The reunited Barra family from the right: Giuseppa, Matilda, and Vincenzo Barra, Bob Hokanson and Alicia Barra Hokanson
By Francine Brevetti
Why would I want to go to Sicily? My family’s from Northern Italy. Three reasons:
My education in college and graduate school exposed me to the histories of ancient Greece, and Rome, their drama and their mythologies. I’m crazy about antiquities.
Then this past spring I attended two lectures on Italian history by Dr. Douglas Kenning at the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. He explained in greater detail than I had ever heard before the colonization of Sicily by the Greeks – in fact it was called Magna Graecia – Great Greece.
Only under his lectureship did it click in my head that the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, the great myths of Zeus, Hera and Demeter played out on Sicilian soil.
I’m a sucker for mythology. So I signed up for the tour of Sicily that he does regularly.
I met him and the other four members of the tour in Siracusa – our first hotel looked over the Ionian Sea and I imagined I could see the Greek ships of 3500 years ago sailing my way. The rest of the ten-day venture was devoted to Agrigento, Erice, Taormina and so many other places, all enriched by Douglas’s encyclopedic knowledge of history and mythology.
Oh yes there was another reason I went to Sicily as well. I had heard the best cannoli in the world can be found there. This was true.
But it wasn’t until another tour member announced that she wanted to trace her family in Sicily that I became personally involved in this island of volcanoes and pastry.
Tour member and Colorado resident Alicia Barra treasured her Sicilian family and heritage. Trouble was, she’d never been to the old country.
So when a door opened and wizened woman, not 5 feet high, sturdily built with piercing black eyes greeted us on the main street of Partinico, Sicily, Alicia was astounded and speechless. This 75-year-old packet of dynamite was beckoning us in.
When Alicia and her husband Bob Hokanson had signed up with Sicily Tour (www.Sicily-tour.com) for a historical and archaeological exploration of the Italian island as I had, she had it in her mind to trace her parentage. Some years earlier she had accompanied Bob to track down his roots in Norway. Now he was supporting his wife in her search.
But how could she do this? Her family had long lost contact with her grandfather’s relatives, the Barra family, in the town of Partinico, 20 miles from Palermo.
“I kept wishing I could share this trip with my Dad,” said Alicia, thinking of her father in hospital in Long Island, NY.
Fortunately, the three leaders of Sicily Tour, Douglas and his partners, Lucia and Steve Davies, were long-time residents of Siracusa and knew their way around public records and Sicilian phonebooks.
It was Lucia who identified Alicia’s relatives in Partinico and their contact information. While we were exploring the island and heading towards Palermo, Lucia called Giuseppa Barra to ask if Alicia could visit. There was an enthusiastic yes on the other side of the line.
“It is one of my happiest jobs – bringing family together!” Lucia said later.
We were to spend two days in Palermo, the first for sightseeing and the second for free time. But that second day Doug agreed to drive Alicia and Bob to find la signora Barra. I came along to support Doug in translation since Alicia did not speak Italian.
As we came over the mountain from Palermo, Alicia remarked feelingly, “These are the same mountains my grandfather saw and the same roads he traveled on.” Alicia had been devoted to her grandfather Ignazio who lived with her and her family through her adolescence.
We twisted our way through the streets of the village – were all the streets one-way? Finally Doug was able to point the car in the proper direction toward the Barras’ front door. Looming over the main street we could spy a small figure on the balcony of the second level of a three-story building that dominated the street. A woman was leaning out scanning the street with intensity.
The brass plaque next to the main door read: Vincenzo Barra, Architetto. Alicia was thrilled to see her family name displayed with such dignity.
The door opened and Giuseppa Barra, a 75-year-old packet of dynamite, was beckoning us in.
There were no embraces or kisses. Alicia and her relative were still unclear on how they were related to each other.
We followed Giuseppa up the stairs to her quarters, entering a room from the 19th century, crowded with heavy dark furniture, festooned in doilies and lace curtains. Imposing photographs and yellowing portraits covered each inch of wall space.
She motioned to the four of us – Alicia and Bob, Doug and myself, to be seated. Many excited words were exchanged to clarify who was related to whom and how. Alicia’s grandfather, Ignazio, was the brother of Salvatore, Giuseppa’s deceased husband. Ignazio left the US when he was 17 and spent his majority on Long Island, NY. He returned for a single visit in his 60s. His son and Alicia’s father Vincenzo never ventured to the old country.
Giuseppa was prepared. On the table in front of Alicia was a stack of photographs, decades old. The older woman had been collecting these photos that Ignazio had sent home to his brother over the years. Most of the people in the photographs could have meant little or nothing to our hostess. Yet she had preserved them.
Alicia was astounded to discover images of all the relatives she knew throughout her childhood and adolescence. The image of her father with her little black dog was especially endearing to her. A picture of her at age 12 lined up with her whole family in front of the house her father had built was also meaningful.
The Colorado traveler was particularly taken with two photographs, side-by-side high up on the wall. They represented a young woman in shorts and a light top smiling with all of the sensuality she could express in that era – 50 or 60 years ago. They turned out to be photos of the young Giuseppa.
“She was so beautiful,” Alicia said to the uncomprehending Giuseppa.
“Molto (very) sexy,” I quipped. Everyone laughed except Giuseppa who looked away with a smile. Yes people in Italy understand the word sexy.
Alicia and Bob photographed the photos, “So I can bring them back to my Dad,” she said. Her dad is 86 and in poor health so she felt there was no likelihood he would come himself.
The elder Barra’s son Vincenzo, the architect whose plaque glinted on the building façade, had just come from Palermo to meet his newly found cousin. He brought his seven-year-old daughter Matilda and gave us a tour of his own quarters in the building. He had modernized his rooms with skill and they stood in stark contrast to his mother’s outdated though cherished furnishings.
Their home was an imposing three-story building on the main road and overlooked the town square and the church. Giuseppa and the Barras were well known. When we ventured out to the gelateria across the street, the couple dozen older men sitting outside the building kept trying to engage her. They must have wondered who these foreigners were but Giuseppa had little time for them. She wanted to keep us all for herself.
Library dedicated to Salvatore Barra
With our gelato joyfully indulged in, Vincenzo guided us to another treasure – a private library dedicated to his father. It must have been named recently for the sign outside was a flimsy placard that said “La Biblioteca Salvatore Barra. “ Salvatore was being remembered for his passionate work as an antifascist. Materials in the library were of that nature, including the works of Karl Marx and portraits of Che Guevara, among others.
When we sadly took our leave of mother and son, Alicia vowed, “I will definitely see that my children come. And I will come back too.” She swore to learn Italian when she returned to Conifer.
The embraces and kisses that were absent when we first met them were bountifully exchanged at this point.
We were all deeply grateful for the successful reunion of two generations.
Zeus and Hera notwithstanding, this was one of the high points of my trip to Sicily – something I could never have foreseen.
Francine Brevetti is an author and ghostwriter who resides in her hometown of San Francisco, California. Her work can be seen at www.FrancineBrevetti.com and www.Amazon.com. She specializes in nonfiction work, especially memoirs and business books.