Sicily: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (or, My Sicilian Nonna Carmelina’s Broom and Cassina)

Sicily: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

(or, My Sicilian Nonna Carmelina’s Broom and Cassina)

If you’re of Italian descent like me or have ties to Sicily, then you’ll know that, just like a (good) witch, a Sicilian woman’s power is in, among other things, her broom.

Of course, today modern Sicilian women can run rings around you with their Smart cars, Smartphones and smart wardrobe and are totally into the newest gadgets, fashions and even relationship trends. But their grandmothers- mine especially- were the mistresses of their homes, rising at the crack of dawn to keep their domain clean.

To do so unhindered, my Nonna used to send my Nonno Peppe off to the countryside to work in his artichoke patch and I very distinctly remember him arriving in the evening, tooting the horn on his artichoke-laden moped, as cheery as ever. Some husbands, however, were not as industrious as my Nonno. When the midday heat got too much to bear, other men would hit the piazza, or local square, yacking away about the price of local produce or the new barber until lunchtime.

My oldest memory of Nonna’s house was the fragrance of her polpette, fried balls of meat or potato and sometimes, if it had been a good year, both. A constant ingredient was parsley. It was the fragrance of things made with love.

After lunch, the men and children would retire, while the women continued their housework, and when you saw them finally pouring water from a pail and scrubbing their sidewalks, you knew they were done for the day and that you weren’t allowed inside for at least thirty minutes. Not that you’d be in the street at that ungodly hour when the temperature can reach 45 degrees Celsius.

Not only was Nonna’s broom an instrument of cleanliness, it was an instrument of power. You would know if, like me, you’d been swatted on the bottom with it because you’d been caught with your nose in the special snacks cupboard just before lunch or if you spilled anything on the sofa. No matter how fast you ran, Nonna, despite all odds, could run faster.

Another fond memory is that of my Nonna’s cassina, the forerunner of today’s blinds, also called persiane or veneziane, Italian for Persian or Venetian blinds.

The cassina is simply a sheet of wooden slats strung together so as when it is rolled down in front of an open door, it lets in little light and even less heat. Perfect for those sizzling Sicilian afternoons when everyone is much too weak to stay awake. So down the cassina goes, a sign that you must not disturb that household. It also, incidentally, keeps out bugs.

Some women go half-way, resting a chair under the cassina so that it bows slightly out, leaving you enough room to quietly slip out or family members (or very close neighbours) to slip in without waking the husbands. Great for clandestine relationships if the guy was brave enough to face the heat!

After our afternoon siestas, during the Vespri, I remember, as a child, being told to wash and change into my evening clothes as it was time to entertain visitors.

So we’d whip out our good chairs (all six of them!) and place them on the sidewalk (there wasn’t much traffic back in those days) and wait for our aunts, uncles and cousins (and possibly Salvatore, that hunky friend of theirs!) to come over and chew the breeze. All the Nonnas, mine included, would have their fans at the ready (a smaller, yet still powerful version of the broom) and discuss the latest scandals of the town, halting their talks momentarily to nod to a passerby that was, by a strange twist of fate, the very object of their gossip.

But if you had a good reputation and were popular, stopping to say hello could be a fatal error as a chair would be pulled out for you (the youngest would have to give his/her up) and you’d be offered a lemon granita or a frozen espresso and wherever you were headed would have to wait, as it was rude to turn down a chair.

Being one of the youngest, I’d almost always have to give up my chair for some old dear, but I didn’t mind as I could secretly, from behind the cassina, wait for or watch hunky Salvatore hanging around on his Vespa.

My Nonna’s cassina was different from anyone else’s because hers was not the customary brown or emerald green, but a lovely dark blue. After she died I inherited it (along with her night stand and a silk scarf which I guard with my life) and stashed it in the garage for years. Then one day (it was a very hot day in early July), I unrolled it, dusted it and wiped it down with a damp cloth. All those years of hanging in the sun had faded the lovely blue paint that had set it apart from all the other households. So I went out and bought a small can of lovely dark blue paint and got to work.

Friends, aunts, uncles, cousins (even Salvatore, slightly less hunky today) say, “What are you doing with that old thing? Times have changed, you want to update your house, not make it look like Nonna’s!”

I shrug, not interested in other people’s opinions. So what if my house looks a little retro? The idiots who’d opted for modern, metal blinds are baking as we speak, while I am breezy behind my Nonna’s ancient cassina.


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