Dorotea by Edvige Giunta

Dorotea

In the beginning, there was Dorotea.

Born around the time of the Italian unification. Almost certainly in the town of Terranova, on the southeastern coast of the triangle of land between the Italian peninsula and the African continent. Died young. Most likely in Terranova, the town renamed in the late 1920s Gela, the same name it had received from the ancient Greeks who had settled there after a brief, unequal battle with the previous settlers in the sixth century BCE. The ancient name embodied a promise, a hope of renewed glory, a rekindling of the fame that had once drawn Aeschylus to the shores of Gela, where he most certainly died, though his tomb was never found. That promise would be unrealized, and the hope would prove futile.

Sicily became Italy. But Dorotea’s contemporaries and townspeople did not know they had become Italian. They were barely Sicilian. They were terranovisi, vutrisi, niscimisi, riesani, people with a visceral attachment to their villages of birth, which they rarely left, except to work in the surrounding feudi, the large expanses of land owned by the families of the Sicilian nobility: Pignatelli, Moncada, Modica. Dorotea wouldn’t have known she was Italian. She wouldn’t have spoken in the smooth, crystalline sounds of the Tuscan language. Her words would have been uttered in the thick, heavy, sometimes harsh, sometimes mellow rhythms of the Sicilian tongue her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother and all the women who came before her spoke.

In the story passed down to her descendants, Dorotea would marry Rosario De Caro when she was eleven. She would have six children — three boys and three girls. At nineteen, she would become a widow. She would bury three of her children, the boys, by the time she was twenty-six. Her three girls would be off to a fancy collegio in Palermo and a rich man would pay their tuition and board. One of the girls would not go back home for ten years. At seventeen or eighteen, this girl would marry the son of a wealthy Maltese merchant who had settled in Terranova and married a terranovisa, who had given him eleven children.

Dorotea would die in her early thirties.

Or so the story goes. Then, there are the records.

In the story there will be a sister, the beautiful nun who married not once but twice. There will be other fantastic characters: a prince, an evil brother, a Cardinal, dead husbands. There will be intrigue, murder, sorrow; there will be mystery; and there will be questions, so many questions. There will be silences.

None of Dorotea’s female descendants would be named after her. For a long, long time, she will be lost, not even a memory, not even a name. There will be no story to tell.

In the beginning, Dorotea is merely a name. In the beginning, she is just three consonants and four vowels uttered by her granddaughter, ninety-year-old Nunziatina Nuncibello Minasola, on a March afternoon, in 2001, when spring is settling, and there’s blooming everywhere. Nunziatina’s own granddaughter is visiting the old woman in Gela, where Nunziatina was born in 1910, where her children were born, and where this granddaughter, too, was born, though she no longer lives there. She has moved to America seventeen years earlier. Nunziatina’s children are scattered everywhere. Only her oldest living daughter is still in Gela.

I am the American granddaughter.

Dorotea comes when Nunziatina and I are sitting across each other at the kitchen table, the same where I sat so many times as a child, when she would feed me carne a bagnomaria, a veal cutlet, thin, fat trimmed off, dressed with thin slices of garlic, smooth, green olive oil, oregano, and salt – cooked on a battered aluminum plate, covered with a lid and placed over a pot in which something boiled – pasta for that day’s lunch or a lentil soup for dinner.

Sometimes, when I visit her, I keep her company while she eats an early lunch or dinner. She breaks the day-old bread and chews it slowly. I watch her.

It is four in the afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. She offers me a ciambella, a banana. I accept an orange soda.

I am here to listen.

Breaking bread with my grandmother has become rare, extraordinary, like the story of Dorotea, this unexpected, incongruous, fantastic story.

Whose story is it anyway?

Dorotea comes unannounced; her arrival is not preceded by a request or invitation or prayer. Her name spills out of Nunziatina’s lips and lingers between us – a gift, a promise. I grab it and take it home to America.

In the beginning, there was Dorotea.

Then, there were the women who came after her.

Edvige Giunta is the author of Writing with an Accent and coeditor of the forthcoming Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Fire. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Creative NonfictionAssayBarrow Street, 100-Word StoryMutha Magazine, Citron Review, and other publications.

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Image: Renato Guttuso Fondazione Cariplo CC3.0

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