In Italy, La Madonna is everywhere—rendered in frescos, enshrined in basilicas, honored in local festivals, invoked in the prayers of old widows and the curses of old men. Even so, a traveler, taken in by the cobblestone piazzas, the art, the hillsides teeming with olive orchards and vineyards, the lyrical language, local wines and regional dishes, might find it easy to forget that this country is Catholic.
It is Christmastime when you and your future husband, Nick, take an overnight train from Umbria in central Italy to Sicily to visit his eighty-two-year-old great-uncle Jo. Jo greets you at the train with a bag of arancini, a Sicilian specialty—deep fried, conical rice croquettes stuffed with ground meat, tomato sauce, peas, and mozzarella. They are strange looking but delicious temptations you come to love.
You spend two weeks calling Jo Zio, because he is everyone’s uncle, the oldest living member of his family on both sides. Three times a day Jo brews shots of espresso, which you sip from tiny porcelain cups in his cramped kitchen, the only room he feels comfortable in. The cucina is spare save for an old army cot where he sleeps and the two iconic features of the twenty-first century Italian kitchen—a painting of La Madonna, and a TV blaring game shows with half naked go-go dancers. They keep Jo company in his old age, but now he has visitors to entertain.
“Sit down,” he gestures, setting out warm homemade ricotta for breakfast—from his friend who makes it fresh, he tells you, “from the cow.” Then he lights his pipe and fills the room with Baralo-scented Forte tobacco and stories of his youth—the time the whole town came out to corral Glauco’s escaped pigs, which were running wild through the Centro; his high school field trip up Mt. Etna on Christmas day where he ventured onto steaming pebbles of cooling lava and burned a hole in the sole of his only pair of shoes; Sundays, after church, when he and his pals paraded down Piazza del Duomo, dressed in their finest, strutting for the girls.
Soon, you begin to get comfortable. You imagine yourself related to this droll old man, dapperly outfitted in a wool jacket, button-down vest, and the traditional Sicilian coppola worn by men young and old. You spend hours each day eating, gathered with his huge extended family, enticed by Sicilian dishes—sfincione, caponate, carne by the truckload (one of Nick’s second cousins owns a macelleria), and an assortment of dolce followed by caffè while you listen to Zio rattle off jokes with the kind of deadpan delivery stand-up comics kill for.
At the cemetery, where you visit his wife’s grave, he gives you the low-down on the dead.
“You see that grave over there?” He points to a half dozen spectacular sprays of flowers hovering over a freshly dug grave.
“That one wasa killed by the Mafia.” He calls your attention to another lavish arrangement of white lilies in the shape of a giant cross.
“Blown up. By the Mafia.”
Then he turns somber, motions to a marble mausoleum in pristine condition that looks like Michelangelo might have carved it. Jo curses under his breath, and speaks of the Cosa Nostra, which has terrorized his town since he was a boy. He empties out the violets and stale water from the vase that sits in a stand by his wife’s grave. Jo is faithful to Lina and brings a fresh bouquet to her site every week but he is bereft without her, and sometimes when he is not nurturing his astounding collection of cacti—hundreds of species that cover his flat rooftop and keep him busy—he wishes for his own death.
Christmas Eve arrives and you’re looking forward to a Sicilian Mass but no one is getting dressed. Instead you find yourself playing bingo till 3 a.m., eating homemade honeyed donuts, and laughing out loud at Zio’s jokes. You don’t understand because he is speaking Sicilian, but everyone is in hysterics, especially Aunt Lina’s sister Francesca, who must weigh three-hundred pounds and is drunk on Zio’s homemade grappa, which tastes like kerosene. You drink, the familial warmth intoxicates, and you feel nested, as though you were born into this family. “Al mio primo Natale. To my first Christmas. Salute!” you blurt, smiling, the heat of the liquor expanding your lungs. Everyone pantomimes your gesture and drinks to your health. Except Jo, who shifts uncomfortably on his stool.
“You are Ebrea?” he asks. You gulp the remaining grappa and look to Nick to rescue you from the awkward, no, insensitive question, coming from a man who had always felt like a foreigner in the United States, even after receiving his American citizenship. Jo had immigrated to New York just after World War II at the age of forty and worked as a handyman for the Bronx Botanical Gardens long enough to earn a pension before retiring with his wife back to the small town of Lentini, Sicily, where they were born.
“Si, Zio, I told you,” Nick says. And you let the question slide, because really, maybe, it’s a harmless inquiry. Nevertheless—Ebrea—that biblical anachronism for Jew, makes you burn, and you flush red, feeling like a relic of ancient Egypt and wonder how in a country with noses like yours you could be outed.
Jo resumes his role as host, but you can’t shake your growing discomfort. In Italy, being labeled Ebrea feels more offensive than being called stranieri, a foreigner—because every non-native is a straniero. Even Christiana, your German landlady, married to Marcelo, an Italian, for over twenty years; even Marcelo, who is not a native of the tiny village of San Leo de Batista, where he has lived only half his life.
Christmas passes and you begin to feel claustrophobic sleeping in Jo’s former bedroom. The bed is too soft, the lighting too dim. Lina’s bric-a-brac and perfume bottles clutter the mahogany dresser, still filled with her clothes, while you live out of your suitcase.
Then just before the New Year, Uncle Jo snaps.
“Da tub it isa stopped.”
“What?” You and Nick have just come in from a stroll.
“I said de tub. It isa stopped.”
“What tub?” you wonder. You only take showers.
“I show you!” he says, exasperated, and marches the two of you upstairs to the bathroom, points first at the toilet, then aims his finger in your direction.
“Deres a shit in da tub and I tink ita was you!”
Instantly all the affection you have come to hold for this man disintegrates like ashes at your feet. You feel defiled and small—una Ebrea, who despite her best efforts will never be accepted into this tribe. His accusation stings and you sense something underneath this psychotic fit, something that can’t be explained or forgiven by age. At that moment he ceases to be Zio, and you recall the black and white photos of his four brothers that hang in the sterile, unlived-in living room, the couch and chairs covered for eternity in clear plastic. Jo pointed to Sebastiano, the eldest.
“He was the Facista in the family,” he remarked grimly.
But now you remember that Jo fought with the Axis in Africa during the War, even though he was conscripted. You think of Nick’s father, who also makes you uncomfortable, with his drinking and self-righteousness. Everything around you turns morbid—Sicily, with its Mafia, the old widows, still wearing black twenty years after their husbands’ death. Uncle Jo, as frail as he is, becomes a sinister version of himself and you can no more excuse him than you can Mussolini.
In your bedroom that night you throw a fit and demand to leave the next day.
“He had a spell. Don’t take it personally,” says Nick.
“How should I take it?” you say. “And why didn’t you defend me? It wasn’t even my shit!”
Nick is laughing. But now you are crying and talking about how it feels to be the only Jewish person in the room, in all of Lentini, in all of Italy, for that matter! You are taking the next train out. Alone, if necessary, you declare.
The following morning, Uncle Jo gets you to the train early. “I’ll be back,” he says and disappears shrunken behind the wheel of his car. He returns as the train is boarding and contritely offers you a greasy paper bag. Once settled in the compartment, Nick motions you to the open window to wave goodbye.
“Ciao, Deb-o-rah” Jo enunciates, giving your name its biblical weight.
“Ci vediamo,” you say knowing that you will never see him again.
When the train starts moving you open the bag. The arancini, named for the orange color of the breadcrumbs clinging to their sides, are still steaming. You take one out in its greasy wax paper wrapping and bite into its center. The texture is crispy and creamy, a nutritious, hearty meal filled with the simple foods upon which this civilization is built. But it’s more than just food. It’s an apology, and the remorse you feel makes you savor it even more. Years later, you will discover Mozzicato, an Italian bakery in Hartford that makes these Sicilian treats, but they will never taste the same.
© 2015 Deb Fleischman