We travelled to Sicily to attend the wedding of Katrina, the daughter of my cousin Suzzie and her husband Vic.
I have vague memories of melting crayons atop an outside heating duct with Suzzie when I was about 6 years old and she, 7. We lost the lease on our brownstone apartment near Wrigley Field in Chicago that year, and my folks found a temporary place to live at the Glenview Naval Air Base on the outskirts of Chicago through some program that provided housing for WWII veterans. Suzzie and her sisters, Cherrie and Darcy, were there as well because their father, Jim, was in the Navy and stationed there. Jim was married to my father’s youngest sister, Jerry. We mushed the melted crayons with our fingers like warm finger paints.
After a short stay at Glenview, our family moved to Rolling Meadows, and Suzzie’s went to California. During the next four years, Suzzie’s parents divorced and Jerry was diagnosed with cancer. Years later I learned that the girls had it pretty rough, with Suzzie– the 10-year-old big sister– doing the lion’s share of holding things together. When Jerry died, Jim was at sea so my grandfather drove to California and brought the girls back with him to stay with us. A family of four kids suddenly became seven in a three-bedroom ranch house with one bathroom.
But Mom and Dad took it all in stride.
In the morning Dad got up first and ran a schedule for bathroom use, while Mom served up breakfast and packed lunches. In the evening, dinner was served in two shifts, but no one ever went hungry. That’s saying a lot considering that I ate like I had a hollow leg, and older brother Brad could demolish a plate of French Fries bigger than his head. “What’s a couple more mouths to feed?” Mom would say, and peeled a few more potatoes. To be honest, I could tolerate waiting my turn in the bathroom but I didn’t like waiting for dinner. What I didn’t realize at the time was that our family was an oasis for the girls after dealing with divorce and then the death of their mother.
The girls say that I terrorized them, but I think they exaggerate. There was one famous incident recalled by all. Mom told Suzzie not to get dirty, and I managed to take advantage of the situation by tying her to the clothesline pole with a glass of water on her head. “If you move, you’ll be in trouble,” I warned and added a “nyah, nanna, nanna.” But I ask you, how likely was it that I was able to tie up a girl my size if she wasn’t at least a half-willing participant?
Later that summer, the girls moved out when their father got out of the Navy and settled into a home with his new wife about a mile away from our house. As a result, we’d see the girls often at family gatherings or just about town. We became teenagers and then young adults. Suzzie met Vic, a young man from Sicily who had made his way to America to make his fortune as a car mechanic. Soon after they married, and Vic and I became good friends. We’d often get together for dinner and cards, and for a while we thought about going into business together.
Over the years we grew apart geographically. I joined the Army and got stationed in Germany, and Suz and Vic moved to Connecticut and eventually to Sicily. We still got together occasionally, however, and they were always great times, lots of food and laughter. They visited us in Germany, and my daughters and I spent a week in a lovely cabin on a lake in Connecticut with them. And then there was the vacation we took to Sicily in 1996. We had a spectacular time but I had a run in with a beach chair that mangled the ring finger of my left hand. I’ve written about it in a piece titled “How I Gave Italy the Finger.”
I offer all of this by way of explaining why we traveled all the way to Sicily for the wedding of a daughter of a cousin. Suzzie was always more like a big sister to me, and a big sister like Suzzie is something everyone should have.
So when I got the invitation to Katrina’s wedding, I knew I had to go.