Monday, February 18, 2008

The Albano Sisters

Outside the shower, in our master bath, is a towel with sharks and other sea creatures, a rock from Maine, and a cissus rhombifolia my Great Aunt Jenny gave me the last time we visited her in New York. This is one of the connections I have to a generation of ancestors, my mother's mother and her sisters, born of Sicilian immigrants with the name Albano.

There was a brother, Vinnie, but I never met him. Of the five sisters, the most sunshiny, and second youngest, was Jenny. Always ready to laugh, the gentlest tease in a family always ready with that particular style of teasing I've since learned is indeed from Sicily, she was our favorite of the great aunts. She was in strongest contrast to Antoinette, who was unpredictable, quick to cluck her disapproval, and who pinched our cheeks and clutched us less gently than the others when we gave her the obligatory kiss hello and goodbye. We feared her a little, but Aunt Antoinette was also quick to chuckle, and make jokes. I thought she was the spiciest of the aunts until I met the baby of the family, on that last visit to Aunt Jenny. Aunt Anna was in her sixties, but still had blue black hair, black eyes that sparked, and was wearing jeans that looked sprayed on, and knee length sexy black leather boots. Pure mischief and danger, she took my breath away. This woman stilled looked like she could be the undoing of any number of men. On the other end of the family was the eldest sister, Aunt Mary Ferrara, whom I also never met, but heard a lot about, since she was at the center of the legendary family controversy that split the aunts and caused numerous tales of decades without speaking, refusal to attend funerals, etc. Genuine Sicilian hot headed and cold blooded stubbornness.

But our Nana, the sister I knew best because she was our grandmother, was perhaps the wisest, the quietest of the five. She was a lovely, tiny lady, an amazing gardener and lover of houseplants, having hundreds at various times. She and the other aunts competed and exchanged the Christmas and Easter Cactus with which my mother also has a gift. As many as fifty blooms at once on some plants in the best years. All shades, shapes, sizes, they delighted in sharing bits and pieces of different species and varieties. Rosary vine, spider plants, pothos, philodendrons, wandering jew, Moses in the bulrushes, African violets...

And of these one of my favorites, but I never saw it at my Nana's house, was this cissus. The first time I encountered it at Aunt Jenny's house I was fascinated by the way it set off all my poison ivy alarms. Just being in the same room with it gave me the creeps, since I had some prodigious cases of poison ivy as a kid, some breakout nearly every summer, in fact. I can still detect winter naked poison ivy vines out of the corner of my eye - I get this breathless, "Stand still!" feeling that jerks me up short and makes me look around in panic. So the plant in full leaf exerts the same fascination as a cobra in full hood, weaving in front of my face.

But over the years, and it's been many since Aunt Jenny cut me the little slip that started this plant, and in turn others now at my sister's house, I have stopped feeling the poisonous feeling. Now, instead, I think of the sweet giver, and enjoy the unique orderly lines and relationships of the leaves.

This last weekend, at my Dad's 70th birthday party, my parents confirmed something I've wondered about for years. While the Albano family married Sicilians, and must have been nearly completely of Sicily by the time they emigrated, the name probably means the original bearer came from Albania, a country north of Italy, shrouded in mystery. And this is the way things are in this house - they carry the rich patina of memory and hundreds of associations. It astonishes me sometimes to think that everyone's home may carry similar weight of meaning on nearly every object, but it's invisible to me. It's somehow the essence of our existence that this plant, this family name, these memories, which are so present to me, can be so absent to you, so the photo above brings you no emotions. We are surrounded, and cut off, all at once.

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