Family Ghosts

I startled awake to the spirited chattering of birds outside the window, my eyes straining through darkness to discern where I was. I squinted at the clock—5 a.m. Shadowy forms about the room hung in soft, eerie angles like remnants of a dream, leaving me with a sense of unidentifiable doom. I then remembered I was at my parents’ house to be with my mother as we anticipated my grandfather’s funeral. Hollow and ill, with buzzing nerves and upset stomach, I recognized the symptoms of exposure to our family’s past since our grandfather’s death, a past that I had never fully connected to, that had produced a type of neurosis, a constant longing.

I’d had this certain longing ever since I could remember. Something felt perpetually out of reach—as if a train ran by my life as I stood waiting on the platform. I was sure I’d had my hand out to flag it down, but somehow I’d missed my connection. In the dawn hour, longing arrived at the station, enveloping me like an approaching funeral march.

I heard the soft pulse of music. Half-dazed, I ambled down the hall where Brahms floated from my mother’s painting studio, light beneath the door verifying activity. I found my mother at a canvas in her green Indian tunic—the one she had sewn in just an afternoon. Dangly earrings sparkled between waves of hair about her shoulders; her glasses, now a permanent fixture, rested on her nose. 

Furiously, her paintbrush dabbed at the canvas, percussively beating away, layering purple to the pointed mountain. Without turning, she acknowledged me.

“I can only think of Sicily today. I’ve been up for hours.” She bit her lip, then took a step back to scrutinize her work. Her long fingers tilted the lamp to shine on her painting. “Tomorrow would have been my father’s birthday—he died just eight days shy of completing his ninety-sixth year. Oh I dread seeing the family in Philadelphia.”

A week ago, my grandfather’s—Papa’s—Denver lawyer had called about his death, as my two-year-old hung on my knees, twisting the coiled phone cord.

“Is this Patricia—Carol King’s daughter? I couldn’t reach your mother. Your grandfather died last night in his sleep. They found him this morning.”

“Of what?” The household sounds disappeared, drowned out by the hiss of the long-distance telephone line.

“Uh … some kind of hemorrhage.”

“Oh,” I responded politely, stalling for more explanation.

 “I have more calls to make. I’m glad I could reach you,” he said with a tone that told me he was merely scratching me off his to-do list. 

I phoned my mother, who responded in a worn voice. “I know—Mimi already called.”

“I’ll drive into Carlisle, to help you get ready for the funeral.” My parents’ charming Pennsylvania town was only two hours from our Philadelphia home.

She sighed. “I suppose you could help me pull together a photo board.”

I stepped over books piled around my mother’s studio, embalmed in the woodsy scent of oil paints that glistened on her wet canvas. “Is that Mount Etna? “ I asked. Her painting of the seductive and powerful mountain peak pulled me into its landscape, dotted with ancient stone houses where my grandparents had once lived.

“Why would our family ever leave such a beautiful, peaceful place?”

“I thought that many times myself,” my mother muttered. The canvas bounced back and forth as her brush formed a jug resting on a woman’s shoulder, held by the graceful arc of her arm. As I watched Mom bring images to life on the gauzy surface, I longed for the far- away country to which we felt we belonged.

“But why did they leave?” I moved her pile of clothes to the side of the chair and sat down.

Mom swirled blue and green on her palette, producing a vivid teal color that she added to a stone fountain in the forefront of the painting. She floated with the melodic piano phrase, lifting her arm in time with the music, and added burgundy to the sandy-colored jug, making it more prominent. Her sense of rhythm from years of piano study was internalized.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Intently, she filled in the jug before offering more information. “We could still be living in Sicily if it wasn’t for my father,” she huffed, pulling her strokes harder across the orange- streaked sky.


“Because of that broken water jug and its curse.”

“You never told me the whole story,” I said, remembering parts of the story she had repeated all those years when she thought I was too young to be listening.

“Your grandfather and your Nonna’s mother, Vincenza, had that fight. But our family doesn’t speak of the incident much,” she answered, one eyebrow raised to discourage further questions.

I wondered if that was why our families rarely met except at funerals. And why Papa never invited relatives to his grand mansion, or why our mother barely visited her Philadelphia cousins. We children had missed out on lavish Sunday dinners with relatives, hearing our Sicilian language, and the general intimacy a family experiences at regular gatherings. We drifted around the periphery of our culture, fantasizing what our life should have been. The few family occasions we attended left us with fond memories and a longing to be more connected to my mother’s relatives. But we could not find our way into the family circle.

“Tell me more.”

Mom stopped painting and lifted her glasses from her face. 

“When your grandfather broke Aunt Vincenza’s water jug, the whole town believed their lives became cursed, especially after the terrible drought that followed, with the bugs attacking the weakened plants, munching cut-out shapes into the leaves, and then the big food shortage.” She leaned into her painting with the fine point of her paintbrush and added a thin line to the jug handle. “Now, she never forgave Papa. Your grandfather’s reputation was ruined in a small village, hungry for gossip.”

“But why would Papa break his aunt’s water jug?”

“Apparently you didn’t know my father well enough,” she curtly replied.

She smirked. I waited while she collected her thoughts, and now that she seemed to relish telling the story, she shifted into her grandiloquent manner, as she often did for a dramatic effect. Raising her voice over the radio’s lively orchestral passage, she elaborated.

“Your grandfather was known for his volcanic disposition, as explosive as the mountain that loomed over his village at the base of Mount Etna. And he was just the same—destructive to everything and everyone who came onto his path.” She scooped her arms up as if to show the grand mountain, enlarging her dark eyes with excitement, tossing her head with an exaggerated gesture. “In the highlands of Sicily, your grandfather, Nunzio Minissale, became as rugged as the hilly land, and”—she leaned forward, narrowing her eyes—“as deceptive as the volcano behind his village.” She lifted her arm as if holding an imaginary tray. “Consequently, his environs were to blame for shaping his volatile behavior.” Mom’s eyes drooped with sadness. “It’s funny how your grandfather was so full of fire, and yet it was a water jug that changed the course of his life—and everyone else’s, if you think of it that way.”

Mom returned to her table of oozing paint tubes and picked out a deep vermillion color. She entered her painting, and I entered my thoughts about our grandfather’s powerful influence on the family. She spoke in staccato phrases, steadying her hand to produce long brush strokes. “You know, that water jug had more power than we ever imagined. It really was a type of curse; relations were never repaired, then the family dispersed to America, Vincenza carrying those same old grudges, as if the water jug dispute had frozen us in that one ridiculous moment.” Mom painted a faint arc of light over the mountain, then sketched three transparent forms floating toward Mount Etna. The hardly visible humanlike shapes drifted like wispy smoke, scrolling across the sky.

”Our family’s comings and goings, fleeing and uprooting, eventually left a crevasse between who we are and who we once were. You know what they say in Sicily: ‘There are forces, there are gods, and there are mortal wounds too deep to heal.’”

I took in the smoky, spiral clouds painted about the mountain peak, suggesting ghosts of generations who had left so much behind. What had been lost in our family’s migrations when they had to turn their backs on the past? Did this longing, imbedded deep within me, reach further back to my relatives, who also lost something in folds of generations?

Mom added hairline cracks to the muted brown jug, then wiped her paintbrush on the speckled rag.

“If only someone had known how to mend our damaged vessel,” Mom mused.

How could one incident hold so much weight in our family’s history? And who were those three spirits in her painting? I watched Mom swing her brush back and forth, painting the expanse of sky. Her clouds, layered with hues of blue and purple, drew me into lofty thoughts.

“We can only dream of the time when we once belonged to our land, our people, our ways,” she mumbled, absorbed by her ancestral landscape.

 “But don’t we still belong to all that?” How could she disregard our heritage with such finality? Surely my mother longed for the past as I did. Longing was a random phantom. It surfaced whenever I saw old family photos, smelled garlic sizzling in olive oil, viewed sunsets, heard Italian opera, caught a scent of my grandfather’s cologne or a whiff of geraniums, or came upon a palazzo resembling my grandparents’ mansion. The constant longing that my siblings and I felt was our lifelong conversation, as we’d wistfully ask, “Do you remember  when …?” Together we tried to capture smells and images of our grandparents’ life that had forever stamped nostalgia on our hearts.

“I wish we could go back in time,” I lamented.

My mother turned to me. “While some can look forward, some of us agonize a lifetime over loss too remote to define, and too profound to forget.” She dabbed the canvas once, as if adding a period to her philosophical statement, then reached over and turned off the commercial that blasted on the radio.

I hung on to my mother’s last thought, her rhythmic brush strokes comforting me, reminding me to notice the present. Sweet morning air wafted through the cracked window while she hummed in a soft, breathy voice.

I leafed through the scrapbook that she used as inspiration, and discovered a brown-tinged photograph of our Sicilian relatives staged in poses, staring back with hungry looks.

“That’s our family before they had to leave Sicily,” she said over her shoulder.

I turned the page, and a photo of a young, dark-haired man, clipped to an old Philadelphia train ticket and a packet of letters, fell from the book.

“And who is this?” I held up the photo, signed “Eugene.” Mom froze with a pained look, then whisked the photo away from me.

“There are some questions that cannot be answered.” She tossed the photo in her drawer, shutting down into a silent mood.

The grandfather clock chimed six. Now that the birds had quieted and my mother was deeply focused on her painting, I trudged back to my darkened room and slipped back to bed. Longing was waiting for me. In the bit of nascent sun that found its way through the parted window curtain, in the spicy scent of our sheets, in the familiar creaks of our old house where five children’s voices bounced in tiers of time—I was lost in our distant past, in an endless procession of memories. As I tried to still the thoughts evoked by my mother’s comments that morning, a deep urge rumbled within me with a force to be recognized and expelled. I searched for a notebook and began to write furiously, as if struck by lightning:

A persistent longing reminds me that I have been missing something from the very beginning, which continually begs its resolution. I have always been on a quest, a mission, to find what it is that I have lost.

Patricia King Haddad, known for her work with the acclaimed Brazilian music group MINAS, took a big turn in her music ventures when an old family story about a water jug pulled her out of her sleep in the middle of the night. That got her writing a book about her family’s emigration from Sicily to Philadelphia, which also inspired her writing the musical work, La Giara (The Water Jug), performed with a cast of singers, ensemble, narrator and video integration.