A name is more than just a name. When my daughter was born, I named her Graziella. Later on, when my mother became a US citizen, she changed her first name from Grazia to Graziella. So, as tradition would typically dictate, you would conclude that I named my daughter after my mother. Nothing is farther from the truth. Graziella is the name of the Sicilian girl I fell in love with during my last year at the Scuola Media Luigi Pirandello. Graziella is the reason why I left Italy.
I met Graziella when we moved from my village to a suburb closer to the city. She was slender, with dark brown eyes, dark black hair, and dark brown skin. When walking, Graziella's slim body danced in a slow rhythmic motion. In that tiny second, when her brown eyes met my stare for the first time, she knew that I was thunderstruck. I felt the closeness of her tender emotions.
Vallone's public fountain overlooked the window where I studied. No days passed without our furtive glances becoming more and more earnest. Every day, Graziella, at the same time, would fill her family water jar to catch my eyes. Every day, at the same time, I looked up, longing for Graziella to show up. Day after day, we embraced with our eyes and nothing, but we existed at that moment.
Bus # 17 took Graziella to her job as a seamstress apprentice from Scalo Ritiro to Messina. The same bus took me to my classes at the Istituto Verona Trento. Same bus stop, same time for Graziella and me. My habit was to eat and study voraciously until the sound of the bus made around the last curve coming down the hill. I just knew how much time I had to rush to the bus stop and make it in time. Yet, some days, the bus moved faster, and I would be running with my books in my hands pushing an extra step so as not to miss the bus. There I was rushing out of my house gate with the bus ready to take off at the bus stop. Always on time waiting for bus # 17, Graziella felt that I was approaching. What did she do? She slenderly placed one foot on the bus and gracefully waited with the other foot on the asphalt until she saw me coming from the bottom of the hill. I had to run out of breath to make it. When Graziella sensed that I would surely make it, she placed the other foot on the bus steps with turtle speed, feeling my presence behind her.
What did we do once on the bus? We did not say a word. Instead, I held to the vertical handrail that Graziella had just held a second before me. There, in silence, with the space between us reduced to a timeless zero. Graziella's aura took me. We evolved into the expression of an invisible weightless being.
Days, months, years passed, suspended in endless delight. I put in my load of work and did well in school. I prided myself with my prodigy as a football goalkeeper between school and homework. Nothing got past me. Yet, Graziella was my true rapture. She was my reason for being.
Those days were the mid-sixties, and people struggled to make a living in my part of the world (so it seemed). While out of work, my father received news that his dream of emigrating to America would become a reality. It was a matter of months. Finally, however, upon my relentless insistence, everyone ( two younger brothers and two younger sisters and my parents) was expatriating to Boston, Massachusetts but me. The eldest was going to stay to complete my studies as a mechanical engineer at the Istituto Verona Trento. My parents had arranged for me to stay with close friends who considered me a member of their family. Bed, desk, and books were set. I was content. After all was said and done, Graziella was my main reason for being. Graziella was my main reason for staying.
It was in the Fall of 1965 when it all happened. It all changed. I was riding bus # 17 to downtown Messina at an unusual, odd hour on a Sunday afternoon to meet friends from school. The bus was packed, and when I mounted it with my usual joyful stride, I only found standing room in the front at the vertical handrail where I usually stood next to Graziella. I missed her presence. As I casually scavenged my traveling companions, I froze my stare at the back of the bus. I saw Graziella. She was standing next to a young man who, undoubtedly with words that I could not hear, was making her smile. It was a unique smile filled with admiration and filtration. It was not meant for me.
In the Spring of 1966, on April 5, I was on an Alitalia flight on my way to Boston. Graziella was the reason why I was on that flight.
1. In Italian, Graziella is diminutive of Grazia
2. In Sicily, sons and daughters named their children after their grandparents
3. Realizing my infatuation, my mom confronted me one day asking, “Cosa vuoi fare con questa ragazza?” “What are your intentions with this girl?” I simply replied, “Mamma, io la voglio sposare!” “Mom, I want to marry her!” [The emotional horror of her reaction is another story]
4. The cost of the trip with bus # 17 from Scala Ritiro, the suburb, to Messina was ⅓ the price of the cost of the trip with bus # 22 from Salice, my village, to Messina, the city
5. Vallone was a suburb of Scala Ritiro and Scala Ritiro was a suburb of Messina
6. My prodigy consisted of returning home with bleeding body parts. Once I returned home with a broken nose, ended up in a hospital, and almost died with non-stoppable hemorrhaging.
7. In the sixties, Southern Italy still suffered the effect of World War II
8. During the summers, while my father was unemployed, I worked at a beach resort and made enough money to support the family
9. I did not want to separate from Graziella. Plus, I was a soccer hero. Plus, I did well in school. Plus, I was admired by my friends and respected by adults
10. We attended school six days per week with only Sunday as a day off
11. The back of the bus was usually for the twenty-something who had found an identity in our society making a living working at skilled jobs and considered themselves better than those of us who went to school