I think I’ve mentioned before that my mother was born in Cuba. Considering the political climate between the US and Cuba in the last 50-odd years, it’s always been an island of mysterious beauty to me – a place family members would speak of breathlessly, hot and heavy like a long lost lover. Even though I could find a way to travel there on my own, I’ve never taken that leap – probably because many of the harsher realities there now would clash inelegantly with the fantasies I’ve gathered in my head over many, many years. The fantasy that rises above the rest is the story of how my grandparents met.
First, let me introduce the cast of characters. This is a picture of my grandmother from the forties by a Cuban beach:
That’s my uncle next to her (hola, Tio!) I always thought she looked like a movie star in this photo. Joan Whitehouse (or Mami Joan, as I always called her) was actually from an old money family in New York and had moved to Havana when she was just four years old. She was a statuesque blonde with green eyes, towering at 5’9″, who got considerable attention from the local hombres.
This is my grandfather:
His name was Gustavo Halley, or Abuelo (as I called him) and he was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba – a city by the sea in the southeast part of the island (as Mami puts it “nestled among mountains on the back and the sea on the front”). He was locally known as the “Cuban Clark Gable” and in fact Mami found an old newspaper clipping with a poem someone had written about him and his dreamy eyes. He must have been quite the playboy in an era of glamor and sophistication that made Cuba the Riviera of the Caribbean.
One day in 1939, Joan was visiting Santiago on a beach trip with girlfriends and went to a local seaside resort called Ciudamar (which loosely translates to Sea City). The ocean was below street level, and one had to walk down dark, narrow stone steps to enter. On this fateful day, Gustavo was milling around with some of his friends at the lobby bar, smoking cigarettes, drinking scotch and laughing as the jukebox played “Perfidia“. Suddenly his eye caught a gorgeous pair of legs in espadrille heels descending the stairs. The rest of the crowd in the smoky bar blurred into the background as he turned to discover the owner of these amazing appendages. His eyes traveled up the demure but smart sleeveless sky blue sundress until they rested on the blonde hair and exotic green eyes of his future wife.
By the time Joan had reached the floor, Gustavo sidled up to her, took out a fresh cigarette and held it up to her arm, indicating how ‘hot’ she was. My grandmother, a very proper young woman, immediately took offense. She snubbed him with nose firmly in air and declared to her friends that she never wanted to see that vulgar young man again! She sauntered through the lobby towards the ocean and out of his life.
But, as Fate would have it, Joan’s grandmother was good friends with Gustavo’s parents. So they inevitably had a proper introduction and fell passionately in love. But alas, my grandmother had to go back home to Havana, Gustavo’s required him to travel the island and they had to carry on their courtship over the long distances, subsisting on passionate love letters. The postal service being what it was, Joan’s letters sometimes took a long while to make their destination. Gustavo would brood in local bars and play “Aquellos Ojos Verdes (Those Green Eyes)” over and over on the jukebox, pining for the day when they would be reunited, willing Joan to feel the love from his heart and devastated at the thought that she might no longer love him.
But indeed he was finally able to come to Havana and they married soon after. Sadly, their marriage only lasted long enough to produce my beloved mother and uncle, their early passion turning into heated arguments that tore them apart. But the story of their romance still wafts through my dreams, filled with humid longing and sultry sea breezes.
To be honest, there are some details that I’m totally fabricating. Unfortunately, both of them have passed into that long blue tunnel and I can’t ask them details like what they were wearing. But a Cuban imagination is fertile enough to grow any images it needs to paint a picture of romance enough to sustain an adolescent girl’s rich inner life.
And so, dear reader, what are your juicy “how they met” stories?