ST. PETERSBURG — Ana Mier stepped off a plane in 1965 and into a new world, all of the comforts of a privileged life gone for good. Mrs. Mier was leaving her homeland of Cuba, the only place she had ever known, the source of everything she could ever want.
She had earned a doctorate in education there, raised children and attended to their needs with cooks and servants.
Now she considered herself lucky not to be in jail.
Her daughter, also named Ana, waited for her at Tampa International Airport. Four years earlier, Mrs. Mier and her husband had sent their two eldest children to the United States to live with relatives.
What was left in Cuba? Not security — the government had confiscated property and changed its currency. Neighbors monitored neighbors, reporting suspicious movements and bits of overheard conversations.
The children would be safer in the United States for now, figured Mrs. Mier and her husband, Benito. This Castro regime would not endure. In six months or so, he would be out of power and the family could be reunited, they thought.
Ana Hartnett was 15 when she left Cuba with a brother. She had carried a photo of her mother with her for four years. When all the passengers had gotten off the plane, she thought her mother had missed the flight.
Then a woman who seemed much older than the one in the photo approached her.
• • •
For the first 40 years of her life, Mrs. Mier had thrived in her native country. She was born Ana Rosa Rodriguez in 1917 in Artemisa, in what was then the Pinar del Rio province, an area rich in tobacco, bananas and sugar cane.
Her parents owned a furniture factory and real estate. She was well-educated, a fashionable dresser and a lively dancer. She loved to read and converse, passing on a hopeful view of human nature and the world to her children.
She married businessman Benito Mier in 1944. Their lifestyle deteriorated quickly after Castro seized power in 1959.
"You didn't know who to trust," said Hartnett, 66, "or if you would say something somebody would misinterpret. The fear was very evident."
Benito Mier decided to send Ana and her brother, Agustin, 12, to the United States. He got ripped off, paying black marketers thousands of dollars for passage out of the country — only to show up at night at an empty airstrip, or a peaceful shoreline with no waiting boats.
Finally, he pulled strings to get visas for his children to leave legally. Ana and Agustin stayed with relatives in Pompano Beach, then Miami. The parents stayed in Cuba with Rosie, the youngest child.
It became apparent that the family separation was going to last awhile.
"We came thinking it was going to be six months," Hartnett said. "Then it was longer and longer."
They lived in a South Florida camp for Cuban children. Back in Cuba, Mrs. Mier called her children every month and wrote letters, at least once risking arrest by enclosing a photo of the Virgin Mary.
She prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes.
• • •
At first, Ana Hartnett did not recognize her mother at the airport. Mrs. Mier was wearing black, in memory of her father who had recently died.
She had aged, just as her daughter had grown from a 15-year-old to a young woman of 19. Rosie, the youngest child who had stayed behind in Cuba, had also practically grown up. The women embraced for a long time, and wept.
Benito Mier, who had been detained and jailed for a month while authorities went over his books, rejoined the family a month later in South Tampa.
Living under the same roof could not fill in four years' worth of blank spots.
"We became very close again," Hartnett said. "The happiness was there. But they are looking at me and I have already grown and changed. They have also changed."
• • •
In midlife, Mrs. Mier learned to cook and clean house. Her husband and children always complimented the cooking, regardless of what their taste buds said. Benito Mier worked as a janitor and up to two other jobs at a time. He died in 1997.
Mrs. Mier followed baseball and boxing and read Reader's Digest until her eyes wouldn't let her. She attended St. Raphael's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, where she had lived for many years. As she aged, she spoke less and less English, reverting to her native tongue.
But neither she nor her husband ever returned to Cuba.
Mrs. Mier died Dec. 12. She was 95. In a eulogy at St. Raphael's, Hartnett told the congregation that her mother "was an example of a decent, moral and faithful woman. She loved her parents and respected them, she was a faithful and submissive wife, and was an unselfish mother.
"Her dreams were our dreams."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.