HOME GROWN TALES





This is a story built on hearsay; it has some basis in real events and the rest is an attempt at imagining someone else's life situation.  But all's well that ends well, right?

GAP

Through the window of the plane, Mary could see a shore shaped like a large crescent, with a ribbon of blinding white sand forming a nearly unbroken beach.  A motorway, crowded with traffic, ran parallel to the beach, and beyond it picturesque little houses climbed up the steep hills like a rock garden of red tile roofs.  The city of Palermo spread out its bulk near the middle of the bay, looking as drab as any city would look in this paradisal setting, while further on to the west, the top half of a conical mountain rose triumphantly through its dense cover of suburbia and ancient-looking monumental buildings.

The last one-hour leg of the trip from Minneapolis had been more trying than the entire flight from the States over to Rome.  After the freedom of the jumbo, Anne had been fretful and frustrated over having to stay put in her seat in a small DC-9.  She had hardly slept during the Atlantic crossing, keeping her mother awake as well, and Mary knew their jet lag would be twice as difficult because of the night they had missed out on.

While she tried to keep Anne interested in the sights along the shore, Mary was going through a long overdue reckoning with herself.  Why had her marriage failed so miserably, and in such a patently unspectacular way?  Had Michael found her so boring that he had simply resorted to the bottle as a surrogate?  Or were they incompatible from the start, like Mary's mother had always said?  Michael's Anglo-Saxon heritage was so solid and so American, while Mary's own identity was always balancing between the British roots of her father and the urgent sense of being part of the Italian culture of her mother's family.  Now, with the divorce behind her, she had determined to seek out her Sicilian relatives and begin to form some kind of understanding of where she really belonged.

"Mom, why couldn't we have stayed in Rome for a couple of days, at least?" Anne asked.  "All the kids will think I'm nuts to go all the way to Italy and never see Rome!"

"We'll see Rome on the way back," Mary told her.  "We'll have to attend this funeral first."

"But I never knew that old man, so why should I go to his funeral?" Anne insisted. Mary fully agreed with the principle of that; but she hadn't seemed to have any choice; when she had called up her cousin Antonino from the Linate airport to report their safe landing on Italian soil, he had told her to continue directly to Palermo in such a commanding manner that Mary just went on to the domestic booking counter without ever questioning herself as to why she was changing her plans.

"He was a brother of your great-grandfather," Mary answered her daughter.  "My grandfather died twenty-five years ago in his late sixties, and this old man was his youngest brother.  All the people we're going to meet are our relatives, and since we happened to be coming here, they just figured that we should go along to the funeral.  It's good manners, that's all."

"Can't we go shopping first?"  Anne was twelve and had discovered the lure of the shopping mall some time earlier.  She proudly called herself and her best friend "mallies"; they would hang around Southtown Plaza in a seemingly aimless manner, drifting in and out of stores, intensely aware of what was going on and of who was paying attention to them.  Mary was at a loss as to where the fashion had come from, but it certainly was conditioning her daughter to be a true American woman of today, living by and for the TV and the shopping centre.

"Perhaps," she answered, just to get out of it.  The plane was now preparing to land, and Anne was, for the moment, occupied with what was going on.  They were soon on their way to collect their luggage, and Mary kept a lookout for Antonino, whom she had never met.  She needn't have worried; Antonino spotted the two Americans without trouble and greeted them like old friends.  His warm embrace and the kiss on her cheek gave Mary an overwhelming sense of belonging; this was the way her grandparents had always treated her when she was a little girl.  Too bad they had to die so long ago; she could have done with more of this.

"Have you had anything to eat?" Antonino inquired.  When Mary affirmed that they had been served a nice snack on board, Antonino told them that they would leave for the countryside immediately.  Everyone else was already in Villadoro for the wake; only Antonino had stayed behind to pick up the travellers.  They packed their suitcases into Antonino's little Fiat, leaving just enough room for Anne in the back seat, and set off along the road Mary had seen from the plane.

"It's bad luck that Nonno Sergio happened to die just now," Antonino said.  "You could have had a nice, restful weekend in Palermo, done some swimming at the beach, but now we have to go to the country.  You will see Palermo later."  "Who shot him?" asked Anne.  "I knew you'd say that," Mary groaned, as Antonino threw a quick glance at Anne through the rear-view mirror.  "Nonno Sergio was very old, about 85," Antonino answered.  He died of pneumonia.  It was a very wet winter up there and he didn't get better after spring came."  "Why didn't they put him in a nursing home?" Anne ventured.  "He'd have been warm and snug there."  Antonino didn't bother to reply.

The car soon turned off from the motorway and headed up into the mountains.  Mary had never seen a road like the one they were travelling on; it was narrow and worn, and wound its way between cliffs and precipices, with hardly any barriers on either side.  In one spot a recent earthquake had caused a landslide that had made half of the road simply disappear.  Antonino slowed down just perceptibly and mumbled about the inefficiency of the road authorities.

Soon, Anne complained about getting sick and had to be let out for some air as they came to a small town.  Looking around, Mary was awed by the lack of life around them.  It was Saturday, just after noon, and the shops were closed; from the houses, she could smell the aromas of Italian food being prepared.  The men were resting, the women were cooking.  It suddenly occurred to Mary that she must be putting Antonino out--he wasn't used to doing anything at this time of day, and especially not for a woman.  Mary felt acutely embarrassed, all the more so as Anne was getting crankier by the minute, and she desperately searched herself for that familiar self-assuredness of the American woman she had always thought she was.  Antonino was ten years younger than she, in his early twenties, but here, in the culture were Mary belonged through ancestry if not by choice, he exuded the absolute authority of a father or an elder brother.

After another hour that felt like an eternity, they arrived in Villadoro, a minute village of white little houses huddled together in the middle of olive green bean fields and vineyards, blanketing the rolling hills in every direction until the mountains broke through in their abrupt quest for the sky.  Now there were more signs of life; sounds of a meal being served greeted them from every house, except for the one where they entered.  A black flag hung out of an upstairs window, and the mournful wailing of women rose and fell, filling the household with gloom.

The wake had been going on since early that day, and it would continue until the next morning; the entombment was to follow that same Sunday.  Mary had it hard to understand how everything could be done so quickly, with all the members of the family seemingly upstairs taking part in the wake, but concluded that the explanation had to be the absence of a funeral director and all the elaborate, and expensive, ritual his profession imposes on her compatriots.

Before they went upstairs to join the family, Antonino introduced Mary and Anne to the women who were in the kitchen preparing snacks for everyone, as formal meals weren't taken during the wake.  One was Rosa, his wife; his sister Giovanna also was there, while the matron of the house, Aunt Lucia, presided over everything that went on.  Lucia soon had them seated and fed, and even Anne stopped complaining for a while.  Rosa, too, spoke English, and took over as interpreter, while Antonino disappeared after a quick bite of pizza.

Lucia's husband, Salvatore, had received word of their arrival and came down to greet them.  Mary immediately recognised her mother's cousin from the old photos she had seen, although Salvatore must by now have been about sixty.  After his father's death, Salvatore was the head of the family; even Anne could sense his dignity and behaved quite politely.

Salvatore inquired about their health and the journey, and was presently satisfied that they had been well cared for so far.  "And how is your husband, Michele?" he asked.  Mary had been getting used to the language during the past hours, finding that she could understand most of what was being said.  Her grandparents had always spoken Sicilian with her, and she felt it coming back to her more and more.  Hence, she had a few seconds to think before the question was translated.

Mary felt her heart sink.  Here, it would be incomprehensible, and scandalous, that she had been divorced from Michael.  His alcoholism was not an issue; all men drink wine, and all women put up with it--anyway, here, alcohol was not known as a problem.  Mary just couldn't bring herself to admit to the divorce, fearing more for the disgrace she would bring on Salvatore and his family than for what might befall herself, and determined to pretend it had never happened.  Rarely had she needed Michael as much as she needed him now, when he was six thousand miles away and not even her husband anymore.

"He's fine," she replied, and proceeded to explain why he hadn't come along--his work was keeping him too busy.  Then Anne almost blew it.  "Mom and Dad have just..." she began, and stopped short as Mary stepped on her foot with considerable weight.  "...bought a new house," Mary filled in, while Anne received a pinch for good measure.  She was not a stupid child; for the moment, she shut up, meaning to find out later why she had been corrected.  Fortunately, Lucia came about with some goodies for dessert, and Mary gently led the discussion onto other matters.

Upstairs, Nonno Sergio's body was laid out in an open coffin in a room that seemed too large for the house. Mary and Anne were invited to pay their respects to the dead man they had never known.  Mary felt it was such a shame she had missed out on him by just a day; he could have told her things about her grandfather and grandmother that she'd never find out now--why they had left for America, what their childhood had been like, what they had written home about.  Mary was happy that Anne made no outrageous comments, as she didn't know how she could have coped
with them just then.

They were assigned two hard, straight-backed chairs along a side wall, and sat down.  Family members around them, whose names Mary would have to catch up on later, were sobbing in grief.  The women cried aloud.  Mary felt immensely moved and was close to tears herself; thrown into the bereavement, as she had been, with much less warning than her relatives.  Then Anne broke the spell.  "Mom, when can we leave?" she asked.

Mary knew that there were eighteen more hours to go of the wake.  She and Anne would have to sit it out, come what may, as they were family members, bound by custom, and guests, dependent on the hospitality and the approval of their hosts.  Although other children and teenagers were present, there was no reason to hope that Anne would last that long; Anne had never had to endure anything beyond her attention span; she was used to being continuously entertained.  Mary's childhood had been so different--she had always taken part in household work together with her mother and grandmother; she had grown up in the closeness of a clan just like this one, where aunts, uncles, and cousins were always around and just as much a part of the family as your own parents, brothers, and sisters.

"I want to go shopping!" Anne declared, before Mary had figured out how to break the news to her.  "Would you cut it out!" Mary nearly yelled, instantly regretting her lack of diplomacy.  Fortunately, no-one around them understood English.  "We can't go just yet; we have to be polite and stay here as long as the others," she corrected herself, squeezing Anne's hand as a gesture of reassurance.  "Will the shops be open still when it's over?" Anne asked.

"Look, the shops around here are closed already for the weekend," Mary said.  "When someone has died like this, the whole family sits up for twenty-four hours crying for them.  After the funeral, we'll go back to Palermo and then we'll go to the shops."

"But why do we have to sit here all that time?" Anne demanded, her voice rising with irritation.  "We didn't know him!  We aren't part of his family.  At least I'm not," she announced, making ready to get up and go.

Mary was panicked.  "Please behave yourself!" she pleaded.  "We're guests here, and we've got to do what's expected of us.  Can't you understand that things are different here?"

"Well, I don't like Italy, if this is what it's like.  You can keep it," Anne answered.  "I thought we'd be going to the beach and the shops, and see the Coliseum, not just sit on a chair all day.  Why did you want to come to a place like this?"

"I didn't know there'd be a funeral as soon as we got here," Mary whispered.  "Look, you just sit there and be quiet.  If you make a scandal now, we'll be out there on the street with no car and no hotel.  People are staring at us already."

The last statement wasn't quite true, because their subdued conversation hadn't made any impact over the wailing of the mourners.  It had the desired effect, though, and Anne kept quiet for several minutes.  Meanwhile, Mary was doing some more soul-searching.  She could remember the wakes after her grandfather and her grandmother quite vividly; she had been less than seven years old then but she had lived the grieving; the wake had had true meaning to her.  She had never shown such disrespect for her elders as every child and teenager seemed to harbour these days.  What was so different?

One thing that made it harder to raise children to a sense of respect and responsibility would have to be the sheer convenience of modern life.  Machines and service businesses did everything; there were no jobs left for children to do.  If you really wanted something done, you had to bargain with your kids; let the son have the car if he'd mow the lawn, pay the daughter for babysitting.  One or two generations ago, children knew that their contribution was essential to keeping the household going, and they made it as a matter of course.  At this rate, today's kids would grow up thinking the world owed them a living.  Wonderful material for marketers and politicians...

Anne was making noises again, and Mary braced herself for another argument.  But this time nature was on Mary's side.  The jet lag was finally hitting home, and Anne laid her head on Mary's lap and fell asleep.  It was now past seven in the morning back in Minnesota, and Mary, too, felt the loss of a night's rest.  The fact that they were attending a wake seemed to be quite unimportant.  Mary quietly drifted off to sleep on her chair.