I've walked the streets of Palermo, Sicily twice now. With seven years in between.
Seven long years that demanded of me their pound(s) of flesh. Seven years that abducted me from a life I'd once dreamed of (and was somehow blessed to actually be living), and thrust me into one I never saw coming. Not in those seven years. Not in a million more.
This new life is good—it is. I promise you I'm not complaining. It's just that this new life was never on my horizon. I never imagined I'd exchange the South of Africa for the South in America (and most certainly not by myself). Never in my wildest dreams did I conjure up images even remotely close to what my life looks like now. I didn't dream up or ask for this new life, I just landed in it—tossed about in the rough seas of change, and the tsunami waves of loss, and the murky waters far, far above my head.
The tide did at last began subsiding, and my toes finally found the ocean floor. And now it feels less like I'm drowning and more like I'm sailing. This sailboat voyage is beautiful. Laborious. And completely out of my control. In so many ways, I'm simply along for the ride—with the wind and waves at the helm.
In 2008, I traveled to un-touristy and rather quite unromantic Palermo on a pilgrimage of sorts.
My Gram had grown up on the streets of that town, albeit they looked drastically different before the landscape was shaped by The War. When she was just thirteen, she left those familiar cobblestone streets behind, on a weeks-long voyage to unseen shores in the new world.
To that young teen, New York was unknown and frightening territory. But by the time she became my Gram, it was home to her in every way. She lived and loved on the streets of her Long Island town much in the same way, I imagine, as she would have in Palermo. She knew by name her butcher and grocer and baker, and was as beloved by them as they were by her. From her old streets to her new ones, her values remained: unwavering faith, relationships, good food (and wine), and loud and lively conversation with those she loved.
So in 2008, my then-husband and I chose Palermo for our prized, pennies-scraped-together getaway. But between the purchase of our tickets from South Africa to Sicily and the day of our departure, my Gram left home yet again. She departed for another shore unseen, exchanging the earthly for the eternal, making my first visit to Palermo both more special and more heartsore all at once.
Adding to the bittersweetness was my rocky marriage. Just a few months after our trip, my husband's long-term affair came to light, and life as I knew it came to a screeching and heart-shattering hault.
I returned to Palermo last month with my mom and brothers—seven years and an entire lifetime later.
Laughter, food, and wine abounded, and years' worth of memories were made. Redemptive in so many ways and restorative in so many others, I would be remiss if I didn't also acknowledge the gaping hole.
My dad—whose heritage we were revisiting, whose mom we were honoring, whose family legacy we bear—was not with us. A year and a half ago, his long-term affair came also to light, and he left—choosing his new family over ours, the one he'd had for 40 years.
Two trips. Seven years apart.
The first, wasted on someone who didn't deserve to know my Gram's love or to follow her legacy back to her first home. The second, painfully marked by the absence of one who should have been there.
Oh, Palermo... Whatever will I do with you?
You and your breathtaking cathedrals, and your dirty streets, and your stunning city walls... You and your frightening drivers, and your unending wine, and your delicious, unpretentious street food... You and your history, which is altogether my history as well... Whatever will I do with you?
Maybe in another seven years you will call me home again. And maybe, just maybe, it will be a trip—and a year—of "jubilee", marked only by gain, not loss. Joy, rather than heartache.
In the meanwhile, Palermo, you somehow—in all your mysterious, haunting, wondrous ways—hold out hope for me.
Hope in the life and love that can only be found on unseen shores...