Monday, June 14, 2010

Havana, Cuba and Panama

Havana, Cuba
I am told that Havana, Cuba is still one of the most attractive cities in Latin America. Havana was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in the New World and had one of the most magnificent natural harbors. Despite periods of great instability and a turbulent history, Havana grew substantially since it was the stopping point for most of those traveling to the New World a unique exchange of ideas existed. In 1868 the Cuban War of Independence brought a halt to the modernization of the city but the war ended in 1898 when the US intervened and a change from European influence to American influence began. In 1902, the republic was established and Havana started to blossom again. In 1940 Havana became a desirable tourist destination for Americans who were looking to escape the winter and enjoy the warm Cuban climate. The revolution in 1959 brought about tremendous social changes for the country. Although Cuba is one of the last bastions for Communism in the world, it should really be admired for its natural beauty, its rich history, and its unique urban architecture. (summarized from Llilian Llanes' book Havana Then and Now)
The Republic of Panama

The southernmost of the Central American nations, Panama is south of Costa Rica and north of Colombia. The Panama Canal bisects the isthmus at its narrowest and lowest point, allowing passage from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina and is marked by a chain of mountains in the west, moderate hills in the interior, and a low range on the east coast. There are extensive forests in the fertile Caribbean area.

By August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal was officially opened by the passing of the SS Ancon. At the time, no single effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life. The American expenditures from 1904 to 1914 totaled $352, 000,000, far more than the cost of anything built by the US Government up to that time. Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000. It took 34 years from the initial effort in 1880 to actually open the Canal in 1914. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost in both French and American efforts.

To read more about the Panama Canal see this website:

White Family History
Somewhere around 1923/24 my maternal grandfather, Harold Somerset White, was in Tela Honduras working for the United Fruit Company when he was invited to a friend's house party. My grandmother, Martha Bell lived in Atlanta, GA but had gone to Tela to attend the same house party. The two met and carried on a long distance courtship for five years until finally marrying in Atlanta, GA in 1928 and moved to Honduras so grandad could continue his job with the UFC. Here is the time line as best as I can remember from my interview with my parents:
  • 1930/31, the White family was transferred from Honduras to Colon, Panama.
  • 1932 on January 1, my mother Martha Bell White was born. Martha Bell, or MB for short, had dual citizenship in both the US and Panama/Cuba.
  • 1942 they moved to Havana, Cuba in a suburb called Miramar
  • 1946 mom's brother, Chiefie ( Harold Somerset White, Jr)
  • 1949-1953 Mom attended Wesleyan College in Macon, GA but came home to Havana in the summers and then to Panama after the transfer.
  • 1949 Dad arrived from Hartford, CN to Havana to spend his summer after prep school and before entering college. He and his brother Ted lived in a fully furnished rented apartment that their dad was keeping while he worked the 3 years for the Cuban/Venezuelan Oil Co. The first apartment was in a very exclusive neighborhood called El Vedado and the second one was in Miramar. Both Dad and Ted attended summer school at the University of Havana.
  • 1949, June/July Mom and Dad met at a beach party at the exclusive Biltmore Beach Club in Havana given by Joan Condon Bear.
  • 1950 the White family was transferred back to Panama to a place called Cristobal, a port city that resides at the entrance of Limon Bay that leads to the entrance to the eastern side of the Panama Canal, and the Barnett family move back to Hartford. Mom and Dad spent the summer of 1950 dating seriously while attending summer school in the morning and sailing and attending beach parties in their free time. During the winter, Mom and Dad wrote each other and carried on a long distance relationship.
  • 1952 Dad went back to Panama for the summer and stayed one month in order to visit the White family and continue courting Mom.
  • 1953 Dad graduated from Trinity College and asked Mom to marry him.
  • 1953, September 9, Mom and Dad were married in Colon, Panama in an Episcopalian Church. Ted could not be there due to his military commitments, so grandad Barnett was Dad's best man.
Mom's first house in Colon, Panama was a wood house on stilts and was very close to the water.
The house in suburban Miramar was a little, white suburban house. They had hired help: a laundress named Beatrice and a cook named Gladys. The second house located in Cristobal, Panama was a very nice house with a back yard that backed up to the jungle much like our houses back up to woods. The jungle contained an assortment of wild animals like iguanas, black panthers, monkeys, land crabs, exotic birds, boas, and poisonous snakes. Grandmom and Grandad White owned a beautiful fresh water aquarium and raised budgies(parakeets). The jungle is where my grandmother gathered orchids and propagated them in order to sell them to local florists as well as making an exhibit out of them. They also owned a pet parrot named Lorita. She spoke Spanish and mastered the neighbors' high pitched laugh and was constantly cackling and shouting "fuego, fuego (fire, fire)!"

To me, Havana and Panama have always seemed like the home away from home. Although I have never physically visited these places, I vicariously enter these countries through my parents' stories. I hope to visit Havana as soon as Americans will be allowed to enter the country. I know I will visit Panama one of these days and trace the steps of my parents. I have read many articles explaining that it is a great place to retire. We'll see what becomes of this for me and my husband.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

pg. 106

Memories are like a series of bookmarks that we use to jump back and forth through the text of our lives, returning again and again to the past events that we hold on to dearly. It simply takes one small trigger: a whiff of something, a color, a sound, a picture.....and then suddenly the pages of our memories turn quickly to that exact spot in our distant lives and we are miraculously thrust into the past. We can taste it, hear it, smell it, see it just as if we were still there caught in time warp. As I get older, this seems to be happening to me more and more.

It was towards the end of a very long 17 credit semester (what in the world was I thinking?). Things were winding down but the work load was not. I had so many papers, projects, power points, and exams due practically all at the same time that my head was spinning constantly. Fortunately, besides gardens, libraries are my next favorite place to be. I like to research topics the old fashioned way by actually going to the library and reading a book to find my information. This is where I found myself when the unsuspecting bookmark of my brain triggered a memory. Who would have thought that researching bryophytes (mosses) could lead to such a thing?

In order to conserve space and pack as many books into this particular library, the book stacks are intriguingly arranged on movable electronic tracks. This is a brilliant idea! Not only can the library hold more books but the nerdy-library-researcher can entertain herself by moving the stacks simply by pushing a little green arrow! Realizing that I really do need to get out more since I am too easily entertained by this, I finally got to the correct stack. Feeling a little like Moses, the stacks parted and I walked down the isle in search of the bryophyte section which to my astonishment was huge. I was in search of one book in particular and with my expert elementary school Dewey Decimal System training, I was able to find it quickly but something else caught my eye. The book that I needed happened to be the last one in the moss category but right next to it, in another category, was a very familiar book titled Perennial Garden. This book sits in my own library at home, but I have not looked at it for a long time. I pulled it off of the shelf and held in my hands. When I opened it, seemingly having a mind of its own, it opened to page 106. To the ordinary person, this page boasts a lovely picture of a weathered fence line adorned with a beautiful perennial border. To the Barnett family, it is glimpse of our home and our childhood.

My mother was excited with the news that a young couple would be coming to our house to interview her and take pictures of her gardens. They were writing a user friendly book about growing a perennial garden and, not surprisingly, their research led them to my mother. How exciting! As it turned out, the picture on page 106 was one of two pictures of our garden that actually made it into the book. No matter, mom was thrilled and her name, her quotes, and her garden were portrayed. The book was published in 1985. Fast forward to 2010 and here I stand with the book in my hands with it opened to the very page of my childhood home. It only takes a glimpse and I hear the clang of the horseshoes as Dad makes one of his incredible ringers. I see Mom bending over in her colorful bathing suit, with flip-flop clad feet and wearing yellow Platex dish gloves as her garden gloves while she tends to the perennial bed along the fence that surrounds our pool. I inhale the heavy muggy air and the sweet scent of wild honeysuckle fills my nose and lungs. Ahhh, how beautiful the perennial border looks this year with the blue Echinops, and the golden Heliopsis. The Hemerocallis and the Lythrum are blooming so it must be July. My stomach growls as I catch a whiff of the turkey that is smoking on the grill. Dad has been feeding the grill with wet hickory chips all day and the succulent aroma of his smoked turkey is driving us all crazy with home.

I put the bookmark back in the pages of my memory and closed it along with the book. I placed it back on the shelf before the embarrassing flood of tears came. I will allow them to privately flow later when I can close myself in my bedroom and look at page 106 again and quietly reminisce.