A photographer I work with said to me, he detecting I was in a “partly cloudy” funk; “keep going toward your own bright Light”. That is exactly what I’ve done, just striving to be my best self. His words lifted me and became my mantra for more than a year, a time of great loss; Beginning with the decision to put our 18-year dog to sleep as her quality of life and body dwindled, my Mother passing away, although she was 86, it felt sudden. And, within months, the murder of our 20-yr. old nephew, just 20-months after his older 20yr. old brother lost his own battle with Myelodysplasia. Immediately, came a car accident where miraculously we walked away with my husband suffering just a scratch, especially since it looked as if a disco ball exploded in my car and we were both covered with thousands of pieces of glass shards. When I needed my family the most, and my husband would certainly have been greatly comforted by our nephew (my sister’s son) reaching out to him, the coup de grås, was my nuclear family turning their backs and disconnecting themselves from me.
I was in the depths of despair and grief. In time, I started to gain clarity, and as always my dear friend expressed his wisdom. He said to me; they’ve been living unprincipled lives. It was bound to happen. Their choices were to inevitably impact you. I remembered Janis Joplin and her line from Me & Bobby McGee “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” I choose to view the change in my sisterhood as a gift, although it took some time before I actually believed this to be true. If not for this disconnect it’s doubtful I would have pulled aside an ounce of Mom’s ashes with the thought of taking them to Sicily.
Twenty-one months later that is exactly what my husband & I did. I’ve learned so much on our trip to Petralia, Mom’s maiden name, and the name of the two villages that rest in the mountainous region 43 miles southeast of Palermo, isn’t her maiden name at all. No buses or train to transport us, we rented a taxi for €200 Euros, with the condition our driver would not smoke or drive crazy. Toto, our driver, was very kind. He took his duty to heart knowing our intention, turning into our personal guide. Popping in a classical CD, stating “you bambino”, leisurely driving us for 2 1/2hrs. through stunning countryside, stopping to point out sites like Mt. Etna, a natural mountain spring that was made into a watering fountain centuries ago, and pulling to the side of the road where he broke off a branch from the Genista Aetneneis bush.
The clipping was fragrant with beautiful yellow flowers, then Toto successfully explained, in mostly Italian, that this thorny shrub was the plant branches used over two-thousand years ago to make Christ’s crucifixion crown. Toto knew I was in search of “documents” as he put it, taking us to a government building, and guiding us through halls and floors until we came to a clerk. He explained we came from America. She stopped what she was doing opening an armoires of sorts, filled with oversized handwritten bound books of names and birth dates hundreds of years old. I wanted so badly to take photos, but I already felt I was intruding on her day, and since they were vital records, to ask might have come across as disrespectful at the lest, and possibly illegal to do so at the worst, if those names were not my own family’s. During this effort the biggest discovery is that Petralia has been mis-pronounced for three generations, and by many American families besides our own. Phonetically spelled; Pet tra lee-a. Also, that my grandfather had a different last name that was dropped when they immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island. When I told the clerk his name was Joseph, she said adamantly “no Joseph, Giuseppe. Giuseppe last name of Petralia.
Then I showed her my Grandmother’s birth certificate, which Grandma Ann had changed the birthdate as she wanted to claim being younger by four years. When the clerk pointed to this obvious alteration I just shrugged my shoulders. Grandma’s maiden name noted on the New Jersey birth certificate states Falco, and how I’ve always known it to be. The clerk again, with hand gestures, corrected the error, and mispronunciation; Falco?!? Fal cone ay! She was so generous, as well as patient, with her time considering I had so little to go on. I thanked her and we left.
Across from the government building is a square with a monument of two figures; a soldier and a monk holding up a sword together, on a pillar. Across from that monument a terrace that overlooks the valley, and town of Petralia Sottana. Directly below this raised stone terrace was beautiful foliage, flora & fauna, and butterflies. There is where we let Mama’s remaining ashes fly.
Not all of the ashes fell out of the herb bottle that held her. I didn’t want to force it, so the tiny bit that stayed behind I took with me back to our rented flat in Cefalu, which is situation directly across from the ocean bluffs. There we emptied the oregano jar completely.
Mom rests next to her husband at the Riverside Veterans Memorial Cemetery, in the hills of Petralia Soprana, and released into the Tyrrhenian Sea of the Mediterranean Proper. How amazing that her daughter and son-in-law traveled the 6,622 miles to make the journey, to mark her life, my ancestors lives, and the adventure that brought them across the Atlantic to the United States of America.Nearly two years after such loss and despair, I am so happy. The storm made way to the most beautiful of rainbows. We journeyed beyond the island of Sicily. I journeyed back to me…Fulfilled, living my life in truth, peace, freedom, and forgiveness. My proclamation of my sister’s rejection being a gift, in spite of how much I miss her, as it turns out, is true after all.
Suggested film for anyone who has had family immigrate from Europe through Ellis Island.