(Essay 5) 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

During the second week of our journey we came to the African coast of south Sicily memorialized in the blockbuster film series, Il Commissario, which may be the best social history of this coast of the contemporary African Mediterranean.  With  2014 eyes I looked incredulously at the region where my father and  his family left for America in 1912—fleeing   miseria,  a misery connoting  poverty and the humiliations of living in the poor south of Italy.

Changed spectacularly since Wally and I were there in 2010, the stretch of Sicily fronting Africa has become a north Italian and international summer spa of northerners seeking the sun and sea. In August, 60,000 tourists come to the marinas of Ragusa Ibla, Scicli, Modica, and Noto.  We arrived a few days after the end of high season when most of the tourists had gone . . . leaving high end hotels, restaurants, shops and white sandy beaches with a baroque backdrop. The mixture of ancient echoes, high technology, contemporary rock music, and the sun and the sea sent my senses reeling.

Women in black, major figures in my earlier books, were not to be seen (they remain in the interior of the island).  In the surreal aspects of our time, Women in Black are now in the United States and at international feminist conferences where they silently witness against nations that kill.

The women I saw on the beaches on this African shore of Sicily were all sizes and ages in bikinis so minimal a grandson called them “dental floss”.   I was struck by how rapidly cultural-ethnic change can happen.  .  . as well as the persistence of ancient submerged values of caring and sharing and healing . . . often in disguised form. 

In Wally’s favorite restaurant on the Marina di Ragusa Ibla, a light skinned 3rd generation African Sicilian suddenly appeared, advised us that pesci spada (swordfish, Wally’s favorite) was out of season, and helped us choose fish of the same family.  After giving us helpful advice about hotels, restaurants, beach arrangements, he disappeared.

On the beach, a first generation migrant from India who has worked in Sicily for 20 years, from whom I purchased gift costume jewelry, looked at our diverse family enjoying themselves and the sun and the sea.  He gave me a ladybug bracelet for newest grandchild Charlotte, and asked if he could be my honorary grandson.

Later my family had me rest in a hotel carved into my ancestral Iblean mountains (named for Cybele) while they went off to find the ancient Chiavola cave home in Ragusa Ibla.  I have seen my ancestral cave home many times, where my Nanna Lucia and her kids lived and my Nannu Luigi visited weekly from the nearby French Angevin fortezza, or castle, where he spoke French, wrote poetry, and worked as falconer and game warden before he came to the U. S. in 1920.

Today my ancestral cave home is marked with a sign “Chiasso Chiavola” in a corner near the famed baroque church San Giorgio where everyone in the Chiavola family was baptized before they came to the U.S. in 1908 and 1912.  My kids in 2014, following an incorrect map, did not find our ancestral home.  In 2013, celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary in Sicily, other kids did find it.  Sabrina looks like me. Peter, of Celtic inheritance, and I shared a Catholic childhood (“Did you believe in Original Sin?  No.  Neither did I.”). (See Peter Landreth’s book of photographs, Sicily, 2013).

That evening, we dined in an elegant cave restaurant in Ragusa Ibla where the rock of the cave nestled with crystal wine glasses.   After midnight, we drove through the darkness on unmarked roads back to our villa at Scicli, not arriving until 3 AM. Whereupon we were told to be up early because we were leaving at 8 AM—for a surprise.

Half asleep we arrived the next morning to an air strip on the southeast corner of Sicily facing Asia, where I was hoisted up into a helicopter.  Flying over Sicily I saw the volcano Etna fuming (it had erupted a month before).  I looked at golden pools of lava not yet dried and thought of alchemists and transformation.

Sicily is a stone garden of lava rock that people use to rebuild their homes and churches after a volcanic eruption.   The eruption of Etna in 1693 created the world heritage site of baroque churches forming the backdrop to today’s coastal strip of Sicily facing Africa.

I observed how ambience, or environment, can change perception.  On restaurant steps adjoining the major square of Noto, we read a hilarious menu in fractured Italian-English (like the broken English of my Sicilian immigrant grandparents), offering 100 kinds of pizza.   I looked up and saw a woman whose legs dangled over a ledge of the baroque church in front of us.  Walking up to see her closely, I realized my perception  had  transformed a statue of a male official in  one of Italy’s ubiquitous war memorials . . . into a woman  sitting on a ledge of a baroque church  watching  Sicilians and visitors eating 100 kinds of pizza.

Reversing roles, my sons and daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, and great-grandkids nurtured this great-grandmother.  Driving through the night  after late Mediterranean dinners,  Josh and  Naury, with the  skill of Italian drivers,-  carried  us  through unknown  places in front of  Africa. . . . . . navigated by Jake’s computer magic . . . and by Matt Potter’s getting out to direct our van’s hairpin turns on narrow streets of baroque cities.

I thought about our journey in Sicily.  . . how a gift economy can harmonize different people.  For great-granddaughter Josie’s 8th birthday, we purchased provisions for the party at a neighborhood large open air market.  For the shopping, Marc spoke French; I spoke Italian; Courtney bought shoes for Matt P.

Later Barbara and Jake cooked, helped by everyone.  I told a story to my great-grandkids  . . . our animal ancestors who roamed the earth evolved into humans who were every body’s ancient grandmothers and grandfathers.  Mine and theirs were right near us at Palermo and Termini very close to where we were having a birthday party for Josie. Whitney showed us photos of the baby just born to her sister.  Everybody washed the dishes.  Great grandkids Adam and Josie danced and danced until after midnight.

One night in a seafood  restaurant perched on the sea, Adam while dancing fell into the African Mediterranean . . . whereupon the proprietor’s little girl gave Adam a dry set of her clothes.

To be continued. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.

Leave a Response

Be the First to Respond!

Notify of