Mourning in Sicily
This is a difficult post to write, but an important one. On January 23, 2023, at age 86, Marco's father, Sebastiano Rafalà, passed away. We were in Sicily at the time and, with Marco's ziu Angelo, we were able to mourn as they do in Melilli.
For anyone who's read this blog, Marco's father is one of the main reasons we bought a house in Sicily. Sebastiano was born and raised in Melilli. As a boy during the Second World War, he survived invasion and occupation, even as members of his extended family did not. That experience haunted him. When he immigrated to the U.S. at age 29, he carried Sicily in his bones.
Sebastiano was a gardener and storyteller. He regaled Marco with stories of the war, of life in Melilli, and of the legends and myths that Sicily inspired. Gods and monsters. Typhon buried beneath Mount Etna, which is always smoking in the distance. Marco's first novel, How Fires End, was inspired by his father's stories. He started writing the novel after visiting Melilli with his father in 2001. When Marco and I started talking about spending time in Sicily, we knew from the start that Melilli was where we needed to be.
Every day we've spent in Sicily over the past year, we were always thinking of Sebastiano. We imagined him here as a boy and as a young man. We pictured what his life may have been like. We visited the lands above and below the village that he tended with his father.
In recent years, Sebastiano often spoke of returning to Melilli. He longed to visit his homeland one last time. He asked us to take him to Sicily and we dreamed that maybe one day we could bring him to stay in our house for a time. But the pandemic had other plans for us all.
To Stay or To Go
A couple of days before we flew to Italy in November for our first Sicilian winter, Marco and I learned that his father had fallen and was hospitalized in New Haven, Connecticut.
It was a Saturday, and we'd just arrived in NYC after spending a month in Colorado, helping my dad recover from a knee replacement. Our flight was scheduled to depart that Tuesday. Immediately we wondered if we should delay our trip. We wouldn't know until we visited Sebastiano. So Monday morning we headed to Connecticut.
This was our third visit to Marco's father in as many months and Sebastiano was not well. He hadn’t been for some time. In the small and noisy hospital room, we sat beside Marco's father's bed. I would speak to him in Italian, he would answer in Sicilian, which Marco would translate.
We wondered, do we stay in the U.S. or do we go to Sicily? We would do either. We spoke to the parade of doctors and nurses that came through. They suggested Sebastiano would recover from his fall. It wasn't "that time" yet. Meaning the time when you call family back from around the country and the world to be at a loved one's deathbed.
We were scheduled to fly across an ocean in 24 hours. Where was the right place for us to be?
At one point, I stepped out to use the restroom. Marco spoke to his father alone.
“Dad, we leave for Melilli tomorrow. I need to be there to finish my new book but we'll change our plans. We'll stay here with you instead.”
“No,” Sebastiano said. “Go to Melilli, be with my brother. He's alone over there.” Sebastiano couldn't return to Melilli, not anymore. But we could. And so, even though it was incredibly hard to leave, we did.
When we first arrived in Melilli last year, one of the things we noticed were what we called "death posters" around the village. In several designated spots throughout the village—near the churches, along the road, anywhere people might pass—were large boards designated Avvisi Funebri. Funeral Notices.
The Avissi Funebri boards were filled with a grid of small posters. One for each person recently lost.
Like an abbreviated obituary, the funeral notices captured each person's life in a few words and images. A photo along with their age, date of death, scheduled memorial services, and any personal details the family chose to include. Some of the losses were fresh, a loved one just deceased. Other posters commemorated the anniversary of a person's passing. The papers layered over each other, like a quilt of collective mourning.
Often, the same poster was placed on the home where the person had lived or where the family was mourning. The posters would sometimes stay there, fading with time and weather, until the next anniversary arrived.
Walking through the village back in summer 2022, it struck us how this communal morning was so different than in the United States. Even wandering the narrow streets, loss and love and grief was visible. It was present and tactile and acknowledged as a part of life. An important part.
That first summer, Marco had lost his mother only a few months before. Grief was still fresh for us. Returning this past fall, our first winter in Melilli, grief had become a familiar companion.
As Marco's father had asked, we spent as much time as possible with his brother, Angelo. Together, we took evening walks through the village. We watched Spaghetti Westerns and sports. We ate oranges and walnuts. And when we got the news that Marco's father had died, we went to be with Ziu Angelo.
Mourning in Melilli
While there would be funeral services in Connecticut for Marco's father, with Ziu Angelo we decided to honor Sebastiano in Melilli too. This was where Sebastiano had grown up and where he'd spent his young adulthood. Melilli was the place he always told stories about. This was the land he'd wanted to return to.
It was early afternoon when Angelo called a friend to start the planning to honor Marco's father. First there was scheduling the mass. There are stunning churches throughout Melilli. Normally, we would have done the mass at the Basilica di San Sebastiano, but it was already busy as part of marking the saint's day. So we would do the mass at the Chiesa Madre that Thursday night.
As friends and neighbors stopped by, we wrote down the details that would go on Sebastiano's poster. Marco and I knew immediately which photo to use. A sepia-toned picture of Marco's father around age eighteen, looking dapper as an old film star.
Every time Marco and I visited his father, Sebastiano would go and get this photo out to show us. "Look, that's me," he would say, as if he couldn't quite believe it either. Then he'd get out the picture of him shaking the hand of an astronaut at the factory where he built parts for NASA's shuttle program.
This picture was how he saw himself. And it was how we saw him too.
That evening, in the rain, we went with Ziu Angelo to the florist shop on Viale Kennedy and ordered the posters, along with flowers for the mass. The posters would be put up around the village the next morning, as long as the rain stopped.
La Chiesa Madre
Thursday we went to Angelo's before the 6pm mass, then headed to the church together along with old friends. It wasn't a funeral mass, but instead a mass said in Sebastiano's honor.
Marco and I had peeked inside the Chiesa Madre before, but we hadn't gone in. The church took our breath away. High vaulted ceilings. Limestone columns. Marble details. Paintings that could have been in museums. Here in the village of Melilli, there are so many treasures.
We sat in the front pew for the mass, which was in Italian, of course. Throughout, I couldn't help but imagine Sebastiano here as a boy and a young man. I thought of how he left school to instead spend his days tending almond and olive trees with his father. Later, he also worked in a nearby cannery. All to help feed his siblings in the lean years after the Second World War.
After a day or a week of hard laborers' work, did Sebastiano attend mass here or at the Basilica di San Sebastiano? Did he marvel at the majesty of these churches? Did he wonder how these incredible buildings had stood through war and earthquakes, even as homes crumbled around them? The Chiesa Madre's stone floors had been polished by the footsteps of all the people of Melilli who had come before. Including Sebastiano.
It was impossible not to feel faith here.
Before and after the mass we greeted our wonderful friends, family, and neighbors who came to share their respects. I saw how it was the people, as much as the stone, that inspired faith.
Dreaming in Sicilian
Marco's father was a stubborn man. The best stories about Sebastiano are all about that stubbornness. Trying to catch a fish or get a foreman to pay construction workers. Always he did what was right. He was a hard man too. He had a hard life.
I was lucky to get to hear his stories, to listen to him sing, and to begin to understand his complicated love for his homeland.
One story we heard from family in Connecticut was how Sebastiano never intended to stay in the United States. The eldest son, always the responsible one, Sebastiano accompanied his parents and six siblings to Connecticut, in the mid 1960s. But he planned to be there only a short while and then return to Sicily.
But the red-haired American girl next door to his cousin's house caught his eye. They didn't speak each others' languages. But when it was time to think about going home, back to Melilli and finding a Sicilian wife, he said, "I like this American girl, and I think she likes me."
This past summer, we realized Marco's father might not able to travel again. He might not be able to make the last trip to his homeland that he dreamed about.
So before we left Melilli in August, we walked through the village recording everything. The narrow streets. The communal kittens. The sounds of birds chirping and chickens clucking in the distance. The view of Mount Etna and the sea. The rocky landscapes and old family orchards, now untended. Marco and Ziu Angelo, sitting at Bar Campagna saying, “Ciao, Sebastiano.”
If we couldn't take Sebastiano to Melilli, we could take a part of the village to him.
Sitting in the assisted living facility in Connecticut where he was staying through summer and fall, we scrolled through the slideshow of Melilli on my computer over and over again. He knew every spot. It was home.