I was lucky to know all four of my grandparents. On my paternal side, Abuelo and Abuela were Sephardic Jews from Silivri, a Turkish town near Istanbul. On my maternal Ashkenazi side, my grandfather, Zeide, was from Russia and my grandmother, Baba, was from Poland. On the eve of the Holocaust, they all found their way to Cuba and made a home for themselves on the island. Like many Jews in Cuba, they had no wish to go north to the United States. Together with their children and grandchildren, they expected to remain on the island for generations. They poured their hopes and dreams into mom-and-pop shops or street peddling. After the Revolution, these livelihoods were abolished, and they left Cuba feeling devastated, the memory of the island scratching at their hearts.
It was Baba, my mother’s mother, who lived the longest. She made it to the age of 92, dying in the year 2000, the start of the new century. We had settled in New York after leaving Cuba, where Baba and Zeide worked at a fabric store until they retired and moved to Miami Beach in the 1970s. After Zeide died in 1987, I would visit Baba often. There was a Cuban restaurant on Lincoln Road where we’d go for dinner. Although frijoles negros gave Baba terrible indigestion, she’d eat the caldito with white rice and savor it.
In Baba, I saw my closest mirror, for she was a thinker and an independent woman. Nothing was more pathetic to her than a woman so weak “que se ahoga en un vaso de agua” — that she drowns in a glass of water. Baba tried hard to be tough. But I slept over enough times at her house to know that she suffered from terrible nightmares; she was always being chased into dark alleys from which there was no escape.
I never learned Yiddish, but fortunately Baba loved speaking Spanish as much as I did, so that was the language we spoke to each other. We should have spoken of profound things — of life and death, of loss and grief, of laughter and longing — but I was in a rush. Miami Beach had become a stopover for me on my way to Cuba. In 1991, I began to return regularly, trying to reconnect with my lost home and the Jewish community that was then experiencing a dramatic revitalization. But Baba didn’t like it that I was going to Cuba so much. She wanted me to stay with her, not leave her alone.
Baba would shake her head, watching me schlep the huge suitcases I took to Cuba filled with gifts. As I went out the door, she warned, “You’re going to get a kileh!” That was Yiddish for hernia. She was weighed down by memories, and I was going to Cuba in search of memories.
Now, decades later, I still travel back and forth to Cuba. Wanting to be strong for Baba’s sake, I never told her how there was a part of me that was always a bit scared about going to Cuba. What if a catastrophe befell me there, would I be able to flee, as we did when I was a child? But I didn’t want her to think I was one of those women that can “drown in a glass of water.”
These days I may not be as afraid as I was once, but I know Baba is my guardian angel, making sure that every time I go to Cuba I come back with my heart in one piece.
Ruth Behar is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys, among other books. Her debut novel for young readers, Lucky Broken Girl, about her Cuban immigrant childhood in New York, is forthcoming with Penguin Random House.