Our Journey to Petralia

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.

Ashes & discoveries

Ashes & discoveries

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.

Pure spring water from the Madonie Mountains

Pure spring water from the Madonie Mountains

Ginesta Aetneneis (Mt. Etna Broom)

Ginesta Aetneneis (Mt. Etna Broom)

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.

Grandma Ann's Birth Certificate

Nunziata was Grandma’s first name, but she always went by Anna

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.IMG_2513  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.

Joining the butterflies

Joining the butterflies

Petralia Soprana over looking Petralia Sottana

Petralia Soprana over looking Petralia Sottana

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.

Thee unto the Tyrrhenian Sea

Thee unto the Tyrrhenian Sea

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Cotton Sandwiches

IMG_2061Mom was still living in Brooklyn pre-Depression, most likely in Kindergarten. She & her siblings use to walk down to the naval ship yard and collect metal slugs from the construction site. Coins to a very poor child’s imagination. They would use them as money for board games they made.

Mom decided she was going to cheat, so she put a handful of the jagged coins in her mouth. Her brother Frank, always up to some sort of shenanigans, as usual, made her laugh. And, when she did, she accidentally swallowed all the slugs! Her brothers & sisters ran to tell their parents, and at first my Grandma & Grandpa couldn’t believe this happen. Then, once they realize the danger was real, they rushed their little Nancy off to emergency.

The doctors didn’t know quite what to do, so, they told her parents, Anna & Joe, to feed her cotton sandwiches. The theory was the cotton would wrap itself around the razor sharp edges of the coins as not to shred her intestines. Well the strategy worked, and other than follow up trips to the doctor’s office, Mom survived. The first of many chapters in her life where her ideal of how things she thought ought to be would be perforated. Then again, maybe that experience taught and shaped her moral core. Mom was a good, honest, kind women who always made lemonade out of lemons.

A Gift for Our Nephew

*In my effort to preserve family history, I recall these stories about my parents. Stories that shaped me and my sister, stories that should, and I hope, will be passed down.

My father suffered greatly over the years from a fungus that ate away at his fingernails & nail bed, yet another result of the toxic chemicals he used daily from his trade of house painting. These same chemicals would eventually destroy his lungs.

When he was very young, 19, and prior to finding a medication, his finger nails had to be scraped off, then, finally the doctors found a topical. The medication had to be painted on like nail polish. It was black, so it embarrassed him intensely, therefore when he would play his saxophone he would try to hide his hands by leaning deep or pitching high with his horn. Because of this condition he discovered he couldn’t wear rings daily. He wore his wedding ring, and his gold and alexandrite blue stone ring only when he played gigs.

Medications improved over the years, finally in a pill form, Fulvicin, however very harsh on the liver. But still rings aggravated his skin, eventually his wedding ring remained in his drawer. I took it out of the drawer decades later and asked my father if I could take it with the intention of cutting it in half to make a pendent for Julie & me to wear as a necklace. He said absolutely.

Once we got home Gary said you can’t cut his ring in half. And, with rediscovering the inscription from my mother on the inside, of course, my husband was correct. So instead, I had our jeweler make a tie bar out of Dad’s ring, and we added a diamond, his birthstone.

When Dad passed away I took the tie bar back telling my sister I had it. I held onto it, but when I saw the photo Julie sent me of our nephew and his girlfriend together, I knew Bobby had found his life partner. When it was clear he would be marrying the Love of his life, I gave the tie clip to my sister to give to her son to wear on his wedding day. My hope was to have been invited to share that moment of passing along Dad’s heirloom, but I trusted this was a decision for the mother of my nephew, and how she wanted to create this memory for her son and her both was for her alone to decide.

Mom filmed Dad receiving and opening his Father’s Day gift. He had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, exactly 5 years prior, to the date, my father passed away.

The faux alexandrite ring, Dad’s stage ring; At some point, before we ever knew Dad was ill, my sister and I were going through some of Dad’s things on his dresser. I asked my sister, when Dad goes, if she minded that I take the blue stone ring. It evoked the memories of when he played & I remembered it’s sparkle from the stage. She obliged that I would inherit it. When Dad passed away in our arms; myself, my mother, and my husband Gary on Father’s Day eve, I just couldn’t tell my sister on the phone knowing she would be too upset driving the 3+ hours alone through the desert. When she arrived that Father’s Day morning, I put on the ring and went outside to greet her, as I still could not say the words. She knew immediately, but all she could say was “why are you wearing the ring – why are you wearing the ring”, we collapsed into each other’s comforting arms.

Tattoo

Around 14yrs. old, peer pressure prevailed in my father’s youth. The gang he so admired decided that the brotherhood could only be strengthen by the ultimate permeant act of solidarity. A common tattoo. Unanimously they decided it would be an eagle, strategically placed on the inner left forearm. Naive, and not the case, typically the chosen location by heroin addicts to hide tracks. Dad was bullied in being the first to enter the tattoo pallor, along with assurances all would follow for their turn at the needle and ink after him. Dad’s recollection of the ordeal to me was graphic, and at a young age I knew I would never do to my skin what has become the 21st century common place; some in efforts to appear unique, express art, claim gang affiliation, tell life stories, express loss, or identify with an ancient culture.

Story telling involved dramatic body language as Dad described the pain and blood being wiped away as the colored ink was forced permanently deep. What seemed like forever, this boy yelled out, revealing he was far less macho, if at all, than the zoot suit persona each hoped to convey. The sounds scared his homies in the waiting area out of their commitment.

Nando, wiping away his tears before emerging from the inking room, to find no brotherhood. All alone, hiding his rite of passage as he entered his mama’s kitchen. Mothers always know when something is up. Grandma confronted him with questions, not waiting for his denial, she grab his shirt arm and revealed the scar of adolescence. Yelling different Spanish curse words, like Qué chingados es eso?! and wooden spoon whaling, she beat fear into my father. Years later as he told me the story, he shared deep gratitude for his mother and her rage. “As little as grandma is, I feared her”. “That fear kept me from straying too far from good”.

How different my father’s life might had been “if” when he emerged from the inking room into the pallor all his buddies stayed and fulfilled their tattoo pact. He might of been one of those tragic endings, many as criminals spending their lives in jail, some died a very early death, he was so grateful to have escaped.

Dad painted homes for a living. When Julie and I were small Dad would come home tired from work. We would tackle him, then he would lye on the floor. The two of us would crawl around him like little monkeys, slowly pulling the dried paint speckles from his hairy arms as he grimaced with his eyes shut tight. Mom would be preparing dinner. Then when we would couldn’t find anymore that would easily peal off, or he couldn’t take the pulling pain any longer, we would cuddle in the crooks of his arms. I often managed to end up on his left side, gazing and touching his forever eagle, that would then wrap it’s wings around me. Dad would end the cuddle session as he’d kiss us gently on each eyelid several times. I never would have guessed I would feel this way, but I so wished I would have taken a photo of his tattoo before he passed.

To My Daddy

(A Poem for his memorial, June 1998)

Puppies, ponds, and paint. Walks, talks and dancing fireplace fires. Kindness toward nature, hard work and play fair.
Best of all… music, nothing else can compare.
The horn you played, your own amazing grace.

Jam sessions, the lessons, the tears of practice at the drums.
Songs we sang and played together, Julie you and me.
Your trio dream, the famous band never to become.

This gift will never pass. The music in my heart is like my breath. Forever there, as it was yours.
Through every lesson, challenge and joy there is the music.
At times when words just didn’t work, the music has been the perfect fit.

My dear sweet father, our times have not always been bright.
But thank you for giving me the freedom and safe place
to always be honest and many times right.
Thank you for respecting me back.
Me, my feelings and my decisions.
And for loving me, all of me, no matter what.
For always letting me know you love me in more ways than your words could ever say.

Don’t ask me not to cry.
You always wanted to make it better. Well you have.
You’ve made my life better because you’ve been in it.
You’ve always been there for me.
I can’t image what my life would have been without you.
You made mistakes and Mom forgave you.
You choose to be clean and sober and I am so proud of you for that.
I am so proud of you for everything good about you.

Dad, you weren’t always easy, but You are my hero just the same.
And forever, you’ll be the music that stays with me all my days.

Forever in our Hearts

Our Mom became a beautiful butterfly, and one came to visit our backyard the eve of her 1year anniversary of passing into eternity.  PHOTOGRAPHER:  Gary Bednorz

Our Mom became a beautiful butterfly, and one came to visit our backyard the eve of her 1year anniversary of passing into eternity. PHOTOGRAPHER: Gary Bednorz

Even though my sister preferred not to partake, I held out hope and kept looking in my rearview mirror. Knowing all the while she would not show. So what I thought was going to be a process supported by & with each other is not, and what a missed opportunity she had to join me knowing my only response would be that of gratitude and Love if she only had the strength to take that step toward contrition. Her absence added to my sadness, so I just remind myself “it’s her own journey”

When we arrived at the gravesite after being escorted by one of the ground’s attendants I envisioned we would be placing the plastic box housing my Mother’s ashes in a small more hefty “coffin” (as in my uncle’s interment.) So surprised I said “AS  IS!”…the attendant obliged.

I scattered rose petals from my birthday bouquets and garden in the earth, and then when asked if I wanted to be the one to put her in, I said yes. I held the brown plastic box close then placed her gently down, sprinkling the remainder of the petals. Kneeling, I then read the most beautiful poem I could find for her;

“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
Runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
In numberless blades of grass
And breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
And of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.”

~ Rabindranath Tagore

Then placed the poem paper note with her as well. I said “thank you” to the three attendants, two of which dug the small grave. One of them, Derek, replied with “it was an honor”. I keep thinking and will forever remember him for how truly kind and tender that was of him.

Also, taking from my sister’s response email: “I know she is in my heart and with me always”, made for the perfect message for Mom’s grave marker: “Forever in Our Hearts”

Although I didn’t recall from previous visits that my Father rests on a hill, when I stood up I took in how beautiful a spot for them both – overlooking a magnolia tree for me, a golf course for my sister.

I kept a very small scoop of ashes to someday take to Palermo, Italy. There is a tiny village centered in Sicily named Petralia – Mom’s maiden name. Thinking it would be nice to leave, rather “return”, a bit of her there, her ancestral home.  Grateful I have Gary, and by my side.  My Mother’s loss just as great for him.

Thankful to so many for so much Love and care received, and so blessed to have such heartfelt support during the journey of Mother’s passing, while I navigate through this tender time. I’m strong & brave, although at times crumble, because too, of the loss of the remainder of my nuclear family. I know when it comes to matters of eternity all will work out more perfectly than I, or anyone, could possibly predict or imagine.

We discovered our Mother’s note to us the very last night, emptying out the very last piece of furniture, as we prepared to leave her home for the very last time.  At first I thought she wrote this possibly some months, or the year before, putting it in her desk and forgetting about it.  Recently, I’ve come to believe, she scribbling out her message to us soon before she died.  A precious gift that anyone who Loved their parent would treasure.   Although, at the time of discovery, I did find it curious that she would say to us “Love and take care of each other” as my sister and I were fine; Calling each other daily, supporting each other through some of our most trying of life’s challenges, and especially in solidarity with our Mother’s care.  We would never, could never, be at odds with one another.  Little did I know that my Mother had the wisdom of the universe, and her note was, is, indeed, a message from the future.

We discovered our Mother’s note to us the very last night, emptying out the very last piece of furniture, as we prepared to leave her home for the very last time. At first I thought she wrote this possibly some months, or the year before, putting it in her desk and forgetting about it. Recently, I’ve come to believe, she scribbling out her message to us soon before she died. A precious gift that anyone who Loved their parent would treasure.
Although, at the time of discovery, I did find it curious that she would say to us “Love and take care of each other” as my sister and I were fine; Calling each other daily, supporting each other through some of our most trying of life’s challenges, and especially in solidarity with our Mother’s care. We would never, could never, be at odds with one another. Little did I know that my Mother had the wisdom of the universe, and her note was, is, indeed, a message from the future.