Cover image for Under the rose : a confession
Under the rose : a confession
Alaya, Flavia.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999.
Physical Description:
xiv, 400 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PE64.A48 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Beneath its "scandalous" surface, Flavia Alaya's life story goes to the heart of women's struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency.

Flavia was 22 years old, a radiant but sheltered Italian American on a Fulbright in Italy, when she met Father Harry Browne. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia grew too compelling to resist, they embarked on a relationship that violated one of the most powerful taboos of the Church and of society, yet endured for over 20 years. By day, they were subsumed in progressive community organizing. By night, they were subsumed in a relationship carried out, even through the birth oftheir three children, in absolute secrecy-sub rosa, or "under the rose."

Author Notes

Flavia Alaya, founding director of the School of Intercultural Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, has also taught at New York University and Hunter College, CUNY. She is the author of William Sharp--"Fiona Macleod" as well as many essays on Victorian literature and cultural studies, and has received Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Endowment for the Humanities awards. She is an activist in community and historic preservation organizations. She lives in Paterson, New Jersey.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In an emotionally extravagant memoir that favors stream of consciousness over structure, Alaya (Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian), a literature and cultural history professor at Ramapo College in N.J., recounts her longstanding, clandestine relationship with a Roman Catholic priest. She brings to life her Italian-American upbringing in a large extended family, capturing the complexities of her relationship with a father who, hoping to protect her sexual innocence, restricted her freedom. Shortly after leaving college, she found both love and freedom in Perugia, Italy, where she was living on a Fulbright scholarship and met Father Harry Browne, a 40-year-old Irish-American priest. Browne reciprocated her feelings, and their love affair blossomed when they returned to New York and became deeply involved in tenant organizing on the Upper West Side. When Alaya became pregnant, she fled to Italy to have her baby, so as not to jeopardize her lover's position in the church. She later relocated to New Jersey and, through the births of two more children, kept their father's identity a secret while Browne's ongoing political activism burnished his reputation as a charismatic radical priest. In 1970, ill from the demands of single motherhood, Alaya finally told Browne either to live openly with her or to leave permanently. He chose to live with her, but remained a priest until his death from leukemia 10 years later. Alaya squarely lays the blame for her lover's divided loyalties at the feet of a regressive church. She is less convincing, however, in her protestations that their domestic situation allowed her the freedom to be herself. B&W photos. Author tour. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

At 22, Italian catholic Flavia Alaya fell in love with Catholic priest Harry Browne; for the next 20 years she was his mistress. Alaya bore Browne three children (and aborted a fourth). Their reciprocal love/sex affair lasted until Browne's death, over which Alaya skims quickly, presumably from grief. During this time, Alaya earned a doctoral degree, taught, wrote, and published. In opera-titled chapters full of literary allusions, she writes of their love and of her own family (she was one of four children), of Browne's New York City political involvements, of their trips to Italy and London, of their friends. Alaya's involved, ornate style slows and confuses comprehension but also relays the multilayered complexities of their relationship. Her tropes can be delightfully vivid: "... out of the very heat of their bodies, they seemed to pump an exquisitely killing perfume of wine and food." She makes the reader understand her, her love for and commitment to Browne, Browne's reciprocated commitment to her and to the priesthood, and both their personalities (hers, driven, perfectionist, maternal; his, loving, witty, caring). Although it may offend some Catholics, Alaya's deeply felt, moving "confession" is in the end a very close, detailed look (complete with photos) at a world few have entered. Recommended for women's studies collections. J. Overmyer; Ohio State University

Booklist Review

Alaya, writer, scholar, and social activist, writes a hauntingly beautiful memoir of her sub-rosa relationship with Harry Browne, a Roman Catholic priest and a renowned community organizer. After meeting in Italy in 1957, Alaya, a brilliant but sheltered Italian American on a Fulbright scholarship, and the charismatic Father Browne initiated a clandestine long-term love affair that would defy convention and eventually result in the birth of three children. Returning to New York, Alaya and Browne embarked on an unconventional 20-year odyssey that encompassed an uncompromising commitment to political activism, the church, and each other. In addition to an honest examination of her own decisions and desires, the author analyzes the underlying paradox that ultimately defined her lifestyle choice: Although freedom from the bonds of marriage enabled her to carve out her own career and identity, the burdens of virtual single parenthood were often exhausting and confining. Browne was never officially laicized, but he eventually resigned from his parish, moving in with the family he was now free to acknowledge. --Margaret Flanagan

Library Journal Review

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historianÄand a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship's secrecy (it was hidden "under the rose"), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style. For women's studies, religious history, and even general collections.ÄKay Meredith Dusheck, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The room I slept in as a girl stood high above the down-sloping green of what then seemed a great stretch of lawn at the arrowhead intersection of Sickles Avenue and Sickles Place. The room frames itself in my memory as a kind of Bluebeard's tower, which I happened also to share, like the troubled heroine of that tale, with my younger sister Ann. Its two small casement windows faced north-northeast, and beneath the more easterly window, as winter dawn faintly grayed the sky, I can remember two shivering girls hugging the steel fins of the radiator for a warmth that existed only in memory or desire, praying desperately that it might heat up faster, wishing the furnace had not been so completely shut down, as it was every winter night no matter how bitter, by some iron economic hand.     It was through the thinnish walls of this room that I first heard the mingled groans of my parents' lovemaking. I think I did not yet know what the sound meant, for I remember praying when my mother cried out that she was not being hurt, and striving to suppress the surge of fear and anger that welled up against my father. And yet it was here, not so many dark nights later, that I was to discover the secret pleasures of my own body, as my exploring hand rode its smooth, new swales and warm grooves to a bliss I could not believe I owned--until a car headlight might blaze a sudden dazzling track of light across the black ceiling, and my sister, alarmed by my shallow breathing, might whisper, "Are you sick?" across the ten feet between our beds, and I whisper back that no, I was fine, and drop off to sleep like a stone.     It was here, too, on a deep winter's night, amid whoops and squeals that rang like a carillon of bells off the icy street below my window, that an episode of my lonely teenage melodrama played itself out by streetlight as Knowledge dropped straight from the Tree: Janet, who lived two houses away and had been my dearest friend of summer, companion of every Glen Island beach day, whispering secret sharer of the strange, disquieting girl-mystery of the soul kiss, had given the New Year's Eve party she had promised after all, and had not invited me.     Janet's abandonment somehow awoke me to a peculiar aloneness that inspired one of my earliest stories, even to its closure with the shattering sound of the window blinds as they fell on the street scene of my wounded gaze. And I can remember thinking even then, at the raw age of fifteen, that, for better or worse, bitter or sweeter, the art of storytelling for me was going to be the art of telling the truth--meaning not, in the Aristotelian way, what might have happened, but what did. I could not tell tales, as others told, no matter how much I might envy the gift. Life as it came, as it unspooled itself in the newsreel of my mind, was like a script already written, already relentlessly storied , needing almost no touch of art except to find its intrinsic, if hidden, shape. This was a handicap at first, when "creativity" seemed by textbook definition to demand fantasy and invention, and I had convinced myself that to be a true artist I had to resist what came too easy and too unearned. Soon, by varying degrees of willing suspension, of wise passiveness, of acceptance of whatever gift was mine, learned or unlearned, earned or unearned, I let go of true art and allowed the storied universe to seem, to be, ever more compellingly, wonderfully, mystically what it was, what it had always been, to me. I had not always lived in a tower. Rather, in the manner of some of those fantastic invented tales, I had been somewhat thrown out into the world--a world whose ever-widening rings started from the little earthly paradise of New Rochelle, third stop on the commuter rail lines through the Westchester suburbs of New York City. Third child, first girl, born not in hospital but in an apartment above my father's North Avenue meat market, I had been given to the light (as Italians say), all eight pounds of dark flesh and thick, curling black hair, on a burning day in mid-May 1935 that my mother always remembered as first sign of an insufferably hot summer.     My father, his macho secured by the prior birth of two figli maschi , made me his darling. They tell me that the love I returned nearly cost me my life. One day, thinking I heard the sputtering sound of his truck in the driveway and passionately eager to see him, I leaned out the window against an unhitched screen and fell two stories to the graveled pavement. My parents guessed that my fall had been broken by a cable about twelve feet from the ground, otherwise there was no imagining how I had survived it. Like Ancient Mariners they told and retold this story, astonished that the gods had not punished their neglect, astonished at my remembering nothing of it, and even more by what followed--that while the doctor, who had taken them aside, was hushedly informing them that I might never walk again, I clambered down off the examining table and limped into view. The story was meant to illustrate the arrogant simplicity of medical men in the clear presence of miracles, but telling it again and again also had a way of confirming for them that I was still alive, with every promise of leading a charmed life.     I was then two and a half years old. Six months later my sister was born, and the family set was complete. For several years we had been moving in that clambering way of immigrant strivers from apartment to bigger apartment to rented house, until we settled at last into mortgaged possession of a semidetached stucco on that oddly pointed corner, which seemed to nose its way gingerly out of New Rochelle's sprawling Little Italy, hurry past a rather interesting black neighborhood of setback houses with great Victorian porches, and tend vaguely in the direction of Scarsdale, which our Italian neighbors described very simply as "where the rich people live."     My two older brothers, Louis (whom my parents called Luigi or Luigino and we kids called simply Lou) and Carlo, had been born in Italian East Harlem, my newlywed parents having rented their first apartment from Grandpa Spagnola, my mother's father, who owned flanking buildings at 228 and 230 114th Street, just east of the Third Avenue El. My mother, Maria, born on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, was already a veteran of several successive Little Italys before she met my father, Mario--she leaning out of the parental window one fine Mother's Day Sunday, he passing below, one single smoldering glance firing a romance that lasted nearly seventy years.     Like me, she had also been a third child, but third of ten, eight of them girls, the second daughter, but first to marry--so deep a violation of Sicilian protocol that it required the formal dispensation of her beloved father, who could refuse her nothing. But what a catch Mario must have seemed: flagrantly, darkly handsome, very Valentino, a decorated former officer in the Italian army, veteran of the Alto Adige campaign in the First World War, who had fought among Gabriele D'Annunzio's handpicked company of arditi -- "the ardent ones." She, for her part, was an Arabian princess. He had been caught unwillingly in the dark thickets of her hair; her steady unwavering black eyes had bewitched his soul. But, truly, her love for Mario was master, and it was she who had been bewitched, she who was opening the long saga of Spagnola women and their fatal need for beautiful men.     And yet neither the mastery of that love, nor, when they finally left Harlem, the distance up the Boston Post Road to Westchester, could keep her from her father, and from the familiar Sicilian noise and grand passions of her home place and its glorious community of women, still everything to the girl in her. And so her world opened to me on Sundays, as we made our way back to East Harlem to visit, filling the afternoons with street music and Italian ices and stoop game pleasures overseen by a bevy of protective young aunts, until we turned sleepily homeward, blanket-wrapped, at night. Other Sundays belonged to the satellite of my father's family, who came together in the tiny rented flat of his adoring younger sister, Carmelina, on East 78th Street, above their own market. Somehow, even as children, we knew the difference between the two families with a deep tribal knowledge--that they were Napolidaan , not Zeechilyaan like my mother, and that darkly hinted hostilities lay between them, so unfathomable, so natural and perfect, so ancient, as to preclude any search, then, into their origin.     Aunt Carmelina--Zi' Carme'--was married to Uncle Sam, a sour, reclusive hulk of a man. There was this paradox about him: that though he spoke little English, there seemed to be no Italian version of his name, only that ironic appropriation of this essence of his adopted America. A boyhood hunting accident in Italy had left him with a disfiguring puncture scar in his throat, just below his jaw, and seemed to have taken a piece of his soul. He drank silently, heavily, broodingly. Yet he had an uncanny gentleness with children, like some cowardly Italian lion, and we forgave him his wound and his brutish misery. My aunt was his first cousin, a fact as normal to our kinship consciousness as the mountains of cutlets and plump, homemade ravioli on the dinner table. Their two daughters, Gloria and Gioia (whose names I think Sam had had no part in choosing), were close in age to my sister and me, and our ritual visits in good weather usually began with Carmelina lining the big iron grid of the fire escape like a birdcage with stretches of wrapping paper from the store and setting the four of us good little girls amid the basil pots, twelve feet up from the boys' noisy ball games in the street, to dress and undress our dolls.     To us it was in its way a wild zone--an outside place perilously free--and at the same time a private box on a secret family opera playing inside. Against the big window frame hung a real birdcage, my aunt's bright yellow canary catching and trilling the breeze. In the near distance, her bedroom was paved almost to the walls with a single and enormous letto matrimoniale whose intricately knotted white chenille bedspread we were warned never to mark with our shoes. And beyond the bed, from out of the dim interior light of the parlor, drummed the deep voices of the men hunched over the dining table, two wine carafes set in the midst of its embroidered linen expanse, the table so leafed-out to capacity that there was barely space to pass through the room. The women exploded at intervals from the crowded galley kitchen like tambourines, and then the murmuring drums would start again, adagio , and then the deep clunking sound of large pots, and then another high-pitched explosion, molto allegro , bringing up a grand finale of laughter and ringing glass. Out of this rolling musical noise would now and then come a warning burst in the direction of the window-- "State attente!" --sign that we were, after all, being watched. And always, out of the heart of that little inner room, out of the very heat of their bodies, they seemed to pump an exquisitely killing perfume of wine and food, the scent pouring out to us on the interchange of air and driving us mad with hunger. These few rather surreal flashbacks of early childhood memory divide themselves irrevocably from almost everything else I remember about the house in New Rochelle--the sequestered girlhood, the room like Bluebeard's tower--all of which comes from a later time. For abruptly, when I was not quite six, in the most extraordinary, sequence-rupturing episode of my mobile young life, we moved for three years to Tucson, Arizona, forsaking all grandfathers and uncles and sisters and cousins and aunts--with one, single delicious exception, which I shall save for its place.     I call attention to this zigzag of my narrative not just because disruption--displacement--became part of the essence of its meaning, but because out of these jagged and episodic fractures of my childhood there arose mysteries of self-making only to be recaptured by piecing them more curiously together. For this first rupturing move west was followed, about three years later, by another rupturing move east again, creating in its turn another two-year interim when we actually lived in East Harlem, before we reclaimed our New Rochelle house.     Or five of us did, which made it perhaps not just an interim but an interregnum. My father had been taken seriously and rather mysteriously ill out west, had been carried east by train only to be shifted from hospital to hospital and nursing home to nursing home in what seemed to my child mind an endless, baffling captivity. These were hard times, and family on both sides sustained us. For work my mother relied on my father's father, who owned a pork store just below the 116th Street station of the Third Avenue El. For a place to live she relied on her Sicilian family, moving into a fifth floor railroad flat in the old 114th Street tenement on whose stoop I had first learned to climb stairs, in the giggling aura of my young aunts.     By now these same fecund Spagnola girls had burst like novas into galaxies of family, filling the building, rattling it with the noise of children clattering and howling, of all eight of the sisters baying to one another up and down a stairwell that echoed like a silo-- Terrreeee-saaa! Carrrmeeee-laaa! --tearing it apart with screaming family fights and sulking, neurasthenic silences and seaming it together again with the paradisal smells of eggplant and fennel sausage and red bell peppers darkly roasted over a gas flame.     It was a strange two-year matriarchate. I remember it as a wonderfully liberated time--though freedom for a prepubescent Italian girl-child, even senza padre , is a very relative thing, and we lived after all on the topmost floor, up (or down) four steep and daunting flights, past the doorways of all my aunts. And yet at ten years old I traveled the New York subways unchaperoned, attending theory classes at the Manhattan School of Music (because my mother, bless her, thought I was a piano prodigy), going to libraries (because she said I could read anything in print), visiting art museums (because I was already so amazingly clever with pencil and brush, clearly an artist, like my father), all of it on my own; and finally, just before we moved back to Westchester, beginning seventh grade at a rather toney junior high school to which (she would announce proudly to her customers) I had been selectively admitted by a very competitive entry exam, all of it her doing: she had taken me by the hand and trotted me down there, to the tests.     Even amid this curious freedom I sometimes think I took a kind of room with me, a room of my own, wherever I went--a safe, dark, inner space from which I peered unseen. Then, however, this inner room seemed much less tower than sanctuary, rather like the tiny room my sister and I shared in that top-floor apartment, one of five strung out, front to back, just like the railway cars such flats were named for--or better, as we thought, like beads on a rosary. It, too, had its little inner shrine to Motherhood, mirroring our matriarchal real-life, an imago that stood watch on the horizon of my daring but did not stand in its way. Their common symbol was a framed holy picture that hung on our bedroom wall, not a traditional Mother Mary with her boy-baby Jesus, but an icon of Mary's own mother, St. Ann, patron saint of childbirth (for whom my sister had been named), with a young Mary, still a girl-child and still the apple of her own mother's eye.     It was not a lovely work of art. I am amazed, as I recall it again, not to have been alarmed by the cadaverous pallor of St. Ann's face or felt my nascent artistic conscience disturbed by the acid green of her gown. But I was not alarmed or disturbed by these any more than by the drooping eyelids and elevated fingertips of her too-teacherly style of mothering. Maybe I saw myself as the absorbed and enchanted Mary, her child face and eyes turned softly upward, grateful to be chided by such a mother. And yet who knows what secret ambition might have tied me to the mother and her power to chide?     Why do I love to remember this time, this symbolic little room, this cell, so spartan and small, and, because it was next down from the front bedroom where my mother slept, so utterly lacking in privacy? Not only did it place us under her eye as we slept, but she could, and did, pass through it at will, at any hour. It had steel-frame bunk beds, a single chest of drawers my sister and I shared, and a small vanity table and mirror. Before this mirror we plaited our thick Italian hair, when she, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, too overstretched at last, admitted that taming its copious, insurrectionary masses was something we must do for ourselves. Hair, after all, had to be disciplined, at least as much as our budding girlhoods did, perhaps (if measured against unchaperoned subway miles) more. And so Ann and I learned upon each other the fine art of weaving braids: the two small braids along the side, first, out and away from the temples, and then, swiftly, lest these shoot recalcitrantly back into stray hair, the small braids folded into two long, large braids at the back. Gleams of gold and russet threaded our dark brown girlhood hair in those days, both of us having had three years' bleaching in the desert sun. But mine was always coarser and darker than Ann's, and as we grew older, darker still. We can still tell the difference between the braids we cut off when we were finally bobbed, which both of us have preserved like surrogate virginities ever since. They say our mothers, no matter how loving, elude us. They say it is the reason there is desire. I know there were times I reached for mine and caught air. She had once, of course, defined what someone has called the semiotic fluid of pre-Oedipal childhood, the very force field of life--life without definition or boundary, open, exposed, a meadow, a street, a door, a window into the sky--when experience still had no other place than She , no sacred space shielded from her passion or hurt or kisses or rages, which were all the daily bread and trespasses we understood; when Mother was no separate She but the Mamma who trembled between life and death if you had a fever and swooned if you fell and cracked a millimeter of skin; when She was in fact not even she alone but the collective Mater Dolorosa of motherly aunts and cousins, shrieking and weeping and biting into the fat of their thumbs when you were bad, as if they could punish your infant crimes on their own flesh, out of their own salt.     I speak now of the after-Mother, the woman herself, the woman I knew and did not know and would never know, who seemed always in flight--working, making, finishing the forever-unfinished--always doing some relentless god's or sorcerer's bidding, darting and flashing like an Ariel or a hummingbird. One memory print of her survives where she is still--fixed--and my own eye is the camera: Arizona, our first brief foray, and she is merely paralyzed with lonely grief to be there without my father.     Otherwise there remains nothing but photographs to read her fugitive meaning by. Cleaning house once, probably in the years when we were both in college, my sister and I discovered a cache of them, buried for so long and in such seeming secrecy we had to read them like archeologists. We guessed that my father had taken them soon after Ann was born, my mother's most difficult birth. It had been part of the family lore my brothers knew (and with arrogant, cruel intention would frequently repeat to my sister) that our mother had bled for weeks, that she had nearly died. Thus the pleaded intercession of St. Ann and the elevation to household saint, the rosaries, the novenas, the reverence of naming.     And now, oddly, out of the memory of these pictures, like the sudden opening of a shutter, vivid and black, springs a glimpse out of my earliest and most elusive childhood memory: a big, cold house where my brothers and I are briefly in institutional care--a misery of children, a distant pond, a few pale and unfriendly ducklings, a gigantic, white-tiled washroom in which I am somehow unaccountably alone, a sense of something overwhelming in the hugeness and strangeness of its seeming abandonment.     Surely these pictures had been taken then, when she was too ill to care for us herself. Perhaps the doctors had told my father she was dying. It seems very Italian--almost a cliché of Italianness--to think of the camera as a kind of window standing in death's way. I see a lifetime of family funerals, a gallery of memorial card photo images, each with its gauzy airbrushed halo, and it defines a sense scored so deep that even now a part of me knows mortality to be the true, secret meaning of pictures.     But these were not clichés, and I think now that in this way, as in many others, Italy had marked Mario differently. For he once told us that he had been trained to use his first camera as a soldier in the field, imaging the carnage of war, and now, perhaps, in the face of this possible death--this mortal life bleeding itself away--he was utterly beyond any cliché of mortality as defined by the burial crypt. Here the lens that sees also holds, refuses to let go. It is become his own prosthetic will, obsessive, prurient, probing a deeper mystery than fear, even than death, taking my mother's body at curious, artful, languorous angles, revealing her, carnal and silken and voluptuous even in the surrender of her suffering. These are pictures of Maria , shameless declarations of renewed passion, and the very violence of their intimacy transcends death, as does their willful insistence that the camera transmute her pain into beauty. Against the pallor of her cheeks he has chosen to see her ever-sad soft dark eyes as smudges of wet charcoal, her hair like Salome's, streaming black blood upon the pillow.     Accidental voyeurs, we could not refuse the messages of secret sin and penance that had been coded into these images. Nor could we unravel them. Why our mother would have wanted to die we didn't know, but there was something--a dumb withdrawal, a recoil even in her acquiescence--that said to us she did. And yet what might these same images we were looking upon now have said to her when she first saw them? What life-affirming passionate obsession did she read into the urgency with which Mario took them in such relentless and unaccountable numbers? Did they make her want to live, the warrant of something still lovely she thought she had lost?     Reading these signs years after, Maria's daughters, too, still young and unwise, wanted to live for Love. We imagined Maria our sister somehow, rising from that sickbed with her faith renewed in the image of a Love as imperious as Tosca's, a Love Dante had made so commanding that the beloved could never withhold her own in return.     And so we imagined Maria wrapping her shapely figure in thick woolens again, sacrificing day after day again, on her feet in the chill-cold North Avenue market, in that market filled with the fragrant stinks of cheeses and salt meats and damp sawdust, with its dark pinecones still clutching their nuts like fists, with its intoxicating scents of oranges in winter and of Christmas anise. She helped lift the huge, steaming sides of beef onto storage hooks in the icebox. She candled eggs in the back room till her eyes seemed to melt into her head. At the front counter she forced herself to smile the shopkeeper's winning smile. And, oh, it was a sweet smile, they said, none sweeter, so winsome and large it transformed her melancholy face.     But still there were ominous forecasts about her breaking health. In the mornings she wept, we could hear her weeping, her arthritic joints ached so, and the limited safety of the child who knows fear seemed to have been made more fearful. Surely from the baseline of my infancy there had been some intuition of the mysteriously twining roots of love and pain, even love and death. Hadn't I been marked for both when I'd been named for my mother's mother, who had died the year before I was born? In a family that deeply respected the age-old privilege of the father to name the first girl-child after his mother (in this case, Immacolata, the grandmother living in Italy), such encoding of the memory of my dead Sicilian grandmother into my life bore almost unintelligible significance. It also happens to have spared me a lifetime symbolically blazoned with the inviolate sex of the Madonna--a name which, in any case, was decorously tacked on at my christening. Of course even "Flavia" was a cross for an American child to bear, and after about eleven years of it I cried bitter tears, begging my mother to let me give myself another name. My father had changed his--he had told us so--when as a young officer his true first name of Salvatore had made him a hayseed to the more genteel of his comrades. But my mother had told me then about her mother, how good she had been, if stern, and wise and clever besides, and said, "You will come to love your name." And I did, if not entirely for her sake.     But I had also been only five when my grandfather, my mother's father, died of a stroke, a bitter wound to the heart of child love. He was Calogero, a name even more comical to the ear of Italian fashion than my father's Salvatore, and as distinctly Sicilian as the sweet wine he made every fall and drank through a winter of Sundays with his card-playing cronies, keeping an ever tighter grip on the bottle and the deck. He had made much of us, his first grandchildren, and we had adored his dry and wistful humor, doled out with mysterious pennies in a cunning sleight-of-hand and accompanied by tickles of his peppery handlebar mustache, which he wore wickedly curled and waxed to a fine arabesque.     His death had been sudden, and catastrophic. Their Mamma gone, he had become everything to his girls. They held his wake at home, as families did then, on the parlor floor of the very tenement that stood as the congealed sweat of his stonemason's brow. He had been foreman, my mother loved to remind us, on the construction crew of the Saw Mill River Parkway--one of the country's first grand, tree-lined parkways, which ran through the Bronx and Westchester. He had stood up to the mafiosi in the protection racket when he ran a grocery store on East 106th Street, and she, his Mary, who had thrown herself in the way when they shot him, the bullet just whizzing past her shoulder--who in that moment had become his most precious treasure--had never wanted him out of her sight.     What useless flotsam we four children had suddenly become on the flood of his daughters' primitive, tidal grief. Years later, as often as I read of the women of Troy mourning Priam in the fiery collapse of the ancient city, I would see a darkened front room eerily lit with flaming candles and enwrapped in a velvety embrasure of white flowers, a father's poor work-worn body lying still and straight amid the waving silhouettes of his daughters, their shrieking voices strung into one great piercing wail of anguish. I can still hear them, still see myself sobbing, in empathy and terror, in the room where the dark winter coats are mounded, until some pitying aunt takes me in her arms. To this day the scent of gardenias makes me want to faint.     Her father's death seemed to have become a turning point for Maria, who, sick in heart and body, had for a moment felt the meaning of her family gone. This was true for Mario as well. The terrible war had just begun, abruptly cutting off everyone here who still felt rooted in Italy from everyone still left behind. No one could go there, no one could leave there. One day, they said, Immacolata had delayed getting away. One little day!--someone was sick, she could not go so quickly--and the gate had shut like iron. Husband and wife, mother and children, were condemned to live out the war apart.     It was a moment of cruel poise between past and future. Or so it seemed, for how else could we explain the mystery of this sudden wrenching change, this cruel tearing apart of everything to go thousands of miles across the continent? If, as time went on, we began to understand it differently--to see something perhaps more ominous than beautiful at the passionate heart of those old photographs, something less unasked for than death in the urge to fly, less liberating than the will to take courage and move on--it was not because what we believed then and still in part believe was less believable: that the east seemed cold and insidiously full of hurt, that the west seemed bright and beckoning, that each of my parents, out of tender deference to the other, longed to seek the cure of the sun like amputees cauterizing each other's wounds.     But whatever it was to them, this is what it was to me: the journey that altered, ever after, the way I read the universe. Copyright © 1999 Flavia Alaya. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Part 1 Toscap. 1
Part 2 La Giocondap. 81
Part 3 The Girl of the Golden Westp. 145
Part 4 La Traviatap. 219
Part 5 Un Ballo in Mascherap. 259
Part 6 Cavalleria Rusticanap. 333
Epiloguep. 397