Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily

Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily


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With an ear for dialogue that may be compared to Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, and Ernest Hemingway, Sicilian writer Maria Messina presents the captivating and brutal realities of women living in early-twentieth-century Italy in this first collection of her work available in English.

Behind Closed Doors portrays the habits and gestures, the words spoken and those left unsaid, of individuals caught between the traditions they respect and a desire to ease the social restrictions in their lives. Messina’s stories reveal a world in which women are shuttered in their houses, virtual servants to their families, and working men immigrate to the United States in fortune-seeking droves. It is also a world of unstated privileges in which habits and implied commands perpetuate women’s servitude.

A cultural album that captures the lives of peasant, working-class, and middle-class women, this volume will appeal to millions of Italian descendants and readers everywhere fascinated by Italian history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558615533
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 07/01/2007
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Maria Messina (1887–1944) was born in Palermo, Sicily. She taught herself to read and write, eventually finding a mentor in the famed Italian realist Giovanni Verga, who encouraged her to begin writing seriously. Her works include novels, short stories, and children's tales. In 1910, she received the Medal of Gold for her first book of stories, Pettini-fini (Fine Combs).

Fred Gardaphe is the director of Italian American Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the president of MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US).

Elise Magistro holds a doctorate in Italian from UCLA and is a lecturer in Italian at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Read an Excerpt



* * *


The women were out enjoying the sun. Gna' Basila, who was crossing red and turquoise sock yarns, and Elena la Mottese, hands folded behind her neck, had their kerchiefs pulled low over their eyes to shield them from the light. They were sitting on an old log propped against the wall that had been there for who knows how many years, worn smooth by water and dried by the sun. Grace, her head uncovered, was sitting a little further off on her doorstep, carefully mending a worn-out shirt. She didn't dare put a kerchief on for fear the neighbor women would make fun of her. She'd already gotten so much sun washing at Buscardo that by now her face and neck, naturally thin and dark, were just like the old log, eroded by water and dried out by the sun.

"You just get drowsy and feel like sleeping in this heat!" said gna' Basila, scratching her head with the tip of her knitting needle.

"It's no weather to be working in ..." replied Elena, yawning. She picked up the piece of mirror she had brought along with a comb, removed her kerchief, and began to slowly undo her long, thick, chestnut braids, looking at herself in the mirror that she now held tightly between her knees. Once the braids were undone, she shook them loose and began to comb her beautiful hair — slowly — dividing it into two sections, bending her head to the side with every stroke of the comb. And her hair, so smooth and shiny, shimmered in the sun like gold. Grace mended the shirt without saying a word, stealing glances at Elena whenever she threaded her needle.

"Is everything in your life as good as it looks in that mirror?" asked gna' Basila.

"I'm doing just fine, thank you very much," replied la Mottese, gripping the teeth of the comb between her thumb and index finger to remove the hair and bits of dandruff that had accumulated. "And why shouldn't I be? He's good, there's no doubt about that. He's not rich like don Calòjero or a gentleman like don Antonino, I'll grant you, but he gives me everything I need."

She grasped the ends of her hair and shook them lightly, as if there were dust on them; then she began combing her hair again, ever so slowly, tipping her head to the side:

"I know how men expect to be treated by women. You serve your master, and you serve him in bed, too."

"And you brag about it!" exclaimed gna' Basila with a smirk.

"And why not? You have to do something to get by, isn't that true, Grace?"

Grace coughed and called Vastianedda.

"You've got to do something," started up Elena again. "Everything depends on what happens. You happened to find a husband, and now you've got to put up with him like he is. Me, on the other hand," and she laughed heartily, revealing brilliant white teeth between lips as red as fire, "me, whoever loves me is my husband, and whoever treats me badly ... people should just mind their own business."

Gna' Basila would have liked to show how shocked she was but was afraid if she irritated la Motesse, who'd been in Mistretta for three years now and knew everything about everybody, something bad might happen to her. So she held back and only muttered, "Well, if that's the way you see it, count as many as you want!"

But la Mottese, who knew everyone's business, gave her a hard look. "There are those who count and those who don't count."

Vastianedda arrived running, all out of breath; she whispered something to Grace, who in turn quickly folded the shirt and got to her feet, saying, "Will you two be here for a while?"

"And why shouldn't we?"

"Well, then, go sit a little further away."

"What, are you holding a reception?" asked gna' Basila, laughing.

"She's expecting Gemello," explained Elena, braiding her long hair. "She's afraid we'll steal him from her. But I have to finish combing my hair, and besides, you don't own the street."

"This stretch in front of my doorstep is mine."

"Fence it off then."

The women laughed. Grace entered the house, shoving Vastianedda ahead of her. It was useless to answer back; it wouldn't have gained her a thing. To get her to argue you'd have to be scratching her eyes out, and they did just that, even in her own house. They insulted her without reason. When someone lost a chicken in the neighborhood it was always her fault. That bothered her more than anything. And then they would say she was quarrelsome and loud by nature. She shouted, yes she shouted and screamed and pulled at her hair as though she had moon sickness, but only when they cornered her. And everyone had a great time making fun of her because they saw how ragged she was, how poor, how ugly. Yes, ugly, too. The Lord couldn't have made her any worse.

And then the others, well, they all had someone to defend them. When gna' Basila came home to find her door smeared with dung and lime, she locked herself inside, and it was her husband who went after everyone in the neighborhood, making a terrible scene. And when gna' Filippa offended Elena for something having to do with four eggs, don Brasi went straight to her house and threw those insults right back at her, even threatening to take legal action. Only Grace never had protection or justice. When she would tell Gemello that they'd accused her of stealing chickens or abused her in some way, he'd say, "So why do you let yourself be treated like that? Either they're right or you're an idiot."

And if Grace tried to prove her innocence or cried, he shouted that he didn't want to be bothered with it, that he came to her house to get some rest, and that if he had to hear about making enemies or watch those scenes, he just wouldn't come anymore. This threat quieted her down faster than a good beating. She labored day and night, on holidays and during the week. She went to Buscardo to do laundry; for a crust of bread or two coins she would sweep out stables and haul manure all the way out to the country. She toiled, and there were some days when she would drag herself along like an old tired mule because she'd just gotten out of the hospital, alive only because of a miracle. She supported Gemello and his four big hunting dogs, too, animals that no amount of bread could satisfy. Oftentimes she and Vastianedda went without eating just so they could feed those beasts. Whatever she earned, it all went to Gemello. She trembled when she saw him coming, tired and angry with his hunting sack empty, fearing the blows, especially when she had no money or soup for him. But if he came back from hunting with his sack full of meat, Gemello only went looking for Vastianedda so he could give her the dogs, who were tired and starving, while he went off to sell his catch, and you could never find him, not even in the town square. Then Grace would cry and shout and take it out on Vastianedda, especially now that the orphan was almost seven years old and the seven lire a month the state gave her to care for the child were about to end. In her desperation she screamed that she would never again open her door to Gemello; that she would spit in his face. But when he really did return, Grace would become humble and fearful like always and have her hard-earned money ready for him and take off his shirt to wash and his shoes to polish. And when Gemello beat her and threatened to leave her, she would wrap her skinny arms around his legs and drag herself along the floor like a begging dog, paying no attention to the stick raised above her head while Vastianedda tore at her short disheveled hair and yelled, "My mother! He's killing my mother!"

No amount of money was enough for Gemello. The few things she owned, she'd given away, little by little for a song: camisoles, blankets, her hoop earrings, even her holiday bodices and skirts, because plain old work just wasn't enough. It wasn't enough, and when there wasn't a cent left in the house and the fire had gone out and Gemello would show up with his surly face, it was the most frightening sight in the world. Gemello didn't eat just bread.

"What do you take me for? Some kind of beggar desperate for bread?"

Certain things gna' Basila just didn't understand. With seven lire a month from the state and working every day, you could live the good life, dress decently and eat something hot every evening, instead of killing yourself for a bum who was ashamed of you. With her red-rimmed eyes opened wide, Grace would say right to gna' Basila's face, just to convince herself that the other woman believed it, too: "It's not true. When he's not angry he loves me. You can tell. And besides ... men are men."

Just as long as he loved her, even a little, but forever. When they really wanted to get under her skin, they would tell her that Gemello was negotiating to marry Rosa, mastro Nele's daughter, who had thirty gold coins of dowry, because Gemello was young and he couldn't spend his life tied down to an ugly monkey like Grace. And she believed them. She would laugh aloud, an ugly laugh with her mouth twisting the way it did when the sickness struck her; and then she wanted to know from Gemello if it was true, whimpering to him for days on end that he wouldn't be treated better in any other house, until the irritated man finally beat her.

Now that la Mottese had come to live nearby, Grace no longer had any peace. And she would send Vastianedda even more often to spy on Gemello, warning her not to let herself be seen. And when the orphan didn't have exact information or couldn't track him down or — hungry as she always was — went looking for bread instead of obeying, Grace would grab her by the hair and beat her savagely in a hysterical fury.

In her threadbare, faded red dress, she really must have looked like an ugly monkey, and would eye la Mottese with envy. She coveted her colored corsets braided in gold, her beautiful skirts, her shoes that were always new, and her red and turquoise stockings. Compared to la Motesse, what was she? La Motesse was young, with hair as soft as silk, rosy cheeks, and a beautiful body. Her tight-fitting corsets set off her youthful, firm breasts, and when she washed her face in front of her doorstep, splashing water outside the bucket, all fresh and rosy and happy, you could see parts of her neck and arms that were as white as wax. And so Grace was ashamed to be seen doing laundry with the loose skin of her rail-thin arms exposed and would then find all kinds of excuses to beat Vastianedda. She was aware that Gemello liked joking with la Mottese, who laughed at anything, and it gnawed at her.

And on this day, too, Elena had come to comb her hair in the sun right in front of her house. When Gemello arrived playing his flute and humming, Grace bit her lip and began shouting at Vastianedda, staring with half-crazed, hysterical eyes at Elena's beautiful chestnut hair shining in the sun. That hair shimmered, filling the entire street with light.

But Gemello wasn't cheating on her with la Mottese, no. Who would ever have suspected gna' Basila, that good wife? She, the one who always put on such a pious face when Grace complained and who always raised her eyes to the heavens, scandalized that anyone could love such a bum; it was she who was filling his pockets with money. She was the reason why Gemello had gone weeks and weeks without hunting.

And when one evening Vastianedda came to tell her that she had seen Gemello go into gna' Basila's house, Grace went straight away to hide behind the entryway, never feeling the piercing cold, waiting for Gemello to come out. It was very late when the neighbors heard the cries of the child, who was screaming:

"Mamma! Mamma!"

* * *

Early that morning the woman headed out to Buscardo to wash with a black eye and a slow step. Vastianedda followed with a bundle on her head, looking up at her mother to make sure she didn't see her nibbling on a crust of bread. But Grace wasn't even aware of her presence.

She spent the entire day at Buscardo washing mechanically, bent over the stream's shore out in the open. At times she thought, and at times she felt herself becoming sleepy and lifeless, like when your eyes are half closed in a cart bumping along the cobblestones on the main street. She stayed there awhile, her hands stiff with cold in water that was clouded by soapsuds. Little by little the water cleared, and the bubbles slowly disappeared, carried downstream by the current that was always the same, always the same. And if she were to expose gna' Basila ... Gemello would just beat her again, worse than ever, and don Liborio, the happy husband of that evil woman, would give her the rest. Who would help her, so alone in the world, so alone and poor and ugly?

She looked at her emaciated arms and her red dress. She saw herself and felt as she never had before, small and stooped in the midst of the vast countryside on the shore of the stream that always ran its same course. And what if Gemello didn't come back? If he had left her forever?


America 1911

* * *

La Mèrica

And then others passed, more than thirty:
young men spread out in a swarm like bees;
It seemed to me the darkness had swallowed them up,
one by one, and that the wind,
and that fog that drags across the earth had scattered them throughout the world.
The dark pulled them away; an uproar,
a chattering, and names, and shouts and cries:
A voice that sang with all its might,
but there was so much anger in that voice,
the desperation and the sorrow that seemed to curse heaven and earth.

— Vito Mercadante, "Focu di Mungibeddu" (Etna's Fire)

Mariano announced it on the evening of Saint Michael's Day when he arrived home from Baronia with his aging father. Catena, who was nursing the baby, turned white as a dead woman and said, "So they've managed to put it into your head, those troublemakers! Well, if you really want to go, you'd better know that I didn't get married just to end up a widow or stay a girl after one year of marriage!"

Mariano angrily threw his hoe down in the corner, cursing; Catena shook her head and with pale lips repeated, "I'm coming. I'm coming, or I'll throw myself off the top of the Castle!"

Returning from the stable, Mamma Vita found them arguing. When they quarreled like that, she never said a word, out of prudence, but seeing them so agitated and hearing the words La Mèrica, fear gripped her heart, and she murmured, "My son, what are you saying?"

She was hunched over in the doorway, black and tiny, with a fistful of straw in her raised apron, and Mariano, feeling himself watched by those clear, frightened eyes, composed himself and said, "I'm just doing what everyone else in Amarelli is doing, and this one is tormenting me with her all whining. Just see if it's possible for someone like Catena to leave."

Mamma Vita didn't move, as though she didn't comprehend. Then she bent over the wood chest, covering her face with her hands. With the toddler now asleep on her lap, Catena stared blankly ahead, her enormous black eyes full of passion and pain. Finally, the old man came up, too. He knew about his son's sad decision and went toward the stairs without saying a word.

Everyone in the neighborhood of Amarelli was leaving, and there was weeping in every house. It was like wartime, and just as when there is war, wives were left without husbands and mothers without sons.

Gna' Maria, that old woman with white hair ruffled like wool on a distaff, wailed in misery at her doorstep, not caring who heard her, crying out the names of her two sons with her raised hands, cursing La Mèrica with all her soul. La Varvarissa, so young and with a tiny creature at her breast, was left without a husband; and the only son of mastro Antonino was leaving, too; and Ciccio Spiga, and the husband of Maruzza, the blond. ... Who could count them all? Everyone was leaving, and in the houses in mourning the women were left to weep. And yet each one of them owned something, a piece of land, a quota, a house, and still they were going. The best young men of the village were leaving to work in that enchanted land that enticed them like a seductress.

Now Mariano, too. And Mariano had a little farm that provided them with oil and bread, a bit of land hoed and tended like a garden, and a beautiful young wife, sweet as honey. What they'd done to keep him from leaving, to get the idea of La Mèrica out of his head, no one could even remember. He'd wanted a mule, and ssù 'Ntoni bought him one; Mamma Vita had sewn him another velvet suit, and Catena simply hadn't known what to say or do to keep him near.

But La Mèrica, said gna' Maria, is a woodworm that eats away at things, a sickness that attacks, and when the time comes for a man to buy a suitcase, there's nothing that can hold him back.

On that gray Saint Michael's evening, the elderly parents knew that this moment had come for Mariano, too.

But Catena, her eyes staring straight ahead, wouldn't hear of being left behind. With her small olive face darkened by passion and fear, she was thinking about following her husband. She was thinking, and it felt like the thought was a wound or a fever so much did her head and heart ache.


Excerpted from "Behind Closed Doors"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Fred Gardaphé.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface   Fred Gardaphe     V
Introduction     1
Grace (Grazia)     23
America 1911 (La Merica)     32
Dainty Shoes (Le scarpette)     48
Grandmother Lidda (Nonna Lidda)     58
America 1918 (La Merica)     67
I Take You Out (Ti-nesciu)     78
Her Father's House (Casa paterna)     84
Ciancianedda     106
Red Roses (Rose rosse)     126
Caterina's Loom (Il telaio di Caterina)     135
Glossary     158
Afterword     161
Translator's Acknowledgments     193

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