We had touched down in this beautiful, tragic city just days before.
While it was the first time my brothers and I had been here, Cienfuegos was ever-present in our lives growing up.
Our father had left the city on the southern edge of Cuba when he was just 14.
We were proud and honored to return with him 50 years later. This trip was a lifetime in the making, and with just a few handwritten words in an old notebook we would come to learn so much about the roots that connected us to this place and the family we never knew.
"I received the most saddest news of my life 25 October 1965 when I found out that my daughter Gladys was going to leave for the United States," my great grandfather Marcelino Gonzalez wrote, using the Spanish word "disgusto" to describe his heartbreak. "We do not know when we will see each other again."
As kids – and sadly even as adults – we didn’t give that much thought to those left behind. They were people in our dad’s stories. We loved hearing about them, but somehow they weren’t fully real. Ghosts of the past, seemingly from a different world so unfamiliar to ours.
We never thought about what they gave up for us to have all that we do. As my dad fought back tears while reading the passage, strangely enough on Oct. 25, 2016, we never felt so grateful or connected to our great grandfather.
As we sat in this tiny ruin of a house on the outskirts of town on 60-year-old furniture neatly arranged on the cracked concrete floors, we heard from him. Our great grandfather's notebooks were filled with everyday joys like his marriage and family births; mounting frustrations like salt, sugar and sock shortages, and the nationalization of the family farm and businesses under Castro, and about the loss and pain too familiar to immigrant families – the ones who are left and the ones who go.
He chose to stay behind in Cuba, as there was other family there to care for. They needed him more, my dad says sadly. Make no mistake, he tells me, my great grandfather loved his U.S.-bound family dearly and was a huge supporter of America and all it held for them.
He marked their departure in a simple note, writing he "said goodbye to them on 2 February 1966 at 9:30 in the morning." It would be the last time my father ever spoke to his grandfather, who died in Cuba in 1990 at age 86, before the country was open for Americans to visit.
As my dad and his cousins, who still live in Cuba, read through the gorgeously handwritten notes, my great grandfather was so familiar to me.
His words of sacrifice and selflessness, of love of family and putting that family first beyond all else was well known to me. I have seen it all my life. I had to look no farther than my own father.
"He taught me to take care of everything you can take care of. Take care of family first and foremost," said my dad Eduardo Delfin, who takes care of all things big and small in our family. He's still our first call when, even as adults, things go sideways and we need guidance and help. He's a fixer and we are so grateful.
A journey to the past
My great grandfather – my late grandmother’s father – was born and raised on a farm in Rodas, Cuba, about 25 minutes outside of Cienfuegos. My father would spend long days and many of his 14 summers there before leaving the island in the midst of political upheaval.
These are some of my dad’s fondest memories. Playing baseball next to the sugarcane fields. Working the fields on the tractor with his grandfather. Picnics along the creek. Watching the trains pass at the edge of the property.
When we took our trip in late 2016, my father knew he wanted to go back to the family farm, Parque Alto, or High Park.
Far less adventurous and sure than my dad, I wasn’t convinced this was the best plan. We didn't have an invite or permission. We didn’t have a map. There would be no GPS to guide our way out of the old city through the rural roads.
We had my dad’s memory. And it had been 50 years.
As we made our way out to the countryside, we were greeted by policia with semi-automatic rifles who eyed our modern minivan with high suspicion. My stomach hurt. The car was quiet. Maybe we should turn back.
We pressed on.
Sugarcane lined the roads. We passed through a few small towns including Ariza, the home of the prison, and the shell of what was left of Conjogas, once the town center serving these rural parts. It looked nearly abandoned – like a lot of the Cuba we saw. The incredible architecture of many old buildings remain, but time and decay had heavily set in. No train had come through here in a long time. Most folks in these parts, if they are lucky, get around on horseback or horse-pulled carts.
We saw a sign for Rodas and my dad knew we were close. Soon we would see the old train trestle and smoke stacks. At one time, the family property of hundreds of acres stretched to these distant markers.
Then, there it was – a sign for Parque Alto.
I was shocked. We found it. If my dad was ever worried, he didn’t show it. He never does.
We turned onto the property and the paved road quickly turned to dirt. We drove as far as we could along this farm lane, shanty houses and one-room shacks lining the way. There, we found the old sugar mill, long since closed.
While we were on the land, we were not at the old farmhouse. There were three separate dirt roads off the main road, one less passable than the next. The boys tried to convince my dad we shouldn’t try it. I agreed, but stayed quiet.
I know my dad. We were going down the road.
My sense of adventure made me excited to see what we could find. My brain had me terrified I would live out the rest of my days in Ariza.
My dad needed this. He needed to make peace with this place. Take it in — probably for the last time – on his own terms. This place, and these people – especially his beloved grandfather – made him.
You see, when you leave a place you love – your home and your family – you’re left with a longing. Ask any of the immigrants whose own stories weave the rich fabric of this country. They can come here, succeed and find happiness – and my dad did with my mom, their six kids, seven grandkids and a career that saw him rise to the top ranks of one of the nation’s largest newspapers – but home always will be that place where they leave a little piece of themselves when by choice, political strife or otherwise, they flee.
Back on the dirt road, my dad had made his decision. We would go down the one with the bend in the lane. He remembered the bend. We slowly made our way up the road, getting to a clearing with houses on either side. We stopped and got out.
He had found where the farmhouse should be, or so he thought. My dad, who doesn’t surprise easily, was clearly taken aback by the changes time brought. There were a few homes were fields once stood. The lane was smaller than he remembered and he couldn’t place his grandparents' house. The homes were similar, but smaller and way more run down than where he spent his youth.
But the land, he knew. It had shaped him.
He was just 14 – the age of three of his granddaughters now – when he came to the United States, but quickly grew up as his parents weren’t fully prepared for their new life here. They left the comforts of home to come to America where they didn’t speak the language, weren’t completely comfortable in their surroundings and struggled.
But even so, the courage and sacrifice didn't go unnoticed by my dad, who credits his own father with the work ethic he inherited. My grandfather left a successful banking and sports promotion career in Cuba to come to the U.S., finding work here as a baker and factory worker. Despite it all, my dad says he remained patient and kind and worked to provide.
My dad too would make his way. He began American high school, learned the language, got a job and found love all before he would graduate. He would stay behind in Philadelphia, when the rest of his family went to Florida to settle in. The lessons of his grandfather and father were never far from his mind.
Back in Cuba, things were getting more difficult by the day. Just reading a few passages in my great grandfather’s journals, which were kept safe by dad’s cousins in Cienfuegos and given to us on our trip – are heartbreaking.
Food was scarce. Castro’s communist grip was tightening. My grandfather longed for his family. He wrote that in May 1970 he was "in the most misery if all my years."
Tears rolled down our eyes 50 years later reading the entries as the pain we felt knowing this is very real even years later, but we are so grateful to have these notes from the past.
We would learn on our trip to Parque Alto, from a kind, old woman who knew my great grandfather and still lived on the land, that he built many of the houses still there after his own family left for the United States. She talked about how he took care of the farm workers there and their families, and that they were so grateful in a time when nothing was certain in Cuba.
She confirmed what I had long suspected about this patriarch I had never had the pleasure of meeting. He was a good man with a big heart, who loved his family and his countrymen. He was a survivor and a provider. Just like my dad.
Even to this day, my dad lives the legacy of his grandfather, helping those cousins still in Cuba navigate difficult times there and opening his home to their children who have made their way to U.S. soil since our 2016 visit. It's what family does.
There is no doubt, on this Father’s Day, my great grandfather would see the life his grandson made and be beyond proud, knowing the sacrifice he made in letting his family go some 55 years ago has never been forgotten and has sprouted deep roots founded in his profound, life-changing love.
Danielle Delfin Camilli is the Eastern Pennsylvania regional news director in USA TODAY's Atlantic region.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Father's Day: A trip to Cuba solidifies family bond, celebrates legacy