It all started when the doorbell rang and my grandmother allowed Fidel Castro to sweep past her to where my mother lay on a low divan piled high with hand embroidered Nepalese quilts.
The room itself had been chosen for its southerly aspect and a bay window against which a couple of giant fuchsias drooped in bells of pink, white and purple. There were incense stick holders and plastic spray bottles on the carved rosewood table beside the divan. Sandalwood was known for its calming properties but it had not worked, so Nan resorted to orange blossom and lavender water on white towels pressed against my mother’s damp forehead. Whenever Mum passed out (which happened regularly over those three days) Nan attempted to take her to a hospital, but Mum remained adamant. She was going to do this at home. Hadn’t Nan had home births for all eight children? Nan pointed out mildly that she did lose three but nothing would influence my mother to embrace the idea of modern childbirth.
The moment Fidel stepped inside that fragranced room however, Mum stopped screaming. Even though her body continued on its avalanche of pain, she tells me now that it became bearable from that time forward. After all, Fidel was her hero, along with Che and Umberto and Gerry. She forsook all others that day. She dreamed in Cuban and my life was spared. She relaxed and I slipped into the world as Fidel held her hand and filled the room with the smell of Havana. It was 1975 and she was a little delirious. She mixed her metaphors and her music and her countries. When she held me to her breast she could hear the drums and she would do the same again for Fernando. Then she whispered, ‘que no te amare jamas.’
These days, by way of explanation, she says the combination of a long and protracted childbirth as well as the end of the generation of flower children influenced what happened next. My mother’s ability to blend the sublime with the ridiculous is divine.
She also offers the theory that at eighteen one desires to change the world and make an impact. Everyone has a defining moment. Along with Charlotte Bronte, she believes that ‘every joy that life gives must be earned before it is secured; and how hardly earned; those only know who have wrestled for great prizes.’ I tell her that I’ve never had the urge to define the moment or change the world. When your entire life is a statement made by an idealistic parent, you learn to become invisible. To make minimal impact. To not rock the universe. You see the virtue in non-involvement and you make that the guiding principle in your life.
I know lots of people who have never felt the perilous passion of my parents, never picketed outside Parliament House, never touched the wall in Jerusalem or had their hand held by the most famous revolutionary on earth. These people are my friends. They have names like Andre Brink and Alice Munro. I know I shouldn’t be having this conversation with my mother. She does not subscribe to apathy; she wants to stand up and be counted. She wants me to do the same.
So I shrug my shoulders and emit a small, hollow laugh when she asks me if I would rather have been named after a fruit or a plant or a state in America. I must admit Arizona and Indiana have a special appeal but that would break her Cuban heart. She asks me to consider the future fates of Apple Paltrow and Tiger Lily and all the Rivers, Leaves, Dakotas and Montanas who will grow up hating their names. And what about the Chinas and the Indias? Not to mention the androgynous naming of children – Cameron, Vivian, Madison – by their unimaginative parents. Yes, I have to hand it to her; a lack of imagination is not a sin my mother could ever be accused of.
I stop protesting and give in. No point squirming over a passport application.
I was never given to flourishes, either in life or in writing, but I can’t help myself, this time. After all, Fiddian Umberto Castro Kennedy is going to Cuba to meet his father. Finally. And that calls for a little revolutionary flourish.
‘Can you hear the drums Fernando?’
First published in the anthology, Culture is … Australian Stories Across Cultures (2008) edited by Anne-Marie Smith and published by Wakefield Press