When Judy Bolton-Fasman was in graduate school in the mid-1980s, her father sent her a thick letter. But just as she was about to open the envelope, he called and told her to burn it immediately.
The eldest of three children stemming from the improbable union of a stoic, highly-assimilated Yale University graduate and World War II US Navy officer and an emotionally volatile Jewish refugee from Revolutionary Cuba 17 years his junior, Bolton-Fasman had found confusing peculiarities about her parents’ marriage since she had been a child.
Torn between her curiosity to know the secrets her ill father might have revealed, and her loyalty and fear, Bolton-Fasman chose to follow instructions. She dropped the envelope into a metal wastepaper basket and set it alight.
Three-and-a-half decades later, Bolton-Fasman, 60, has collected evidence revealing what may have been written in that unread missive. Although she can only speculate as to what her father might have wanted to tell her, she is certain that she has a better grasp on the mysteries of her father’s life, and of her parents’ unlikely marriage.
Bolton-Fasman shares her memories and conjectures in a new memoir, “Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets,” published in August. The book is her way of coming to terms with the transtiendas (the Spanish word her mother used for secrets, but literally meaning a “backroom”) that permeated her childhood home and accompanied her into adulthood.
“I call this a ‘speculative memoir,'” said the author. “Facts and speculation come together and yield the truth.”
“I believe the mystery of my parents’ marriage was related at least in part to the things my father never told us. He wanted the secrets to die with him, and he took them to his grave,” Bolton-Fasman said in an interview with The Times of Israel from her home in Newton, Massachusetts.
Bolton-Fasman’s memoir takes its title from the street on which she grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut: Asylum Avenue. The “name had connotations of refuge and madness. In those matters, the address did not disappoint,” she wrote.
Her mother, Matilde Alboukrek, from a Jewish family that immigrated to Cuba from Turkey, claimed to be a descendent of the Duke of Albuquerque, making her a Sephardic duchess. She loved to talk about her supposedly wealthy upbringing in Havana, winning beauty contests, and meeting Fidel Castro while she was a student at the University of Havana.
Matilde railed against the average middle-class life her accountant husband provided her. She had episodes of mental instability and angry outbursts, taking her frustrations out on her husband and children. Her fights with her husband frequently resulted in domestic abuse calls to their home by local police.
“Failing to get her husband properly in line, my mother turned on the three of us, as we cowered in the shadows. ‘I should have had abortions with each of you,’ she announced,” the author wrote of one episode.
What was Bolton-Fasman’s father — an Ashkenazi Jewish, New Haven-born, second-generation Yale graduate — doing with this shrill, unstable immigrant?
When she was a young child, the bilingual author took her unusual family situation as a given. Despite the huge age difference and tensions, her parents shared a love of the Spanish language and Latin culture. They often hosted parties for Spanish-speaking friends, and Harold Bolton hosted a local Spanish music radio show.
For years, Bolton-Fasman wrote, she was too young to question her father’s fascination with Latin America, or the fact that he was “never a character in his own stories,” often seeming more like a shadow than a flesh-and-blood man.
As a girl, the author often pretended to be Judy Bolton, Girl Detective — the Nancy Drew-like fictional character who shared her name. Channeling her inner gumshoe, the author rummaged around in her father’s dresser drawer and found a photo of him in Guatemala in 1952. Harold Bolton snatched it away and forbade his daughter from looking at or asking about it.
Later, when Bolton-Fasman discovered invitations to her parents’ wedding in Havana, Cuba, she was confused. She knew that they had been married in a civil service in Connecticut, followed by a religious ceremony at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York.
After the author’s father died in 2002 from Parkinson’s disease, she said the traditional Kaddish mourner’s prayer for a year as a way of trying to grow closer to him — perhaps to compensate for being unable to do so as she was growing up.
“I was trying to connect with him posthumously by setting aside space on a daily basis to be with my dad and engage with his memory,” said Bolton-Fasman, who also consulted with psychics, a practice she picked up from her Sephardic mother.
Although Bolton-Fasman’s experience of that year of mourning features in “Asylum,” she discovered during the process of writing the book that there was a lot more she needed to do to figure out who Harold Bolton was.
As early as graduate school, when she wrote a collection of stories about her father titled, “The Ninety-Day Wonder” (a pejorative term for college-educated officers who were fast-tracked for the war effort), she had an inkling of who and what Harold Bolton had been before marrying and starting a family in his early 40s.
As a grown woman, she was able to look back at events in her family’s life and see them as possible clues.
One such event was her father’s disappearance for six weeks in the summer of 1970. An enraged Matilde declared she was leaving Harold and packed up the children, taking them to Miami to be near Cuban relatives. Bolton-Fasman expected her father to come after them, or at the very least to send cards and letters and phone them. Instead, he was totally incommunicado.
After a month and a half, Harold arrived in Miami and the family returned together to their home in West Hartford, where, a few years later, a 20-year-old exchange student from Guatemala named Ana Hernandez showed up. She was officially billeted with another neighborhood family, but she spent almost all her time with the Boltons, with Harold showing a particular interest in her.
To substantiate the hunch she had about what each of these events meant, and how they added up, Bolton-Fasman applied for Freedom of Information access to documents held by various United States government agencies. She traveled to Cuba, and also interviewed the few living relatives and friends who could shed light on her parents and their relationship. (Her mother is still living, but suffers from dementia.)
The woman who introduced Matilde and Harold recalled that he used to hang out at a Cuban social club in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“He met women there, too. Your father had a lot of Cuban girlfriends, but your mother was the youngest and prettiest,” she said.
The author’s most useful — although reluctant — source was Harold’s close friend Felipe, an upper-class American-Nicaraguan who was educated in the US and the UK, and whose father was politically well-connected. The Boltons would sometimes visit Felipe and his family, and Felipe and Harold would huddle in a corner engrossed in private conversation.
“Felipe was a tease,” she said of the by-then elderly man who would tell her some things, but not others, often slamming the phone down on her when she was insistent.
Critically, Felipe provided his reasoning for why Harold married Matilde, and confirmed for the author — at least in part — her patriotic father’s whereabouts in the 1950s.
“Insert your father into history and you will have the have the whole story,” he told Bolton-Fasman, as a way of indicating that she was on the right track in putting all the puzzle pieces together.
To reveal the rest of the story would be to spoil the final chapters of this engaging and touching memoir.
Bolton-Fasman said she came away from writing this book without definitive answers to some key questions, but that overall her intuitions were confirmed.
“It was gratifying. And to be honest, nothing surprised or disappointed me. I am at peace in my heart, because the truth has been confirmed at its basic essence,” she said.
According to the author, her reflection on her parents’ conflicted marriage and her trying childhood in the house on that aptly named avenue has made her more empathetic toward the oft-scary Matilde and mostly secretive Harold.
“I’ve arrived at a deeper understanding of these challenged and challenging people,” she said.
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