If not for her father's passport, defaced but not destroyed, Francesca never would have surfaced. She would have remained a woman lost to history, her story swallowed in the depths of the Detroit River off Belle Isle.
The passport was issued in 1914, during the reign of King Vittorio Emanuele III, just fifty-three years after the patriot soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi led the resurgence that unified a patchwork of city-states into a country called Italy. My family left Italy for America with a single passport. Issued to my great-grandfather, it included my great-grandmother and their children, listed in birth order on its inside pages. It was a time when women and children were considered a man's property, when he expected his bride to be a virgin, and their blood-stained wedding sheets were hung in the living room to prove it. It was a time when, married or single, many Italian men openly eschewed monogamy, but a family's honor was bound up in the chastity of its women.
I saw the passport only once, in 1993, but the secret ancestor it had concealed for nearly eighty years instantly became my obsession. I'd had no inkling that my great-aunt Frances had ever existed. She was a blank.
In many families there are secrets. In Italian families, generations go to their graves without divulging those secrets. My mother had never breathed a word about her mother's ill-fated sister Frances, not even to my father. Despite their forty years togetheras soul mates, he died without ever hearing a whisper of the scandal.
Obsessed, yet fearful of family reprisals for searching out their secret, I fought to piece together my great-aunt's story. A guarded snippet was divulged here, a reluctant dribble there, then basta! no more. At times my mother's and her sisters' and their cousins' resistance seemed impregnable, made worse because I needed them as go-betweens to Frances's siblings--their parents. I could no more force myself to press my grandmother on a subject that caused her so much pain than I could force myself to obey my mother and "let it go!" In the face of my own escalating horror, I remained fixated on ferreting out the truth about Frances's life.
She haunted me.
Detroit, 1980s and 1990s
My search for my family's history had begun seven years before I learned of Frances. In the late eighties, on my third trip to Israel, I discovered that Tintori was also a Jewish name. Abraham ben Chayyim dei Tintori, or Abraham the Dyer, was an early printer of Hebrew incunabula who worked in Bologna.
My grandpa Tintori had come to Illinois from the mountains near Bologna to mine coal, and I began searching for twigs on his family tree to learn about the grandfather I'd never known. While I was researching the Tintoris, I decided I should begin to collect information about the Mazzarino side of the family as well. One of the first dictums of genealogy is to sit down with the oldest living relative and ask as many questions about the family as you can, as many times and in as many different ways as possible. My oldest, closest relatives on the Tintori side were long dead when I began their genealogy. I decided I'd better grab Gramma Mazzarino while I could.
One week while she was staying with my mother, I asked my grandmother if I could ask her some questions about her life as alittle girl in Sicily, about her parents and grandparents and their history. I already knew a lot, about the voyage to America, the story of her engagement rings, and how the Mafia stepped in to save her wedding. I knew her sisters and brothers and their children well enough, had visited at their homes and spent holidays, weddings, and funerals with them.
"I already told your cousin Claire," she told me. "Go ask her. She's got it all on the tape."
Claire had no idea what I was talking about. She'd interviewed Grandpa Mazzarino for a short biography when she was in sixth grade, but she'd never asked Gramma about her girlhood in Sicily, let alone taped it.
I went back to Gramma, who remained adamant. "Claire, she's got it on the tape. Go ask her."
Thinking perhaps my grandmother had gotten my cousins confused, I asked around. No one had Gramma on tape, audio or video. The tape didn't exist.
"You know, all Gramma and Grandpa's papers are in Aunt Grace's basement," my mother told me, when I mentioned that I would have to write letters to the various comunes in Italy and pay for the family birth certificates and marriage licenses. "Before you go spending money, ask your Aunt Grace what Gramma's got there."
I asked. Grace told me. The papers were somewhere in the basement, she didn't know where exactly, but there were naturalization papers, birth certificates, that sort of thing. I asked her to search for them, if she didn't mind. I wanted to make photocopies of them for my genealogy research.
Years went by as I continued researching the Tintoris and my grandfather's survival of the Cherry Mine disaster, and I kept asking Aunt Grace about that box of papers in her basement. Sometimes she'd make a date with me for an afternoon the next time Gramma would be staying with her for a week. Each time, she came up with another excuse for breaking the date.
My mother went through widowhood, a courtship, an engagement,and a remarriage, and still, no matter how many times I asked, I was no further ahead in my Mazzarino research.
Suddenly, when my grandmother was eighty-nine, she relented. She would be staying with my mother and her husband during Christmas week. She would answer my questions about her life in Sicily while I videotaped it.
On Christmas Eve, 1990, I set up my tripod in my mother's kitchen and began to ask about my grandmother's life in Sicily. Two hours later, when I shut down so they could get ready for a Christmas Eve party, my reluctant interviewee had become a ham. Gramma asked when we could do it again.
We never did. She was only at my mother's every third week, I was caught up in family, career, and volunteerism--and I thought I had all the information I needed.
It would take me three more years to get my hands on those papers of hers, though, and a decade longer to unravel the truth about Aunt Frances.
It is a Tuesday morning in the summer of 1993, and finally I am in the same room with the Mazzarino family documents--my youngest aunt's kitchen. I almost want to pinch myself, for, even as I was parking, I'd had visions of Grace apologizing as she told me she hadn't found them after all.
"Here's my grandfather's passport," she says, lifting a worn, faded booklet from the musty box she'd set on her kitchen table. I've just rounded that table to kiss my grandmother, who sits running her fingers up and down the handle of her coffee cup.
Aunt Grace sidles alongside me, opening the passport to an inside page, and I glance over at a handwritten list of familiar names--my great-grandmother's, Gramma's, and her siblings'. Jabbing a pearl-polished fingernail at the one entry that had beenobliterated from the long list with a pen, Grace breaks the silence.
"That's the one they got rid of. Did your mother ever tell you?"
My head jerks back reflexively, as if she'd thrown water in my face, and for a moment I cannot move, cannot speak, my eyes wide with shock.
"Never mind," Grace says, snapping the booklet closed with the realization that my mother had never told me anything.
"Who's she going to show? Who's she going to tell? What's she going to do with these?" Gramma Mazzarino begins to babble in Sicilian, her voice rising in panic with every question. Stupefied, I look down on the back of my grandmother's head, now glowing pink through her fluff of white hair. Her ears glow bright red with agitation.
"Gracie!" she shouts. "What's she going to do with these? People can get hurt!"
I close my ears to my grandmother's sputtering, relieved that our eyes cannot meet, because if they do, I know that I will never again have the chance to get my hands on these papers that have taken years of requests and canceled appointments to pin down. I don't know which I want more--to grab Grace and demand that she explain or to snatch the box of documents from the table and bolt for my car.
"Aunt Grace. What are you talking about?"
She looks away. "Never mind." She is replacing the papers atop a pile jumbled inside a worn cardboard shoe box. "Your mother will tell you." I am dismissed.
Grace turns to silence her own mother, who has not stopped sputtering in Sicilian.
"Nobody, Ma! Okay? Nobody else is going to see them. She's just going to go make copies of them for herself and then she's bringing them right back here."
I am unable to wrap my head around what is going on in this kitchen. I want to stamp my foot and silence my grandmother and force my aunt to finish what she's started.
Suddenly I flash on Gramma's repeated refusal to sit with my tape recorder and recount the stories of her childhood. Her insistence, time and again, that I didn't need to preserve her oral history because a tape of it already existed.
"Aunt Grace, you can't do this to me." I round the oval table to follow her now to the sink. "What 'one they got rid of'?"
Now it is Grace's turn to be agitated. She fidgets a dishrag across the counter, swiping at imaginary crumbs. Her tone turns clipped, final.
"You have to ask your mother. I thought she already told you."
"If she didn't tell me by now, she's not going to. Tell me!"
The dilemma she's spawned is twisting all over Grace's face. Her mother is clamoring for her to drop the subject I'm pressing her to finish. I stare at her, she stares back. She throws down the dishrag.
"That's the one they murdered. Frances. The next sister after Gramma."
My mind flips back and forth because what she's saying is impossible. I know my own grandmother's family. Six boys and three girls, and I know the girls the best. My grandmother is the eldest daughter. When they left Italy, crammed into steerage on the steamer, she took care of all her younger siblings because her mother was pregnant and seasick the entire voyage. Her sisters were Maria, who died of breast cancer when I was a little girl, and Agata, who always wore a scowl as black as her mourning garb, even to my bridal shower. How could there possibly have been another sister? A sister I'd never heard a thing about?
Gramma Mazzarino worries her hand across the clear plastic cover protecting Grace's ecru lace tablecloth. A fine sheen of sweat has blossomed on her reddened face and neck, dampening the hair at her nape. I look away. This is impossible for me to comprehend.
She had a sister who was murdered?
On the morning of Gramma Mazzarino's funeral, a framed 8 × 10 photograph was sneaked onto a side table near her casket. It went unnoticed by me--by most mourners--since for three days the viewing room had been jammed with people, flowers, and the numerous photos on display as a pictorial essay of my grandmother's life.
As we exited our cars at the cemetery, my cousin Anthony came rushing over to me, his eyes wide with astonishment. Like his sisters, he knew the paltry bits and pieces I'd managed to gather about Francesca--I'd told them.
"Did you see the picture?" he breathed. He didn't have to say another word. Instinctively, I knew exactly whose picture and how it got there. We had heard that only one photograph of her had survived, but no one of our generation had ever seen it. His mother, Grace, must have quietly brought Frances to her elder sister's funeral.
"My ma took it off the credenza next to the casket. Grandma and Grandpa's wedding picture. It's in the trunk of my parents' car."
I knew my grandparents' wedding picture. They were the only two people in it.
I tracked down my aunt the minute we arrived at the postburial luncheon, and asked her for the photo. She feigned ignorance, then waved me off, claiming to have no idea where it was. Realizing it was then or never, I scoured the throng of friends and relatives for her husband.
"Uncle Sam, may I borrow your car keys for a second? There's something I need to get from your trunk."
Alone in the parking lot that October afternoon, I popped open their trunk and took a deep breath. And then I turned over the facedown picture frame and met Gramma's hidden sister for the first time.
Light glowing from her face and a huge floppy bow tying back her long hair, Frances peeked out at me in black and white from my grandparents' wedding portrait. Unlike the hand-colored portrait of my grandparents in their Sunday best that my mother had always told me was her parents' wedding photo, this one showed my twenty-five-year-old grandfather Nino Mazzarino sporting a proper tuxedo and boutonniere and my fifteen-year-old grandmother Giuseppina, sitting frothed in bridal gown and veil balancing an armload of jumbo mums. Sandwiched between them stand Frances and another of the younger sisters, Mary.
The play of light across the black-and-white portrait consistently pulls the eye to Frances's small face. Her expression keeps me there. With a direct and open gaze, she peers at me across time like a lovely little ghost. Her eyes are large and round and penetrating. Oval and sweet, her face is demure, almost wistful, so young and so innocent.
She is captured on film on the brink of womanhood, frozen forever in September 1916. She is two years removed from Sicily and two years younger than the elder sister who on that day had married for love.
That day I stood staring at thirteen-year-old Frances with my heart pounding. She compelled me to hunt down her story. She still does.
Staring at that photograph now, jewel-framed on my desk, I wonder: Did you already know your barber then, Frances? Were you dreaming about him at the Holy Family Church as the priest blessed your sister's marriage? Were you lost in fantasies that morning, daydreaming of a wedding of your own?
I can picture Frances later on that warm fall afternoon, giggling with her sisters and female cousins at Josie and Nino's wedding feast, smiling shyly at her young barber from across herparents' backyard. She answers the other girls' conversation but her eyes are only for him. Watching as, jacket flying, he dances the tarantella. Watching as, fingers flying, he vies with her brothers along the rose-covered fence in a raucous game of morra, all the while pretending not to notice that her eyes are on him.
Dutifully, she would have spent the previous two days helping the women cook and clean and prepare for the wedding, and perhaps, amidst the preparations, one of them teased Frances--the next daughter--about a match with her son. But this was not Palermo, she was in America now. While maintaining a respectful silence to this cummari, this "godmother," honorary or actual, her round dark eyes flash emphatically to her mother--"NO!" She had already chosen for herself, with her heart--and without a clue to the consequences.
Frances's story is one my mother never wanted me to know or to tell. It spans two continents, three centuries, and four generations--my great-grandmother's, my grandmother's and her sister Frances's, my mother's, and mine.
It is a story about what mothers owe their daughters and what daughters owe their mothers.
In 1920 Francesca Costa was sixteen and she was in love. Straddling two cultures and the turn of a century, she stood at the threshold of a vibrant, exciting future. Possibilities and freedoms that none of her female ancestors in Italy could have even fantasized about shimmered on her horizon. She was in America, where she saw young women choosing their own spouses, marrying for love instead of duty. They wore short kicky skirts, sleeveless dresses, and cropped hairdos. American women had a voice, one about to become more powerful when they won the right to vote on August 18 of that year.
But like Shakespeare's Juliet, Frances embraced a forbidden love and not the one her father had forced upon her. Her duty was to remain chaste, compliant, obedient, and silent, to forget herheart and accept the handpicked suitor that her father, like Juliet's, had invited to look her over like a piece of property for purchase. But Frances and her barber proved more than star-crossed lovers. In life as in fiction, these young people fell tragic victims to their society, in which a woman's sexuality was governed by her male relatives, who placed more value on her maidenhead than on her head--or on her heart.
Frances's story begins in Sicily, an island fixed at the crossroads of civilization. Lying between Italy and Africa, almost exactly in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is separated from the toe of Italy's boot by the narrow Strait of Messina, and from Africa by less than eighty-seven miles of water. Not quite a quarter the size of Cuba, its strategic importance and a history of plunder stand disproportionately to its size. Seismic activity beneath the island mimics its volatile history. The island has never stopped seething--and as recently as 150 years ago, a tiny land mass claimed by Sicily briefly poked its face at the sun just off the mother island before ducking underwater once more.
On a March morning in 1914, Frances's family said good-bye to their relatives and left Palermo for Naples, on the Italian mainland, where the steamship that would speed them away from misery waited. It was the last time six of these eight Costas would ever again set foot in Sicily.
Two days later, Domenico Costa shepherded his pregnant wife, Concetta, and their six younger children, Giuseppina, Francesca, Agata, Maria, Luigi, and Salvatore, into the bowels of the giant ship and set sail for a better life in America.
UNTO THE DAUGHTERS. Copyright © 2007 by Karen Tintori. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.