Late Summer Beach Dream: Mamma, Merluzzu, and Scungilli

      conch1I sensed an echo chamber wrapped around me.  Sounds of splashing resounded. I felt somewhat submerged in a pool of water and  heard a familiar voice summoning, “Rispigghiati (Wake up) figghiu mio”.

Was the voice of my angelic mom warning me? Spitting out beach sand and salt water, I opened my grainy eyes slowly, while wiping them with the backs of my soaked hands.

I began noticing a goddess above me pulling me back to safety away from that angry Atlantic and its rogue waves. It was my loving wife Adelina. She smiled, “Saved your life just like your mom would have. You were sleeping in the sand and dreaming about her. You spoke with your mom in Sicilian.”  I smiled , stretched and started to get up. Then, I froze in my tracks. Next to my right foot, I saw a desperate and panicked fish skipping wildly.

Merluzzo” the name jumped to mind as the somber eyed fish continued to wiggle helplessly from its unexpected bed of craggy sand, trapped between a patch of sand and the ocean. I reached down for this fish, called Cod in America, and, after fumbling and dropping the slimy fish several times,  successfully grabbed its slippery gill, and tossed it into deeper Atlantic waters.

And then, I stumbled on a “scungilli.”

A scungilli?  This delicious delight was a member of the conch family. Surprisingly, my thoughts were framed in my first language, a  one hundred year-old Sicilian dialect. I stood on a familiar beach that I strolled across for multiple summers as a child with my Mazarese  mother. Still, I wondered, what reset button in my brain transported me back to beardless days of my Sicilian beginnings, my figuttzu Antonuzzu days? Instantly my mind traveled back in time to all night card games with Sicilian fishermen, all of whom sported colorful nicknames. The ring of those names  like “Nassatzu , Languso,  and Grasiado” delivered  memories of family, songs, childhood, mandolins, Mom, Pop, laughter right to this summer beach of my senior years.

The first language spoken by this Brooklyn native occupied my mind on that stormy New York, new millennium shoreline. I reflected back on that  floppy Cod fish out of his element.  He’d stormed this coast.  Why?  I returned to my reveries of my childhood. Perhaps this “merluzzo” was summoned to remind me, to refresh my thoughts of all night Briscola games, uneven and crooked marble patios, cannolis, Italian ices, grape arbor summers replete with heated political debate, DiMaggio swings, vino and ridere(wine and laughter) with my familia of marinare.

That family of my youth, mostly gone forever, yet still thriving and surviving in my soul, in my children’s and grandchildren’s genes, and in the bedrock of “fare giusto” morality grounded in me. Now, so many of my ancient marinari sail unknown seas, challenging me to boldly navigate my own moral compass and to spread their wisdom on these unpredictable 21 st Century calendars.

How about you “merluzzo” and “scungili” lounging and fluttering helplessly on this cacophonous coastline?  Were you hurled here on this Atlantic coastline only to cart me back to roots, to help me recollect  that Sicilian couple who walked me, hand-in-hand during the last century, that couple, who beamed when handing me and my first, tiny American flag while simultaneously retelling the perplexing Sicilian tales of Giufa to their Figghiuttzu.

That couple always advising, teaching, and yes, disciplining me, even faking “la timpolata” (the smack) to mold the child-man of today. My uninvited “merluzzo”now reunited with the sea and the sunning “scungilli”  still sprawled out on sandy beach, I wonder, are you Pirandello’s illusion sent to prompt me to straddle both traditions? Are you a figment of my imagination?  Are you a merely a coincidence?

Or, has this once vibrant mind begun to unscramble under the weight of an avalanche of calendars?

I tend to cast my vote on Pirandello and this beach front illusion stimulating the Sicilian sangu, and collective unconscious passionately coursing these American veins.

Copying my dad’s practice, whenever he thought that he was alone by the seaside, I make the sign of the cross. Mine proved much more deliberate than Pop’s speedy, furtive version. Slowly, I strolled away from the ocean, lugging the baggage of nostalgic memories. I barked aloud, “Thank you, and Ussa benedica Signore Merluzzu.”

 F. Anthony D’Alessandro

F. Anthony D'Alessandro
F. Anthony D'Alessandro
D'Alessandro retired from a 30 plus-year teaching career in New York State. For twenty-five years, he served as a high school newspaper advisor. For several years, he acted as an associate editor for the now defunct, Italo-American Times. A former "Educator of the Year," he recently retired from his position as Coordinator of Student Teachers for the University of Central Florida, and an adjunct professor at Valencia College.

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  1. That active mind of yours, active to make dreams seem true, takes me back to my pisci di re (king fish) so delicate and tasty, to my pisci di petra (rock fish), found in the bottom rocky sea of the warm Mediterranean sea, close to the coast, to my rizzi (sea urchins) with those yellow sweet eggs where I dipped my bread to my delight…Bravo Antunuzzu, you brought me back to my loved Sicilian shore where I used to pass all my days of every summer, and I thank you for that, it all became so live again. Well done, you are the maestro.

  2. Gracious comments by two brilliant scholars!!! Ricardo resides on the East Coast of the USA and Nino is from the West Coast.I’ve witnessed Bernarto’s strategies reshaping and bolstering achievement in numerous schools.I’ve also heard Nino’s brilliant lectures about Sicilian history clarifying many esoteric facts. To have received positive reactions from these two perspicacious writers and professors makes my day. Congratulations to Publisher Giovanni of the TOS for inviting these men to join your staff. BRAVO! Molto grazie.

  3. Nicely written, Professor. Having spent almost all of August on boat excursions along Zingaro (as an unoffical english-speaking guide) I feel more and more connected to this land. More than one without Siclian blood is probably allowed to!

  4. Gary,
    Thanks for the kind words. Please don’t demean your maritime experiences in Sicily.I wish I’d shared your boating hours there. The best thing I could say about my experience in those seas is that I swam the same Gulf of Castellamare waters that my preteen dad raced in for hours and hours.
    In terms of my Sicilian marinari friends, I was lucky to fish, to chat,and to learn morals and ethics from them.The ocean they raked and dragged nets thru was American, not Sicilian.
    Gary, being Sicilian is more than sangu, it’s a state of mind, a way of thinking. To be Sicilian is to share a state of mind: a mentality that respects parents and clutches to loyalty, a mentality carved in toughness, especially when you have raggione, an independence that does not follow lock step behind so-called leaders,one that respects elders, women, and flaunts a determination and grittiness, and finally,to borrow from the French, personalities possessing a joie de vivre. Based on all of my observations, Gary you certainly qualify as a Sicilian.

  5. Another deeply moving nostalgic article by my good friend and colleague . I especially loved his interaction with his parents who, like most Italian fathers and mothers at that time tried to instill morality and etics in their children. I remember eating baccala – Italian for cod- at festive occasions as we children benefited from a closely knit extended family structure. Wonderful Images and memories as usual. Bravo!!

    • Dr. DeLuca,
      Thank you for your kind words.I’m proud to say that I’ve witnessed your confrontions with the racist bigots who attempted to tar brush decent Sicilians and Italians. It was a pleasure to watch them cower at your powerful and honest words when you verbally destroyed the ignorant haters of our people and culture.

  6. What an inspiring and touching piece. Thank you. Your words serve as my merluzzo. Reminding a mid-forties 2nd gen trinacrian of the lessons he learned while fishing – with his sicilian father and uncle- in those same waters your scungili now calls home. What a classroom. I was taught REAL Sicilian culture and not the fallacies of Hollywood. In my ocean classroom I learned lessons of family, God and honest work. The lessons of those two incredible Sicilian men guide me each and every day in my work, my spirituality and (most importantly) in raising my family. I hope to pass along those Atlantic teachings of my heritage to my 3rd gen children. If I can only teach them half as well as I have been taught – I will be happy. I can’t thank you enough for bringing tears to my eyes and a smile to my heart.

  7. Dear ProuD,
    A decade or so ago, one of the finest writers I’ve ever known wrote an essay about a nexus.Nowadays, based on this magnificent letter, you appear to be a connection, a link, a nexus(if you will)between la via vecchia e la via nuova.I can see that you will deliver these Sicilian cultural gifts from your grandparents, parents, and uncle to your beautiful and brilliant children. Thank you for your encouraging words and for your simpatico.I loved it…Bravo!!!

  8. ‘…still thriving and surviving in my soul’. What great sentiments – your piece evokes many emotions, not just a Pirandellian illusion, but a vivid, tangible siculian memory, that also resonates across the waters to the wind swept shores of Britannia. It has a universality that made me picture the days of prawn fishing with my late Dad. I would also like to echo Gary’s sentiments; having just returned from an extended stay in Sicily for the second time this year, I find myself anticipating my next trip with longing. I also have no Sicilian blood unless you count very distant Norman ancestors! However, it truly feels like home.

    • Andy,
      Thanks so much for your most articulate and generous words of praise. Forgive me for my being remiss. I have thoroughly enjoyed the articles that you and Suzanne have published in TOS.
      In terms of your being Sicilian, I’ve already expressed that I feel Sicilian is a way of approaching life too.
      Who knows about the possibility of your possessing actual Sicilian sangu? I was approached by an Irish scholar who demanded to know how a 100 per cent Sicilian blooded man inherited such a pronounced Celtic Toe. I could not provide an answer. She suggested, in the past, had you been caught by the Celts in the battlefield, they would have been forbidden to kill you. Go figure? Ciao

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