From the memoir, Wilderness Begins at Home, Travels with my big Sicilian Family, to be published in 2016
Chapter 1 La Familia Tutti Bene in Sicilia, 2006
A family reunion in the old country—it had such a nice ring to it. But when I read my brother Tom’s email suggesting our clan meet in Sicily come summer, I had misgivings. He doesn’t remember what it was like, I thought, the 12 of us—10 siblings and two parents—under one small roof, sharing one-and-a-half bathrooms all those years ago.
These days, a family gathering means more than 50 people when you include Mom, spouses, and 39 kids and grandkids. And then there would be a few dozen relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, three generations of our late father’s first cousins. That’s a lot of pressure on the plumbing, not to mention the nerves.
I love my family to no end. We are your classic tight knit big family. Our affectionate (and sometimes querulous) emails stream over the Internet. Birth, christening, marriage, and occasionally an elder’s passing on are annual mandates for our inimitable brand of Sicilian conviviality.
Yet, if you look at the distance we’ve put between each other since leaving that overcrowded nest—our homes spread from New Jersey to California, from Prague to Timor, and down to Buenos Aires—you might conclude as I did that we required a lot of space to vacation together.
I knew that many “normal” families happily cruised together on city-size ships. But, I didn’t think that even a whole island was big enough for the likes of our mercurial bunch.
OK, so I was wrong this once.
It turned out to be one of the best family vacations since our parents stuffed 10 of us, crates of food, and beach paraphernalia into a station wagon for a few days at (poor) Uncle Pasquale’s beach house at the Jersey shore.
In fact, there was a fairytale aspect from the moment I arrived in Cefalú, on Sicily’s northern coast. The popular resort, an hour’s drive from Palermo, is picturesquely framed by the Mediterranean Sea and a sheer craggy rampart of the Madonie Mountains. Brightly painted wooden fishing boats park on sand or rock beaches where warm and gentle glass-blue waves lap the shore.
The family home for the next week was a palace. The Palazzo Maria, a far cry from the box we had grown up in, was a restored medieval building, with a restaurant and enoteca (wine shop) on its ground floor. Bordering the Piazza Duomo, our palace rose five floors catty-corner to the imposing 12th-century basilica, or Duomo, with its two steeples, abbey, and cloister built under the reign of Roger II.
Tom, who undertook the yeoman’s task of booking our lodgings and planning the week’s events—which would include festivities with the Sicilian branch several days after our arrival—did well in choosing Cefalú as a base. It offers a crowd-pleasing mix of beauty, outdoor activities, shopping, art galleries, cultural sights, and, of course, plenty of restaurants.
Cefalú comes from the Greek word (Kephaloidion) for head—and it’s instantly apparent why this name was bestowed on the area. The “heady” Rocca, a massively bulging promontory, 270 meters high, dominates the village. A crenellated wall and other ancient ruins crown its summit. If you don’t mind a stair-master-from-hell workout, you can hike to breathtaking (literally and figuratively) views and ruins.
Another plus was that from Cefalú one can easily take day-long or overnight excursions by car to any of Sicily’s important sites. One day, a group of us drove to Agrigento to walk the impressive Valley of the Temples. Within easy drives on Sicily’s well-maintained auto-routes are Erice with its lofty perch and mystical pre-Greek vestiges; Taormina, the aptly-called “aristocratic jewel” above the Ionian Sea; Siracusa with its abundance of ancient sites and archeological treasures; and Selinunte and Segesta where there are also Greek temples and ruins. A hydrofoil offered daily departures from Cefalú’s harbor to the Aeolian islands. But for me, having traveled Sicily often over the past 30 years, la dolce vita under my nose and spending time with family was enough.
The only drawback was that not everyone could make the voyage. My oldest brother Jim’s wife became pregnant and would deliver at the time of the trip; my youngest sister, Donna, couldn’t leave her United Nations post in Indonesia, due to outbursts of civil unrest there; and poor Mom, 84, fell and broke her hip and was still in rehab come her departure date.
However, 32 of us made a good show. Over several days in late June, we arrived to storm the palace and its six spacious, antique-furnished apartments. Each sported a plaque on its door with its name—Ruggero, Turiddu, Costanza, Guglielmo, Federico, and Joanna—and all were decorated in a rich palette of primary colors. A few families spilled over into apartments a five-minute walk from there, but the palazzo with its splendid rooftop terrace would be the nightly gathering area. We’d run in and out of each other’s flats to visit and see who had the best-stocked pantry and fridge.
Just like the old days, I shared my quarters, the airy royal-blue interior of Turiddu, with two sisters, Tina and Grace. We loved sitting on our little third-floor balcony with its views to sunset over the sea and the Aeolians or watching the bustle below in the cobbled square with its fringe of cafes and boutiques.
We could see who among our group was exercising his or her blood-right to far niente (do nothing) in the cafes whose espresso machines we kept hissing and whose stock of custard-filled brioches and cannoli we seriously depleted.
From the piazza, each day, by and by, a clutch of us would make the five-minute stroll to the main beach down narrow streets, sometimes clogged with cars and small fruit-delivery trucks. On the way, we’d pass the Museo Mandralisca, which holds archeological artifacts, such as Greek and Arab vases, old coins, and paintings, including the Renaissance Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina. Shops overflowing with lovely hand-painted ceramic wares, much of them from nearby San Stefano di Camestre and Caltanisetta, would stall us in our tracks.
We’d stop to marvel at the waters still running into basins under a pink stone arch in the lavatoio medievale, a former village laundro-mat that dates from the Middle Ages. We’d walk through another venerable Arab archway, called the Porta Pescara, and, ecco, there was the broad scallop of sandy beach plastered with wall-to-wall towels. In summer, Cefalú can get packed with sun bathers, but none of us minded them, especially the hand-gesticulating crowds, who recalled the Italian ghetto of our youth in New Jersey.
Occasionally, I took refuge in the relative solitude of a beach at the edge of town past the lighthouse and Torre Calura, a rocky tower ruin. To get there I had to walk a brisk fifteen minutes, hugging the coast, through the Porta Giudecca, the historic Jewish neighborhood (which disappointed my Jewish brother-in-law, Dan, for its lack of an interpretive plaque); past the boat harbor; and little cottages fronted with bougainvillea, lanterna, and oleander. After a libation on the cliff-top terrace of the Hotel Calura, I’d climb down the staircase about 200 feet to the secluded beach and swim out to a rock with snorkelers.
Early or late in the day, when the sun was not so intense, some of us would make the invigorating climb up the Rocca, following the signs and arrows up steep alleys or stone staircases, then walking the dirt trail until we were atop the sheer precipice. Amid stone pines we looked vertiginously down on the Duomo and out to sea for miles. It was absolutely stunning. There were many relics to visit on the way up, including ninth-century castle ruins, a couple of small churches, ancient cisterns, the fortress wall that belted the Rocca’s precipitous border, and my favorite, a small pre-Christian Temple to Diana where I would spend some contemplative time.
One afternoon, my brother, Sal, and I walked along the rocky seacoast where young bronzed men with well-defined muscles were spear fishing for octopus (pulpo). They showed us how they stored the ghostly white fish, which appeared on many village menus, in a tide pool with seaweed. As Sal and I slid off the rock into the clear water to cool off, I said, “I hope they don’t mistake our legs for octopus tentacles.”
We laughed and bobbed in the salty sea and as we soaked in the perfection of the moment—the sun’s warmth in a cloudless blue sky, the Rocca facing us like a forbidding monolith onshore—we decided we would cook the family meal that night. This was a harmonious change from our standard political debates.
That night we added our own sizzling garlic to the smells that wafted out from the nearby restaurants. The sausage and rigatoni we cooked up for our masses was just one of our memorable meals that brought us together on the palace roof. After a long, hard day of sun, sand, and sea, we’d take siestas, and showers, then sip aperitifs on the square. Dinner, with respect for local custom, was never before 9 p.m. We’d all contribute goods gathered from the many town purveyors.
A spread might include marinated sardines, tangy caponata, an array of sharp and creamy cheeses, crusty breads, fresh peaches and figs, oil-cured olives, prosciutto, pepperoni, sun dried tomatoes, pesto dip, bitter greens, local olive oil, and arancini (deep-fried rice balls stuffed with meat, cheese, and veggies).
One night, my sister, Terry, made cucuzza, a tomato-rich dish packed with memories of our grandmother who grew the long crooked green squash in her garden in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Nostalgia came in many bites—from the eggplant appetizer, biscotti, and Torrone nougat candy to the many bottles of red wine, especially the popular Cusumano label (which we pretend is our relative).
Strains of Mob Hits, The Big Night soundtrack, and Pavarotti sounded from Tom’s iPod as the lemoncello, Fra Angelica, and Sambuca flowed into glasses after dinner. We shot digital photos against the stunningly spotlighted Rocca and occasionally danced and sang with the little kids. We told the same old family stories but with new twists and turns, over and over, until 4 a.m.
One afternoon, Chuck’s wife, Cheri, asked a local store owner where she could find good cheese. Good cheese, she enunciated slowly to help him understand her English. Ah, si, he replied, as he proceeded to gesture vigorously for her to go straight down the main drag, uno, due, tre blocks and ecco, there on the left gooood cheeeese.” Cheri followed the directions carefully only to arrive at a corner with not a one cheese shop in sight, but a shoe store selling Gucci shoes. We laughed about that homonymous snag for a long time.
More coming in 2016. Here is a teaser, the Table of Contents:
- La Familia, Tutti Bene in Sicilia, 2006 – In which four generations meet in the old country and things go unexpectedly well.
- Always a Father, Sometimes a God, 1998) – In which I take my parents to Sicily and find out how startlingly our relationship has changed.
- Wilderness Begins at Home, 1995 (or Breaking Bones to Touch the Sky), In which six of us, including a cancer “survivor” and a young skateboarder, follow a difficult path in the high Sierra
- Fine China Does the Big Easy, 2001, In which my five sisters and I meet in New Orleans to celebrate my birthday and touch on the grief of our “Lost Child.”
- How Bears Take Their Coffee, 1996, In which brother Chuck and I on one of our backcountry hikes exhibit the art of bickering and the art of stupidity with regards to Sierra bears.
- Curing Cheri in Big Sur, 1997, In which Chuck’s wife, Cheri, finds out that all we do on our wilderness hikes is walk this way and that way.
- Sister Act, 2000, In which I let Grace tag along with me in Sicily, while my sleeping monastically conflicts with all she wants to do—shop, eat, drink cappuccino. And then we discover where the Holy Communion comes from.
- Faithful Couple Meets Grizzly Giant 1992, In which I discover amid Yosemite’s waterfalls why I could love a man who doesn’t dance.
- Sister Satori in Cuba, 2002, In which four of us sisters bicker, kibitz, dance and flirt with Cubanos, then bond anew in spontaneous Santeria initiation.
- Saving Grace, 2002, In Trinity County wilderness (northern California), I trick Grace into a long hike, check us into a B&B with bats in the bedroom, then a ranch with a ghost, and a little more backstory on our life and times in our big family.
- In the Land of Milk and Honey, 1998, In which I reveal more about my brothers as our father’s sons as I take them cycling in the Marin Headlands (north of San Francisco).
- Old Italians Don’t Die, 1993, In which a summer barbecue reveals a portrait of an immigrant Italian family, the way it was, the way it is.
- My Whole Tam Family, 1991, In which I coax my whole family to hike up a wild mountain (Mount Tamalpais) and sleep rustically for a reunion during our parents’ Golden Anniversary celebration.
- Dances with Marmots, 2008, A rather contemplative backpack trip with Chuck a few years after my life changed dramatically thanks to tango (covered in Chapter 18)
- Deadman Canyon, Another Fine Mess, 1996, In which I lose Chuck and believe him dead, and other Laurel & Hardy mishaps.
- The Big Night—in Sicily, 2000 – Wound a Sicilian, pay through the mouth, In which, Grace and I (Irish twins) are nearly tortured to death with wonderful food.
- Brother, Can You Spare Some Tent Space? 1999, In which you learn more about Numero Uno, Jim, as he, Chuck, and I decide to summit Mount Whitney from the east side of the Sierra, in a day, but the gods have other plans.
- Blue-belly lizards, rattlesnakes, and evangelists, 2002, In which a brutal trip, off on the wrong foot, has us saying uncle, as I chant for mules, horses, llamas.
- Follow Your Wildest Dreams, (or, The Year of Making Gods Laugh), 2004, In which I take you on one of my final episodic wilderness trips with Chuck through gorgeous Sequoia National Park backcountry, my father, dead two months, appears in a dream and his meaning becomes clear as the big change the gods have in store for me.
- The Boogie Woogie Man of Chateau Mcely, 2015, In which Jim invites his sisters to stay in the Bohemia chateau he and his wife, Inez, opened in 2006. Even as we revel in the luxury and pampering we find true ecstasy in something that throws us back to our humble roots.
The sort of big family in which I was bred is becoming a relic of the past. Not just because the size—ten kids + two parents—is prohibitive and undesirable for most in the developed world. But the nuclear-family model that influenced the high and low points of my upbringing is for practical, economic, and cultural reasons fading.
I have often been asked what was it like growing up in a big Sicilian (American) family. The closest I have ever come to honestly answering that question was the novel, The Last Cannoli (Legas, 2000). It was easier to answer with a fictional approach, which was, of course, only a thin veil over the truth (plus some half truths and some truths-and-a-half). There were good times and bad times and I remember them all. But I preferred to focus on the good times in that “faux memoir” and if I gave short shrift to the bad, I make no apologies. You can find plenty of auto- and bi-ography about bad parenting, dysfunctional families, and unhappy childhoods—some of it even good literature, some of it entertaining.
Twelve of us, two parents and ten kids rhythmically spaced about two years apart, grew up together in a tiny Cape Cod home in New Jersey. Given the distance that our various walks in life has put between us, sharing travels is the way we get together, the way we reunite. These stories span 1991 to 2015. They take place in our adult years, when we have grown, entered the marketplace, and flourished. But I give you a lot of our back story throughout.
Each story in this collection is a narrative that weaves place with my family. (Not surprisingly I spent 17 years on a travel magazine—so travelogue is second nature to my writing.) The travel is a catalyst for our being together, for showing who we have become, and who we always were. Even with the weaving of our backstory, the result is a sweet-on-my-big-family memoir. I do not ignore the difficult facts, including my father’s alcoholism and meanness. But we have a rare, if disappearing, strength in our big family ties.
Many of these stories, bring to light my connections to wilderness, which started late in life, unlike my strong bonds to family, which started very early in life. What came to the fore as I wrote many of these stories (some have appeared in shorter form in various publications) is that for many, the wilderness is an escape from something; for me it has proved an escape into—the past, the forces that shaped me, most notably my large family, the forces I longed for, and which my childhood was short on.
The practice of the wild, the practice of walking, of breathing and observing, converge at my practice of writing. My stories are not so much about the edges between human activity and the natural world (a phrase I read somewhere and cannot find its original author) as the threads that bind these. I may be in a pure mountain meadow in the Sierra, probably with my brother Chuck, a long way from the smelly New Jersey metropolis where I grew up the fifth of ten children. But I still dwell in the small brick home that helped me convert to the wilderness with a passion. I contemplate my experience as family myth (like Romulus and Remus, say) and how I’ve progressed from the wilds of nurture to the etiquette of nature. My parents, stewards of my earliest habitat, gave me my first hard lessons in leaving no trace.
The continuum from quotidian life to sojourns in the wilderness is eminently more valuable to me than the compartmentalizing of the two. It is impossible not to be a defender of the planet’s (remaining) wilderness when we perceive it as the sacred mirror of what lurks within ourselves. Thus, my stories graft family mythology onto backcountry trips with varying mixtures of irony, humor, joy, sadness, all toward an awareness of wilderness having no easy physical boundaries.
And then there are my travels with my five sisters, who are as I describe them on a trip together to New Orleans, “a wilderness unto themselves.”
Wilderness Begins at Home, the title story, recounts how a grueling weeklong backpack trip to Mount Whitney will be the last walk in the woods for one in our party of two families (mine and my partner’s), but some of us will come back more deeply rooted in the earth. Saving Grace, in which I introduce a sister from Union City, New Jersey, to western snowmelt in the Trinity Alps, confront a swarm of bats, as we rediscover our relationship, which was put on pause years before in New Jersey. And there’s the time I coaxed my not-so-active family members to climb a mountain to a rustic inn for an unforgettable family reunion.
Don’t worry about trying to keep all twelve of us characters straight. I help you by introducing us slowly. I have ordered the stories, not chronologically, but with regard to pacing, theme, and place.