The Birthday Cake

George W. Cordero
 
Issue XXV - August 11, 2004
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A sample imageIt is uncommon for 2 friends who are male to relate a true story from their life that exposes anything beyond the superficial. In the course of talking about our fathers, my friend related to me the story that became the basis of  The Birthday Cake. While he spoke, my friend became increasingly emotional, and by the end of his story he was in tears. I was so moved by it that I asked him if I could retell his father’s life in the form of a short story. He said he would be very happy if I did so. In order to try to convey the same amount of passion in which my friend told this story, I decided to write it in the first person.

The Birthday Cake

My father's name is Antonio. Born on March 20, 1926 in Havana, Cuba. His father, Francisco, was a Spaniard from the southern provinces; his mother, Helena, was of Greek–French descent. His parents were of what was at that time called the ‘landed class’. Neither blue-blooded nor peasant, they belonged to the smallest economic class that existed in Spain at that time – the middle class. His parents emigrated to Cuba and established a small, but profitable business.

By the age of 26 my father had graduated from the University of Havana with an unlikely pair of degrees in both Agriculture and Theology. My father was one of 6 children – born last; he was the ‘baby’. My mother tells me that my father was quite the dreamer and lacked any sense of being practical. She complains that he wasted far too much time writing poems, taking photographs, and dancing in jazz clubs. Ask her why she married this impractical man and she won’t answer – however, look closely and you may notice a sly little smile on her face. According to the family stories, the single most distinguishing character trait that he exhibited was a sense of profound joy. I have heard stories that describe a hopeless romantic; serenading pretty girls, writing anguished love poems, and irrepressibly happy.

They say his natural joy of living was exceeding only by his pride. Antonio was extremely proud - of his family, his education, and the successful small business that he had built from the ground up. Nevertheless, there was an endless procession of projects he was always involved in. He spent all his money in a never-ending stream of projects, " I will be a photographer – I will teach at the University – I will publish a book – I will buy a sugar plantation in the country, I will …."

He sounds like a fascinating man, and I wish I could have met that man – but I never did. In my lifetime the Antonio I have described existed only in the memories of the older family members. The reality of the man I knew was of a pessimistic, joyless, and hardened man. You see, I was born in Philadelphia, the son of 2 immigrant Cubans who had fled in terror from the horrors of Castro’s communist revolution. Furthermore, although my father (age 77) still resides on this earth, according to my mother, the man that she married was long ago dead - murdered in April of 1961. The story that follows, including the dialogue, is based on the accounts of my mother and sister.

After Castro’s take-over of Cuba, my father and his entire family had most their property and all of their businesses expropriated by the state. In Matanzas he had a small piece of property that he had formerly rented out to tourists -  he was allowed to keep it for now, so he moved there with his wife and 2 children. Because of his education, the Party offered my father a high position as the Director of Agricultural Science at the University of Havana – he refused. The problem was not the position itself, but the mandatory requirement that he join the Communist Party. During this period of time my father made his living as a common laborer working at a chemical plant. Still, his sense of hope and joy was undiminished in any way. The family could not understand how he could be so happy and optimistic in the face of all they had already suffered. My mother relates that he was absolutely sure that Castro would not last, that a democracy would be established, religious freedoms restored and property returned to their legal owners. He would lecture the family how Castro’s revolution was a, "blessing in disguise", a chance for Cuba to finally, "find its soul". What occurred that April were two events that may seem disconnected, but I firmly believe are integral to understanding what happened to my father.

My sister arrived home from school as usual, except this time with a note from her teacher. The teacher wanted to speak to my father in person about his decision not to let her join the ‘youth group’. At that time the Party had established a Communist Youth League called the ‘Pioneers’, a perversion of the Boy or Girl Scouts that resembled the Hitler Youth far more than the Scouts. In those days membership was not yet mandatory – but there was barely a child who was not a member. My sister (aged 8) desperately wanted to join and participate in the hikes, field trips, and writing competitions. Besides, she and 2 other students were the only ones in class without a uniform and bright red scarf. They were forced to sit at the back of the class and were unable to participate in all the class activities. The fact that my sister was the finest writer in her class had the teachers very much wanting her to enter the essay contest. The students would write an essay on any ‘hero of the revolution’ whom they liked. The best essay would be submitted to compete against the best from other schools. The child who won the contest would receive a ribbon from a high Party official, and the school would receive public recognition.

When my father went to meet with her teacher, he found that a member of the military police accompanied the teacher. The policeman never spoke; he just sat there silently. The teacher tried to convince my father to allow her to join – my father would not relent. When asked why he would not allow it, he would only repeat that he did not feel it was in her best interest. When asked, why it was not in her best interest, he replied that his reasons were personal. The teacher never threatened him, nor indicated in any way that the matter was of any great importance. The next day my father was fired from the chemical plant. Within a few weeks the family fell into state of abject poverty.

Shortly afterwards, my sister's birthday was due. Naturally, the birthday parties of the past were out of the question - there would be no family gathering and no showering of gifts. My older brother (aged 7 at the time) mercilessly taunted his sister that she would get absolutely nothing on her birthday. My sister tells me that she remembers bursting into tears and asking Father if this were true. She says he picked her up in his arms and said, "Don’t worry princess, tomorrow I will buy you a great big cake with candles and everything, and you will have a birthday party." My mother immediately began an argument with my father, saying he shouldn't say such things. My sister remembers that while they argued, she kept yelling at her brother, " See, see … I will have a party tomorrow, Papi said so!"

Early the next morning off my father went, determined to find a way to earn enough money to keep his promise true. He walked miles, stopping at every shop and house offering to do any sort of labor they needed for just a little money. Unfortunately for him the people willing to help him were so poor that they could not offer him any work, and those who could offer him work were all Party members. Having been ‘unofficially’ blacklisted after the school incident, these people were either afraid to offer him work or despised him as a ‘gusano’ ("gusano": label placed on all persons who would not support the Party ideology; literally translated, "worm"). Unknown to him, the refusals stemmed from far more than the school incident. He walked that town and countryside the entire day, pleading and even begging.

My sister relates that she was sitting on the steps in front of the house when he got home that night. She remember he said,  "Daughter, I tried everything I could. If I could sell my own blood I would. I have failed and I have nothing I can give you (pause) – all I can offer you is to say, I love you." With that, he opened his arms to embrace her, but she ran into the house crying. My mother says that the look on his face was one she had never seen on his face before - the look of hopelessness and despair, the look of a completely defeated man. She tells me that in her heart she believes that that morning was the last time she saw the husband that she married; whistling as he walked down the road, filled with a that ever-present determination and irrepressible joy while on his way to make his promise come true.

That night, the night of my sister’s birthday, April 30 of 1961, 4 uniformed men brandishing machine guns burst into our home and took my father away. Apparently my father’s brother had been spreading pamphlets that advocated open elections and religious freedom. My father was implicated with his brother’s activities, and sent to a ‘re-education camp’ on the Isle of Pines. Nine months later he was released. My mother says that the man who returned from that camp was completely shattered, both physically and mentally - the only remnant of his former self being his determination to get his family out of Cuba, even if it cost all their lives in trying to do so.

To this day no one knows what was done to my father during his ‘re-education’. Even my mother says he never spoke of it, nor would answer any questions about it. What I do find strange is the fact that Mother considers the ‘Birthday Cake’ incident to be the moment that he was broken, and not the ensuing events. Strange, in that they had already suffered a series of tragedies, so the birthday cake story although sad, is a comparatively mild episode considering all that had already happened (their property taken, all their possessions sold for food, my mother's brother executed, and endless other indignities). Yet while I cannot explain it, and never lived any of it, somehow I think she is right. There is something in that story, when I connect it to the face of the man I know as my father, that makes sense to me.

In the fall of 1962 my parents escaped from Cuba. 11 months later I was born, the first person in our family to be an American. Once in America my father provided a stable low-middle class life for all of us. He has since retired from a factory job he held for nearly 30 years. It was years before I could understand or empathize with this brooding and harsh man. It took the discovery of my own life’s purpose, and the profound sense of happiness and peace that are derived from that, before I could fully appreciate how devastating it must be for a man to have these taken from him.

Tomorrow I will be visiting my father, and I intend to tell him something I should have said long ago. I will say, "Thanks Dad, for the man you once were, and for the courage to save your family. I wish I could return to you what they took away those many years ago, but I can’t – all I can offer you is to say, I love you."

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