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Return to Cuba: Unpacking the Memories


Filippo Monteforte AFP AG

Cubans wait for the passage of Pope Francis in Havana on September 19, 2015, on the first leg of a high-profile trip that will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO /FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

Maria Morera Johnson - published on 10/14/15

After 50 years away, the writer reconnects with her homeland and brings home something more precious than a souvenir

I just put away the last of my items from my recent trip to Cuba, a time-worn basketball trophy from my youth.

The two-week adventure included seeing Pope Francis in Holguin, and a spiritual pilgrimage to the Basilica National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity. But the third layer of this trip, the opportunity to reconnect, and frankly, connect with family I haven’t seen in 50 years can be summed up in that little trophy.

In 1978, I won Rookie of the Year on my high school basketball team. Underclassmen didn’t typically play Varsity, and I was a starter. It generated many family stories of an uncle I couldn’t remember – one of my mother’s younger brothers who was a star on Cuba’s national team – and cut from the team because of dissenting political views and complex circumstances. I sent him my trophy as a gift – a memento that someone, I, was carrying on this family tradition.

I discovered he kept this trophy in his room for 37 years.

As a teenager, I didn’t realize what a connection this little gesture would make for both of us. For me, it was the only thing I knew about my uncle: that we shared this love for the game…and that we were good. I would have liked to shoot some hoops with him; invite him to my games. Fight over whether the Celtics or the Lakers were the better team. But politics and life got in the way … and I forgot about the trophy.

I’m sorry I let myself forget to nurture the relationship.

The word most often used in recent articles about Cuba, reconciliation, expresses the need for mending relationships. That may be true, especially in those circumstances where anger fuels familial separation, and political machines create problems born of hurt and misunderstanding.

My other uncle, the Bishop of Holguin, spoke to a different theme in his homilies following the pope’s visit. He spoke, not of reconciliation, which implies the need for forgiveness, but rather, reconnection.

The theme of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Cuba, Missionary of Mercy, captures perfectly the circumstances in which I find myself when relating to Cuba, but really, when relating to people. Mercy should be at the heart of it, both spiritually and corporally.

This trip brought to life the need for and the experience of the works of mercy. We prayed together. We visited the sick. The poor. The marginalized.

We visited the tomb of my grandparents and other beloved people. We spent the entire trip in encounter. Encounter with the family. Encounter with friends. Encounter with each other.

This trip gave me the gift of presence, of reconnecting with family I couldn’t remember.

Most of all, it gave me a relationship with my uncle.

I knew I loved him, in that way we love family. But more than that, I discovered that I genuinely like him. We have the same quirky sense of humor. The same things annoy us. We share, apparently, a quick anger and a sense of justice. I admire his integrity and work ethic, and his journey to reconnect with Basque roots in the very same way I am reconnecting to Cuban roots. You see, even that we have in common – a multi-generational story of separation and exile when his parents, my grandparents, fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War – and he was raised away from the warmth and familiarity of extended family.

Perhaps it is that we share the same wounds. But these wounds are not best tended with sutures and aggressive treatments. They respond to the tender caresses of a mother’s love because they are wounds of the heart.

Our mother, Mary, venerated under the title of Our Lady of Charity in Cuba, responds to this need in her children. Caridad nos Une; Charity unites us. Love unites us.

As a cousin pointed out, we are the same flesh and blood. I was jarred to hear her express our familial bonds in such a way. In a way that immediately evoked the flesh and blood of Christ. I realized what a rich gift I was experiencing – this gift of communion. And how Christ’s gift of himself, through the Eucharist, unites us to him, and because we are His Body, to each other.

I think of that now, and it makes everything better. The Eucharist has always connected me to my distant family all along – beyond geographical and political barriers.

I brought the trophy home with me. My uncle thought I should give it to one of my children. I get it. He doesn’t need the trophy to remember me; he has new memories. And so do I.

Maria Morera Johnson (@bego) teaches at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. Her book,My Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Livewill be released in November. Find her bloghere, and follow her on Facebook.

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