like? What had happened to her siblings, whom I had never met? Had she met her grandparents? What had her mother been by profession? Did she look like me or more like my younger sisters?

I ask and ask, and without warning she suddenly tells me about her grandfather, whom she hardly knew. About how, as a child, she had only been told that he had been enslaved. She only knew his birthplace, did not know if he was born into enslavement, how he escaped it, what had become of him or where his parents came from. The idea that perhaps her grandfather had held her hand as a child and that she was touching me today with that same hand stirred something in me.