In my dreams of late, I'm always in Cuba searching for my grandfather. The streets and scenes are familiar, from the 1950s Packards to the old men, whose names I know, playing dominoes at makeshift tables on the sidewalks. There is music everywhere. I see the street musicians playing, but the music seems to emanate from somewhere inside of me. I'm reminded now, while writing this, of a line from an Amy Hempel story, one that appears when the protagonist abandons her dying friend in the hospital in favor of a street scene like this, where she can "shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, life, and stay up all night." This is how it is in these dreams.
Certainly my subconscious mind has simply plucked these images from things I've seen about Cuba, but I can't help but wonder if geography can be encoded into a person's genes, if our sense of home isn't entirely of our own choosing.
I felt a distinct sense of homecoming while visiting the Tetons for the first time last summer, felt the certainty of memories that were no longer present in my consciousness but were rooted in some place more primal. I knew a part of me belonged to that landscape. Maybe this is how it feels to encounter a soul mate, for those inclined to believe in such things, to immediately think: I know you as intimately as I know myself. I find myself longing for that landscape, homesick for a place that holds something fundamental to my sense of being, a sense of home or of homeland, whether or not those things still exist. Whether or not they ever existed outside of my imagination at all.
The Welsh have a term for this feeling--hiraeth--as do the Portuguese, whose yearning is expressed in the word saudade. Saudade is imbued in the Fado music that is typical of the region, and I can recall, many years ago now, falling for a singer at a Lisbon nightclub, briefly mistaking the longing in his Fado song for love. Silly thing, in retrospect. I was young--barely 22. Call it a mistranslation of the heart. But love and this longing--this hiraeth and saudade--are inextricably linked.
What is love but a longing to think of another person as home?
There's a person who evokes this feeling of hiraeth in me, a man whose Southern drawl has settled over time into a pleasant lilt, a cadence that connects me to a place that is mine through my father's inheritance, one that I am often desperate for, without good reason or explanation. The place itself was never mine. It was the setting of my father's story, a place for personal mythologies. Yet here is this person who knows the landscape of these stories just the same. I am all at once homesick and at home in his presence.
And I am homesick in these dreams of Cuba. My grandfather never spoke to me about his boyhood spent there. I have no stories to root me in that place, cannot claim it for my own any more than I can claim my father's memories of North Carolina as my own. Nevertheless, it is my home in these dreams. Hiraeth and saudade need not be tied to a birthplace or a landscape that is familiar. The yearning stems, as it always does, from imagining a life that might have been.
I never find my grandfather in these dreams. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing there except for wandering, buzzing with life. It’s a comforting place. The waking world is less familiar when I ease out of sleep, disoriented by my husband's sudden presence after days away. The scene becomes clearer over time. I wake to a home—a real home—built on the accretion of small things: a child's eager embrace. An unprompted story. Laughter that swells into tears. In the map of my life, home is here. Still, wrapped up in all of this is the strange nostalgia for the idea of home. How can a person feel nostalgia for the present moment, for the things that can be held close? It's curious. I hold this life with a care reserved for borrowed things. Just as it is in my dreams, I already know that none of this is for keeps.