*Featured Artwork: “Working the Line” by Kristina MoriconiMemoir is about absence, emptiness; it’s about crossing divides–of time, space, language, and that ultimate divide between the living and the dead. It’s standing at the edge of the void, your body in the grip of a vertiginous urge. Memoir is about finding your bearings so that you can walk with one foot in the present and the other in the past. There, you have become the stateless citizen of multiple countries; you hold a passport for time travel.
As an immigrant writer, I know what it means to inhabit physical spaces where you belong but also do not–ever, never again. These spaces exist in time and outside time. I am a ghost in the place that made me and an impostor in that other place I sometimes call home–and almost mean it.
The stories of bodies are born in places, and their mnemonic traces travel from one place to another, back and forth, until the boundaries between past and present become porous, and you do not know where you are, when you are, who you are. You split, fragment, multiply.
July 2021, Jones Beach. A tidal surge drags me down into the cold, murky waters of the Atlantic. My feet cannot find firm ground in the sinking sand. Terrified, I return to a September day of two years earlier, the last time I was in Sicily, when I surrendered to the warm waters of that impossibly blue Mediterranean I stubbornly claim as mine–as did distant ancestors from Africa, Greece, Spain. I carry their bones in my pockets.
Surreally flat, deceptively serene, the Mediterranean covers me that September day. I float, my head barely above water. Fai il morto, my brother told when we were kids. I almost drowned in that sea. It was stormy then and I believed I would die.
I let myself go, arms and legs wide open, eyes closed. The tidal surge of the Atlantic retrieves, acquiescent. A wave carries me to shore.
Geography is also and always history.
Every ocean, every sea is a graveyard, even my Mediterranean–fishermen who never returned home; refugees whose rescued sparse personal effects I watch on a slideshow at an academic conference—is it respectful or obscene? A boy-fish holds up Sicily off the coast of Messina, where Odysseus braved the girl monsters.
Monsters have their own stories. Monsters reveal what’s hidden. Unrecognizable to myself, I collect recipes for the journey back.
On August 23, 1984, an Alitalia plane lifts me up and away from my island a few hundred miles away from the North African coast and takes me three thousand miles away. Four decades earlier, the Husky Operation had been launched from North African waters. A couple of decades after the Sicilian campaign that led to the defeat of Mussolini and Hitler, someone would take a photograph of me and my older sister in flowered bathing suits, barefoot on that very sand where the boots of General Patton left their imprint on July 10, 1943. That July morning a nine-year-old girl cries out from the balcony, “Mamà, u mari un c’è cchiù!” Her sea has disappeared under a blanket of war ships.
I am the daughter of that girl and I carry her memories in the curvature of my spine, nestled between each vertebra.
Forty-one summers later, as I cross invisible sky borders on my way to becoming an immigrant, I think of the route my maternal grandfather followed in 1924 when, barely twenty, he emigrated to another America. I remember his stories of Buenos Aires and señoritas and yo, yo, yo soy italiano and his engagement to a thirteen-year-old girl he has seen only from a distance. From Sicily, the girl copies onto paper love letters her convent-educated mother writes for the fiancée in Argentina. The girl doesn’t pay attention, eager to escape that tedious task and return to her games. She cries when she makes a mistake and Mother says, “You have to do it all over again.” No scribbles allowed in these letters sprinkled with the ornate language of the romance novels read secretly in the convent and still remembered. And who is the girl? The daughter or the mother?
In four years, the young man will cross the Atlantic to marry the girl in the house her father had built for her in his Sicilian town–my town, our town, the town where we stay even after we leave, where we make memories and tuck them into suitcases.
I am a passenger on the ship sailing to Buenos Aires with the twenty-year-old immigrant. I sit in a Sicilian salotto next to his thirteen-year-old fiancée. I rest my hand on the girl’s shoulder, then walk to the balcony to admire the view of the Mediterranean right in front of us. I stare at the disappeared sea with the nine-year-old girl who will survive a war and lose two daughters to migration, to the country of the soldiers who traded powdered milk for flasks of local wine.
Migration makes ghosts of the people we once were, and those ghosts are the shadows behind and ahead of us.
Susan Sontag says that a photograph is a token of absence. And so is memoir. The memoir writer sits patiently in the dark room and waits–for outlines to emerge, for contours to fill. The creator of the image is bound to be surprised, even shocked when the past comes to light. Once revealed, it is made present. There’s the shape of my grandmother’s arms, deep in fleshy dough, speckles of flour across the watery surface of the image.
Who am I?
I am the American woman separated from family and friends in the first year of Covid-19, quarantined in a town in Northern New Jersey named Teaneck. Teaneck is a Native American name, and in that house built on Lenape land I make sourdough starter. My son calls it Mother Doom. I knead dough, and the ancient smell of bread fills the house. I am a four-year-old standing on a small wooden stool in the kitchen of an apartment on the first floor of Largo Cadore No. 9 in a Sicilian coastal town named Gela. Nonna hands me a piece of dough so I can make bread with her, but the doll-shaped loaf never returns from the baker, and I think of all the lost little girls of our family, rocked to sleep by the bones of their grandmothers in shared graves.
Where will my ashes be scattered?
I am the hands of a child and the hands of a woman, and we work the dough. Pull, stretch, fold. I am the glass jar of sourdough starter, and each bubble is an ancestor. I am the blue tape on the lid that says “Edi Lievito Madre June 2020” that becomes so faded I regretfully replace it a year and a half later. Don’t worry, Nonna’s ghost whispers. Nothing gets lost forever. Even when you’d rather it would.
In whose stories will I return?
The past is a country. Plentiful. Stingy. Not innocent. Seductive. It indicts. It redeems. It calls you and you’d better be ready for the journey.
I hold fistfuls of flour, of sand, of ashes.
What will I take with me when I go? What will I leave behind? What I will bring back?
Careful–pomegranate seeds doom you to live with the dead.
What will I gain? What will I lose?
Pay your ticket–and I’ll tell you.
Step away from the edge. Fall into that void.