My mother--or as I call her, Mami--was only 10 when she left Cuba in 1971, a dozen years after Fidel Castro came to power. She’s never been back. And this was my first trip to the island nation.
My cousin, Alejandro—whom I'd just met—and I ring the bell at Mami’s old house in Havana, Cuba. A grey-haired man—Gustavo--answers and greets us with raised eye brows. After some awkward introductions, he lets us in and we meet his wife, Yolanda.
No sooner are we in the door than Alejandro tells me the house looks exactly as my mom left it 40 years ago—minus the furniture. There were the high ceilings and patterned tile floors, just like Mami had told me about; the wooden double door that leads out to a walkway with plants.
But the furniture? The government took it after they left.
As Mami explains, if you told the government you were planning to leave the island, inspectors would come to your house.
“And it was a big deal," says Mami. "I remember when they see the people coming down the street and someone would come into your house and say, ‘Hey, ayi vienen van hacer el inventario. They're coming to do your inventory.'"
They inventoried everything you owned, a policy that began during the takeover of Fidel Castro in 1959 and continued until the early 2000s.
“From every stick of furniture, all the way from the front part of the house in the living room, they go all the way into every bedroom, all the way into the dining room. They opened closets, and counted sheets and towels," says Mami.
Down to the last utensil in the drawer. Everything was recorded. And you'd better not try to take any of it with you when you leave.
But, el inventario missed two antique, ornate rocking chairs. My Abuela [Grandma], Bisabuela [Great-Grandma], and Mami boosted the chairs over a back wall, under cover of darkness, to the neighbors.
“And we swapped the rocking chairs," explains Mami. "They had simple ones, and we had the beautiful rocking chairs. And they got ours, we got their simple rocking chairs. And we went and put them in the same place, hoping that they would not notice.”
If you go next door to the neighbor's house today, those same rocking chairs -- and the same neighbors -- are still there.
We walk to the back of the house through another wooden door into a green-tiled kitchen where the appliances and furniture date back to the 1950s and take a U-turn into the first bedroom.
“Your Abuela was a teacher," recalls Alejandro in Spanish. "She had a study here to prepare for her classes and grade papers.”
Alejandro explains that this room was Abuela’s study, where she would prepare for her classes and grade papers. Abuela received her doctorate in teaching in 1958 from the University of Havana.
“I took my degree and teaching papers to Spain and later the U.S," says Abuela in Spanish.
But the U.S. wouldn’t honor the degree.
“So, I showed my papers and degree to Rhode Island College, but they still made me take four classes to be able to teach in the U.S." says Abuela.
Through another set of narrow, wooden double doors was the bedroom Mami and Abuela shared. Mami told me she kept Rosita, a googly eyed doll with red lips and a blue dress, at the foot of her bed.
“Rosita is my doll," says Mami. "I’ve had it since I was a year old. I received it for Three Kings Day.”
Three Kings Day. It’s also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, or the day the three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem, 12 days after Jesus’s birth. Unlike Christmas, it’s celebrated as a gift-giving occasion in Cuba. Rosita is the only doll my mom was allowed to bring to the US from Cuba, but it wasn’t easy getting it through airport security.
“When I was at the airport the eyes make a little blinky sound and they thought there was something inside the doll, they thought my mom was hiding something," says Mami.
The security guards at the airport tore the head off the doll in front of 10-year-old Mami and shook it upside down. Abuela squeezed Mami’s arm.
“I mean the last thing we wanted to do was forfeit our exit out of Cuba. So I just had to bite my tongue and take it and hold back the emotions I had at the time, not to let my mother and my grandmother down," says Mami.
Today, Rosita sits at the end of my bed at my parents’ house in Connecticut.
As I leave the old house, I remember the last thing my mom saw when she was leaving it.
“I remember turning around and seeing a big paper seal probably about six by nine. Oh I think it was white, it had letters that said, ‘Property of the Cuban Government,'" says Mami. "Vividly, I still see it 'Property of the Cuban Government.'”
It’s a big reason why my mom and Abuela have never returned to Cuba.
“I don’t know. I guess its…I’m mixed up about it," says Mami. "On the one hand I’m glad that you’re going because you’ve always wanted to go. And on the other hand there is still a part of me that still doesn’t want to go.”
She says that’s out of respect for Abuela, Bisabuela, and the rest of the family. Abuela didn’t want my mom to grow up in a Communist society. She wanted to seek a better way of life, even if it meant starting all over in a country they were not familiar with.
“And I think that door closed and that was never to be open again," says Mami. "Because I knew that coming to the United States was the end goal. We had to make it; there was no turning back!”
After bidding Yolanda, Gustavo, and the house good-bye, I felt a sense of peace and calm wash over me, and thought maybe, just maybe—one day—my mom might return to see the house and Cuba for herself; just like the lyrics of the Cuban-American singer, Gloria Estefan, sings, “Y un dia regreso, yo lo se!” [“One day I will return, I know it!”]