In my junior year of college I met Fran. And she introduced me to her friends. She has that kind of heart.
She would talk of her family home on the mystical island of Favignana off the west coast of Sicily and we, bold with youth and artistically inclined, all talked of building our artists’ colony there one day, perhaps in our retirement, perhaps tomorrow. It was the kind of dream Fran fostered, generous as she is. It was a dream only, but we’d cling to it over drinks, over reunions, over decades.
That was thirty years ago.
When Fran told me her father had sold the house and that she and her sister Julie were making one last visit before deeds were exchanged and history rewritten, I asked if I could come along. Of course she said yes. That is Fran.
We started our journey with four days in Rome. And that time deserves its own letter. But on the fourth day, we boarded a plane in Rome for Palermo and then drove past the Greek temple at Segesta and on to the port city of Trapani where we stopped for lunch and met a nineteen-year-old waiter named Alexander who was born in Russia and lived in Florence and now found himself frustrated and a little lonely at the whim of a move made by his mother and step-father. It was a divertimo, meeting Alexander, but an apt bridge from the Eternal City towards a place of which few have heard.
We boarded a ferry-boat and sailed past the statue of the Blessed Mother at the port’s entrance, watching the Mediterranean turn impossible shades of blue and made a stop at the smaller island of Levanzo. A hundred or so houses cling to the shoreline sandwiched in as they are by two ancient mountaintops. And off we were after all this time, this time in college, this time in grad school, this time struggling with the challenges of life, this time after time after time off to an island where time stands still and one can breathe in one’s life and take stock of forgotten dreams.
Favignana is shaped like a butterfly, and at the narrowest point lies a city of sorts, dominated by two piazzi, one municipal and one religious, circled by outdoor restaurants and little bottega or shops catering to what seemed to us a wealthier class of tourists than might have visited in the past. The old and massive tuna cannery that likely put the island on the map is all quiet now. But old families live in the tiny cobbled streets and older families live out in the country on parched farms where rolls of hay lie in fallow fields suspended beyond the realm of clocks.
We drove up to Franny’s home.
Stately gates open up to a manicured driveway and open-air carport surrounded by walls of ivy and oleander and bougainvillea. A lime-stuccoed stairway leads up to terra-cotta tiled verandas that surround the house. The Italians have mastered the sun and windows and doors are louvered and sectioned to allow light or air or shade depending on the time of day.
Fran and Julie led me into the Great Room, a lovely large high-ceilinged parlor in which sat a large dining room table. And this room said it all. The table. In the Great Room. I could feel the presence of Franny’s family tree among the chairs, laughter echoing off the vaulted chamber, meals shared, stories told, love infusing everything like the simple, rich fare taken from the earth surrounding the house and the sea a walk away.
Surrounding the Great Room are three bedrooms with beautifully tiled floors and in various stages of “unfurnishings,” but that which remained often involved sturdy dressers and commodes topped with pink or white marble. The fourth room was the kitchen, a large affair with blue and white tiles surrounding the multi-purpose sink that washed the food and washed the dishes and washed the clothes on the built-in washboard all fueled at one time by a cistern that was filled by the good graces of the circling mule in the yard. But that was many years ago. Now, indoor plumbing had replaced the mule, a legendary animal I named Sisyphus for his troubles. Over a tiny stove stands a massive and similarly tiled hood, an exhaust I wondered for the once enormous wood-burning stove that must have occupied that spot.
And off the kitchen? A fully modern bathroom with walls of jade-colored tiles and a sink, bathtub, shower, toilet, and bidet.
Outside were the stalls and outlying garages of a fully functioning farm that had stopped functioning many years ago, so many that many of the structures were in various stages of disrepair if not collapse. But all of it had a tender beauty to me, all of it spoke to the hands that crafted the home in stages over generations, all of it sang with the courage of a family that had retreated there during the height of the brutality of World War II when bombs could be seen hitting the village only a mile and a half away.
We spent our mornings around the kitchen table eating fresh fruit and cheese and bread, lazily sleeping in myself, me, not used to the un-air conditioned heat.
We went to the piazzi to wander the tiny cobbled streets and lay in supplies.
We went to the Lido Burrone and rented lounge chairs under an umbrella and soaked in a different sun, cooled off in the shockingly beautiful waters, ate tomatoes and sandwiches at the cafe or had full lunches at the restaurant that sat right on the beach.
We talked of our old dreams.
Fran took me to the other side of the island one day, to the rocky shore where we sat on jagged lime at the foot of a cove and dipped our feet in the water, there, in the shadow of the lighthouse that was once home to merely one arm of her extensive extended family on Favignana. Up in the hills were caves, off in the distance, Sicily, and every sense, on fire, the treacherous burning rocks bathed by the cool sea under the umbrella of perfect skies, an unrelenting sun sure, but jasmine wafting on every breeze.
Julie and Fran and I were joined by Fran’s childhood friends Margie and Karen and we sat on the beach another day, ate in a garden, tried mulberry granita, and woke up the next day for a boat excursion around the neighboring island of Marettimo whose gem of a shoreline offered a grotto filled with sparrows, a waterline lined with coral, and a teeny tiny village where people’s entire lives played out and are being played out right now as I type this in my apartment in NYC. They go on. Despite me.
One night, we ate in an abandoned lime quarry that had been turned into a tony hotel and restaurant. Every night, we strolled the piazza. Both of them. And down to the port, the entire ten days, never not under the watchful eye of the castle of Santa Catarina that sits majestically on top of the highest peak, and lit up at night-time so that it seems to float upon a cloud.
We’d come home and sit on the back veranda and make up stories about the castle. Did you know it is home to Gio-Gio Venti, maker of wind? We’d beseech him he’d grant us a cool night’s sleep. More often than not, he’d acquiesce to our prayers.
But even in the land of the timeless, time does indeed intrude, and Fran and Julie had to attend to those things one must do to save a memory or two, to let go of that which one decides must be let go, to put things like records and dreams in boxes to be shipped to America, the very same journey of their ancestors. Even the rock that kept the silverware from disappearing down the drain had to be dealt with, as did Fran’s lovely collection of broken tiles she’d spent a lifetime collecting in the ‘campo di Favignana.”
My heart broke for them, these lovely sisters who have been so kind to me for as long as I can remember. I felt as though I were intruding on a sacred time in their lives. I wanted to help, but I wanted to disappear into the woodwork to let them dance that delicate dance of celebration and grief.
The closing of the door the last day was as quick as it was painful, and I applaud their courage for their shared hug and the turning of the key and of their backs.
Remember, though, that in a timeless land, nothing is forgotten. The lives that spun through there are a part of the earth, the mountain, the sea. I saw that. I heard the voices in the melodious operatic cadences of the Italian language that washed across my ears for days singing “We were here” and you were, Fran, you were, Julie, you were, Ali, you were Frank and Angelina, and your whole gracious and good and kind family reaching back into the roots of your family, your roots are there and strong and strong especially, in a parched earth that gives way to delicate jasmine, where you will lay on the breeze like an insistent whisper beyond the last memory of the last person on the Island of Favignana.
And mine. Continue reading