Admitting that the real is absent, that our lives can only be experienced in the past tense, and that the foundation of home is disrupted by the opposing fluctuation between the desire of the present & the perishing of the past, exile then emerges as the grounding mode of consciousness. —Dylan Trigg, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny
cw: alcohol, death, grief, mental illness, chronic illness, violence, trauma
It’s late at night when I Google my grandparents’ address. I know it by heart the way I know their home phone number. I grew up in what was probably the last generation that had to commit their home phone number to memory; now there’s rarely a phone for a home. I can’t even remember the last time I missed a call, I’m with my phone all the time. I mostly know my husband’s phone number but I definitely still know my grandparents’ home phone number even though no one in my family’s lived there in almost five years.
Sometimes I google on my laptop and sometimes I do it on my phone. I still have a perfect sense of their house, the path to different rooms and the feel of the cold Spanish tile under my bare feet; Google confirms my memory through street view. The sky is blue and expansive, the small yellow house with terracotta roof is where it’s always sat. Or at least, since 1975. I look up the listing from when it sold a few years ago on Zillow and download every single photo the realtor took. I put them in a folder on my computer and look through them slowly, knowing every closet and bedroom and kitchen cabinet like the back of my hand. Now and then, days and weeks later, I’ll accidentally open the folder and close it like i’ve seen a ghost. Which I guess I kind of have.
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My grandparents bought the house in summer 1978 for $77,000. My mom had moved to NYC after graduating from high school and so it was my grandparents, my 5 year old aunt, and my abuela’s parents, my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather Ricardo died there of colon cancer in 1981; my great-grandmother Antolina died there of natural causes in 2011. I didn’t live there until I was 14, a few weeks after 9/11, the start of high school and my parents’ divorce. My aunt had already left home but came back in the years I was in college. My mom came and went but she lived her later years there until she died in 2015. My abuela was the last person to live there before it sold.
I remember something my abuelo said when I was a teenager: “esta es la casa de un trabajador”.
This is a worker’s house. And it was. For all of its charms and it had many, it wasn’t big, it wasn’t fancy. The homes I lived in with my parents were bigger and in nicer neighborhoods but this worker’s house is what I think of when someone asks me about where I grew up. The lime and banana trees. The treehouse cottage in the backyard my abuelo built for my aunt that soon became mine. The garage more of a workshop for tools and bikes than a place for cars. My grandparents paid off the mortgage in 1998 when I was 11; when the house sold in 2017 for four times the initial price, there wasn’t a cent for the last living inheritor.
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My family always made sure to tell me that they didn’t leave Cuba, they were exiled. I grew up hearing the stories of how my abuelo was arrested for his anti-revolution activities, how neighbors turned on each other, how my abuela would tell my 3 year old mom that the loud sounds that woke her up were fireworks when they were really the new government’s secret police shooting their neighbors as they slept in their beds. They came to America but they never got over leaving their home. They cursed Castro and even the word communism and longed for the days before him; they always told me things were good under Batista and when you’re a kid, you don’t question the only things you’re told. You inherit the trauma, you swallow the poison of resentment, and you hope that an old dictator on an island 200 miles away is the one who dies.
They became American in name alone. They kept Cuba alive in what they ate and listened to and watched. They were friends with other Cuban exiles, some they knew on the island and some they met through the network of Cubans through South Florida. Everything was better in Cuba. They had been richer in Cuba. Their house was bigger in Cuba. My grandparents physically lived in America but emotionally never left the island. Their minds were frozen in 1950s Cuba and they couldn’t even imagine anything topping that life. They lived in a purgatory of their own making.
We disappointed them and by we I mean their two daughters, my mom and aunt, and their granddaughter, me. The three of us were varying degrees of American: my mom born and partially raised in Cuba, my aunt born in the US but raised by Cuban exiles, and me born in the US and raised by someone a step removed from the exile. We three spoke English together more often than not, we loved American music, we had interests that didn’t exist in midcentury Havana. My grandparents guilted us and kept pulling us into the past with them. It often worked and it kept us trapped to varying degrees. In hindsight, the house seems like a mausoleum the further in time and space I get away from it.
I used to think something was wrong with the three of us, that we just couldn’t do the right things to make them proud of us, that we couldn’t connect with them, that we couldn’t somehow get them to meet us halfway where we were. It was never us though; it was two people frozen in time, unwilling to even let themselves experience the present. I wish for other people’s sake that this was a specific issue for my family or for people with my background. I know that even though the details differ, every family is haunted by the trauma it just can’t face, passing it down with interest to the next generation.
I watched my mom and aunt deteriorate in such different ways in that house. My mom carried that trauma to other cities and came home with it plus addiction issues. My aunt traveled and wandered but was hard on her chronically ill body. Because of their parents and everything that had happened to them as a family, my mom and aunt were never close; they were each closer to me than to each other. One of them died in that house and the other died in a hospital a few minutes away. Their mother survived them both.
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I always thought my mom and aunt just wanted a lot for me when they told me to focus, to study, and to get out. I didn’t understand it and I’m not sure they consciously did either but the push was there. I watched my grandparents become frail and even more bitter in that house. I watched my mom destroy her body and mind in that house. I watched her have a psychotic break and hold a knife to my abuelo’s throat. I watched my aunt grow weaker as her kidneys failed, as the promise of a potential transplant slipped away in that house. I watched the aftermath of my alcoholic mom convincing my abuelo we now know was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s into getting a reverse mortgage on his fully paid off house in that very house. I watched as my abuelo fell into fear and reverted to childhood as he forgot who we all were in that house. I watched everything I thought I knew reveal itself to be something else in that house. I watched my whole family die in that house even if their bodies gave out years later or elsewhere.
I did end up leaving. Maybe it was chance or maybe it was the gut feeling I had that I couldn’t stay there but I met the man who became my husband and I moved to a different country. My last stop before I moved away was my grandparents’ house where I kissed my sleeping abuelo and abuela goodbye and hugged my mom for what felt like ages. I didn’t know she had cancer then but I could feel her skeleton in my arms as we held each other. My hair got wet as she cried into it.
“Please,” she said. “Live your life and don’t look back.”
I nodded as I got into my car, hands shaking on the steering wheel. It’ll be seven years in June.
I didn’t get any of the monetary things I was supposed to inherit; it was all gone by then. I was angry and empty about it for a long time. Not only was my childhood home gone but I couldn’t even use the money from selling it to pay off debt or just have more options in life. Some things would have been easier. I think I got what I needed from it though even if it’s just my brain trying to make sense of it all now: the time to process not just my trauma but all of the trauma I inherited and the space to keep my past and present.
I look at glowing still images of the house late at night; I now have space for the present but ghosts are always with me. The past is weary and so am I.