Monday, November 25, 2013

Swimming is Good for the Soul: Julianne Chadwick Talks About Her MIL, Her New Book, and Cuba

Some seven years ago my mother-in-law Gloria Maria   – was left a widow after 64 years of marriage. The funeral of her husband the renowned sugar agronomic Alfonso Fors had taken place in Miami and on her way back to Guadalajara, Mexico, where she lived - (they always kept their doctors in Miami and went back and forth since moving to Mexico some thirty years before) she decided to come and visit her eldest son, my husband – Alfonso Fors jr, who for visa reasons could not attend his father’s funeral in the States.  

We lived on the Pacific coast of Mexico in a landscape not unlike that of parts of Cuba and I wondered if I could help heal her with beach visits and coconut ice creams, maybe help her bring back some of the flavours from her youth. 

The day before picking her up at the airport it occurred to me also that Gloria was the same age as Castro and probably had some insights into him and life in Cuba at that time. Her story could be of historical interest to many of my friends - Gloria was very smart and still had a wonderful memory for her age.   I knew some of the family story from my husband, but mostly his take on events as a five-year-old and certainly not any of the important details.

We sat in my swimming pool the evening she arrived  – just the two of us sitting on the steps of the pool - our voices echoing around the walled gardens.  My first question was one I already had the answer to but asked it all the same

"Cuantos hermanos tenias, Gloria?"  (How many brothers and sisters did you have, Gloria?) 

"Twenty," she answered in English…. That was the only English word she ever spoke again during our week-long talks.

But it was the next sentence that threw me right against the walls we were echoing through that first night and the exact moment I knew I had to put pen to paper.

"My father left my mother when I was 6 and she was 60. He left her for another woman after she had given birth to 21 of his children.

 She was left rolling her cigars at the end of the long table of the finca - completely alone, looking out into the night - with me looking at her - from the other end. A six-year-old grieving at the sight of her mother’s face."

I didn’t need to ask Gloria Maria any more questions, the story flowed out of her like wine at a wedding – night after night after night.

We met - each evening after my university job finished, at the end of the day. Sunset - In the pool.  She would announce before I put my briefcase down on the porch; "Las patas al agua.” (ducks to the water).

  I was told she waited for my arrival with her swimsuit already on, two hours before I stepped in the door.

I realized instantly the poignancy that these memories were bringing to her on a personal level and the significance of them on her as a Cuban -- as a Cuban woman of her time - who had just lost her last link to the land of her memories – her Cuban man - who she loved so much for so long.

 I was left with a sense that I should record these memories for her children and for my father-in-law’s memory – a man I respected deeply.

I spent the next year doing just that - collaborating with her eldest daughter and eldest son.  

Upon finishing I bound 8 copies of the book with the help of the university - for each of her children, for Gloria (in Spanish) and one for myself.  I also recorded a CD of the book using my own voice – accompanied by Cuban and original music with Gloria singing acapella in the very last chapter –

She chose the song she would sing to my husband to put him to sleep as a young baby.

It is a song about the burning of the homeland set to rhythms that have your hips swinging.

"The dance is all in the hips," she would tell me.

"The telling is all in the twist," I would answer.

Gloria dancing the Salsa

Maria Elvira is a strong and courageous woman born in pre-revolutionary Cuba with a privileged background, living happily with her husband until they are forced to flee an oppressive regime.

‘To The Other Side’ is a chronicle of upheaval and mistrust—of youth and aging, of life and death, of danger and survival.

It is written in a seamless mix of prose and poetry that captures the essence of a Caribbean culture transplanted to another way of life while still true to itself.

‘To The Other Side’ is above all the story of Maria Elvira, life seen through her eyes. A portrait of a young woman caught up—on the outside—in the tumult of Cuba’s history whilst the effects of her own father’s absence at an early age runs deep.

Maria Elvira was never able to forgive or forget that first abandonment and watched for signs in all the men that met her life thereafter. Castro, himself, is one of the many in her line of fire.

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