A treasured connection

Aunt had a sweeping influence over the family, even from afar

True Tales From Everyday Living


My cousin Sara secretly videotaped Zia Aida on the midsummer morning we were to arrive in Palermo, Italy. It was barely 6 a.m., and you could see our aunt through the olive branches. Wearing a faded floral housecoat and pianelle, little plastic slippers, she was sweeping, sweeping, sweeping the little terrace where we would take most of our meals. The painted wood chairs were tipped forward against the table, leaning on two legs.

Every morning, she would remove all the dust of the day before, then throw down a bucket of soapy water and sweep that around, pushing it off the edges of the terrace so it would run down a little dirt road toward the paved street that ran parallel to the sea. Wisteria vines clambered over the metal pipes and green canvas awning that made a roof over the terrace, but it would not take long for the rising sun to slant in sideways and burn off all traces of water from the concrete floor.

Determined to control her environment, Zia Aida was waging war on le formiche e i topi - ants and mice. She was nearly phobic about hygiene. She rarely ate in other people's homes, because she didn't know how often they had washed their hands while cooking, or how carefully they washed the dishes, or whether they tasted the sauce and then put the same spoon back into the pot. She cleaned all the time and went into a positive frenzy when my family - gli americani - was coming to visit.

I met Zia Aida when I was 4 and she was 40. She wasn't glamorous, but she had style. She wore slim, chic dresses with beaded bracelets, and she smelled like almond pastry. She put on coral-colored lipstick whenever we caught the downtown bus to go shopping. In conversation, she looked as if she were waiting to laugh. She knew you would be funny, and so you were.

She had an only son she adored, but had always wanted a daughter, too. On our arrival at the airport in Punta Raisi, she had a doll waiting for me. When our families traveled together - to Naples, to Pompeii, to Capri - she bought me little bracelets, girly zoccoli (sandals with wooden soles) and bright woven-basket purses with tiny bells and mirrors sewn onto them.

When I became an adult, she spoke to me about her son - my cousin - in a way that I know she spoke to no one else. She knew I cared for him deeply, and I think my geographical distance made me safe, like a sympathetic stranger on a train. Her voice was hushed, though we were alone. Her confidences felt like a gift.

Mathematically, our closeness made little sense. I saw her for only a few isolated weeks, fragments of my summers. The time I physically spent in her presence adds up to less than a year, sprinkled lightly throughout the decades of my life.

When you see someone so beloved so seldom, you conjure her up between visits with a longing similar to that reserved for the deceased. You talk about her with others who love her, you tell stories about her to keep her alive in your mind. You look at vacation pictures and you remember the exact musical notes she hits when she laughs. When you see her again, it's as if she's back from the dead. That's why it's so hard to understand that she's actually been gone for a couple of years. I am only doing what I have always done to tide me over between visits.

Sara was hiding behind the olive tree between the two little summer houses that she and my aunt had been renting for years near the rocky beach at Vergine Maria. Sara was giggling quietly, narrating as she filmed. Zia Aida, humming to herself as she worked, hated to be caught on camera. Finally, Sara called to her.

Zia Aida looked up, confused. Her eyes were failing these days. Then she spotted Sara behind the tree, smiled and waved good morning. When Sara confessed that she had been taping her, my zia shook her fist and shouted, but she was laughing.

It was not risky to anger Zia Aida. She could laugh off most things, except worry. That she had elevated to an art, as have all the Grupposo women - it's a family joke.

We are the backbone of the family, partly because we think ahead and plan for contingencies. But the corollary to this is that we also worry about things that have happened and can't be fixed, might never happen, or that could have happened differently if only our actions had been more thoughtful. We apologize for our cooking, even when others say they love it. We apologize for choosing the wrong gifts, even before they are opened. We should have been in control. We should have known.

We pass that worry from one generation of women to the next, a present we have no choice but to unwrap. It keeps us humble.

I have been channeling Zia Aida this summer. I feel her influence in my urge to paint all the wooden outdoor furniture and trim one matching color - she liked a dark blue-green. She's at my side when I pack down the ground espresso in the little stovetop coffeemaker she gave me and, just the way she showed me to do it, I make holes in the coffee with a toothpick to let the water pass through. She holds the screen door for me as I place the pot, a little demitasse and spoon on a tray and carry it outside to the back porch.

Inhaling the espresso mingled with the scent of hot sun on the leaves of my fig tree, I can close my eyes and be on her little terrace near the sea.

I can almost hear her sweeping.


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