This is my mother, Virginia, at the age of 16, standing behind her house at 822 North High Street in Columbus, OH. These days North High is the heart of the city’s hip Short North, but in 1931 it was all family homes and backyard gardens. Standing next to my mother is her dorky boyfriend, with his arm around her waist and his right hand looking like some prehistoric claw. With his round glasses and high waist, I don’t think he had any idea of what he had a hold of, and I doubt that he lasted long.
My mother wanted more, but wasn’t sure know how to get it. Only three years later, after a single year of college, she married a truck driver named Larry Tidball, who moved her to Beaumont, Texas. Things did not go well with Larry, and in 1937 she left him and moved to New York, where her father had found a job at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.
It may seem odd, so many years after the fact, that I’d be matchmaking for my mother. After all, a year after she moved to New York she met my father and soon married him. But I’m afraid that my father, in her hidden heart, was not the kind of man she wanted. Though far from dorky, and truly an admirable guy, he was still somewhat tame: not commanding enough.
Both my parents are now dead—my father died in 2005, my mother in 1972—and I feel free not only to explore their histories but to play around with their lives. That’s what led to my notion of a fictional romance between two actual people: my mother, and the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.
What first triggered the idea was reading, some dozen years ago, that Camilo—a hero and martyr whose giant neon sculpture now faces Che Guevara’s in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución—once worked as a dishwasher at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Actually, I think his job was at some small restaurant out on Long Island, but in my mind I long ago moved the scene to Manhattan. That was where a young-woman-something-like-my-mother might have run across a Cuban dishwasher—a guy who only three years later would be appointed by Fidel as head of the Cuban Army.
And that’s how a novel might get started: a couple of photos, a single surprising bit of history, and a writer’s basic obsession.
That’s Fidel on the right and Camilo, with his Thompson submachine gun, on the left, on the day of their triumphant entry into Havana. That was in January, 1959, and only ten months later Camilo took off from a provincial Cuban airport in a twin-engined Cessna, and disappeared without a trace.