Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Mary Taylor went to Sicily in 1962 as a university graduate looking to do volunteer work there with a social reformer, Danilo Dolci. She travelled there from a comfortable upbringing in New York City:
Living on my own in a Sicilian village was not what my mother had had in mind when she offered me a year in Italy to celebrate my graduation…(she) reminded me to be careful about the men, the Mafia, the drinking water…
She had never travelled without her family and failed to arrange transportation to the village of Partinico from Palermo, where she arrived at night by train. A kind passenger offered her a lift in his car even though it was far out of his way.
I owe him much more than just a ride. By his disinterested generosity toward a foreigner in difficulty, the man in dark glasses stripped me of the prejudices instilled by the warnings of well-meaning friends and delivered me to Partinico with my honor and my belongings intact, my spirit cheered, and my mind free to discover Sicily for myself.
Mary married a Sicilian man who was part of the landowners class and she became Mary Taylor Simeti. Together they rebuilt the farm manor house (Bosco) near Alcamo after it was destroyed by earthquake. They were able to create a rural idyll without the constraints of a Sicilian matriarch. They retreated to Bosco from bustling Palermo on weekends in spring and autumn with their teenage children and spent their summers there.
Mary wrote the memoir as an expat who had lived and loved in Sicily for over 20 years. She is gentle and interested in her observations of the Sicilian people and is never dismissive or arrogant. She doesn’t just skim across the surface like a travel writer. She shares her love, passion and sometimes frustration with Sicily. Her descriptions of traditions of harvesting and crushing the wine grapes and many of the religious festivals of Sicily, for example the joyous meeting of the Virgin Mary with the risen Christ in the Easter morning procession at Castelvetrano, are fascinating and perhaps unique. From that perspective it’s a wonderful book.
Simeti divided the book based on the seasons and the different cultural and religious festivals that occur in different months but also to chronicle the fruits and vegetables and flowers that mark each season. Four undercurrents flow through the memoir, 1) Mary’s family life, 2) Bosco and their work there and the lives of the peasants, 3) Mary’s expat experiences and 4) the history, myths and legends that have infiltrated the traditions and rhythms of Sicily.
There is as always much more food than we can possibly eat, but everyone makes a valiant effort, and the strong white Bosco wine does much to extend the advisable limits. The trays of… fancy store-bought cakes and homemade cassateddi filled with sweet ricotta, are greeted by groans of despair.
Ah, says Andrea, my uncle always used to say that pastries are like the cardinal at Easter. The cathedral is so packed with people come for High Mass there isn’t a spare centimeter to move in, but as soon as the cardinal appears, a pathway opens miraculously to make room for him to pass.
It took me 6 months to read the book. I started when we were preparing for our summer vacation in Sicily. I recorded in my book diary in June, just before we left, “Did not finish because it’s too boring”. But when we came home I was much more interested in the book and felt connected to it based on my own few experiences from 3 1/2 weeks in Sicily. I was more forgiving with the writing style and I enjoyed it. Many years ago I read Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti and I also found that both interesting and unique but boring because I struggle with her writing style. Perhaps it’s a maturity problem, i.e. maybe I’m not mature enough to enjoy her writing, or maybe the problem was that I was trying to enjoy her reflections and insights about Sicily without having firsthand knowledge or experiences of my own. I’ve spent a lot of time with Sicilians in Australia but it’s not the same as going there.
I like the way that Mary relates the seasonal native plants to references from ancient Greeks and that she incorporates the Greek gods into the landscape and traditions of Sicily.