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Luke Joseph DeBella: 1917 – 2004

As the 10-year anniversary of my father’s passing comes and goes, I have been thinking a lot about him and of the legacy he left behind.  To say that he was my role model and hero seems trite — everyone says that about their father (if they are fortunate enough to have a strong man in their life to lead them into adulthood as I did).  A man of few words, I learned what was most important by watching him conduct himself throughout his life and in his 52-year love affair with my mother.  It was in this manner that I witnessed the qualities I wanted to emulate for myself.  If I could only become half the person that he was…

When my dad was a young man his nieces and nephews used to call him “Uncle Tootsy”.  If you’d ever met this man you’d understand how ludicrous a moniker that was because my father’s reputation as a curmudgeon was legendary.  He could come-off a little scary at first and often caused my friends at school to shiver in their boots.  However, despite his well-executed “tough-guy” persona, once you got to know him you’d soon realized that his “schtick” was designed to hide one of the biggest and warmest hearts on the planet.  Babies in particular adored my father – they were not fooled by his stern, gruff manner – they could see right through him into his soft, mushy center.  My father had more friends than you could shake a stick at.

Dad was born at home in San Jose, California and raised in a house with 9 other siblings by Sicilian immigrant parents.  Not formally educated past the 8th grade, he would religiously read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day and watch the news each evening.  What my father lacked in academic knowledge he more than made up for in an uncanny intelligence for reading people.

At a young age my father learned his trade as a car mechanic and after returning from Europe at the end of World War II, he began an automotive repair business, “Luke and Martin Service”, in an old converted barn behind my grandparents’ house.  When I was a little girl, I never hesitated to take the opportunity to boast about him. If a kid bragged that his father was a brain surgeon, I would shoot back, “Well, MY dad is a mechanic”! He worked in that capacity until he was nearly 75 years old because, I believe, his regular customers refused to let him retire.  A good, honest and trustworthy auto repairman is really hard to come by.

He wasn’t the kind of guy to show off or talk about himself.  He avoided people who put on “airs” or thought they were superior to others.  He valued honor and respected hard work and straight talk.  When I was a teen, he once said to me, “Being rich doesn’t make you happy”.  My response back was, “That’s just what poor people say to make themselves feel better”, and he just smiled.  He was crazy about Westerns (especially John Wayne and Clint Eastwood), and was an avid outdoor sportsman.  By far, his favorite activity was to fish in a boat on a lake with his buddies.  He was so passionate about it that my family had the words “Gone Fishing” carved into his gravestone.  The cheekiness of that gesture would not be lost on him.

I guess the bottom line is that my dad was the “strong, silent type”.  Not very demonstrative – he wasn’t much for talking about his “feelings”.  In all honesty, I don’t remember my father ever saying the words “I love you” to me, however, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel loved and cared for by him.  Some people ‘talk the talk’ but he actually ‘walked the walk’ and taught me one of the most important lessons of my life so far: “Love” isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. by Toni DeBella

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The letter from the Consolato Generale D’Italia a San Francisco arrived in the mail today. The words inside the envelope were a culmination of three long years of hard work and dogged determination: 31/08/11 Dear Ms. DeBella: “I am pleased to notify you that your Italian citizenship has been recognized and that your certificate(s) have been forwarded to the Italian municipality of CORLEONE (PA) for recording.”

Somehow I envisioned this auspicious occasion much differently. There were times when I wondered if this day would ever come. And if it did arrive, I imagined it would be filled with much fanfare, jumping up and down, and screaming. Instead it was a quiet moment. A solitary moment. A very personal moment. It was a time to reflect on what it took for me to get to this place: Patience, tenacity, belief, humor, and a clear intention. August 31, 2011 is the day I became a citizen of Italy.

Italian by Blood Jure sanguinis (“right of blood”) contrasts with jus soli (Latin: “right of soil”) in that citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but rather by having a parent (or decendent) who is a citizen of a nation. In Italy there’s no limit to the generations that can obtain citizenship via blood (except for specific constraints which did not apply to me). Furthermore, because the U.S. and Italy have a reciprocity agreement, one is allowed dual citizenship.

After tracking down my grandparents’ birth certificates (likely located in books archived in church basements of Corleone and Contessa Entellina), respectively, I gathered together some twenty other documents (i.e., birth, death, divorce) for both myself and members of my immediate family. Translations and Apostilles followed, along with a list of discrepancies and misspelled names (of which there were many). And don’t even get me started on the rabbit hole that is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security! This part  of the process took a little over a year to complete. Then there was the waiting period (one-and-a half years, to be exact) for an appointment to personally submit my application to the Italian Consulate.

The procedure was daunting, frustrating, and at times discouraging. When I felt like giving up, I thought about the finish line — life in Italy — which helped to spur me on. I suppose that if becoming a citizen of a country were easy, everyone would do it. You really have to want it!

The Gift

I Nonni DeBella, San Jose, California

Throughout these three years I’ve been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of friends and family, both in the U.S. and Italy. But it was my grandparents, Jake (Gioachino) DiBella and Emma (Ninfa) Pizzo, who deserve my utmost thanks and gratitude for without them none of this would be possible. In the late 1880s, they came to this country as young immigrants from Sicily. They married, worked hard, and raised a family of ten children. I wonder what they would have thought about their granddaughter one day returning to the land they left behind.

It appears that the DeBella family, in the not-too-distant future, is about to come full circle.

by Toni DeBella

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I have never been overly-superstitious and take great pride in my healthy cynicism.   I don’t throw salt over my shoulder or avoid black cats.  As a muralist, I walk under ladders frequently and don’t believe I have ever fallen victim to the evil eye.  Thinking or saying something out loud does not make it come true.  If it did, I’d be a size 6, rich and living in a palazzo in Orvieto.  But I digress.

My grandmother was normally a very serious and solemn woman.  One day a year she would transform into a madwoman, wielding a broom and running in circles shouting and screaming like a banshee in an effort to ward off the evil spirits who had apparently taken up residence in our cellar.  It was spring cleaning run amok.  I don’t know much about the tradition that had this small, fragile and shy lady fearlessly take on a bunch of ghosts in the basement of our house.  I wonder if it was folklore passed down from her childhood in Contessa Entellina, a small Sicilian town 80km from Palermo.  I did a little research and found quite a few references to sweeping away evil spirits with a broom — a common practice especially among southern Italians, but was unable to find any mention of the “screaming and running around” part.  Perhaps that was my grandmother’s own personal stamp on the custom.

Superstitious Minds

A superstition is a belief in something that has no rational foundation in science and is most often based on the prevailing religion or culture that contains these otherworldly beliefs.  The word comes from the classical Latin superstitio, meaning “a standing over [in amazement]”.  Greek and Roman pagans were believed to have scorned men who displayed a fear of the gods and thus, the behavior came to be referred to as superstition. This could explain why Greeks and Italians are famously known for their mythology and have a common legend in the “evil eye” – Malocchio in Italian, Mati in Greek.

Hope-On-A-Rope

When I wrote earlier that I am not particularly superstitious, I wasn’t being completely honest with you.  The fact is that in the last few years I have come to believe a certain necklace I own has developed supernatural powers that, if worn daily, will someday bring me good luck.

It started out as a simple chain with a silver bar hanging from it.  One afternoon while in St. Peter’s Square I looked down to see something glittering in the sun.  I removed it from between the cobblestones to discover it was a tiny medallion of the Madonna.  Convinced this was an omen, I instinctively hung it onto my necklace.  A birthday present of a charm with the word “Friend” engraved on it followed — then a Chinese coin and a 4-leaf clover.  On one arrival in Rome I wrote the message to my friend Angelo, “Io sono in Italia…mi sento come una farfalla” (I am in Italy…I feel like a butterfly).  When he presented me with the gift of a tiny crystal butterfly dangling from a pink heart of course I had to add it to my collection.  This “chain of fortune” is getting rather heavy!

Out of the 365 days in a year, I probably wear the necklace 360 of them.  The other 5 days I just don’t feel quite right without it.  Could I have inherited from Grandma this propensity to make weak associations of cause and effect where there are none?  What can I say? I don’t like tempting fate.  Writer Judith Viorst said it very well: “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational — but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”
by Toni DeBella

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AnnaMaria arrived in Agrigento yesterday and I received an email from her to say that her apartment was beautiful but that she was dead tired. I know just how she feels. It’s probably the way I feel each time I land in Rome – it feels like home. She and I met in 2009, just after I returned from my winter living in Orvieto. I was feeling completely lost and disconnected – not adjusting well to the reentry into American life. She is the antithesis of me: dark, slim, dignified and subdued (albeit with a biting wit and sarcastic sense of humor that she reveals only when she knows you well). What we have most in common is that we know where we really belong –Italy. Me in Umbria, she in Sicilia. We know that one day we will become permanent residents of this wild, crazy and spectacularly beautiful place. This we know for sure. It was such a lovely and warm evening in San Francisco, so after work I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner in her honor. I strolled up and down Union Street and stopped in front of Pane E Vino Trattoria. Through the window I could see they had a few small tables near the front where there is light so I could read my book. (I always have to bring something to do in case I get self-conscious about dining alone). The proprietor is Italian, all the waiters are Italian, the elderly couple next to me were Italian, the older couple on the other side of them were Italian (he immigrated to San Francisco in 1948 – I was eavesdropping). I recognized a guy from Milano I’d met a few times at my Italian conversation meet-up. I spoke to my Venetian waiter in Italian, but first I apologized for my sub-standard skills. Like most Italians, he was kind and said “No, no, you speak very well, Bella”. Gotta love those Italians! I sat there eating my delicious Melanzane alla Parmigiana and a perfectly grilled side of asparagus with a glass of Chianti, just listening to everyone around me speaking Italian. Couples, families, a man and his mother. I noticed on the wall above me a ceramic sculpture of the moon and sun. It made me think of my artist-friend who sculpts versions of this symbol in terracotta. That’s when I felt the tears well-up in my eyes. It’s not sadness, exactly, but not really nostalgia either. It’s hard to describe, but it always catches me off-guard. I’ve been back from my last trip for almost a month and thought I was past the culture-shock and let-down that grips me. I thought I was doing okay, but I guess I was deluded. Walking to my car, I thought about AnnaMaria again. Not one-single ounce of my being is jealous of her right now. On the contrary, I’m happy for her, proud of her, admire her for taking the leap-of-faith and going to Sicily for 2 months. I know what it takes to do that – the confidence to know what makes you happy and the courage to try to obtain it. I want for her what I want for myself; to find a way to stay in Italia forever. Complimenti, AnnaMaria!!! by Toni DeBella

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