Sunday, May 27, 2007

Re-Collecting Our Tribe

Palermo's DNA Dungeon

The 1960’s had ended. The economy was going into a tailspin, the sexual revolution was shifting into second gear, a war was killing too many young people halfway across the world, and I landed in Sicily, looking for my roots.

My Aunt Vittina and Uncle Peppino thought it would be good to take me around and visit the relatives. They started with the dead ones. Under the busy streets of Palermo another world could be found, layered, like a Sicilian Cassata. The catacomb was a cool, dark place. It was more a descent into a forgotten family museum than a neglected morgue.

Down in the cellars, families would bring their picnic baskets and have a little lunch with their departed families, an escape from the blistering heat and humidity of July in urban Sicily. One family I know kept their wine there, for it remained cool and, by custom, untouched by strangers.

Here was an Andrea, there was a Concetta, he was a priest, she was a baroness. They all rested quietly now. I asked my aunt, “Why did you bring me here first?” and she replied, “Because if we are going back, this is where we start.”

We made the procession, up onto the street and past the storefront that had once been my great-grandfather's wholesale leather business. It was from here that he sent a 15-year-old, my grandfather, to Fort Worth, Texas, in search of new sources of leather, expanding his empire to the New World. What a place Fort Worth must have been 100 years ago, with the stockyards full of cattle, sheep and pigs. How it must have seemed a world away from the busy streets of Sicily.

We went past the store to the market place, La Vucciria, for a sip of Marsala in the wine bar, casks of different types: dry, old, new, virgine, vecchio, tan, tawny and fine. My uncle handed me a cup of Fine Secco. It had a light amber taste that was sharp and refreshing. Aunt Vittina was picking up some swordfish and tomatoes for supper.

Over the meal, a few more relatives poured into the house, a two-level affair in a building off the Via Roma, in old Palermo. They were curious about the young “Americano” relative with shaggy hair and blue jeans, a rare sight in those days. Friendly and curious, they talked about my grandfather and grandmother, my father and Aunt Mary. “You should meet old Guzzetta. He has been around the world. He knows many of our relatives.” A card was handed to me by a cousin; Jorge Zito C. was printed on it. He lived in Venezuela and was visiting Palermo while I was there. There were reports of relatives in China, South America, Australia, Torino - more stories came about the tribe I was part of. “What about the Scaloras who moved to Texas?” someone asked. “Michelangelo moved somewhere between Dallas and Houston, with his family.” I wasn’t to learn about them until decades later.

Sometime after the Averna, around midnight, kinfolk started heading to bed.


The next week or so we carouseled around Sicily, visiting and photographing family and ruins. Temples and cities now lying in piles waiting for the archaeologists (and tourists) to eventually give meaning to the scattered remains of history. It wasn’t dead to me, for my uncle and aunt made it seem like part of my history. Though the family was spread across earth, understanding them seemed within my grasp. But it would become more of a mystery as I headed down into that dark labyrinth of the family over the next 40 years.

Meanwhile, the new seed had sprouted and a young lion appeared, clutching his grapes and heading out into the world. Once the cord was cut, the next generation was in play.
Wine and humanity travel upon parallel paths. We need similar conditions; we depend upon each other in a strange, exotic way. We improve one another but we don’t really need each other. Like the winemakers from southern Italy discovered (about the same time I found my family), there are strains of grapes (and families) that have been lost among the weeds and brush of history. But once uncovered, if given a little care, they can be resuscitated and brought back to a place of beauty and health. This is the story of grapes like Minedda janca and Grecanico, and families like Scalora and Plescia.

Just as each new generation embarks upon its path, a once-young boy also calls, from the past and the ruins, that our tribe, though scattered, isn’t hidden. And while, in the future, we may be able to go back farther than that day my aunt took me into catacombs, I am getting restless. I’m running out of time.

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