Flora González

Flora Gonzalez


Flora González was born in Havana, Cuba, and grew up in the city of Camagüey, on the eastern part of the island. She has been living in the United States since 1962 when she and her sister arrived in Miami as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that airlifted Cuban children to the US during the Cold War. She is professor emerita at Emerson College in Boston where she taught Latin American and Latino literature for almost thirty years. She writes about Cuban literature and culture and lives in Cambridge, not far from her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. 

A House, Garden, Home

        During the decade or so that I was a single mother, I had a recurrent dream that for a long while did not make sense to me.  I stood inside a series of rooms full of morning light.  The spaces were empty of furniture and the light fell through glass sliding doors onto wooden pine floors.  I felt at ease, wearing a loosely flowing cotton dress, while I looked out onto a tropical backyard.  There were a couple of massive trees, the trunks of which were covered with thick vines sporting large variegated heart-shaped leaves in shades of dark green.  Eventually I saw the dream as my way of integrating my present in the context of my New England environments while looking out to a past represented as rich tropical forest. 

        When I finally settled down to teach at Emerson College in Boston, and found a supportive relationship with my current husband Saul, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled in New York, we lived in a shingled house, surrounded by maple trees and evergreens.  When we first moved into the house, the floors were covered with sixties-style shag rugs that I immediately ripped out and had wooden floors installed.

        I find it curious that I always associate my October birthday with autumn in New England.  Whenever possible, on the sixteenth, I have gone for a walk in the forests of New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts awed by the brilliant reds, yellows and browns that the trees display in the Fall.  Difficult names to pronounce, particularly if you are Spanish-speaking, but over forty years after leaving Cuba, I can manage.

        When I lived in New Hampshire, in the Connecticut River Valley, we were surrounded by the White Mountains.  Each October, I felt summoned to climb the lower peaks of the range so that I could run away from the sense of claustrophobia that only a person raised on the flat plains of Camagüey could experience.  On my birthday, I’d go up to be surrounded by the bright yellows of the basswoods, the browns of the oaks, the reds of the sugar maples, and the greens of the few spruces and pines that stood out against the fall colors.  When seen from atop a mountain, with the river scouring the valley, the slopes appeared to be dotted by delicate but giant, multicolored cotton puffs.  I had my favorite hill not too far from Hanover that I climbed in just about forty-five minutes and surveyed my expanse of flora.

        Now firmly rooted in the Boston area, I walk around Walden Pond for my birthday, not too far from where Thoreau played at living in the wilderness.  The last time my mother came to visit from Miami, she, my sister Ali and I went the entire way around the pond afraid that Mami couldn’t make it.  “No se preocupen,” she kept saying, “don’t worry, as long as I take a break here and there, I can make it.”  That day as we made our way around the pond, I enjoyed the feel of my mother’s fragile body and again confirmed the steely constitution of her spirit.  The filtered light of the sun rushing through the mostly yellows of the trees made us happy to be alive.  Only in the New England autumn does the blue of the sky in the day approximate the deep color of twilight in Cuba.

        Today, while enjoying the coolness of early summer, I read Nancy Morejón’s “In October and the Wind.”  I realize that she, a Cuban poet, associates October with “a whirlwind of strange cries,” with hurricanes and cyclones.  And here I am, thinking of New England autumns.  I guess I have I ceased to be one of her “eternal inhabitants of the Caribbean.”

        On our first Christmas at our Cambridge house, my daughter Rachel came home from Carleton College and we bought a live white pine tree that we decorated, and then planted outside.  It’s on its way to outgrowing our three-story house.  Saul’s buddy Jesper gave us a tiny Canadian spruce.  For many years, Flora and Sam stood in front of the slow growing tree, and we measured the progress of the evergreen against the growth of our grandchildren.  The tree has now surpassed them. On warm days, Saul hangs a Mexican hamaca between two maple trees, pretends to read and falls asleep.  When the children come, they turn the hammock into a swing while wrapping themselves around with the multicolored fibers as in a cocoon.  Saul and I love to play Scrabble before or after dinner under the shade of the maples.  In June, long after Boston area trees have blossomed in pinks, whites and light greens, our catalpa tree at the end of our property surprises us with its white flowers. 

        Since I cannot replicate the tropical garden of my dreams outside the house, I have brought it inside.  With no children to nurture on a daily basis, I tend to my plants, making them survive the dry months in heated rooms during winters.  Those that don’t thrive, simply get replaced.  We have plenty of hanging pothos, Christmas cacti that flower for Saul’s birthday in early November, two large colorful croton and peace lilies.  Upstairs, in our TV room, a large schefflera blocks the afternoon sun from our picture window and gives us privacy as we watch WGBH, sports, and reruns of Masterpiece Theater.  

        On a recent Mother’s Day, my daughter Rachel gave me some red geraniums to place on the front steps of our house during the summer months.  She remembered stories of her Abuelo growing them in Vista Hermosa, the house that signaled a time when the definition of home for me was rooted in Cuban soil.  By giving me geraniums, Rachel, the child who has anchored me in the US, has gifted me with the understanding that a red geranium in New England, albeit a temporarily potted one in the summer, can foster a childhood sense of home with every bloom.

        Throughout the years, I have dealt with not living in the Caribbean by collecting Cuban art.  When we moved in together, Saul, who is a jazz enthusiast and collects jazz photographs, had to make room for the bright colors of my prints by Mederos, Mendive, Ayón, Campos-Pons, García Ferraz, Gutiérrez and Jiménez.  Our white walls are covered in Caribbean color while Saul’s vibrant Palestinian cross-stitched pillows sit on white sofas.  I never imagined I would enjoy such luxury of space, but between the two of us, we have filled it with wall-to-wall books, and snapshots that remind us of our respective extended families scattered all over the country and the continent.  We feel very lucky that our children and grandchildren live within driving distance.  I often sit on a love seat facing the front living room window as I read, prepare for classes, correct essays and write.  Just outside, our largest maple turns green in the summer, bright yellow in the fall and denuded of leaves in the winter.  I can’t imagine it not being there.

        I don’t dream about myself in an empty house anymore.  Saul, the children, our visiting family, and friends, congregate around an ample table where Saul cooks spicy Chinese eggplant that he tones down so that I can eat it.  For Thanksgiving, he goes to Chinatown in Boston to buy roasted ducks that once chopped, we wrap in rice pancakes.  The children and I love to use Saul’s little brooms made out of scallions to add the different sauces.  Saul’s son Rob and his wife Gail make chocolate pecan pies, and Jeremy, my son in law, makes coconut-flavored flan.  For Christmas Eve, we eat American style, with the exception of my black beans, and Spanish membrillo and Manchego cheese for dessert.  Gail also brings her brightly decorated cookies rich in butter, which we enjoy with Rob’s favorite Italian dessert wines.  Laura, Saul’s daughter, creates holiday cards exquisitely crafted from her cutout collection.   For every special occasion, Flora and Sam make large decorative banners that we hang on the wall facing the table, and our refrigerator door is crammed full of children’s photographs to keep us hopeful through times of war against terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and corrupt bankers in this not so “new” twenty-first century.

        Because of my ongoing research on Cuban culture, I travel back to the island practically every summer.  When I first went back in 1980, my cousin’s daughter Jaquelinne was crawling, now she has a daughter as old as my grandchildren.  I first returned to reclaim my Cubanness, but now I have a close family relationship with Raúl, Jaquelinne and her daughter Yali, as well as with my other family related through my Aunt Alicia’s marriage.  Saul, who speaks Spanish, has traveled with me to Cuba on two occasions recognizes that I become a different person when I’m there. The distances between me and my California and Mexican cousins are greater than that of my family in Camagüey.  The real difference lies in the still punitive restrictions the US places on travel to the land where I was born.  Since December of 2014, Cubans on and off the island now appreciate President Obama’s mandate to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries.

        Besides my extended family in Camagüey, I’m beginning to build friendships with writers and painters throughout the island.  In recent years I return to Camagüey to see family, but also to reestablish connections with the artistic and intellectual community there.  Several years ago, while a Cuban writer was visiting Boston and I showed him Beacon Hill, I told him that I felt at home in the narrow streets of the city because they reminded me of Camagüey.  He looked at me in disbelief.  The brick houses of the Back Bay look nothing like the Spanish colonial buildings of eighteenth and nineteenth century Cuba.  But in my mind, the few remaining cobbled streets of old Boston, are just like those in the plaza of San Juan de Dios in Camagüey. 

        Now that my parents are no longer with us, my sister Ali and I, she in Miami, and I in the Boston area, have found love and comfort in our hyphenated “Cuban-American” experience.  We inhabit spaces that reflect our hybrid experiences.  Even though my last name continues to be misspelled with an S, I have ceased to view it as an insult, realizing this country is full of Gonzálezes, some spelled it with a terminal S, others with a terminal Z.  But I still sign my name with an accent over the letter A, to remind others that I have a Hispanic name that follows Spanish grammar rules.  The language of my everyday life is English, slightly accented still, which reminds my audience that I belong here, but that I came from somewhere else.  I still receive comments to the effect that I don’t look like a Cuban, a fact that alerts me to lingering stereotypes.  

        My granddaughter Flora Rebecca has taken up sewing and is always impatient for her next sewing lesson from her Abuela.  Our conversations now include the sounds of Spanish.  Sam my grandson loves baseball, the most American, and Cuban of sports.  Besides being a good little league player, he’s a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and devours trivia about the history of baseball.  After watching a WGBH special about Luis Tiant, he realized Cuba’s manifold contributions to the sport.  When one of his coaches praised his abilities as a pitcher, he responded, “I’m Cuban, you know.”

© The Acentos Review 2015