(by Jo Gonsalves)
Several years after Mama had lost her battle with cancer, I was in Los Angeles visiting with her two older sisters, Virginia and Theresa. Aunt Virginia had come to live with Aunt Theresa for a few months after her husband passed, but the arrangement was destined for failure from the start. Aunt Virginia was strong-willed and opinionated, and held fast to her old country Sicilian ways, while Aunt Theresa was a fiercely independent modernist who embraced her new country and openly scoffed at tradition. My mother served as the buffer between these two, and with her gone, they were doomed to argue over everything.
Picture me, sitting between them on Aunt Theresa’s silk brocade living room couch, munching on her famous rum cake, sipping from my tiny cup of espresso, as they reminisced about their dear departed sister, Angie. We were looking through faded sepia photographs that Aunt Virginia brought out to share with me. There they were, posed against the stone walls of the family home in Valderice, Sicily, my mother and her two older sisters as young girls dressed in knee socks and drop-waist dresses.
(Angie, Theresa, and Virgina)
As the ravages of World War II subsided, Mama’s older sisters came of age, fell in love, and married local men, but Mama held on to her dream of coming to America. She eventually did get to the U.S. as an old maid of 30 years, and was introduced by mutual acquaintances to my American-born father, a handsome but heavy drinking, brooding jazz musician who spoke very little Italian. My mother spoke no English. Mama was very private and very reluctant to talk about her life in Sicily, so I really didn’t know much about it. That was all about to change, thanks to my Aunts Virginia and Theresa. On that fateful day on Aunt Theresa’s couch, I finally learned the rest of her story, the full, uncensored, and jaw-dropping rest of the story.
(Mom, the old maid, at age 30)
Aunt Virginia wiped her eyes and blew her nose loudly into her embroidered handkerchief as she looked through the faded photos that were carefully pasted into her album. “Your mother, Angie, she was an angel. She die so young.”
“So young,” chimed in Aunt Theresa, trying hard to maintain her trademark composure. “She was my best friend.”
Aunt Virginia turned to me and bobbed her head like one of those dashboard dogs as she spoke. “You know, your mother, she suffer.”
Aunt Theresa, whose head was now distractingly in sync with her sister’s, confirmed, “Oh, yes. She suffered so much.”
“So much, she suffered.”
“You father. He was a beautiful man.”
“Oh, yes, Guy was so handsome.”
“Ma. You know, you father, he drunk all the time.”
I found myself mesmerized by the head-bobbing. Their words were nothing new to me. Growing up, my dad’s drinking was something I learned to accept and chose to ignore most of the time. I felt sorry for my mother, especially when she had lovingly prepared pasta with meatballs (every Thursday) or my favorite, lemon chicken, and my dad would ignore these delicious meals in favor of his ever-present bottle of Jim Beam. My parents never went anywhere or had any friends like other people’s parents. I spent most of the time in my bedroom, on the phone with friends, doing homework, anything to stay out of sight.
“It make me feel bad, to think about how much my sister suffered.” Aunt Virginia blew her nose again, more loudly this time into her handkerchief.
“Angie was an angel. She was such a good person.” Aunt Theresa’s voice vanished into sobs. “I miss her every day.”
(Aunt Theresa and Mom, the shorter of two in both photos)
“I think maybe I make a mistake,” Aunt Virginia groaned. “Because I make her stay in America. That’s why she suffer.”
By now, both women were reduced to slobbering tears, and I was no closer to getting to the gist of the conversation. Mama had been gone for 12 years. Granted, she had died too soon, and she was an angel, but enough already. Eventually, Aunt Virginia pulled herself together enough to finish what she intended to tell me. She turned back in my direction; by now her round little face was exaggerated by puffy bags under teary, bloodshot eyes. “When you mother was in Italy, she was engaged. She was engaged for five years.”
I already knew something about this, minus the duration of the engagement, which was much longer than I thought. My mother had told me about her first love, a young police officer named Gianelli. She also told me that she had always dreamed of coming to the United States, and when the opportunity finally presented itself, she got on that boat to America and never looked back. Honestly, I felt sort of sorry for Gianelli, but then I figured it was for the best. My mom couldn’t have been that into him, if she just got on a boat and sailed away.
“Angelina was so sad. She love Gianelli so much.”
“So much. He was beautiful. Tall.” Aunt Theresa raised both hands in the air to emphasize “tall.” My dad was only five-foot-seven.
“She was so much in love. She cried the whole time on the boat. She cried and cried. It broke my heart.”
By now, I was starting to get annoyed. If this Gianelli was such a great catch, why would my mother leave him in a flash? The two old ladies started that head-bobbing thing again.
“She couldn’t tell him. It was too much. It was a great love.”
“Oh, yes, a great love. She love him so much.”
“So much. So much.”
“I don’t get it. If she loved him so much, why didn’t she just stay in Sicily and marry him?” Aunt Virginia looked at me like I had stripped off my clothes and danced on the coffee table.
“She had to go to America. She had her ticket!”
I could tell by the finality of that statement that no further argument on my part was necessary, or even possible.
Aunt Virginia continued her story. “When we come to Detroit, Angie, she would go to the mailbox every day to see if Gianelli write to her. It was so sad.” Virginia paused to look carefully at her sister. Theresa leaned in my direction. They had executed a pass.
Theresa continued the story in a barely audible whisper. “Gianelli, he did write to you mother. One day, Virginia and I came home from work, and we find a letter….”
Virginia, now emboldened, interjected. “...from Gianelli. He find out where she was and he write to her. He say he love her, and he had a heart-breaking that she leave him. He say to her that he would come to America and take her home with him.” Aunt Virginia’s eyes grew strangely dark and narrow. “And he say, he say in the letter, he say he never let her see her family again, because we take her away from him.” There was a pause, apparently for dramatic effect. “So, we keep the letter.”
The two sisters leaned back on the couch as one unit, and the mutual head-bobbing began again in earnest.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You kept the letter. You never showed my mother the letter?”
“No.” Theresa added further clarification. “No, we never show her any of the letters.”
“It was for the best,” nodded Virginia.
“Yes. It was for the best.”
I believe I was on the verge of swallowing my tongue at this point. Aunt Virginia leaned toward me and gave me a sympathetic pat on the knee. “Anyway, that’s okay. She come to California, and she meet you father. You father was so handsome. Your mother, she fall in love right away.”
(l. to r., me, daughter Mary, and Mom)
“You father look so much like Gianelli,” Theresa emphasized, “only not so tall.”
“Too bad he was a drunk,” Virginia noted.
“Too bad. He was beautiful. Ma, he drink so much. You mother, she suffered.”
Jo Gonsalves is a school principal, published writer, and budding voiceover artist who lives in Sacramento, California. She can be found at Backstage.
Angie’s Lemon Chicken
1⁄4 c. olive oil
splash of white wine
juice of 1 lemon
1 lb. chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
sea salt, to taste
lemon pepper, to taste
1 T. chopped Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine olive oil, white wine, and lemon juice in a bowl.
Place chicken in the mixture, making sure it is well saturated.
Place chicken pieces in a baking pan, skin side down, and sprinkle liberally on all sides with sea salt, lemon pepper, and parsley.
Bake uncovered for 50 minutes.
Turn chicken skin side up and set oven to broil
Broil on high to crisp skin for approximately 5 minutes.
Keep an eye on it at this stage, as you want to crisp the skin, not burn it.
Serve over cooked rice, couscous, or quinoa, and spoon the pan juices over it.