My Sicilian grandparents have passed away, and their absence from my life has left me with a great sense of emptiness. Their stories and their Sicily is a comfort to me as my family’s connection to the island is vital and goes back many generations.
I married a Sicilian, a distant cousin in a strange ancestral pull back to Sicily, where I’ve found a personal connection, in a place which feels like home and alien at the same time.
Sicily is my obsession,frustration, inspiration and vocation all at once.
Gradually the years have passed, and Sicily has worked its magic, making me forget how hard, alien and difficult life initially was here.
Now, after many years I’ve adjusted and now Sicilia speaks to me like no other place; it whispers an intoxicating tale in my ear. I am happily lost in a certain ‘Siciliatudine’, a long melancholy history filled with perfumed gardens, abundant wealth, beauty and perfection, a lost paradise which all Sicilians proudly cling to like a babe to a breast. An aristocratic haughtiness who believes in the immortality of a regal past.
A lifetime of Sundays at my maternal Grandparent’s house in Western Australia filled my mind with the stories of their lives. Nonno and Nonna’s affectionate tales meandered through the Sicilian landscape of their youth, from the nineteen twenties to post world war two. There’s was a narrative of naivety, suffering and hard work, which depicts a place where it was a struggle to live for most people.
Sicily, made up of hundreds of villages, is populated by people who grew up together, connected by family ties and a strong sense of belonging. Small town Sicily is where most people were born, live and die without leaving, an insular place where everyone has known one another for generations. A familiarity that is both a blessing and a curse, creating a safe but insular environment.
My grandparents migrated to Australia in the nineteen fifties, first my grandfather then three years later he was able to bring out my grandmother and my six-year-old mother. Later, they had a son without returning to Sicily apart from brief holidays. Yet, they brought their extended network of stories with them, and it kept them connected to their homeland. Even after their deaths, we still remember each character and recall them as if the countrymen of Nonno and Nonna are still a vivid part of our lives.
My Nonni didn’t merely know their contemporaries; they had a comprehensive knowledge of all of their friend’s parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins. Everyone knows one another’s embarrassing stories, and each person immediately understands if a family is honest, violent, mad, stupid, criminal, rich or poor. The honour of the family was very important.
Every Sicilian and, to some extent, even small-town Italian is born with this genealogical information about their community. An ingrained map of wisdom is made up of stories that each person grows up listening to, and that is passed from one generation to the next.
Sicily is filled with this inherited oral history, a unique shorthand ability to interact with one another. This mode of dialectal communication is a defence mechanism developed through the ages to give them the ability to understand the danger and overcome adversity. Their intimate knowledge base of the world surrounding them gives them a firm desire to move forward and steadily upwards on the past stepping stones.
An islanders genetic makeup is made up of family, lifelong friends, community, immigration, work and the ability to make the most of any situation, shrewdness and an understanding of how to navigate the world.
Not only is this secret social language an integral part of all Sicilian migrants throughout the world, but it also seems Sicily does not forget its sons and daughters. I live close to where my grandparents were born, and I still meet older people from their old town who tell me stories about them. Someone introduces themselves to me and says they remembered my mother as a little girl. Other’s knew my Nonna or Nonno and they somehow expected me to converse with them as if I could channel something of these long-lost immigrants who happen to be my family.
My grandmother was a steadfast Sicilian both by habit and stubbornness eternally connected to her complex social web, which weaves its way through her family and friends. Nonna never became an Australian citizen; she had a permanent visa granted to her when Nonno was given citizenship.
Nonno was forced into applying to become an Australian citizen for business reasons, namely, as he could not own property without being naturalised; if it had not been for this, I don’t think he would have become a citizen. In the nineteen fifties, there was no such thing as dual citizenship and taking an oath to the Queen meant giving up the Italian Republic.
I remember how easily my grandparents could tap into their Sicilian font of knowledge; they vividly recall events and people who would somehow still be relevant to a current situation. Sicily was a central part of their identity; it was always there with them.
I recall when my Grandfather came to stay with me for a few months after I was married. He had wanted to go to Sicily but had hesitated because he had just turned eighty. He liked the idea of the comfort of staying with his only granddaughter, and he was in good health, so I was able to convince him to come.
When my Nonno came to Sicily, he was given a new breath of energy, he was full of energy, always doing something, he never believed in retirement but here he had the drive of a twenty-year-old. Every morning he would plan out a new adventure, a different place to visit, more friends and family to seek out and see. He managed to fill his time with catch up lunches, dinners, coffees and random door knocks.
The first time he went back to his old neighbourhood, we drove around every house, and he remembered every street and corner. He made me stop when he saw an old friend stacking wood in a pile at the front of the house. As soon as my Grandfather’s friend saw him, he dropped everything and ran to embrace him, calling him by his diminutive nickname, Peppino.
It was almost as if he had left yesterday, not fifty years before. He had picked up from where he left off, he was the same young man that had immigrated to Australia in the 1950s. Nonno was comfortable with his friendships and relationships. He was charming, genuinely interested in his friends’ lives, never boastful.
Nonno was always encouraging and generous with his advice gathered through a lifetime of experience. He was hilariously irreverent and always had a funny story to tell to lighten the mood and make everyone laugh. His joyful approach to life was contagious, I miss the sound of his laughter and that special twinkle in his eye before he would pronounce his punchline.
Even though his trip to Italy was bittersweet, every greeting was a moment of joy and occasion to rekindle old friendships and connections that had been left behind. But Nonno made every goodbye with the conscious thought that it might be the last, one could see the sadness in his eyes
I find it difficult to navigate myself through my Grandparent’s recollections of cousins, colourful aunts and uncles, godparents. I could never draw a map or family tree, but their stories were so intimate that they merely flowed without effort or thought, as natural as any conversation. Their recollections of Sicily were my mythology. There was a story for every occasion. During a chat with my grandparents, a typical interaction was often interrupted by memories like: ‘Oh that’s like that time with Compare Ciccio,’ or ‘it’s like Nonno Cosimo always used to say.’ Their memories were brought vibrantly to life both for them and those listening.
Their community and ancestors were also where their knowledge came from; they learnt from their relative’s experiences and advice. There was always a piece of anecdotal advice to be remembered. Or an age-old saying that has been repeated and passed on from generation to generation.
The Sicily they had picked up and brought with them in their minds constantly spoke to them, giving them its wisdom. Sicily was ever-present to them, never leaving them alone. It kept them company, giving them strength and advice in every moment until the day they died.