Those of you who follow the Times of Sicily regularly will know we have accepted Mark Spano’s memoir The Sicilians for serialization within these pages. Mark Spano is a writer, filmmaker and regular contributor to the Times of Sicily. At this time, we are pleased to offer the third installment, and we invite our readers to stayed tuned for each new episode of The Sicilians by Mark Spano.
—The Editors, The Times of Sicily
3. My Other Sicilian Family
Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect are the classic symptoms of
—Carl Jung from Answer to Job
My other Sicilian family is the family of my first lover, Dominick. At this writing, Dominick has been dead more than twenty years. We met as undergraduates. He grew-up in Westchester County above New York City. He was quiet and studious. I was a wild-man poet.
I liked him. I liked sex. Having a boyfriend or lover was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no notion that anyone would put up with me, and I hadn’t patience to put up with anyone else. Yet, (and there is always a “yet” at such turning points) something held us together, bumpy as our life together was.
Falling in love is a very deceptive bit of business by which one thinks one is in charge until one is no longer. This is okay I say to myself on a morning. I say it once again on another morning because things seem to be even better than okay. Then on some morning weeks after I awaken next to a warm snoozing presence the separation from whom is at this stage unthinkable.
Simple and mysterious, I’ve been in love maybe three, four times. That’s enough for one life.
Sicily has volcanoes. Surviving eruptions may be some sort of training for falling in love. The unexpected explosions, the tectonic shifts, the irreversible changes of the landscape–maybe Sicilians are addicted to such romantic and geological upheavals because of the frequent occurrences on their island.
The whole sex and romance thing is central to being Sicilian. I don’t trust a person who cannot be a complete fool for love. My parents had a volcanic romance. Not very good friends after more than 60 years together but madly in love till the days they died.
Dominick’s family was close. They spent much of their time together. Their lives were lived in order to spend time together. They had their foibles, but mostly they enjoyed one another’s company.
My own family’s mission was to create as much distance as possible between one another. We all needed air from the closeness of physical proximity from our tiny apartment. Each needed to escape the tyranny of my father’s self-centeredness and my mother’s need to continually foster his outbursts.
Adulthood improved things with my own family but only a little.
With Dominick’s people I learned much because there was time and space to learn. Learning takes some amount of openness, leisure and calm.
On my first visit to Sicily, I found Dominick’s first and last names are all over Palermo. His face was on a hundred Palermitans I passed on the street.
He preferred France to Italy. He said the food was better and more culture in France.
He and his family endured every bit as much internalized Siciliano phobia as my Kansas City family. His family though for our years together were more family to me than my own.
They gave me love and air to breath and space. And space was the most important part. Unlike my own family, Dominick’s family gave me space that I might grow into a man. It was, though, the love of Dominick that was the greatest of the gifts they allowed me.
I say that Dominick is the greatest gift they allowed. They certainly did not give him to me; nor did they make long discussion about us being together; nor did they make any discussion about us staying together. I met Dominick in 1972. At that time his family could have made life very difficult for us. Certainly my family did. Dominick’s family did not. They wanted their son. If I came along as part of deal, fine. Not true of every member of his family, but true of his parents. That was enough.
Dominick was thought to be, by those who loved him, one of the small wonders of the world. He cooked, knew music, spoke six languages and could solve any challenge he set himself to. Those who disliked him, thought of him as smug, antisocial and distrustful of nearly everyone. Both groups were entirely correct.
How do I reimagine so much time spent with another person? There are too many specifics. Trying to recall them is like imagining another universe. Just the attempt makes them more distant still, nearly impalpable. Possibly the distance is my own fear of reliving the pain of someone I loved forever lost to me. The particulars are too prickly and dangerous.
Gratitude is sometimes quite a painful emotion. The understanding of having been so fortunate can bring about as many tears as loss. The passing of time morphs loss to gratitude sweetening the pain some but by no means erasing it altogether.
Music was the interest that brought Dominick and me together. Music that internal place where I find him again. My computer plays Schumann’s Davidsbündler Tänzen as I type. Two Sicilian-American men in their early twenties listening more to Germans and Russians than Italian composers.
He knew little of pop music. I knew it and left it cold when he came into my life. Classical music filled our lives, as did friends, books, art and meals. This is what the romantic young do together. We do not see, or we refuse to see the wasteful boredom that lies ahead that is so central a part to making a livelihood in the abundance and tedium of America.
My father attacked much about me. It seems he and I were always at war. He hated my love of Dominick. He hated my love of the humanities. He had wanted a hardier son than I was. Someone more athletic, someone who loved business and the stock market, someone with his savvy for making and keeping money. In fact, I had some of that, but I turned my back on it. Being a gay son is not without its challenges, and being a Sicilian gay son has some very particular impositions.
Dominick’s love, his family’s love strengthened me to move along my own path as Dominick himself had with his love of foreign languages and classical music. None of what we were doing had livelihood and wealth writ large on it. We did it anyway. His parents understood none of it. They were supportive nonetheless. My father knew just enough of the hard knocks of living to object vociferously to our poetic directions. He barked like “unu canu ragadu” (a mad dog) at our very existence coming within range of his own.
I was forty-one at the time of Dominick’s death. My father was eighty. When he saw me for the first time after Dominick died, he immediately went on the attack. I was always so energetic, talkative and engaged. He saw his middle-aged son broken with grief. He hated it and wanted no part of his son’s grief over a dead man. After that I went nearly two years without speaking to him.
Four years after Dominick’s death when Carlus appeared on the scene and my father was eighty-four, Carlus was treated differently. In fact, my father once or twice showed some amount of caring for Carlus almost in spite of himself.
Dominick’s parent’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell, almost “Omerta” approach to their son and his male lover may not have been the pinnacle of enlightenment, it was though better than many of our friends had with their parents and more than either of us had ever expected. We spent a great deal of time with his parents. It was not perfect, but it was.
Christmas Eve in Westchester County was The Feast of The Seven Fishes: pasta algia olio, baccala, shrimp, calamari, sardines, scallops, clams, mussels; his mother’s rum cake imbibing and whipped cream that took a week to prepare. Eighteen of us sitting down to the table at eight o’clock and sitting still with coffee and anisette at 1:00 a.m.
Aunt Rose who had cooked in the family restaurant for years had a phenomenal palate and memory of individual dishes. “These castagna are okay,” she said as she peeled and munched a bit of a Christmas Eve chestnut, “but, I remember some Joe and Tilly brought me from Stew Leonard’s in Connecticut, twelve, maybe fifteen years back. It was before Dom went away to school. Now, those chestnuts were the best. Moist, lots of aroma, very good flavor.” Aunt Rose’s memory was encyclopedic when it came to food. She could remember a cantaloupe she tasted at a cousin’s in the Bronx before World War II.
She could not, though, remember if she had paid the IRS withholding tax for her employees at the restaurant over a period of five years. Or that’s what she told her attorney when the Feds convinced her to retire from the restaurant business. I genuinely believed she did not remember. She cooked in the family business like she was cooking for the family. The food was terrific, the business, a shambles.
Dominick thought he had grown-up rich. I thought I had grown-up poor. We were both wrong. Dominick’s family was better off economically than mine, and not nearly so closed-fisted as mine. With some direction Dominick’s family could have been terrifically rich. The true difference in our families was trust and generosity. His family believed in their children, supported their dreams. My own family distrusted their children and were discouraging of nearly every endeavor. Dominick’s parents had more faith in me than my own. At some points, that was troubling, but mostly it was one of the greatest advantages of my life. I had stumbled into an affirming family unit.
In Chatham, Massachusetts at Cape Cod, Dominick’s father fished, and Dominick made meals of what his father caught. Dominick and I did not fish with his father and his godfather who fished every day the weather allowed them. Dominick’s brother and his three sons did fish with his father and godfather so we took very little heat for not fishing.
Because we were at Cape Cod with his parents, we often saw his parents’ friends socially. I had my limits for this kind of thing so we escaped family by running away to Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown to be with our own.
One summer in Provincetown, Dominick and I discovered a Chinese restaurant specializing in local seafood. He told his mother about the place, and nothing to do, but his parents wanted to try it. Dominick’s godfather, a grouchy cigar puffing, Sicilian-American judge in the State of New York was on his own for dinner that night. Wouldn’t we take him along with us to P-town for Chinese? Well, yes, we would but with some trepidation. This was the early 1980s.
In Provincetown, we descended a staircase from town parking in front of the Governor Bradford a big noisy gay guest house and bar. Two guys, bare-chested and in leather pants were swapping spit like ninth-graders on the front stoop of the bar. Dominick and I held our breaths. The elders remained silent. It was as if the men were invisible.
On Commercial Street a vision in bright-blue, her platforms elevating her easily to six-foot-five, twirled her way through the evening strollers passing out hand bills. Dominick’s seventy year old godfather leaned purposefully into the faces of Dominick and me and whispered knowingly, “She’s in show business.” I thought to myself that indeed she was.
Once while watching 60 Minutes with his parents a leading gangster from my hometown appeared on the screen. I identified him by name before the reporter had. Dominick’s mother was shocked. “How do you know who he is?”
I told her that I knew more than who he was I, in fact, knew him. The Italian community in Kansas City was relatively small. We all knew one another. This made her very uneasy. I did not go on to tell her how many of the young men I grew up with who had done time.
Nor, did I tell her that a guy I actually hung out with in my teens was we believed in the witness protection program. After having heard Tony Soprano say that a man his sister had killed in an earlier episode was in the witness protection program, it dawned on me that the pal from my teenage years might in fact be dead. He had regardless how disappeared.
We frequently went to Arthur Avenue in Bronx to shop for groceries. Arthur Avenue is one of the diaspora neighborhood in the United States that look enough like Sicily or Southern Italy that one might in fact believe that he had crossed the Atlantic rather than the Cross Bronx Expressway. But, for the size of the cars (always double and triple parked down the street), you’d think you were at the Agora or marketplace of Siracusa where the town meets the tiny island of Ortygia.
Whichever side of the Atlantic Sicilians will put an automobile anywhere. In the States it’s actually more ridiculous because your not trying to tuck away some tiny Fiat. We are generally talking the likes of Lincoln Town Car or a Sedan DeVille on Arthur Avenue.
If we arrived at the market early enough in the day, produce brokers in the middle of street were doing business with grocers and restauranteurs. One rotund and bellowing gentleman trussed into an undersized, copiously stained work apron his swollen fingers grasping a clutch of twenties, fifties and hundreds worked four deals at once. “No you don’t get his price, because you don’t buy as much as he does.” He grabs a breath. “You do business like him, and I’ll give you his price.”
Dominick’s mother says to me, “He shouldn’t have all that money out on the street like this.”
“Oh, Sue,” I retort, “I don’t think anyone’s going to take anything from that guy.”
On Arthur Avenue we bought bread, produce and canned tomatoes. A cheese vendor named Mike had all his look-a-like husky sons behind the counter hawking cheese with him. When someone asked if this boy or that was his son, he’d say yes and grab the butch twenty-something fellow and kiss him smack on the lips. It always got a laugh.
I learned many things from Dominick and his family in our nearly twenty years together. If I have grown-up, if I have become a man of strength and compassion (and as I write this riding a Sicilian train from Agrigento to Palermo), if I have become a man of honor, Dominick and his family had much to do with that becoming as much as my own.
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