Her Father's House and
Other Stories of Sicily
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)Remember reading of some grotesque events out of history, thinking, "Thank god I didn't live there, then." The Middle East during the Mongolian Conquests (60,000,000 dead). China during the Ming Dynasty Conquests (25,000,000 dead). Germany during the Thirty Years War (11,5000,000 dead).
Now we have another time and venue in which to be glad we were absent. Sicily 1880 - 1920: more than half the men gone. If you were a girl there, your life would be especially brutal. They (father, brothers, in-laws) chose your husband for you. If they wanted, they could make you a house-slave. If someone in the family died, they nailed the windows shut, wouldn't let you out (except to go to the 5 a.m. mass).
Consòlo --- the period of mourning --- could last up to two years. If your husband beat you, and if you ran away, your family would turn you away at the door. They didn't want a scandal. And if you came back pregnant...
You never broke the rigid, silent rules of family, courtship, country and womanhood.
God, it seemed, wanted to test Grandmother Lidda with all the misfortunes he had sent her. She was a widow and poor; her daughter-in-law had died, and her son had nothing but America in his head. Her daughter-in-law, God rest her soul, was barely able to nurse [the baby], so that the evening Grandmother Lidda had to take him home with her was truly frightening. No one had thought about milk in all the sad confusion, and she got him through the night with a nipple soaked in water, her heart breaking the whole time at the sound of that little creature crying from hunger.
Then her son decides he's going to go off to La Mèrica.America is one of the main characters in Behind Closed Doors. It's that beast across the ocean that steals husbands from their wives, boys from their mothers, fathers from their children. La Mèrica whispers stories of work and riches, so a man goes eagerly. If he comes back, he's aged and drawn, sickened by working in a place that could break any man. If he stays, he finds another woman, leaves wife and child to fend for themselves.
In Grandmother Lidda's case, after a few years, a thick letter arrives. Since she cannot read, she takes it, as usual, to the cook Nitto to read. "Suddenly, she leaned against the wall, because it seemed the house was spinning around her. And since the cook had finished, she begged him again with a weak voice: 'Read it again, mastro Nitto, there must be a mistake ... Nitto slowly shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and said, "He's his son. There's nothing you can do.'"
In the package she made up to go with the child, she placed the dress of Our Lady of Grace, "for they said that over there people were without religion." Last of all
she added a Christmas whistle so that the child would remember his grandmother so far away. Poor child, who could tell if they would take care of him the way she had.
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It's been a long time since we've come across such ceaselessly disheartening stories. It's not just the poverty. The whole system of work, religion, rules of life seems bent on twisting the soul. For us, the closest writing in style, message, and form is Sherwood Anderson's spellbinding (and almost forgotten) collection, Winesburg, Ohio. With Anderson and Messina both, it's the unspoken that gets you. The code is to keep you in line, using shame and whispers and mute gestures to keep you in line.
Maria Messina was born in Sicily in 1887, wrote many of her tales --- including the ten here --- by the time she was twenty-five years. She was completely self-taught, learning only from what she read. She wrote unerringly of what she knew, shaping the words with a grand inner wisdom. These tales are spare and rich, words blooming with the tears of the poor of Mistretta, those who lived and wasted away in such a dark, bleak society.
Sherwood Anderson once said that the writing of his stories was not unlike "giving birth to a litter of pigs." It must have been much the same raw effort for Messina.--- Lolita Lark