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Sicilian Roots

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

There is a typical Italian saying, “Si sa’ dove si nasce, e non si sa’ dove si muore,” One knows where one is born, but one doesn’t know where one will die.” Well, we could use a similar analogy for my grandparents, “So chi sono i miei nonni, ma non li’ ho mai conosciuti.” “I know who my grandparents are, but I have not known them.” All of them but one.

My mother grew up without a father. Later on in life, while recounting the experience, in a moment of peaceful bliss, she realized that her biological father could have a pseudonym uncle from nearby Gesso, Messina, from whom she inherited olive groves. We produced our family’s organic oil from these olives in post-World War II Sicily and used it to barter for other needed household goods.

My mother grew up as an orphan. During the bombardments of Messina, her mom, after a prolonged illness with untreatable constipation, closed her eyes for the last time, cared for, under candlelight, by my mom’s tender, frightened eyes.

The same truthfulness was also a reality for my father. His mother was blinded in the right eye with a pair of scissors when she was an adolescent during a mischievous altercation with her siblings. Later in life, she succumbed to a tetanus infection while my father was still attending elementary school. Although my grandfather remarried, my father and his older brothers never considered my step-grandmother as a safe, nourishing refuge.

Contrary to my dad’s feelings about having to grow up as an orphan, since my grandfather was never around, I always found warmth with my step-grandmother. Every time we visited her in Faro Superiore, we always stayed overnight, and when we woke up to go down to a live fire-stove kitchen, we felt the warmth of bread dipped into a tall cup of hot orzo, barley coffee.

Whenever I stayed for one week at a time during summer months in Faro Superiore, my grandparents’ village, my step-grandmother always attended to my needs and taught me simple life skills. One day while doing chores in the countryside, she encouraged me to use fig leaves to take care of my personal hygiene in place of toilet tissues.

I could feel my step-grandmother’s loneliness and the pain she felt living in an empty house after my grandfather had passed away. It was the summer of 1972. Her bones almost transpired through her skin, but her eyes filled the void with joyful tears upon looking at my transformation from a shy boy to a confident young man. When we said goodbye, we both knew that it was for the last time. I couldn’t tell if it was ever possible to feel joy without sadness.

There is comfort in knowing that there are exceptions to perceiving the world. My exception is the memory that I have of him while attending the Luigi Pirandello in Messina. I was dumbfounded. He had saved fifty thousand lire to give me for being a good student, but when he reached for his back pocket, he realized that someone had stolen the money.

In retrospect, I was selfish toward my grandfather. He was so proud of me, and I could have reciprocated his affection by being more engaged. Yet, when he asked me to read, I skipped the sentences to get over the task as soon as possible. When he took the ball away from me while I was playing soccer with my friends, I was resentful without realizing that he had traveled a long way to spend time with me and have a memory that could keep him company when he felt lonely.

My grandfather, Pasquale, knew how precious time was and how fleeting each moment could be. He knew that time is a gift and that, sooner than expected, it is taken away. He sensed it. I didn’t. I should have known better. My grandfather had twirled-up mustaches and a semi-bold head. I thought that was how grandfathers should look. Even better, my grandfather looked like a proud king, and that’s how I remember him.

Now that I am a grandfather, bold but without mustaches, I genuinely know what my own and only known grandfather was trying to do. My grandfather, Pasquale, gave me unconditional love and did not expect anything back. So whenever my grandson says, “Thank you, Nonno!” for the little things that I do for him, my heart melts, and my emotions travel in space and time. I hope some of the love travels toward my grandfather, Pasquale.

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