Break In!

My nephew John is in Grotte, Sicily right now. He and Uncle Charlie and a cousin BROKE INTO my Grandma Licata’s house today!

That’s right!  When my Grandma Licata died in 1985, the eldest of her 10 children, Uncle Ignazio, inherited the house.  For some mysterious reason, Uncle Ignazio wanted nothing to do with the house.  He simply threw sheets over the furniture, boarded up the windows, and locked up the doors.  He put the key away and allowed no one to go in there.   At one point, I thought about buying the house from him.  I had this fantasy that it would be super cool to buy the 300 year old stone house and renovate it.  I thought I could turn the rooftop terrace into a yoga space and go spend spring time there, the most lovely time in Sicily when all the fields are green and the wildflowers are in full bloom.  When I brought up the idea to my uncle, he made it clear that he thought I was insane.  Who would oversee the renovation?  Did I realize how much such a renovation would cost? The construction workers would steal me blind simply because I am an American. Why would I want an old house full of nothing but problems and ghosts of the past?  Would I really want to come visiting every year?  He warned me that everyone in the village would have something to say about my owning that house..And they did..overnight everyone in the village seemed to know about my dream of buying the house and everyone had to give me their two cents about it in their chaotic Sicilian way and it was already driving me crazy.  I could clearly see it was a bad idea, so I gave up on this fantasy of mine.  I then asked Uncle Ignazio if he would simply take me to the house and bring me inside so that I could have a look around and take some photos.  (He did, after all, board it up with all of my nonna’s belongings inside!)  The answer was NO. He simply said he had no idea where the key was.  I was disappointed and wondered how in the heck he could have lost grandma’s skeleton key, a key about as big as my hand?

My mom told me that, in the old days,  her five brothers slept on the main floor, her parents on the second floor and all five sisters slept on the third floor.  Relatives were always showing up at their door for a meal or two because my mom’s family always had ample food on their table.  My mom said there were never fewer than 16 people seated for every meal.

My memories of nonna’s house are vivid.  It is hard to believe that my grandparents raised 10 children in that house.  When we  visited, Grandma Licata slept on a pull out bed on the main floor.  My parents  slept on the second floor and we girls slept on the third floor.  Nightly, Grandma  came up to “tuck” us in.  Actually, she came up to make sure the balcony doors were locked.  She warned all of us NOT to dare open the balcony doors because there were gypsies out there who stole little girls like me (gypsies have a tragic history of discrimination and ill treatment in all of Europe, including Sicily).  That was meant to scare me, but she fired my imagination with wild thoughts!  I would fall asleep to the sound of motorcycles zooming by, echoing voices of people walking on the cobbled streets below, the occasional clickety clack of farmer and donkey coming back late from the fields, ladies talking to each other across the balconies, and to guitars and young men serenading my sisters! And I would dream of gypsies climbing up the balcony and taking me away to their colorful caravans.

So back to the BREAK IN!  Uncle Ignazio died a few years ago and Grandma Licata’s house remained closed until today.  John and Uncle Charle got Uncle Ignazio’s son to help with the break in.  I suppose that would have made it all more legitimate since the house now belongs to Uncle Ignazio’s grown children.  I am trying to imagine my Uncle Charlie, John, and Vincenzo breaking down the door.  I imagine half the village showed up for the event.  Word gets around quickly in Grotte.  No secrets.  My mom used to say those stone walls had ears.  The important thing is this:  they found the interior more or less intact! Some of the ceiling had caved in and some walls were crumbly.  John found over 1000 old photographs and grabbed them all.  A photographer’s dream (John is a photographer and filmmaker)!

All my life I wondered why my parents had so few photos of me as a baby!  Was I not adorable enough to merit a few photographs?  Was I “old hat”, being the fifth daughter?  But no!  John said there are lots of baby photos of me in that pile of old photographs.  Mom was sending all my baby photos from America to her mother in Sicily all those years!  And John found a ton of letters written from my mother to her mother, my grandmother!  They are dated from 1959 (my family’s immigration to the USA) to 1985 (the year grandmother died).  In the letters, mom documents our lives!  It is so incredibly touching that my mom documented our lives in these letters, that grandma carefully saved each one, and that the letters survived the mildew, silverfish, fading, yellowing, and crumbling during the many years of the lock up!

I can’t wait for John to get back in a few weeks to hear all about the BREAK IN.  Here is the photo John texted today from inside Grandma Licata’s house. This was one of the first things he saw when he walked into the house:

Portrait of my family at Grandma Licata's house!


4 Responses to “Break In!”

  1. kay Says:

    i would not be surprised in the least if you announced your upcoming sudden trip to Sicily!!


    • frangallo Says:

      Hi Kay, No plans to dash over to Sicily right now. John did want me to go there with him. He has been wanting to publish a photography book about Sicily, featuring our home village Grotte (which is not on many maps!) and this bonanza of a find in photos will help him move along with his book. This is all very fascinating! Thank you, always, for posting comments to my blog! love, fran


  2. Helen Anne Says:

    Fran, we have to talk about our parallel experiences over coffee sometime. My dad had a house in Ireland that he and I worked on the last ten years of his life. It was a project we shared such sentimental value. I too had hopes of living in it someday and making it a culinary/artist retreat. He thought that it would be hard for me to assimilate because I was an “American.” But the truth was that I was more Irish than American and I knew everyone in our village and they always thought it would be a natural thing for me to live there because I always appeared to be so “at home.” I don’t want to give up on my dream but now there are obstacles with my father’s recent passing. Why does property have to divide families. It’s ridiculous.

    This is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing. You are a great story teller.


    • frangallo Says:

      Hi Helen Anne, amazing that we both share love of our ancestral home! Yes, let’s talk about this over coffee sometime! I hope you don’t give up on your dream and that you transform the house into a culinary/artist retreat. Your dad would be so proud of you! I think you would either need a year of living there to oversee the project or an on-site manager, someone you can fully trust! Having said that, I think the greatest obstacle is within the family…there is this insane concern that someone so young and in a way, “an outsider”–someone who has not grown up in the village–could come in and realize a dream while the villagers may never have the means to renovate the house even if they so desired. Maybe you can involve other local family members in the project. It is complicated and so sad that property and inheritances can bring out the worst of greed in some people and cleave some families apart.


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