I often hear people complain about their mothers. But I'd celebrate if all my mother did was skewer me with advice and bore me with anecdotes. I think anyone who hasn't had to bail her mother out of jail cells full of demonstrators is lucky. Anyone who can guiltlessly utter a cynicism or consort with an occasional Republican is lucky. My mother once organized a petition drive to oust the man of my dreams from office. (Needless to say, that cooled the romance.) And she'd objected to every job I'd held since graduating from law school -- except the ones that didn't pay enough to live on. Even now that I'm a sole practitioner there's no convincing her I'm not "holding up the capitalist structure." But the capper, as far as I'm concerned, was last year, when my mother flew to Cuba with a bevy of gray-haired brigadistas, then failed to return with them.
When fourteen sweet and unpretentious women dedicated to not hugging their children with nuclear arms filed off the plane, I could tell by their faces that something was wrong. Global Exchange and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom had, by natural selection, assembled an ecstatic group prepared to bliss out on revolution. The women should have been flushed with the rapture of connection, they should have had that noble Dances with Revolutionaries look. Instead, they looked worried and confused. And members of WILPF rarely look confused. They are the Jewish mothers of politics, ready to chicken-soup the whole third world. So I knew something had gone wrong. But, foolishly, I thought maybe they'd been disillusioned. I thought maybe something had cracked their rose-colored lenses.
I should have known better. I'd accompanied Mother to an itinerary meeting filled with women who couldn't stop exclaiming about Cuba's excellent schools and health care, the warmth of its people, and the fact that no racial inequality existed there. My mild question about political prisoners provoked a temper tantrum about our CIA-backed press and the hypocrisy of blockading Cuba while maintaining relations with governments of torturers. I followed up -- at considerable risk to my mother's reputation -- with some particulars about a recently jailed poet. Until her sudden fall from favor, she'd been relentlessly trotted forth as an epitome of the Cuban spirit. Could a repressive regime produce a world-class poet? Castro argued.
"A perfect example of distortion by a biased press," one of the Fidelistas sniffed. "When we asked our Cuban hosts about that, they explained that since the U.S. is waging war on Cuba, certain things the poet did were tantamount to treason."
I let the war on Cuba slide. "What things?"
"Well, she was talking to foreign journalists." The woman's voice was hushed with disapproval. "She was leafleting."
Leafleting. Any woman in the room would run into a burning house to save her stash of WILPF pamphlets. Most would sacrifice family photos before they'd let their leaflets burn.
My mother poked me in the ribs. "You have to understand their context, Baby -- their whole economy is being ruined by our government! They have a right to try and stop that."
Leaflets were powerful weapons, all right: look how WILPF's tracts had brought the Republicans to their knees.
Since that evening, I'd been inundated with alternative-press articles on Cuba. Mother's friends couldn't bear to have me think bad thoughts about the place. The regular press, on the other hand, was gleefully monitoring the collapse of the Cuban economy. See, it said, socialism doesn't work. Never mind that Castro's "final hour" had dragged on for a decade.
Anyway, the WILPF women did not look righteous as they de-planed -- not a good sign. They huddled together, stopping short when they saw me. Also not a good sign.
"We had to leave," one of them blurted. "Because of visas and other commitments and things. I'm so sorry."
My first thought was they were apologizing for not having defected. "Of course," I murmured. "Where's my mother?"
"We wanted to wait for her, we really did."
By now they stood close enough for me to smell their cheek powder.
"She's still there? Why? What's she doing?"
I was suddenly flanked, motherly hands on my back.
"We don't know. Last night she went off on her own and didn't come back to the hotel. We looked everywhere we could think of this morning."
Sarah Swann, the alpha granny, added, "Our Cuban hosts were so upset. They've made finding her their top priority."
I'll bet. My mother was not a cannon you'd want loose in a controlled society.
"I know you have some funny views about Cuba from the Western media," Sarah continued, "but, honestly, it's such an open society. The one thing you can count on is that there's no monkey business from the government. It's not like other countries -- ones our government supports -- where people get disappeared."
I sat on a hard plastic airport lounge chair. I was quickly going numb. My mother had "disappeared" from my life many times, getting arrested for pouring blood on draft files, attacking missile nose cones, blocking access to nuclear power plants, and, more recently, driving chainsaw-demolishing spikes into old-growth redwoods. My government was committed to arresting her, usually at her insistence. I didn't see why a foreign government should be more charitable.
I looked up at the concerned faces of women who resembled my mother: spry seniors with uncolored hair and intelligent eyes. I took comfort. Like them, my mother believed in the Cuban revolution. She'd see their militarism -- anything they did, including jailing of dissidents and polluting of their coastline -- as a pitiable result of U.S. policies. She would save her civil disobedience for her return to this country.
"No," I said finally. "I can't think of any reason for the Cuban government to bother her."
"Oh no! They're wonderful there, you can't imagine."
Unless you're a homosexual. Unless you leaflet.
But Mother would have agreed with these women. She would -- for once! -- have made no ideological waves. So where was she?
"The crime rate is very, very low there," Sarah consoled me. "If you're thinking she might have been...attacked."
The thought had certainly crossed my mind.
On the other hand, I could imagine Mother meandering off with newfound friends and missing her plane. In which case, maybe she'd already turned up.
At worst, how difficult would it be to find a pale-skinned blond American in Cuba?
Famous last words.
Copyright © 1998 by Lia Matera
An Earl Swagger Novel
An Earl Swagger Novel
Attorney Willa Jansson’s mother has never balked at breaking the law, especially not for a good cause. So when Willa learns her mother has flouted federal regulations and gone off to Cuba, she figures it's just a harmless pilgrimage to lefty Graceland. But when her mother doesn’t return with the rest of her peacenik tour group, Willa fears her mother’s bleeding heart may finally have gotten her into more trouble than she can get herself out of.
But when Willa risks her career and passport by rushing to Cuba to retrace her mother’s steps, she finds that nothing there is quite as it seems. Following clues to neighborhoods tourists never see, through secret tunnels beneath the street, and into the finest luxury hotels, Willa is manipulated, misled, and nearly arrested. And in the meantime, newfound reporter friends—or are they CIA agents?—disappear as suddenly and inexplicably as her mother did. In a deadly game of cat and mouse, Willa follows her mother’s trail from Havana to Mexico City, from California back to Havana…all the while keeping barely one step ahead of two angry governments and at least one ruthless killer.