Taking my mother to Sicily twenty-two years ago for her seventieth birthday, as it turned out, was a dual transcendent gift. Mom would’ve been ninety-three this July. Had I left her here, Jean might’ve still been alive to see LouLou become the remarkable teenager she is today. Jean, bless her heart did hang on, but went to heaven when LouLou was only two months and six days old.
Seniors live longer in Sicily. They’re not out playing mahjong, golf nor tennis, nothing of the sort. What I do witness are similar situations: eighty-two year old Enza on an aluminum step ladder washing her wood shutters; same way she’s done for eight years I know of, probably sixty before that. Yesterday morning an old man wearing dark brown baggy trousers, wrinkled plaid shirt, rumpled slate sport coat and soiled hat was unlocking his trunk on the port putting just-caught fish away before driving off; he must’ve been eighty-seven or so. There’s no shortage of smokers here, though I don’t see old folks with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. Walking anywhere in Castellammare requires strong legs and core; hills are simply unavoidable.
Geraci, alongside other Italian bottled mineral water goes down as if it flowed from a creek in the Italian Alps. Local town fountains here are ice cold and delicious. My grandmother, Anna D’Angelo washed her clothes in one we drink from right off Via Ferrantelli, where she lived a hundred years ago prior to reaching Ellis Island. When sipping from Anna’s fountain, I sometimes picture Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Nellie as kids, splashing each other while Grandma scrubbed away.
Tenacious Sicilians won’t back down; Byzantines and Carthaginians tried to conquer Sicily a thousand years ago; fat chance, wasn’t ever gonna happen. Occasionally Sicily’s ancient stone block walls are adorned by a flowering plant squeezing its way out from well-earned cracks. Where we’re staying this trip, streets wouldn’t even be considered alleys elsewhere; it’s the oldest section of Castellammare near Il Castello and Chiesa Madrice. These streets were designed with donkeys, horses and wagons in mind, not cars, Mercedes-Benz Smart car excluded. I can almost stretch over to touch the terrace across Via Sarcona, yet I’d undoubtedly fall, creating a ghastly mess four flights below.
It was like pulling teeth getting Jean to accept my gift. Independent as her mother, Mom hardly ever said yes to any kind of help, didn’t matter if she needed it or not. Once we finally got here, I was chopped liver; Jean stayed engaged in conversation with whoever said buongiorno or buonasera. I’d often stand aside waiting twenty minutes while Jean chatted as if she’d known this stranger her entire life. Initially I felt rejected — hoping to find out what this gabfest was all about, made the mistake of interrupting Jean, tapped inquiring, “Mom, what is she saying?” Delivering a convincing whack, Jean struck my shoulder to reprimand me, adding, “zittiti,” Sicilian’s fun expression for be quiet.
Our first morning stroll here started at the west entrance of Piazza Petrolo, overlooking a late August glistening Mediterranean Sea. We meandered across marble pavers, eventually arriving near Chiesa Madrice. Jean did not want to go inside. What I didn’t realize in those few seconds, my mother was preoccupied by an emotional thought — this church presumably was where Anna went to hear mass. When I did get Jean to go inside Chiesa Madrice, she became the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, quickly turned and hurried outside. It’s difficult putting two and two together during confusing moments, why did she seem so petrified? “Mom, where are you going? Let’s go back inside; please, we came all this way.” “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see they’re in the middle of mass, we shouldn’t be in there right now.” “Don’t be silly Mom, it’s a church, everybody’s always welcome.” My not always cooperative mother could find nothing to disagree with, followed me back inside amid high mass, complete with mystical smoldering frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and storax — Catholicism’s pontifical blend. We sat in silence for a little while; Jean partially happy to be inside this church Anna prayed, though was so struck by another curious thought, still in the dark — where exactly in Castellammare did her mother live? Ten minutes after service concluded, the elderly priest who had been saying mass introduced himself. He and Jean, eye to eye, upright at 4-foot-11, their years too parallel. He escorted us toward a doorway behind the altar of Chiesa Madrice’s inner sanctum. Speaking in Italian, he glossed over the history of his church; during which time placed each fingertip together, thumb included, over a cupped palm, chest high — dignified and proud.
Fourteen years later on a sultry August evening, I saw that same elderly priest, although without my mother. Jeanette, LouLou and I were standing in the Piazza Madrice witnessing a candlelit procession: Madonna was being escorted from Chiesa Madrice on shoulder-borne palanquin, carried through town onto an awaiting boat at Castellammare’s port. Four human magnets — Jeanette, LouLou and I pulled toward this priest, he too seemingly swooned right into our arms. He presented himself as Monsignor Navarra; reminding us to trill the double r’s, afterward gleamed listening to our proper pronunciation of his name. Without speaking any English he suggested we visit him at his house some evening around five before six o’clock mass. LouLou’s cheek then rested on the Monsignor’s chest when he embraced her while standing.
Each year since we’d drop by at least twice during our seven week stays; he’d shuffle across his slick stone floor to retrieve a vintage New York souvenir serving tray stacked with napkins, four glasses, spoons, orange soda, and nocciola gelato. Monsignor Navarra was born inside this house, eighty-nine years ago, on the northwest corner of Piazza Madrice, feet from where “Poppa” as I call him, devoted his life following seminary studies in Turin. A walk-through of Monsignor’s house, where he lives alone, could easily take up an hour. Monsignor’s interior staircase has royal appeal: marble steps with beveled edges, uncommonly shallow, having generous depth — an ornate iron railing gently swerves leading onto the next floor, four in total. Poppa’s office is stacked with thick novels and leather-bound theology books; the faintest remnant of musty patchouli lingers, a sable color plume protrudes from his pen cannister.
Last year Monsignor’s body contracted, much more than recent years, as if arthritis had taken over. From a distance it was difficult to see Poppa driving his beloved beige 1960s Cinquecento; he could barely be seen looking above his steering wheel. Monsignor Navarra was inching along outside with a neighbor last week. He had on all black: vestment with a zillion cloth buttons neck to toe (street clothing underneath) floor length overcoat, handknit extra-long-loose weave scarf, and English driving cap. Castellammare’s temperature hovered seventy-five degrees that day; Jeanette, LouLou and I were wearing summer attire, as were most others in town. Last Friday LouLou’s cheek easily kissed Poppa’s ear while they were standing next to each other.
It wasn’t entirely clear through translation, however, Monsignor’s neighbor, Elena, part-time caregiver these last eight years informed us he had slipped on the divine staircase injuring his head. Poppa’s driving rights were revoked; he’s presently living on the ground floor. This morning we saw Elena at the market, she explained Monsignor Navarra was receiving medical attention at home, but wasn’t being a model patient; he kept removing his intravenous drip, Elena’s reassurance closed saying we’d be able to visit him dopo domani.
Three years ago, Poppa heard my concerns regarding the melanoma tumor in my leg. Seeing I was visibly shaken, Monsignor held my right hand, folded it, surrounded mine with his, smiled inciting, “coraggio et fede.” Courage and faith: a pair of imposing words I’ll not forget when adversity crosses my path.