The Disappearing Sicily

Papa holds me in his arms, one hand against my tummy, thumb spread wide like a pressure point centring the embrace.

Part of me is twisted around to face the camera, my left arm awkwardly wrapped around his neck as if I’m about to fall out of his grasp. Perhaps my legs dangle against his waist or my knees dig into him. The photo hides this and whenever I hold my niece, Ava, I note her cherubic limbs against my body.

He leans his forehead against my hair, one face a miniature of the other. He is handsome and suave, a figure right out of the films of Visconti and Antonioni, his visage a replica of the ancient busts in theCapitoline Museums in Rome. A quick mental accounting of past boyfriends startles me into thinking: I’ve never been with a man of comparable beauty. Do such men exist anymore? In Canada?

​His wolverine eyes look straight ahead while my gaze falls off-camera. My lips are pursed; his smile reveals several gaps between his teeth. I’d forgotten about those gaps.

I cannot bear to look at his face, especially those eyes, so my gaze wanders to his right hand. The curved fingers are loose and relaxed as if I were weightless. The cuticles look dirty as if he had been working at the garage with his brothers. But there would have been no garage yet, only the flower shop. The index finger is poised over the middle one where there should have been a cigarette. 

I wear small hoop earrings and a white dress with puffy sleeves. His shirt is … blue, brown? My hair is short, renegade curls spilling towards the edges of the image. His face, framed just above the hairline and at the left ear, and his hands ground the picture.

The frayed black and white, taken in a Montreal photo booth in 1969 when I was two years old, fits in my pocket. I do not have any earlier images of the two of us. I had just returned from Sicily where I had spent over a year in the care of my paternal grandparents because my parents had been overwhelmed with setting up the family business and another baby on the way. I learned to walk in Sicily, and to talk. I learned to love in Sicily.

I didn’t recognize my parents when we were reunited, I am told. I wailed for months for my grand- parents, I am told. The photo booth outing with my father provided a momentary distraction, I am told.

The beginnings of my relationship with my father as it exists in any concrete form, something that I can see and touch in the present when so much else has vanished, are contained within these three square inches. 

– – – 

Papa died of a heart attack on June 3, 1998. Mamma found him in the garden by the vegetable seedlings they had just bought at Marché Jean-Talon. 

He had been puttering away in quiet solitude, the parsley still in plastic planters, juttings of curly red-leaf lettuce in Styrofoam, the cherry tomatoes not yet bursting, aubergines not yet pregnant. The basil, taken indoors in winter, was already releasing its sweet fragrance in a wine barrel that had been sawed in half.

Papa could probably see mamma through the kitchen window, lace curtains drawn to reveal her face concentrated on the dishes.

Three months short of his sixtieth birthday, he was starting to relinquish management of the flower shop, one of the largest in Montreal, to my younger brother. This last detail – my father was a Sicilian thoroughbred who, since childhood, had been working come un cane porca miseria like a dog – made us even more inconsolable, porca miseria.

My memories of the wake are hazy. I do remember the flowers, fifty-nine Cattleya orchids flown in from Vancouver cascading over the foot of the coffin, a Caro Papà framed in blue satin and a sunburst of orange pompoms overhead, all around lilies, anthuriums, birds of paradise, callas, gingers, gladioli, chrysanthemums. Opposite the casket, at the other end of the visitation hall, a magnificent wreath of 200 red roses hovered high above the room. It was difficult to breathe among the hundreds of mourners paying their respects, shake- shake, kiss-kiss, condoglianze, bbeddamatri, bbeddamatri, condoglianze, sign of the cross, hug-grab-clutch- grasp-grabgrabgrab, the airlessness, their breath and the smell of flowers a sickening mix. Papa’s sister, Zia Carmela, who had flown in from Sicily, was mesmerized by all of the faces from her past, so many old villagers that she had grown up with, and she began a lamentation in Sicilian dialect that reverberates still: u munnu unu paisi, il mondo un paese, the world a village, the- worldavillage.

My eyes jumped from papa in the open coffin to the wreath of roses, 200 luscious reds, and back: papa, reds, papa, reds, the wreath, my heart.

Amid incantations of the rosary, I overheard stories, countless stories in singsong, murmured, moaned, wailed, whispered, a bereft ventriloquism.

“I could not get him to use an ashtray,” said Sebastiano’s daughter, Sandra. My father had his espresso and an apricot cornetto every morning at their pastry shop, Pasticceria San Marco, just down the block from San Remo Florist. Sebastiano had passed away two years earlier.

“There he was in the mornings, jittery, chain-smoking, and I could not get him to use an ashtray. So he’d leave trails of himself everywhere,” said Sandra, who is my age. “There were burn marks all over the counter where he’d forget his cigarette still burning.” 

The man in these stories was unfamiliar. He had been so tense around me, his bookish, untraditional daughter, that we couldn’t really talk. I could have talked to this other man – a man who loved reggae and Haitian music (we found the cassettes in his old Buick) and occasionally went to the museum or i filmi Americani by himself; a man who had befriended non-Italians in business when the others, including his brothers, were ethnically insular (there was Williams, a black man who had given him those cassettes, and there were many Jews, they gave him his start up on Queen Mary Road, especially Sam, a wholesaler – he was the one who sent the wreath and flew in the Cattleya orchids). This was a man whose delicate floral artistry was at great odds with his general gruffness; a man who ran away from the semi- nary in a faraway city and walked home to Giancaxio, Ioppollo, Agrigento because the priests were doing “unspeakable things” to the boys. This was a man who was essentially a loner and this independence, I knew, constituted a deep wound in his marriage. 

– – –

My Brother Angelo’s Story

It’s a few days before Mother’s Day, one of the busiest weeks of the year for the flower shop. It can make or break us, thousands of buds in stock…

The main fridge breaks down! …Madonna, what a mess. Mom’s freaking out, “O Dio, we’re gonna lose everything.” Dad’s screaming at everybody. Ben, who takes care of the fridges, is on vacation. Dad, desperate, calls some guy from the Yellow Pages.

“’You have a major problem with the compressor,” says the guy. “I can fix it, replace this small part here, but it’ll cost. Pay me cash and…”

“Just fix it,” says dad.

A week later the fridge stops working again. You know the drill: Mom’s freaking out, Dad’s screaming at everybody… Ben fixes the fridge, no problem. This little tube came loose in the drainage system. Dad asks him about the compressor. “I can’t see anything different. It was probably the same thing, this tube.” Ben would know, he installed the original.

Dad gets real quiet. You know how when he gets so still it’s kind of freaky?

A few weeks later dad’s in one of his moods. So he calls the Yellow Pages guy. “Will you take cash again?”

“Of course.” The guy comes right away. Dad brings him to the walk-in refrigerator in the basement, closes the door, says real calm: “Last time you fucked me, but you fucked me good. I want you to think about what you did to me.” Dad locks him in. He waits exactly sixty minutes. Goes back to the fridge, hands the Yellow Pages guy a phone: “You get one call.” The guy looks scared.

Papa was always slightly dishevelled, with nose hairs that my mother would try to clip when possible. His fingers were permanently stained and scarred from handling flowers and plants for over thirty years.

The guy makes his call and dad locks him in again. In twenty minutes some other guy shows up with an envelope full of cash.

Daddy never laid a finger on anybody, but he got his money back.

Such a man’s world, a man’s man, a stark contrast to this other man I had known whose plaintive wail to his dead mother I felt like a constant dull ache…  

– – – 

Sicily, 1995

My father and I enter the ICU with his brother, Carmelo, a doctor, the only professional in the family. Nonna, my grandmother, is hooked up to many machines. We stand behind a glass partition and it is as if the Atlantic still separates us. My father, Nonna’s eldest, was the first of her five children to leave, sailing from Napoli at fourteen to join a father he barely knew who had been working in Canada.

I cannot look directly at her face. I see tubes, wisps of hair, linen, machines. But I cannot look at her face, the Atlantic lies between us, and my father reaches out to touch her face but the glass casts a reflection of his fingers onto our faces. She dies a few hours later. She is seventy-two years old. I had flown to Sicily with my father and his brothers as soon as Zio Carmelo called to tell us of her cerebral hemorrhage.

We are spirited away, hush, hush, to a room with no windows. The cement floor is bloodstained. Along one wall, a sink, surgical instruments. In the middle of the room, a marble table with a bloody sink.

The doctor and nurse arrange Nonna’s body on the marble. Nonno, my father and uncles look away. The doctor checks the bandages on the back of Nonna’s head. The nurse removes the hospital gown.

Zia Carmela begins to wail. I stand next to her unrolling a pair of new nylons. She kisses Nonna, she caresses the face, the arms, the knees. The nurse binds Nonna’s feet with cotton. Zia Carmela takes the nylons from my hands, she covers one foot, then the other, she rolls the nylons up Nonna’s legs.

I lift her torso, she rolls the nylons up to the waist. Nonno, my uncles, my father huddle in a corner, they look away. I unfold the black dress; it has been ironed. A wailing Zia Carmela and the nurse lift Nonna, the doctor holds the bandaged head. I slip the dress onto the body.

Nonno stands over Nonna’s head, he kisses the forehead, the temple, the cheeks, the lips. He caresses her cheeks. Zio Onofrio stands to her left; he kisses her hand, his tears spilling onto the fingers. Zio Giuseppe is to her right. Zia Carmela smoothes out the dress, she keeps smoothing it out, smoothing it out. My father caresses her legs. I stand by her feet, by the dirty sink.

Zio Carmelo speaks with the doctor by the door in low tones, hush, hush. Two security guards carry a coffin into the room. The men gently place Nonna in the coffin. Zia Carmela covers the body with a white embroidered linen sheet, perfectly pressed. The guards seal the coffin and we spirit Nonna away from Agrigento to our home in Giancaxio, Ioppollo, caro paese.

The villagers pay their respects. The coffin is in the middle of the living room, unsealed. A spray of red roses covers the lower part of Nonna’s body. A rosary falls over her hands, the cross resting on the embroidery of the sheet that comes to her chest. Window shades shut out the rest of the world. The family stands at the head of the coffin. The guests shake all of our hands and kiss Nonna’s forehead. It seems as if the entire village is here. The priest stands at the foot of the coffin and we recite the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Nonno caresses Nonna’s face, her temples, her cheeks. He shouts: “Fifty-eight years, fifty-eight years we were married! You were fifteen, a girl of fifteen. A headache, you said you had a headache. You said it was only a headache! Come back, come back, come back!” He looks like one of those withered old men from Giacomo Pirozzi’s photo series, La Sicilia che scompare (The Disappearing Sicily). Stark and grainy, black and white, clichéd images of ancient men and women, weary, abandoned, clad in mourning attire, some smiling to reveal large gaps between rotting teeth, crooked women with moustaches, their black handkerchiefs tied tightly under their chins, the rugged men with their coppolas and pipes riding their mules.

There is a steady stream of comings and goings, a steady supply of participants in this public spectacle. Zia Carmela leads a sobbing Nonno away from the coffin, she adjusts the woollen cap covering his bald head.

My father’s lament: “I should never have left you. I should have come back when it was possible. I should never have left you, mamma. I never even knew you.” He is shaking, crying like a baby, his body slouched over the coffin. He caresses her tenderly with his fingers. 

– – –

In 2006 we sold the two-storey brick house papa had built. And my niece, Ava, was born. The emptier the house, the more I felt my father’s presence. The master bedroom remained unchanged except for a shrine of mementos. Mamma had been sleeping in another room since papa’s death. As we packed up the bedroom I was reminded of something she said to me the day of his funeral: “When we married we were so young. We mostly grew up without fathers. So we each expected for the other to be the adult.”

Ava’s arrival in August distracted us from the move. Healthy at birth she ended up in the ICU at the Children’s Hospital a few days later with too much sodium in her blood and severe dehydration. By December she was smiling in my arms, as the priest sprinkled her head with water and ministered the baptismal blessing. I was sole godparent to Ava – Ava of the calm temperament, Ava of the blond hair and blue eyes despite her Sicilian and Filipino roots.

After the ceremony my family gathered at a Greek restaurant. Ava was content in my arms, the cotton ruffled tights straining against her diapered bum. My brother and his wife, Geraldine, were making the rounds and I wondered when it would be the right moment to give them my present: a single pearl accompanied by a Fellini quotation on the card: All art is autobiography. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography. I planned to give Ava a single pearl every year until her eighteenth birthday when she could turn the disparate gems into a piece of jewellery or a work of art or leave them loose.

I saw traces of papa in the faces of my uncles and myself in their children, especially my kinky-haired cousins Angelo, Francine, Frangina, Joey and Carmelina. I was the oldest and least traditional – unmarried, living on my own, an artist – and I didn’t see them often. The thought that we had so little in common besides family saddened me.

Stashed under the table was a time capsule I had organized for Ava, a box of memories (objects, photos, souvenirs, letters) gathered from everyone in the room for her to open when she was older. I had asked my mother to contribute a letter about papa so Ava could know him. A few days earlier mamma had called me at work. It was hectic because I was leaving my job to write a first novel. I hadn’t formally told my family because, terrified about my decision, I didn’t want to deal with their questions about the risk I was taking in giving up a stable job.

“Fra, I finished. It’s all in an envelope, the locket your father gave me when we were sposini, photos, the letter. It’s seven pages…” She began to read.

“Mamma, not right now, I can’t…” She ignored my pleas and I stared hopelessly at the endless “to do” list on my desk among the piles of documents. I was about to cut her off when something about her tone surprised me: it was unsentimental. I was quickly drawn into her narrative about my father’s life and his character.

I was unprepared for her conclusion: “…Ava, tesoro, no words can do your Nonno justice. If you want to know him look to your godmother. She has his eyes, his curiosity, his creativity, his strength. And she is secretive like him, self-protective, always withholding a part of herself. But I suspect that with you she will hold little back. Go to your godmother, Francesca, and you will know your grandfather, Gaetano.”

It was warm in the restaurant, the smell of grilled octopus a gentle undertow towards memory. I nuzzled the nape of Ava’s neck, covered her with butterfly kisses, breathing her in, the clash of smells and my family speaking our Sicilian dialect pulling me back, back, back. My head was filled with images from the novel I was writing, The Giants of Agrigento, a magic realist fable set in a landscape of volcanic rock, salt mines, the Mediterranean, almond blossoms, blood oranges, cactus pears, a wise old don- key watching over prancing marionettes, a tarantula biting us all into an hysterical tarantella and giants ruling amongst the ancient ruins…. 

The Disappearing Sicily” won First Prize at the 2007 Accenti Magazine Awards held in Montreal during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April. 

Maria Francesca LoDico is a Montréal writer and editor of the Montréal Zagat Survey. A theatrical adaptation of a story about her mother is featured in “Primadonna: Confessions of an Italian Princess.” She is currently writing a novel based in Sicily.

First published in Accenti Magazine Issue 11.

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