Sicily: My Enigma

By Maria Terrone

I could begin this journey on black pavement of volcanic lava, destruction/construction as Sicilian metaphor embodied in a town whose name I don’t recall. Or nearly knocked backwards by the sight of Greek temples shining in spring sun on a poppy-studded hillside, a seeming mirage too magnificent to be real. In Sicily it’s easy to succumb to the intoxication of jasmine and honeysuckle, to enter a garden and feel yourself spinning dizzily within galaxies of lemon trees.

"Golden Moon," by painting by Karen Friedland

“Golden Moon,” painting by Karen Eve Friedland

Or I can begin on a drive through the nearly deserted streets of Lercara Friddi, past my great-grandmother’s crumbling house and stores with dusty shelves in this once-prosperous sulphur mining town that my grandfather fled over a century ago. My young, distant cousin Salvatore is at the wheel, and although I need a bilingual speaker to interpret his words, I can sense shyness in his bearing and lowered eyes. “Is the Mafia here?” my traveling companion Marie asks him. Salvatore rolls the car windows all the way up and glances nervously over his shoulder before answering, È a tutti banni (“It’s everywhere” in Sicilian). Fifteen miles from Corleone and twelve from Prizzi, we’re in the black heart of it.

Or how about cruising with the glitterati in Taormina in your Dolce & Gabbana silk sheath accessorized with “pumps in Taormina lace with crystals” ($995) and a “clutch in brocade with jeweled daisies” ($3,595) — flashing your Euros and chic taste in the shadow of Etna, that heaving fire-breather just waiting for a chance to bury you. In Sicily the dead are also everywhere: in roadside memorials for the crime-fighting judges Falcone and Borsellino. In the bells that small towns toll early mornings when a resident passes away during the night: three for men, four for women. In the sudden appearance of street corner niches that shelter photographs of the departed. Oh Sicily! The Mafia. The beauty. The dead.

But for now I’ll time-travel back to a white enamel table in the scrubbed kitchen of an apartment on 103rd Street in East Harlem, an early 20th century Italian immigrant enclave. My Sicilian grandmother Nunzia — black-clad, aproned, tiny, her yellow-gray hair pulled into a bun — is not a stereotype to me because at age eight, I know nothing about Sicily or Italy or ingrained concepts of their people. I have no idea of who she is, this old lady who jabbers in a strange language and always tries to press a dollar bill into my hand while my mother jabbers back in some kind of unsuccessful protest.

This is a Sicilian American story: there are knots and frays, a ribbon twisting on itself like a Mӧbius strip.

In our weekly visits to Manhattan from Queens, I’m crossing not the East River but an ocean to a country where I’m the one who’s the stranger. Mysterious the hallway and narrow, creaking steps in the four-story tenement building that my grandfather Domenico managed to buy, his business acumen part of the family lore. Mysterious my grandfather in the group portrait — stocky, mustached, with deep-set, determined black eyes watching from the bedroom bureau, surrounded by votive candles flickering before holy cards and statues of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, St. Anthony, and St. Anne. What did I know of him, either, dead before I was born?

Moving through the interior, windowless rooms of that railroad flat is like passing through a series of sacred chambers in a primordial cave. I feel the intimate hush of small spaces but also a sense of timelessness. During my passage, I wonder which room was the one where my mother was born, the “baby” of the family and only American native among five children.

My mother, Concetta (“Connie”), was the la’Americana with a vengeance, hating to cook, serving me and my brother Bob anything and everything that was canned, dried, frozen, instant or powdered. (My father, also a first-generation American, traced his family to the Campania region; orphaned at a young age and raised by nuns, he relished any food put before him.) My mother rejected traditional Old World customs such as wearing black in extended mourning and laying flowers at the graves of deceased family members. “Visit me when I’m alive — that’s what counts,” she always said and still does now.

And yet Bob and I absorbed a Sicilian sensibility because the island’s influence on my transplanted grandparents and therefore on my mother was so powerful. Even before her birth, Sicily had seeped into her genetic code. And so, she is scrupulously clean; suspicious of strangers despite an appearance of friendliness; fatalistic; an interpreter of usually foreboding dreams; and frugal yet fond of collecting jewelry and clothing befitting a contessa and surrounding herself with antiques that could have furnished a palace in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. She is also deeply religious, and saints keep vigil on her dresser just as they did in my grandmother’s apartment (minus the candles). My mother is, in short, a mass of contradictions that, I suspect, may be true of every first-generation Sicilian American.

For our own amusement, as teenagers Bob and I compiled a homemade mini-book, The World According to Concetta: Sayings of a Sicilian American Mother. Chapter One, “On Dealing With the Outside World,” began with “Don’t trust anyone” and went on to warn, “Never tell anyone your business.” I hear those words as I tell this story, aware that I’m breaking the rules with every sentence. Non-Sicilian readers may confuse this with the legendary omerta code of silence, popularized by cartoonish Mafia films — so far from my experience as to be comical. The silence of law-abiding families like ours, I believe, related to deep suspicion of “outsiders,” and perhaps a feeling of ethnic inferiority in what was then a culture dominated by an Anglo Saxon ideal. We were also warned, “Don’t get too friendly with anyone,” “You’ve got to speak up or people will take advantage,” “Don’t carry your wallet in your back pocket,” and “Make them put it in writing.” Other chapters covered “Domestic Matters,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” “Staying Healthy,” and ended with “Concetta, Sage and Prophet”: “God is going to punish you,” “There’s a lot of evil in this world,” “Mark my words,” “It’s all in the stars,” and “I’m going to die young of a cerebral hemorrhage.” At 92, my mother gets a failing grade as a Sybil.

Despite our humorous interpretation, we recognized that my mother’s view of life was essentially dark. Connie knew nothing about the history of Sicily’s subjugation by one foreign occupier after another — Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Normans — which is the common explanation for such a distrusting world view. Yet there it was. When my mother smoked a borrowed cigarette at a wedding — an outrageous act of defiance that I realized, even as a girl, was done to scandalize our Sicilian relatives — it was insignificant compared to the island’s power over her. She may have tried to be a truly modern American, but the New World lost the battle.

By the time we wrote The World According to Concetta, Bob and I had more than an inkling of what our Sicilian heritage meant: suspicion and fear of the “other,” fierce self-reliance, and no sense of civic life or the commonweal, the latter summarized in the all-encompassing “Don’t get involved.” Signs and portents were also a natural part of life. If my mother was lecturing us and a church bell happened to ring, or something as small as a spoon clattered to the floor, she would utter, “See! It’s true!” as if the spirits were signaling their agreement. Her dreams were always vivid, filled with visits from the dead.

When I was eleven years old, my concept of “Sicilianness” was forever changed by exposure to the real thing: the arrival of Tina, una cugina from Lercara Friddi whose name I’d never heard. Tina had written to my Aunt Anna, my mother’s oldest sister, about her wish to emigrate, and my aunt and uncle agreed to take her in despite their cramped apartment in Queens. And despite the fact that Aunt Anna, who came to New York through Ellis Island as a nine-year-old, had never returned to Sicily to meet any of the current relatives whom we referred to collectively as “the Sicilians.” Aunt Anna found Tina a job in the garment district factory where Anna was forelady for a manufacturer of men’s high-end suits. As a Sicilian-born female of a certain era, Tina had learned to sew expertly right out of the cradle, just like my Aunt Anna.

Tina fascinated me. Her curly hair, unstylish dress, and lack of makeup were foreign, even exotic to my young eyes. It was the early sixties, and my city hadn’t yet become a multiethnic world capital. Only in her late twenties, Tina seemed so much older. Yet she spoke as fast, if not faster than a native New Yorker, and I enjoyed the experience of hearing my mother and aunt try to keep up the conversation with a linguistically facile native in that chopped, almost guttural language.

I had the feeling that Lercara Friddi was a kind of parallel universe to ours.

I knew little or nothing about my grandmother or grandfather. And now, adding to the mystery was this blank-slate relative who may as well have dropped into our lives from another planet.

I wondered if the family had even known that Tina existed.

“Yes, over the years my mother did keep in contact with the Sicilians,” my cousin Richard, Aunt Anna’s younger son, told me. “When we were still living in East Harlem, she would send packages of food and clothing. I can picture her bundling the contents inside big white sheets that she stitched closed along the seams and then sealed with wax.”

A few years ago, Tina’s sister Josie revealed that my own children’s outfits had a second life in Sicily. Reflecting the fine taste of my mother, a fashionista, they were much admired. Then I learned that before Tina arrived on the scene, my Aunt Anna was startled one day to receive photos of a Sicilian celebration held in honor of Richard’s recent marriage. Tables had been set up in a Lercara Friddi piazza, a meal was served, and wedding favors distributed that were embossed with the names of bride and groom. Between this incident and the knowledge that “the Sicilians” were going about their lives wearing our clothes, I had the feeling that Lercara Friddi was a kind of parallel universe to ours.

In that isolated mountain town, women were expected to live, marry and die in the place where God had chosen them to be born. In this context, I now realize how spunky Tina had been to strike out. In New York, it wasn’t long before Tina had saved enough money to help bring over her parents, her younger sister Josie and her brother Joe. Each one in turn returned to Lercara to marry locals (naturally) — all of their spouses eager to leave Sicily behind. They found jobs, had children, bought houses in the suburbs, and their children became educated, successful professionals. You know the story, repeated by millions of other hard-working immigrant families.

But let’s face it: immigrant stories are never simple, with no loose ends and everything neatly tied up in a red-white-and-blue bow. This is a Sicilian American story: there are knots and frays, a ribbon twisting on itself like a Mӧbius strip.

In 1983 as an editor at the Italian American consumer magazine Attenzione, I was incredibly fortunate to visit Italy on assignment. The trip, my first to my ancestral homeland, reverberated deeply for me and led to one of my first published poems, “Vesuvius,” about a near-death experience in a tunnel near Naples. Subsequent trips to Italy inspired other poems set in Spaccanapoli, the oldest section of Naples, the Roman Forum, Pompeii, and in the courtyard of Verona’s “House of Juliet.” But visiting Sicily for the first and, so far, only time in 2007 unsettled me to the core, entangling me in a web of conflicting images and emotions that I kept grappling with and, until now, couldn’t even attempt to express. No new poems came from that trip, just notebook jottings like hieroglyphs.

Sipping fresh-squeezed blood orange juice at breakfast on a cliff-side terrace overlooking the sea and an active volcano was to watch myself as if I were a character in a play. I was in Sicily at last, but couldn’t shake the feeling of unreality, of floating above myself.

Things became even more surreal when I took the bus heading southeast from Palermo to Lercara Friddi, accompanied by Marie, my husband’s Italian-speaking cousin. We drove out of the congested city, the clogged traffic giving way to gently rising hills. The old bus then chugged its way up a more vertical incline, reaching the town’s bus depot less than an hour later. It was chilly there in the higher altitude, befitting the Friddi (“cold”) in the town’s name. (The first word, Lercara, is said to derive from the Arabic al kara, meaning “quarter.”)

We were greeted by Angela, the daughter of Tina’s brother Joe, who shocked the family many years earlier by uprooting his wife Enza and American-born children Angela, then 12, and Salvatore, five years old, from their home on Long Island and permanently moving back to Lercara. Such reverse migrations don’t fit the success stories we tell. No one could comprehend why Joe would do such a thing. Hearing the news, I’d shuddered for his family, devastated by his decision, suddenly thrown backwards in time and forced to live in a culture that couldn’t be more different than late 20th century America’s.

When I met Enza that day, I saw only deep sadness in her eyes. But to Marie, a complete stranger who struggled to understand the dialect, she was a Medea who poured out her rage, barely contained after more than a decade. “To bring me back here was bad enough,” she lamented. “But to destroy my children’s future — I will never forgive him!” It was only during the bus ride back to Palermo that I learned what had been said during their huddled conversation.

The apartment where we had gathered was dark and heavy, as if Enza’s anger had seeped into the air. And so I welcomed the chance to escape when Angela offered to give us a tour that overcast April day, her brother Salvatore at the wheel. Using English recalled from childhood, Angela pointed out my grandmother’s home and my great grandmother’s clearly abandoned birthplace. I had to see the older house up close and left the car to climb the steeply pitched street.

“To bring me back here was bad enough,” she lamented. “But to destroy my children’s future — I will never forgive him!”

We were a thousand metaphorical miles from Taormina’s dazzle. Wires angled across the rough concrete façade, plywood covered a broken window and grass tufts sprouted through the stone blocks at its threshold. The town’s 18th century baroque cathedral, Santa Maria della Neve, was locked mid-day. Later I read that this church was where the infamous Salvatore Lucania (“Lucky” Luciano) was baptized and Frank Sinatra’s grandfather Francesco was married. Orange plastic fencing separated the cathedral steps from a construction area, but no workers were in sight.

When my cousins took us to the lower part of Lercara Friddi, we were utterly alone. I wondered what they were thinking as I knelt before the remains of the sprawling, two-story railroad station that once served this town, called Little Palermo in its heyday. Was I praying for the people, past, present and future, of this forsaken place? Genuflecting before a building façade that still retained traces of classical beauty in its Corinthian columns and graceful pediments? Or was I simply on my knees to better photograph the field of lemon-yellow wildflowers and misty blue hills seen through its doorless openings, and the trees shouldering their way through the once-crowded waiting room? Nearby, a concrete silo and clay-tile-roofed buildings told the story of a farm that had harvested its last crop many decades ago.

Only walking in the hills with my cousins, breathing deeply and watching Angela’s little girl Concettina pick herbs did my feeling of heaviness lift. In the town itself, I felt the burden of blocked-off mines and high unemployment, pavement in disrepair and, from the look of the few people we passed on the street, a broken spirit. They appeared beaten down, as if they expected nothing from life. The pall was almost palpable. Even the men in their tweed caps, smoking and playing cards in a patch of sun, had morose expressions.

While walking through the commercial area, I wondered why there were no sit-down restaurants.

“Anyone wanting to open a new business knows they’ll get a slip of paper with an amount written on it,” Salvatore explained. “So no one opens anything here. For pizza, we travel to another town.”

And then I recalled Tina telling us that the Mafia even controlled the flow of water to the town faucets when she was growing up. I felt waves of anger and sadness, remembering Aunt Anna’s late-in-life tale of why my grandfather, a proud, prosperous store-owner, left the town in 1907: he refused to be extorted. When three men “visited” his store to apply more pressure in the form of a pointed gun, my grandfather reached for the rifle he kept under his counter. Bullets flew and one hit a Mafioso, mortally wounding him. And so Domenico fled to America. More than 100 years later, seemingly nothing has changed there.

My mother’s older brothers and sisters have passed away, and my first cousins who once lived as children in my grandparents’ East Harlem building are now in their seventies. My brother spends hours on the Ellis Island website examining ship manifests, trying to piece together a coherent narrative that would explain my grandfather’s several trips to New York following his first one in 1907. When did my grandmother come? And her brothers? And my aunts and uncles? Who was the person on Carmine Street in Little Italy they were visiting? And on Elizabeth Street? And Houston Street? And so I find myself turning to the Sicilian relatives here, the link to my family and the condemned, enchanted island that attracts, repels, excites, energizes and maddens me.

For a while, Tina and Josie had wanted to visit my mother, who has a lifelong aversion to traveling more than a few miles by car. And so a few months ago I invited them, their children and spouses to have lunch at my home with my mother as guest of honor. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day filled with much laughter and chatter in English and dialect among the generations, a day etched with unusual clarity in my memory.

At one point, while sitting at my table, Tina and Josie began to speak quietly to each other, their facial expressions thoughtful and concerned. Tina’s daughter Bernadette interpreted: “They’re trying to decide if they should tell your mother something. They don’t want to upset her.” After more deliberation, they went ahead, addressing my mother for several minutes as she listened intently.

“What was that all about?” I quickly asked Bernadette.

“They said that your family name was chosen. Your grandfather’s father was a very wealthy married businessman in Lercara who had servants and got one of them pregnant. The baby — your grandfather — was turned over to the church, which found a poor couple to raise him. They received money for his care. But the couple didn’t give him their family name. Instead they found a name that no one in the town had.”

To me, this revelation, told to Tina and Josie’s mother by a contemporary of my grandfather, was a bombshell. “It’s bullshit,” Bob instantly reacted when I repeated the story, also insisting that the Mafia confrontation tale defies credibility. My mother, paradoxically practical despite her superstitions, shrugged her shoulders when she heard the story behind her maiden name. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “That was all so long ago.”

What to believe? So hard to separate truth from half-truths and outright fabrications, especially when all the witnesses are long dead. Still, when my mother commented, “My father never mentioned anything about this,” and Richard later added, “Come to think of it, I heard about grandma’s past but nothing about grandpa’s,” the story began to have the ring of truth.

A few days later, unable to stop pondering, I emailed Bernadette. “Was your mother ever told the name of the rich man who was my grandfather’s father? I would love to know!” She went back to her mother to ask but answered no, to my huge disappointment. Who was the blood of his blood? And why do I even care?

Maybe my mother is the true American, able to separate a given name from an identity, dismissing the past as irrelevant to her life–while I, the second-generation American, am drawn back, capable of falling under the spell of history’s secrets.

A few weeks before I started to write this piece, I picked up The Stone Boudoir: Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily, a memoir by the Sicilian American journalist Theresa Maggio. Bill, my husband, had given me this book about a decade ago, knowing my keen interest in Sicily, but somehow I couldn’t turn to it until now.

In one chapter, Maggio was investigating her family line in the town of Santa Margherita, home of the hundred-room palace where Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, spent his summers in childhood. Later the palace was almost completely destroyed by earthquake.

Ironically, she wrote: “I had hoped to find in the birth records some hint that I could be the product of ‘prima nox,’ a baron’s right to spend the first night with all the brides of his realm. If a woman protested that she was married, the baron might hang her husband and make her a widow.”

But Maggio’s ancestors were all legitimate. If not, she says, the birth records would have indicated that with the notation “Found on the wheel,” a kind of revolving drawer at orphanages where children born out of wedlock were left anonymously. She writes (italics mine): “For a surname, those babies were often given family names from out of town, according to the town clerk who helped me decipher the writing. An out-of-town name would mark the child for life, and make her suffer for the sin of her parents.” More weight tipping the scales towards the truth of the tale that Tina and Josie told us, despite my brother’s skepticism.

If my grandfather’s reputed origins are true, was he looked down upon, even shunned, by the people of Lercara? According to my cousins, people knew at the time about Domenico’s father and his unacknowledged son. But they claimed that my grandfather’s success was viewed as evidence of his inherited business talent and his own determination, qualities that were called upon in America. Even having to start all over at the age of 28, he rose from a dangerous, back-breaking job as a subway sandhog to opening a neighborhood candy store, eventually purchasing the apartment building on 103rd Street where the family lived, and renting the next-door stables to a variety of pushcart owners.

“We had everything,” my Aunt Anna said about her childhood in Lercara Friddi, the same words my mother used about her childhood in East Harlem, even during the Depression.

Yet I have so many questions. Who was my great grandmother? What happened to her after she gave birth and her son was taken away? Was she herself sent away from the villa where she had worked, forced into a life of shame and struggle? Did my grandfather know her name? Did he ever see her, talk to her, hold her?

Although I can’t stop wondering about Domenico’s real surname, I also realize that ultimately, it doesn’t matter, that what counts is the man he was and what he accomplished. I’ve heard stories of his strength — how this burly man, five feet three inches tall, lifted a full wine barrel alone that two men couldn’t budge. I’ve heard about his temper and stubbornness. And my mother’s admission that he spoiled her terribly as the American baby, giving her everything she wanted. And also that he managed to hold on while suffering from heart disease, dying three days after he heard that my mother had delivered a healthy boy. Of course, these are second-hand stories, but they are all I have.

A New York Times review of L’Attesa (“The Wait”), set in Sicily around Easter time when I visited, reverberated for me. Writing about Piero Messina’s debut feature loosely based on a Pirandello play, film critic A.O. Scott described the beauty of the landscape: “volcanic rock and quiet forests surrounding a sparkling lake…The setting has an atavistic, primal grandeur. Sicily is a place of ancient blood feuds, medieval rituals and Greek tragedies.”

How can I not return, plunging into that labyrinth again, knowing I will find only more mysteries? How can I ignore the call, beyond all reason, of this island on my soul?

This entry was posted in Essays. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

About Maria Terrone

Maria Terrone’s nonfiction has appeared in such publications as Witness, Green Mountains Review, The Common, Briar Cliff Review, Potomac Review, The Evansville Review and Litro (U.K.), and her prose, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, was performed in its stillspotting nyc project. Bordighera Press will publish her first book of creative nonfiction, At Home in the New World, in 2018.

Also a poet, Terrone is the author of the collections Eye to Eye; A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press); The Bodies We Were Loaned, and a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2. Magazines including Poetry and Ploughshares and more than 25 anthologies have featured her Pushcart Prize-nominated work. In 2015 she became the poetry editor of the journal Italian Americana.

12 Comments

  1. Sebastiano Farina
    Posted December 2017 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    I wish the story went on. Just keep digging, I believe in genetic memory. I love your writing cousin, and I take pride in being one of the very few who recall and speak the Sicilian dialect Of Lercara Friddi, from a century ago. Your poetry and your prose both give light to the depth, passion, and understanding of the Sicilian soul.

  2. Jenny Grace
    Posted December 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Your exploration of self and of heredity are a welcome journey to a sun-filled land on a frigid upstate morning. You will return to Sicily and continue to unknot this gorgeous ribbon. Happy New Year!

  3. Posted December 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I found Maria Terrone’s writing beautiful and mesmerizing. Thank you for publishing it. I wish she would write a novel about the mother and illegitimate child. I would read it in a minute

  4. Edvige Giunta
    Posted December 2017 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    I love this essay, so delicate and precise!

  5. Nancy Mannion
    Posted December 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I had recently visited Sicily and Maria’s beautifully written and evocative essay brought me right back. She captures the island’s complexity and mystery and conveys her love for her unique heritage. Brava!

  6. George Held
    Posted January 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations for publishing this vivid story of New Yorkers, which might have appeared in The New Yorker.

  7. Danny Flamberg
    Posted January 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    A rich and robust impression of a place, a person and a sensibility that many of us share. Our narratives define us and often confuse us with their hidden dramas, zigs and zags and selective memories. Maria Terrone taps into these conscious and subconscious fragments to touch something deep inside that we can all relate to. We are all from somewhere else and Maria captures this emotion and this longing is empathetic and involving prose.

  8. Ben Paolino
    Posted January 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Maria, a great read! When you go back, take me with you.
    Cap’n Ben

  9. M. Maggio
    Posted January 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I miss Sicily every day. I have too much family here in the USA to live there and yet the thought is never far from my mind. Your writing was comforting to read!

  10. Frances Insolia
    Posted January 2018 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article. Kept my interest till the end. Both sets of my grandparents came to the US from Floridia, Province of Syracusa, Sicily. I am now 73 and regret as a child not learning the language and talking to them about their lives in Sicily.

  11. Posted January 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Maria’s essay reminds me of the portion of Faulkner’s Nobel speech in which he speaks of “the human heart in conflict with itself,” which I believe is at the core of all good writing. This island is “condemned, enchanted,” a place that both “attracts” and “repels.” In the same way, the narrator’s search for her past–through place and ancestral links–is in part a struggle to find her deepest self. And, oh yes, along the journey there will be “knots and frays,” complicated by the question of what to believe when most if not all of the witnesses are dead. Still, Maria traces this journey beautifully.

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