“My Once in a Lifetime Life” is a series of occasional blogs written by Joy Zomer, who spent several years in Europe as a Christian missionary. Now a single mom of three children, Joy is the director of a high school alternative education program. This post celebrates the life of Zia Annetta, a Sicilian woman who lived a difficult life and became an example for her church and her young missionary friend.
She was a frail, tiny woman, the kind of lady who could sail away with a strong gust of wind. She was always in black: a black dress, a black blouse and skirt, a black sweater over a black top; each appearance telling each of us that she had lost someone she wouldn’t forget. It seemed like church was that kind of commitment to her as well. 10:00 am sharp on Sunday mornings in La Chiesa Metodista, downtown Scicli, she would be there. Often her church attire included a black hat, adorned with black lace pinned in her pulled-back-in-a-low bun pearly white hair. She spoke not a word of English, and her Italian was strongly laced with the Sicilian dialect; our conversations were made up of gestures and facial expression, with few words.
As the oldest church member at 94, Zia, or Auntie, simply was “auntie” for each of us. With a warm smile, she watched and encouraged from the sidelines. Each new activity, each action to strengthen or grow her church brought a gentle nod and eye crinkle from Annetta. When a choir was created to sing on Sundays, she joined in the audience and sat through the practices. At bi-weekly potlucks, she joined others in eating with gusto. When youth group was reinstated, she laughed and smiled placidly at the antics of the youth as they played and learned.
I wondered if these events reminded Zia of the past when activities were a regular occurrence for the church. When she was a young mother, the church of the 50’s had rebounded after the World War II, and her son was an active participant. In time, her son grew up and emigrated to Paris. Once a year, in June, he came to visit for a week. I remember hearing the story about the loss of her husband during the Fascist years in Scicli, spoken in hushed tones and with little detail.
Long-kept pictures spoke a story of community and widespread communion among the Methodist believers of Scicli. Post-fascism had brought a time of relative peace for these church members. Zia Annetta’s face is featured prominently in these photographs. In the garden, which no longer exists, or at the archway, fallen away, the photos spoke to another era, an earlier prosperity that the church struggled to rediscover. The church was without a pastor and the activities faded. Years passed.
Now we were here, serving the church. A time came when Zia Annetta missed church a few Sundays. Learning that she was feeling weak, I decided to find her and offer some warm food as was my American custom. I remember that it was a sunny, warm day – typical for Southern Sicily. Walking up from the church near the city square with my church friend Laura and two of my three children, I wondered how tiny Zia Annetta made the trek to church each Sunday. It was uphill for about fifteen blocks and walking on the uneven, hand cut pre-19th century cobblestones, was an effort. We had served in Scicli for over a year, but I had never walked this road.
As a pastor’s wife, I hoped to offer some sustenance, both physically and in spirit. As a history enthusiast, I imagined her home as a haven for a live history museum filled with reminders of two World Wars as well as the development of an industrial age. And as we got closer to her home, deep in the zone rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, I imagined Baroque style richness that might show up in archways and architecture. Whatever we found, I was confident that its historical relevancy would reveal a new layer of interest and curiosity. Whatever we found, I believed that our visit would be a treat for her as well as for us, lifting spirits and strengthening body.
Climbing the last bit of sidewalk to her apartment, I heard that we had come to the busy steep road that turned into Scicli after a tenuous, winding drive from the hills around the town. Cars honking, engines revving, this road was much different from the gentle street that had brought us here. Stopping at Zia’s doorway at the crux of this intersection, we saw an entry set into an uneven ground, hurriedly cut out of the slanted stone foundations. It appeared that the doorway was there long before the present building was constructed. The building above her ground floor entrance revealed some of the Baroque style that I had hoped to see in its upper reaches. However, at ground level there was none of that style. We knocked on the door and Zia Annetta was there, with a wan smile encouraging us inward out of the cacophony of modern noises.
The journey down steep steps into Zia’s single room brought a transformation from the modern age to a depth of poverty of which I had no sense or knowledge. Directly in front of us were some worn unpainted wooden stairs leading up to a loft area which covered a portion of the small 10’ x 14’ room. The loft floor offered storage and a toilet sitting in the middle of the room, a small acknowledgement to modern convenience.
Gesturing for us to sit down, Zia Annetta returned slowly to her post on a small wooden stool propped in the corner of the dark room. It reminded me of a milking stool that I had once seen at my uncle’s farm. The room was built out of the bowels of the stone block foundation. One small window near the doorway was covered by a dark plaid covering. A small table with three chairs set in the center of the room and a two-person sofa were the full extent of the furniture. Wall hangings were non-existent.
Her walls, a type of stucco slathered over a slate slab, were deep green from the damp and rich in mold that clearly resulted from no health code. Looking around the room, I quickly saw that Zia had neither true kitchen area nor an indoor bathroom. A small area underneath the wooden stairs housed a faucet and portable basin which served for clean-up, seemingly for bodily needs and meal preparation. A hot plate rested on the upside down basin. A coal-burning stove sat to its left, now silent, offered heat in the winter and a means to warm food.
On the table were four glasses. In the center, a small plate of four store-bought cookies. We were both expected by Zia and prepared for. We sat and we shared. Today, I don’t remember much of the conversation. I guess I was caught unprepared. After the visit, I remember talking to church members about improving her living conditions. I suggested a work project to add an upstairs room or scrape the mold off of her walls. Soon after, she returned to church. The ideas for Zia’s home improvement were put on the back burner because when asked, Zia expressed contentment. She saw no reason for changes.
When I think of Zia and that visit, I wonder now what she might have thought about a young American mother traipsing into her apartment with two small children, bringing a pasta casserole in a plastic container. Two years after I left Scicli, Zia passed away peacefully. I hope I offered her some comfort.
When my heart drifts back to Scicli, my thoughts inevitably revert to the image of Zia’s sparse and spare home and her diminutive figure sitting placidly on a milking stool. A world had grown up around her, and she had endured many trials to maintain a foothold on life. She remained true to her faith and to her life’s path, doing her best with what was available. The memories of Zia’s home bring me reassurance of God’s all-encompassing arms and gentle hugs through all of life. I see that sometimes the task is not to fix what seems broken, but instead to live in the brokenness without the need to fix it. That is the lesson of Zia Annetta.