Havana, Cuba — After this holiday season, I will never look at an apple the same way.
Last week, I went to Vedado, a suburb of Havana containing stately but falling-apart mansions, to give an elderly woman a Christmas present. Through a charity program that a friend had recently set up, I had been matched up with the woman and received a message that she had requested manzana — apples.
I’ve written about apples in previous posts. I've shared my recipe for caramel apples, a treat that was once common in a Havana dime store that was once a Woolworth's but now can no longer be found anywhere on the island. I've described how, because of Cuba's shortages, I bought a case of a hundred apples when I'd spotted them in the autumn. My family and I had already demolished those one hundred Chilean fruit when I received the gift request, but thankfully, when I visited a sparsely-stocked supermarket recently, I’d managed to find a small shipment that had just arrived from Canada. I bought a couple dozen, and selected ten for this elderly woman named "Maylin."
When I got to the front of Maylin's home and met her caretaker, I realized I’d forgotten to bring him a present and reached in the bag to give him two of the apples. We waited at her front gate, and he called for her to come. The home didn’t have a buzzer or a doorbell, just a padlocked chain for security. The house itself was three stories and sprawling, a Spanish colonial villa, but it was decaying and the government had subdivided it among many families. She lived in two tiny rooms off to one side that looked like they were storage alcoves. The caretaker told me that her two adult children and two grandchildren lived with her. They lived on a combined income of less than $20 per month. They had no savings. She had poor eyesight and occasional mental problems.
The woman who slowly ambled to the gate looked healthy though a little thin, with a mass of gray hair that was tinged with orange dye. She had the sweetest grin. We walked through a small yard filled with drying laundry as the caretaker introduced us to each other. In her humble home, I gave her the bag of apples. She looked in the bag, and her grin turned into tears.
After composing herself, she explained, “I only asked for one apple.”
The caretaker, too, looked surprised. He’d hidden his two apples in a plastic bag, because he’d thought that I’d only brought one apple for her.
I couldn't bring myself to ask when either of them had last eaten an apple. The only thing I could think to do was hug her. I wiped away my tears before I pulled away so she wouldn't see. As we sat down on her old sofa with so little cushioning that I could feel the hard, crooked springs on my bottom, she began to tell me her story -- how she'd become a supporter of Fidel, how he'd changed the lives of so many black and mixed-race Cubans like herself, and how Cubans had fallen on difficult times in the past couple of decades.
Next week, I'll tell you how you can connect with and help the elderly in Cuba like this woman.