The Three Sisters of Piacenza

My grandmother’s house is too warm. Too crowded. Our second cousins from New York, up for Canadian Thanksgiving, are in the room next door. Their laughter rises and falls like waves, leaking through the walls of the room where my brother and I watch TV.

I’m six. My brother Ricky is nine. Our teenaged sisters are with the adults, pouring drinks and emptying ashtrays. Normally, we’d be with them, but my parents don’t want to seem backward in the eyes of the Americans, who think we should sit at a “children’s table.”

And so, we kids eat from TV tables, a supper of radishes, oil, salt, and bread, while we watch Donald and Goofy try to paint a house. Goofy hits Donald with a ladder, and Donald flies into a rage and drops paint cans on Goofy’s head, but no one dies. I laugh so hard that I dribble olive oil onto my good plaid skirt. Ricky’s ears turn bright red from eating brandied cherries. Our grandmother, Nonna Rosa, keeps coming in to replenish food and wash faces.

“Are you warm enough, darling?” she asks, again and again. I have a cough. She’s worried that I’m coming down with something.

“It’s too hot in here, Nonna.”

“Stay warm,” she warns. “You don’t want to end up like Povera Elisa.”

“Pover-Lizzie, Pover-Lizzie,” I sing, deliberately mangling the name. “Who cares about her?”

“Shhh, don’t talk like that. Cousin Camillo is in the next room.”

My grandmother tucks a blanket around me. When she leaves, I push it to the floor.

It’s nineteen sixty-two and nobody dies anymore. We have antibiotics and the polio vaccine. Mothers are starting to forget the stories of children lost in the night, trapped in iron lungs like half-human, half-machine mutants from a horror movie. Death is a Technicolor cartoon witch, all jagged bones and black-and-purple robes. If you eat her poisoned apple, a prince will wake you with a kiss.

But in our house, old fears lurk behind the shiny vinyl optimism of the space age. If I get a sniffle, I’m put to bed with a stack of comics (Superman, Batman, Justice League of America) or Nonna Rosa will tell me stories. One rises to the surface of her memory, over and over again, like the bobbing remnants of some ancient shipwreck, all tattered sails and rotting wood.

The story of Povera Elisa.

Once upon a time, in the town of Piacenza, live three sisters: Elisa, Rosa and Giuseppina. 

Elisa is the oldest. She’s married to Johnny – Rosa and Giuseppina’s brother. This makes the women sisters-in-law, but they don’t split hairs. They simply call one another “Sister.”

Elisa and Johnny take a ship to New York City in nineteen-oh-eight and open a restaurant. Soon enough, their son Camillo is born, and Johnny’s two sisters come to live with them.

Rosa is the second sister. The entertainer. She likes to act out the jokes and stories she sees in shows. “What a card!” laugh the waiters at the restaurant. “You should get her on Vaudeville, Johnny!”

Giuseppina is the third sister. The beautiful one, as youngest sisters always are in the old tales. She has many admirers. Too many for Johnny’s liking.

Among Giuseppina’s boyfriends is a man named Gaetano. Hardworking, but quiet. Not Giuseppina’s favourite suitor, but the most persistent. He keeps coming around.

Johnny and Elisa always make him feel welcome. “Sit down, Gaetano. Have a plate of pasta!” They sit together waiting for Giuseppina, who is, as usual, late. 

Finally, she walks in, tucking her hair into place, her gloves smoothed onto her lovely hands. “Pronta,” she announces. “I’m ready!” 

All is forgiven, as far as Gaetano is concerned. After all, Giuseppina is a beautiful woman. You have to make allowances.

Johnny is not so forgiving. He wants his sister to marry Gaetano.

“What the hell is she waiting for?” he wants to know.

“Maybe she thinks she can do better,” answers Elisa.

Johnny picks up a stack of plates and carries them to the front of the restaurant, muttering: “She thinks she’s so good! But I’m still the head of this family.”

Two days after Thanksgiving, I awake in the middle of the night to a dizzying, overheated world. My lungs feel like jagged bits of glass, grinding and glittering as I struggle for breath. My oldest sister goes downstairs and shakes my mother awake.

The doctor comes the next day, listens to my chest and announces that it is not polio, as feared, but double pneumonia. I will need a dose of penicillin, and hospital care.

My mother packs a bag. Stuffed horse, comic books, pajamas. Even though it is only October, I’m bundled into a winter coat.

In the Children’s Ward, I share a room with a ten-year-old girl. We sleep in giant metal cribs.

We tell each other stories to pass the time. My roommate tells me the story of Tammy and the Bachelor. I tell her the story of the sinking of the Titanic.

Within a couple of days, I feel well enough to run back and forth from the ward to the playroom. One girl with blond curls and blue eyes is blind and deaf. My roommate and I guide her to the playroom, place toys in her hands, and pretend to be The Miracle Worker: two Annie Sullivans to her Helen Keller.

After nine days, the nurse tells me that I’m ready to go home. But when the morning comes, she says: “Your mother is here, but we can’t let her in. One of the newborns has measles. The Children’s Ward has been quarantined.”

I go into the hallway and see my mother, trapped on the other side of the double-paned glass door to the Children’s Ward. She’s waving a piece of paper. The nurses, stubborn, won’t let her in. My mother, more stubborn still, shouts: “My daughter has already had red measles. I have a note from our doctor.”

The nurses lock the door.

A clutch of grown-ups mills uncertainly behind my mother. Their kids are in here, too. My roommate, the deaf-blind girl, and other little girls from the Ward cluster around me. They sense drama: something is wrong, their parents are smiling from behind the glass, waving, knocking on the window. The nurses glare at the grownups through the door, their fingers to their lips. Shhhh.

Finally, my doctor shows up. He orders my release, and the nurses obey. I’m taken by wheelchair to the entrance, feeling like poor, lame Clara in Heidi. In the cold air, everything looks vague and shimmery, as if I’m watching the world on a TV with a bad picture tube.

My father pulls up in our station wagon. He says, “How’s my little lead-swinger pastafazool?”

“I’m not swinging the lead, Daddy,” I mutter, angrily. “I’m really sick!”

“Just teasing. Look what I brought for you.”

He hands me a comic book. Archie. Not my favourite, but it makes up for the wisecrack. Unlike my mother, who takes every sniffle seriously, my father likes to dismiss illness as a feeble attempt to get out of school and chores.

“Do you have to go back to the plant, dear?” my mother asks him.

My father nods. “Only half the guys showed up today. They think it’s the end of the world, or some damn thing. Kennedy didn’t do us any favours by getting everyone all worked up.”

My mother glances at me, cocooned in the back seat.

“Shhh, dear, don’t scare her,” she murmurs to my father.

The winter of nineteen-thirteen grips the sisters like a clenched fist. Giuseppina, Rosa and Elisa hold one another as they navigate the icy streets. They watch Camillo play in the drifts, shouting “Gee whiz golly!” like any New York kid.

Johnny’s patience wears thin. Giuseppina is still not married. Men are still coming around. 

Johnny takes his sister aside. He wants her to take Camillo to visit their mother in Italy. 

“Why doesn’t Elisa go?” asks Giuseppina. 

Johnny shakes his head. “Elisa’s place is here at the restaurant. You are a spinster: your only responsibility is to the family. You go.”

When I get home from the hospital, my grandmother is waiting. She’s made up a cot in the kitchen so she and my mother can keep an eye on me while they’re cooking.

My brother sits at the end of the daybed. “You missed seeing President Kennedy on TV.”

“So what? I got to play with a deaf-blind girl,” I brag.

“The Russians are going to drop the Bomb. Dad showed us where to hide in the fruit cellar so our skin doesn’t peel off.”

Just then, Nonna walks in, yanks my brother off the daybed, and says: “Ricky is just trying to scare you for Halloween.”

My brother protests, “No I’m not!” as he’s hustled away.

I close my eyes and tell myself the story of Tammy and the Bachelor until I fall asleep.

u u u

On the day of the voyage, Johnny, Elisa, Rosa and Gaetano go down to the docks to see off Giuseppina and Camillo.

The ship sails in the spring of nineteen-fourteen. That August, the nations of Europe start to declare war on one other in a giant game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Camillo and Giuseppina are trapped on the other side of the ocean.

The New York newspapers are full of stories of civilian casualties. Elisa reads them and weeps.

When Armistice is declared, it takes some time for Giuseppina to secure passage to New York. She plans to bring Camillo home, then turn right around and sail back to Italy. During the war, she has fallen madly in love with a man in Piacenza. As they say on the Lower East Side: “Go figure!”

When the ship arrives in New York, Elisa and Johnny are waiting: for nothing. A passenger has died of Spanish Flu. The ship is quarantined for two weeks.

Elisa turns to Gaetano for help. He has a friend with a boat. She hires this man to take her into the harbour.

Standing in the tiny boat, beside the great iron wall of the ocean liner, she shouts up to a seaman: “I want to see my son!” She gives Camillo and Giuseppina’s names. Eventually, the two of them appear at the rail.

“Mamma!” shouts Camillo, although, in truth, he barely remembers her. He left New York at three and a half, and returns at nine years of age. He has also forgotten most of the English language.

Elisa makes the trip into the harbour every day. The seaman lowers a rope and Elisa ties a basket to the end of it, sending food and toys up to her son. 

This continues, day after day. The woman wrapped in scarves, bobbing in a small boat beside a great ship. The small boy on deck, looking down at her. 

Until, one day, she doesn’t show up.

When the ship is released from quarantine, Johnny takes his son to the Infectious Disease Hospital. It’s Camillo’s last chance to see his mother, who is dying of Spanish Flu.

Camillo looks through a tiny window to where Elisa lies on a metal cot. 

He peers and peers at the shape under the blanket. His forgotten mother. That night, Elisa dies.

On my first night home from the hospital, I’m reading Archie when my father comes into my bedroom.

“I hear Ricky was scaring you about the Bomb.”

“I knew it was just a made-up story,” I say.

“Everything is under control now, honey,” my father continues. “Khrushchev and the Cuban backed down.

Sleep tight now!” He turns off the light and leaves the room.

In the darkness, I think about the Bomb. Would our skin really have peeled off, like the tomatoes my mother boils for canning? And who is Kerchief? I’m pretty sure I know who the Cuban is: that singer married to I Love Lucy.

I fall asleep and dream of Lucy and Ethel in kerchiefs, working at a conveyor belt in a bomb factory. The bombs come faster and faster until the women are buried under them. They’re screaming. An unseen audience is laughing, just like on TV.

I wake up to my sister shaking me: “You’re having a nightmare.”

After Elisa’s death, Johnny is left with two unmarried sisters and a motherless son. He decides to take control of the situation.

“You marry Gaetano and stay in America,” he orders Giuseppina.

“But I have a sweetheart waiting for me in Piacenza!” Giuseppina protests.

“Not any more, you don’t,” says Johnny.

He announces that he’s taking Rosa and Camillo back to Italy; he will find a new wife to help raise the boy and run the restaurant. 

Giuseppina is forced to give up the man she loves. She and Gaetano have a stormy marriage and four children. She names one of her daughters “Elisa.”

Johnny meets a woman in Italy who says she would like nothing better than to run a restaurant in America.

On a train to Milan, Rosa meets a good-looking soldier. Paolo. The only one in his unit to survive the Spanish Flu. Before the War, he worked in Alberta, the Wild West, in a place called “Med-ah-cheen-ah Hat.”

“Too cold,” he tells Rosa. “Awful food!”

Paolo is one of those men women fall for a bit too easily. Hotheaded. Smokes a lot of cigars. Drinks a lot of wine. Pals around with Socialists.

“Not a good man,” Rosa admits. “But the best looking man in Piacenza.”

She marries him, of course.

They have a daughter. And trouble, because of Paolo’s left-wing sympathies. Socialists are hated by i Fascisti. When one of his friends is forced to drink castor oil until his bowels rupture, Paolo says to Rosa, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

And that’s how they end up in the Niagara Peninsula, darling.

After Halloween, begins the long, grey stretch of days recuperating at home. The drab hours drip off one by one: the voice of the local radio announcer, the deskwork sent home from school, my mother starching and ironing stacks of my father’s shirts.

On the daybed, I spread my Sleeping Beauty paper dolls; three good fairies and evil Maleficent, the witch who puts the much-loved child to sleep for a hundred years.

Nonna Rosa shows up with a bag of leftover candy. “Next year, Nonno Paolo will take you out for Halloween,” she tells me.

We sit together on the daybed, sharing the candy. Nonna swears softly in Italian – a Halloween kiss is sticking to her false teeth.

“I’m glad I didn’t die like Pover-Lizzie,” I say, expecting her to say, Don’t be silly, there was never any danger of that.

Instead, she shrugs and says, “It wasn’t your time, darling. Now, give your Nonna another sweet, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Terri Favro’s work has appeared in Grain, Prism, Geist, Riddle Fence, and More. She was short-listed twice for the 2007 CBC Literary Awards. Terri is currently collaborating on a graphic novel, Waiting for Mario Puzo. She lives in Toronto with her husband and sons.

“The Three Sisters of Piacenza” won Second Prize in the fourth annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2009.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 17. 

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