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.
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?”
My Christian name is Mario, my family name is Chiaramonte. I am light-skinned, about one meter and seventy centimeters tall. The color of my eyes is between green and light brown. I was born in Enna at a time when the old Sicily was still alive. It was the sunny island where some women knew the secret to rid children of their intestinal worms and of the evil eye, through arcane practices. It was the old Sicily where goats walked in the streets, and the shepherd milked them in front of the houses and sold milk to the housewives. What a fresh product it was! Apartments didn’t exist and people warmed up their houses by using braziers. Fruit and legumes had a natural taste, hens brooded their eggs, ate wheat, bran and leftovers, and were free of scratching around. It was the old Sicily where fields were plowed by oxen, the wheat was reaped by farmers’ hands, mules and horses trampled the spikes in the threshing floor, the wind separated the chaff from the grains of wheat, the television had not been invented yet, and people gathered in the houses to chat about this and that. It was the old Sicily where people breathed unpolluted air, the water of the sea, lakes, and rivers was clean, and the words like plastic, pollution, climate changes, global warming, and hole in the ozone didn’t exist in dictionaries.
This is an excerpt from November 2: The Day of the Dead in Sicily