Chapter I / A Hot Pink Hell—1969
When we vaulted the purple-blue Strait of Messina by ferry toward the island of Sicily, home of our southernmost ancestors, and stood on the bright deck in our lightweight American summer clothes that August, the crew surrounded us, curious, chattering, full of questions.
“My parents came from Contessa Entellina on the Greek-Albanian Plain and from Palermo,” my mother answered in Sicilian dialect, emotion brimming in her eyes, “and we are returning for the first time.”
“Welcome home, signora! Welcome back.” The captain himself came down from the bridge and extended his hand to my father. “Congratulations, my American friend.”
“For what?” asked my dad.
“For landing on the moon last month.”
“I can’t take credit,” he laughed, “but thank you.”
“To walk on the moon! An achievement we all watched on the television. Sincerely, I salute your great United States. I would like to visit some day. I have cousins in Yonkers.”
The adults carried on while we three teen-aged sisters leaned on the railing, dazzled by the almost violet color of the Mediterranean, hoping for dolphins. My younger sister Tina ran ahead to the prow to look for them.
“Hey, Louise,” my father called out, “just double-checking that you’ve got the satchel with the passports, right?” My older sister held it up for him. “And gals, first order of business: acquaint yourselves with where the lifejackets are located. Make sure to tell Tina.” He turned back to the Captain.
The grown-ups could concern themselves with travel details and safety. I was still young enough on that crossing not to have some of life’s worries. I might not ever experience this newness again, not quite like this, and as we skimmed the sparkling, bouncing sea of unimaginable hue, I reveled in it. Strolling the deck during that passage, I saw her for the first time—the island flag of the Trinacria—snapping in the wind. She nabbed me with a look. Medusa’s half-smile was hard to interpret: encircled by her three running legs, her wings, her serpents, her sheaves of wheat, the face teased and dared. Are you ready? she seemed to ask, scrutinizing me. We were about to set foot on an ancient, magical island, with an ancient woman at the center.
Captain and crew cheered as our rented Fiat was hoisted off the boat by a creaking rope contraption. The car swung out over our heads. When it bump-landed on the pier and the ropes were pulled away, they all waved and called out safe journey. We headed west into the interior hills, where the twentieth century fell away. Every aged stone village dotting the road or extruding upward from rock outcroppings was shuttered against the blanching late summer light. The sun had long since faded them—centuries ago. Surprised by a Fiat with a northern license plate driving through, contadini stopped to tip their caps. Donkeys carried loads bulging out much wider than themselves along the coarse road, their tasseled heads down in the heat. The lulling thump of the tires had us hardly speaking while a remote and rugged landscape revealed itself.
From the car we watched old women balanced on their terra-cotta roofs, crushing and spreading bursting ripe tomatoes across broad pallets to dry in the sun. They used wooden paddles as big as oars to tame and smooth flat the fruit of the land into what would become red paste. Up high, with their feet fixed on the roof tiles, they gave an appearance of slowly rowing through red pools of Sicily’s agricultural lifeblood. The toil of these women, in black headscarves, dresses and stockings covering everything but their faces and hands, was hard and long under the seared blue sky.
Below them, we saw teenaged girls seated just outside their front doors. Facing in, hands folded in their laps, heads bowed and hair banished behind modest pastel scarves, they were forbidden to look at anything but the walls. Encircling female relatives made certain they stayed contained. In village after village we saw this stark sight of the elder black silhouettes perched one story above and the fixed virginal presence at road level. These girls were our ages. While we goofed off in the back seat with the windows down, dousing ourselves from glass water bottles to cool off, barely tolerating the weight of sleeveless cotton shifts on our skin—well, that morning Tina had put on a hot-pink sundress, with the vee-front and the scooped back—they were covered up to their throats, down to their wrists and over their knees. Not one turned to watch our lone car go by. They were trained against it.
We entered the city of Agrigento. My father wanted to get a feel for the centro città before we visited the famous Valley of the Temples that afternoon, so we parked and wandered into a large piazza. Banks of old men sat fused to metal chairs outside their bar, staring at us. A soft sound like a breeze through dried grass sailed across the square, ssss. It seemed like a tone of nature, maybe a light wind picking up, though the air stayed still. The odd noise grew. Ssssssss. A release of steam somewhere? We kept strolling the grand piazza. It sloped a little.
Suddenly, I saw women in black running toward us from every direction. Some carried brooms. “Sssssssssss,” they hissed, and were upon us. The crowd tugged at my fifteen-year-old sister Tina’s long dark hair, swatted at her bare arms and hot pink sundress. Then they swallowed her up.
“What the”—my dad yelled—“hey wait a minute!”
“It’s the dress!” Louise quickly figured. Our paler-colored shifts spared her and me the direct assault, but the widows spat at our sandals, and tried to sweep all of us out of their piazza with the brooms. Tina pushed through them and grabbed for my father’s arm, but the swarm closed in again, and she vanished. “Let my daughter be,” my mother pleaded.
The women ignored her, and the noise in their throats deepened—a communal, low wail. For an instant, we glimpsed hot pink flashing through the swirl of black fabric.
“Tina,” I yelled. “Over here!” If we could extract her, we would then face an outer ring of waiting men. We had to get her back to the car. “Tina! Where are you?”
Time limped to a stop when she didn’t answer. The women were squeezing in on her in some sort of ritual frenzy when, at once, they broke apart. A tall man in an elegant silk suit and tie had appeared. He held his black-gloved hand up to the mob, which silenced itself and fell away. Salvation: women quickly retreated into their homes and men went back to their caffè seats.
My sister teetered, still on her feet, part of her hem torn down. Her hot-pink plastic headband lay on the paving stones. Louise scooped it up.
“Come with me,” he said. Tina was immediately under his protection. He escorted her by the elbow to the door of an establishment and we stumbled along after them. We found ourselves in the dining room of a darkened restaurant. She shivered, her teeth chattering, her recent tan gone pale.
“Sit, signorina, please,” he pulled out a chair for her.
A waiter jumped up from the table where he was eating lunch with the cooks and dashed over, chewing and swallowing.
“Prego, Doctor,” he bowed, “how may I assist?”
The man with the glove ordered ice cream for us girls and coffee for my parents.
“Subito, Dottore,” promised the young man, scurrying towards the bar.
He addressed my father and mother, apology edging his voice: “Your daughter’s bright dress they do not accept. Nor do they understand. They do not tolerate bared female skin.”
“If we had only known!” my mother answered, fanning herself with her fold-up travel hat to calm down. “We do not mean to offend. We will have to be more respectful and careful from now on.”
My dad pulled out a handkerchief to clean his eyeglasses.
The barman popped open a bottle of water and pressed it into my sister’s hands.
“Where do you come from?” our rescuer inquired. My father told him. “Ahhh, San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world!”
“Have you visited there?” My mother, still fanning herself, strained to keep up her part of the conversation.
“No, but I have heard,” he pinched his fingers together, rotating his wrist in the gesture of appreciation. The glove was gone.
“So sir, you are a doctor?” my father asked.
“Yes. I travel all over Italy for my work.”
“What sort of medicine do you practice?”
“I am a doctor of soap.”
“Oh,” my parents nodded, and earnestly launched into full conversation with him in Italian. We daughters couldn’t follow it, being second-generation. Really, we knew so little back then.
“What does he mean doctor of soap?” I whispered to Louise.
“A hygienist, maybe?” she whispered back, “or a chemist who creates new formulas for detergent?”
I glanced at the man who had just saved my sister Tina from a mob. He seemed courtly; my parents appeared engaged,
though my Mom kept bringing the demitasse to her lips, hesitating, then setting it back in the saucer. I pulled at my father’s sleeve. “What’s he saying, Dad?”
He waved his hand under the table. “That he’s a merchant, a traveling salesman of sorts.”
Tina was fiddling with the slender spoon, pushing the melted pistachio around, making a green pool.
“Why don’t you eat it?” Louise prodded her. “To be polite.”
She still shook. “Too cold.”
Intent on distracting us, the gentleman made sure that we girls were enjoying our gelati.
“Delizioso!” we answered. “Thank you kindly, Dottore.”
Louise pulled Tina’s dish towards her and started to spoon it up. My younger sister, normally an ice cream fanatic, kept her head bowed and her hands in her lap. I extended my long spoon over to taste the pistachio. Thoughtfully, he had ordered each of us a different flavor. Hazelnut, Lemon.
He finally had us all laughing, nervously, before he paid the bill, bowed, kissed my mother’s hand and disappeared.
“La Mano Nivora,” she murmured, letting out a breath.
“Meaning what, Mom?”
“Shhh, gals,” cautioned my father, “not here. We’ll tell you kids later.”
Through the windows we could see that the piazza had emptied completely. Covered with all four white lace scarves we’d been carrying around to hide our hair and shoulders in churches, the singled-out sister, surrounded by all of us, was rushed back to our car. At the pensione, reserved months before, my mother requested an early check-in. We would get ourselves situated before going out to see the Great Temples of Agrigento. We would rest a little bit in the worst of the heat. Louise double-locked our door and closed the green shutters of the stifling room.
I mouthed the letters, “m-a-f-i-a.”
“I know how to spell it!” muttered the torn daisy in a low, emptied-out voice.
“He actually wore a black glove,” Louise whispered. “The Black Hand.”
“He made them go away,” Tina said.
“Well of course, he runs the place.” For some reason I wanted to sound like I knew how the Mafia worked.
Tina took off the condemning sundress and put on a slip, a white shift with cap sleeves, and a sweater. She filled the sink and plunged the garment in. The shocking pink fabric darkened in the water, the turquoise dot at the center of each Carnaby Street daisy turned purple.
“Doctor of soap—he launders money, get it?” Louise said.
“Whatever he does, I don’t care,” I answered. “He could be the soap pope or soap emperor if he wanted. He stopped them.”
Louise tiptoed over to the window, opened the shutters and leaned out. Only scarlet geraniums and loud, slow Sicilian bumblebees in the swelter. She unlocked the door and checked the hallway. No one and nothing, except a pair of men’s loafers on the marble floor across the hall, waiting to be polished. My parents had been assigned a room down at the other end of the corridor. We all lay out flattened on our beds.
“He was nice. He helped me. What if he hadn’t been there?”
“Can you believe that a mafioso would do that? What are we in for on this island?”
“Not just any old mafioso,” I asserted with fake authority. “A major Don.”
“How do you know that?” Louise shot back. “You don’t know that.”
“He saved me.” Tina squeezed out the water and hung the dress on our nifty travel clothesline, stretched between one of the armoire knobs and a bedpost.
“Oooh, it’s dripping on me!” Louise whined.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t move anything. It feels fantastic. This damn heat!”
The drying pink dress, daisy-strewn, hung suspended in the room like a penance.
~ ~ ~
The wonder of the Greek temples that late afternoon, considered as well-preserved as any to be found in Greece, helped to melt away some of the sting of the incident. But I believe we carried it around like a concealed bruise of shame. We belonged here in the land of our ancestors, didn’t we? Yet our foreignness had already caused a ruckus. None of us dared to overstep again. The next morning Tina neatly folded the hot pink dress, placed it flat in the bottom of her suitcase and never wore it again.
In cosmopolitan Palermo, my mother’s first cousin Maia welcomed us joyously, with tears and kisses on the right cheek, the left cheek, the right cheek. She ushered us into her elegant living room. We stopped to admire antiquities that she and her late husband had dug up in the Madonie mountains. Small ceramic handheld lamps once filled with olive oil to light, and iridescent glass vials from Roman times.
She urged us to put our feet up on the lounge chairs of her patio while she served Amarena, a cool refreshment of mountain cherry juice and mint in bubbly water. We were floating high above most of the city on her modern penthouse terrace, gazing out at the monumental mass of Monte Pellegrino and over the ancient, busy harbor. Even having just arrived, the feel of Palermo’s lush, endless history made my hometown, San Francisco, look like a newborn. Maia’s world-wise city pulsed from centuries of ripeness and decline, endurance and rebirth. Our California metropolis by the bay suddenly struck me as the western outpost of a very adolescent country. Yes, the cries of gold and silver in the mid eighteen-hundreds turned her quickly international, but nothing like this place.
What did I know at seventeen, anyway? Certainly not enough Italian to ask Maia directly about the girl who said no three years before. To risk suggesting that Sicily was somehow backward would be the worst breach of manners. I could not offend this very generous woman. Nope. We had already taken one cultural misstep.
When Maia made sure we had been revived with refills of Amarena, we followed her Fiat for the crazy ride up to the great Norman cathedral at Monreale. Her sons, our cute older boy cousins wearing their dark glasses and their pressed white shirts, tailed us all the way into the hills on a Vespa, then zipped off, waving, while we peeled out of the cars to enter the eleventh-century mosaic wonder. Later that evening they rejoined us for dinner at an outdoor trattoria near the Giardino Inglese, filled our glasses with white wine as if that were normal. The first time I had more than a watered-down sip of vino happened that balmy night in a piazza strung with lights. Intoxicating. These cousins knew very little English, yet we laughed and mimed our way through the meal, united by our shared badge of youth, while the grown-ups caught up on half a century of family history at the other end of the table. A beautiful night—the fronds of the palm trees catching a breeze we couldn’t, a jasmine scent hanging in the air.