We parked the rental car on the street in front of the stone building with the wooden door. Actually, all of the buildings were stone, old, gray stone, and I’m pretty sure they all had wooden doors. But this was 177 Via Messina. We got out of the car, Maria and I and our son Shaun, and approached the house. I double-checked the number. We had been told this was where Nunziata lived with her daughter, Tina.
A century earlier, almost to the day, my grandmother had been born in this house in Bronte, Sicily. When she was nineteen, she got on a boat called the Patria with her husband and their nine-month-old baby, my mother, and sailed for New York. They arrived on November 1, 1922. Years later, my grandmother would return once to visit her family, but my mother seemed to have no desire to see her birthplace. I don’t remember her ever even talking about it. My questions about their reasons for leaving were always answered with shrugs and silence. Or, “What does it matter?” It was a time for looking forward, I guess. Where you came from wasn’t nearly so interesting back then.
By the time I was born, my grandfather was dead, murdered in his own barbershop during a holdup. “Seven dollars. He had seven dollars in the cash register. They shot him for seven dollars.” That’s all the information I could ever get out of anyone. Maybe there really was nothing else to say about it.
The family eventually moved to the Bronx. Our home was a three-story brick building. My parents and their five kids occupied the two lower floors. My grandmother lived on the top floor with her second husband. Their place became my sanctuary. I loved to go upstairs, to hear the scrunch as I threw myself onto the plastic-covered couches, to inhale the sweet scent of smoldering pipe tobacco, or to sit on the floor and watch The Untouchables. It was a safe place, and they were safe people. They spoke with thick accents, and with gentleness and caring.
My grandmother often made me a special drink when I went to see her after school. She would go into the living room and take a crystal glass from the cabinet. Then she’d crack a raw egg and let it drop into the glass, followed by some vermouth and honey, and mix it with a rotary hand beater. I can still hear the blades knocking against the inside of the glass. I can see the foam as it rises to the rim. She never called it anything but eggs and vermouth. Did she think I wouldn’t be able to pronounce its name? Or was she still trying to shed her Sicilian identity, and prove she was a true American? My mother seemed to be caught in the same struggle. So did several aunts and uncles. Maybe that’s why they never taught their kids to speak Italian. They reverted to their native language only when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about. I would listen to the rambling, meaningless words, occasionally punctuated by my name and a head flicked in my direction. What were they saying about me? Even with a language barrier, and partly because of it, the Sicilian paranoia was passed to the next generation.
My mother was a stunning woman when she was in her thirties, and well into her forties. I don’t know that I have a clue about her relationship with my grandmother. Maybe it was because they lived in the same house. They never greeted each other, or said good-bye. They interacted the way any two people interact when they’re together all the time. Conversations would just pick up where they’d left off.
We spent most of our time on the bottom floor’s faded linoleum. Side-by-side refrigerator and freezer stood like short sentinels against one wall. There was a front room, filled with greasy tools and cobwebs and wooden cases of seltzer. There was a back room, with a boiler in the corner and a radiator beside it, where we put our wet clothes in the winter to dry, and where our cat had given birth to seven kittens one spring day. We ate all of our meals in the kitchen. On holidays, when aunts and uncles and cousins came over, we opened up a long aluminum folding table and set up enough chairs to seat eighteen or more. The tables were slightly different heights, so there was always a little drop from one to the other, from the adults’ table to the kids’ table.
There were two water pipes running across the ceiling from the front of the house to the back. My mother sometimes banged on those pipes when it got cold downstairs. I guess my grandmother had the thermostat and controlled the heat. My dream as an eight-year-old was to someday jump up and touch the pipes, as my two older brothers could do with ease, and which they often demonstrated for my benefit.
A concrete driveway separated our house from the one next door. The driveway was where I often played with my younger brother. It’s where I did my homework on warm days, and where we had parties in the summer. It’s where I had played stickball before I was old enough to go into the street. It’s where, when my mother had warned my grandmother not to give me any candy, I waited with outstretched hands as the candy flew from the third-floor kitchen window, wrapped in a napkin and tucked inside a brown paper bag. My grandmother liked me, I think in a way that no one has since. And so I still remember the tone in my uncle’s voice when he came down the stairs one March day and yelled to my cousins and my brother and me, “Can’t you kids keep it down? Don’t you know your grandmother died today?” No, we hadn’t known. That was 1966. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor the previous November. In my memory, she had been sick for about two years, but in reality it had been just a few months. Hers was the first death in my life. I was ten, and confused. Why did they call it a wake? Was she in heaven with my grandfather? And what would happen when her second husband died and went to heaven? Would she have to choose? I tried asking my mother, but always the answers were abrupt, deflective, or non-existent.
My mother had a bite, a sarcastic tone that may have been there all along, or may have developed as a result of my father’s infidelities. Or my older brother’s drug use. Or her mother’s illness. Or she may have reserved the tone for me. Maybe I was like my own kids and went through a period of incessant questions. And maybe my mother grew tired of them, or was distracted by pressing issues. I don’t know. I remember only my questions and her answers. “Where are you going?” “To the moon. You want to come?” “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in my pocket.” “When are my cousins getting here?” “When they get here, they get here.”
And so it’s no wonder, at least in the recollections stored by a young boy, that I had shuttled between my mother and my grandmother, looking for a little attention and a soft place to land. Always feeling that I was never quite where I was supposed to be.
After high school, I enrolled at Fordham University, looking to prolong my time in the Bronx, and to stay close to home in case my father succumbed to the emphysema that seemed to have him permanently trapped in the intersection between life and death. I studied Italian for four semesters. I learned very little, often unknowingly pulling out a Spanish word from my high school years and inserting it into the middle of an Italian expression. It was my first feeble attempt to connect with a nearly-lost heritage.
It’s always startling to look back after making a long series of seemingly insignificant decisions. You realize that if you could go back and change any one of those choices, you would be in a different place. Certain relationships would have never been possible. Children would have remained unborn, while others, now permanently non-existent, would have been here and causing us to wonder how we could ever live without them. It gives me the shivers to think about it. Had I known my father would dwell in the intersection for eleven more years, what would I have done differently? Where would I be now? Who would I be? And when I looked around, who would be there?
In the summer of 1996, my mother noticed a lump in her throat. She went to the doctor, who told her that she shouldn’t be too concerned, and that he was going on vacation. They did some tests in the fall and discovered there was cancer. Again he advised her not to worry, that he would operate and remove the cancer and that her prognosis was good. In October she went into surgery and was back in her room in less than an hour. The doctor had found so much cancer, he knew there was no point in trying to remove it. He said she would live six months. Some radiation and a few rounds of chemotherapy took away her hair and her ability to eat and gave her face that sunken look that we didn’t really notice at the time, but seems so shocking when we look at photographs now. Six months after her prognosis, she obeyed the doctor and died. Two of my brothers sat by her bed. I was holding her hand when she took her last breath.
Several years after my mother’s death, I found myself pulled to Sicily. I couldn’t explain it, but I had to go. Maria needed no explanation, and although we couldn’t afford the trip, she agreed that we should go anyway. Born in Japan, she still had family there, had been back to visit them, and understood the importance of maintaining that connection. So we went, Maria and I and our eight-year-old son.
Tucked into my carry-on bag was a slip of paper with a few names and telephone numbers. Three weeks before we were to leave, I spoke with my uncle, my mother’s brother, the one who had announced my grandmother’s death. We hadn’t spoken in years, but when I heard he’d been to Sicily, I called him. He told me that my grandmother’s sister, Nunziata, was still alive and living in the same house where my mother was born. Even after forty-seven years of life in a family of secrets, I was unprepared for this piece of information. My grandmother had a sister? Has a sister? She’s alive, in Sicily, living in the same house? She’s ninety-eight? I imagined a frail, white-haired woman dressed in black, lying in bed in a dark room.
When the door opened, we were met by a woman with coarse brown hair and large glasses. “Nunziata?” I asked. “No,” she answered in perfect English. “I am Nunziata’s daughter, Tina.” We entered and introduced ourselves. Tina was my mother’s cousin, but they could have been mistaken for sisters. Had my mother ever mentioned her? Did she even know about Tina? It seems like an absurd question, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine my mother shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Tina who? I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
The far end of the room was the kitchen. A table and four chairs stood not five feet from the front door. The furniture was thick wood, heavy, shiny. A crucifix hung on a wall. A huge long-haired cat sat on the floor under the table. Across the room, a silent woman stood waiting. Tina made the introductions. “This is my mother, Nunziata.” I kissed the older woman’s unmoving face. She almost smiled, and spoke to Tina in Italian, flicking her head in our direction. I translated some on my own, but there was no need, because Tina easily alternated between the two languages. She was explaining to Nunziata who we were, as though we had arrived unexpectedly. We hadn’t, of course. We’d been in touch with another cousin, who had arranged the visit earlier that day.
I pulled out pictures from my pocket, old black and white photographs of my grandmother and my mother, taken in front of our house in the Bronx in the 1950s. In one, they held an infant I believe was me. Another showed Nunziata and my grandmother as middle-aged women, reunited in Bronte. Tina and Nunziata studied the pictures for long minutes, mumbling in Italian, nodding happily. Meanwhile, I kept trying to comprehend. I looked at this woman, nearly a hundred years old. She reminded me of an ancient tree, her outer growth rings clothed in wrinkled bark, her spark of life deep within and hidden from strangers from America. I peered around the room. This has been her home the entire time, I thought. I scanned the decades in my mind, beginning with 1905. Theodore Roosevelt was president. World War One, the twenties, the Depression, Mussolini, World War Two, my mother’s marriage and five children, the Cold War, the assassinations in the United States, my grandmother’s death, Vietnam, Watergate, my mother’s death. All of these things and thousands more had happened while she lived in this house, ate in this room, slept upstairs. Her own husband had died in 1964. She had been a widow for almost forty years. And now, here we were, these three visitors. Three more people in a lifetime of countless faces. But, I reminded myself, in all that time there had been just five people she could call brother or sister, and my grandmother was one of them. The kind woman who threw candy out the window to me, and who always made me feel as though she’d been waiting for me to show up. I tried not to stare, but I looked hard at Nunziata, wondering if this is what my grandmother would have looked like had she lived to this incredible age.
It might have also been in that very room that decisions were made. The decision to leave that house, that town, that island, that country, and go to New York. What if the decisions had been different? They could have left sooner, or later, or not at all. They could have listened to the pleadings of parents and stayed in Sicily. They could have headed for Naples, or Rome, or Philadelphia. Even Brooklyn would have been enough to change a family’s path. Shaun and I would not exist. Nor would my daughter, my siblings and their families. Maria would be married to someone else, and they would have their own children. A slice of the world would have been different in ways I cannot possibly imagine.
The thoughts wandered around in my head like a parade without a leader. Meanwhile, the Sicilian instinct kicked in and Tina began searching for food, emerging from somewhere with a box of chocolate and a plate of the pastries we had brought. I asked her about the drink my grandmother used to make for me, with the egg and vermouth.
“Zabaglione,” she said, then again, one syllable at a time.
I repeated the word: “zah-bahl-YO-nay.” I was sure I’d never heard it before. And suddenly, Nunziata was holding a rotary hand beater. Tina was putting eggs and vermouth into a glass, and after adding a little honey, she pushed it over to her mother. Maria had heard about this drink several times before, because I mentioned it whenever I spoke about my grandmother. I had just recently told Shaun about it. The room was silent, save for the sound of beaters hitting the sides of the glass. And as the foam rose to the rim, I took a photograph with my mind. Nunziata, Tina, and my little boy. It was as though I were looking back in time: my grandmother, my mother, and me. For the briefest moment, but then again for the rest of my life, I was back in that upstairs kitchen, feeling as though I belonged.