Today is an anniversary of sorts. It is my first ride on a Greyhound bus since I first rode one in nineteen sixty four on my way to reunite with my parents after spending nearly three years by myself in this country. That bus ride from Santa Rosa, California to Miami, Florida, was close to five days long. I was full of the love and memories of my new home in California, of my new American life.
I think when people imagine the reunions of the Pedro Pan children and their parents, they have a mental picture of children running into their parents’ arms, a sense of the joy felt by each family member finally coming together after a long absence. And perhaps that was the case for many Pedro Pan children; but not for all.
I have been told about my carefree childhood days, although when you are an only child among many adults I am not so sure days are really care free. People didn’t sing and laugh much in my family, They had intellectual discussions, listened to classical music, and bore the scars of their lives close to the surface. I was aware of their psychological pain from the time I was a small child, although at the time I couldn’t name it. It was the background music of my growing up years, that thankfully were also spent in wonderful schools with competent and loving teachers and exceptional friends, many of whom grace my life to this day.
By the time I was twelve when Fidel arrived in Havana triumphantly claiming the success of his revolution, my childhood was a thing of the past. A man, tortured by Batista’s henchmen and rescued somehow by my father and his friends, had died in my bed. I stayed at my grandmother’s house during the process, but not before being greeted by the sight of a bloated and stinking almost -corpse appearing to float on my frilly white delicately embroidered bedspread on a Tuesday afternoon when I arrived home from school a few years earlier. A bomb had exploded underneath my bedroom window shortly after that. I slept through the blast, but woke up to find my parents standing by my bed in full alert to make sure when I woke I did not move a muscle until they determined if any shards of the glass from my window had escaped their search. The whispers of revolution and later counter revolution, had lulled me to sleep for years, as had at times the endless arguments between my parents, interesting but complex and difficult people for a child to decipher.
I approached my Peter Pan exile with the sense of adventure and thoughts of Huck Finn, the sensitivity and innocence of Ann Frank, and the faith of Saint Francis of Assissi.
It took a while to adjust to what I refer to as the land of the polka dot bikini. The land where children appeared never to have taken a geography lesson or heard of pain. There were no young men talking about politics, these young men were all about their cars and motorcycles, all about fun. The girls were all about boys. Leave it to Beaver gave me a picture of family life totally foreign to my psyche, and to my heart.
But I adjusted. A short time later I was on Venetian Island with my friend Ani, listening to the top forty on my transistor radio, and dancing on Miami Beach. I was flirting with a boy named Nelson and anticipating episodes of Route 66. Suddenly free, superficiality came easy, along with an absolute thirst for a new “normal”.
Boarding school was a God send. I was welcome and loved by my roommates and friends, and the Thomas, Klein, Violetti and Peters families gave me a glimpse of a family life I took to like a duck to water. Despite the occasional: “Cuba? Do your people live in trees?” I was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the girls who were now my new family, and the nuns who cared for us so diligently. It was in boarding school, singing with The Flat Four, earning a place in the National Honor Society, sharing family life on my weekends out of school with Rex and Anna Mae Thomas and my newfound “sister” Linda, that I learned to laugh more often, to take life more lightly, and to cherish the feeling of being held dear. Little by little, the serious burdened girl gave way to the almost care free American teenager.
Of course I thought of my family, but back then there was no internet, only snail mail, and thinking of my father in a mined prison that could blow up at any moment, of my mother prostrated with grief in a bed surrounded by holy cards, my grandmother without my grandfather at her side, well, it all seemed so terribly far away. The months turned into years, and looking back at a world that was out of my reach forever filled me with pain. So I took refuge in the words of Simon and Garfunkel’s song: “And a rock feels no pain, and and island never cries.” and thought I insulated myself pretty well.
A telegram had foreshadowed my exile, and now a telegram arrived again. It was short. “Your father and I have arrived in Miami. You are coming home.”
My father was serving a twenty year sentence in prison. How did he and my mother arrive in Miami? What home was I going to? I was home! Oh my God! The tears began to flow as Mamma and Pappa T looked on, thinking they were tears of joy. They rejoiced for me while the first notes of the dreaded background music began to play in my heart.
As soon as the school year was over, I boarded a Greyhound bus much like the one I sit in today, a million miles away in time and place from the telegram day.
I remember the dread and anticipation, the cute soldier that sat next to me but not his name. Days of waiting for the bus doors to open at the final destination, of wondering what I would find. Who I would find. Who I would have to become to disguise my foray into American teenagehood.
Finally, there I was. There they were. I picked up my small suitcase from the overhead compartment and walked towards the steps, descended onto the pavement, looked for familiar faces, and found them. But they did not immediately find me. Not until I said, “Mami, it’s me”.
I got to go back to Santa Rosa, CA for another year, a year I spent in full appreciation of every moment I spent in the company of those I came to love so much. Then I returned to my parents, their child, now almost a woman, all of us so changed by time and experiences none of us had shared. My father had his memories of prison. He kept them to himself for the most part. He had developed an addiction to ice cream in exile after yearning for it daily in his cell. My mother was sadder, almost bitter. Who knows what her life was like alone with a family that never quite welcomed her wholeheartedly. And I had my own memories to cherish that didn’t include them. Casualties of revolutions, of exile, we were like altered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that could never quite fit together again.
I have spoken with other Pedro Pan children ridden with undeserved guilt, feeling like they betrayed their parents in some way. But it wasn’t betrayal, it was adaptation. It was what species have been doing for eons. Survival.
I am an hour away from Portland now. I spent the weekend with my friends in Jacksonville, Oregon, who welcomed me with love into their midst. I took a Healing Touch class for a day, got to hear my precious friend Cantrell Maryott Driver and her friend Jacqueline_Ambrose sing at an almost private concert, got to embrace some of my Chartres sisters one more time. I met new friends. I am so blessed! This bus is taking me to family and to love. I am going home. The people on the bus don’t look much different. There is even a young soldier among us. I can’t tell if he’s cute because all I can see is his youth. He looks like a boy playing dress up traveling to his own unknown destiny along with all the people on this bus that time seems not to have touched.
It was such a gift to read of your time with my family in Santa Rosa. You were a very special part of our family and it was difficult for us to see you go back to Miami. I don’t know if Mom and Dad ever realized that those tears you shed were not tears of joy. I know they always considered you their third daughter. Thanks for sharing.
Love and hugs,
They did Mary Ann, many years later during an unforgettable heart to heart. Linda always knew. But life is like that. My time with your precious family taught me much about love, even about loving imperfect people like myself. My story is not unique. Many of the Pedro Pan children shared my experience of finding it difficult to reintegrate into families of origin. But I dare say not many had the privilege of experiencing the unconditional love and acceptance that I found in your family’s heart. Thank you for reading my blog, thank you so much for your heart felt words. Linda and I used to take your daughter Vicky for walks in her stroller and dream that some day we would be as beautiful as you, and find a man like John to love us. Bet you didn’t know that.
Love and hugs to you, and a million blessings from this little sister who thinks of you and all of you often.
I took many Greyhound bus rides from Dallas, Texas to Miami, Florida during the years that I was a student at Ursuline Academy in Dallas, 1961-1966. At first I would visit my older brothers and my aunt and uncle who lived in Miami. There was a cute young soldier on a trip, a cute marine on another with whom I corresponded for a while, and a college student from Pakistan who came to visit me once.
Eventually my parents arrived in 1964. I had had a happy childhood in Cuba and missed my parents tremendously, I was glad to reunite with them after the three years we were apart. And yet, in the midst of that happiness there was an unanticipated feeling that has always been difficult to describe, a hint of an emptiness that I could never explain. The analogy with the jigsaw puzzle pieces that no longer fit comes close to explain it. My parents were back, but childhood did not return with them.
After my parents arrived, they stayed in Miami and I continued my studies at Ursuline Academy until I graduated, a gift for which I have always been grateful: After an additional year and a half away at college I eventually returned home to my parents, and there we re-adapted again and I lived with them for many years before I eventually married and moved away.
“My parents were back, but childhood did not return with them.” How insightful, Elena! I am sure that was a theme in many reunions. For some of my friends not only did childhood not return with their parents, but they had to become responsible for parents who could not speak the language and could not provide for themselves. One of my cousins gave up the dream to become a doctor so that he could go to work at seventeen years of age to support his parents. A true act of love.
I was very lucky to reunite with my grandmother and my godmother Celia. My father worked hard to get the rest of his family to freedom and managed to do so only a couple of years after arriving here with nothing. I admire both my parents for their willingness to work hard and rebuild their lives here. They loved their grandchildren dearly and even paid for them to go to private high schools to get their education.
Thank you, as always, for your well thought out and insightful contributions to the blog.
Oh my friend, it was so special to see you and now to hear of your life a bit. Much love Cantrell
It was special indeed, Cantrell! One of those occasions to hold in my memory and close to my heart. My love to you.
Every story of a displaced child touches my heart deeply and I feel like I also lived part of it.
I also took a Greyhound bus to reunite with the parents I had not seen for two years. I rode for three days from Albuquerque to Gainesville, Fl. They arrived in Gainesville, also by bus, two days later. I was thrilled to be reunited with them, my heart barely stayed in my chest while I waited for their bus to arrive. My whole being had been focused of getting to that reunion. My Foster family was kind and caring, but we never bonded.
What I remember most about the reunion was how small my parents looked when they emerged from the bus. I suppose part of that impression was due to the huge size of the bus next to them, but perhaps because during the separation my memory pictured them like I saw them when I was little. We cried and hugged and cried and hugged and it was a very happy reunion, only marred by my brother’s absence, since he had not been released from the custody of the Catholic Charities due to his age, and remained with the Foster family until the paper-work was settled. He came two months later. He had left Cuba at 11 and shorter than our parents, and when they saw him again he was almost 14 and taller than all of us. We’ve never spoken about what he felt at that moment. I know he was happy.
The shock came a few days later as we sorted out our roles within the family. We were staying with friends and it took nearly 6 months before papi had a permanent job. I was the first to find a job and became the sole breadwinner of the family for about a month, then my mom began to work at a factory, the first time ever she worked outside the home, my brother went to school and got in trouble constantly. That’s when I realized the magnitude of the change. I had been my brother’s “parent” for two years and was counting on turning him back over to our parents, but because of the language and cultural barriers, I had to continue to be involved in everything to do with him. I was able to begin college, but had to work all along to help the family get started. However, even if those were difficult years due to the struggle to begin life anew in the US, I remember them as very rewarding years. It was many years later that I realized what a gap there was in my transition from girl to woman. And also, for the rest of my life I was driven by the determination of never separating from my parents again.
Many variations of the Pedro Pan story, but one thing we all experienced: an abrupt ending of childhood and a void in our lives that never quite filled again.
Thank you for your comment, dear Yoli. Your story never fails to touch my heart and I am sure it will touch many others. You are a good and noble spirit, my dear friend.
This is a beautiful story. I didn’t take a Greyhound to reunite with my mother and aunt. My brother and I took the Chicago “L” to move in with them at their Brynn Marr area small apt. We were ecstatic to see them again;however, I share the same feelings of trying to “fit” as the piece of the puzzle we were creating as a reunited family, minus my dad. In my case I had to assume the head of household position alongside my mother and listen to her guidance, since she didn’t speak English. But I gladly embarked in my new experience, since we were lucky to be alive and living in the land of Freedom, which is the United States of America.
Thanks for visiting, Emy. That not quite fitting feeling seems to be what resonated the most with Pedro Pans. It must have been doubly hard in the face of having lost your father so violently in Cuba. So many stories!
Dear Adriannne, I could go on for hours reading your amazing stories written so vividly as if I was reliving them with you, you have had an amazing interesting life…I became interested in your blog as I started to research on your writting skills and books written. I got to you thru Ana Maria de Leon…Will continue reading your stories in your blog another night…I fortunately did not go thru any of this things with the Cuba regimen since my Father had an amazing vision and took the entire family out of Cuba before Castro. That is another story to tell! Nila Victoria Fernandez! When did you meet Ana?