Mar 13, 2017

Aunt Cambula

What a name!  It means “flounder,” as in the fish, in Romanian. It’s the name of a place in Angola.  There is the Pizzeria Cambula in Italy. But Aunt Cambula has nothing to do with any of these. Her name was Inez Martínez and Cambula was her nickname. Why she was named Cambula is lost to history. We have no photos of her. In the Maryland Prats Clan generation numbering, she is in Generation Minus One.

Francisca Martinez Seijas (1875–1964)
She was known as “Panchita” and read two
newspapers cover-to-cover every day, the local
paper El Camagueyano and the Shipping News
Generation One called her “Patita.”
She was a close relative and contemporary of Panchita — Francisca Martinez Seijas, same generation — one of the spinster aunts that lived at 208 Republica Street in Camaguey. (Panchita, great aunt to Mariana Martínez — the matriarch of the Maryland Prats Clan — was one of the aunts that helped raise Mariana’s father, Joaquin Ventura Martinez, after his parents passed away.) Cambula was probably a first cousin to Panchita, and she kept in touch with the Martinez in Camaguey throughout her life — although she never lived there — and everyone called her Cambula.

Cambula married into wealth in Havana, and widowed early. She had no children. After the appropriate period of mourning, she went on a no-expenses-barred European Tour accompanied by her younger brother, most likely in the 1920s or early 1930s. On the return voyage her brother dies at sea and she buried him at the ship’s first port of call.  His death was unexpected and not foul play, by everyone’s account. But perhaps he was ill and the reason for the trip to Europe was to “take the waters” for a cure to whatever was ailing him.  Or maybe it was just an undiagnosed condition. The reported facts are that he took ill and died aboard ship and that she buried him on arrival in New Orleans.

One of the Pontalba Buildings at Jackson Square New Orleans
2004 photograph by Jan Kronsell via Wikipedia Commons
And there in New Orleans she stayed for the rest of her life, not willing to be far from her brother’s final resting place.

An interior view of a Pontalba apartment
Cambula took up lodgings in the upscale Pontalba Apartments, facing New Orleans’s Jackson Square. The two Pontalba buildings, each one a block long, make up two facing sides of Jackson Square, the historic park in the French Quarter of New Orleans where Saint Louis Cathedral also stands.  Wikipedia describes them as matching red-brick, one-block-long, fourstory buildings with wrought-iron balconies built in the late 1840s by the Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba. The ground floors house shops and restaurants; and the upper floors are apartments which, reputedly, are the oldest continuously-rented apartments in the United States.

French Bisque Doll
Mariana told the story of the exquisite bisque doll that Aunt Cambula brought her from New Orleans for her birthday when she was maybe six years old.  Bisque dolls have painted porcelain heads and are dressed sumptuously. Wikipedia says that the terms porcelain doll, bisque doll and china doll are sometimes used interchangeably. But collectors, when referring to antique dolls, make a distinction between china dolls, made of glazed porcelain, and bisque dolls, made of unglazed porcelain, which gives them a realistic, skin-like matte finish. The ones available in the United States were made in Germany or France. Their popularity peaked between 1860 and 1900, so they were no longer in every shop window when Mariana got hers during one of Cambula’s visits. There was a good chance it was an antique doll already.

Bisque doll in its case
Cambula was not yet to the train station for her return to New Orleans when the doll was put back in its shipping box and put away. Mariana was furious. It was her doll! Her Aunt Cambula had given it to her! It was too precious and easy to break if it was to fall on the ceramic tiled-floors of the Republica house, she was told. She could see it once in a while, she was told. Obviously, the bisque doll rarely came out to play.

Daughters of Charity Sisters
at Charity Hospital, New Orleans
In New Orleans Cambula was very generous with her money. She made numerous donations to the Ursuline Sisters, who had a convent just off Jackson Square and who had been very supportive during her grief and nursed her in her declining years. She also gave to animal rescue leagues, and drives to feed the poor during the Great Depression. But talk around the table at Martinez lunches and suppers would occasionally veer to how she might have also been giving to questionable causes. Regardless, the wealthy widow of New Orleans devoted herself to the Church and to both good and questionable causes and never returned to live in Cuba.

An International Telegram
Hers would have looked similar and delivered by a
bicycle courier minutes after it was sent. The courier,
holding his hand out for a tip, would have said, “shall
I wait for your reply?”
One day in the 1950s a telegram arrived in Camaguey, in English, from an attorney in New Orleans addressed to Francisca Martinez, the last living Martinez Seijas. In the unpunctuated brevity of language used in telegrams to minimize the number of words, it probably read like this: “INEZ MARTINEZ DIED TEN DAYS AGO CONDOLENCES YOU ARE BENEFICIARY IN WILL STOP COME TO OUR OFFICE TO COLLECT BEQUEATH.” The name and address of the sender would have been shown.  

Panchita was of course very sad to hear that her cousin Cambula had died. But at the same time she was thrilled that she had inherited something, something from her rich relation. Francisca had no money of her own. Never married and now in her seventies (she would live to 89), she had always lived with family who attended to her every need. For money she had a small stipend from Ventura and his brother Antonio for pin money — and here was a telegram saying that she had inherited something from her rich cousin. This certainly was special!

So Panchita borrowed some luggage, traveled to Havana for a passport, visited the U.S. Embassy for a visa, sent a telegram to the lawyer announcing her arrival, and flew to New Orleans to claim her inheritance.

A Steamer Trunk Full of Clothes
She came back with a trunk.  A steamer trunk full of Cambula’s clothes, outdated by three decades; 1920’s fashions in fine silk and lace and embroidery. That was all Aunt Cambula had left Panchita. Cambula’s wealth, which had survived the Great Depression, World War II and, I’m sure, a number of New Orleans suitors, went to charity.

The clothes in the trunk proved useful. Mariana and Panchita’s other grand nieces and their friends would borrow Aunt Cambula’s clothes for costume parties.