In my village, just like in every self-respecting Sicilian village, there were certain duties that you could not back out of and one of these was Sunday mass.
I had been given the honour, according to my mum, of being one of the altar boys who served the mass.
It was not something I chose to do, but one of the many “democratic obligations” dictated by my dad.
«See how lovely those children at the altar look. They’re dressed like angels», my mother had started repeating this to me every Sunday after my sixth birthday.
«Wouldn’t you like to have a beautiful tunic like the one your friends serving the mass are wearing?», my father said when I was almost seven.
On the morning of my eighth birthday, I found my parents waiting for me impatiently in the kitchen with a large cardboard box, decorated with a beautiful red ribbon, sitting on the table.
These were the years of electric trains and plastic railways: models that reproduced small scale locomotives and carriages running along the railway tracks.
The box was large and I hoped with all my heart that the gift would be just that. I was so excited. I removed the ribbon in a hurry and opened the box.
With my arm still raised, holding the lid of the box up, my smile turned into a look of disappointment.
A long, white tunic laid inside the box. After I had recovered from the shock, I felt obliged to smile and thank those happy faces watching me.
«It’s just what I wanted. Thank you.» I said, telling my first deliberate lie, while thinking about how I would get a real train all for myself when I grew up.
On Sundays, my family would unite for breakfast and we would all have a cup of hot milk and pieces of stale bread for dunking in it.
My mother always got up early and started making lunch, while we children were still asleep. The meat in the tomato sauce needed to cook for hours.
She and my grandmother prepared little meatballs made of capuliatu (minced meat), to which they added parsley, salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese and stale bread, soaked in milk and squeezed out. They would then put them into the sauce to cook.
The smell of the fried onion and the tomato puree was common to every kitchen in the village. Sunday lunch was usually pasta with simple tomato sauce or pasta baked in the oven with meat sauce, fried aubergines, hard boiled eggs, pieces of stringy cheese, mortadella sausage and Parmesan cheese. Some preferred pasta `ncaciata or lasagne with meat sauce.
We wore our Sunday best, the nicest clothes we had, to mass. We were not allowed to wear them to school or for playing in, to avoid ruining them. We tried to keep these clothes in the best possible condition, because they also needed to be handed down from one brother to the next. We did the same with our shoes.
Being the eldest child, I considered myself lucky, but not for long. When my brother, who was younger than I, reached the age of eight, he started to overtake me in height. My clothes were short for him and my shoes were tight, because his feet were longer than mine.
My mother had to buy new clothes for both of us and I sometimes even I received my brother’s used clothes.
I hoped that I would catch up with him as a teenager, but unfortunately that was not the case. When I was almost eighteen, I wished that a miracle might happen, but it did not. So, I stopped hoping and resigned myself to having to look up at my younger brother.
Sitting on the church bench, next to my grandmother, my father tried not to fall asleep during the sermon.
Father Antonio was known as the drinking straw. We had given him this name because of his red nose. The altar boys joked around, saying that he kept a drinking straw hidden beneath his robes and that he used it for drinking wine during mass.
Someone always fell asleep during his sermons. Luckily, however, father drinking straw didn’t have very good eyesight and he never noticed, although he did occasionally hear people sniggering at those who were snoring.
After the mass on Easter night, a procession moved along the village streets and we were all invited to participate.
At the age of twelve I was “democratically” forced, or as my mother said, I was given the honour of carrying the cross during the night-time procession.
«It will be wonderful, you’ll see», my mother said, more excited than I was.
«You’ll freeze your arse off», Matteo whispered in my ear.
Although it was the beginning of April, the evenings were still cold.
My family sat on one of the church benches, wearing their warm coats, while I stood at the altar wearing my cold, white tunic, which was now too short.
The church had been equipped with modern loudspeakers and a microphone with which the priest spoke without having to listen to the happy snoring of the old folk in the pews.
I had attended the evening vigil and had served the solemn mass that followed, complete with chanting and a lengthy sermon. The night-time procession was now beginning. Tired and sleepy, I carried the Astylar cross at the head of the procession, with the priest, the other altar boys and the people of the village behind me.
I was really tired and so sleepy that I could hardly keep my eyes open. All of a sudden it all became too much for me and I fell onto my knees. The heavy processional cross fell backwards and hit father drinking straw on the head.
My career as an altar boy lasted another month, after which I was exonerated because I had reached the maximum age – or at least that was the official version. Had I known this before, I would have let the cross fall onto father drinking straw’s head years earlier.
The day after the procession, the villagers were talking about a miracle, due to the fact that I had fallen on my knees. Unclear as to exactly what miracle had taken place, the pensioners at the bar of the zoppu speculated about the various possibilities, among which the apparition of the Virgin Mary, who someone else claimed to have seen speaking to me that night.
My mother heard someone say to Pina the putiara (shopkeeper) “L’avii avvidiri com’era beddu quannu parrava ca’ Madonna.” (You should have seen how handsome he was while he was talking to the Virgin Mary.)
Whenever Pina said something, you could be sure that the whole village would soon know about it.
I was also mocked about it at school: they called me u miraculatu (the boy saved by a miracle).
I was born in Messina and raised in a traditional Sicilian family. I am the youngest of three sisters. I worked 10 years at a travel agency and then as a tour guide. Travelling is my passion. My writing career began somewhat by accident when I participated in a literary competition and won first prize. Two years later I tried my hand at the writing competition once again, my entry won first prize again! My first novel, "Her name was Aprile" was born after chronicling stories from a boy’s youth and the disappointments of lost love. In writing about these events, the characters came to life and the story wrote itself.