Sebastiano and I ate our meals on normal plates, but the farmhand ate more than we did and put his meals on his special dish called a lemma, which means “big bowl” in Sicilian. The daily dish was pasta with cabbage and potatoes seasoned with olive oil. Meat was too expensive and not easy to get. Only when Sebastiano killed a rabbit or a bird did we have meat. On special occasions the farmhand wringed a chicken’s neck. In any case, we couldn’t preserve meat because we didn’t have a fridge. To keep cool, we put a watermelon or a melon into a basket and put it down into the cistern where the water was quite cold. The only thing that could be preserved for a long time was cheese, which was yellow because of the use of saffron in its preparation, and stuffed with black pepper grains.
“I’ll prepare macaroni with tomato sauce, eggplants, and salty ricotta.
“Can you give me the recipe? If you don’t mind.”
“I chop the green onions into small pieces and fry them for a few minutes with olive oil. Then I add salt, peeled tomatoes, and a half teaspoon of sugar. This small amount of sugar is very important, because it removes the sourness of the tomato. Finally, I season the sauce with two teaspoons of raw olive oil and some basil. Our traditional Sicilian basil has small leaves. The fragrance of this basil is unique. But the real secret is these three things: first, to have good ingredients, second, to love cooking, and third, to love those who you are cooking for. In the end, love is the basis of everything, including cooking!”
There was a public whorehouse in Enna until 1958. Afterwards, all brothels were suppressed throughout Italy by an act of the national parliament. Enna’s public whorehouse was located in the upper town, which looks onto the nearby town of Calascibetta, but it was not far from downtown. Of course, Enna is a small city lying on a plateau, and the distances between one side and another are not long.
The brothel was run by a brothel keeper, but the building belonged to a wealthy Enna family and had been leased to an ex-prostitute who had made enough money from her “work.” Brothel keepers were often called queens, and were usually unmarried. If it happened that one of them was married, her husband was called the “king.”
One room of the whorehouse was left for a police officer, who had the task of keeping order and checking the personal documents, above all the ones regarding the customer’s age. In fact, entrance was forbidden to young men under eighteen years of age. Nevertheless, the brothel keeper controlled everything in advance and kept order. She was always present at the entrance, and was very strict with both the prostitutes and the customers.
The brothel’s main door was kept ajar till late into the night. A wide red curtain separated the entrance from the rest of the house. Over the curtain there was a hall. The queen’s room was on the right, and on the left two steps led to a corridor. At the bottom was the room for the policeman; on the left there were two wide bedrooms, and on the right two waiting rooms.
From the hall, a staircase led upstairs where there were three more rooms for the girls, the medical room, and another waiting room reserved only for high-class people or someone that wanted to hide his identity, like a priest, a monk, or a married person. The entrance to this waiting room was regulated by the queen, who ordered the doors to all rooms shut, except the one reserved for the police, in order to let in the person that had asked to remain anonymous. The meeting between the girls and…
After the dead body had been kept in the room for two days, the moment of separation came. Two gravediggers entered carrying an empty coffin. At that moment, everybody cried and screamed with pain. My grandmother blocked one of the diggers and tried to prevent him from taking away her loved one, but unfortunately it was not possible.
The coffin was carried by my grandfather’s friends on their shoulders to the Church of San Cataldo nearby, and after Mass it was set on a hearse dragged by two black horses.
There were thousands of people at the funeral, and all of them followed the hearse to the cemetery. At that time there were not many cars in the streets, so whenever there was a funeral the streets were closed to traffic. Sometimes the municipal band played a funeral march for very rich or special people.
After the funeral we had a tasty dinner. For eight days we were served breakfast, lunch, and dinner by our close friends. All the families gathered around the table. In Enna, you could not make the time of mourning at your will. It had to last eight days. During this time, besides being served delicious food by our relatives and close friends, we received visits from our neighbors and acquaintances.
The food we received was more delicious than anything I had ever eaten before—so much so that a doubt arose in my mind: “Is this a time for mourning or a party?”
In Sicily, the duration of mourning varied according to the kind of relationship with the dead person, but usually were observed the following criteria: if the dead person was an uncle, a cousin, or someone not a close relative, the woman dressed in black for three months. If a child had been lost, the woman dressed in black for five years. If a sibling passed away, his or her sister dressed in black for three years. If the dead person was the husband, the widow dressed in black the rest of her life. I never saw my grandmother dressed in anything but black. She lost two children and her husband. As for men, the duration of mourning was shorter than that of women. They usually didn’t dress in black suits for a long time, but confined themselves to wearing a black tie, an armband, a narrow band around their jacket collar, or sometimes they wore a black button on it.
After I left Ramana’s ashram, I spent some time in Goa. One day, while I was meditating facing the ocean, I had the feeling the Jesus was suggesting a new kind of meditation to me.
“Open your heart to everybody. That is the best meditation,” he said.
I tried this new meditation as the days passed – it was very powerful. I sat silently on the beach and focused my attention on opening my heart to all living beings, both friends and those unknown to me. After a while, I felt my body and my mind purifying themselves. I named this discovery ‘open-heart meditation’.
Today is the feast of Santa Lucia, a saint from Syracuse who was martyred under the emperor Diocletian. She is the patron saint of the blind and people with limited eyesight. As usual, there are processions on her day, and the statue of the saint is carried on a litter along the streets of Enna. On this day, many families in Enna make a special meal called cuccìa. It is a ritual meal that was made in ancient Greece on the day of the commemoration of the dead. Nowadays in Sicily, the cuccìa is cooked on the day of the Feast of Santa Lucia. It is made from boiled wheat seasoned with chocolate or sweet ricotta, honey, and pieces of candied fruit. My sister Carolina used to cook cuccìa in a big cauldron and then invite all our neighbors to taste it. Even though I don’t like cuccìa, I really enjoy the coming and going of our neighbors who crowd my home all day long.
My grandmother, Paolina, who was Sicilian, started her day by having a quick breakfast, usually made of a cup of milky coffee, and then laid on the table about twenty or thirty holy cards. She read what was written on the back of the holy pictures and added a prayer for each saint depicted on the front. Of course, her prayers lasted for at least one hour, maybe more. At the end, she prayed for the souls in Purgatory and for her beloved husband, Ciccino, who had died at the age of 68.
It looked like she was playing solitaire with all those holy cards.
Fifty years have elapsed since then, and now I do the same thing she did, only the mode has changed. She played solitaire with holy cards, I play solitaire with books. On my desk are stacked about ten books. Every morning, after a cup of coffee, I read one or two pages of each book. They are books on various subjects.
Deep down, there is no much of a difference between what she did at that time and what I am doing now. Our goals are the same: to elevate our spiritual selves and purify our souls.