10 November 2009

A Day of Remembrance

Today was definitely a new experience for me. We all went to mass at the church in Petrosino for a service for Leo’s uncle that passed away a year ago tomorrow. We (Leo, myself, his parents, one of his aunts, cousin, cousin’s wife and their 2 kids) all got to the church at the same time and missed out on all the seats. Leo’s parents went to squeeze in next to his aunt Maria (the widow) and the rest of us stood in the alcove behind the pews.

The church was ornate with several chandeliers made for candles, but modernized to use bulbs. This church wasn’t as ornately decorated as I’m used to seeing, but it was lovely inside. The priest’s voice boomed through the expansive interior, aided by several speakers along the ceiling. I couldn’t understand the service, but I never can when there is an echo. So I decided to people watch.

There was a couple sitting right in front of us and the wife was holding an adorable little baby girl. After a while, as the husband took the baby, I observed their interactions with each other and found them to be very sweet. He was also sitting next to his mom, who was the next in line to hold the baby. It was interesting to watch their dynamic--he was loving and playful with his wife, devoted and attentive to his daughter...but totally attached to his mother. It was funny to watch their body language; he sat closer to his mom, nearly arm in arm in her, yet there was a good amount of space between he and his wife. So typical, it is one of those cultural things. I see it in nearly every couple here. The bond is between the mother and the son, and the wife seems secondary. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this (like mine, thankfully), but from what I have seen in this town, it is more often than not. And who spends more time raising the kids? La Nonna (grandma)!

Later on in the service, a young woman made her way to the couple from the front of the church. She must have been the wife’s sister, also with a baby girl in her arms--only this baby was a newborn. She walked right up, without a word and handed the wife the newborn and took the other baby from the mother. For the next half hour, these women took care of each other’s baby. Interesting.

After the service, we all went outside in front of the church to greet everyone. In Italy, it is very important to salutare which is saying hello and giving the kiss on each cheek. In Sicily, it is even more major, and if, god forbid, you don’t do it, that person will feel offesa (really insulted). As I stood amongst the massive crowd flowing out of the church, working my way from face to face, I was so disappointed that there wasn’t a photographer across the street snapping shots for a magazine cover. I was lost in a sea of leather jackets, Ray Ban aviator glasses, olive skin and dark side burns. "Ciao's" were rolling of the tongue, left and right and I felt like we should be in a movie or a photo shoot. I thought, can this please be documented? But no, not today. Today is a sad day--a day of remembrance. I couldn’t have gathered everyone together for a picture without causing an international incident. Mourning is a very serious thing here, and there is no making light or celebrating or doing anything fun if a loved one has passed within a year or two. Not even for a kid’s birthday--but that’s another story.

After chatting a while and “saluting” everyone, we all got in our cars and headed to the cemetery. That, in itself, was quite an experience. Here, people are interred in tall walls, 5 plots high, each with a small picture of the deceased on a plaque. And there are rows and rows and rows. The week before was the day of the dead, so there were more flowers than normal--it was so beautiful to see the entire cemetery filled with bright flowers. Every single plot had two vases and they were ALL filled with yellow, white and red flowers. We passed all of the ancestors of Leo’s uncle on the way to his plot, joined up with his aunt Maria and stood for a while below his Uncle's grave. Many others were there that I didn’t know, but they still came around to each of us to salutare--say hello and shake our hands. And again before they left. It was a very different experience for me--but touching.

 As an American, the mourning period they have here, to me, seems exaggerated. Yes, there is pain and sorrow when you lose a loved one, but in the US, you try to remember the good times, find the joy in everyday things and everyone makes sure you move on with your life. Friends and family worry if you start wallowing. But in Sicily, it is the opposite. Here, happiness is against the rules, no one in the immediate family can celebrate anything for a long period of time and the wives still wear black everyday and go around with a slumped, frowning face. Even the birth of Maria’s grandson was a somber event. But the overall effect is that the human bond reigns supreme here, taking center stage over anything else like career or ambition. No one is forgotten, people aren’t out with old and in with the new, they are remembered and respected. So take that, and douse it with the Sicilian penchant for drama, and there you have it.


  1. Wow. Morning is very different there. I could relate to the story about the couple. Z is very close to his mother (and father) and we also call his mom Nonna since his mom is half italian and Chilean. His dad is half italian as well with the other part being Croatian. Both of their Italian families are from Sicily. And yes they both were born and raised in Chile - confusing I know.

    My sister and I would trade off kids at an event like that too because sometimes your kid behaves better with someone else. Keep up the interesting posts!

  2. Nicole, it is so wonderful to hear your stories!! I love that you are an outsider looking in but now you are becoming an insider.
    Keep up the writing!!

  3. Nicole this is a touching story - your words transport me to Italy (like a mini vacation for me!).
    It's very interesting to note the differences in cultures and how they respond to death. A friend of mine was traveling in Bali several years ago (or was it Thailand? somewhere in the south pacific..) and randomly on the street she was invited to a "funeral". they didn't call it that of course, because it was a celebration! everyone wore white, and they had a massive feast and bonfire. there were flowers everywhere and it was a time of celebration because the person's soul was now free. what a change from what we're used to here.
    keep the stories coming!

  4. Remembrance and Respect for loved ones who have passed from the physical may be old-fashioned here in the States.... but its a wonderful thing. I'm the one that tends to all my grandparents graves. Its a very soothing ritual. And speaking the names of the dead in greeting as you pass by each grave seems to generate a very beneficial energy. Hey, everyone loves to be shown a little recognition!


I really appreciate your comments.

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