Novel and photo by Anne Hart
You also may wish to read my other paperback novel: How to Start Engaging Conversations on Women's, Men's, or Family Studies with Wealthy Strangers: A Thriller – March 29, 2007.
Sicilian-American Women's, Men's, and Family Studies Professor, psychoanalyst, and night radio talk show personality, Anna Falco's dad always told her that the lower our self esteem, the more we want to be someone different from ourselves, and the more we want someone different from ourselves. He made a point that the higher our self esteem, the more we want someone like ourselves.Anna Falco added something more to that: her belief that couples with self-respect will respect each other.
Not one of Anna's clients came from families where the husband and wife or child and parent respected one another. That could be one huge reason why family wars grew into world wars.Now family wars had become full-blown race wars in the streets of Los Angeles. Skip an octave, and old hatreds of differences fanned flames between the 'haves' and 'have-nots.'She offered to trade the wisdom of age for the energy of youth. But it all boiled down to honor between family members.
Anna explained the difference between self-esteem and self-respect. Being an older woman reminded Wrenboy (the troubled court-appointed street teen that she had adopted) of a mother hen capable of caging his freedom. Her lined face reminded him of his own mortality at a time when he felt invincible and desperately lonely for a loving family. Would he fear her strident voice hammering him back into childhood? Or would he accept her globetrotting to repair the world with kindness? In his search for power and autonomy, he concluded it is easier to rebel.
Growing up in Brooklyn's "Little Sicily" (a short story)
It has been said by someone sometime: “The nomadic way of life is a horizontal expression of a vertical desire."
LIST OF CHARACTERS in this life story
Gianni Caracalla Father of Turia and Husband of Candela
Turia Caracella, Baby in first chapter, then 9-year old girl, first person narrator of fictional biography.
Marietta Dulca, younger sister of Candela Dulca Caracalla
Clodio, brother of Turia, 14 years her senior.
Don Antonio Calabra, spy in village during war
Luciano Galba, groom who never arrived, chauffeur to Calabra, the spy
Julia, mother of Marietta Dulca
Massimo Dulca, father of Marietta and Candela Dulca Caracalla
Tonino, Shadow character, who eventually marries Candela's mother, Julia, a shadowy woman who has given Candela away at two to her biological father. Julia marries Tonino, and Tonino's youngest brother, Gianni is Candela's husband. Julia's second husband, Tonino is Gianni's oldest brother.
Massimo Dulca, father of Marietta is Julia's third husband, newest, and stepfather to Marietta.
And the Sicilian family saga goes on….in this "soap opera fiction story."
“Pisciaci supra i ruini prima ca diventinu muschei” (Sicilian Proverb)
“Pee on the ruins before they build a temple over them.” (Enjoy art while you can.)
NOVEMBER, 1941, SIRACUSA, SICILY, MIDDAY
War arrived in Siracusa like a child's tantrum. And a carp starts to stink from the head, the villagers still protest with their flowery proverbs and gestures.
"Such a putrid fish you roast in the flames of your neighbor's fires," whippet-wiry Gianni Caracalla complained to his wife, with a twist of his thumb and pinky.
He tried to adjust the lens on his wife's box camera. "What's in it for me, Candela? How are you trying to shape me today? Like your mother whittled your papa into a fava bean of a man, or like your sister pinched her betrothed into a flea? "
"So sweet you are after all these years, Gianni," Candela whispered. "Like a cock in a hen house."
Horizontal rain lashed his face with a thousand thongs. "Not sweet enough for your fangs to bite or sour enough for you to leave."
Lightning struck the crumbling temple of Jupiter behind him. "Go inside and eat your moldy baccala before it becomes as cold a fish as you are."
Wet volcanic ash soaked Gianni's spice brown hair. His breath steamed into his torn flannel shirt. Shy Gianni took an interest in his sneakers.
"Look at me," his wife taunted. "Why don't you ever make eye contact when you take our pictures?"
Yet another morning earthquake aftershock stirred the entire village, the vines, and the olive trees. Churchbells rang furiously. Gianni ignored the smiling silver eyes of Candela, his wife who carried in one arm her pink-blanketed two-week old daughter, Turia. In her other arm she tried to balance a bouquet of deep, red roses.
During World War II, as in ancient times, wet laundry on sagging ropes beneath windowsills became a signaling flag, boundary, and a time capsule to the spirits, ships, and in modern times, planes or tanks passing the well-cultivated vines. Little toy flags and two crocheted blankets blew over the baby's face as Candela fidgeted to straighten them. A nerve-shattering cry pierced the wind.
"Hurry and take the picture. The baby's turning blue." Candela shouted at Gianni. And the shouts seemed to be coming from a horde of crones, screaming together in fury, cutting him to pieces. Above, shattering warplanes led swarms of swans.
Gianni only saw the open mouth of his wife, Candela, the girl he brought from Rome to marry in 1926. Her voice became an indistinguishable roar of needy demand as loud as the wind. Again, Gianni tried to focus the lens of his camera. For a moment Candela tried to smile and look into the camera.
They stood awkwardly beside their parent’s whitewashed apartment. From inside, echoes of Pagliacci pealed through the tiny apartment, bleating from the tin can sound of an old phonograph. And as the recorded tenor, Enrico Caruso ravaged the ten by ten rooms,warplanes drowned the music.
"The baby is freezing, you jerk."
"Shut up! Damn it. I'm trying to keep the lens from getting wet."
"Hurry up, you neurotic. She can't breathe."
Candela yelled again, her voice a compelling tattoo. Then Gianni's temper cracked, and he let fly with a right hook to her left chest. The baby slid from the blanket into a pile of wet, volcanic ash swept to the curb. Gianni couldn't stop punching his wife. Her voiced worry about health would always be met with shoves that escalated, until her body couldn't take one more punch.
Roses scattered on the street and formed a collage around the shiny chestnut wisps of baby hair. Lavish ornament from ruins above reflected from the baby's topaz eyes as Candela searched furiously for warmth. I'm that baby. Once they called me Turia. Many are the lives I’ve observed, but rarely acted upon.
Many times Candela, “la banza” Caracalla vividly described to me what she witnessed eight weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday. While wading through time, I wanted to tell a tale of values and virtues. Instead, I found a few Sicilian widows dressed in the magnificence of their consciences.
“Wherever trust is short, freedom is weak,” mama always said. She overheard that dripping proverb too many times in too few places between Rome, Siracusa, Messina, and Palermo. Mama collected honey-soaked proverbs. Sicilian proverbs have a habit of peaking too early and getting snared on the barbed wire of time. Proverbs are boundary states, and boundaries between us mushroomed into shocking cultural barriers.
Candela’s younger sister, Marietta, prepared for her wedding in the apartment’s basement bomb shelter. Beneath a damask mantilla, orange blossoms weaved through Marietta’s burnished chignon.
The short, thin bride might have stepped from an El Greco painting with her porcelain skin and Phoenician profile defended by the blazing eyes of a Moorish Grandee.
Behind the window's shadowed lattice she gazed outside through narrowed lids at the crowd gathered to watch the final scene in a brilliant drama.
“At what point in time does a daughter draw the line where a mother and child become two separate people?” I asked. “Mama,” I begged her at sixty. “Tell me where does one person’s visions end and another’s begin?”
“Crooked wood is straightened with fire,” she’d answer. “Lu lignu tortu s’addrizza a lu focu.”
At noon raindrops silvered the birches that rustled through each street. Birds screamed at the planes. Someone else was screaming. Sounds of war ripped through the vineyards as Pagliacci records played louder.
Was that Candela’s voice also screaming? That’s what she told me when I was nine.
I imagined its sound compelling, muffled and strange, as if it belonged to me. For just beyond the basement shelter wedding site set within the forbidding Hermetic ruins, an auto da fe began, the burning of a spy. Burning in 1941? Why not a war-wracked and weary firing squad? The villagers chose burning at the stake for the spy who betrayed them. The great crowd that trekked to Marietta Dulca’s wedding instead gathered to watch the final scene in a drama more titillating.
As the spectators formed a circle, the soft, seductive slapping of unseen hands throbbed a persuasive sound that prepared for the final crescendo. Candela told me she never found out who put the garb of shame on the foreign spy, the betrayer of a family of villagers. Who dishonored the familial ties? From where did he come, and to what powers did he betray the land and the people?
One of Siracusa’s most prominent citizens came forward clad in the 18th century version of the old Inquisition's penitential garb of shame, the sambenito. Haggard and pale as whey from his long confinement in the ruined dungeons of the old Holy Office, locked since 1739, Don Antonio Calabra was led onto the Rocio.
There, in the same place in which two millennium of blood baths had begun, in sworn secrecy, the thirty-four-year old Don Antonio ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair and roared with condemnations. "Throw more wood on the fire, you jackasses! I'm paying the bill."
"Let him burn slowly. Don't put any more wood on," blared a reply from the crowd through a bullhorn. "Why should it be over quickly?"
The spy’s strong Greek face contorted like rubber as the columns of smoke rose.
"He's sprouting horns!" A woman shouted. "The demons are escaping!" She screamed and crossed herself.
An iron cross of penitence was thrust against his lips. But young Don Antonio turned his head away and cried out. "Heil Hitler."
Once more he raked the eyes of the crowd at his feet and saw that the women's tears were sincere. They begged, and pleaded, and prayed for him to kiss the cross before he was burned. They even tore their clothes.
"I have been a source of profit to this village." Don Antonio saluted the crowd in the manner of an ancient gladiator.
"How much did the sale of my home bring?"
Among the onlookers at his immolation were members of his own family, their presence there compelled by the villagers. Execution in the manner of the old Inquisition, a new style of war within a war, Candela told me she thought at the time.
Marietta ran out in her bridal gown to look. The executioner asked him again if he would take the cross to kiss it. Finally he did to avoid the pain of being burned alive.
Don Antonio was quickly garroted and his body burned at an old fashioned quemadeiro the villagers built for the spy. Next to the quemadeiro, built in a quaint, almost Spanish style, a comedy played in the theatre, a comedy he had financed. Some of the villagers wanted to separate from Italy, to celebrate their other roots linked to the east and south, and to speak the Sicilian dialect with different spellings, like putting “u” at the end of words that ended in “o”. Little quirks made a war.
Marietta’s father tightened his lips in bewilderment."The wedding has been postponed," he protested in distress. Two wedding guests nudged each other, exchanging meaningful wide-eyed stares, then hurried through the dank streets. The planes passed overhead, and the villagers headed not toward the bomb shelters in the basements, where basements existed, but to the wedding.
"I will not have my daughter married in fear," Marietta’s father, Massimo Dulca gestured loudly.
The act of faith outside grew into a raging mob, waving sticks. The Caracallas ran into their small, stuffy rooms and drew the drapes.
"Candela, it's unbearable the way people stare over our shoulders at the family during Mass, the looks in the theater, and the visits," said, Massimo. "All of us must leave the country at once."
A few guests ate honey cakes set out on the simple kitchen table. The crowd rushed by Marietta’s apartment, ignoring the entrance where the wedding decorations drooped. Instead, villagers raged into Don Antonio’s lavish villa.
His smaller tables were set with silver service and Chantilly lace tablecloths. Inside a sanctuary, swastikas adorned chapel-sized closets. In the dining room, guests kicked over tables laden with an abundance of well-seasoned roast hens served in glazed earthenware casseroles. The house quickly emptied of any servants, leaving a dozen overflowing swan-bowls of magnificent fruits.
Paper clippings and pictures of Mussolini scattered in the library. Lead crystal and gold candelabra flattered the royal blue drapes that hung against the gold-colored-walls. Arched recesses there shone with faded two hundred-year-old family portraits brought out of Naples.
Naples? The rift between Sicilians and Neapolitans spelled more trouble. It had gone on for centuries.
In a staccato burst of thunder, the rancor of the angry crowd’s jackboots on the marble steps and the tapping of bronze-headed Malacca sword canes captured this audience. On the walls, portraits of familiar and less recognized fascists and dictators, mass murderers from Tamerlane to Ghenghis Khan, from Attila in the east to Vlad, commonly known as Dracula, in the west impaled guests with their penetrating stares.
“Let’s have the wedding here,” a youth in the crowd roared. Smoke from the charred Portuguese-styled quemadeiro and acrid odor of burning flesh filtered into each room.
In her basement, Marietta sat down before the boudoir mirror. She looked twice over her shoulder before she finally unpinned her chignon. Marietta quickly dressed herself in painter's overalls and began to toss articles of clothing into a pillowcase. Her pillow diary tumbled, and she burned it in the basement's furnace.
Marietta’s father, Massimo Dulca, pounded her door. Another door hidden behind drapes, leading from the basement to her chambers, opened from the inside. Her heart rolled over.
“We can’t afford a stigma on our name,” he whispered. The wedding day passed, and the groom, Luciano Galba never arrived.
Marietta's amber eyes widened in surprise at seeing her father being there for her, together they stood shoulder to shoulder like two yoked mules on the same team. The first no-show groom in nine generations of Dulcas had to mark an event meant for the family time capsule. A white goatskin First Communion Bible with blank pages spared allowed anyone to inscribe recordings as if it were a public family diary. The night-stand became a library.
"Would you trust our poor family?" Her father's words went through her painfully, even though he smoothed Marietta's shoulder gently to reassure her. "You have nothing, but you can be proud of your beauty."
“Where shall we go?” Marietta sobbed. “He isn’t ever coming.”
"How would you know that?" Marietta's mother, Julia entered and opened a second night-stand draw. Julia began to shuffle a deck of fortune-telling cards. "What's his payoff? Power, rapport, exemption from the burden of a wife, or vengeance?" My cards speak the truth.
Musical notes froze into a concert of doom. At the theatre, the comedy's curtains were about to rise on the greatest spy and playwright the village had ever known.
"Now, everyone in Siracusa knows you didn’t meet the spy," said Julia. "He's not family."
"Unforgivably, a stranger stole center stage," said Massimo as he beamed his smiling ebony gaze beyond the drapes.
Marietta Dulca's heart refused to believe what her mind told her. "If we only could have sent word to Luciano's family that the someone in this village betrayed him."
"What will the neighbors do to us?" Julia's rosary-callused hands twisted Marietta into her bedside chair.
"The whole village laughed when Calabra's penniless lackey asked to marry you. When they opened that rank place after two hundred years and threw away the key, your groom deserted his duty as a husband," her father boasted. Would you marry a boy who betrays his people for profit so he can buy you a wedding ring? What virtues did I teach you?"
"He freed himself from burden," Marietta sobbed.
Julia grinned. "Not freed, exempted himself from commitment. He’s gone.”
Massimo scowled with impatience. “He’s gone because your lackey drove for that spy. He’ll never be back. You can do better than marry a spy's chauffeur. You can be as rich as the man you'd want to marry. Looks fade quickly. Find a road to wealth instead."
"Both of you suffer from lack of power." Marietta's cheeks burned. “Where will we go?”
“New York,” her father whispered in a gruff voice. "I have cousins there."
The family car sped through the cobblestone streets in driving rain that cleared the ancient air of volcanic smoke and the pyres of burning flesh. Suddenly pouring rain tore the clay pots of pink geraniums from the window ledges of the white houses. Through the misty streets, ghosts, cars, trucks, tanks, donkeys, sheep, and horses galloped in the afternoon. Clikata, clikata, clikata.
“Mama, why do priests and nuns have to be celibate?”
“Horseface, the early church didn’t want men of property to lavish wealth on their grandchildren. In the old days, celibate men and women willed their money to the church. Who else would need to tell them that everything that exists, just is?”
The entire family first went to Rome first to visit Aunt Teresa and say goodbye before coming to New York just as the war moved south. When all of us arrived, Teresa Epiphania and the Egiziano family she married into had left Rome for Malta.
In the mystic days, townsfolk would row toward Carthage, bartering fruit. Candela told me many times how to appreciate and nourish the opulence of Siracusa’s wealth. Candela would ask me, much later, to continue, record, and enjoy with needed changes, her half-finished life.
When mama’s family arrived in Malta, everyone else she knew had gone to a holding tank for rosary-wracked, war-torn refugees in Tunisia looking to come to America by way of any other country. Somehow, all of the Caracallas, the Epiphanias and the Egizianos made it to New York before the pearly gates of immigration slammed in their faces.
In New York, we would stay at dad’s parent’s home. Anna and Tony were frail enough not to notice rat droppings in their pastry flour tins. They lived in Bensonhurst, near Lafayette High School. The street next to the elevated subway line spread out into Brooklyn’s little Sicily as it followed each grinding subway D-train that roared between Times Square and Coney Island. The whole neighborhood reeked of olive oil, cheeses, and cinnamon-coated pignola seeds.
Mama Candela left her parent’s home in Sicily when she was nineteen to work at the yarn winding factories in Rome. Her Sicilian dialect sounded more like a foreign language there, but she went to live with her aunt’s family.
Aunt Teresa’s relatives had lived in Rome for many generations. Teresa's relatives became part of the scenery, branching out into the countryside clear to Umbria an hour's drive into Rome's suburbs. Teresa’s husband worked as a janitor after he lost his hat and lining manufacturing business to the worldwide depression during the thirties. Mama married at twenty-two to the youngest brother of her mother’s second husband, Gianni, 32, a rival hat and lining manufacturer who also lost his business and he, too became a janitor for a large all-encompassing institution.
The arranged marriage, Candela’s mother, Julia, said, had to be in order to protect mama from being sold into white slavery in an Argentine brothel by a man who could be everybody's shadow side, named Tonino from Albany, New York. Tonino "The Weasel" Caracalla had used another surname--Fanetti--and approached young women in Rome and offered to be a matchmaker to 'wealthy' Sicilian men in Brooklyn. Such men usually spent afternoons sipping espresso in their trattorias while watching people walk down the subway steps during rush hour. Tonino offered young ladies tickets, passports, and a way out of wartime.
Girls in their late teens who took him up on his offer ended up in a Buenos Aires brothel. Grandma married mama off to her second husband’s brother, a man mama didn’t know.
“Did she want to protect me?” Mama would ask on my seventh birthday. “Or did grandma Julia want to forgive herself?” Mama told me nearly every word grandma said to her. As mama spoke, I could imagine grandma’s words. After mama reached age sixty, I switched on two tape recorders, put them out of sight, and let mama unfold what she remembered.
“Get out of my face, Candela. Having a beautiful twenty two-year-old daughter when I’m in my wedding dress for my second husband makes me feel old,” said grandma Julia. “Tonino wants more children.” Mom had not seen her own mother between the age of two and nineteen. Mom showed up uninvited at her own mother's wedding--to Tonino, soon after mama had married his brother, Gianni Caracalla, the youngest of nine children.
“You have to be kidding, mama,” I told Candela at age seven. “In a Sicilian family?”
WINTER 1950. A SMALL APARTMENT IN BROOKLYN'S LITTLE SICILY
Near Lafayette High School
Where did my boundary begin? I, Turia lied awake next to mother in the rutted double bed in which we both slept. Gianni, my father, slept in the next bedroom in twin beds with his 22-year old son. It was three in the morning. Outside the window, the sound of the grinding subway never ceased.
Only the pouring rain soothed the screeching of the cars on the track as they turned the corner on their way to Coney Island. Rhymes, rhythms, and dreams nourished me. Instead of a room of my own, I had only the private space in my purse. I owned nothing but the rhythms. And everyone else in the apartment had no private space, either, except in pockets of time.
"Remember when we played suffering? And I'd rub your belly, and your doll would be delivered like a baby?" Candela laughed and wheezed her hacking cigarette cough.
I rolled over, pulling a stringy mat of brown hair from my eyes. "I'm sick of hearing about your ugly lack of a sex life. Jeez. Quit harping. I don't want to hear any more of it."
"You're nine today. You gotta know."
"No, I don't. Get lost."
The radiator had dried out the air in the room. My mouth and nose felt paper-thin and raw as I trembled with low blood sugar from dining on candy bars. Gianni tiptoed out of his bedroom and crawled into bed with his wife.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I provoked him. Gianni took off his pajamas and sneaked into bed with his wife.
"Get the hell outta here, you son of a bitch," I shouted.
"You kicking' me out?" Gianni hesitated for a moment.
"The kid's teacher told me today that Turia had a high IQ," Candela interrupted. "I'm buying her another musical instrument and starting ballet and voice lessons with the Children's Opera Company of New York. I need three dollars a week for the lessons. The kid must have creative expression. I wanted it so much for myself when I was her age, but I had to eat out of garbage cans."
"That's right," I said.
"Shut up, you tramp."
"Don't call me a tramp, daddy."
"How can you call your eight-year-old daughter a tramp?" Candela nagged nasally. She pulled back her brown braids and grimaced.
"Better you should be crippled. You should have been born a boy. I'll kill you, you piece of garbage," Gianni roared.
He hurried his pajamas back on and stormed out looking for something to smash. Gianni found a hammer in the living room and began to smash all the keys on my piano. My birthday. I had almost forgotten. Candela had saved seventy-five dollars from the three dollars a day Gianni gave her and bought me a used upright for my birthday.
When Gianni finished smashing the piano keys, he went for the violin that Candela gave me for last year's birthday. The violin had been bought in 1936 for brother's seventh birthday. After a year or two of lessons, he gave it up. For years it had stood among Clodio's undusted toys, forgotten in the cellar.
Gianni put his foot through the violin. Finally, he grabbed my new puppy and held its belly against the hot radiator pipe in the bathroom until it stopped whimpering. I looked in on mother, but rotund Candela didn't move or respond to my presence. She just lied there, staring at the ceiling, and I always felt that long ago she had given up all effort. I would never give up my choices.
I ran into the living room. "Not my birthday presents. Don't smash my presents." I cried.
The louder the sounds of mom's voice grew, the more terrified and angry Gianni became. He began to chase me around the apartment waving the hammer over his head like a madman.
"If I catch you, I'll cripple you. Heads will roll before you'll become a tramp." He went for the ax in his private closet, putting the hammer away. I scampered under a table and crouched there, sobbing.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, daddy."
"Better you should be crippled than to be born a girl and make trouble for me."
"I should have flushed you out into the sea. Better you weren't born," Gianni raged.
"If I have to get up for a cigarette. Damn, those cigarettes are killing me. But you two fighting are driving me to smoke."
At last Candela hurried into the kitchen and lit a cigarette, making the motions of heating up water for espresso. "Leave the kid alone."
Gianni took a swing at me with the hammer and missed. I darted out of the kitchen and dashed out the front door of the living room, down the apartment steps, and then down the cellar steps.
In the darkness, Gianni chased me as I disappeared into the basement. I squeezed my body into a partially filled coal bin, hiding in back of an old barrel and covered myself with coal.
Gianni looked around for a few seconds, wild-eyed, wiping the beaded sweat on his upper lip on his pajama sleeve. "If I catch you, I'll kill you."
I watched him from between the wide slats of the coal bin as he swung his hammer overhead. In the dark I heard him toss the hammer on a worktable. Worse, I heard the scraping sharp sound of him grating the ax along the wood.
Missing slats in the coal barrel under the night lamp allowed me to peer out as he switched on another of my brother's photography darkroom infrared lights. Gianni slapped the ax against his thigh a couple of times.
Then he sighed and left it on the table. Finally, exhausted, he plodded up the wooden stairs. The fear never left me.
I looked around the darkroom, thinking of how many times my older brother, Clodio asked me to help him with his photography hobby. He said I had to put the paper in the trays of developers, fetch water, and mop up his spills. Each day he required me to hold the special lights above him as he worked there. “Yes, daddy,” I’d taunt instead of, “Sure, brother.”
The apartment door closed with a bang. Gianni stalked into the kitchen, and then Candela, in her best shrill, let him have her words as if they were machine gun bullets.
"No sooner did I put the baby on your lap then you told me to take her off because she gave you an erection. You distanced yourself from your daughter forever after. Why, she's never seen you smile, you thin-lipped fish. All she's seen you do is smash, yell, and hit. Why?"
"You keep hounding me because my brother walked into his own guest room when you went to visit your mother."
"I threw him out, but you don't see him shaking an ax and hammer every week over my daughter. I never saw you threaten your son."
"He's a grown man, but I watch you knotting his tie every day."
"What do you have against your own daughter?"
"Girls only make trouble. What if she becomes a tramp and dishonors the household? You know how many times I asked the doctor to check to make sure? Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe she was a boy."
"Is that why you never held a conversation with your daughter or even smiled at her? Not once in your whole life did you ever talk to her straight."
"What about you going into your son's room to massage his feet every morning and comb his hair?
"I'm a mother."
"He's twenty-two. He says you're overbearing."
"I'm going back to bed."
"Where is she?" Candela's eyes widened with worry.
"In the cellar again. Let her rot in hell down there." Gianni staggered back to bed. Candela spent the rest of the night smoking cigarettes and reading old newspapers.
In the morning I looked out of the basement window and scratched off some of the frost. I watched daddy go off to work, walking toward the subway station. Then I climbed the stairs back to my branching world and knocked on my family's door.
Mama wore the same stained and disheveled flannel housedress she wore the day before. It covered her five-foot tall, 250-pound rotundity well, her flapping ham-hock upper arms and her la banza belly.
As we walked together, I wished she would leave him, but she told me she would go to pieces. Mama feared the thought of looking for a job as a cleaning woman in a beauty parlor.
"When I grow up, couldn't you become a Carmelite nun, mommy? Then daddy wouldn't punch you any more." I'd ask her that at eight and again at twenty.
She always said, "No, honey. You become a nun, and no man will ever make you sick. Take a vow of silence, and no one will kick you in the stomach for giving him lip, but don't ever work for a woman. They're even worse.
"They threaten you with lawsuits when you make a mistake. I have an angry marriage, but you'll find serenity in your art."
Candela's mother wanted to be a lady, but her second husband said she was a woman. Then, mom read me from her own diary titled: Rome, October 10, 1926, "Candela's Secrets" Wedding Chiffon. Treasures, Measures, and Pleasures.
On her wedding day mom told me when I was nine that she wrote, "Today I died." Dad found her diary tucked under the sleeper on their honeymoon trip to Virgil's birthplace.
Dad openly cried. No one cared how mom painted the perfect rose or played any musical tune by ear. All she talked about was being unable to figure numbers.
Mama never returned to school after the age of ten. She quit after a bout with diphtheria and scarlet fever, falling ill the day after her own father walked out on her mother.
He left to live with his mistress and her four children for the second time in mama’s life. Candela’s mother gave her away to her father and kept the two sons. Mama never forgot the slight or that she inherited nothing from her own mother.
We moved to Little Sicily, in Brooklyn after the war in 1946. When I started kindergarten here, mom told me that a lady is clever enough to coax a man to pay all the bills.
A smart lady doesn't ever have to work, even after she's a widow. Mom said that a stupid woman has to work like a dog to make people buy her trinkets.
In the end, she becomes a lonely, but free bag lady licking cigarette butts from the curb and babbling. Her work has whittled, burned, and sickened her like a weathered butte.
That's what mom repeated to me often at the kitchen table, followed by, "Where's your son-of-a-bitch dad? Why am I alone with you all the time? I'm only taking care of you because it's my responsibility. You're my unpaid racket. It's not like I planned on having you. Just as I started to leave him, I found out I was pregnant by accident."
"You're weak mama, weak because you're so sick. If you wanted to leave him each time he hit you, you would have scrubbed floors to get out."
"No, you don't understand, Turia. Each time I try to work, my body breaks down, not my will."
"Your body breaks down because your mind is afraid."
"No, it's my genes. My mother's body broke down when she was the same age as I am now. She couldn't leave her husband either each time he pooled his anger. I tried to override my genes, but my body whipped me first before my husband ever did. It came from inside."
"Grow mama. Why can't you grow and change? How can I grow when you can't?"
When you're a little girl, you learn a lot about the future men in your life from your father. Clodio, my older brother by fourteen years also had a short temper.
"Clodio had a fight with me over you making too much noise," Mom told me when I came home from school.
"He broke a lamp over my arm. But I dared him to do it."
"Does daddy know?"
"I had to tell him. So now he smashed your brother's typewriter just before his first year law school exam."
"I'm too tired to go to school today." I shuffled into the foyer, passing the dead canary in the green birdcage.
"It caught a virus. You'll have to take it down to the garbage cans."
"Oh, no. Well, it will reincarnate as something else." I ran into the bedroom.
"Listen, you little mouse. Want to go shopping?" Candela went back to frying eggs and olives in marinara sauce with ziti. She drenched a heel of rye bread for me with olive oil. Mama thumbed minced garlic on the bread and slapped down a mug of hot cocoa and a bowl of nastily sugared corn flakes.
The whole kitchen smelled of hot chocolate with cinnamon and walnuts. Then came the snails fried in lemon with toasty bruiscotto. Even at nine, I worried about being stuffed with so much sugar that I bounced off the walls and shook with tremors. Mom complained again about her panic disorder, but continued to heap spoonfuls of orange blossom honey into her espresso.
Some of dad's relatives came from Malta and shipped us favorite rose and orange honey flavors for making ricotta cheese pastries. This wasn't only Sicilian cooking here. It was Maltese, Tunisian, Greek, and Egyptian. Food snared our polyglot roots.
Brooklyn's spice racks turned salad bowls into melting pots on the surface. We became time capsules. Everyone accepted change and grew from a different perspective and at various rates.
What we had in common was the sign of the hand on the door to ward off the evil eye curse. That umbilical cord took us back to the Ice Age and into uncharted spaces. Those who didn't grow depended on mates to change their lives. Retreats became their fountains of renewal.
When technology replaced prayer, prayer replaced self-expression. Later, shopping took on an attitude. All the women I knew shopped for a living. No matter how poor the Sicilian immigrant, if her high-school dropout daughter working in a department store married a lawyer, her daughter's husband issued that daughter a maid after the third child. Marriage became a military function. Lonely? The military will issue you a wife.
"I dreamed of getting a job in a department store," mama told me. "I applied, but the lady said I needed experience. Then I applied to be a maid in uptown New York and sat under a rich lady's chandelier, but the lady told me that keeping her apartment isn't at all like cleaning your own home. After that, I kept applying to clean stores, offices, and beauty salons, and nobody ever called me back because I had spent my whole life taking care of my own family."
The more dad shoved mama against the wall when he yelled, the more she applied for cleaning jobs, and still no one called her to work. She grew angrier but didn't say a word. All she complained about centered on her angina pain and the swollen veins in her neck and how high her blood pressure rose when she squeezed into her corset.
So we went shopping each day when school days gave way to the hot, humid New York summers as I became seven, eight, and nine. The subway let off the two of us near Boro Hall and Fulton St. We walked to Mays and Lane Bryant to look at the dresses for larger women. I was even skinnier than Gianni. From the back, the two of us looked like a globe and an obelisk. Kids in my fourth grade class when we lived on West First Street and Avenue "P" in Brooklyn called me crazy or skinny Turia. I gave them the Sicilian hand signs to ward off the evil eye. Same to you.
Mom and I walked through May's department store looking at the baubles and silken wisps of underwear, the sweet, sickly scent of cheap cologne, and the boxes of face powder. On her way, Candela shoplifted white-pink lipsticks, rhinestone broaches, clip-on earrings, negligees in size 34--which could never fit her, and tiny training bras size 32 AAA.
When no one was looking in the ladies room, she'd stuff clothing into her incontinence panties. She never took toys, books, or dolls for me, only trinkets and negligees she couldn't ever fit into or dare to wear.
"I don't want any of the beads or perfume," I whispered from the next toilet stall. "They're cursed. You'll get bad luck. They have the eye on them."
Candela banged the metal wall of the cubicle. "Your father only gives me chickenfeed. How else can I live? How else can I give myself a reward? A treat? Some pleasure?"
"I don't want to wear that crap." She would always light up a cigarette and lay a 'stomacu' Sicilian dialect curled-smoke curse on me when I misbehaved, and then I'd punish myself by having an accident. I had set it up unconsciously to get rid of the tension. Only when I became unruly it meant showing her how morally wrong taking away boundaries became.
How guilty I'd feel so that I'd get sick with guilt and fear for her deeds. And when I'd misbehave, she laid yet another curse with pointed finger at me from across the room. And I could feel it flying like a dart to it's target, me. I'd go play, and I'd fall over a fence and soon get hurt. Then the tension would go, and the beads and trinkets would be given away to the Indic Ramah/Sicilian florist lady and her flautist family in the storefront where mom would go for conversation each month.
Old Candela from Palermo via Cairo would shake her skirts to sweep away curses and evil eye darts that flew up the wall like spiders in your dreams. Her kids would trickle dance tunes through their flutes to the sob shocks of a conga drum.
Laying the evil eye of fear on me with a wink or the upturned palms caused the anxiety, and later I had to get relief by getting that fishhook caught in my leg, letting the accident run its course. I realized that by the time I became a teenager.
At nine, the curse stood forth like a mountain peak, red-veined and dirty. And the punishment I inflicted on myself fired from deep within me. Accidents happened. Salty cold wells opened. Out poured my sensibilities. Silent night and once more, all became calm.
"Here, stuff this nightgown in your panties."
"No! I won't."
Candela dragged me whining into the dressing room with some of the items tucked inside of her dresses because only three garments were allowed in the dressing rooms at one time. In front of the mirror Candela put on those tiny bras, slips, and clothing under her own clothes. She brought out the three garments she took into the fitting rooms.
"These dresses aren't the right size." Candela handed the two dresses over to the sales clerk. She waddled into the shoe department to buy I a pair of saddle shoes for school wear. Mother and daughter sat down in the shoe department.
"Give me that skinny foot," said the salesman, trying to shove one of the new shoes on my dirt-caked foot.
"Leave me alone!" I shouted, storming out of the shoe section. I shouted the big four-letter word at him as I looked over my shoulder.
"That filthy kid," he stammered. Candela caught up to me in the women's lingerie department.
"Horseface, why the hell did you say that?"
"He didn't have to call me skinny like in ugly."
"Why did you have to wear those torn socks? You're beginning to stink like your old man who's never taken a bath since he came out of World War One."
I didn't have a family. I had a pendulum. It gapped with each swing. I joined the new age self-realization movement in 1950 with one of my Swedish school buddies whose mother taught Yoga to older women. The pendulum swung right, and I decided at nine to become an artist and writer right in that department store. The previous year I’d seen “The Red Shoes,” and knew I’d be a ballet dancer.
After two years of lessons, I’d been put on toe shoes and danced in my school in a solo before the age of eight. Now, I drew mama's caricature, and put her in my collection of cartoons. Wonderfully, I’d discovered that the drive to creative expression could be transferred from ballet to playing the piano, to voice lessons, to art lessons, and finally to writing. Brother let me have his old Royal typewriter, taught me algebra, and by the age of nine, I re-wrote the first page of the Bible as a comic book.
The boundaries shifted a sliver. I still didn’t know where mama left off and I began.
Later, riding home in the subway, I finished reading her two favorite 1950 comic books that she used to learn to read English better, "The Vault of Horror" and "The Crypt of Terror." Candela bought them in Mrs. Luso's candy store and two gills of chocolate ice cream to take home. She'd share the comics with me after she read them first.
"Where's your old man, where's the bastard?" Candela grinned.
"Probably at one of his flower shows."
"Some men come straight home after work. Gianni, he's got his flower shows. You look like him, horseface. "Did you know he caught VD when your brother was five? Did you think I'd let him near me after that?"
"What's VD? Victory day medal in the Army?"
"Got it from some whore in 1934 during the world-wide depression, I betcha. That's the year he moved us to a new apartment back in Sicily. He told me he had the laughing sickness from eating fava beans, and it came back from his World War One days. Came back? Who are you kidding? World War One finished in 1918, and your brother's birthday is the summer of 1929. Your old man and your brother think I've got my mamma's head because I have no tested education."
"Why is it important for me to know this now? See this scar on my face?" I grimaced.
"That's because you cursed me last year. Did you think your curse would give me eight stitches?"
"You disobeyed me. Where the hell is your old man? He's never home."
"I told you that stuff you steal brings me bad luck. I always end up falling over fences at school and getting stitches. I don't want to touch it."
"Shut up! The subway's crowded."
"Everybody in school calls me crazy. When I grow up nobody nice will marry me."
I sighed and pulled out a drawing pad and crayons from my shoulder bag. I drew a grotesque face with pointy fingers on my small art pad. The reptilian face contorted with gaping mouths.
"What kind of face is that?"
"A guardian angel that’s always over my shoulder. My protector.”
“What do you need a protector for? Can’t you take responsibility for your own future?"
She sneered disdainfully. “Why do you draw those ugly, screaming witch faces?”
“It makes me happy to do it. They’re not ugly. My art teacher says they’re asymmetrical."
“Equal proportions are symmetrical,” Mrs. Sivet says. “That’s why we like what’s beautiful. Asymmetrical faces don’t have equal distances or lengths, and we say they’re ugly because the proportions aren’t equally balanced.”
“Who tells a nine-year old such scary things?” Mama gasped. From time to time, she appeared as mama rather than Candela, the boundary from which I couldn’t detach. Must we become our genes? Can we override them by new nourishment from within and without? And if so, what nourishment is for our own good?
“Mrs. Sivet says so. I like her art class best, but I don’t know what to say in class. They’re talking about figuring the answers to baseball scores in our math book, and I’m reading about how people put clay on fossils to see what they looked like a million years ago. Wouldn’t it be great to travel and make films of everything you see around the world? When I grow up and get a job, would you travel with me, mama?”
“I can’t travel any more. It’s so hard for me to leave the house, what with my body breaking down when I try to walk too much. You know, the pain and the flutters.”
“You’re always complaining about your pain just when I’m trying to laugh.”
"Say, you're brother's taking you on a trip across the George Washington Bridge on Sunday."
That weekend Clodio strolled with me along the pedestrian path. He stopped at the highest point on the bridge to gaze at the view. Suddenly Clodio gave me a shove against the railing and then pulled me back to safety before I could let out a wail.
"Stop fooling around. You've no right to scare me like that."
As always, Clodio denied what he'd done and began to sing. "Come, come my child, to the devil we must go. So mama's sending you to charm school for ballet and piano lessons?"
He lifted me up to the railing and laughed. I lashed out, flailing, screaming in terror. Clodio put me down harshly. "Oh, stop being a baby."
"Why do you always do that to me and yet charm the people where you work when you show me off there?" I kicked the railing. "You parade me as your kid sister in front of all those lawyers."
"Why do you invade my private and holy spaces? Can you see where you leave off and I begin?" Even at nine, I tried to find out why he didn't listen to me.
"'Cause you're my baby sister. And you get it all, don't you?"
Then Clodio whipped out a wet towel from his picnic box and snapped it in my face.
"Be prepared," he hissed. "That's what I want to teach you, kid. Always be prepared."