HERE WE ARE
On the third anniversary of my grandmother’s death, after grief turned the corner to longing, my mom and I traveled to the “old country.” My gram was born in Italy—Sicily, actually. (Gramps too—she’d outlived him by fourteen years.) We both missed the old gal, difficult as she’d been. Even as I write this, I raise my eyes to the ceiling and say, “Sorry, Gram.” Let’s reword that. My grandmother was the family matriarch, a tough, loyal soul who wore her heart pinned inside her mink coat—safe, but still accessible. She’d sailed to New York as a girl of ten, after the mafia murdered her father—he’d refused to pay protection money. She’d spent her teens working in textile factories, became a precise seamstress and talented embroiderer: the only one in the family who worked through the Great Depression. Later, she was the main employer for her extended family when she bought a dress factory in the Bronx. She was a hard-nosed haggler with a scissor-sharp tongue, and always spoke the truth even if it wasn’t helpful or kind. She was the kind of person that you wanted in your corner—I recall as a child literally hiding behind the ox of a woman when my mother was mad at me. Gram had lived with us for fifteen years, and I’d come to learn that she was as needy as she was independent, a contradiction I’d somehow learned to reconcile.
So in the summer of ’97, I’d said to my mother, “I want to find my roots.” At that point, any mention of the old country was enough to get my mother all misty-eyed.
My mother doesn’t travel. Or fly. She’d been to Italy once, with my grandparents when she was nineteen, and they’d gone by boat—this would’ve been 1964. The last time Mom had been on a plane was twenty years earlier, when I was three—to Florida. Mom’s always been a workaholic homebody, a bit neurotic. Plus with my grandmother upstairs, it had always been easier not to travel than to explain where you were going or have her tag along.
On the plane—she’d insisted treating us to first class for her first flight in decades—Mom was a bit spastic, closing her eyes, clutching my arm, and dramatically mumbling “Oh God!” during takeoff, turbulence, and landing.
But when we met up with our tour group, she was all, “wonderful flight, piece of cake.”
We looked for signs of Grandma in inky lagoons, among locals and tourists, daily churchgoers and grotesque gargoyles, between flying buttresses and in tiny espresso cups. We didn’t really know what we were looking for, exactly. Sometimes we’d be standing on the steps of some elaborate cathedral, and Mom would randomly call out, “So, Ma, we’re here. You happy? You want me to light a candle to St. Anthony or what?”
Though my grandmother hadn’t been particularly religious, she had been known to bribe her favorite saint from time to time: a fat check to his namesake orphanage in exchange for a successful bypass surgery or a good day at the Atlantic City slots.
Within a day or so, Mom quickly made it clear her view that most Italians are hustlers. They want to charge you for water, for bread, to change a tablecloth for Christ sake! She inquired about prices in her nasally New York yenta voice. We walked around converting lire to dollars in our heads, Mom pulling out a calculator from time to time to double check.
Off the Piazza della Signora, in Florence, we perused the street stalls, leather purses hanging like assorted meats at an old Bronx deli. My mother fingered a cheap knock-off. “You like Gucci?” the vendor asked, to which she snorted, “Yeah—real ones.” The vendor feigned ignorance.
“I want black market Gucci. Capice?” My petite, raven-haired, Roman-nosed mother waved her hands like an agitated little bird.
So the vendor said, “Wait. I bring-a someone.” A few minutes later, returned with a well-dressed man, smoking a cigarette, who gestured us down a street, an alley—Mom was pumped, a sparkle in those onyx eyes—into the back door of a building, up two flights, small apartment, door locked behind us.
Mom whispered, “Shit!” Her eyes panned over satchels and hobos, clutches and totes. “I hope I brought enough cash.” She examined the soft leather, the shade of linings, placement of zippers and stitches, the luster of hardware—all the various ways to discern the real thing from an imitation. She listed friends she’d promised souvenirs, asking me if I like this one for so and so. I was in my hippie no-bra Birkenstock phase, carried a fabric pouch in Rastafarian colors, could care less about labels, but tried to be helpful. She bought four. On the way back to the hotel, we passed Neptune, his huge stone head cocked to the left, eyeing us, our packages.
The tour group: a dozen plump retired couples, all Tommy Bahama and camcorders; a pair of guido newlyweds from Jersey; a grandmother with her teenage grandson; a teacher with her quiet mustached husband; and a single Cougar cha-cha—“Bar-bar-a.” The bus driver was a twenty-five-year-old gorgeous, ponytailed Fabio—I had a boyfriend back home but I couldn’t help looking—though it embarrassed me when Mom and Bar-bar-a openly swooned.
From Florence to Verona, Mom bickered with the tour operator, Roberto—tufts of curly gray hair sprang from the neckline of his shirt—about his inflexible schedule, six a.m. wake-up calls, extra “excursions” with hidden fees. The schedule was intense, sure—eight cities in ten days—but I didn’t mind that someone else was making all the arrangements, even grew to anticipate when Roberto would say, upon our arrival in a new place, in the half-bored, mellifluous baritone that only an Italian could perfect: “Ecco ci qua!” Here we are.
But it was his tone that bothered Mom, his brusque, pompous little Gestapo threats (about leaving tardy tourists like Mom behind) that made the vein on her temple bulge. Mom liked to tell Bar-ba–ra that he talked down to us because we were women traveling alone, (she had a husband, after all—Dad was home with my teenage sister). Mom recalled how when she was in Italy when she was nineteen, my grandfather had had to walk behind her to keep the men from pinching her ass.
So outside the bus, Mom was telling Roberto we would not be taking the extra tour to Pisa, and Roberto said, “You stay behind, okay, you still have to pay for the whole package if you want Pompeii.” Mom upped the ante, said something along the lines of: “I want to talk to the person in charge!” To which he said, “I am in charge,” rolling his eyes. She had started it, for sure, but I felt a protective instinct towards her rise up inside me. At the same time, as I steered her back onto the bus, I was already weary of the petty drama, just wanted her to have a good time, relax. But something about her couldn’t, and her nostrils flared when she told Roberto, over her shoulder, that she, too, was Italian. Sicilian. Emphasis hers.
In Saint Mark’s Square, birdseed hawkers wore pigeons on their heads. The birds rose and fell like notes on sheet music. Nearby, a child tossed seeds and the birds converged, fluttering in a mottled cloud. Mom covered her face, shrieking, “Eeeyyy, Ohhhh.” Mom has always been afraid of birds, a phobia somehow linked to a bloody pheasant her father brought home from a hunting trip when she was three. As Mom backed away, karate chopping the air, I couldn’t help but giggle, and she started laughing, too, as I snapped photos. That night, in Venice, I went off with the nineteen-year-old kid from our tour—a college student, and the only person remotely in my age range, beside the bus driver. We’d had some wine, were a little tipsy—at our group dinner, we polished off a bottle left behind on another table. Joern and I sat by a bridge, talking about bands we liked while watching the gondolas glide by like medieval kayaks, the canal black as oil. When we returned to the hotel, my mother was frantic. She hadn’t heard me when I told her I was going for a walk with Joern. Of course she’d assumed I must’ve fallen into the lagoon!
Italian siesta put a screw in Mom’s shopping agenda. Don’t these people want to make money? she’d ask, glaring at the aluminum shutters pulled down over storefronts. After the Sistine Chapel, we’d skipped the extra tour of the catacombs to walk around, soak in Rome on our own. We climbed the Spanish steps, tossed pennies in the Trevi fountain, grabbed slices of pizza—thin, crisp crust—when we got hungry. Drinking cappuccinos in a café near our hotel, an old man approached, spoke some English, asked my mother if she was Italian. “My parents were,” she explained. He was clearly enamored with my mother, told us he was a painter, invited us to his apartment to show us his work. “Not too far,” he said, pointing across the street. He was warm, sweet, and for a moment, I saw my mother let her guard down—she looked at me expectantly, wanting me to make the call. So I nodded. He seemed harmless—wouldn’t be able to take us both down. His tiny apartment was wall-to-wall paintings: canvasses covered every inch, even in the kitchen. Abstract and impressionistic, oils and watercolors. Flowers and fishes, fruit and women, bridges and buildings. Who needs another museum, right? I joked. He made us coffee, put cookies on a dish. He dug out a big art textbook, flipped to a page, pointed down to a painting, and then pointed to it on his wall; to the name printed in the text, to himself. He was a professor, he explained, but never married. “Art is like… jealous mistress,” he shrugged. “Chased the good ones away.”
In Sorrento, we stayed in a luxurious hotel—room service, balconies, and fluffy yellow robes provided on hangers. Mom was ecstatic. We wore the robes down to the pool, then realized we were the only sunbathing canaries. (Robes were for room use only.) Late afternoon, we stepped onto our room’s private balcony for cigarettes. Neither of us had ever smoked openly in front of my grandmother, but in the few years since her death, it had become a common vice. We puffed away, soaking in views of the sea, the bobbing white sails, felt like rebels for skipping Roberto’s “excursion.” “Who needs to sit for three hours on that god-forsaken bus to see some crooked building when you have views like this,” Mom said—she’d been to Pisa with my grandparents, nothing special. Only when we tried to go back in the room did we realize the door had locked behind us. We were trapped on the balcony, four stories up. The sun was setting, the air growing chilly, and we were in bathing suits. So I climbed over the three-foot walls that separated the long row of balconies, made my way to the very end, feeling like a burgler, all adrenaline, thinking maybe I could climb down. But there was no way down. And no one around. So I went back, and after a while, we spotted a couple leaving the pool, called down to them. They spoke English! Sent a bellboy to release us.
For the rest of the trip, Mom and I were suspicious of balconies.
Red-tiled roofs. Brooding Vesuvius. Stoops blooming with potted plants. A Colosseum full of napping cats. Nuns selling rosaries. Gelato in cones. Golden domes. Fist-sized lemons. Stained- glass windows. Crumbling archways. Pastas in shapes you’d only dream of. I understood why Grandma, a proud, naturalized American, always insisted, pumping her fist, that Italy was the best country in the world! When the tour ended in Naples, my mother and I flew to Sicily—little plane, coach—to look up her family. She’d booked the Mondello Palace, where she’d stayed during that visit when she was nineteen. “Oh, it’s exquisite! The chandeliers! The staircase!” My grandmother, she said, though a penny-pincher in old age, had never spared any expense when it came to hotels. But when we got there, it was mold, weeds, and rattling ACs, busted furniture and stained, threadbare carpets. Mom was confused. Upset. Indignant. Could this be the same place? Did she get the name wrong? Should we try to book a different hotel?
“It’s ok,” I said. “We’ll make the best of it.”
So she called her second cousin, Tedino. He’s vice president of a bank. My grandmother always claimed she came from a family of bishops and lawyers, unlike my grandfather, whom she said came from a family of shoemakers. Weeks before to the trip, Mom couldn’t find Tedino’s phone number. Then, she remembered that Grandma never kept a book, just scrawled numbers on the wall of her pantry.
So Tedino picked us up to take us to Montelepre, the village where my grandparents were born. (There’s a brief mention of the town in Lonely Planet, basically that it’s only noteworthy for its bandits.) He and Mom hadn’t seen each other in a quarter of a century, but he acted as if it were yesterday, gently chastised us for not staying at his house. Packed into his little car with his wife and son, we drove through Palermo—though the beaches were beautiful, the city itself was underwhelming—sooty, shabby-chic, and ordinary, sort of like our hotel. There was something different from the rest of Italy I’d seen, something I couldn’t quite place until I saw soldiers cradling machine guns in front of several civic buildings—that was when I felt an eerie prickle, chill. Mafia.
Beyond the city, narrow country roads, scrubby hills peppered with vineyards and olive groves; the air was hot and dry, carried the hint of citrus, eucalyptus.
Grandma’s village bustled with chickens and skinny dogs, men playing bocce ball, women hanging laundry, mopeds squealing around tight corners. A road sign read: Via D. Pizzurro. Named after my grandfather? Then, in a little apartment off the square, we’re presented to cousins twice, thrice removed. Gram’s cousins’ children. Stout older women with big calves packed in pantyhose like sausages. We sat in a tiny living room crammed with tiny formal couches. They clucked and chattered, all chhs and shhs. They beamed! So happy we came!
They’re up close, examining me and Mom, side-by-side, different angles, trying to figure out if any part of me is theirs. My mom apologized, “She looks like her father, the German,” but they waved her away. She’s only half right—I have my dad’s long face, high forehead, but Mom’s jawline, mouth, eye-shape. At times, I could look like I belong to neither of them, one or the other, both.
The cousins smiled. Though my mother understands Sicilian dialect, she doesn’t speak it. But she tried, shyly. Tedino’s son helped translate: who is alive, who has died.
Then Catarina showed me a little room wholly devoted to figs. Dark purple bulbs dry on wood slabs, sills, and shelves. She pointed out the window—across the way, my grandmother’s childhood apartment. The shutters were closed; a handwritten sign announced it was for rent.
Though they’d only had a few hours notice of our visit, you can bet they cooked a feast. We eat, eat, eat. Farfalle with smoked salmon, eggplant caponata, marinated tomatoes, several kinds of salad, crusty bread and olive oil, pillows of fresh mozzarella. (Somehow they’d heard I was a vegetarian.) We’d eaten some outrageously good food in Italy, but this, by far, was the best. For dessert, an ice cream cake from the freezer. Assorted fresh fruit, and, of course, figs.
We left in the dark, back down to the city, Tedino chattering away, asking Mom questions through his son. The road seemed steeper at night, weaved through a series of switchbacks, and suddenly I felt a sharpness at the back of my throat, my cheeks dampen with tears. As if what I found in that village had already begun to slip away, sucked into the stars.
The pool at the Mondello Palace was small and cloudy, the lounge chairs plastic and cracked, but it was a beautiful day so Mom and I sat and had coffee, watching the Mediterranean beyond—turquoise, sparkling white crests. A few old men played cards while my mother chatted up the groundskeeper. Finally, someone who remembered her Mondello Palace! He confirmed that yes, this was the same hotel. There was a fire back in the 80s. Bad insurance. Never completed the restoration.
Oh, it was so magnificent, she told him. Yes, he shook his head sadly. He knows.
It isn’t until much later that I finally understand why my mother was so upset by the Mondello Palace. That she’d been expecting to enter that magnificent lobby, and for a moment, glimpse her parents under that crystal chandelier, checking in.
Kristen Keckler‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Ecotone, The Iowa Review, Vestal Review, The Southeast Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other magazines and journals. She currently teaches creative writing at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.