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  • Writer's pictureCamellia Phillips

Where the Streets Are Filled with Family

This week, Marco and I hosted our very first out-of-town houseguests here in Melilli. Marco's brother, sister-in-law, and niece, who all live in the UK, flew down for the weekend.

After spending 20 years in small Brooklyn apartments, the experience of having houseguests stay in an actual guest room is exciting. What a luxury! But our guests also have me thinking a lot about family.

"It Feels Like Family"

When we first arrived, one of the many people to welcome us with open arms was Marco's cousin Bianca Aresco, who lives a few doors down from our house. One day we were walking down the street and she stepped onto her balcony and invited us inside. We spent a wonderful evening chatting with her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons.

As Bianca gave us a tour of her beautiful home, she asked Marco why he liked Melilli. Marco thought for a long moment, then answered, "It feels like family."

Even though my family here is by marriage, I feel the same. I love being part of a multi-generational community. I love chatting with neighbors and discovering a new distant cousin every week. I love how the family stories here go back centuries.

My Nuclear Family and Found Family

For me, I didn't grow up with this sort of community. One could say I was raised in a prototypical American nuclear family structure: two parents, two kids, a dog, a cat, and a handful of far-flung relatives. Swirl in some hippies, artists, gardeners, marine biology, fishing, and foraging, and that's us.

Like many people, when I moved to New York City, I began weaving my own found family. There was "Uncle George," aka George Trakas, a NYC-based sculptor. My mom introduced him to the family back in the 1980s when he came to Western Washington University for an outdoor sculpture commission.

Uncle George promptly became my real uncle—my grounding in the city. He loved NYC as much as I did. He hosted my family at his studio when they traveled from Washington State to visit. We met up for raw clams and oysters when I finished my weekend courses at The New School's MFA writing program. He became Uncle George to my cousin and roommate, Jason, and later to my best friend Jo and to Marco, too. When Jo had a son and daughter, Jack and Charlotte, I became Aunt Camellia.

Family sprouts up, like flowers thriving in mere cracks in the pavement.

Joining an Italian American Family

Marco, on the other hand, is from a first-generation Sicilian American immigrant family. Raised in a close-knit Sicilian American community, he has three aunts, one surviving uncle, and more cousins than he can count—literally (more on that in a second).

Growing up, Marco's father told him stories about being a boy in Sicily during and after the Second World War. Stories like how the family hid in caves as Axis and Allied forces both bombarded the village. But mixed in among those personal stories of fear and tragedy, were legends dating back centuries, even millennia. Such as the story of how the statue of Saint Sebastian washed ashore near Melilli in a shipwreck in 1414, and how only the people of Melilli could lift the saint and carry it home.

Many of the most famous Greek legends also took place here in Sicily. In an epic battle, Zeus buried the monster Typhon beneath Mount Etna , which explains why the volcano still smokes today. Odysseus traveled to Sicily, where he fought the Cyclopes who inhabited the island. Even Persephone resided here when she was abducted by Hades, creating the seasons we know today.

Yes, I grew up with family lore, but my family was never connected to broader cultural lore (besides Big Foot). Being personally tied to history and legend is new to me. As I began to hear the tales of Sicily and Sicilians from Marco and his father, I imagined that the land itself held magic. Maybe that was part of why we became so determined to buy a house here. What I didn't expect, though, was the people of Melilli who carry that same magic within them.

Families Grow in Unexpected Ways—Including Across Oceans

After the Second World War life in Sicily was not easy. The economy was in ruins. Many were mourning loved ones lost, struggling with poverty and hunger. Still, it would take a couple decades for Marco's family to join many of their neighbors in immigrating from Melilli to Middletown, Connecticut, where they'd created a "Little Melilli."

Within his extended family, Marco is the first of his generation to return to Melilli in a permanent way. We knew before coming that his ziu Angelo lived here. But since arriving we've met so many more relatives, i parenti. Lately, we seem to connect with a new cousin of Marco's every few days.

For example, this Friday, we took a tour of the Pirrera di Sant'Antonio, a centuries' old quarry below the village (more on that in a future post). When we met our English-speaking guide, we discovered he was a distant cousin.

Then, on Saturday, we took a boat tour with Papyrus Excursion in Siracusa. Leaving from Ortigia, we began chatting with our guide who it turned out had many school friends from Melilli. Marco and his brother, Carmelo, began naming families from Melilli—until they found that, of course, our guide knew many of their cousins.

My Italian tutor recently asked me why I love Melilli, and I said, "The beauty and the rich multi-generational community."

There are generations of family here, school kids and teenagers and octogenarians, all mingling in the narrow winding streets and breathtaking piazzas. And yes, it turns out that many of them are cousins.

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