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  • Magda Montiel Davis

Ashes Over Havana

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

2019 Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize

Cimarron Review: Best Women’s Travel Writing

My father is flying to Havana with me.

This is not my father’s first Miami-to-Havana flight. There were many before, in the fifties, when he and my mother would leave my sister and me in the loving care of my grandparents and return to the island bearing gifts: a Sears tabletop record player that folded like a suitcase and played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” Thumbelina dolls with that happy, vinyl, new-doll smell, and other American things. But that was before 1959, when Fidel and his army of long-haired men and long-rifled women marched down the Sierra Maestra Mountains to the cheers of the crowd at El Malecón, Havana’s pulsing seawall. The triumph of the Revolution, of free education, of health care and social justice for all. Color-blindness. Two years later, I followed my parents out of the homeland. I was eight. I had no choice. My father is flying to Havana with me one more time, fifty years after our emigration, and fifteen years after the last time he set eyes on his country. But this trip is different. My father is inside my carry-on. I am carrying my father’s ashes back to Havana.

My father’s body had lain in the hospital morgue for ten days because his third wife, to whom he had remained married for thirty-seven years, had insisted on a Catholic burial, which is what she claimed he wanted even though she is a Jew-ban, as Cuban Jews call themselves in the U.S. A Catholic funeral is what she said he wanted even though she had hardly seen him during the last two years of his life. And she refused to pay for either the burial or the cemetery plot on Calle Ocho, in the heart of Little Havana.

I had buried my mom seven years before and I knew I could not bury another parent—the morbidness of it, the closing of the coffin, the sliding of the corpse into a row of drawers, a wall of the dead. Besides, after two years of taking care of my father, I was broke. Broke and beaten. I could do a lot of things, just not bury my father. This much I knew.

The empathetic social worker at Mercy Hospital, who had shared with me her grief at losing her own father, began leaving me daily voice-mails on the fourth day following my father’s death: We really need your father’s body out of the hospital morgue. By the seventh day: We have no space for the others. Where would you like us to put the other dead bodies? On top of your father? By the ninth day: Remove your father’s corpse from the hospital morgue, or else. The county morgue and a pauper’s grave. After ten days, my father’s third wife, who had denied him the right to live out his final years in the marital home and had vehemently fought his living with me, signed papers turning over the body to me.

I asked my sister to pick up my father’s ashes at the funeral home, ten minutes from her house and an hour from mine. At least that. My father’s remains remained at the funeral home longer than his body had remained at the hospital morgue. My sister will pick up the ashes, I reassured the funeral director each time he called. Busy, my sister would say, just as she had every time I asked her if she could she fill in for me for a few hours, with Dad. Once, I had to catch an early-morning flight with my daughter for her semester of study in Lyon; just a three-day trip to help her find housing, make sure she was safe. My father was due to be released from the hospital after another bout of MRSA pneumonia, but no, my sister could not fill in for me, she could not be there the morning of his discharge to talk to his urologist and pulmonologist and infectious-disease specialist and physical and occupational therapist and take careful notes of the nurses’ discharge instructions regarding his Albuterol and Plavix and Prednisone and Lorazepam. My sister was busy, working, running her day spa. I am alone, she would say, with no help from anyone. Her high school-sweetheart-turned-husband had left her after twenty-five years. That was seven years ago, I reminded her, and did you forget that I was alone too, for eight years? I had left Paul, my high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband, a few short years into the marriage when my youngest was thirteen months old. I was alone for eight years, supporting our mother, our grandmother (my father’s stepmother) and my three girls with no help from anyone, not even—especially not—from Dad. This last part I wouldn’t actually say, but I thought it. Dad with his-and-hers Mercedes, tin marin de dos pingüey, one Mercedes for him, one Mercedes for his wife. But could you visit, I asked my sister? He was asking for her. He was more than asking for her. He was saying Tu hermana no se ocupa de mí. Your sister does not look out for me. This, I wouldn’t tell her. She has problems at work, I told him. The economy, Dad, you know. The Republicans, they left a mess.

I wouldn’t tell him I had stopped practicing law after thirty-three years of frantically fighting to win clients fleeing persecution for the right to live and work in the United States. My fervor had already taken precedence over everything else—over my five children, three with Paul, two with my second husband, Ira. I could not continue to manage my law practice and take care of my father the way I should, so I made a choice.

When I told my sister this, she paused for a long time. Then she said, He wasn’t much of a father. Or a grandfather, either. So what? I said. He was our father. When I complained to my husband about my sister, he said quietly, Your father made choices in life. I said, not quietly, And what? He made his bed, now lie in it? And let Bertha—the wife of thirty-seven years—drop him on the doorstep of some nursing home? The Jewish Home for the Aged?

My father was a proud man. He was especially proud that in el exilio, he had worked his way up once again, from renting seat cushions at the Jacksonville Suns Baseball Stadium in upstate Florida to Senior Vice-President at a major bank in Miami. As an insider, he had access to information regarding the homes that the poor lost through foreclosure. He bought properties dirt-cheap and resold them at top dollar.

He also left my mother a few years after we left the homeland, after a tumor in her pituitary gland made her face, her hands, her entire self grow to monstrous proportions. Along with my mother, he left my sister and me. He married his second wife immediately; my sister and I never met her; the marriage was short-lived. But Bertha was different—he let her pull him toward her and her children and grandchildren and away from my sister and me and our children. And then he lost his fortune and once tried to put a bullet to his brain. I waited for hours outside his room at St. Francis Hospital’s mental ward until he was finished with his shock treatments. Or rather, until they finished with him. Papín, I would say, what I called him in Havana. Papín, he would say and shake his head, your Papín is no more. And I would feel the physical sensation of my heart cracking in two. Then he was discharged and he and Bertha went back to driving the streets of Miami Beach in his-and-hers Mercedes.

Both in Cuba and in the U.S., my father’s heart was in what he loved most—baseball. So it seemed appropriate that we should spread his ashes at the baseball field in Miami. I told my sister, Bring Dad’s ashes when you come to Max’s—my fifth grandson’s—first birthday party and we’ll spread them at the Bobby Maduro Stadium. By then, my father had been riding in the back seat of my sister’s Mercedes for over a month. He liked riding in the Mercedes, she said, and where have you been? The Bobby Maduro Stadium was demolished years ago. Bobby Maduro had been my father’s boss in Cuba at El Gran Estadio de La Habana, the Great Stadium of Havana, the home of the minor-league team, the Havana Sugar Kings.

The new stadium is all the way up in Miami Gardens, en casa del carajo—in the middle of nowhere—my sister said, and it’s not even finished yet. We’ll spread his ashes on the construction site, I told her. And if they don’t let us in? she said. Then we’ll rent a helicopter, for chrissakes, and let him sail on down below us. Again, she said, He wasn’t much of a father, you know. Again, I said, So what? He was our father. This time, she added, ¡Ay! And I could see her throw her hands in the air. That’s what you say about Cuba: It’s my country. Here she mimicked what she presumed she heard in my voice every time we got on the subject of Cuba. My sister didn’t come to Max’s first-birthday party.

The last time I visited Havana with my father, fifteen years earlier, we stayed at the Hotel Naciónal, a big, historical landmark that sits atop a small cliff facing El Malecón with its crashing ten-foot waves. Built by the Americans in the thirties, the hotel is emblematic of Cuban culture and identity. Black and white photographs of Hemingway with Fidel, Mafia kingpins and sex kittens from the forties adorn its Hall of Memories in the basement. It was my father’s first and only trip after Fidel. We had laughed in a way I had never seen him laugh before and in a way I had never laughed around him. We took pictures on the breezy garden terrace: rolling hills of translucent green, curlicued walkways and Moorish-tiled fountains overlooking the Malecón blue. We sat on the tippyedge of the small cliff, our feet up, freshly squeezed mango juice in hand as El Cañonazo, the centuries-old cannon that is regularly fired to commemorate the closing of the city wall doors—nothing barring it, not Cuba’s War of Independence, nor coups d’etat of a string of presidents, nor The Revolution—is set off precisely at 9 p.m. Some things never change, I started to say as my father looked at the pretty girls on the seawall below us. Now I can die happy, he said. When we returned to Miami, he called me. Bertha had left the home. It wasn’t just that he had traveled to Cuba, viewed by many of my Cuban-American compatriots as a betrayal to the exile cause; it was that he had returned to the motherland with me. But all I said was: ¿Y eso? and all he said was: Boberias. Silliness. I didn’t hear from him for a while. But I heard Bertha was back.

Flying time Miami-to-Havana: forty-two minutes. No sooner are you up than you’re down. I look down and there she is. Havana. The red earth, the royal palms. On our last family trip here, my grandson said the royal palms looked like birthday-cake sparklers. But I don’t know if anything sparkles for me anymore.

During the descent everything rattles, food trays clang, the plane shakes, but the landing itself is smooth and greeted, as is always the case, with a burst of applause. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to José Martí International. But you can hardly hear the flight attendant over the clapping, in unison now, like tapped drumbeats on the beautifully glossed body of a guajiro’s guitar.

Whoops of ¡Al fin! and ¡Bendito sea Dios!—At last! Blessed be God!—fill the air. A woman hollers, ¡Viva Cuba! I lean forward in my seat to see who she is. She looks back at me. Nadie sabe lo que tiene hasta que lo pierde. Don’t know what you got till you lose it, she says. She dabs dry her eyes and reaches under her seat for her bag. I reach under my seat for my father. The plane taxis toward the terminal. Everyone stands. I remain seated. The flight attendant says, Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated until the plane has come to a complete stop. I want to pull the Viva-Cuba woman to me and cry with her. The passengers swarm the aisle, bang open the overhead bins. The flight attendant is losing her cool: Ladies and gentlemen, please stay seated. We’ll have you there in just a minute.

Together, my father and I deplane and walk the hot, asphalted runway toward the Havana terminal. I walk, he rolls. Together, we sail through Immigration, then Customs. No, not through Customs. The young olive-clad officer asks me what is in the box. My father, I say. My father is in the box. He takes the box out of the shopping bag with its imprint of the funeral’s logo, a tree of life. I haven’t opened it, I say. The box is little and black. It is cute. It is the first time I have seen the box. Do I have documents? he asks. Yes, I say and I do not lie. I do have documents but I left them in Miami. Why, I do not know. I had opened the envelope, unfolded the Certificate of Cremation and set it aside. A supervisor approaches, an older woman. She sees my face. When she asks me when my father died, tu papá, I let out a wailing cry. Not a choked-up cry, a child’s I’ve-hurt-myself-badly cry that surprises me. Ay mi’ja, she says, es lo que Dios manda. What God sends our way. And the documents? asks the young fellow. No documents, she says, and sends my father and me on our way.

My skin sizzles. It is supposed to be an air-conditioned room here at El Hotel Naciónal and the Turistaxi ride in from the airport was air-conditioned but still, my skin sizzles. I call Ive— Ivelise, but since we were three, mataperreando on the pretty new sidewalks of our Havana neighborhood, she’s been Ive (Ee-veh) to me. I needn’t look up her telephone number on Avenida Parque. Same house, same hill, same number. Unlike the jabberwocky in exile circles, Cubans who stayed in Cuba did not lose their homes. As for those of us who left, whoever lived in the home at the time, la criada, for example, the help, was granted ownership of the home.

I tell Ive now that Dad is with me. I laugh, a forced laugh. I needn’t say his ashes; she gets it. I needn’t ask her to go with me. I needn’t even say where it is that we will spread his ashes. The stadium, she says, pick me up in ten minutes. And I needn’t say I cannot do this alone.

I can’t go anywhere, I tell Ive as I bolt through her front door, till I’ve had a merienda. I throw myself on her living-room couch, splay open my legs, fan myself with my skirt. I am hot and I am carsick. A fan, I say, bring me a fan. She will make me a mango shake, she says. You’re lucky it’s mango season and that I have a mango tree. The lights flicker overhead and ¡Le zumba la berenjena! Ive says. Se jodiό el batido, her son Victor Manuel says. Another apagón, another power failure. No mango shake for me.

I take out the box with my father’s ashes from the pretty shopping bag with the pretty tree of life. Finally, I touch it. Victor Manuel, I yell, come open the box. Neither your mom nor I can find our glasses. We did find our glasses; we just can’t read what the box says. I touch the box, its surface black, smooth, a corner of it Braille-like. It has instructions here, I say. He peers at the box. Made of recyclable material, Victor Manuel says. Caballero, Ive says, tanta lucha—la vida—para termimar es esa cajita. So much struggle—life—only to end up in that little box.

She lays the box atop the living-room console, a mosaic of tiny mirrors. As a child, I marveled at the vast number of images of myself that danced and leaped before it. I sit unmoving now and stare at the mosaic of mirrors, its reflection dull, its edges black.

El Gran Estadio de La Habana, my dad liked to say, had a playing field and state-of-the-art lighting comparable to—no, better than—major-league stadiums. In 1947, a year after it opened, the Brooklyn Dodgers chose the stadium as their spring training site, as did the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, the year I was born. But in 1961, American professional baseball in Cuba was stopped and the Great Stadium of Havana was renamed El Estadio Latinoamericano. That was the year I followed my parents out of the homeland, one small suitcase in hand, my Thumbelina doll in the other.

Standing before us, the stadium slouches like an old movie star, faded and wrinkled, a flicker of what once was, except my sister and I never got to see what once was because my father never took us to El Gran Estadio de La Habana, only my mother. Wait for us here, I tell the cabbie. Ten minutes. He can’t, he says. He has to drive clear across town to meet his last customers, who promised they would pay his fare if he came back. You’re going to leave us here? I say. ¿En casa del carajo? In the middle of nowhere? On the street, women wear pantunflas, rickety bedroom slippers, and their butts stick out like backwards Cs from fluorescent spandex miniskirts. She thinks we’re going to get assaulted, Ive says, like in the United States. Then she turns to me. It’s not that, monga. Dummie. It’s that the only way we’ll get back to the city is, mira—she whistles—así. She moves her thumb back and forth in hitchhike-mode.

The cabbie drives a full circle around the stadium. When he starts the second circle, Ive says, You think if you go in circles long enough you’re going to resolver? We laugh, the three of us. I’ll give you the fare you’ll collect, I say, if you wait for us. Double the fare. In American dollars. No, mi’jita, he says, no need. He’ll wait.

Out of the cab, Ive calls out to me, Where are you going? I am already mid-street, crossing to the other side. Two rifled young men in blue uniforms stand guarding the stadium entrance. To ask them to let us in, I say. ¿Tu estas loca? she asks. Things aren’t done this way en este país. In this country. They’re going to think we’re doing contra-revolución, spreading white powder like that. So we walk the perimeter of the closed stadium in the gray of dusk. She takes the plastic bag and spreads the first fistful of ashes for me and I am grateful for that. I look at her, so far removed from the bouncing, sun-streaked ponytailed girl of years past, her dry, over-processed hair now cropped closely to her scalp, her weather-beaten skin giving her a worn-out, hardened look. So far removed from the ballerina leaping across the terrazzo of her living-room floor doing arabesques and grand jetés before her mirrored console, her sequined costumes leaving swirls of pink and blues and greens behind her. And I wonder, when she looks at me, does she see my purple Nikes and cool asymmetrical haircut? The suitcases I bring full of clothes that my children discard, some hardly worn, that her children greedily don? Or does she see the sunken flesh under my eyes, the hard lines around my mouth? A wrung-out lawyer staggering under the weight of financial struggles, glob glob, a ship’s anchor around my neck. A not-so-good mother begrudging all she gave up, time with her children. Like my father.

But my father never came to that realization.

After a while, I say, Coño, Ive, at least spread him on the grass. Even if it is littered with flattened cans, crumpled newspapers and smoldering cigarette butts. Not on the sidewalk, with its raised slabs and wide deep cracks. It is when we turn the corner that I trip over a crack. One foot then the other, moving quickly forward, irrespective of me, my entire self on its way to the cracked sidewalk. The fall is fast but slow. But I do not complete the fall because Ive swoops a quick, strong arm my way and lifts me, my friend Ive. In two years we’ll be like Mr. Magoo, she says, of the nearsighted, senile old man navigating his way through one calamity after another. I didn’t know they had watched Mr. Magoo cartoons here. Now she laughs, a laugh of long ago.

We save some of the ashes for El Hotel Naciónal. Let’s go to the long-stemmed flowers at the front of the hotel, I tell Ive. I stick my hand in the bag and grab a fistful of my father. We spread. We have gotten good at this. And then: El Malecón, I say. As we descend the big hill and head to the sea, Ive says, We buried my dad in pantyhose. I say, What? Pantyhose, she says. After three years of burial, the family receives a call: Remove the corpse to make space for others. And Cubans found a nifty trick: Bury your dead in pantyhose so the bones stay inside the pantyhose. Easier to scoop out the bones, Ive says. She holds up an imaginary bag, dangles it before me. And you did that? I ask. No, she says, she couldn’t. Her son Victor Manuel told her, Mami, I’ll do it for you, I’ll dig up Abuelo. But when he arrived at the cemetery, he was told there were four corpses in the grave, and was handed a bucket. His grandfather he easily recognized; he lay on top and his long, loose locks were still attached to his skull. Plus he recognized the suit in which his grandfather was buried. One of the suits you brought for him from Miami, Ive tells me. But as to the other three corpses, Victor Manuel couldn’t figure out which head or which bones belonged to whom. So he laid out the bones in separate piles and went tin marin de dos pingüey. Ive pokes her finger at the air, eenie meenie miney mo. To decide which bones he would put where, she says.

Together, we cross the European-wide boulevard and head to the legendary seawall. Ive switches the bag of Dad’s ashes to her outside hand. In case you start to fall again, she says and puts her arm through mine, like she did in those days of long ago. She tells me the problem is that I don’t look down when I walk. In this country, she says, you always have to look down. One, so you don’t fall. Two, in case you find ten fulas, American dollars.

She finds a small opening at the seawall and that is no easy feat, to find space among swarms of fathers fishing with their sons and young enamorados kissing and rubbing. I try to climb the seawall but I can’t. I am stuck, neither here nor there. I think I am limber, with my daily bouts of hot yoga back in Miami, but I am not. Ive, I say, between uncontained laughter, when was the last time you peed your pants? Like those days of long ago when we hid in her dad’s study and looked at pictures of naked people in his medical journals and laughed so hard, we peed. Just now, she says, laughing too. Me too, I say. I told you, she says, Mr. Magoo. In two years. Less than two years.

She stands beside me, on the seawall, the Malecón waters a silvery black. I take the final handful of my dad’s ashes. They are chalky and after each throw, they stay on me. The hard particles are bone shards, I know, maybe slivers of the pacemaker that was supposed to have been removed before his body was slid into the oven. I think of them as sea shells. I throw my dad’s ashes at the sea wind and at the waters that connect Havana to Miami. But the ashes don’t fly in the direction I throw them. The ashes fly back inland, toward a pretty girl with brown skin kissing her boyfriend, a pretty brown girl covered now with my father’s ashes. Ive and I stare at each other. Ay, I say to the pretty brown girl’s boyfriend, as he wipes the white off her face, her hair, her blouse, perdon. It’s OK, he says, pronounced O-kah, the anti-imperialista, Revolutionary way. If they only knew, Ive whispers as we cross the highway, the slow groan of the crashing, ten-foot waves of the Malecón behind us. That’s OK, I say. Okay. Dad’s happy, going home with her tonight. He always did like brown-skinned girls best.

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