From Palermo eastward to Messina, then south along the straits across from mainland Italy, Sicily rises steeply from the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. Millenia of seasonal rains have carved river beds into steep, narrow folds in a deeply corrugated, undulating landscape. The A20 Nazionale highway along the north coast courses a steady path under tunnels and over suspension bridges. It is a plumb, efficient concrete course, as unwavering as the A natural oboe pitch piercing the riot of an orchestra tuning itself. Access to the scant beaches below the A20 is past unmanned toll booths and down long exit ramps and disconcerting switch backs that lower you to the sea.
I was travelling with John and Jessica. The focus of their trip was a small interior town from whence Jessica’s grandmother, Maria Manusé, emigrated at the beginning of the last century. When Jessica was a child this beloved grandmother always referred to the life she left behind by the town’s exotic name, Valguanera Caropepe. Jessica was returning for the third time, seeking relatives, both living and dead, intent on uncovering as many as possible. Sleuthing in the town cemetery on that first visit, she met the caretaker, who knew the Manusé family. He led her to the home of Ignazio, the missing link, her grandmother’s sister’s nephew. When she showed me his picture on her phone, she described him as a simple old man, devoted to his children and his vegetable garden. She had returned for a memorable visit with him and his extended family, but he died after that second visit. She was coming back for a still deeper connection, whether to her grandmother, her rediscovered famiglia, or herself wasn’t clear.
It was nice to have someone to travel with, and I always wanted to see Mt. Etna. It turned out to be, like many things, simple enough to spot from afar but harder to find the closer you got. We drove up toward it through the back roads with poor signage, constantly seeking higher ground, until we found ourselves in the narrow main street of Zafferana, a market town. We stopped to ask for directions. It was Saturday and Zafferana was busy with late morning shoppers. Produce was on open display in slatted wooden crates propped up outside the shops: shiny green bell peppers, eggplant the color of a deep bruise, figs in their leathery skin, dark string-beans nearly two feet long, and speckled courgettes still bearing a pale ruffle of leaves at their stalk-ends.
We walked into an old book-shop. The books on the shelves bore Italian titles running up rather than down their spines. A display rack of dusty tourist postcards, curled with age, sat far back from the entrance, virtually ignored. Across the narrow street the walls of a tobacco shop bore an impressive collection of framed, glossy black-and-whites of mid 20th century Hollywood stars. Away from the relentless holiday traffic of Taormina and Catania, everything seemed gathered in a moment of timeless synchronicity, what the tourist brochures would have assured was the real Sicily.
I don’t know when he approached her, but I saw a small old man, stopped on the sidewalk, talking to Jessica. He was her height, short, thick-set next to her wiry frame. He had seen her admiring the produce. He reached into one of the crates and offered her a fig, then offered one to John and then to me. He was deliberate, almost ceremonial. He and Jessica continued talking and nodding at each other. He assured her the road to Mt. Etna was straight ahead. At one point she cupped the side of his face in her hand, a gesture that seemed at once both daringly intimate and utterly disarming.
After we left the black, ashen Mt. Etna, having decided against going up, intimidated by its gathering clouds, the A19 Nazionale offered our smooth and level exit route, running inland from Catania, across the high and arid fields of Sicily’s interior. Town after town was announced by road-sign. The distance to each, measured in kilometers, methodically lessened with each mention until its final exit was posted. Then another town was announced. Sferro. Catena Nuova. Libertina. Cuttuchi.
We had reservations at Masseria Mandrasacate, a few miles outside Valguanera Caropepe. The masseria was a 16th century fortified farm estate. Its massive inner courtyard, flanked by a high stone wall and a series of outbuildings, sat on a private hilltop shouldering out what in its productive days would have been the surrounding chaos of hunger and misery that was Sicily under Spanish rule. It had been converted to an agritourist villa. The night we arrived the courtyard was arranged for a wedding reception. Tables were set out for 120 guests, with chairs wrapped in show-white cotton tethered by braided silk ties. A Brazilian combo played bossa nova and samba. The next morning at breakfast we were commandeered by Rosa, the hostess, whose family has owned the estate for generations. She wrapped her privilege around her as if it were self-evident glamour and greeted us with photos albums and newspaper clippings about the masseria, its fashionable visitors and its storied past, instead of coffee and something to eat. When food was finally proffered it was a boiled egg and a sliver of wobbly ricotta cheese, drizzled with olive oil.
The Spanish built the town of Valguanera Caropepe, too, on its own hilltop. It is a rambling maze of small houses shouldering narrow streets with a few unassuming piazzas. It had its heyday in the 19th century when the sulfur mines were at peak production. A dusty pall over everything mutes any charm the town might otherwise offer. It is surrounded by the dun-colored stubble left in the post-harvest wheat fields, unfenced and running to the far mountains, land that once was the breadbasket that fed the Roman Empire. At a lesser distance is the city of Enna, looking inaccessible on its own outcropping.
By previous arrangement we met Jessica’s cousin Rosetta at the Via Concezzione, next to the cemetery where she had first exhumed a family connection. After animated greetings I followed her car across town to the Buglio. Maria, Ignazio’s widow, was waiting for us there. The Buglio is a random collection of do-it-yourself dwellings built around private gardens on the hillside skirting the old town. The simple houses line narrow, steeply pitched, tightly curved alleyways. In front of Maria’s building, Rosetta assured me that what appeared to be a common right-of-way was the perfect place to park the car. A head popped out of a second-story balcony, some words in Sicilian dialect were exchanged, and a set of keys was dropped into Rosetta’s hands. We were to go up.
It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun was at its peak in a cloudless mid-August sky. Accustomed to a cool North Atlantic climate, I was faint. At the top of the stairs a still denser hot air mass met my entry to the parlor. I was introduced all around and I muttered piacere as bravely as I could. The small chairs in the parlor were pulled into a semicircle around the settee where, as a first-time visitor, it was indicated I should sit. Once it was established that I had a few words of Italian the talk flowed on around me. Maria was Ignazio’s second wife, the sister of his first wife. When Ignazio was left widowed with five children, Maria honored her duty to marry him and raise those kids, along with the children they would have together. Emigration still plagues Sicily. Many of their children live abroad: Genoa, Hamburg, Colmar. Those adult children still at home visit their expat siblings regularly. The number in town on any given day is a fluid one. I had all this patiently explained to me but in the heat, through the veil of my poor Italian and their strong Sicilian dialect, names and histories began to blur. I found myself focused on individual words, adrift from the conversational flow. Occasionally Jessica turned to me and told me something in English while the rest of the room went suddenly silent and stared at me expectantly. I struggled to know if we were talking about ancestors long gone, people I had just met, people who weren’t in the room, or people who weren’t expected to return to Valguanera Caropepe until Maria’s funeral.
Maria seemed confused about what was supposed to happen. She spoke in a soft, interrogatory whisper. She went to the kitchen counter at one end of the small parlor, pulled out a box of pasta and asked if she should make a meal. “No,” Jessica assured her. “Tomorrow. We’ll come back for a meal tomorrow.” This seemed to settle the question of what was to happen, and the conversation drifted back to who was in town, who was away, and how everyone was doing. Eventually a lull fell over the conversation. As best I could tell, the few topics raised, then dropped, concerned ancestral connections, family lore and remnant memories of place names. Rochester was mentioned a few times, but its relevance escaped me. Finally, the universal language of shuffling feet, shifting seats and clearing throats signaled an end to the gathering, with assurances that tomorrow afternoon was convenient for everyone. The others would be notified. We would all reconvene. When I was bid “until tomorrow,” I heard myself saying “I’m sorry. I have other plans. It was so nice to meet you.” This unexpected, last-minute reflex on my part was met with smiles, understanding nods, good byes and nice-to-meet-you all around.
I sat out the next day’s repast by lounging by the pool at the masseria and reflecting on the intensity of that visit, on Jessica’s relentless curiosity about lineage, relatives, connections. She offered dimly remembered threads of her grandmother’s words, names of relatives her grandmother mentioned, and she pursued these, eager to connect those pieces to the puzzle of the Buglio. All this had disturbed me. I was unsettled by the invocation of so many dead, by the open pursuit of them. It had triggered dreams of my own dead. They are numerous, too. And they can be very demanding, even if I ask nothing of them. Their work – and their earthly joys – are done, and I find it’s best to leave them be.
As if to snap me out of my reveries, my smartphone dinged with an incoming photo, and then another. They were of Jessica, taken by John, that morning. They had obviously made another visit to her cemetery of disinterred roots. In an enthusiasm for what she had learned, she was documenting headstones. In one of the photos, Jessica stands next to a polished marble slab. The sun highlights her hair. Her body is slightly bent toward the grave-marker. Her eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, but her mouth is set in that grim way loss sometimes brings. The list of names on the headstone begins with DIDIO, Giuseppe. Just below is MANUSE, Guiseppa, the great aunt she never knew. The word PAX is etched on an adjacent marble column.
In a second photo she stands next to Ignazio’s grave. In this one she holds a Kleenex in her left hand. She has been crying. Her handbag dangles from its strap in the crook of her left elbow. Over and behind the grave is a niche in the mausoleum wall. It has a clear glass door. Through the door, on a shelf, standing on a lace doily, is a small painted statue of the Virgin Mary. Above the door, etched in marble, is the inscription RIPOSA IN PACE.
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