Twenty-four hours from now as I write this, I and 14 members of my extended family will be on a plane to Rome and then another plane to Catania, Sicily. From there we drive to Taormina, where we have rented a villa. Taormina is arguably the most beautiful place on an island with beauty everywhere. But that is not why Taormina was chosen as the destination. And it is a very personal journey, despite the fact that 14 members of my extended family will be on the voyage with me. I will explain.
My sister and I are the only living members of our immediate family. We lost a brother in infancy and another sister in middle age. Our father died 40 years ago and our mother died in 2006. As we have gotten older and, I believe, partly because of the premature deaths of our siblings, we have become even closer. After our mother died, my sister expressed an interest in seeing my mother's home town. My wife and I had been there several years ago and brought back pictures for her and my mother to see.
A year ago, my sister decided she would retire in the summer of 2008. So I said something like, “You and Ed (her husband) have never been to Europe, so why don't the four of us go to Sicily?” She agreed enthusiastically. And then the fun began. My oldest daughter said she had always wanted to visit Sicily and asked if she and her family could go, too. We agreed. Then my sister's daughter asked if she and her family could go, as well. You get the picture.
We ended up with a total of 15 people. So the scramble was on to find a place where we could all stay together and cook for ourselves; that is the customary model for our family vacations. We did find a villa in Taormina, Villa Due Angeli (Villa of Two Angels). Also, we faced a huge bill for airline tickets, so I used over 1 million miles I had accumulated (they do sometimes pay off) and got everyone a seat.
That is the background, but why Taormina and why is the trip so “personal?”
It is because Taormina is very near our mother's birthplace. This will be the first visit to Sicily and that little town for 13 of us and the first visit since my mother's death for me and my wife, Pat. It is the first visit since the death of my young cousin who lived in the town, a girl of 20 who died of acute leukemia. I had spoken to her father, the town baker, and her uncle, a surgeon, about her situation when I last visited and stayed in touch with her doctors by email afterward.
The façade of the house of my mother's birth (1913) still stands, but the town applied for and received state support to gut and modernize the row of old houses, provided the façade remained intact. They were in the process of doing that when we last visited in 2003.
But it was a very hard life for my mother and her family when they lived there in the early part of the 20th century. They had no running water and no indoor toilet facilities. They baked bread in a free-standing communal oven in the town. Farming was hard work, made even more difficult by the town's location high on the side of Mount Etna, with rocky soil and a hillside landscape. Typhus and other serious contagious diseases were common. My mother had mostly unpleasant memories of her childhood.
Her father, my grandfather, was a barber who followed his own brother to the United States to make money so he could send for his wife and two children.
When they finally made the journey, my mother's life was about to change in ways she could not have foreseen. A customer of my grandfather was a taxi driver who also was an immigrant from Italy. One day he asked the taxi driver if he would drive him to the train station to fetch his family, which he did. My mother, a 17-year-old beauty, was introduced to the taxi driver, who would become my father four years later.
This journey means many different things to our family. Yes, it is a vacation and a time to be together. But it is also a voyage of discovery for all those in our family who have never been to Sicily, the history, food, monuments, and the people—most of all, the people, who we are a part of.
For my six-year-old grandson, he is going to the country of the gladiators (he has an official costume and he has learned the Italian word for sword—spada). For my son-in-law, sister, and one daughter, it is a chance to learn to cook authentic Sicilian food, which is quite different in its emphasis from other parts of Italy. For my other grandchildren, it is a chance to play. It is a chance for me to visit with a former fellow who trained with me 35 years ago.
But for me and my sister, most of all this is a very personal pilgrimage to our roots. It is a chance to pay our respects to our mother who worked so hard to raise us. One can never repay one's mother, but my sister and I will go to her birthplace to acknowledge that debt and to connect with our extended family there.
There is a scene in the movie Moonstruck, probably my favorite movie of all time, that says it all. After a complex series of interpersonal stresses and shifts in the family dynamic causing hurt feelings and some anger, at the climactic moment at the end of the movie, with the family gathered around the kitchen table (this is so Italian), the father stands up and raises his glass of wine and says a toast, “a la famiglia,” (to the family), and all raise their glasses to the bedrock of happiness, theirs and mine.