HAVANA — While in Cuba on assignment to cover Fidel Castro's health, U.S.-Cuban relations and the politically complicated efforts to restore Ernest Hemingway's home, I took some time for a more personal mission and was quite moved by the goodwill of the people I met along the way.
My wife, who is Cuban-American, asked me to try to locate her childhood home in a village about two hours from Havana. Her family moved from there to the Cuban capital in 1960, after the revolution. She then emigrated to the United States alone in 1970, returning only once, in 1980, to retrieve her mother and two brothers during the Mariel boatlift. Quite understandably, her memory of the place had faded a bit.
One of her brothers knew the name of the street where the house was located, but not the address. My wife remembered that it was somewhere between a church and a social club, and had decorative bars over the windows — along with most every other house in the village, it turned out.
I arrived in town with Felipe Leon, a Cuban colleague and friend. Asking around, we quickly found the now-rundown street, which is many blocks long. We also found an old church, and what appeared to be a former social club — with lots of small homes between them.
I began taking pictures of every house, just in case. Several people walking by said they never knew my wife's family. But then I noticed an old man watching us closely from across the street.
When asked, the man said he wasn't sure if he knew the family but was most eager to help with the search. He walked me down the street to the home of an older lady, but she didn't remember, either. Then, he took me next door and called to the women there to come outside. And that's when it all came together.
Frozen in time
This woman not only knew the family, she knew the house. Several neighbors who joined us eagerly confirmed that it was that pink stucco one near the corner.
The old man couldn't wait to take me there, but first I faced lots of questions from the others about the family in the United States. I pulled out a cell phone, dialed home and had my wife answer the questions herself — 46 years after she moved away. It was an incredible moment.
Finally, we moved on and made it to the family home, where I was again treated with warmth and hospitality. As I took more pictures outside, one of the current occupants rode up on her bicycle.
Her husband, I learned, is my wife's cousin, a man she has not spoken with for decades. The woman was most eager for me to step inside and to take as many pictures as I wanted. What I found was a place frozen in time.
All the furniture left behind in 1960 is still there in use, including my wife's childhood bed. The room where her brothers slept is the same. So is the kitchen and the china and virtually everything else. The humble home has been kept immaculately. (Unlike the apartments in Havana they later lived in, which have since fallen into disrepair.)
Another side of the Cuban story
With the sun setting, it was finally time to head back to Havana, but the lady in the house insisted I couldn't leave without taking something to eat. The other neighbors were there to wave goodbye to the American who married one of their own. I also carried away some handwritten phone numbers, and now the families in Cuba and the United States are back in touch.
They were separated by revolution and political conflict, and under current law are unlikely to ever see each other again. But, despite the lingering resentments and fears in both Cuba and the U.S. — which is why I have withheld names and some details — there is still a strong family bond that transcends all else.
As a journalist, I was able to visit and to serve as an intermediary. It gave me a never-to-be-forgotten look at another side of the Cuban story. A sad, gentle and very human story.
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Cuba.