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: