Sunday, February 01, 2009
Part 1: My Father’s Country
In the airport in Rome, I fidget. I kick a plastic bottle of Pellegrino out of a vending machine. I switch seats once. Twice.
Watch an airplane long enough—even one that’s tethered to its gate, its belly opened by baggage handlers and fed by fuel tubes—and it becomes animate, picks up its head . You expect its wings to flap, its nose to bend forward, to scratch at a big-wheeled claw with its beak. I sit by the windows at the gate as the fan blades spin at their lazy, earthbound pace.
The women who congregate, their husbands in suit jackets, seem like family—dark and round around the middle, big sunglasses, tiny gold shoes, the Virgin around their necks. Everyone looks like a soccer goalie or like my uncle.
When I was a kid, I watched my Dad’s sister Anna try on tiny scraps of fabric—a pile of minidresses—in a mall fitting room. She snapped the elastic and said, “If I don’t work out, I’ll look like my mother.” When I asked her what that meant, she said, “Like a little Italian potato.”
I have no idea who will pick me up in Catania. I have seen photos—yellowed, decades-old Polaroids—but I can’t remember names. They have never seen any of me. And maybe there will be no one. Maybe I will be left to wander, to haggle taxi fare, to use whatever scraps of language I have left. Maybe it will be a long wait in the greeting area that sorts out to a few hours of embarrassment and nothing more.
On the flight, the low-altitude cascade along the boot of green-black Italy, I practice every useful-seeming Sicilian phrase I can think of, reciting them in my head.
My name is Laura. I come from New York. I’m hungry. Where’s the bathroom? Please. Thank you. I only speak a little. I don’t understand. I am the daughter of Carmelo, granddaughter of Placido and Maria, great-granddaughter of…
Sicily comes into focus all at once, a pointed little island of yellow sand and rolling hills. I trace the dirt roads with my eyes, watch them wind in through miniature villages, vineyards, olive groves. And then the volcano appears behind it all, so enormous that I mistake its hazy gray sides at first for a swath of sky. Smoke belches from the snow-capped lip in a long, tumbling cloud.
All my life, we had rocks in the house. On the mantel and on night stands, lumpy black hunks that shattered to grainy bits if you dropped them on the floor. They were paperweights or good luck charms or just decoration—pieces of the mountain, a reminder of the landscape that was. And they all told stories of the eruptions, my grandparents and my father, how you could watch the mouth glow red after sundown.
They lived in a town on the southwestern summit, far enough away from the crater to guarantee safety but close enough for spectacular views , those incredible displays of nighttime pyrotechnics.
So, I’ll see the village, then. The other part of my father’s life, a whole family I’ve never seen, the part of us that didn’t splinter apart. If anyone comes to get me.
Over the phone, my father tells me, “Laura, you should carry a sign so they can find you.”
“Papa,” I tell him, “That’s sort of dangerous. Then anyone could claim to know me and pick me up. They need to have the sign.”
“Oh,” he says, not having considered this. “Well, alright.”
I assume, knowing my family, that this message has not made it across the Atlantic in time for my arrival and that I will be searching the faces of strangers for… what? I’m not even sure.
On the ground in the chrome-and-glass terminal, I walk into the greeting area. Families wait. Children shout. I watch faces, meet eyes. They stare back, blank, a little insulted. Then I see a crop of faces, all of them huddled together in a little patch as though they are terrified to take up too much space, to risk letting go of each other’s hands and elbows. Two older men and a beaming little girl, but it is the woman who stops my roving eyes, and for an instant, my heart. Her dark suit and nylons are offset by gold earrings, a silk scarf at her neck. The line of her mouth is set in a straight line of unmistakable disapproval—a look so familiar that it takes the air out of my lungs. She looks so much like my grandfather—not at the end, but when he was well—that I blink back tears. Her eyes don’t change, but she puts a hand up, extends a single finger.
I am claimed.