Causes of my grandmother’s lifelong limp – the one that afflicted her right leg (or maybe it was her left, memories contradict) – are lost to time and the Sicilian aptitude for turning the ordinary into the legendary. Consider the Tale of Uncle Benny’s Toe. It chronicles an American tourist in Rome who suddenly is laid low by an infection in the big toe of his right foot; his wife, whose Italian is better, explains to the hotel staff that a doctor is needed – l’alluce! aiuto, per favore! A cabbie appears in the night to rush the couple to a clinic where, grazie a Dio, a doctor promptly and courteously lances the toe and sends Benny home with vials of yellow oil to be ingested once a day on arising for three consecutive days. The toe heals and, magia, yet another ten-day, eight-city packaged tour of the Old Country is salvaged.
Back at home in Connecticut and gathered around the kitchen tables of various relatives, Benny burnished his story over weak coffee and anisette toast. Saturday nights found him deepening the tale’s scope and widening its range so that his audience – a few cousins and Benny’s several brothers and their patient wives – would listen despite themselves, waiting for fresh discrepancies that drew bigger laughs, greater winces. For it is there, among family in the kitchen, that Sicilian children learn how lies are absolved when the truth is improved, more or less.
My Cousin Ann, alert to mythology on the hoof, eventually reproduced Uncle Benny’s narrative in a little book whose pages she typed herself and bound with kitchen string and a red cardboard cover. Benny is my father, my Grandmother Rose’s third or first son, depending if you count two stepbrothers beloved by Rose as if they were her own (as the story goes); these brothers – born two years apart, one prickly, one sainted –were my grandfather’s sons with a previous wife (also named Rose) who did not get on the boat when Francesco booked steerage for America. The First Rose died in a cholera epidemic (although it could have been a bad heart, as the uncles claim); the First Rose was left behind in a churchyard grave, somewhere near Francesco’s birthplace in Agrigento, Sicily, a place I am homesick for but have never seen.
(And here you ask, “Who are they to me, these small-time bugiardi, these long-dead immigrants of yours steaming up the windows with rapid-fire whoppers! Looking in on this assembly, perhaps you find my family harmlessly charming, relics no more valuable to you than the scratch plow that once uncrusted volcanic hillsides before spring planting. Maybe you are like me and every other New World citizen, convinced that you emerged inevitably as Yourself. But stay a little. With your sleeve wipe away a patch in the steamy glass. See the limp, the lies, the ship, the Ellis Island list. Understand that these things are first and you are last. Never, or so I’ve learned, the other way around.)
One September morning, his 26th birthday just a week or so away, the man who would become my grandfather woke early. His little sons slept nearby on a pallet, pudgy Joe nestled beside long-limbed Paul. Except for the addition of his sons, the stucco-walled room was exactly as Francesco knew it from his own childhood, when he shared a bed with two older brothers, both soldiers posted in the foothills north of Milan. No one had heard from these blue-eyed brothers, dice-players like their mother, for several years. Now as he stood beside the louvered window opened wide to the busy trills of finches in the plane trees, Francesco reflexively made his morning offering, dedicating the new day and all his thoughts and all his deeds to the Almighty, as my grandfather had been taught as a child to do.
Tall and fair, his hair prematurely graying and his cheekbones set higher and more nobly than his brothers, Francesco rubbed his eyes, blue as the cloudless sky. His bare feet were callused and sore from cheap Army boots he’d worn as a conscript; it felt good simply to stand on the chilly tiles, faded by the sun and cracked over the centuries by trembling earth. Francesco gazed at his sons. Kicked away in the night and wadded near their grubby feet was a blanket knitted by the boys’ mother as she had waited for Paul to be born and Francesco to return as promised from the Army. My grandfather’s hand reached for the blanket, made of black peasant wool that had long ago surrendered its shape. Francesco intended to neaten the thing, to tuck the cover around his sons, as if an object lovingly made could draw its maker closer. Sunshine warmed the room. Francesco began to pray, as he did every morning, that his Rose would join with all the souls in heaven to protect skinny Paul and too-sure Joe. At mid-prayer, Francesco stopped.
The finches sang on and the sun rose higher and the orange tiles bleached some more under my grandfather’s feet. Forming in Francesco’s mind was a question that, as far as he knew, no one in Agrigento had ever asked himself before: Why are you here? Or as my grandfather would say years later, the question surfaced and then revised itself instantly. Even before drawing a next breath he heard, less existentially, Why are you still here?
The young widower – handsome, quick witted, well spoken – at first thought his inquisitor was the older boy, Joe; in any pack of brothers there always is an insolent one. Paul was three, old enough to find trouble but yet too little to enjoy it; Joe, at five, had a fascination with fire and could curse in two dialects (Francesco had overhead him and could attest that the boy’s accent was very good.) Why are you still here? was just the sort of provocation that Joe would indulge on a golden morning when other boys are happy with an orange for breakfast and the promise of another romping, shoeless, motherless day.
“Son,” Francesco said, “don’t speak to me that way.”
(Or maybe he didn’t say this; my grandfather tells three versions of this story. Sometimes he speaks harshly to Joe, making him cry and waking the eternally blameless Paul, who enters the tale wailing. In another telling, my grandfather stares at Joe and chides his son by very slowly mouthing, “Don’t speak to me that way.” And in yet another version, my favorite, Francesco discovers he cannot fault his son for asking a useful question; much as my grandfather believes in sanctioning disrespect, his heart overrules his head – a trait that Francesco suddenly realizes deserves some reconsidering.)
In all versions, my grandfather decides then and there, questo minuto, to be the first man in Agrigento to accept the challenge, Why are you still here? The answer leads him out the door of his mother’s crumbling two-story home and past the stinking outhouse. He passes stubs of sandstone columns dating to the Carthaginians and used in Francesco’s day (my grandfather insists) as mortars to grind nutmeg for roast chicken. At this point in his story, my grandfather inserts a long pause. The eyelids close and Francesco’s large head tips back, uplifted forehead forming a natural escarpment on which to scaffold dreams.
Sitting on the round green hassock beside his chair, I would stay as silent as possible during Francesco’s lull. Perhaps this was the afternoon when, without a question from me, those details omitted from every previous version of Francesco’s Coming to America tale finally would be relinquished, offered up one by one like tinned sardines forked from oily ooze.
As a child, all I wanted to hear about was the First Rose. I envisioned her as my grandfather’s equal, a lean blonde who sang as she fetched water at dawn from the piazza fountain. The First Rose of my imagination was known far and wide for her anginetti, the delicate iced cookies that figment Rose would bake not only at Christmas (as tradition demands) but year-round, whenever lemons that went into the batter were at their best. To the mind of a dreamy suburban eight-year-old, the First Rose dwelled in a pristine landscape blessed with water, free of poverty. The First Rose was devoted to my grandfather, and he to her. (Shameful to admit that my First Rose is the simplest inside-out version of my real-life Grandmother Rose – short, wide, lame and, uno stinco di santo, wise as a saint.)
Francesco had nine children, boys all but one, and so he grew adept at knowing when it was safe to ignore questions directed his way. I was one of a dozen grandchildren and a girl. I had a lot of questions. But the upward angle of my grandfather’s clean-shaven face – eyes shut, lips stilled – told me that this day, as on all others, the facts I most hoped to pocket would be withheld.
“Someday, Grandpa?” I said. “If I ask another day, you’ll tell me about the First Rose?”
“It would be my pleasure,” he would say. And we both knew that this was Sicilian for “never.”
As all descendants of immigrants learn, the generations are separated by more than mismatched internal cadence. While I’m as Italian as if born over there – my parents are children of immigrants – to my Sicilian grandfather, I was just another American, satisfied by facts and figures, fidgety around wishes and whimsy. I was given the middle name “Vera” (“true” in Latin, unavoidably) to honor my maternal grandmother, Elvira, who emigrated from Florence in 1912; my earliest memories are of wanting to know but stuck with selectively stubborn grandparents who could not – or would not – say.
So much to tell! How much time had passed between Francesco’s first glimpse of New York harbor on March 4, 1902, and that Agrigento morning when he had stopped his prayer (never, he swore, to resume the practice in America.) Did he depart his mother’s home within days? Weeks? Did he lean his bicycle against a headstone, remove his cap and whisper good-bye to the First Rose? On nights before hitchhiking to Palermo, did he sit with his mother while she begged her only reliable son to stay? Did he forgive her for gambling away his uniform, leaving Francesco no choice but to go AWOL until a buddy smuggled a replacement. Did he convince himself that wish and whimsy were no inheritance at all, especially when America – vast horizons, free education, abundant food – was a $30 boat-ticket away?
Never an answer.
My every question ignored or, worse, repeated in Italian I couldn’t understand, rapidamente, and drawing incredulous hoots. But why? Why keep themselves to themselves? The Saturday night legend-trading began to lose its appeal, even as Sambuca replaced Folger’s in the family’s prosperous years. I turned to books, as abundant in my growing-up years as they’d been absent in my parents’.
I’ve seen pictures, I told my grandfather.
“Naturalmente,” he replied. Of course.
We two had often walked the high-ceilinged halls of my Aunt Rose’s house, where black-and-white photos (“Here is your Uncle Paul in Brooklyn, here is your Uncle Joe standing on his ear, here is your father with a full head of hair….”) were hung in well-lit places of honor.
“I meant in books,” I said. “I’ve seen pictures in books.”
Silence. Keeping himself to himself.
But reading in bed and into the night, I had indeed seen it – Agrigento, ancient Greek outpost, capital of a southern province of the same name, home to il Valle dei Templi – which, I informed my grandfather, was no valley at all.
Was I trespassing? If yes, I don’t recall any remorse: “Now I know where you came from.”
“Don’t you believe it,” my grandfather said. Then gently, very gently: “No one can ever know what he leaves behind.”
Rosanne Pagano is an Alaska-based writer and editor, and assistant professor at Alaska Pacific University.
“Truth, More or Less” won the $1000 Grand Prize in the 2015 Accenti Writing Contest, awarded at the Annual Accenti Awards held during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2015.