FINDING COMFORT IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF FAMILY RITUALS

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Italian coffee makker next to a hot beverage

By Peter Dewar

A coffee cafetière hissing madly on the stove. Squeezing in around a crowded table of in-laws for a plate of lasagne, fresh from the oven. A myriad of unnamed rituals remind me that marrying a woman of Sicilian descent makes life all the richer. Mostly.

That brings me to the widest cultural bridge marriage would ask me to negotiate. Regular visits to the ‘tomba’ of my wife’s grandparents.

At least from my standpoint, cemeteries are laden with the heaviest of sorrows, best avoided, with certainly no place on the social calendar. It remained to be seen what good could become of the tradition, no matter what Sicilian beliefs or family expectations had to say.

Three decades have passed since sixty-seven year-old Salvatrice died, with older husband Rosario following five years later. The couple now share an afterlife in a polished grey burial lot — identified in a long line of similar monuments by large gold etching of the family name.

Standing facing their gravesite you look into a glassed compartment containing their photos, and starting with the dates of birth, scant details of remarkable lives. A white statue of a long-haired, handsome Jesus stands on top of the tall headstone, looking out, arms outstretched as if to envelop mourners.

And like most in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox section, the monument is adorned by an eruption of colourful flowers. They need changing regularly. Year after year.

My wife is called upon to dust-off the granite top and replace the decorative bunches. The journey isn’t always convenient for her elderly mother, but is a must on Giorni dei Morti. Missing the Day of the Dead is disrespectful; besides, an opportunity would be lost to commune with loves ones, perhaps asking for help in some earthly matter.

Even for a close-knit Italian family, an uncommonly close bond grew between my wife as a young girl and her grandparents. In 1960, the couple left their village in Sicily to join their son and daughter — migrants hard at work, caring for a growing family and carving out an existence in a burgeoning, postwar Melbourne.

Nonna and Nonno stepped in as primary carers. My wife was barely eleven years old, when she was taken on a world trip with her middle-aged guardians. Memories of that holiday are some of her fondest.

As it turns out, Salvatrice and Rosario aren’t far away. The cemetery where they’re buried is only two kilometres or a gentle walk from our home. It takes a few minutes to kneel on and wipe off the smooth top and then carefully arrange new flowers, adding colour to their celestial front door.

The local cemetery is old enough for the Scottish pines and majestic Egyptian palms to have grown sky high. While the ground may have settled so unevenly that gravesites are broken and paths dishevelled, there’s a feeling of walking in parkland once through the ornate entrance gates.

How quickly any sense of the macabre disappeared. What remained was an escape from the modern bustle in a secluded tract of nature, and on strolls to Nonna and Nonno, my attention soon turned to an opus of fascinating stories laid bare at my feet. Literally hours were spent musing about the young prison guard who was brutally killed by convicts living aboard hulks anchored in local waters mid-1850s.

Occasionally a headstone would leave me curious. Could I find more online about the teen soldier killed in the First World War? Or whether the two, who died in 1919 were victims of the Spanish influenza that swept across our planet like the destructive COVID-19 tsunami?

In fact, once the current pandemic had reached our shores, sojourns to the cemetery took on a whole new meaning.

Those early weeks before stage-three restrictions were especially chilling. The whole world turned upside down. Overnight, the realisation sunk in, that yes, our lives and livelihood were potential targets of an invisible assassin. New York of all places became a ghost town, and Northern Italians were dying in horrifying numbers that ratcheted up with every news cycle. A sense of panic gripped us, intensifying after widespread hoarding of staples stripped supermarket shelves empty.

The thought of visiting Nonna and Nonno seemed strangely comforting.

It was overcast, and moisture cast the smell of pine in the air walking under gnarly, giant green trees.

Yesterday’s rains from the drought-dry Mallee had left a red dust covering the monument’s top, and a little more time was needed to have it shiny again.

A rabbit scurrying along an unkempt path only metres away caught my attention. Turning back to face my wife with the words, ‘Ready to head home?’, about to spill from my lips, I saw that she was standing still in her purple rain jacket staring blankly at the burial place, seemingly transfixed.

No tears dribbled down her face, she mouthed no words, but I realised a silent conversation was taking place.

A dusty stalwart in our bookshelves is a reflection on grief written by a palliative care professional. Look for unusual signs, watch for strange dreams, most of all keep talking to those who have passed, urges the author — a non-believer uncharacteristically open to the idea that our earthly existence may not be all there is.

It was enough for me that my wife walked home sporting a quiet smile.

You don’t need Sicilian blood flowing through your veins to enjoy cherished family rituals. I foolishly stopped paying attention to what had cocooned me growing up after the early deaths of my mother and sister set in motion a tragic unravelling of my own childhood family. A toll in loneliness has duly been paid.

It never ceases to amaze me how rapidly that bright hues of a bunch of flowers fade away in weather. After finishing that freshly brewed coffee, I’ll ask what is now a familiar question of a morning, ‘Care for a walk to the cemetery, today?’

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