Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fortunata Vadalà Scarfì: Requiescat in Pace

 Born Fortunata Vadalà, my father’s sister was known to me as “Zia Fortuna”, which literally means “Aunt Luck”. Her name was a bit of a misnomer, as she had her share of misfortunes, particularly during the latter part of her life. But then again, you wouldn’t know it by her unflappable joy and serenity and her contagious smile, even in the midst of adversity.

I first met her when I was three years old, during a long vacation in Italy. I remember very little about that summer of 1961, but I was apparently taken with Zia Fortuna. Numerous times since then she lovingly reminded and teased me about a conversation we had just before it was time for my parents and me to return to the states:

Ora te ne vai in America, e mi lasci sola.” [Now you are going back to America and you will leave me all alone.]

No, zia, Fortuna!” I protested with sincerity and innocence. “Io non ti lascerö mai sola!” [I will never leave you alone.]

Not only did I leave her, but I had for all intents and purposes forgotten her. Back in the sixties, transatlantic telephone calls were a big deal, and expensive to boot, so communication was pretty much limited to written correspondence, and I wasn't writing at that point. But when my family returned to Italy in 1968, I fell in love with my Zia Fortuna all over again.

I think everyone in the Vadalà clan has fond memories of the summer of 1968. It was a glorious reunion after a seven year separation. For me it was the beginnings of a great friendship with three Italian cousins who were close to my age: Pietro, Maurizio, and (Zia Fortuna’s middle son) Claudio. My grandparents, Nonno Pietro and Nonna Nella, must have been particularly thrilled to see most of their children and their families gathered together in Torre Faro, our little town on the northeastern point of Sicily. We all remember one special day when three generations gathered at the beach to enjoy swimming, great food lovingly prepared and packed in baskets, and lots of family fun. It seemed that everyone was young and full of energy that day. I remember watching wide eyed in amazement as Nonna Nella (whom I could otherwise only picture with gray hair in a bun and wearing a long dress while crocheting sweaters and doilies) literally let her hair down, donned a bathing suit and dove into the Tyrrhenian Sea, clipping through the blue water with ease and dexterity.

Young and full of energy is how I also remember Zia Fortuna, who also cherished fond memories of that special day. We had similar joys the following summer, when all the Vadala children were able to meet again in Torre Faro, this time including Zio Lillo and family. The summer of 1969 would have been absolutely perfect except that it was the year Nonno Pietro was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He too was someone I remember as full of youthful energy and joy despite his years.

After Nonno Pietro died in 1971, Zia Fortuna came to visit us in the states. For me it was an opportunity to enjoy and fall more in love with that wonderful lady. Both sides of the family in Rising Sun, Maryland, some of whom were meeting her for the first time, were immediately taken with her warmth, her joie de vivre and her youthful energy. I think most of us remember her playing and turning cartwheels in the back yard with kids of all ages.

I have said a lot about her youthful energy. Sometime later, I suppose when she was in her fifties, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disease that would ravage the latter part of her life, eventually confining her to a wheelchair and (in her last few years) to bed. Yet even without the physical energy and dexterity to turn cartwheels, her joie de vivre remained. She never complained. When I think of her, I think of Galatians 5:22, Paul’s description of the “fruit of the Spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Zia Fortuna displayed them all in great measure.

And therein lay at least part of her secret. She was a woman of faith. Her great prayer and concern for each member of her family and all her loved ones was, as she put it, “se vogliono bene a Gesú” (whether they love Jesus). I remember when I was 20 years old and I first came to a genuine understanding of the Gospel and I wrote to tell her about it. She immediately wrote back and told me how she was moved to tears of joy at my rebirth. Since then we have shared a special bond, much greater than the bond between a child and his extra-special aunt.

More recently, I have been fortunate enough to get to Italy frequently and see her on an almost annual basis. At the end of every trip, she would ask, “Are you going to leave me now?” and I would reply, “Zia Fortuna, I will never leave you!”, and she would lovingly retort with a smile, “Bugiardo!” [You liar!] Between trips, we also kept in frequent telephonic contact.

I saw her for the last time in the summer of 2008 during a two week trip to Sicily. Unfortunately, she was in the hospital the entire time, but I made it a point to get over to see her often. I have vivid memories of the last evening I saw her, when I stopped at the Policlinico di Messina the night before returning to the states. Visiting hours were almost over and she was sleeping. I was hesitant to wake her up, but she awoke as I lightly touched her hand. Sensing it would be the last time I would see her, I made a feeble attempt at encouragement by saying:

“You know, unlike your lying nephew, there really is Someone who will never leave you or forsake you.”

“Oh, that I know for sure,” she replied. “He never has left me, and He never will.”

We spoke about that wonderful day back in 1968 when we were all together, also mentioning those who are no longer with us: Nonno Pietro, Nonna Nella, my father.... She spoke with joy and certainty that someday we will all be reunited. Perhaps in a variation of Jesus’ promise that “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” she said, “We will all be there together in a five star hotel!” Despite being in pain, she still flashed that contagious smile.

She died this past Friday, February 13, 2009. I am consoling myself by thinking what it must be like for my Zia Fortuna to be free of pain, perhaps doing a few cartwheels, and enjoying that five star hotel.

Enter into joy, Zia Fortuna. Hear the Savior say those infinitely precious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And give a big hug for me to all of our dear ones, particularly my father. I still miss him terribly, just as I will miss you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Dad. What an accurate pictures of Zia Fortuna. It moved me to tears!