The sun just set; I sat on my cabin’s bed on the high seas, rocking and sliding back and forth on a cruise ship. It carried more passengers than residents of my home town. Aggressive Pacific Ocean whitecaps splashed at the balcony window.
A descendant of Sicilian sea captains, I’d been taught to respect the seas. I prayed, worried a tad, and thought about my three grown children Mary-Kim, Peter, and Jon. All of them proved successful in careers, and were outstanding parents to my grandchildren.
Immediately, my seven grandchildren came to mind. One by one, I pictured their angelic faces: Alessandra, Gabriella, Marianna, Petey, Brock, Kate, and Bengi. I knew them well and they developed into raconteurs (story tellers), poets, musicians, actors, mathematicians, scholars, and gifted athletes. I felt compelled, while ensconced in that nerve-racking high seas moment of truth to present them with an unparalleled souvenir of my Pacific sailing, the gift of their Sicilian legacy.
My first attempt at delivering this gift failed. I had planned to visit Sicily with all of these grandchildren; however, my inept planning, school and work schedules, previous commitments and the calendar road blocked that grand plan.
After I was given the opportunity to evaluate a magnificent Sicilian international school, I was able to arrange taking only two of my grandchildren, Petey and Brock to our ancestral homeland. My dream of taking all of my grandchildren to Persephone’s Isle, brimming with grandeur was shelved. I wanted all of them to travel thru their family history and explore the layers of their Sicilian roots.
Haunted by the phrase in the baseball movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come,” a similar message resounded in my mind. Despite unlikelihood of our sharing a tour with growing families, nowadays it seemed impossible. The determined angry sea ceaselessly whispered in my mind, “If you tell them they will learn. Write them a letter.”
I snatched my flare pen, squeezed a tattered notebook and began writing. The automatic script and letter that followed ignored the percolating seas and informed my grandchildren of their roots.
Kids, you’re probably thinking, not another boring lecture from your Big Bop.
Veritas…You are right! Initially, I just want to mention the reason for this heartfelt letter.
I want you hold your heads high, grateful for the gift of your Sicilian heritage.
Celebrate the blessings of this soulful Sicilian style.
Allow me to describe the Brooklyn days of my Sicilian-American childhood.
Yes, your grandpa was a child once too.
Alarm clocks were forbidden at my home on spaghetti Sundays.
During my Sicilian-American childhood days, I woke up, my mouth watering from the scents of sizzling meatballs.
They teased my taste buds, and lured me into tiptoeing toward the basement kitchen.
Finally, I peeked into the kitchen, kneeled and crawled at snail’s pace tapping my fingers softly on the floor. I waited for my mother and grandmother to step away from the waves of appealing aromas oozing from their gurgling sauce in muscular pots.
Those charcoal pots looked like smoky mini volcanoes, however, they delivered mouth-watering delights. I slithered into the kitchen crawling like an invading warrior, clutched a stolen dish, and splattered sauce and meatballs into it.
I reached for a loaf of semolina bread and shoved it under my right arm. Minutes later, at my bedside, I dipped and drowned the bread into the tide of crimson sauce and gulped it. Then, I licked my dripping rosy lips.
Incidentally, my mouth looked as red as the clown Pagliacci’s cheeks. My sauce stealing ended when Chef Mama and my Nonna reentered their kitchen. After wiping my mouth on my sleeve, I slipped my dirty plate under my bed. While the Mother Chefs stirred their sauces into soupy whirlpools, I broke into a cold sweat. I trembled slightly envisioning the possibility of a spiraling wooden spoon thrown at me by either my mother or grandmother when they discovered my saucy theft.
Nonna stood barely taller than an average 12 year-old, but could throw her wooden spoon faster than Pele could kick a ball. One needed a radar gun to measure the speed of her thrown spoon. Trust me, the wooden missiles discouraged salsa stealing.
My dear grandchildren, I realize that you may have sampled the Sicilian romance with food at our dinner table, or at fine Italian restaurants near home. Petey and Brock think back to our Sicilian tour. At every warm and friendly restaurant, we visited multiple samples of savory foods triggered our mouths to water. Our taste buds partied.
After dinner, you boys collected and clutched mini portions of leftover aromatic foods in boxes. They carried them to your rooms for your late-night snacks. Sicilian delight in dining transcends time and may even border on the spiritual.
When I grew up on Brooklyn’s scarred streets, I heard the serenade of the fresh fish vendor at sunrise. Donning a soaked and sweat stained apron, he crooned his song while straining to push his fish filled push cart. His rolling malodorous wagon forced me to squeeze my nostrils tight in between my index finger and thumb. During my last visit to Sicily, while sleeping in our comfy, cozy bed and breakfast, I was awakened by an authentic and familiar Sicilian style yelp of the “U pesh” reminding me of my childhood days.
Throughout my pre-bearded days, my family surrounded me on Sundays. A parade of pastries, people, and accordions occupied my home. I felt as crowded as passengers on an overloaded rush hour train. Looking at a swarm of faces with hands covering mouths and eyes moving side to side like puppets, I realized that Sunday guests shared a swell of secrets. When I felt brave enough to eavesdrop, I heard talk of Dante, Caruso, and Archimedes just to mention a few of the great ones.
Giant unlabeled wine bottles squatted on the linoleum floor like lazy bowling pins of different sizes. Speaking of wine, while many of my non Italian friends counted the days until their eighteenth birthdays thus granting them license to drink alcohol, which never mattered to me. My papa made wine every year. I sampled it whenever I felt the need. When I reached drinking age, I remained sober frequently becoming the designated driver for my tipsy Americano friends, especially after they began walking like drunken ostriches on skateboards.
Sadly, the unstoppable winds of time stretched and scattered the family. As a child, an aunt or uncle frequently cornered me asking about my goals and stressed my need to study. They applauded success in our family. In addition, caring relatives placed an index finger across their lips and schussed me while stuffing dollar bills into my pockets.
Recently, on a sun drenched Florida day while reliving our Sicilian adventure with Petey and Brock, I said, “Do you remember our lively Sicilian bed and breakfast host sprinting over to our slowly moving auto as we were leaving for Falcone Borsellino Airport? He tapped on the car window and said in impeccable English, “Stop! I have a gift. Your grandmother was a Romano. A Romano relative of yours wrote and published a score of books. I have one for you.” He handed it to me with a wide grin.
“Boys,” I said, “During our drive to the airport, your father winked and joked that now I needed to write eighteen more books to catch up to my prolific ancestor. Then, your dad added, “Look around and remember smiling people, the beauty here is more than its unique sites and roads where ancient geniuses strolled. It’s about the welcome feeling we sense, a spiritual loving embrace while encircled by countless church spires piercing the fluffy clouds praising our creator. In many ways wandering around Sicily seems like walking thru a living museum.” I raised my brow, smiled slightly, nodded my head affirmatively and whispered,” Wow, that was insightful son!”
I too spoke about Sicilian warmth and simpatico. I said, “Boys, the afternoon I saw you greet other visitors to Castellamare clattering across the cobblestone streets, you smiled ear-to-ear. You two dribbled your basketball on an uneven surface. That defiant basketball rolled away. You chased it. At the same time, two young men donning colorful African soccer jerseys kicked their ball. You met when your basketball bounced into their soccer ball. Immediately, you two chatted and laughed, especially when the English-speaking African young men joked, “Are you Michael Jordan?’”
Petey, you answered, “I wish! I’m Petey D’Alessandro.”
“After several friendly pats on the back, bear hugs, and a short chat you went separate ways. You D’Alessandro boys revealed your Sicilunate to me that day. I’m sure you made your Castellamarese great grandfather Rosario (Saita, his nickname) quite proud watching you from his perch in Paradiso.
D’Alessandro means descendent of Alexander. You’ve also inherited Irish, Swedish, and German roots. Take pride in all of those magnificent traditions too. I hope, however, that you’re proudest of your Sicilian heritage, in addition to your home grown and equally diverse American pedigree.
You boys and your cousins are brilliant, bold, and brave. All of you love and savor literature, poetry, philosophy and athletics. Relish the endless parade of giants dominating countless vital careers who share your Sicilian roots.
My wonderful grandchildren, one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the world Archimedes, was born two millennia ago within miles of your ancestral hometown. His brilliance devised the destruction of the Roman fleet utilizing mirrors. He proudly stated, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” That is your heritage and the essence of Sicilitude.
Your genetics and influence in every arena spreads across the world and civilizations. In the Pop Music World, the King of Kings, also called Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra proved an unmatched talent. Romina Arena, a multi talented songstress and writer who enchanted with her voice and words, Frank Zappa, and John Bon Jovi trace their roots to Sicily.
Two Joes dominated sports in the United States: Joe DiMaggio in baseball and Joe Montana in football. They proved legendary icons worshiped by fans. Mark LoMonaco (Bubba Ray Dudley) became tag team wrestling champion. You too have LoMonaco blood streaming thru your veins. My mother was a LoMonaco.
In movies, producer Frank Capra and actor Al Pacino captivated audiences. In law enforcement the most brilliant US Supreme Court Justice of all-time, Antonin Scalia honed and shaped our Supreme Court. Courageous crime crushers Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone sacrificed their lives as martyrs for justice.
Grandchildren, a litany of thinkers flourished on Persephone’s Isle. Sample the simpatico and poetic prose of Lampedusa and Pirandello. When you visit Sicily, take a deep breath and inhale its beauty from its shoreline to its mountains. Flying home after my last Sicilian visit, I looked out the porthole window at Mt. Etna and sensed a symphony of violins echoing in my melancholy heart.
For those of you who have and those yet to visit that magnificent isle, explore Castellamare Del Golfo and Mazzara Del Vallo. Your ancestors flourished in those hamlets. Splash in the same waters where your great Grandfather Rosario swam as a child. Nearly every lazy summer Hampton’s day my dad Rosario took my boy Jon on seaside strolls. He clutched Jon’s then tiny hand and walked him waterside and while weaving tales of the sea. That mariner, a retired sea captain, described the colorful and charming boats bedded on Castellamare’s beach and its shoreline that caressed the sea while lazy waves gently slapped the sand. A seeming classical portrait of an enchanting backdrop of muscular mountains stood proudly in the distance.
I’d like to revisit the most amusing moment of my last Sicilian visit. Boys, your father Jon dreamed of swimming in the same waters as his beloved granddad. Petey and Brock you watched him as he jumped from ebony rock to ebony rock inches above Castellamare’s rippling waters. Suddenly, he slipped off a slick rock and splashed into the warm water. We laughed hysterically as he shook the water off like a soaked duck.
Your father stood dripping and soaked from head to toe. Red faced, he waded to shore. He wiped water from his face while his trickling clothing created tiny puddles around his feet. He said, “I love my grandpa and he always teased me. I think he pushed me in, making sure that I actually swam in his waters.” That observation sent pleasing shivers up and down my spine.
Grandchildren, read the writings Dottore Romano, your prolific ancestral novelist. Research the long line of past sea captains from whom you’ve descended. They represent your roots. Treasure them as you would priceless gems. Hold your head high. They are vital parts of the patch quilt of your rich hereditary fabric.
While I encourage your appreciation of the other noble nationalities infused in your bloodline, I pray they you will hold Sicily closest to your heart. Embrace Sicily, along with its magnanimous, sensitive, brilliant, free-spirited people who relish discussion, food, friendship, and family. Whenever you visit, spend quality time there. Sicilians will welcome you with open arms.
When I was a young journalist writing for the Italo-American Times, I ended all of my articles with Sempre Avanti, it means always forward. Grandchildren, march, perhaps swagger forward exploring your history. I’m sure you will consider my pleas that you savor and enjoy your blessing of such a priceless heredity.
A MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE……
A few minutes after I completed this article, the sound of bouncing basketballs resounded behind me. I leapt from my desk like Superman. I recognized the signature sound of my grandsons Petey and Brock. I turned toward them. Brock cradled a basketball while Petey stretched out to hand me a book. My mouth opened into a wide smile and a tear slid down from my eye. I noticed the book’s title, “The Leopard (Il Gattopardo).” The boys appeared confused by my look.
I asked, “Why the raised eyebrows?”
“Actually Bop, we’ve come to show you the historic book about Sicily that we bought for ourselves. Sorry if we upset you,” said Brock.
Red faced I said, “No, please don’t feel badly boys!!! Actually, you have made my day! My dream has come true. You have shown pride in your Sicilian heritage.”
I paused, pointed up to the azure heavens, looked into their azure eyes and wrapped my arms around both of the DBOYZ with whom I traveled. With tears cascading down my cheeks I hugged two of my D’Alessandro grandsons Sumo wrestler style. I’d never squeezed them with more emotion than at that moment. Wiping moisture off my face, their gesture resounded in my heart. They proved proud of their Sicilian sangu.