Searching Her Past, Finding His Presence

By Linda Puglisi Zanelotti
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Recordo . . . recordo.

That's my Sicilian uncle Joe whispering a final piece of advice at our table in the restaurant, the one with no name and no menu. He wanted me to remember . . . remember this town of Novara, even as it's taken on a new identity of late, emerging as a center for agritourism just across the strait from the Italian mainland. But what he really wanted me to remember . . . remember was my heritage in the village of San Marco, near Messina, the little corner of the world where my father had spent his youth. I knew my father -- indeed, we all did -- as the gentle but gregarious owner of a shoe repair shop in Anacostia. But he was much more, and Uncle Joe seemed to be implying that you couldn't really understand how much more without a trip into the past.

Daddy would have agreed. It was he, after all, who had so often talked about the beauty of the "old country," of its wonderful food and the importance of maintaining family ties. It therefore made perfect sense for me to make a return visit to Sicily last August with my husband and son, my father having died not long before. It was a way of honoring his memory, of course, but also a way of bringing him back to me. This would not be the first time I rediscovered Daddy in Sicily, a place where the past and present are, practically speaking, indistinguishable.

* * *

At Reggio di Calabria, a town at the tip of Italy's boot, the entire train on which we were traveling rolled onto a ferry for the trip across the strait to Messina, the indomitable Sicilian port city that has survived everything from earthquakes to the bombing campaigns of World War II. During the ride I saw a train coming from the other direction as well, this one carrying a 17-year-old me.

It is 1967. We are sitting side by side on the train. He is holding my hand and crying. It is the first time I have ever seen him cry. He is telling me that this was probably the last chance he'll get to see his mother alive. I feel privileged to be with him, to hold his hand.

Grandma did indeed die a year later. Aunt Catena and some of the others I'd met in 1967 were also gone. But when the train came to a stop this time, there again was my cousin Antonio waving from across the platform, his gait and demeanor so much like my father's that I felt a kind of vertigo.

Paola, Antonio's wife, insisted that we stay with them in their Messina condo. There we celebrated, drinking wine from the family vineyard, feasting on spicy veal kebabs bathed in olive oil, eating fresh zucchini and homemade cheeses. In the mornings we enjoyed a specialty of Sicilian summers: granita with warm brioche. Imagine, if you can, a cold, sweet, fruity, whipped ice dipped with a warm, buttery bread. Heavenly it was, not unlike the clear view of the Mediterranean from the condo's upstairs window.

Daddy has told me about his beloved San Marco, and I expect to see the beautiful blue Mediterranean from its mountain location. When we arrive, I am not disappointed with the view, but the town is nowhere near the sea.

My reunion with Uncle Joe in San Marco the next day was emotional, both of us keenly missing our departed loved ones. He had changed, of course, but was still handsome and robust at 89. San Marco had changed, too. The quaint, unpaved piazza in the center of town was now paved and empty, but it couldn't erase the memory.

In the center of the square there's a well that provides fresh water to the entire town. It's divided into two parts, one for the animals to drink and one for the water we carry to Grandma's house. Hers is one of the newer ones, with a beautiful bathroom built just for our visit. She takes me shopping to buy something to remember her by when she's gone. I select a small pearl ring and she is pleased. During the days, we walk the family property eating figs and grapes, visit the cemetery and the nearby "big town" of Novara.

We walked the family property, ate figs and grapes, and visited Novara, the quotes around "big town" as accurate as they'd been 30 years earlier. The no-name restaurant was owned by relatives of Uncle Joe, and the three-hour meal we enjoyed was the finest I'd ever eaten: wine, pasta, antipasti, sausages, ham, fresh ricotta, melons, veal, vegetables, bread, more wine.

The talking never stopped. Paola wanted to hear all about Bill Clinton, for some reason, while Uncle Joe spoke of having had "the honor" to be a prisoner of war held by the Americans during World War II. His love affair with America, it seems, had begun with the way he was treated by our soldiers. He talked much about what he referred to as "crazy Italian politics." And then, as that whole, long, perfect day came to a close, he reminded me to "recordo . . . recordo."

On our final morning, both the American and Sicilian branches of the family tree drove to Messina and saw the fantastic clock tower at the Cathedral of the Annunciation, which was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake and tidal wave in 1908. It now houses the largest astrological clock the world, its chimes and mechanical figures putting on a show each day at noon.

From there, we had a light lunch before traveling in the family van to Taormina, which, despite having been a resort town since the time of ancient Greece, still possesses one of the loveliest beaches in Sicily. It hugs the cliffs of Monte Tauro, which were dotted with villas and cascading flowers, and offers a spectacular view of the sea far below.

As we drove back to Messina, listening to the radio the whole way, the van was filled with laughter and relatives in equal measure. All at once I heard a familiar voice: Tina Turner singing "Proud Mary." Everyone began to sing, the Sicilians not knowing what they were singing and the Americans knowing but singing anyway. It was crazy fun to be with them.

The entire family drove us to the airport the next morning. They wanted to go through security with us; we explained that it was not permitted. Promising to e-mail and send pictures regularly, we said our "ciaos" and begged them to come to America.

And every evening the house is filled with laughter and relatives in equal measure. Daddy talks about America. Although we aren't rich, I think they believe we are. He proudly tells them all about his wonderful life in Washington, begging them to visit.

Linda Puglisi Zanelotti is assistant to the dean of students at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. She lives in Chantilly.

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