Carlos Eire: A Cuban-American Searches For Roots In 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire was one of thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba and sent to Florida to escape Fidel Castro's regime. His parents thought he'd return when Castro was deposed — but he never went home again. Eire recounts the experience in a new memoir.

Carlos Eire: A Cuban-American Searches For Roots

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

At the age of 11, my guest left behind his parents, his friends, his possessions and his native land. Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children who were airlifted out of Cuba to the U.S. after Castro took power. Their parents were not allowed to leave Cuba.

Carlos Eire's first memoir, "Waiting for Snow in Havana," won a National Book Award in 2003. His new memoir, "Learning to Die in Miami," is about making a life in America. He stayed in foster homes before his uncle was able to take him in. His mother was able to leave Cuba and join him about three years after the airlift.

Eire is now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale. His research into late medieval and early modern European religious history is connected to the spooky and macabre images of Jesus he was exposed to as a child in Havana and a 15th-century devotional manual his mother gave him when he left Cuba. More about that later.

Earlier this year, he published a book called "A Very Brief History of Eternity," which is about how ideas of what happens after death have changed over the centuries.

Carlos Eire, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want you to start by reading the preamble to your new memoir.

Mr. CARLOS EIRE (Author, "Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy"): Sure. Fearing that we'd be enslaved, our parents sent us away, so many of us, to a land across the turquoise sea alone, all alone, we kids, no mom, no dad, no kin on the alien shore beyond the horizon, willing, clueless fugitives.

Our exodus came to be known as the Pedro Pan airlift, Operation Peter Pan in English, a ridiculous name for something so unlike a fairy tale. Ferried to anti-Neverland, we lost our childhood in a blinding flash forever.

We dribbled out little by little between 1960 and 1962, steadily, inexorably, like drops of blood from a wound that wouldn't heal, unnoticed, fourteen thousand of us, boys and girls, a children's crusade, exiled, orphaned, for what? Freedom.

GROSS: That's Carlos Eire, reading from his new memoir, "Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy." So what kind of enslavement did your parents fear you would be subjected to if you stayed in Cuba after Castro took power?

Mr. EIRE: The same enslavement I feared, too, which was the total control of my mind and my tongue and my hands, no ability to express my real thoughts. Plus, in the case of my parents, the so-called free education that Cuban children receive is not really free. It requires working the entire summer, agricultural camps, for no pay at all.

GROSS: Were you ever able to talk with your mother about what went through her mind when she and your father decided to send you to the United States?

Mr. EIRE: Oh yeah, we talked about it fairly often. And the conversations usually began when she asked the question, which she asked repeatedly: Are you glad we sent you? I would always say yes, and then that would lead to further talk about what happened.

And she was desperate, no other word for it, sheer desperation, kind of a Sophie's choice: Which side of the train do you throw your child out of? If we stayed, she'd lose us. If she sent us away, she'd lose us, but we wouldn't be enslaved. And that's there's no other way to put it.

GROSS: So tell us more about the Pedro Pan, or in English the Peter Pan, airlift, who sponsored it and what you had to do in order to get on the flights out.

Mr. EIRE: Well, here's how it started: It started out as a very small operation. It was begun by a school, a headmaster at an American school in Havana, the Ruston Academy. He knew several men and women, who this is 1959 in 1959 were already struggling against Fidel Castro because what he was doing was squeezing out and eliminating anyone who had fought against Batista but disagreed with him.

So these were men and women who had fought against Batista and suddenly found themselves fighting against Fidel Castro. And these men and women feared that if they were caught and imprisoned, they wouldn't know who was going to take care of their children and what would happen to their children.

So the headmaster at Ruston Academy had friends in Washington, and they arranged for the State Department to grant visa waivers to Cuban children so that they could leave right away without any security clearances.

And an Irish priest in Miami, Father Walsh, somehow hooked up with headmaster of Ruston Academy, and one thing led to another. The children started to arrive, very few at first, in 1960. And Cubans are very generous people. The word began to spread that there was this program where you could get your children out of the island.

So though it was initially intended for the children of dissidents who were fighting against Fidel Castro, it very quickly grew into a program for any child who wanted to leave the island or whose parents wanted them out of the island.

And as soon as the government took over all schools in April 1961, that's when the program really took off, mushroomed into something that no one had predicted or expected. And the floodgates opened.

Mothers would tell each other by you know, this was all word of mouth. It was underground, couldn't advertise this in the paper.

GROSS: Your parents told you, as you were preparing to leave for the United States, that you'd be sent to the finest schools when you got there. Did they believe that? Because you certainly were not sent to the finest schools.

Mr. EIRE: No, we weren't. But this was you know, this is what happens in a place where all information is tightly controlled, and rumor is the only way that information is passed on.

So yeah, our visa waivers were actually called scholarships, (foreign language spoken). And we thought we'd be sent to good schools, not necessarily the finest but that we'd be placed in good schools because keep in mind, this was only supposed to last a few months. The separation between parent and child was only supposed to last a few months.

GROSS: And then what? Your parents were supposed to meet you in the U.S.

Mr. EIRE: Come to the U.S., yeah, or what most people thought, Castro's regime would collapse because of course no one expected that it would last very long.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. EIRE: And then we'd be going back.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. EIRE: That was what most people hoped. Actually, the parents joining us here was the second option. But even before the children left the island, most parents started the paperwork so that they could leave. It would take adults a year or longer to get all the papers together and the permission to leave.

That's why the visa waivers were so important because it could get the kids out really quick. And everyone was counting by days and months, not by years. And parents desperation came out of not knowing if your child was going to be sent to one of these camps the next day because anything could happen.

GROSS: But what turned out happening was that not long after you left, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mr. EIRE: Right.

GROSS: And Castro stopped people from leaving Cuba. So your mother, who was prepared to meet you in Florida, couldn't get out of Cuba. And what position you were with foster parents at the time.

Mr. EIRE: Yes, I was.

GROSS: What position did it put the foster parents in, knowing that, like, now this was going to be a much longer commitment than they had ever planned for?

Mr. EIRE: It was terrible for everyone. You know, they took us in, thinking they'd only have us for a few months, and in my case, actually our mother had an exit permit for early November. She was about to reunite with us when the Cuban Missile Crisis closed down everything.

So if the missile crisis had taken place three weeks later, we would have been reunited with our mom, and my foster parents would have everything would have had a very happy ending. But in fact my foster parents were not alone in being, you know, quote-unquote "stuck" with a child they were only supposed to have for months. I know Pedro Pan kids who stayed with their families for several years. Families just took them in, and a few cases where everything looked so grim that adoption proceedings began.

GROSS: Well, you liked the first foster family you were with. But you...

Mr. EIRE: They were wonderful, just wonderful, Louis and Norma Chait.

GROSS: So did they decide they had to turn you out after they found out your mother couldn't come?

Mr. EIRE: Well, I don't you know, I was a child. I don't know exactly everything that went on. In fact, I turned 12 just a few weeks before I had to leave their house. So a 12-year-old doesn't know exactly what's going on.

One of our uncles had arrived in the U.S. at the very last minute before the doors closed. And just before the missile crisis, he had been sent to Bloomington, Illinois. He was an architect, and he was given a job as a draftsman in Illinois. But anyway, we had an uncle. We had a relative here. So the plan was to send us to our uncle. But our uncle couldn't take us in right then and there because he didn't have any money. He didn't have a place to live.

He was 62 years old and had a handicapped daughter to worry about, living in a strange land where he barely spoke the language. So taking us in was not possible. So they put us in a holding tank sort of so to speak. But the holding tank was a hell hole, and we were kind of forgotten there.

GROSS: Yeah, it was that you had two official foster parents who couldn't care less about you. Some of the other boys there were real thugs and used to beat you and your brother up, except he could fight back, and you weren't very good at that. So you'd kind of cower and have to accept the bruises.

Mr. EIRE: Yeah, I was one of the youngest and smallest in the house, too. That always makes a big difference when you're a kid.

GROSS: While you were at this miserable foster home, you were given basically one meal a day. And you write that you lost a lot of weight, but you didn't have a full-length mirror to see how thin you'd gotten or how twisted your spine had gotten. When did you actually get a full glimpse of yourself, and what did you see when you did?

Mr. EIRE: Well, it's not what I saw. It's what my aunt said to me at the airport when she greeted me in Bloomington, Illinois. She gasped when she saw us. And she said: What's wrong with your back? And actually, I don't think they had a full-length mirror, but I first saw myself in a photo that was taken, right? I saw the photo, and I couldn't believe that that was me.

And it was a strange experience, and every I still have that photo, and every time I see it, it gives me the willies.

GROSS: It was 1962 when you were flown out of Cuba in this children's airlift to Florida. And racial segregation was still legal in the South then. Did segregation apply to you? Did you have to go to the back of the bus?

Mr. EIRE: No, no, we didn't have to. I mean, the schools were not integrated, and for some reason I have yet to figure out, they didn't send us Cuban kids to the Negro schools, even though we weren't considered fully white.

But on more than one occasion, you know, we had bus drivers who asked us to go to the back of the bus. And I've never really, ever since I moved out of Miami, experienced any kind of discrimination. It was only there, and I think it's because so many of us had come at once and changed the city so completely that there was a lot of resentment on the part of the natives.

GROSS: Did you identify with the civil rights movement?

Mr. EIRE: Well, I thought it was a good thing. But, you know, I was 12 years old. So I had a 12-year-old perspective on it. One sort of humorous insight into what it's like to be 12 years old and see the March on Washington and then three days later move to Illinois and then finally find myself in a fully-integrated school. I thought it was the march that had integrated the Illinois schools. I just thought it was that way all over the U.S. I didn't realize that, you know, in Illinois they didn't have segregation. But I thought boy, things work quickly in the U.S.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If only.

Mr. EIRE: Yeah, I didn't know. I didn't know - just a kid.

GROSS: My guest is Carlos Eire. His new memoir is called "Learning to Die in Miami." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Carlos Eire, and he's written a new memoir called "Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy." And it's about his experiences at the age of 12 being flown from Cuba to South Florida as part of an airlift of children after Castro took power. Carlos Eire is also a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

Now, you say you had blonde hair so that you could physically pass as, you know, as a white person in the U.S. But the moment you opened your mouth, your accent would give you away.

Mr. EIRE: Right.

GROSS: And that that was one of the reasons why you loved to write because there was no accent on the page.

Mr. EIRE: That's absolutely true. I also practiced like hell to get rid of my accent.

GROSS: You succeeded. I can't hear anything.

Mr. EIRE: I can hear it.

GROSS: You can?

Mr. EIRE: It's funny, especially now, I'm wearing headphones: Boy, do I hear my accent.


Mr. EIRE: I guess I'm a perfectionist. But yeah, I practiced. I also the first accent I tried to mimic or aim at, oddly enough, was that of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Andy Griffith because...


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: You know, I thought it was the finest American accent. You know, this is an 11-year-old mind, right, an 11- or 12-year-old mind. They were good shows. I like those characters. I think I'll speak like them.

GROSS: Well, what I found funny was that you wanted to get - to speak as well as Ricky Ricardo, not realizing that he had a strong accent.

Mr. EIRE: That's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: Right. At first, I had no clue that Ricky Ricardo had a very, very strong accent. I was shocked when I found out that he did, not because I could discern the accent but because another Cuban kid, a neighbor, told me: What are you, nuts? You want to talk like him? He has the worst accent in the world.

GROSS: So your mother came to the United States, but your father stayed in Cuba. He never left Cuba; he died in Cuba. And you say in the book that it was difficult, more difficult for men to leave, adult men, than adult women. So why did your father stay in Cuba, and what were the difficulties that men faced that women didn't when they wanted to leave?

Mr. EIRE: Well, during the 1960s and into the '70s, it was very difficult for any family to leave intact. Men were required to do slave labor before leaving.

Well, here's what would happen as soon as you applied for exit permit: Number one, immediately you lose your job; number two, immediately you lose everything you own, everything. They come and inventory your house, every single item, down to plastic spoons.

GROSS: Can I interrupt here and say your father had a big art collection.

Mr. EIRE: Yes, he did. He did. So you can imagine the inventory took three days at my house. And actually, they came and inventoried because just my brother and I were leaving.

But, you know, number two, you lose all your possessions; number three, if you're a man, you have to pay your debt to the revolution by working in agricultural camps for a number of years, and they would never tell you how long, just an indefinite period.

So in the meantime, then your wife and children leave, and you have to go to a work camp. Most went for anywhere between two and six years of slave labor, and then they could reunite with their families in the U.S.

So that's what men faced when they wanted to leave. And it's a difficult choice for anyone to make, I mean, I realize now, especially middle-aged men with, you know, teenaged children.

And on the horizon, in the background, in every Cuban's mind is the thought: This cannot last so long. So you gamble: Do I stay and wait for the inevitable end, which will come soon, or do I leave?

Those who left are those who found it just so totally intolerable that they were willing to make all sacrifices; including losing everything you had ever worked for.

My father, well, you know, I never got to have an adult conversation with him. So much of his thinking remains a total mystery to me. Our phone calls back then in the '60s and '70s were limited to three minutes with someone listening on the Cuban end. And you could never speak about any serious subjects or else they'd cut off the conversation. It happened regularly.

And one time, when my mom said to my father, I miss you so much, the listener on the Cuban end started laughing at them. So you're not likely to discuss any deep subjects under such circumstances.

So we wrote letters to each other, but the letters, too, were opened and read and resealed with this thick glue that would make everything bind together just so that the receiver, the recipient, the person who received the letter, would know it had been looked at. So you couldn't even write about serious subjects, either.

GROSS: Was your mother angry that your father didn't leave with her?

Mr. EIRE: I don't know. I never brought up the subject. There are certain things that, even as a middle-aged man, you don't discuss with your mom. And I think that's one where I drew the line and said I'm not going there. I'm not talking about this.

But after my father died, my mother received several offers of marriage from other Cuban men, and she turned them all down. But I didn't ask about that, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest, Carlos Eire, will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Learning to Die in Miami." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with Carlos Eire. His new memoir " I want to talk with you little bit about religion, because it figures so prominently in your academic work and in your life story. You describe how in Cuba, when you were growing up, when you were young that the iconography of the church was so graphic. You say Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum couldn't compete with any church in Havana when it came to macabre realism. Jesus being whipped, Jesus on the cross, Jesus dead in the tombs, Mary with seven swords piercing her body, Mary holding the dead Jesus who was already started turning to green, Saints with their eyes on a platter. Your father had a silver relic ceric(ph) containing bone fragments from seven different saints and two slivers from the true cross in his study.

Mr. EIRE: Yes he did. Well, you know, that's what the little label said.

GROSS: Right. No, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know. I know. But you must believe that as a kid.

Mr. EIRE: Well, you know, I was...

GROSS: That you had the remains of saints in your father's study.

Mr. EIRE: We had - they were real bones for sure. So, yeah, thats gross enough for any kid, you know. I...

GROSS: Well, so did the stuff scare you, all the...

Mr. EIRE: I was...

GROSS: And tell us, are there more graphic things...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...more graphic iconography that you want to describe?

Mr. EIRE: Well, you know, the life-sized three-dimensional icons, especially images of Jesus, with real human hair and glass eyes. This is very Spanish, and you find that in Spain and you find it all over Spanish America. Those are very scary things for any kid. And to me, the scariest place in the world when I was growing up was the church, and I feared everything connected to religion. Then, you know, here in the U.S., I encountered a very different kind of Catholicism. American Catholic churches were kind of cheerful, you know, compared to Spanish ones.

And they had a limit on their iconography, not just in terms of the numbers, but the types of images that they had, especially in Miami where everything was new. And the fearfulness gradually began to disappear and to be replaced by an awareness of the fact that it wasn't religion that was scary; it was a life that was scary. It wasn't those images that were awful, it was life that was full of awful things and that those images actually were there to comfort and give you some kind of feeling that God has empathy for you. And it's the strangest kind of realization to have, and it probably sounds crazy - to many, if not most of your listeners - but actually, that's the insight that I came to have when I was about 14 and it changed my life. And by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I knew that what I wanted to do was to become a historian, and not only that, but become a historian of my own religion and no one could talk me out of that.

GROSS: So as a professor of religious history, which you are now, have you come to understand why the Christian imagery that you grew up with was so graphic?

Mr. EIRE: Oh, yeah. I, you know, in many ways all of us academics worked out our personal life in our scholarly pursuits, and especially historians. No mystery to me, my dissertation and my first book were on the way in which Protestants rejected Catholic imagery and the meaning behind that. And now I understand much better the role that symbols play in religion, not just in Christianity but in all religions. You know, symbols encode, deep deep truths and allow us to perceive them in a non-rational way. And by non-rational, I don't mean irrational. I actually mean that these symbols speak to us at a level that is deeper, and affects us and shapes our personality much more than any logical discourse could. You know, the United States is a very symbolicly impoverished culture. So most Americans have trouble understanding symbols and how symbols affect them. But people who are in advertising have it all figured out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: They know. They know. They know exactly what us religious scholars know about how symbols affect people and they use them to sell stuff to us.

GROSS: So have stayed with Catholicism or drifted into Protestantism?

Mr. EIRE: Oh, yes, I'm still Catholic. Yes. And actually the chair a have, you know, the . Learning to Die in Miami" is a sequel to his National Book Award-winning memoir "Waiting to Snow in Havana." The new book is about being one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba to the U.S. after Castro came to power. The children's parents were not allowed to leave the country then. Eire is now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

T Laurison Riggs chair, is the chair in Catholics studies.

GROSS: Oh, okay.

Mr. EIRE: And right now I'm teaching a course - a two semester course, the "History of Catholicism."

GROSS: And what's your preferred type of iconography now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: Well, I still don't like those life-size Madame Tussauds type images when I go to Spain - or Italy too. They still scare the willies out of me, especially those dead Jesus's laying in the tomb turning green. But now, you know, I appreciate image. No, they dont scare. They are actually a sort of very, very deep profound comfort and my house is full of religious icons.

GROSS: My guest is Carlos Eire. His new memoir is called "Learning to Die in Miami."

Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Carlos Eire and hes written a memoir called "Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy." Thats about being one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba by the United States after the revolution, and being separated from his parents in the process -because he was able to get out and they were not. Carlos Eire is also a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

Now you write that your father's family was truly ecumenical when it came to alternative religions. What are some of the things that your father believed in?

Mr. EIRE: Yeah. Well, I came from a mixed religious household. It could be said, although my father was nominally Catholic, his entire family was taken in by Spiritualism - 19th century religious movement that came out, primarily, of Great Britain and North America. And the American Theosophical Society, based in Philadelphia, had several missions around the world. This is a society that tried to sort of Westernize Hinduism. And the central belief was reincarnation. It's basically a revival of old Western Gnosticism and Indian - ancient Indian religion. Anyway, the most successful mission they had was Cuba. Their second most successful was Brazil. My father's family, all of them, were into Theosophy and into Spiritualism. They believed that you could communicate with the dead. And in my father's case, he not only believed in reincarnation, but like the actress Shirley MacLaine, he claimed he could remember his previous incarnations and I never believed him.

GROSS: Which were?

Mr. EIRE: Oh, well, among many, he was King Louis XVI of France. And usually the case of people who remember their reincarnations, it's always someone important.

GROSS: Thats right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So true.

Mr. EIRE: And youre either Cleopatra or Louis XVI for Julius Caesar, you know someone. And hardly ever have I met anyone who remembers reincarnations from an obscure period in history.

GROSS: So did he believe in seances too?

Mr. EIRE: Oh, yeas. Yeah.

GROSS: And did you participate in any with them with him?

Mr. EIRE: I did not participate in seances but my father treated the Ouija board as if they were a sacred object. And yes, more than once, you know, I sat at the Ouija board with my father and received messages from the dead. And...

GROSS: What kind of messages would you get?

Mr. EIRE: Well, you know, you ask questions of the dead, you know, simple question and, you know, the Ouija board has on one corner I think it is yes, and the other one no for most answers, and letters for deciphering the other messages. But among the questions I remember asking, shortly before we left, was what's going to happen to us? Ouija board said our futures were in another country and we would have foreign wives. And then I asked my father to ask the spirits how many children am I going to have? And they wouldn't give me an answer. I got really upset at that point. Not because they didn't give me an answer, because I thought the whole thing was such a charade. I never believed in it. But low and behold the prophecy did become true. My brother and I ended up in a foreign land, marrying foreigners.

GROSS: Did your father's belief that he was King Louis XVI in an earlier incarnation affect his self image and his behavior?

Mr. EIRE: I'm sure it did. But, you know, keep in mind that I was a child and I had a child's perspective on everything.

GROSS: True.

Mr. EIRE: but, you know, he, from the very start, when Batista was toppled; there were few days there when we didn't know exactly who was going to be in charge. Within a week, Fidel Castro had assumed charge and started getting rid of all of his competition. As soon as that happened, my father said this is no good. This is going to be just like the French Revolution - and yet he did nothing. Nothing. Because he also said, you know, it's going to be like the French Revolution but it's not going to last as long as that. So, you know, his insights as a reincarnated French king had there limits. But what I find very funny is that in the reviews of "Waiting for Snow in Havana," many reviewers said that I had gotten carried away with my magical realism by inventing this father. When in fact, I only scratched the surface. I never got to know the real man. But he was convinced. This one time I remember, shortly before I left, he was teaching me how to play pool - a billiards table. And he says to me, you know I haven't played this game in three lifetimes. And I got very angry at him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: And that's one of my last memories of my time with my father, actually.

GROSS: Something I find very entertaining about your religion background is when you moved - when you first moved to Florida and you were first staying with a Jewish family, what you really wanted - because you were 12 - what you really wanted to be was a real American and therefore, to become Jewish and have a real bar mitzvah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: I thought all Americans had bar mitzvahs.

GROSS: I think thats so funny.

Mr. EIRE: Yeah. Well, you know, I learned a lot of Yiddish words too in that house that I thought were English.

GROSS: Oh did you really? Mm-hmm.

Mr. EIRE: And then when I moved to Bloomington I, you know, let fly a Yiddish word here and there and nobody would understand what I was saying. It came as a great shock to me, that they weren't English.

GROSS: Now I think one of the reasons why you started to take religion very seriously is a book your parents sent you off with. A book written by a monk in 1418, called "The Imitation of Christ." A book intended to be read by other monks, not my 12-year-old boys.

Mr. EIRE: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about this book and the impression it made on you.

Mr. EIRE: The last book in the world an 11 or 12-year-old kid wants to read. But, you know, I very quickly outgrew my clothes, so the only reminder - only two reminders I had of my family, physical reminders - were a religious metal I wore around my neck and this book, "The Imitation of Christ." And there was a -theres a Catholic superstition that if you have a question and you open that book at random, the answer will be on that page. It's very similar to the Protestant superstition, that if you open a Bible at random it will give you the answer. So I tried that many times and every time I open that book it scared the hell out of me.

It's a book that's all about letting go of all of this world, emptying yourself, excepting suffering and not being selfish; and actually pouring your life out for others, rather than for yourself. And also about letting go of thinking you have control of your life, and placing your life in the hands of God. Well call a superior being. And no kid can deal with that. No kid wants to hear that. But for me, about age 14, as I kept opening that book at random, you know, one day it suddenly started speaking to me. It started making sense. And, you know, when I said before that, you know, I had everything turned around - that's the perception I had, gradually as I started reading that book, that I had everything backwards.

The book allowed me to let go of my past. It allowed me not to fix my gaze on what I had lost, but rather to be happy that I had lost it. To take my exile as a gift. To not focus on how I could reclaim my place in the social hierarchy, but rather just to devote myself to reading about my religion, learning how to live it, and then once I got this idea in my head that I, you know, my profession was going to be teaching, that's what I considered my vocation. You know, at one point I considered going into the seminary in becoming a priest. But when I set foot in that seminary, just walked through the gates and I saw it, I knew it wasn't for me. And I literally ran away from there.

GROSS: How did you know it wasn't for you?

Mr. EIRE: I just felt this, it's almost like the air pressure had increased 40 fold. Theres a biblical number. And it was pressing me down, and pressing, pushing me away from the place. I could not see myself in there. Something in me told me I would not make a good priest. And that's when I really knew. I had already decided I wanted to teach. That's when I started to pursue this, pigheadedly.

GROSS: Another book of yours is called A Very Brief History of Eternity, which is, literally, a history of the concept of eternity. When you were growing up did you believe in a Heaven and Hell or what were your images of it, and..?

Mr. EIRE: Well, I definitely believe in it, and I still do.

GROSS: How has your concept of it changed?

Mr. EIRE: Oh it's changed enormously. Of course, you know the little kid in Catholic school has these graphic pictures to look at, you know, back then religious images, very graphic pictures. Heaven is always boring. Just people are on clouds, circling around God or Jesus. It never looked too exciting to a kid. Hell, terrible - people on fire, being tortured, and so on and so forth. Of course, my view has changed. And that's one, I think - one of my other chief interest as a scholar is dealing with the history of death and the history of the way in which the afterlife has been configured in the West. And, you know, in many ways, I now as a scholar right, know how tied to a specific time and place images of heaven and hell are. I realize that. I can study it. I can detach myself from it and see it as a cultural construction, specific views of heaven or hell or eternity. But as a person living out my life and knowing that my years on earth are numbered, I looked for some continued existence that I can't even begin to imagine and I leave it at that for myself. I don't try to imagine what will happen, but I'm pretty sure something will.

GROSS: And is that in the most kind of abstract mystical sense, or do you see something more physical and literal than that?

Mr. EIRE: Oh, I do believe, you know, all Christians are supposed to believe in resurrection, the fact that we will live eternally in a body and it's not a disembodied existence. So I just hope next time around I get a better body, that doesn't age.

GROSS: Now how different is that from your father thinking he was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: Well, there you go. There you go, you know...

GROSS: know, that he had been Louis XVI in another incarnation.

Mr. EIRE: Yeah, well, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as they say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: There you go. Yeah, of course, you know, we all become despite ourselves, we become our parents in so many ways, even if we only have a brief encounter with our parents and are separate from them, we all end up in many ways being our parents because we carry their DNA. And I believe, you know, this - I say this as a religious scholar, right, religion is a cultural construction, yes, but in every society in every culture there are people who have religious sensibilities. They're born that way, in the same way that you have, you know, you have people with musical talent, and artistic talent. You have people with kind of a spiritual calling.

Now I hesitate to call it talent. But there are people who actually go more by their religious sentiments than by pure reason. And they do this not because they're stupid because religion is like atomic or nuclear power, you know, you can use it for good you can use it for evil. But there are people with inborn I think religious sensibilities and this is why religion will never go away. Because life is too full of mystery and, you know, death and suffering. And our alternate questions can't be answered by pure reason.

GROSS: My guest is Carlos Eire. His new memoir is called Learning to Die in Miami.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Carlos Eire. His new memoir is called Learning to Die in Miami is about trying to make a new life in the U.S. when he was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba after Castro came to power. Eire is now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale. Earlier this year, his book A Very Brief History of Eternity was published.

You write that one of the most significant changes was brought about by the enlightenment, throughout the Western world, was the increasing secularization of death. And I thought this was really interesting that you write an early sign of this development was the detachment of cemeteries from churches.

Mr. EIRE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But I know as in talking about, you know, this secularization of death and how, you know, death has changed through the centuries and in different cultures and religions and so on. And I don't mean to get morbid here, about like what a meaningful death ceremony would be for you?

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. EIRE: A good Catholic funeral that's all I hope for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EIRE: A mass. A funeral mass. And then I don't care, cremation, burial; I haven't given that any thought.

GROSS: I thought cremation wasnt - was frowned on in the Catholic church.

Mr. EIRE: Oh no, Catholics can be cremated now.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.

Mr. EIRE: Its perfectly okay now. The Catholics Church changed many things in the press doesn't notice. It's funny that way. But Ill tell you an experience I had, which is the closest I have come to facing my own mortality. And this that when I was working in Madrid researching 16th century wills. I'm reading will after will after will, and taking down facts and figures. And I have to do my own indexing because the wills are not catalogued. so I made my own list of people with their death date next to their name. And I have been doing this for almost a month. And when I do have a dream in which I see my own name on the list with a year next to it, and I woke up and I couldn't remember the year. And that's and I woke up and talk about, you know, having the willies, and that dream really did it to me. It made me realize the people that I was working with there, the 16th century wills, they are not people dead long ago.

There were just like me at one point when they were alive and they had no idea when the end would come. But come it did. So I, you know, I don't spend much time thinking about this. I try not to dwell on it. But I'm very conscious of the fact that having a proper ritual when someone dies can help the grief process so, so immensely. You know, for instance, when my father died in Cuba, I found out through a phone call. My brother calls me. He says old men died three days ago. We had no funeral. I couldn't go to the funeral. He was already dead and buried. I could've gone to the funeral anyway because of travel restrictions on the Cuban answer, not on this end. And I never went to his funeral, never went to his burial. And boy, his death lingered for such a long time, carried it with me wherever I went.

You know, closure is a strange word because sometimes it's used inappropriately as if it just seals everything off and cures everything when it comes to a death in the family or a close death of someone close to you. But closure actually does happen through ritual in the sense that it confirms for you personally in the company of other people who also cared for this person, confirms that time has come to move on.

GROSS: So your mothers death was different than your fathers?

Mr. EIRE: Very different. Very, very different because I was there with her when she died. And her funeral was beautiful. And I was surprised at the number of people who showed up. You know, I knew she had a lot of friends but I didnt really know how many, because it was a Monday morning and that's not usually a time when people can come to a funeral. So that was beautiful and it showed me how different it can be when you're there to take part in it, have a ritual then when it's just something that is distant, you know. And in the old days when people crossed the ocean and migrated, they would usually get this in a letter. You know, so-and-sos dead and thats it. You know, for generations humans live like this. Now we realize because it's possible to move around so easily that, you know, we can be there and it can make a difference,

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EIRE: Oh, thanks for having me on the show.

GROSS: Carlos Eires new memoir is called Learning to Die in Miami. You can read an excerpt on our website,, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

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