Maria Messina was born in Mistretta in 1887, the daughter of a low level scholastic inspector. Like most girls, she did not receive much education, that privilege being reserved for her brother, who, luckily for Maria and for us, taught her to read and encouraged her to learn to write. Messina, who grew up like most Sicilians speaking dialect, also taught herself to write and read and speak Italian. At some point she began to write fiction and found in that activity an escape from the suffocation and intellectual deprivation that was her intended lot. At the age of 20 she had a successful story collection published. She had the audacity to send her work to Giovanni Verga, the reigning master of Sicilian literature at the time. Verga not only liked her work but encouraged her writing. She went on to have a successful career and was known as an accomplished practitioner of verismo in her own right. At some point, however, she fell into obscurity not to be heard of again until about 1981, when Leonard Sciascia wrote an admiring introduction to a newly published collection of her stories that was being published by Sellerio.
I discovered Messina in 2007 when I read Francine Prose’s review of the English translation of several of her stories. It spoke to me on many levels. Messina worked in similar territory to Verga–the small, provincial Sicilian society of the late 19th/early 20th century–but with a female point of view. The protagonists of Messina’s fiction are the hard-working, oppressed, deprived, uneducated, financially marginal women of Sicilian provincial society. In Messina however, their concerns–the housework, the funeral arrangements, the children’s health–are treated as of fundamental importance to the functioning of the society, not adjunct as in Verga’s and many male writers’ fiction. Messina’s spare style reminded me of Jane Austen, whom I adore. She has the ability to create little cameos of domestic life–austerely drawn and tightly controlled–that show the underlying power dynamics of a society in sharp relief and with a fine sense of irony.
My path into Messina was partly personal as well. She is the namesake of my maternal grandmother, Maria Messina, born in Palermo in 1898, and so I became a bit obsessed with her. In fact for my masters’ thesis at NYU I translated seven of her stories, one of which is this one I am submitting for publication here.
This story, The Shattered Dream, is, I think, representative of Messina’s style. She brings together two families one from the provinces, one slightly more sophisticated from Palermo. The story shows all the levels of social inequality that exist between them as well as well as their acute awareness of where they stand vis a vis each other. It depicts their mutual misconceptions as well as great expectations, and their disingenuousness about all they feel, wish and hope. All the while, Messina is able to create a sympathy for these poor benighted women, who dream small but will be disappointed anyway.
THE SHATTERED IDEAL
by Maria Messina
“Where will you be tonight, Mamma?” asked Professor Sinighella, slipping on his overcoat.
“Well,” said Signora Cristina, putting down her work. “I was invited today by the doctor’s wife, but yesterday I promised to visit Donna Amalia Laurato. Come with me to Donna Amalia’s house…I will be ready and you won’t waste time.”
“You’re a regular at the Lauratos’! Do you like them?”
“They’re very lovely. Oh…” she interrupted herself, “don’t forget to mail the letters.”
Signora Cristina Sinighella repeated the same advice in a lively tone every day without fail, and every day the professor, with a gesture that had become habitual, put a couple of letters and a package of illustrated postcards in one of the pockets that were always bulging with newspapers and other papers.
Signora Sinighella, far from Palermo for the first time in her life, tried to maintain her ties to every relative and every friend, writing long letters and awaiting—with the urgency of a young girl—brief replies which seemed to carry an echo of the beloved city she had left reluctantly.
Oh, more than reluctantly!
That first move had caused her an anxiety almost deeper than the joy she felt at knowing that her son had finally been named a professor, since friends, pretending to commiserate with her, amused themselves by describing the boredom and discomfort awaiting her in the little mountain town.
“There isn’t even electric light! Or a movie theater!” some of them said.
“School ends at the eighth grade,” others informed her. “And there is only one mail pick-up a week! Sometimes not even once a week. And newspapers hardly ever reach there. Imagine—no railroad, no automobiles!”
“Talk about anxiety!”
But in the luminous golden September Signora Cristina set out on her journey convinced that she was carrying out a sacrifice greater than her strengths; and upset and sad, she had let herself be carried by the wheezing coach higher and higher on the interminable road that, as it climbed the steep mountains and descended through the cloudy valleys, seemed to leave behind every sound of activity.
Once she was in town she was seized by nostalgia. The sight of the half deserted tiny streets, of the two-story houses, of women dressed in dark colors was intolerable. In order not to trouble her son she didn’t complain, but she thought of her beautiful house on Via Maqueda as if she would never see it again.
But little by little without realizing it she began to resign herself. She found a bit of diversion in the company of her landlady, who sent over a little basket of zibibbo grapes before her first visit. And who, trying her best to make her tenant like the town, wanted her to get to know her own friends.
Every day for some time there had been another invitation:
“Come tonight because I am expecting Donna Clementina, the Lady who lives in the villa next to Belvedere,” she explained. “You certainly must have noticed it.”
Signora Cristina had not noticed the villa, but out of courtesy she stated the opposite.
“The villa with two lions on the gate,” Donna Amalia reiterated very happily. “Perhaps you are confusing it with the little house of Don Nele, which has a grey gate.”
“I understand. The villa with the lions. Yes, I’d love to meet Signora…Signora….”
For the landlady it was enough to say Donna Clementina or Donna Sofia or “the old baroness.” She knew them since birth and she didn’t think that even their family names could be new to someone. She hadn’t had any dealings with strangers, with people unrelated to life in the town!
Signora Sinighella replied: “Donna Clementina…that’s the name, but…”
“Okay. She was the only daughter of Baron Barbarella, who married Donna Teresina da Siracusa. A beauty…you should have seen her! A queen! Someone who should be put in a painting!”
“Therefore…daughter of the Baron and of Donna Teresina?”
“She’s the wife of a very rich man: the owner of the large estate of “Montagnola”.
“But this gentleman…”
“A true gentleman. Don Raimondo di Santavenera…Who doesn’t know him? They have only one child, a son, who studies at home and is preparing for the exams for the first ginnasio. This is why they want to befriend you,” she explained innocently.
In this way the “mother of the professor” got to know almost all the ladies of the town.
Yet the first visits, solemnly announced a week in advance, made her melancholy because the women who visited, remaining still and quiet, unwilling to break the long and difficult silences, reminded her of the condolence calls she had received some years before.
But little by little the new acquaintances began to respect the “stranger” and became close with her. And in this way they began to reveal themselves as sincere and affectionate, as they really were.
They were good creatures, who, without knowing it, quieted the pain of regret in the heart of Signora Cristina, who, although continuing to write to her friends and relations, no longer showed the same impatience to return to Palermo.
Life is so sweet when we feel the invigorating air of a bit of sincere affection!
And although every family seemed to compete with the others to lavish her with kindness, Signora Cristina preferred the truly disinterested friendship of the mothers who did not have children to send to the ginnasio.
She went especially willingly to the Laurato home. Settling down into a familiar intimacy, more sincere than she had ever found among her Palermitan friends, she began to enjoy the tranquil evenings beside the fire, next to two dark-haired young girls, working and chatting only when she felt like it, discussing cooking, stockings, banal goings-on: calm conversations enlivened by the chattering of little Marina, interrupted by long pauses that give a kind of sluggish and pleasant rest to the spirit.
Her son came to pick her up around 8 o’clock each night. Hearing the knock, the girls would turn red; Donna Amalia watched Signora Sinighella with a half-mortified air, while the servant went to open the door.
She didn’t dare allow the young man to enter the dining room in the midst of the women and at the same time suffered from having to make him wait in the anteroom or the cold parlor.
When Signora Cristina realized the reason for the awkwardness she courteously took refuge there allowing him to find her ready at 8, with her work in her bag and her scarf on her head.
And then she realized how necessary it was for him to remain far from the girls!
To all of them he was the stranger, the Palermitano, the most elegant young man in town, the one who they most desired and most feared to meet: in short, a kind of temptation.
On Sundays, coming out of the high mass, they pointed him out to each other by winking. The boldest ones would greet him with an imperceptible sign; the others didn’t respond at all to being welcomed, passing by with their eyes on the ground, enclosed in a black shawl, their faces red as pomegranate seeds.
Catching a glimpse of him like this, at the door of the church or strolling at Belvedere, each one imagined him in her own way. And when a bunch of them got together on the long rainy afternoons, they avoided speaking about him or they mentioned him timidly, because each one concealed a secret joyful delusion about the young stranger and was afraid to reveal it to her friends.
Signora Cristina, though smiling a bit, was moved by the distress that seemed to arise spontaneously from the midst of the young women. She sometimes thought with maternal tenderness of her little friends: Sofia, Carmelina, Lucietta: thoughtful faces, eyes now ardent, now mischievous, devoted hearts…Yes, one of these young girls, raised in the warm shade of these four walls, fresh and pure like untouched flowers, could have become her daughter-in-law.
But we cannot go against our destiny.
Every evening, as she put herself to bed, Signora Cristina said to her son, who slept in the room next to hers:
“What lovely people, aren’t they?”
“Oh, very lovely people!” he answered.
“Since we have been here, we no longer have to buy oil, or fruit, or coffee.”
And in this way showing their pleasant amazement they wished each other good night, without interrupting the train of thoughts: the son thought of a beautiful young face, pale with the hot pallor of Palermo and a bit sullen; the mother thought vaguely of the credenza richly laden with oil and honey, her son’s future, the house on Via Maqueda….
And in other houses, also dark and silent, some young girl, half-asleep, again saw without blushing the indistinct figure of Professor Sinighella; and some mother was dreaming that her oldest daughter was betrothed.
“The Christmas holiday,” concluded Donna Amalia as she was threading a stitch, “is a holiday to be spent with family.”
“What a great thing it is to have family nearby,” exclaimed Signora Cristina. “It’s the first time that we will spend Christmas completely alone. That’s why I am anticipating this Christmas with sadness.”
Donna Amalia invited her:
“You are like family to us! Look…your son too…Christmas evening…is welcome. The men in my family will be there and he will not be alone.”
Marina, the youngest daughter, who still wore her hair tied with a ribbon, said, while fiddling around with the crochet hook,
“I want to have a really good time.”
“Oh, you will have a good time!” said Stella. “We will play tombola!”
“And the manger,” added Donna Amalia.
“But you?” exclaimed Lucietta, the oldest of the three sisters. “You no longer would like to go to Palermo?”
“We have four days of vacation and it takes two for the trip there and back. Certainly, I would have liked to go. Not as much for me as for my son. “
“Does he have many friends?”
“Who? My son? More than friends, my dear.”
Signora Cristina thought that the Lauratos had understood for a while.
She added, with a mischievous tone,
“When you leave your heart behind… you will understand…”
Lucietta opened her eyes wide. She was filled with curiosity and fear but she didn’t dare ask anything more. Donna Amalia said with a slightly hoarse voice:
“Why, your son…”
“Is engaged. Hadn’t I told you?”
Lucietta went pale, while Marina stared at her with her deep, black eyes of a child who also hears things she doesn’t understand.
Signora Cristina fell silent, embarrassed, almost as if she had let slip a rude comment. It seemed a gust of frigid air had numbed them all.
Because she was a prudent woman, Donna Amalia was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. Stirring the brazier, she said,
“What a terrible fire!”
Lucietta, no longer pale (ah! that overpowering blushing that extends to the nape of the neck, that makes your eyes water!), got up with the excuse of checking to see if it was raining. And, Marina, following her, grabbed a hand with a charming childlike grace that nonetheless displayed a motherly affection. Stella lowered her eyes to her work and did not raise them again.
The evening was interminable.
As soon as the professor knocked at the door, Signora Sinighella put on her scarf as if she were lifting a weight. She tried to say goodnight with more warmth than usual; Donna Amalia accompanied her to the door: they said goodbye to each other with many gestures of courtesy in a tone that suggested they were trying to rectify an irreparable error.
“I wouldn’t want to intrude on you and your family,” Signora Cristina murmured.
“It’s up to you,” Donna Amalia responded. “We will see you after the holidays then?”
“Yes, after the holidays. Best wishes.”
“Best wishes to you.”
After Christmas (a sad Christmas, of solitude, nostalgia, and hope) Signora Cristina found the Laurato family had changed, as had the other families.
Only those families who had children to send to the ginnasio continued to befriend her.
The credenza was less richly laden; the oil had to be used sparingly. And Professor Sinighella became the shattered ideal of all the young ladies of the town, who, when they gathered together during long rainy afternoons, avoided speaking at all costs about the “stranger,” because each one concealed her own secret, melancholy defeat and was afraid to let her friends know about it.
Marie D’Amico received a masters degree in Italian Studies from NYU. Her interests there were translation, Italian-Americana, Italian and Italian-American women writers, daily life in the Renaissance, and immigration. She is a third-generation Italian-American and a lifelong Italophile.