Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

La Pina Ro’

November 24, 2018

My maternal grandmother, La Mama Anto’ gave light to a child nearly every three years or so. She repeated this pattern ten times. To give light to a child is a Sicilian expression meaning “to give birth”. By the time her tenth child was born, my grandmother’s eldest child was already married and had children of her own.  The eldest of my grandmother’s ten children was named Rosa.  She was lovely, hardworking, and had a cheerful disposition.  We nieces and nephews lovingly called her La Pina Ro’.

Rosa passed away yesterday at the age of 101 years old.  I imagine Rosa being welcomed into heaven by my mother and her other siblings who made the mad dash to heaven early on.  As is the Sicilian custom, Rosa’s funeral and burial took place within twenty-four hours of her death.

I pray Rosa is resting peacefully after a long one hundred and one years of life on earth.

SB_1356359485I met La Pina Ro’ for the first time when I was ten years old, on my first trip to Grotte.  She was recently widowed when I met her in Spring of 1972. She was clad in black from head to toe. Her daughter Pina, young and still living at home, was also dressed in black, black being the color of mourning.

My Nonna didn’t have a shower in her house.  In order to bathe, I had to go down a steep ladder and into a musty-smelling damp wine cellar, where there was a large old-fashioned wash basin that my mother would fill with a mixture of boiled hot water and cold tap water for my much-dreaded bath. Water was precious so my mother filled the wash basin with about five inches of water and I had to climb in and get clean. I was ten, but, under the circumstances, my mother had to help me bathe.  As my mom washed me, I stared at Papà Vivi’s suit that hung in the cellar right next to the tub: dark gray trousers, white shirt mottled by the passing of time, and a black vest.  I was very frightened of the hanging suit.  My grandfather had already been dead many years by 1972 and there was his suit hanging in the basement cellar.  Thankfully, my mother bathed me, for I would not want to be alone in that cellar for a single moment.

La Pina Ro’ made my life much easier by offering to have me come over to her house for my showers and to wash my hair.  Her house was not far down the medieval labyrinthine streets in the oldest section of Grotte, but she had a modern shower and a water heating unit that needed to be turned on about thirty minutes before the bathing ritual. She was quite proud of her shower and water heating unit.  She even had a hair dryer for me to use.

20. GrotteRosa invited me to spend the night with her, too.  Her house was built out from one of the original grottoes the town is named after. Going back hundreds of years, perhaps to prehistory, the early inhabitants of Grotte lived in the grottoes. My aunt used her grotto as a wine cellar and for storage.

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When I spent the night at her house, I slept with her. If my memory is correct, I remember we had to climb a steep ladder to get upstairs to her room.  We snuggled in bed.  It was April and there was a chill in the air, but the bed was warm and super comfortable.  She had placed hot water bottles at my feet under the covers and I felt toasty warm.  As we lie in bed, she asked me if I knew my prayers in Sicilian and I said, “No.”  That night, our feet warmed by the hot water bottles, La Pina Ro’ patiently taught me to pray the Hail Mary in Sicilianu.  Again and again, she had me repeat the prayer in the ancient language of my ancestors.  Again and again, I prayed the words Rosa taught me until my eyes grew heavy and the prayer was deeply etched into my brain:

L’Avi Maria

Avi Maria, china di razzia
u Signuri esti cu Vui
Vui biniditta siti ntre fimmini
e binidittu esti u fruttu di vostru utru, Jesu.

Santa Maria, Matri di Deu
priati pi nuatri piccatura
accamora e nta l’ura da nostra morti.

Amin

She turned off the lights.  The room was the darkest dark I had ever known.  We were sealed in a cocoon of deep silence.  As I was starting to drift into sleep, she asked me, “Fra, ti scanti?”  “Fra, are you afraid?” She must have sensed that I was the kind of child who was afraid of my own shadow, certainly afraid of my deceased grandfather’s suit hanging in the cellar in my grandmother’s house, perhaps afraid of the depth of this Sicilian night.  But on this dark night, deep in the heart of Grotte,  I was not afraid.  I had the warm loving comfort of my Pina Ro’ next to me, my Sicilian prayers memorized, and the protection of Mother Mary in my heart.

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11. Grotte

Long before I met La Pina Ro’, I already knew so much about her.  My mother always spoke of her with deep respect.

One story I have of Rosa is that when she was engaged to be married, the custom was that her fiance would spend evenings at her house in the company of her entire family.  There was no television, so he would have to be creative and find a way to entertain the family.  Apparently, my mother, who was just a child, became the source of entertainment for the whole family.  She had a certain way of mispronouncing words, as many children do, so the family would say, “Pippina, what do you call a baby horse?” And my mother, who was just a little girl with a speech impediment that she would outgrow, was clever and she would avoid shouting out the word for pony, puddriddru, because it was hard to say and she knew she’d jumble up the word. Instead, she’d say cavaddru, the word for horse, because it was much easier to say. Everyone would howl with laughter because she was so funny.

Rosa started sewing at a very young age.  When Rosa was twelve years old, she sewed a suit for her father. She created the pattern by herself and she cut the material.  Furthermore, she sewed the entire suit by hand!  Her father proudly wore his suit to Sunday mass and Rosa became the talk of the town. She became a sarta, a seamstress.  In Rosa’s case, she was a child prodigy seamstress.  People lined up at her parents’ house on Via Confine to have Rosa take their measurements. She’d hand-sew beautiful suits and dresses for her clients.  She worked diligently and voluntarily gave all the money she made to her parents.

One day, Papà Vivi (her father, my grandfather) went to the neighboring town of Racalmuto to buy Rosa a sewing machine as a surprise. He carried it home on his back, all the way from Racalmuto to Via Confine.

Rosa was sewing when she saw her dad carrying the sewing machine into the house.  He heard her whisper to herself,  “Beddra fosse si fosse pi mia.”. A literal translation would be, “It would be beautiful if it were for me.”  Suddenly her father walked right up to her and placed the sewing machine down and said, “Rosa, my first born, this is for you!”  She began sewing for everyone in town.

Papà Vivi owned a sulfur mine. He rented it out and made sizable profits.  When Rosa was 12 years old, he had a savings of 18,000 lire in a private bank.  My cousin, one of Rosa’s sons, says that 18,000 lire might have a value of close to a million US dollars today.  My grandfather was able to buy Rosa a house and all her furniture outright when she got married.

But back in 1929, something really bad was about to happen.

Back in America, Wall Street crashed. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the whole world spun into financial crisis. Banks were collapsing in America. Banks in Italy also failed at alarming rates and collapsed. Worldwide depression of the early 1930s hit Italy very hard in 1931.

The story of the Licata family’s lost wealth goes like this:  a woman came to the Licata house on Via Confine to have her clothes made and she talked about a rumor she heard.  She said, “Private banks will be going bankrupt!”  Papà Vivi’s face went pale.

Papà Vivi went to the bank the next day to withdraw just 500 lire to see if the bank was indeed going bankrupt.  He received his withdrawal of 500 lire without a problem.

My grandfather had no way of knowing that the banks were allowing their clients’ monetary withdrawals and proceeding as normal to avoid suspicions of the coming disaster. The banks knew they were in crisis mode. That night, my grandfather decided that talk of bankruptcy was simply not true.  Three days later, he lost his entire fortune as his bank collapsed.  When he thought he was completely alone, he broke down and cried.  He was inconsolable. It was his darkest hour.  He thought he was alone, but his wife and all his children witnessed his emotional breakdown.

Lagrime ‘mare.  Bitter tears.

That is how Rosa described Papà Vivi ‘s tears. Rosa would never forget this day.  She vowed to make herself stronger for the most precious person in her life, her father.   She, the eldest of this large family, would not let her father crumble.  She would see to it that her family would pull through.

My grandfather Vincenzo Licata (Papà Vivi):

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Morning to night, Rosa sewed for her clients with an unwavering resolve.  There was no field work for her.  Instead, she sat at her sewing machine morning and night, sewing to help her family out of this financial disaster.  She tried desperately to pull her father out of his deep depression.  Life became incredibly difficult. Papà Vivi got very sick. And Rosa sewed and sewed, the whir of her sewing machine echoing throughout the house, the rhythmic sound of the fast moving machine spilling out onto the narrow cobblestone streets of Via Confine.

She pulled the family through the depression.  And there is much more to her life.  She was incredibly loving and raised her own family.  She had deep faith in God and felt blessed to count among her children a son who became a priest.  Her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are the loveliest family members ever. In her later years, she developed dementia and her children tended to her with the steadfast love and respect she earned.

REST IN PEACE

Rosa Licata

October 12, 1917 – November 22, 2018

24. Pasqua 1988Below is an article from the local paper, celebrating Rosa Licata 100th year of life from last year.  Translation in English follows.

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Nonna Rosa compie 100 anni!
Gli auguri della comunità cittadina

L’Europa era in pieno Primo Conflitto Mondiale. La Russia viveva la drammatica Rivoluzione d’Ottobre. Tra i tragici eventi che funestavano quel periodo, in una abitazione di Grotte si verificava un lieto evento: nella famiglia Licata veniva alla luce una bambina, cui era dato il nome di Rosa. Era il 12 ottobre 1917 Sopravvivrà a quel conflitto e vedrà, da signorina, le vicende dell’altro confitto ancor più drammatico, la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Ed in tutte le difficoltà che la vita le presenterà, Rosa Licata troverà i1 modo di farsi coraggio, accudire e far crescere i propri cari con quell’amore che solo una donna forte e tenera sa dare. Oggi al superamento della soglia dei 100 anni – un secolo di vita -, accanto alla signora Rosa vi sono i suoi figli e nipoti a festeggiarla con il classico augurio “Buon compleanno!”: “Nata a Grotte nel lontano 1917 Licata Rosa, nota ai più come la za Rusidda”, compie oggi i suoi 100 anni! Donna di profonda fede cattolica, l’unico “peccato” è che sia arrivata a questa veneranda età segnata dalla balorda malattia senile, ma amorosamente assistita e circondata dai figli Don Vincenzo, Giovanni e Pina, che ne rendono omaggio insieme a tutti i nipoti e pronipoti . Tutta la comunità cittadina si stringe attorno alla signora Rosa per augurarle tante altre candeline da spegnere. Gli auguri dell’Amministrazione: “Cent’anni fa nasceva una donna speciale: la Sig.ra Rosa Licata alla quale il sindaco Paolino Fantauzzo, la presidente del consiglio comunale Rosellina Marchetta, gli assessori e consiglieri tutti, formulano tantissimi auguri”. -Carmelo Arnone 12 ottobre 2017

Translation of the above written last year on Rosa’s 100th birthday:

Grandmother Rosa is 100 years old!  Congratulations from the community of Grotte.

Europe was in the thick of World War I.  Russia was living out the dramatic October Revolution (also known as The Great October Socialist Revolution).  Among the tragic events that were unfolding, a happy event was taking place in a house in Grotte: a baby girl was born to the Licata family.  They named her Rosa.  It was October 12, 1917.  She would survive these conflicts and she would live to experience, in her youth, the coming of yet another more dramatic conflict, the Second World War.  And in all the difficulties that life would present, Rosa Licata would find a way to become courageous, to look after and raise her own dear family with the kind of love that only a tender and strong woman knows how to give. Today on her reaching 100 years of age, a century of life, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are with her to celebrate with the classic congratulatory “Happy Birthday!”   “Born in Grotte in the far off year of 1917, Licata Rosa, more popularly known as “za Rusidda”, became 100 years old today! A woman of deep Catholic faith, the only “sin” that she may have ever committed at this venerable age, is to have fallen victim to dementia. She is lovingly assisted and surrounded by her children, Don Vincenzo (Father Vincenzo), Giovanni and Pina, whom with her grandchildren and great grandchildren, bestow great honor to her.”  The entire community of citizens (of Grotte) gather closely around la signora Rosa to wish her the occasion of many more brightly lit birthday candles.  The Administration’s congratulatory wishes are: “One hundred years ago, a special woman was born: Mrs. Rosa Licata, to whom the mayor Paolino Fantauzzo, the President of the Community Counsel Rosellina Marchetta,  and all the community assessors and counselors send their best wishes”.

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Gratitude to Mother Earth

November 22, 2018

Prayer for the Great Family

(after a Mohawk Prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day–
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet

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in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain

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in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze

in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware

in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas

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in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep–he who wakes us–

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in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars–and goes yet beyond that–
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us–
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife

so be it.

-Gary Snyder

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A short note about the Mohawk People:

The Mohawk Indians were farming people. Mohawk women planted crops of corn, beans, and squash and harvested wild berries and herbs. Mohawk men hunted for deer and elk and fished in the rivers. Traditional Mohawk foods included cornbread, soups, and stews, which they cooked on stone hearths.

And a short description of Gary Snyder:

Snyder’s writing focuses on environmental concerns and Zen Buddhism. He is an environmental activist who is known for his simple, clear style, as well as his first-person descriptions of his experiences in the natural world. In 1975, his collection Turtle Island was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Gary Snyder is an American man of letters. Perhaps best known as a poet, he is also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist. He has been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology“. Snyder is a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the American Book Award.

Lastly, here is a definition of Deep Ecology:

Deep Ecology is a holistic approach to facing world problems that brings together thinking, feeling, spirituality and action. It involves moving beyond the individualism of Western culture towards also seeing ourselves as part of the earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Summertime in the Midwest

August 13, 2018

It’s been a while since my last blog post! You may be wondering what happened. What happened is that I have a newly designed website and it took many intense hours to pull it together. I’m hoping this blog post will reach my subscribers. (I’m also hoping you will have a look at my website frangallo.com). I was disconnected from my subscribers for a month and so my wish is to be reconnected with all of you! We will soon find out if all is back to normal when I hit the heart-pumping PUBLISH button.

And I just got back from Indiana, where I was born and grew up. Going to Indiana is like going back to the cradle. My sisters, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews, and cousins welcome me back wholeheartedly. Every day with them feels like a celebration.

August in the Midwest seems like the worst time to have competed in a duathlon with my nephew, but there you have it. That’s exactly what I did in Chicago. We cooked up this plan last October and we followed through with it last Sunday! And I got to spend a few days with my nephew, his wife, and his adorable kids at their house.

Jake-the-Bombay-Kitten. Panther-like in so many ways, he playfully stalks the children around the house. I love this cat!

Prairie flowers welcome me at Chuck and Erin’s house!

Summertime in Chicago and NW Indiana is hot and humid. The day of our race was no exception. Having lived in Seattle for the last 27 years, I have lost my tolerance for the humidity of the Midwest.  Even so, taking part in the triathlon was a great experience. I was so thrilled and proud of myself to have done better than I expected. I had imagined the possibility of blacking out in the 96 degree heat, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I finished the race with some new wisdom: never ever doubt what you can do.  The triathlon started at 7am and I finished before 9am. The strong heat of the day had not yet begun. I loved riding and running with my nephew and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Nephew Chuck and me below. We are 14 years apart:

Sweaty and Over-Heated Champs!

After the triathlon, I headed to Valparaiso. There are many strip malls and mega-stores in NW Indiana, but there are also vast acres of cornfields. Valparaiso is a university town. It has a thriving downtown area with some handsome historical buildings, very nice restaurants, wine bars, breweries, and shops. Downtown has an outdoor public area for summer concerts and winter skating. As we drove along country roads in my sister’s convertible, our hair flying wildly in the hot summer wind, we passed old farm houses and new subdivisions, and thin stands of black oaks. Weeping willows dot the landscape and drape across lush green lawns. I notice the lawns are perfect and I think perhaps the lowly dandelion has been eradicated in this part of the world.

I sat in my sister’s screened-in porch late at night and watched the fireflies light up the night sky. Lightning bugs is what I called them growing up. I have always loved them. Late into the night, we talked. It seems there is no end to our family stories, our memories of mom, dad, and Jeanie. Every year adds to the volumes of memories lived and cherished. Together, we pulled up the old Sicilian words and expressions mom and dad used to say. Together, we remembered them. “Cuatolati! Bundle up!”, mom would say to us in the winter as we got ready to confront a blast of cold arctic air.

It is soothing and healing to be with my sisters who have known me since the day I was born and who have always loved me. “I am so lucky” I kept thinking to myself as I sat with my sisters, feeling their love, watching the pink sunsets, listening to the cicadas and crickets singing deeply into the night.

Nora and John’s screened in porch.

Indiana! There are the dunes of Lake Michigan, the bursts of summer rain showers, the lightning and thunder loud enough to shake the house and wake me up from a deep sleep! Cardinals, finches, and swallowtail butterflies flit across my field of vision. Conservative folk, friendly folk, church-going folk, working-class folk, next-door neighbors with a ferocious fenced-in barking dog and plastic flamingos that light up at night, the fabric of this tapestry is colorful. This is the Indiana I know and admire. It has not changed very much since I lived here so long ago. I have changed, but I am still warmly welcomed.

Black-Eyed Susans, Rose of Sharon, hibiscus larger than my head, yellow prairie flowers, and sunflowers dazzle the eye. The farmers’ market is filled with the sweetest watermelon and gorgeous squash. The watermelon makes me think of my mother, who craved it when she was pregnant with me. The squash reminds me of my father, who grew so many in his garden that he had to give most of them away to his lucky neighbors.

I was tightly embraced in Indiana’s arms. The summer heat melted away months of tension in my body. Together with my family, I ate, I drank, I laughed. We reminisced and the memories we drew upon quenched my thirst. We enjoyed each others’ company. And then, I came back to my other home, my home of 27 years, Seattle.

Valparaiso murals. The postman in this mural is my sister’s postman!

Nora’s table laden with desserts, ready for our cousins to come over for a visit.

The Most Beautiful Hands (a re-post)

April 26, 2018

Thinking about my mom and dad today.  April 25th was the date of their wedding anniversary. They always celebrated their anniversary.  They bought gifts for each other and often went out for dinner while my sisters babysat me. Being the youngest in the family, the caboose, I always felt that my parents had already had a lifetime of marriage and had experienced many complicated and complex life experiences together well before I was ever born. I was born hearing their stories of growing up in their Sicilian village, of the early days of their marriage in Grotte, of the later years in Liege, Belgium where, for thirteen years, my dad worked as a coal miner, of their time in Boston, and of their settling in Gary, Indiana, where finally I was born.

They passed away within 12 months of each other. I know it sounds strange, but though I know they are deceased, I like to imagine they are on vacation, far off, in some exotic land, having such a grand time that they have definitively put off coming home!  I wrote the following blog post a while back and am re-posting the following in their honor:

There is a close up photograph my nephew John took of my parents’ hands.  It is so unbelievably beautiful and, unfortunately, John cannot find it among his tens of thousands of negatives.  I would have loved to use that photo in this blog, but I have these other photos of my parents’ hands.

My parents got married in their hometown Grotte in Sicily on April 25, 1948!   Today, on my parents’ wedding anniversary, I think of them, of their undying love and respect for one another, and of their loving amazing hands.

(above) This is how I will always remember my parents.

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Their wedding photo. (I know, I inserted myself into the photo when I took this photo of a framed photo!)

Below (the early days in Grotte, Sicily):

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The most beautiful hands in the world are not manicured, soft, and bejeweled.

They are lined,

calloused from coal mining,

encrusted with farmed earth.

They smell of onions and garlic.

They are stained with tomato sauce from canning,

dotted with wet bread dough,

snagged from knitting and crocheting socks, scarves, hats, baby blankets and sweaters.

They are sticky from picking apples, figs,

pears, peaches, plums, almonds, walnuts, and berries.

Their fingers are pierced from embroidery and sewing.

Sometimes they are covered with meat and fennel from sausage making

or sprinkled with wine from the press.

They have made countless meals.

These hands are strong, full of expression,

fearless, protective, hardworking, providing,

worn to the bone.

They are firm and gentle

and have held, caressed, fed, and cleaned many babies and children.

Yes, they are kind beautiful hands.  They speak.  They tell a story.

Written on mom and dad’s wedding anniversary: April 25, 1948 — to eternity

A New Christmas Song

December 16, 2017

a stream of consciousness flows from my brain to my fingers to the keyboard to the computer screen

my typing fingers are ants scrambling frantically, trying desperately to preserve their lives as a stream of Raid jets forth from a blue can held in the hands of a myrmecophobic person…i’m channeling my mother and her fear of ants..she even used the greek-derived-sicilian word to point them out “firmicoli!”

Eagle Pose at Nisqually National Wildlife Reserve

have i ever mentioned i’m a fast typist? quick-twitch muscles would have made me a competitive sprinter

but mom didn’t allow me to run competitively, said it was bad for a developing girl’s body to run, the nuns telephoned her, begged her to let me join the girls’ sprint teams, said i was the fastest of them all, but Sicilian Mamma said no and her no was a final NO

those quick-twitch muscles have a flip side, too, so that my hands contain much dexterity, flexibility, and steadiness, qualities that would have made me a good surgeon in the days before robotic surgeries

but teaching would become my vocation, my life’s work

and i am content

enough

today’s stream of thought and my fingers bring me to a morning in seattle, a morning at starbucks, where i stopped to get a cup of coffee last week, a common enough occurrence, but this given morning was a frigid one, frost on the pavement, romantic pink-tinged mountains mocking my frozen face

on that given day, as i walked into starbucks, i saw a homeless man standing outside the coffee shop, yet another homeless man looking like all the other homeless people: cold, lost, distant-yet-present, hopeful kind eyes, trying not to look too crazed from the cold frost enveloping his hat-less head, his un-gloved hands, his dusty-dark skin telling me a kind of not-so-kind story about america the sometimes-not-so-great, a story that begs the question WHY?

i went inside the warm cozy starbucks laden with christmas decorations, my ears inundated with the same cheesy christmas tunes i’ve been hearing year after year since i was born fifty-six years ago, thinking to myself doesn’t anyone ever get tired of listening to this crap, but stopping my thoughts quickly lest anyone think i’m a grinch or a an avatar of ebenezer scrooge

and as my hands and feet thaw out while i wait in line in the warm coffee shop with the music i cannot stand, my thoughts go back to the homeless man standing outside

i order up two cups of coffee

one is for him

maybe it was the cold temperatures

maybe it was because he didn’t ask

maybe it was because we connected on some unspoken level

maybe it was because of his very humanness

maybe it was because i just lost my beautiful cousin julie to cancer and my heart was swollen with tears

maybe it was because i feel tons of guilt for not sparing yet another dime, a dollar, a couple of dollars when asked

maybe it is because i am sick of seeing tents popping up all over the city, in the parks, on the sidewalks, reminding me of being in calcutta with rick in 2001

did i know mr homeless would grab the paper cup of coffee and follow me back inside? did i ever imagine he would find a seat next to me and sit quietly?

did i ever imagine the unimaginable would happen:

he started humming and his body started rocking to the rhythm of Walking in a Winter Wonderland and then he started singing, quietly but loud enough for those of us sitting nearby to hear him

a rich baritone voice singing “in the winter we could build a snowman…”, a trained voice, one that has sung in church choirs, a man with a voice that tells a story of one life, his life, a sweet voice that melted my heart and allowed me to hear a new christmas song:

one for julie

one for julie’s children and grandchildren

one for julie’s sisters and brother and their families

one for julie’s inconsolable mother

a sweet simple song to bolster the hearts of everyone at holiday time, a time when we are especially reminded of bitter-sweet loss and fullness, all at the same time

Giving Thanks

November 27, 2017

Last week, my classes were focused on gratitude.  And I have been especially filled with gratitude these past few days.  Thanksgiving and my birthday invite me to be thankful for the life I have, and for the people in my life: family, friends, students.  I have immense gratitude to be living in one of the most beautiful places in the continental USA, one filled with pristine forests, rivers, wildlife (we saw a herd of elk today!!), hiking and ski trails, and all the bounty that nature provides.  I am grateful for my own effort I put into maintaining my relatively good health.  Embracing yoga and making the yoga practice a part of my life, keeping stress levels low, eating a healthy, organic diet, keeping cardio-active, doing weight training, and getting enough sleep are disciplines woven into the fabric of my being.

I also have tremendous gratitude for my parents, who not only gave me life, but also gave me the best in education.  My parents grew up very poor in Sicily.  They both had to stop school in the 8th grade because of poverty and the need to work to help their parents make ends meet.  Instead of continuing on to the 9th grade, my father left school and did hard manual labor in the fields (no tractors or plows used) and my mother became a seamstress.  They worked hard their entire lives.  As far back as I can remember, they always told me that I’d go to college and, no matter how much my university tuition would cost them, they would cover it and give me the educational opportunities they never had.  And they held true to their dream.  They started this dream by sending me to private Catholic school from early on and supported me throughout my university years.

So thank you, mom and dad.  I am eternally grateful.

To celebrate my birthday and Thanksgiving, two great days of gratitude, Rick and I went to La Push on the Olympic Peninsula.  Rick’s Grandma Glenda went to La Push regularly and she always told us how very special it is.  It is remote, a long way from Seattle. The ocean is wild, and the beaches strewn with much enormous driftwood. We have been there four consecutive years in a row and we now understand why Grandma Glenda went there year after year!

Below you will see many photos from the weekend, along with descriptions of the place and of my experience there.

In gratitude, Fran

Below: Lake Crescent, the third deepest lake in the USA.  Our long drive to La Push passes this lake:

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Arrival at La Push: stormy skies, wind, frothy sea, sun setting early

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My new rain boots. Every year, I have seen these boots for sale at the resort reception.  I leave, later wondering with much regret why I didn’t buy them. This year, they were on clearance and I was lucky enough to get the last pair in my size!  They were meant to be mine:

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La Push is on the Quileute tribal lands and these boots are decorated with the tribe’s hummingbird design:

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I was obsessed by both my new boots and this RED driftwood that looks like red-hot burning coals:

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IMG_0857And had to include the photo below..a friendly dog jumped into my photo as I was taking yet another shot of the RED driftwood:

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Most of the time we were there, it was storming.  At some point, the sky opened up…briefly. IMG_0862

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We cooked most of our own meals, but went out for breakfast twice.  There is one place to get a meal and we found it on our first trip to La Push.  Every time we go, we see a charming Quileute elder named Bev.  She always sits in the same seat in the restaurant. This time, as soon as she saw me, she held her arms wide open and gave me the warmest hug! She did the same for Rick. When she found out it was my birthday, she promptly disappeared for a while. I thought she left without saying goodbye, but she came back with a gift for me.  She gave me this precious woven basket, a miniature with a rose motif on one side and a duck on the other side, woven from cedar and local grasses:

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I had my heart set on buying fresh crab while out there, but we found out it is not quite yet the season. We saw crab pots everywhere..the crabbers are ready and waiting for the right time set out their pots.

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Salmon! The quote below comes from a board educating people about the importance of saving the salmon as they dwindle in population:

Generation upon Generation, the salmon have returned to our waters offering of themselves so that the Quileute People might live. There was a time, not long ago, salmon were many. Now they are few.  Generation upon Generation the salmon have helped the Quileute People.  Now the Quileute People must help the salmon.

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You can see the small island offshore, beyond the boats. It is called James Island, but in ancient times, the island was called Aka’lat, Top of the Rock, in the language of the Quileute People.  Aka’lat was the burial ground for chiefs. It was also a fortress in times of defense.  The steep walls protected the Quileute People.  The island is unoccupied, but the Quileute People believe the spirit of their ancestors live there.

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Quileute Tribal Art: Salmon

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Rialto Beach is a nearby gem in the Olympic National Park:

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Dancer’s Pose on slick/wet driftwood:

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The sea brings in a sofa!

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Sicily for Adriana

April 27, 2017

I thought to post some of my best photos from the past two days.   This post is dedicated to my friend and co-worker from Seattle Athletic Club, Adriana Allison Brown, 34 years old, married to Aaron Brown and mother of two beautiful little girls.  She passed away two days ago on April 25, was hit by a vehicle as she was walking the crosswalk at Lenora and Western (Seattle) on her way to work at the Seattle Athletic Club as a personal fitness trainer.  I thought of Adriana all day these past two days.  She told me recently that she would like to come to Sicily one day.

I am heartbroken.

Adriana was as bright as the Sicilian Sun.

Adriana was as beautiful as the red poppies below.

Adriana “era buona comu lu pani“, a Sicilian expression which literally translates to Adriana “was as good as bread”  (see explanation below).

 

Yes, I got my poppy photo! Red is the dominant color for the poppies I have been seeing.

Yes, I got my poppy photo! Red is the dominant color for the poppies I have been seeing.

Bread (pane). For my dad, a meal without bread was not a meal at all. The highest compliment you can pay a person in old time Sicily was to say, "Era buonu comu lu pani" = He was as good as bread!

Bread (pane). For my dad, a meal without bread was not a meal at all.  Bread is the staff of life. The highest compliment you can pay a person in old time Sicily was to say of that person, “E buonu (buona) comu lu pani” = He/She is as good as bread!

Old tile detail

Old tile detail

Sweetness: potted geraniums

Sweetness: potted geraniums

Simple delicious ingredients for sauce alla Norma.

Simple delicious ingredients for Pasta alla Norma.

Sicilian Cat. Her name was Meow!

Sicilian Cat. His name was Meow!

Oranges kissed by the sun.

Oranges kissed by the sun.

Cheese at the Siracusa Market

Cheese at the Ortigia Market

One of the pupi (traditional puppet). There is a puppet theater in Ortigia.

And ancient pupi (traditional puppet). There is a puppet theater in Ortigia.

Ma’s Deep Pockets

February 18, 2017

I solemnly took her coat, a beautiful leather coat. A memento of sorts, the coat was something tangible to remember her by.

I claimed it as my own, a coat I’d probably never buy for myself. I still can’t imagine my mother wearing it and found no photos to prove she wore it. I must have had it in my possession for about a year after her death before I thought to actually wear it. We were headed to see a play. It was a cool Seattle autumn evening. The coat fit as if it were tailored for me.

Ma's Leather Jacket

Ma’s Leather Jacket

On our way to the car, I discovered pockets, deep pockets, to keep my hands warm. It was when I thrust my hands into ma’s deep pockets that I made my discoveries.

In the right pocket, I found a handkerchief. Perfectly clean, starched, and ironed. Instinctively, I put the hanky to my nose, as if to search out a trace of my mother’s smell. All I smelled were mothballs. Those of you reading this, who knew my mother, are laughing. I know you are, but it is no laughing matter! My mother had this thing about mothballs. Or, more accurately, she had a fear of moth infestations so she stuffed mothballs in closets, dresser drawers, coat pockets, and between our folded sweaters. My mother knew that mothballs would keep moths away. What she didn’t know was that mothballs are made of naphthalene, an insecticide, which gives off highly toxic fumes and vapors harmful to insects, wildlife, and humans.

The handkerchief

The handkerchief

In a split second, nose to handkerchief, I was back in my childhood home. The handkerchief transported me to a small brick house in NW Indiana, where the heating and AC vents carried no-longer-secret private conversations between my parents. Conversations about their monetary worries, concerns over the safety of their children, their health, our health, our futures carried through the vents with a frightening and embarrassing clarity. I remember once confessing to a priest about eavesdropping on my parents’ private conversations. I felt that guilty so as to bring my dark shame to the confessional box! I remember the priest taking an unnatural interest in my confession! Ah, the smell of that darned handkerchief!

Back to the autumn theater night in Seattle, my fingers next touched a tube of lipstick. Ma’s coral red lipstick! My mother didn’t wear make up, but on certain rare occasions, she’d put some lipstick on. For some reason, I hardly remember this. It’s a dim memory, only brought to the surface when I found the tube of red lipstick in ma’s deep pockets.

Ma's Coral Red Lipstick

Ma’s Coral Red Lipstick

For some reason the lipstick made me sad. I am trying to understand why it makes me sad. Maybe it’s because the lipstick is a testimony to the life my mother once lived. The tube of lipstick I found bears witness to my mother’s all-too-human life, one in which she wanted to feel more feminine, more beautiful. The tube of color to redden her lips unveils a woman, my mother, who was alive for a brief time. Holding the tube of lipstick makes me sad because I am reminded of her earthly existence, and all the complex feelings we humans may have about measuring up and concerns about how we should look and present ourselves to the world. I see her applying the red lipstick, perhaps in search of a boost of confidence and I continue to feel overwhelmed with sadness.

That same autumn evening in Seattle on our way to the theater, I found one last item, the most significant one, in ma’s deep pockets. I found my mother’s beloved saint card.  I couldn’t believe I now had her treasured prayer card in my possession.

Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

My mother loved Santa Rosalia. Santa Rosalia is also affectionately known by Sicilians as La Santuzza, or The Little Saint. I used to see my mom pull out her saint card, covered in a clear plastic card holder. She’d lovingly caress La Santuzza, flip the card over, and I’d watch her silently lip the prayer on the card.

La Santuzza (1120-1160) is always depicted wearing a crown of roses. She is sometimes shown wearing dark thick fabrics because she cast off her riches and lived a monastic life in a cave. Her story is unusual: Rosalia was born in Palermo, Sicily, to Sicilian aristocracy (Frankish aristrocrats governing Sicily). Her father was Sinibald, Lord of Roses. Rosalia was a descendant of Charlemagne. Rosalia was a beautiful noble woman, who at a very young age, experienced a calling to devote her life to God. At age 13, she moved to a cave near the town of Santo Stephano Quisquina and devoted her life to prayer. She later moved to another cave on Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo. She lived entirely alone and died alone.

Always shown wearing a crown of roses, here La Santuzza wears the clothing of a hermit.

Always shown wearing a crown of roses, here La Santuzza wears the clothing of a hermit.

As a hermit, she was not venerated by her neighbors, royalty, or family. No one came to visit her. She died completely alone.

In 1625, during a period of plague, she appeared in a vision to a hunter near her cave. Her relics were discovered, brought to Palermo, and paraded through the street. Three days later the plague ended, intercession to Rosalia was credited with saving the city, and she was proclaimed its patroness. The traditional celebration of Rosalia lasted for days, involved fireworks and parades, and her feast day was made a holy day of obligation by Pope Pius XI in 1927.

Her festival is an annual celebration in Palermo, but I also found the following:

Rosalia is deeply revered as a saint to this day.  Her festival is a big bash, not only in Palermo, but also in Bensonhurst (a neighborhood in Brooklyn) and other Sicilian communities.  Monterey, California has a three-day fishing tournament and Italian heritage festival in her honor.

Santa Rosalia, La Santuzza, beloved saint of Palermo

Santa Rosalia, La Santuzza, beloved saint of Palermo

My mother must have gotten the card from Sicily because La Santuzza’s prayer is in Italian. On the way home on the cold autumn evening, I dug my hands into ma’s deep pockets. Perhaps like my mother, I found myself caressing the card covered by clear plastic. I didn’t read the prayer until I got home that night.

Below is the prayer on the reverse side of La Santuzza’s card (translated from Italian to English).  This is the prayer my mother lipped silently every day:

Santa Rosalia, pray to God for my family and me.

Through your powerful prayers, may we obtain health, life and salvation.

I also pray for this special need and intention

(make your intention

known).

O St. Rosalia, I promise henceforth to remember and follow your example of faith and love.

Pray for me and mine.

Amen

In Ma’s deep pockets, I discovered a cornucopia of treasures transcending time.

Christmas Growing Up: Indiana 1960s

December 27, 2016

When I was growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, Christmas meant time off school, time to play in the snow and make a snowman. I always received Perfect Attendance Awards in school, mostly because I was healthy, but also because, even if I had a tummy ache, my mom ignored my complaints and sent me off to catch the bus. Unfortunately, as soon as Christmas vacation came around, I usually got sick and spent the first day or two in bed with the flu.

Christmas time meant a family drive to Chicago to see the Christmas decorations in the shop windows along the Magnificent Mile, a one-mile stretch of shops on North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River. I loved my Dad fiercely as he fearlessly drove alongside big trucks and thick traffic to get us safely into the heart of the big city. We splurged on paid parking, but we saved on meals: mom packed her homemade impinialata (olive onion bread) and had prepared plenty of hardboiled eggs. In our family, there was no driving adventure without at least a dozen hardboiled eggs in tow. (Years later, the first time Rick went on a road trip with my family, when offered a second hard boiled egg, he asked me, “What’s with the eggs?”) In the big city, bundled up as I was, my little feet always got painfully cold and my dad had to give me horseback rides up on his shoulders! The Christmas decorations looked especially beautiful from up high.

Christmas meant having the whole family together. It meant dad coming home early from work at the Indiana Toll Road on Christmas Eve. He entered the house, bringing in snowflakes and a gust of freezing wind, holding a gigantic basket filled with jam, cured meats, mustards, nuts, various types of cheese, crackers, fresh pears, dried fruits, and deluxe chocolates. He proudly handed the basket over to us as we unwrapped it and inspected its rich contents. He won a gift basket year after year for being one of Indiana Toll Road’s best and hardest working employees.

We loved Christmas because it meant my dad had a few days off work and we got to spend every waking moment in his lovely company, all of us! We played his favorite opera and Sicilian folk music records on the turntable. He told us stories of the old country, he sang for us, and he smiled his beautiful contagious smile as he and mom made homemade sausage. The sausage meat mix was ground pork, flavored with salt, cracked pepper, oregano, aniseed, and red pepper flakes. I begged for bits of raw seasoned meat before it made its way into the sausage casings via the hand-crank machine. Again and again, mom and dad patiently swatted my little hands away. Those were the happiest of times.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s was packed with other large Catholic families. Some families were so big, they took up a whole pew. My family -seven of us always arriving late- took the back row. Why were we late? Because mom always had one more chore to do, one more dish to prepare, one more item to put away, one more daughter to dress, one more door to lock. Dad waited patiently in the car. He sat rubbing his gloved frigid hands together and kept the engine running, the car warming up, the windows frost-free.

No one saw our new outfits at Midnight Mass. We kept our heavy coats on during mass because it was so cold. I felt like an Italian-American Eskimo, but at least I could snuggle deep into my coat and doze on and off, unnoticed, during the long late-night mass. The priest, rather than celebrating the many people attending midnight mass, scolded those who only showed up for the holiday masses. I counted the seconds for mass to end. Mom stood at her full height, which was not very tall at all, proud of her well-dressed, bundled up daughters and her handsome husband, proud of the fact that my family never missed a single Sunday mass throughout the year. We were not the ones being scolded. Dad had a smirk on his face as he remembered Midnight Mass of his boyhood at Santo Rocco back in Grotte, where he, the cute blond prankster, tied all the widows’ black shawls together so when they made to leave, their shawls fell off their shoulders in one big tangle! What a commotion! He dared repeat his prank every year and no one ever figured out who the prankster was!

After mass, we came back home and opened gifts under the artificial silver Christmas tree that we, as a family, had proudly assembled and decorated with tinsel and mom’s ancient Christmas ornaments from Grotte, Sicily. The ornaments were hand-painted, made of delicate glass. How carefully we handled them, knowing they were mom’s treasures. She’d certainly kill us if we broke one.

The other treasure was the nativity set my family had brought over from Sicily. On the days leading up to Christmas and for days after the holiday, I loved to say goodnight to baby Jesus before going to bed. I could stare at the tiny figures for a long time and study the faces of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three kings, the sheep and the cows. The figures of the nativity cast a spell over me. Their faces held magic, a mystery that was too profound for me, a mere child, to understand. The nativity set, I knew, represented the rock that held my family in a steadfast knot of faith.

After midnight mass, we were each handed a wrapped gift from under the tree, while an electric light-gadget facing the silver decorated tree went round and round, magically casting colors and turning the silver tree and tinsel into a spectrum of red, blue, green, gold, and orange.

When I was little, my big sisters told me that Santa was a hoax and that the gifts from Santa actually came from mom and dad. I cried because what they told me was dreadful. How could they have come up with such a cruel story? I told my mom what I had heard. My mom sternly told me that if I continued to believe in Santa, I’d keep getting gifts from him, but that if I chose to believe that he did not exist, Santa would then stop bringing me gifts. It didn’t take genius-brains to figure out what I was supposed to do. I continued to receive gifts from Santa until I was 12.

I received dolls and toys until I lost interest in them. Most of the dolls came from Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily did not have children, so she splurged when it came to gift giving for her brother’s children. She was my godmother and adored me! She brought gifts for all my sisters, but I thought my gifts from her were always super special. I secretly believed she loved me more than anyone else in the world. When I lost interest in dolls, I started receiving practical gifts: underwear, socks, a winter coat, boots, a sweater, scarf, hat, mittens, flannel pajamas, slippers, and long underwear. We children received clothing items to keep us warm during long Indiana winters.

Mom cooked and baked for days before Christmas. We children were given the difficult jobs, like cutting onions and peeling garlic. Can’t believe I am divulging this embarrassing detail, but she made us girls wear hairnets in the kitchen! Serious eating began for my family on December 24 and continued for the next 24 hours. On Christmas day, Mom put a sea of fold-up tables together in the basement and then came the tablecloths, one tablecloth overlapping another. Out came her finest plates, the best glassware, and polished silverware. The concept of potluck did not exist in my family. If my mom was hosting Christmas, she made the entire meal. My dad’s sisters came over and helped with the finishing touches.

The gathering was no fewer than 20 people. We began with a pasta dish, usually lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs, followed by Italian Sausage with roasted peppers and onions. There was always a potato salad with hard-boiled eggs, a baked ham, salad, homemade bread, olives, and dad’s homemade wine. The meal went on and on. I will never forget those Christmas meals!

We ate with gusto and we all drank wine, including the children. Everyone talked and laughed at the same time. The noise level kept going up. My boy cousins could really tuck the food away into their bellies. Watching them eat pleased my mom to no end! The adults and the children all sat at the same table and we all interacted with one another.

At some point, eventually, my mom and the other adult ladies would clear the table, quickly do the dishes, and pull out the baked cookies! Someone started a pot of coffee. Even though I was allowed to drink wine, I was not allowed to drink coffee. A well-kept secret was that Aunt Lily let me drink coffee when I spent the night at her house. I kept my word to Aunt Lily and I never told my mother. I loved how the coffee made my heart pound! I always loved the smell of coffee. It smelled of comfort, warmth, of happiness. It smelled of home. My home.

And out came the desserts! Mom’s Sicilian Fig Cookies were the best. Mom called them cucciddrati. I think she made them from memory because I never found her recipe for them (recipes are below, just before the photos). The best part of cucciddrati is that they are topped with a frosting made of butter, confectioner’s sugar, and milk, and topped with colorful nonpareil sprinkles. Mom also made Anisette Cookies. Nonna Licata used to send a box of baked cookies for Christmas. The treasure in Nonna’s box sent to us from Grotte was the cobaita, a pure-goodness-almond-brittle that my grandmother made with sun-roasted almonds from her orchard. They tasted of Sicily!

Mom also made Sesame Seed Cookies, which are called giugiuleni in Sicilian. These hard cookies were delicious dipped in coffee. When in my mother’s house, I dipped them in milk. At Aunt Lily’s house, I dipped them in coffee!

Don’t forget we lived in Indiana, so a bit of the Midwest came into the dessert scene. Alongside the almond cobaita, the dried fig filled cucciddrati, and the sesame studded giugiuleni, mom presented her freshly made Hoosier delicacies such as potato chip cookies, or jello embedded with either cottage cheese or miniature marshmallows.

And NUTS! Christmas was not Christmas without a huge bag of roasted nuts. By the end of the evening, there were piles of nutshells on the table. My dad would crack nuts for me because I didn’t have the strength to crack a single nut. I couldn’t even crack open my favorite almonds and hazelnuts! As my dad cracked the nuts for me, he’d tell his stories!

After the gargantuan meal, the adults played card games. Sounds of coins, banter, laughter still fills my ears. It feels like yesterday when I watched the adults become as playful as we children were. Sometimes we all formed a circle or a train and did Sicilian folk dancing. We’d move the tables so mom and dad could dance the tarantella. They were so light on their feet. Sometimes we children played “chase” and if you got caught, you nearly got tickled to death. The adults told jokes not meant for children’s ears. We were sent off to play, but we hid nearby and listened. We had a hard time understanding the play on words and the various puns in their slurred fast-clipped wine-dipped Sicilian dialect. The jokes went over our heads.

My mom would tell her animated played-out funny stories for all of us to hear. Every year, her bawdy stories grew more embellished, more dramatic, more comical!  She told her entertaining stories about flatulence happening at the most inopportune moments.  One of her stories, which took place at the Italian-American picnic grounds, was about an unfortunate elderly Sicilian immigrant lady, about to sit on a toilet seat, surprising a bird that was taking a dip in the very toilet she was about to sit on.  Mom also had a pocketful of stories about the many colorful characters back in Grotte.  Her stories filled every corner of our humble home with resounding laughter. Every Christmas, our house became a palace, complete with a banquet hall, a ballroom, and a court jester!

My Christmases as an adult are now quiet, the way I have grown to love them. This year, Rick and I spent three exquisite days at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather treated us well. We enjoyed cold crisp frost-and-sun-filled days, took long walks, enjoyed each others’ company, caught up on sleep, read books, watched the sunrises and sunsets, and savored life as it is today. I find I do not yearn for the Christmases of my childhood, but every Christmas I do say a silent prayer of thanks to my parents and my aunties for giving me the gift of Christmas memories I will carry in my heart for as long as I live.

And below are photos from our fabulous Christmas this year at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.

Haystacks in the sea

Haystacks in the sea

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

Looks unreal. Color untouched, clear skies, cold day at La Push

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

My Winter Long Shadow against the frosted grass

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Rays of sunlight spill into the forest trail on our hike

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Another long shadow selfie: shadow against unblemished sand

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

Long Shadows Across Grass (color untouched, just as I saw it!)

The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick

Selfie: The author of this blog (Fran) and Rick at La Push

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle I

Ice Puddle II

Ice Puddle II

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Eye: Quileute Nation Totem Detail

Mist and Sea

Mist and Sea

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Pink Sand makes for beautiful art

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand

Rich Red Drift Wood Against Sand (unbelievable naturally occurring colors!)

Reminds me of my family's "steadfast knot of faith".

Kelp Strand: Reminds me of my family’s “steadfast knot of faith”.

The road leading to La Push

The frosted curvy road leading to La Push

Sunset at La Push

Sunset at La Push

Quintet of Daughters

October 1, 2016

I am one of five daughters.

My mother was one of five daughters.

My mother’s mother was one of five daughters.

FIVE DAUGHTERS

FIVE

I come from a lineage of five daughters born on my mother’s side of the family for three generations in a row.  Too bad it’s not five generations in a row.  It would have made for an even better blog post!  There may have been five generations of five daughters, but the fact is that I don’t have knowledge of my mother’s family past my great grandmother, Mamma Rosi.

there are five great lakes: erie, huron, michigan, ontario, superior … i was born in gary, indiana, which borders one of the five great lakes, lake michigan….my birth town, gary, indiana, was also home of the jackson five, there are five points in a star, five cups in a sake set when purchased in Japan, five arms in a starfish, and an earthworm as five hearts. there are five senses: hearing, smelling, taste, touch, sight…five vowels in the English alphabet, five players on the the court in basketball, five olympic rings symbolizing five continents, in the yoga tradition, there are five layers of a human being, which are known has the koshas in sanskrit. there are five toes on each foot and five fingers on each hand, five elements in chinese tradition: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water,  five elements in the hindu tradition: earth, water, fire, air, ether or space, and five primary colors: green/blue, yellow, red, white, black

And there are FIVE photos I’d like to share with you.

These family photos are my treasures.

PHOTO NUMBER ONE:

My Grandmother, Antonia Tirone Licata, and her sisters!

FIVE SISTERS: My Grandmother in the middle, Antonia Tirone Licata, and her sisters, on their family vineyard in Grotte during the grape harvest (la vendemmia).

Who thought to bring a camera out to the vineyards to photograph these five sisters at grape harvest time in Grotte, Sicily?  Back then, the concept of smiling when being photographed was absurd.  Instead, you looked straight into the camera and acted your dignified best.

My grandmother is the petite woman in the middle.  She was the smallest of the five, small but powerful.  She ruled the roost.  I once overheard my mother and one of her sisters describing their parents, “La mamma ficiva lu pappa e lu pappa ficiva la mamma.” Mother wore the pants and Father was the one we went to for coddling and comfort.” (Literally, “Mother played the role of Father and Father played the role of Mother.”)

My grandmother and her sisters enjoyed long lives.  My grandmother birthed and raised ten children. She also worked as both midwife and undertaker in the village of Grotte.  She helped the villagers enter the world and was there to wash and prepare their bodies for their burials.  Death did not frighten her.  Her nickname among the villagers was Sant’ Anto (Saint Antonia).  Even today, when I go to the village, I introduce myself as the daughter of Pina di Sant’Anto and immediately I carve out a place for myself in the village.

Three of the sisters are wearing black, the color of mourning because they are widows.  One of my great auntie’s has her hair covered in a white scarf, typical hair attire at harvest time in Sicily.  The white scarf served as a hat-like covering to keep the scorching sun off her head. She also is wearing a white medallion pinned to her dress.  We can’t see it up close, but it is a photo of her deceased husband.  My grandmother wore a medallion like that, too, pinned to her dress for over 3o years of widowhood. Even today, the widows of Grotte never forget their deceased husbands.  They rarely re-marry, even if widowed young, and they go to the cemetery often to wipe dust from the headstones, to water the flowers around the grave, and to pray.  One of my great aunties in the photo above has removed her white scarf, probably for the photo, and has it slung over her shoulder.  All of these sisters wore their hair long, wrapped in a tight bun.  When I visited my her, I used to love watching my Nonna undo her hair at night.  Her hair was wispy long and steely gray.

The sisters are proudly displaying bunches of picked grapes.  These magnificent women are Earth-Women.  I love how they stand, firmly rooted to the earth!   I love their strong ample bodies.  My grandmother is holding, nearly hugging, a typical woven basket from Sicily.  In the Sicilian dialect the woven basket is called a cartedda, a word derived from the Greek (from kartallos), because Sicily was a Greek colony in ancient times.  I had an uncle who used to make such baskets during the winter months, when he wasn’t busy tending his farm.

PHOTO NUMBER TWO:

Grandmother Antonia Licata (Mamma Anto') with her sisters and two brothers.

Grandmother Antonia Tirone Licata (Mamma Anto’) with her sisters and two brothers.  These are the adult children of my great grandmother, Mamma Rosi (Rosa Zaffuto Tirone).

Another priceless gem!  Again, my grandmother is in the middle with her sisters and her two brothers.  In fact, the sisters have all taken the same standing position as in the grape harvest photo! They are older in this photo.  Now there are four women dressed in black, four widows. Their hair is definitely thinner.  I love how the sisters all carry brand new purses.  What on earth did they carry in their purses?  I never knew my grandmother to carry a purse.  She carried her enormous skeleton key, tied on a long string, tucked and buried deep between her breasts.  The image left an indelible impression on this author’s ten year-old girl’s brain!

The photo was taken inside a house.  It is not my grandmother’s house.  You can see the wooden doors behind the family and the sheer lace curtains that cover the door.  And you can see a fancy doll decorating a sofa.  Maybe it is the village photography studio.

I was lucky enough to meet my grandmother and her siblings!  The five sisters and their two brothers all lived to be in their 80s and 90s.  Mostly I remember “Tsa Ve” (Zia Veva), the woman with the half smile whose hand is on my grandmother’s shoulder, because she immigrated to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada to live with her son and his family.  I met her on several occasions in Canada when I was young.

PHOTO NUMBER THREE:

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This is a great family treasure: a photo of  my grandparents, Antonia Tirone Licata and her husband Vincenzo Licata and their ten children, five girls and five boys.  My mother is one of five daughters. My mother is the one with her hand on her little brother’s shoulder. This photo was probably taken in the same place as the previous photo, which makes me think this is the village photographic studio.  Look at the floors!  But this time, there is a sheet covering the wall behind the family. I love how in the two “studio” photos, almost everyone is given a prop to hold.  I bet the photographer handed out handbags/purses to the ladies, newspapers and scrolls to the men, and toys to the children.

When I go to Grotte, every aunt and uncle present in this photo has a copy of this Licata family portrait.  My aunts and uncles keep a framed copy of this photo at their bedside.  As long as the siblings live, before going to bed, they say goodnight to their beloved mother and father who are long gone.  I have seen them kiss this photo before retiring for the night.  Five of the siblings have died (my mother being one of them) and five are still alive.  Two of the sisters are still alive.  Rosa, the eldest of all ten children, will soon celebrate her 100th birthday.  Maria celebrated 97 years of life just a few days ago! There is a 26-year span between Rosa, the eldest, and Decimo, the youngest, whose name literally means “tenth child”.

PHOTO NUMBER FOUR:

My mom and her sisters and their mother

My mom, her sisters, and their mother

The photo above was taken in 1972 at my grandmother’s house in Grotte.  My mother is wearing white.  Three of the aunties wear their long hair in an old Sicilian traditional style, tightly pulled back and knotted in a bun. This is the only photo I have of all the sisters together in their later years.

PHOTO NUMBER FIVE: My mom and her five girls!  This was taken in Gary, Indiana.  I am the baby. I love my purse!  The tradition of holding a prop in one’s hand while being photographed continues!

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