Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Boat You Came On

In 1956, my father traveled on the Saturnia from Italy to Halifax, Nova Scotia. A number of years ago, someone approached my brother and said he had a photograph that he wanted to share with him. His family had voyaged on the Saturnia on the same trip in 1956 and he had a b&w photograph of my father with this man's family on the deck of the ship which clearly reveals its name on a lifesaver in the forefront of the frame. Later I incorporated a scene on the Saturnia into a novel that I had written about Salvatore Giuliano and a fictional character very loosely based on my father Francesco (also named Francesco or Ciccio) called We Were Like You.

This year I had the good fortune to encounter two young filmmakers, Ferdinando Dell'Omo from Italy and Lilia Topouzova, who wanted to make a documentary film about the passengers of the Saturnia and were searching for subjects. My father passed away many years ago and we never spoke of this voyage but I did have this great photo and I wanted to share it with them.

I met with Ferdinando firstly. Ferdie, as he is affectionately known, is from Pisa, Italy. He has a great face, one where all his goodness and kindness is imprinted upon it. We talked over lunch at Bar Mercurio about my dad and the other newly arrived immigrants who traveled on that ship. I was fascinated by his enthusiasm and knowledge of the ship. Please see below for a short history of the ship.

In the course of our discussion I mentioned to Ferdie how so many things were leading me back to memories of my father. I had just published my book Made Up of Arias a few months before and the father figure was a key character for me, bringing up a great deal of emotion from the past - some good, some sad. The Saturnia project brought back many memories for me.

At that time, I also recently had contacted one of the executives of the Trinacria Club, a men only social club in the downtown core of Hamilton that my father co-founded in Hamilton in 1957. I was to pay a visit to the club in February. I was intrigued because I had only been there once when I was very young, perhaps less than ten years old. I was both excited and little wary of the whole enterprise.

Then I became aware of the Saturnia project. I told Lily and Ferdie about my planned trip to the club and they became very excited. They wanted to shift the focus of the doc a bit to include a section on the children of the original passengers of the Saturnia.

So in February of this year, I went to the club with a documentary film crew lead by Ferdie and Lily. I detailed this trip in an essay I wrote called “At the Trinacria Club” which was to be published in Italian Canadiana the next year. So I won't go into all the details now but I will say that the misty halo of nostalgia I had created around my father and this trip was somewhat dimmed by my trip. Although, in retrospect, it was not surprising at all.

I was told that the club members were very excited to see me (hmm realllly? I thought how odd). They had planned a lunch and had many things to show me.

As I entered the interior of the club, with the filmmaker's camera trained on me to the left, the President of the Trinacria Club (who shall remain unnamed to protect the guilty) approached me and demanded to know why we were so late in a very irritated tone. We were, in fact, two hours late and he was upset despite the fact that the director had called while we were on the road mentioning the delay.

Il Presidente spoke to me in rapid fire Sicilian and because he was literally the first person I encountered in the club, I was tongue-tied and confused and I could not formulate a response quickly enough and certainly not in Sicilian which I rarely use nowadays. My dumbfounded silence caused him to throw his hands up in the air and he exclaimed, “Oh, and I guess you can’t speak Sicilian either!” Then he walked away in a petulant manner.

I surveyed the assembly of 70-something aged men arranged at card tables before me staring at me blankly during this exchange. Their expression was not unfriendly, not unkind, but it was more like, "Who the hell is this?" Suddenly, my cheery red beret and bright lipstick seemed inappropriate on this bleak February day before this somber assembly and my desire to see the club seemed an ill-conceived idea.

My novella Arias (guest starring a fictional version of my father named Turi and published three months before the trip to the club) had kickstarted a whole lot of hurting for me. I have learned to avoid reading passages regarding the father Turi before an audience as it, literally, will end in tears. Still he is always there, sometimes a daily presence, thirty or more years on ... The king is dead ... the king must die.

The club that I remembered my father brought me to was more like visiting the home of a friend or paesan - it had a comfortable feel with its battered, well worn furnishings and natural light which streamed in from the windows. It had a breakfast bar at the back which served drinks and had comfortable chairs as well as the requisite card tables and chairs. Not fancy but cozy. It was empty at the time when my father brought me, early morning on a Sunday I think. Just my dad, myself and my brother C. were in the club at the time.

This same space now had a brick exterior facade at the front of the house and the windows were removed which shut out all natural light. It felt like a bunker (to protect whom, I wondered, the men from the outside world that had changed so drastically since 1957?) and because of all the modest mementos that were placed on the walls, it reminded me a bit of a small museum I had been to in Holguin, Cuba, more than twenty years ago commemorating the revolution or praising some long dead revolutionary hero. Whose hero? My hero from long ago?

The walls had bits and pieces of bric-a-brac illustrating the full glory of Sicilian culture: Grecian ruins at Agrigento, our own literary hero from Racalmuto Leonardo Sciascia, soccer team regalia, crests representing each province in Sicily, the image of the Trinacria, and the requisite pictures of prickly pears, called fic d'India, in Sicily.

The President's sharp-tongued response had saddened me but it angered me even more. Of everyone in the group assembled there, he had wisely selected me, the daughter of an old friend (now long deceased) to chastise because I was the most appropriate target for his anger. And there I stood, on the wrong side of forty (as a friend of mine would say tongue in cheek), standing like a gob struck teenager who had been caught out doing something shameful.

Why did he not focus his wrath on Ferdie the handsome director with the Northern Italian accent and the charming manners or Lily the pretty Bulgarian with the dark eyes and the impeccable Italian accent who served as the producer? And of course he would not approach the non-Italian speaking film crew.

I am Sicilian, a fellow Racalmutese, and a younger woman, and therefore very low on the totem pole in his eyes – I should have been more respectful, more deferential about our lateness even though it had nothing to do with me and I had never met this man before.

So this coloured my whole visit to the club and as I mulled this over while traipsing amongst the sentimental bric-a-brac. I realized that his response might not be unlike my own father’s if he was in a similar situation.

My father, too, was paternalistic, a little rough edged, and not particularly patient with perceived fools or people who rubbed him the wrong way. I started to imagine my father here, in this room, sitting with this group of tired old men, playing cards, immersed in this hermetic capsule of ethnicity in this bunker-like enclave. A little bored, cranky, and perhaps happy to escape the domestic sphere for awhile. What would his response have been to some little pop tart in a cherry beret showing up at the door two hours late?

I understand what a confusing disappointment I would represent for my father today. Everything about my life would have confounded him: leaving home at eighteen to go to university in Toronto, living outside of Hamilton away from my mother, marrying my wonderful but non-Italian spouse, my lone child (where are all the others he might ask??), my writing and blogging – everything about my life. The king is dead ... the king must die. In order for me to live my life, the king had to die.

Reluctantly, I admit that all of my musings surrounding the creation of the Francesco character in my novel We Were Like You, the documentary about the Saturnia trip, even my own personal history is largely a romantic fabrication smothered in nostalgia and selective memories. But then that’s how Italian families so famously endure isn't it? We are known for our strong emotional bonds that no one can rip apart. Amnesia is the glue that holds us together and sometimes ... it is even stronger than love.
A Short History of the Saturnia
According to my new friend Ferdie and the Pier 21 website, the Saturnia was built in 1935 and was used as a luxury liner. That year it was also used as a troop transport for the Italian government to Eritrea. During WWII, it was chartered for the International Red Cross for evacuation voyages from East Africa. In 1943, after Italy's capitulation to the Allies it was renamed the Francis Y. Slanger and became a hospital ship. Returned to the Italian Line in 1946, the original name was restored. It resumed transatlantic sailing until 1965, when it was withdrawn from service and scrapped the next year.


Maria said...

Poor you in your red beret! But thanks for sharing this tale.

I can't imagine you being a disappointment to anyone, what with your sharp insights and way with words.

A Lit Chick ... said...

Oh that's sweet .. feeling a bit maudlin today. :(

Chris Edwards said...

All this reminds me of the plight facing the marooned passengers aboard the starship Macross!


A Lit Chick ... said...

Dear Chris, when you return to our planet ... I would like to inquire how this particular blog reminds you of this Japanese animated series??

bruno said...

I was on Board the Saturnia April 1956 as it made port in New York. My father was waiting for my mother brother and me. He had left my mother when she was eight months pregnant with me. Now I was to see him. My mother showed me a picture of my father as we landed. I still remember that day. The excitement as we finished an eleven day cruise in which I was sea sick everyday. I have a picture of people from L'Auila and my mother and brother in front of a life saver with the ships name on it. I'm the little boy on the right with a coat and his pajamas under the coat.

Bruno Santini

Michelle said...

Thanks you for sharing this with me Bruno. What a lovely memory.

Mike Cash said...

If you check podcasts from Florida State University's Oral History Project you can find an interview with a woman named Pauline Pepper who served as an Army Nurse aboard the ship during its service as a hospital ship during WWII. She gives a very touching account of serving aboard the ship.

Michelle said...

Thanks Mike, I will pass this on to Ferdinando and Lilia the filmmakers as well. What is your interest in the Saturnia if I might ask?