Tramonto – Sunset in Sicily

Photo by Egidio Maio, Santa Lucia del Mela 2023

There is a mystery in my family and at the heart of my book in progress. It all began here in this place of the spectacular sunset: Santa Lucia del Mela, on the eastern tip of Sicily, where my great-grandmother Maria Carbone was born and discarded, not into a box, but into a wheel.

She was a child of the wheel, as these foundlings were known, an infant left in the dead of a cold January night in 1870 by her birth mother and then promptly handed over to Maria Tricamo and Stefano Trio—just a wet nurse and her husband, it was written. The surnames Tricamo and Trio keep showing up as DNA connections in my ancestry profiles. Coincidence perhaps, the gene pool in these towns is small. But I do know that this Maria, my great-grandmother, was raised by her wet-nurse and husband. They were “grandparents” to her children, one of whom was my grandfather, Fortunato Milazzo, who left Sicily for America in 1910.

Abandoned place of the wheel, Santa Lucia del Mela, 2018

I never knew my grandfather. He predetermined that when he took off one day from Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York in search of an American life. A life away from the likes of greenhorns, dagos, guineas, and wops. He blended in well with these Americans he so wanted to become, having neither the appearance nor the manner of the stereotypical Italian immigrant. Part of his self-reinvention was crushing hearts. He left behind my grandmother, my mother, and my uncle—and he never looked back.

My mother lived another 94 years after he walked away from her, but she never stopped longing for him. My grandmother suffered all of her life from the shame of a single woman bringing two children back home to live with her parents, uneducated immigrants living on a coal-miner’s pay check. She too never moved on emotionally from this man who loved her and then left her. My uncle always claimed he did’t care about the father who never tossed a ball to him in the back yard. But I think he did.

All this was long before I was born, but even so, Fortunato was always in some dark corner of my house as I was growing up. A mythical figure from the past. And then one day, I went after him—in Johnstown, in Syracuse, and eventually in Sicily, starting in Santa Lucia del Mela, the town of magnificent sunsets. I’ve walked the streets in the neighboring town of San Filippo del Mela where he grew up, I’ve parked outside the house on Grant Avenue in Syracuse where he once lived, and I’ve stood next to the railroad tracks where he left my mother when she was 4-years-old to begin his new life.

Fortunato Milazzo, my grandfather, 1918?
On the Street Where He lived, San Filippo del Mela, 1918

From there I’ve filled in as much as I could from online and on site research, from family accounts, newspaper articles, and from some deeply internal and familial instinct to write the story of my grandfather whose loss was not having known his first grandchild.

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