The House That Built Me

“I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing.” – The House That Built Me, Miranda Lambert

86 General Lee
86 Calle General Lee, Habana, Cuba

April 16 – 26, 2016 – #Cuba2016

The sweet perfume of diesel fuel hangs heavy in the air … so heavy you can almost taste it.

The silence of the morning as I stand on the second floor balcony of a remodeled casa particular – a modern-day Cuban version of a Bed and Breakfast – is broken only by the call of “Panadero!” as the bread man peddles his wares along the nearly-deserted street.

It’s a sound that touches my heart as for the first time in my life, the story my mom told of my dad’s early days as a panadero in Habana becomes real to me. It’s just one of dozens of stories I’ve heard her tell throughout the 55 years since we left the island nation, that for the next 10 days, I would experience in person. Past and present would merge into one as I found myself inside a tunnel where time stood still.

My 10-day journey — only 90 miles from home — took me to the place for which I’ve been searching all my life. I’ve traversed the world to find myself, only to find that what I was seeking was a 25-minute wheels up to wheels down from home.

It’s not a trip for the weary. It’s full of inconveniences. But they are inconveniences that are easy to overlook when your heart is too busy sponging up the moments as your eyes lose their ability to fight back the tears.

Life changing … That’s the only way to describe my return to Mi Tierra.

From the moment I glimpsed over my mom’s shoulder on the flight from Miami to Habana to see the island for the first time since 1961, I knew this was a trip like no other.

Plane Window
Final descent to Jose Marti Airport in La Habana.

It was a journey back to me.

“Out here its like I’m someone else, I thought that maybe I could find myself …”

I am no longer who I was two weeks ago. And I will never be the same again.

It’s a trip I never thought I would make … at least not while my parents were alive. I was half right.

In 1961, my folks risked everything they had to come to the United States, seeking a better life for them and for me. I always felt that to go back to the Island would be a slap in their face.

On April 16, 2015, destiny stepped in to change that.

On that day my dad’s spirit completed his journey on earth — at least this time around.

One year to the day, we brought him back home.

As I sat at my computer each night planning the trip, studying the map of the places we were going to visit, it seemed almost surreal.

Places that have survived years of abuse by ideologies that no longer serve what they once stood for were coming back to life.

Those places had recently been in the news. But they have lived in my heart long before President Obama, the Rolling Stones and — God help us — the Kardashians decided they were cool. And I wanted to see them in person before Starbucks and McDonald’s robbed them of their history and romance.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I became very emotional. Tears were easy to come by.

WTF is happening to me?  It was a question I asked myself on an almost hourly basis.

After all, this was just a trip. Just a vacation. It was just like visiting anywhere else in the world I’ve ever been.

But, it wasn’t.

It was destiny.

Mami had never wanted to go back. The pain she felt having to abandon everything she and Papi worked so hard to accomplish had always been too much for her to bear.

Papi was more laid back. He would have gone back in a heartbeat.   But he didn’t have a heartbeat left in this world to give. So he left us, then gave us the perfect reason to go back. To bring him home — so that I could see our homeland through the eyes of the woman he adored … the mother I adore.

Papi made it possible.

My life has never been what you would call traditional.

“You leave home, you move on and you do the best you can.
I got lost in this whole world and forgot who I am … “

I have a spouse who Papi loved as if she was his biological daughter. But we don’t have what my Cuban roots would consider a traditional family.

Yet my parents — from the day I denied fear the upper hand and introduced them to my partner of close to 20 years — have always loved her and the four-legged black and tan dachshund “daughter” we gave them.

Queenie, our 17-year-old doxie, conspired with Papi so we could take this trip without having to worry about “child care.” It was a challenge we always faced whenever we planned a trip. Who would care for Queenie?

Mami and Papi had always been there for us to care for her while her other mom and I traveled the world. But with Papi gone and Mami no longer able to accept the responsibility, we were well, destined to stay home.

But that’s when destiny, once again, stepped in.

A few months after Papi left us, Queenie went to be with him.

As I tried to convince my partner that it was time for us to get our lives back and start traveling again, it was she who said …

“Let’s go to Cuba. Let’s share those memories with your mom. Let her show you Cuba through her eyes. You may not get another chance.”

As I made the last minute arrangements, pretending this was just another vacation, I wanted to do the happy dance and simultaneously weep the tears of joy that I was finally going home.  This woman without a country would finally make it back to her homeland.

Don’t misunderstand.

I love the United States of America. I thank my parents for giving up their dreams in Cuba to bring our family here.

But now that I was going back, I lost all ability to put into words the flood of emotions I was feeling.

I am not a political person and this is not a statement on the right or wrong of what happened in the past, what is happening now, or what will happen in the future.

But to those of you who refuse to return to your homeland – your Tierra — out of principle … because you don’t want to give a regime with which you don’t agree your money, or because you don’t want to face the destruction of what you remember … know that the best revenge against that with which you don’t agree is to forbid it to take away your patria.

By staying away out of principle you allow the very ideology against which you’ve fought so hard to defeat you!

My takeaways after returning to the U.S.? There are too many to mention.

But if there’s a short list, here it is.

Seeing the look on my mom’s face when she first laid eyes on the purple 1956 Buick convertible that greeted us at the airport to take us to our apartment in Habana.

Turning a corner to find myself facing the Malecon and realizing, it was not a photo. Its romance surpasses physical passion and enters a realm of spiritual romance that inspires a love between God and her creations.

The cars. I was 90 miles from home, but half a century away.

Hugging cousins I’d never met in person for the first time.

Visiting the church where my mom and dad were married and I was baptized.

Going inside the house where I was born and thinking … but it looks so small!

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory

Standing inside the house where my parents had their wedding reception and looking beyond the badly needed pressure cleaning to the happy couple whose marriage thrived for nearly 60 years.

The people. Their warmth and love.

Arriving at the cemetery to bury my dad’s ashes and  being greeted by a black and tan dachshund at the entrance.

This little guy was at the cemetery entrance when we arrived.

There are no accidents in this perfect Universe.

A photo of Queenie and my dad — along with her last license tag — is now buried next to him in our family plot in Habana.

What’s next for me?  I have no idea.  I’m still processing the memories of those 10 days in Cuba.

But I do have one more promise to Papi that I must fulfill. One that seems almost impossible, but that I know he will help facilitate … a promise to return him to his other country … my other country.

Here’s to #Beirut — whenever the time is right — so that I may scatter yet another bit of his ashes along an ancestral coastline he longed to visit since his parents migrated to Cuba over a century ago.

In the meantime, I will treasure the memories of The House That Built Me: #Cuba2016

Author: Barb Besteni

I've been in a writer long enough to know that change is not only inevitable, it's what keeps us going. Don't fight it, don't fear it. Embrace it and have fun.

6 thoughts on “The House That Built Me”

    1. Thank you, David. So nice to “meet” you via our mutual friend! Please let me know if you have any questions or need suggestions for your upcoming journey to Cuba. I look forward to reconnecting soon.


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