(Essay 6) blackbird and a pear tree by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum

A family story told in art, names, places, denied cultures,

black and sensual madonnas,  diversity of beliefs,

visionary and healing Santa Lucia of Sicily

blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas
blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas

After a week on the top coast of Sicily, Adam and Josie had to go back to school; their mother Sabrina had to go back to her job caring for an East Bay town as city manager, their father Peter had to go back to his job, caring for the earth as an environmental lawyer.  Their kids, my great grandkids, had to go back to school.  One of their genetic branches is Celt.  Josie, who looks like a little French school girl, kept a journal while on the trip.  Adam, whose middle name is Murphy, said very seriously, “Sicily is very historic!”  Marc and Nancy  went off to France where they honeymooned in Paris in the 1970s . . .  this time as  parents of Matt , Nicolas and Nicki,  and grandparents of new baby,  Charlotte  Kimura Birnbaum Bald.

I thought of the survival skills of my kids . . . following their own interests yet, looking out for everyone.   Arriving at a new place I would worry when they scattered . . . yet, everyone was in constant cell phone touch with everyone.  Barbara shook the sand from my shoes and wheeled me down a steep hill to join the Noto passagiatta, late afternoon ritual in Latin countries that involves walking and meeting and eating ice cream.   Abi  found a  libreria  where I could buy local histories.  Naury found a tabac that carried La Repubblica.  Jake, in the morning, would awaken me from our adjoining closet. Abi and Jake, in the midst of adventures in Sicily   made international phone calls planning their wedding in New York on November 9.

I glimpsed emerging new-ancient values. Matt Birnbaum, grandson who loves being baby Charlotte’s uncle,  cared for  niece and nephew Josie and Adam  jumping  in the shoals while their intrepid parents Sabrina and Peter swam beyond the buoys at Cefalu, and elsewhere.  Barbara, nurturant momma and restaurateur , saw to it that everyone dined and wined well.  She arranged a visit to a grape harvest festival  in my Nanna Lucia’s home town Vittoria—whose folklore of  women bonding  with the earth bare-breasted I’d  studied.  In the 1970s  in Italy’s hot revolutionary period, Wally and I drove to see the radical political murals of Vittoria.  In 2014 our kids, after snipping grapes, danced on them to make wine.

Nancy asked questions about the mafia—whose original meaning was men of honor who protected their women from invader-rapists.  The original name of the mafia was “Ma figlia” or my daughter. My kids’ questions about the mafia in Sicily gave me to think of complicity . . . the mafia in Sicily that governs a hideous killing machine in plain sight . . . the CIA in the U. S., a similar hideous killing machine of   U. S. imperialists    torturing and  killing with the silent complicity of politicians and citizens.

I thought about Sicily’s story of different peoples creating the genetics~culture~experience~vision of contemporary Sicilians, who  in 2014 may be among  the least militaristic  of the developed world.  Sicilians have lived through brutal aspects of feudalism (e.g., the right of the lord of the manor to sleep  with the bride on the first night of tenant’s weddings), castor oil fascism under Mussolini, suffering, living in a war site,  in world war 2, revolutionary hope in the 1960s, a controversial yet very strong feminist movement in Catholic Italy,  Red Brigade knee capping of capialists and the killing of the Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro,  a paralyzed political system, and an ancient-contemporary ethic of non-violence  . . .  mixing  the “pazienza”   of their grandparents and the vision of their kids.

Sicilians have relatives all over the world, particularly in the U.S.  In 2014, the only  public criticism I saw of  U.S. bombing  ancestral places and peoples in the African Mediterranean  was a  graffito,  “USA, Stai  attenta.” or   U.S.A., Be careful.


Coming home in late September to hundreds of emails, everything seems to have accelerated . . .   more evidence of imminent environmental catastrophe, horrible U. S. drone killings in the African Mediterranean . . . Israeli bombs killing children in Gaza, U. S. police continuing to kill black youth.  Yet  enormous  demonstrations against  polluters killing the earth,  against police murdering black people, international student Occupy protests from Hong Kong to Paris.

I fell into a liminal state trying to find the meaning of our family trip to Sicily.  Black madonnas emerged.  Barbara had asked me if there were black madonnas in Germany. My wits gone somewhere else, I forgot to tell her that Wally and I had visited the black madonna at Altotting near  Munich, that  there are hundreds of black madonnas across the world, that  major sanctuaries of black madonnas in Europe include the black madonna of Loreto in Italy, the black madonna outside  Barcelona, Spain, the black madonna of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, who is looked to by all German speaking peoples,  the black madonna of Czestochowa in Poland.  That there are dark women divinities all over the world, particularly in everyday life.

Bad and good news fell on me. My sister Joie has been critically ill . . . she is better.  Barbara came home  from  Sicily, with a broken  foot  from overdoing –helping everyone else.  I am  very glad  she has begun  to write  her story of the  trip to Sicily. While gathering Matt P.’s photos of our  trip for the book, she and Naury took their grandkids to a pumpkin patch.

I received luminous photos and a movie from Marc and Nancy of their 6-month-old granddaughter Charlotte Kimura Birnbaum Bald crawling and sitting up.  Her mother, Nickie, says, “Here’s your alligator,” and she reaches for it.  Her father, Nick, who equally cares for Charlotte, calls her “Charlie”.

This  three-times bisnonna thought to herself,  Charlotte  has to be the most beautiful and brightest baby in the world.  She caught herself,  remembering  . . .  that’s exactly what she thought about every single one of  her kids, grandkids, great grandkids . . .   that’s what every  mother, grandmother and great-grandmother across the world  thinks as they care for their kids and other vulnerable humans  in a world that is in a terrible crisis . . . including killing kids.

My neighbors, Sandy Miranda and Rob, back from their family trip to Sicily that coincided with ours, brought me gifts.  A souvenir from Mt. Etna, a black madonna in a volcanic rock cave with a votive red rose. A prayer card of the Madonna della Milicia in Altavilla in the province of Palermo whom parishioners regard as the most important “Marian” sight in Sicily—a black mother with a black child sitting next to Saint Francis, who is black and blessing a white child—a  gift that gave me to think, as  did another gift, a dual portrait of Lucia showing a young white maiden  on one side and an elderly dark queen on the other.

I also thought of Mary Beth Moser, back from a reconnaissance trip in Italy with Rich for a prospective family trip next year when she and her family will explore places in her doctoral dissertation (that won a prestigious award the very day Mary Beth’s mother died). They will explore Trentino, a region in northern Italy where during the Inquisition the Church tried to wipe out pagan beliefs.  Yet, as Mary Beth’s dissertation documented, a very rich everyday spirituality has sustained and lightened the lives of everyone, preserving life enhancing beliefs from the pagan past through Inquisition persecution, to the troubled present.  Mary Beth told me that on this trip she heard water spirits singing.

With my family, I prepared  to go to Abi  and Jake’s November  wedding—a Jewish wedding with Josh’ tallit  on the chuppa in an Italian restaurant on the East River in a neighborhood of orthodox Jews preserving ancient values, healers repairing  the ravages of our violent epoch, visionary  artists of Brooklyn remembering  once upon a time, and lots of  people, some of them unlikely, helping to make stories come true .

I imagined the horah at their wedding .  .  . steps backward before dancing forward . . . people dancing together, sometimes in concentric circles.   A friend  and ethnomusicologist told me that almost all folk dances of the world have this pattern—steps backward before dancing forward,   together.

After wrapping wedding presents for Abi and Jake—including writings of Martin Buber whose I and Thou had an early great influence on me—I  also went to check-up appointments.

My ophthalmologist said my vision is fine.


*Le Donne Siculo Americane, Siracusa, Sicilia, Editori Cappuccini, 1980; Liberazione della donna. Feminism in Italy, Middletown, Ct., Wesleyan University Press, 1986); Black Madonnas of Italy (Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1994; Dark Mother. African Origins and Godmothers (iUniverse, 2001);  The Future Has an Ancient Heart. Legacy of caring, sharing, healing, and vision from the primordial African Mediterranean to Occupy Everywhere (iUniverse, 2012); subtitle of 2013 revised edition,  A love story, vision, and a prophecy.

Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.