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Black Velvet
December 16, 2012 – 3:09 pm | 17 Comments

Childhood memories are vivid, almost indescribable in their detail, and impossible to forget. A Christmas memory I have is that of a black velvet dress  a family friend gave to me for my seventh Christmas.
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“Ay sol bueno y mar de espuma, y arena fina…”

Submitted by on July 6, 2012 – 4:09 am4 Comments

This essay is part of the Pa’ la Playa: Beach Week on the Tiki Tiki.

The title of this post is the beginning of a poem by beloved Cuban poet, Jose Martí. “Los Zapaticos de Rosa.”

Varadero, Cuba. Summer of 1960.

The one on the far left and the tall one are two of my sisters, Alina and Miriam. The other 3 are cousins. During the course of the summer there would be 14 more kids – all of our cousins, from 5 families, sharing a beach house. That’s me on the right with the mop of über-curly hair standing behind my trusty Duck Lifesaver. Lifesaver? Seriously?

The beach house even had a name: Villa Obdulia.

I think Obdulia was the daughter of the lady who originally owned the house. It was because of Villa Obdulia that I began my obsession with houses-with-names, but that’s another story for another post. We just loved saying it -  “Ob-du-li-a.” The unusual syllables rolling off our tongues. It was like a magical incantation. “Obdulia.” 
It meant fun and freedom.

I know. Freedom. In Cuba. Tough to imagine, isn’t it?
 All of us in this group would leave Cuba within the next year.
 But at that moment, life was still magical.

Summers in Varadero!
 To stay in Havana for the summer was unthinkable to our families. A houseful of kids with nothing to do in the heat and humidity of the city? No, thank you.  So we spent our summers at the beach. With our extended family. And these are some of the very happiest memories I have of my island home.

There were 20 cousins in all. Ranging in ages from one to twenty. By some clever coincidence, our parents gave birth to us in quasi-manageable age groups.  So, the older ones, more often than not, took charge of us youngsters. It was like a great, big wonderful experiment in Limited Communal Summer Living.

It never occurred to the adults that perhaps the cousins they had left in charge of us were not particularly qualified for the job. This is why my memories also include climbing over a wall to sneak into the movie theater – I was five, people!  One movie in particular that I vividly remember was Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.  I confess that because of it, many of my childish nightmares included near drowning by a mad whale, but that’s not important right now.

It also never really occurred to the adults that if we were spending most of our waking hours in the water, that learning to swim might have been a valuable skill. Nope. They trusted to those soft, colorful, inflatable “salvavidas,” or “lifesavers,” pictured here.  I admit there is something compelling about that degree of ignorance innocence.

We ate mamoncillos in the water.

We floated out to the sand bank.

We could recite, “Los Zapaticos de Rosa,” by heart.

We played Clue in the evenings.

We followed the “viandero” (fruit and vegetable vendor) around mimicking his greeting, “Buenos Dias, Familia!”

The 3-Hour Rule was militantly enforced. That’s the one where you weren’t allowed to swim after eating until you had waited at least 3 hours or you would most likely have a “sirimba.”

We ate pirulin (a type of conical shaped hard candy on a stick). And granizados (snow-cones).

Fast forward to today. My husband and I usually rent a wonderful beach house in Del Mar, California (“Where the Surf meets the Turf!”) for one glorious week in August. It doesn’t technically have a name, but we have taken to calling it The Summer House. It often reminds me of those idyllic childhood summers in Cuba.

Instead of cousins, my kids invite a handful of their friends. Instead of floating to the sandbank, they surf. We still play games in the evenings, but I don’t enforce the 3-Hour Rule. Our Summer House is only about an hour’s drive south from us, in San Diego county. A mere 238 steps to the beach. With the best sand imaginable for sand castle building.

My hope is that we’ve given our kids the same type of carefree, happy summer memories that were such a rich part of my childhood. But without the inflatable lifesavers.

Share, por favor!


  • Of our many wonderful costumbres, this is one of the best. Glad you decided to keep it.


  • Tia Mirtha says:

    Martica, I knew without reading the explanation, of who was in that picture, that you were the one on the right. No has cambiado. Love all these beach stories. Life was good then, it was a very family oriented time. Families were big with a lot of cousins, tias and friends.

  • Maritza Granda Madrigal says:

    What a wonderful story of past and present. Very nicely written My parents used to do the same thing with all of us kids aunt uncles and cousins! Thus my love for the wafer today and until the day I die! Thank you so much for sharing. It brings back so many memories especially those misnomer salvavidas LOL!

  • Josie says:

    My family also spent the summers in Varadero. Your picture has brought back many wondeful memories. I specifically remember that the house we stayed in had a huge framboyan in the back yard. It served as an umbrella to shelter from the midday sun.

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