A Cuban Funeral - Part one: Our house in Havana


Men pat total strangers on the back; women exchange air kisses and ask about their kids, grandkids and assorted godchildren. Some swap old tried-and-true Cuban recipes, like vaca frita, which doesn't really mean fried cow, but shredded beef stewed in tomato sauce. My mouth waters despite myself. We are having a funeral, though an outsider could easily mistake it for a party. People talk of Irish wakes being raucous, but that's because they haven't witnessed a Cuban wake.

In a corner of the living room, Mom and Aunt Cecilia have built an island of peace, away from the tsunami of shouts and gestures that has taken over Grandma's home.

"She was brave to start a new life here at 55," I say to break the silence.

I really wanted to say that she was ballsy, but Mom doesn't get linguistic nuances in English. She may think I am calling grandma a cojonuda, a woman with big balls, which, though complimentary, isn't a nice thing to say. Particularly since Grandma is dead and rigid in her coffin, just 3 feet away from us. I mean, her body is there. As for her spirit, that's another issue. I'm expecting her to show up any moment.

"I still remember our house in Havana," Mom says out of the blue. "It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms and two backyards. And it was made of brick and cement, not paper and saliva, like this one." She points an accusatory finger to the panel that separates the living room from the kitchen, covered in a faded flowery wallpaper peeling at the top. "Here, if you punch a wall, your hand goes through it and nothing happens. But in our home in Cuba, if you were stupid enough to punch a wall, you ended up with broken fingers."

She whispers, even though everyone else is talking loudly. But we are Grandma's closest relatives, the real mourners. The other people are neighbors or second and third cousins who didn't get to know her well. The old ladies from the bingo club also came, and they're the only ones who look somewhat sad.

"It was a very nice home," Aunt Cecilia agrees.

I bite my tongue because I want to ask, "Who are we burying today, my beloved grandmother or the memory of an old house?"

But she hurries to make the connection: "She always kept it very tidy, didn't she?"

I have a vague idea of playing on a tiled floor surrounded by tall, leafy plants, but I don't remember much more. Grandma never told me any stories about Cuba as many of my friends' relatives did when we were growing up. My friends, by the way, found such stories silly and boring, but I would have loved them.

"A closed mouth attracts no flies," Grandma used to say, though her own mouth was seldom closed. She loved to argue and was never afraid to let her opinions be known. She just didn't like to talk about Cuba back then.

Will she be willing to do it now?

Mom and Aunt Cecilia aren't fond of bringing up memories either, so it's rather odd to hear them talk about the good or not-so-good old times.

"A real house is easier to clean than this." Mom is referring to the one-bedroom mobile home at Vineyard Estates, in Hialeah, where Grandma lived alone for the last 10 years.

"Maybe if we had come earlier, in the '60s, she would have had a better life," she goes on. "But as the saying goes, 'Tarde venientibus ossa.'"

"What does that mean?" I hate to ask, but I am lost. I got tarde, which means late - or evening - and something about a female bear, an osa. None of it makes sense once I put it together. "I'm forgetting my Spanish, I guess."

It will be worse now that I won't even have Grandma to practice with. Unless we can establish some sort of supernatural language classes, which doesn't sound too feasible.

"That's not Spanish!" Mom huffs. "Aren't you in college? Don't you want to be a doctor, for God's sake? It is Latin. It means, 'To the late are left the bones.'"

"I want to be a veterinary doctor," I reply. "I don't think we have to take Latin."

Mom graduated from the University of Havana. After the family moved here, her degree in Spanish literature and two bucks wouldn't buy her a cup of coffee at the Versailles Restaurant, though. She became a store clerk, but she still loves to use big words and obscure expressions - like Latin proverbs no one else understands.

"Why were we late anyway?" I ask.

"Because we came in 1980, the same year of the Mariel boatlift," Aunt Cecilia replies, referring to a mass migration of Cubans to the United States. "The worst possible timing, all things considered. People still think we were part of that crowd!"

The Spanish version of this story can be found here.