Ancient cultures know how to grieve. A community stands on thousands of years of observing, up close, rituals for death and the many faces of the grief that follows. People are not left alone. Some of what I know about how to make space for a better understanding of my own loss, I learned by journeying to Sicily.

My mother-in-law is Sicilian. Not of Sicilian descent and living in a ranch house in Reseda. But a true Sicilian woman, living in the mountains of an inland, rocky earth in the middle of the Mediterranean. She has never been to a movie theatre, she has never driven a car, she has never left her house without her stoic legs in stockings. She has worn black since the day her husband died five years ago. And she will wear it until the day she dies.

I spend a month of every summer with her. This tradition began with my husband and I more than a decade ago and now I continue it alone with our school-age daughter. In the early years, we’d all sit around the kitchen table and talk about crops, the wholesale price of garlic that season (my father-in-law farmed garlic and artichokes); we’d rail at Berlusconi on the evening news; we’d kneed the dough and peel figs to make cuccidada, a traditional Sicilian dessert. We shared the same spoon to lift sugar from the bowl into our espressos. Life happened around that table.

In the last two years, when she and I sit around her kitchen table we talk death. Not the morbid business of dying. But the lengthy unending conversation of death. It is the empty chair next to us where her husband once sat to my right and her son to my left. I wear red pants and a v-blouse, she wears a black blouse, a handmade black skirt, opaque stockings and black leather low heel sturdy pumps and we talk. At casual glance, we are opposites.

We talk of living with memory about chasing down sorrow with much sought laughter. The deliberate way you have to add sugar to tomato sauce so the acid, intensified by heat,  doesn’t ruin the whole thing. We are learning balance. She doesn’t begrudge me my red pants, capris even. I’d never suggest she try a yellow scarf. We accept each other where we are. Death and the spontaneous way it ruptures lives and demands new ones are what we see each other struggling with.

 

 

                                                            The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, From Scratch

The berries and figs can’t ripen fast enough and I can’t get to the fruit fast enough before the summer sparrows take their rightful place in the Darwinian order of things. After all, they have the benefit of flight and the light of first dawn to help them find the plumpest figs, the ripest berry. In contrast, I rise after the fishmonger has made his rounds through town, yelling his offerings on a cracked bullhorn. I rise after each loaf of  the day’s first bread has been emptied from the baker’s display case. By the time I get up, my mother-in-law has prepared lunch, washed the linens, swept for stray crumbs, turned the tomatoes twice to dry a little more in the sun and has ironed her cousin, Massina’s, nightgowns and delivered them to her bedside along with a cup of coffee. All this has happened in town before 8:30am.

Each night, my daughter, Z, and I struggle to settle down and into sleep. We sleep in a room off of Nonna’s room in a matrimonial bed with a mattress stuffed with lamb’s wool. It is the very same lamb’s wool used for Saro’s parents wedding bed. The very same. It has been reconstructed three times in fifty-five years, outfitted with a new cover and fresh seams. The last redo was seventeen years ago and included the addition of springs. Each night, I can feel where the wool has clustered into dense clumps. I push Z there to sleep, because well, she is young and I owe myself the best night’s sleep possible given her teeth grinding and Nonna’s snoring in the next room. Z laments, but mostly she cries for missing home and missing her dad. Both of which have been more acute in the last few days. So, I wake late each morning to take in the other details of our room: high ceilings, single outlet, a shuttered window, three pictures of Pope John Paul, one rosary, and a picture of my niece and Z from two Easter’s ago. All pictures are taped to the mirror that rests above the dresser.

The dresser, I have come to learn, is filled almost entirely with pressed nightgowns – five of all six drawers. This was made known one morning when I found Nonna ironing Massina’s nightgowns and she pulled me aside to show me her own. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. Why she was ironing Massina’s sleepwear and intimates. Why she wanted to show me hers. Then it became clear.

The top drawer of the dresser contains nightgowns – six sleeveless, summer shifts in floral prints, never used. They are for if or when she has to go the hospital. You see local hospitals in here in Sicily do not provide gowns. She has prepared enough for a six night’s hospital stay. In this way, she helps her daughter from having to wash and iron them each day of her stay.

The second drawer has the same contents, but for a spring hospital stay, when the nights are cooler. The third and fourth drawers are for a winter’s hospital stay. They contain fleece, wool nightshirts, even pajama bottoms, something Nonna has never worn, but they came with the fleece set and she is open to wearing them because the hospital might not have enough heat on a coastal winter night. The fifth drawer contains handmade, lace pillowcases. Pillowcases, too, are not provided in the hospital.

When we came to the final drawer, I had to bend down on the hand painted floor tiles and help her open it. It is low to the ground and strains her back to reach so low. Outside the window, I hear the fruit vendor bring his car up the narrow street, shouting for us to buy the sweetest melons, the tenderest of plums. We ignore him. Inside, I peer into the contents of this sixth drawer.

There, alone, is a single clear plastic sack. Inside it, one pressed and folded nightgown. “Take that out, I will show you,” she says. As I reach in, I focus on a detail inside the clear plastic. There is a photograph set on top of the pristinely folded clothes. It is of her and her husband taken some fifteen to twenty years ago. In the photo, she stands behind him and they are both smiling. I can see presents on a table in the background, they are dressed up. It was probably taken at someone’s wedding. I hand her the bag and she sets it on top of the dresser. Slowly, she removes the photo and sets it aside. She holds up the clothes. A nightgown, undergarments, stockings. “These are for when I die.” She pats the clothes and straightens the stockings and then carefully puts them and the photo back into bag. I am directed to deliver the bag back to the sixth drawer. As I am closing the drawer, she looks at pictures on the mirror and gestures back to the drawers, “I have to have all this. You don’t want anyone saying at the end of your life, ‘She didn’t have enough to have fresh gowns in the hospital and a decent gown to take to the cemetery.'”

The drawer closed, I stand up. I listen to the fruit vendor’s baritone recede down the street. And tell her I understand. Then, she shrugs her shoulders, as if maybe I do, maybe I don’t, but at least now I know. And she simply returns to ironing Massina’s nightgowns, the one’s from her recent hip replacement. “I do this because she has people come to visit each day. It is needed.” And in an instant, I see the continuity. Another example of the way community functions so tightly here. For better or for worse. Each of the women on this street will be called upon and expected to participate in the illness or death of each other. Just as they participate in the daily lives of each other, with the sharing of food, the exchange of companionship, help with each other’s basic needs. Just like that, they will also dress each other for the afterlife, even dress each other’s husbands in some cases, if relatives are too far away. They will cry and pray and lament and reminisce. And they will do it all in their ironed best. •