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Now I See

How I Battled Blindness, Mental Illness,

an Espresso Habit and Lived to Tell the Tale

A Memoir

Mariagrazia Buttitta

Foreword by Kevin Hines

Embracing Your Differences Publishing

Foreword: Kevin Hines

Preface: Joshua Rivedal

Thematic Editor: Skookum Hill

Other: Lois Marie Harrod

Copy-editing: Kimberley Jace, Kevin Cook, and Pamela Cangioli 

Interior Layout: Skookum Hill

Book Cover Design: Michael Koch

Photographer: Robert Bennett, Makeup Artist: Dominique Ferro

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Furthermore, in order to streamline the narrative, the author has condensed parts of her childhood.

Disclaimer

This book is not intended as a substitute of medical attention such as: a specialized training and professional judgment of a health care and mental health care professional. Therefore, the author is not held responsible for the use of the information provided. If you are in need of immediate care, please contact a Crisis Clinic or a qualified mental health care and medical provider for further assistance.

Copyright © 2017 by Mariagrazia Buttitta.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. If you would like to do any of the above, please seek permission first by contacting us at: embracingdifferences01@gmail.com



Now I See - Mariagrazia Buttitta; First Edition

Table of Contents

Praise for Now I See

Acknowledgements

Foreword: Kevin Hines

Preface: Joshua Rivedal

Chapter One: Maria the Hot Mess … Sigh

Chapter Two: In That Little Town of Bagheria near Palermo, Sicily

Chapter Three: The Struggle Was Real … and So Was My Depression

Chapter Four: A Giant Pair of Glasses for Little Maria

Chapter Five: Little Maria Goes to Middle School—the ‘Prison Years’

Chapter Six: More Bullies, Binge Eating … and a Breaking Point

Chapter Seven: The Cause of Little Maria’s Owl Vision

Chapter Eight: From High School to No School

Chapter Nine: Learning to Walk with Casper: The Friendly Cane

Chapter Ten: A Dummy’s Guide to Talking to the ‘D-i-s-a-b-l-e-d’

Chapter Eleven: The Depths of Despair

Chapter Twelve: ‘Kicking My Blue Genes in the Butt’

Chapter Thirteen: The Long and Winding Road … to Recovery

Chapter Fourteen: Self-Discovery

Resources

About the Author

A Message from the Author

Praise for Now I See

Now I See shares a moving personal story that touches on so many critical aspects of well-being in the face of adversity. Three qualities resonate throughout Brave Maria’s compelling journey of healing—a spirit to cope, grit, and amazing grace.”

~ Sean Campbell, mental health advocate

“This book will soon be in the hands and hearts of many who will know hope after reading her very personal story. Mariagrazia is an extraordinary writer who blends truth with humor, resiliency, determination, love, faith, and personal growth like no other story.”

~ Professor Kathleen Pignatelli, BA, MEd, DRCC State of NJ professor of health/psychology

Now I See is a witty, inspiring, and courageous account of a young woman’s journey to find hope and strength in the face of adversity. You will find yourself crying and rejoicing as Mariagrazia faces her fears and emerges as a brave, confident advocate for herself and others.”

~ Marion Cavallaro, Ph.D., LPC, associate professor, Department of Counselor Education, The College of New Jersey

“This book is for anyone who is seeking inspiration, hope, and vision in their life. Her story has touched and inspired countless [people] already, but go ahead––see for yourself.”

~ Francesca Buttitta, mother, friend, and area sales manager for Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th

Now I See offers a vision of hope and determination in the face of depression and blindness. Mariagrazia Buttitta’s poignant memoir of her life will move and fascinate you, through darkest night and brightest day. Beyond inspiring.”

~ Andrew Simeone, librarian

“Mariagrazia writes a unique and insightful narrative on two stigmatized battles throughout her life. She seeks the truth through her past, strengthens herself with tools from present situations, and finds her voice to give hope in the future. A creative, helpful, and inspiring memoir!”

~ Laurel King, student, tutor, and massage therapist

“Mariagrazia’s memoir gives readers a unique, honest, and at times painful and humorous look into the ever-changing realities of living in a world that hasn’t yet embraced what it means to live with depression.”

~ Stuart Roe, Ph.D., NCC, associate professor of counseling at The College of New Jersey

“From the moment you begin this book, its powerful narrative of adversity, strength, and persistence will take you on a moving and inspirational journey.  Written not only for those who personally endure society's stigma toward blindness, it's must read that helps all of us see how we see others.”

~ Paul D’Angelo, Ph.D., professor of Communication, The College of New Jersey

“Mariagrazia Buttitta has written a must-read by eloquently telling her life story and all of the challenges and victories that it has encompassed thus far. Her journey to mental and physical wellness is an inspiration to anyone and everyone. Read this book. Through the laughter and tears, you will find hope and a sense of resounding resiliency.”

~ Jamisin Saracino, MA”

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

To Francesca Buttitta, Antonino Buttitta, Elisabetta Buttitta-Riopi, Elisabetta Scalisi-Buttitta, Nonn’Onofrio Buttitta, Joshua Rivedal, Kathy Pignatelli, Jamisin Lee Saracino, Celina Levy, Suzanne Bachner, Kyle Maynard, Stuart Roe, Marion Cavallaro, Kevin Hines, Sean Campbell, Phil Accaria, Judy Baker Schwartzhoff, Edward Sroczynski, Beverly A. Matthews, Lois Marie Harrod, Paul D’Angelo, Laurel King, Andrew Simeone, DJ Scheibe, and my two four-legged friends: Lucky and Happy.

Thank you also to the many others whose names may not appear above, but who still continue to play a significant role in my life.

Additionally, thank you to the staff of: Bergen Community College, New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and The College of New Jersey.

And most importantly—thank you …God



“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Foreword

Kevin Hines

Mariagrazia writes passionately, poignantly, and viscerally about her life in this one-of-a-kind, compassionate, and poetic life story. She shares the most intimate of journeys with grace and candor. Her story is powerful, filled with hope, and shines a light on a much-needed subject—stigma surrounding mental illness and disabilities. Maria navigates us through the entire process. This is a story that can reach out and positively touch each and everyone who reads it. Now I See is truly a powerhouse of a life story, from her vivid descriptions of old to current and ever-compromising Italian culture, to the waterfall flow of how her mamma and grandmother cooked the ancient recipes of their ancestors’ food, to her mountain-moving poetry imbedded in each chapter. Maria is a gifted author; she paints vivid, palpable, and colorful pictures with every paragraph—the kind of images meant for framing or paintings on walls, even living as screensavers for your new computer.

This strong young woman paves a path to hope, a path to healing. She talks of subject matter few are well equipped enough to even dare explain. The book is called Now I See for many reasons, and its significance has vast implications. Maria is legally blind, walks with a cane, and lives with mental illness. An acting teacher might refer to her life struggles as a triple threat. She has felt these struggles most of her life. She felt separated from the average young lady, and in a huge way she was. Disconnected from life. Wishing for so very long to disappear. Maria’s constant dance with death by suicide isn't depressing; it's raw, candid, and true. But she is solution-based, and this book shares these solutions—how one goes from the brink of such pain, triumphs each time, and commits to life. Her story is pure, filled with light, and the notion that the pain you are experiencing right now, the pain your loved one is going through, is from today, but it doesn't mean your story won't be beautiful. Today is not tomorrow. 

Her unequivocal belief in self after years of self-doubt is awe-inspiring. The hope she lives with daily after fighting mental illness, and physical illness, even when her sight is taken from her, is infectious. Mari, as her mother calls her, shares colorful memories from her personal diary and past. She shows the world: I am here, I've been in the darkest of spaces, and I have and will keep on keeping on. She is the definition of success. Mari is real. I write this foreword with a whole heart. After meeting Maria, speaking with her, and learning from her, my life has been changed. She still struggles; this is no self-help book cluttered with notions of being fixed or finding a cure. This is truth-telling at its best. We can manage such brain pain, we can utilize helpful guiding lights in our lives to wade through disability, and dammit, we can be as successful as the last person who paved the way for our faith in life. We can be great.

My name is Kevin Hines, and I know a bit about pain. In the year 2000, I attempted to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of thirty-six to survive that fall, one of a handful to regain full physical mobility, I had a broken back, walked with a cane and back brace for some time while on Social Security disability, and live with a severe form of bipolar disorder. I’ve spent time in seven psych ward stays and had twenty-six treatments of Electro Convulsive Therapy, or ECT. I’ve been through a lot in my life and I still struggle, but like Maria, I too have committed to this life. 

As a person who’s been there, I am so moved by this work of art. Maria and her story will change your life. So read, learn, feel, and enjoy.

She tells us, I have mental illness, I am blind, but I will always see. I see you, Maria ... I see.

#HopeHelpsHeal #BeHereTomorrow #KeepOnKeepinOn

Sincerely, 

- Kevin Hines,

Storyteller, author, advocate, filmmaker, founding partner and CEO: 17th & Montgomery Productions: A Mental Health Media Co. www.KevinHinesStory.com

Preface

Joshua Rivedal

Dear reader,

If I could have magically addressed you by name, I definitely would have… but that would have been kinda creepy and I’m not great at magic anyway (not even the sci-fi card game). And in case you’ve completely skipped the table of contents, I am not Mariagrazia. I know that the preface is usually written by the book’s author, but this is no ordinary book and Mariagrazia is no ordinary young woman.

I first got to know Mariagrazia when I presented a mental health and suicide prevention keynote at Bergen County College where she was working to complete her associate’s degree. I won’t give you the entirety of that story because Mariagrazia has included it as part of her journey within the pages of this book, but after that presentation we connected and formed a bond as friends, as mentor and mentee, and as colleagues. In the coming years Mariagrazia invited me to speak at The College of New Jersey, where she was completing her bachelor’s degree, and along the way she asked me to help her shape a new book she had worked on—a memoir. In my past I had worked as a playwright, and as a mental health advocate I had written three books (with one more on the way!), so of course I said yes to Mariagrazia’s request.

During this two-year book-editing process, I not only got the chance to have fun with my dear friend working on storytelling and thematic editing, but I also got a front-row seat to see this young woman and talented writer, transform from a person without hope, without direction, to a vibrant human being who works tremendously hard on refining herself and strives to help others so that they don’t go through the same suffering she experienced early on in life.

I am so incredibly excited for you, the reader, to see what I’ve seen. To read what I’ve read. To grab a hold of this book and experience the feeling I felt after reading this piece of art from cover to cover—pride, elation, fear, sadness, joy, laughter, empowerment, and inspiration.

It is my hope that Mariagrazia’s Now I See becomes something like a laser eye surgery for your soul, allowing you to see more clearly the possibilities in your life even in the face of obstacles—and that you’re able to find the capacity for hope, healing, and encouragement, should the need arise. Mariagrazia shows us that impossible is just a mindset; when we cultivate a network of support for ourselves and commit to working through our personal demons, only then the word and the mindset “impossible” transforms to “I’m possible.” Your brain can be your worst enemy or your best friend. Mariagrazia gives insight to the concept that we must nurture and train and stay vigilant in the fight to keep our brains healthy so that we can live mentally well every single day of our lives.

If it isn’t already clear, it will be by the end of this book that this young woman is a true gem and this book is something that should not sit on a shelf but must be passed along to a loved one, a colleague, or a friend.

Thank you, Mariagrazia, for your efforts and your commitment in showing us that it is possible to take personal tragedy and turn it into triumph. You make the world a better place.

#iampossible #werpossible

- Joshua Rivedal

Founder and CEO, The i’Mpossible Project and Changing Minds: A Mental Health Based Curriculum | www.iampossibleproject.com

Chapter One

Maria the Hot Mess … Sigh

There I was, lying on the hardwood floor of the two-bedroom apartment I shared with my parents in northern New Jersey, shaking like an overly-caffeinated maraca from having chugged six espresso shots within the last hour. Tears streamed down my face and mascara caked between my eyelids as I probed the mirror on my wall for answers as to how and why.

I was at the very end of my twenty-three-year rope—desolate, desperate, and wishing for my own death sentence.

“Oh, Magic Mirror, who is the prettiest of all?”

Okay, so maybe I was warming up to my own million-dollar question at hand.

My mirror, the cheeky fellow, replied in a most proper British accent, “You, darling, are the prettiest of all.” This mirror, part hallucination and part childhood Snow White fantasy, was a big, fat liar. Although I was only twenty-three years old, my youthful beauty—my dimples and my crystal blue eyes—had faded away long ago. When I stared intently at my mirror now, I could only make out a sour, miserable reflection of myself—a broken Maria, a haggard, long-nosed Evil Witch, a Maria I barely recognized.

I dragged my nearly lifeless body across the floor and curled up like a mouse with my thick Psychology 101 textbook, which had served as both pillow and punching bag. Wearing only my green cotton frog-patterned socks and my fluffy, long-sleeved, pink flannel pajamas (I was once known as “Maria the Pajama Fashionista”), I blasted Taylor Swift’s new song, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” I hoped that her anthemic melodies would lift my spirits. Usually I would have broken into a Pentecostal-like boogie (unofficially named “The Woot Woot Dance”) and lip-synched into a black Sharpie microphone, but in that split second, I could barely lift my head off the floor.

I started to feel the vibration in my room blaring from the loudspeakers. It was after 12:30 in the morning and I didn’t want to wake my parents, who had to work early the next morning, or our nosy, eighty-nine-year-old next-door neighbor, who loved nothing but drama, gossip, and making noise complaints for no reason—other than to perpetuate the drama and gossip.

To keep my name out of the local police blotter—or worse, to keep my face off of TV’s Cops—I lowered the volume. I decided that there was nothing to do but stuff my face with my favorite comfort food—a half-eaten bag of Lay’s potato chips and a bottle of Limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur, while thoughts of death and suicide erupted inside my head like a deadly volcano. Or perhaps more like the worst iTunes playlist on a never-ending shuffle.

You’re weak. Ugly. Not smart enough. A freak. A failure. No one will ever love you. You’ll never find a job. You don’t belong in this world.

And then, before my rock-bottom thoughts could spiral down any further, my Smartphone lit up, disrupting Taylor (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) in mid-chorus. The call clicked over to voicemail but then the phone immediately rang again. This time I grabbed it, muted it, and rolled over onto my side in crunchy despair, crushing the rest of the potato chips beneath me. Now my pajamas were dripping in Limoncello and my shot glass had broken into tiny shards. All I needed was a little cannoli cream smeared throughout my hair and I would look like the worst Italian street fair ever.

I struggled to focus on my phone; the screen flashed the name “Brad.” Oh no, I moaned. I couldn’t bear to speak to Brad—or anyone else, for that matter. A new sensation—shame—began to bubble to the surface. I was ashamed of the person I had let myself become. I could only blame myself for the state I was in.

I couldn’t fathom how I could have sunk into such a serious funk in just one month. Moment of truth, time to ask that million-dollar question: How did this happen? I had felt down before, maybe hopeless, definitely depressed—but never felt this dreary. How did I end up hitting the sludge at the bottom layer of my life? I felt as if I were caged, trapped in a black, deep hole with no will to climb out and keep living. Of course, I don’t really want to die, I told myself—but why on earth did I keep replaying scenes from my own funeral—which, by the way, no one attended? Why was it that, when I said my prayers every night before going to sleep, I secretly wanted to ask God to not let me wake up the next morning?

I shook my head. This wasn’t really me talking; it was those loud, suicidal thoughts that were trying to make my life a living hell. If the thoughts would only flee my mind for a brief millisecond, I could at least make some sense out of all this—but they had no intention of doing so.

For weeks, I’d felt somewhat like a depressed turtle (unfortunately, not the teenage or mutant ninja variety) who wanted to stay hidden inside her shell forever—or in my case, locked up in my tiny bedroom enclosed by my four walls, feeling isolated and worthless. But I couldn’t let anyone find out how crazy, weird, and different I felt. I didn’t think anyone would have understood, anyway. Hiding my pain for nearly twenty-three years had led to full-blown panic attacks, including shortness of breath, sweaty palms, a thundering heart, stabbing chest pains, and lightheadedness.

Only a few months earlier, I had been holding onto my cane for the blind, standing in triumph, the cool breeze blowing through my hair atop Kittatinny Mountain, one of the highest peaks in all of New Jersey. It wasn’t anything like Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro, but being legally blind, I could only go as far as my mother or my friends would drive me.

The time is one a.m.

My wristwatch for the blind never disappointed. It kept its promise, announcing the time on the hour, every hour. I groaned, and as I rolled over onto my growling belly, my hand brushed a journal—an old, tattered composition book peering out from under the edge of my bed. I scooped it up and brushed the dust off the cover. On the marbled, black-and-white cover, I had scrawled a title: La Piccola Maria (Little Maria) in thick, black marker. How old is this thing? My initials, MB, were at the bottom in red ballpoint ink.

I carefully opened the notebook, smelling the old ink and dust, and noticed that the pages looked as if they were ready to fall apart—much like me in my current state, I thought. It was a notebook filled with the old poems I had written beginning when I was in third or fourth grade. I hadn’t added anything to the journal for quite a few years and had almost forgotten about this treasure.

With a growing sense of curiosity to match my desperation, I turned to the first page and found a note that I had penned to myself when I was an eight-year-old living in Sicily.

Maria’s Imaginary World

When I write,

I am sitting under an umbrella with my mamma.

It’s softly raining.



When I write,

I am eating vanilla and chocolate ice cream

in the same cone.



When I write,

I quiet down the voices of the boys,

the mean ones in my class.



When I write,

I make the winning soccer goal.



And then I read my poems to my imaginary friend.

Her name is--Bambola.

I sighed as tears filled my eyes, and then moaned when the journal slipped from my hand. That little poem triggered beautiful yet painful memories. What happened to her? Why had I stopped writing? Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to remember that sweet little girl—her innocence, her joy, and the simplicity of her life; and so I desperately, once more, turned to my mirror, hoping it would present me with answers.

But the mirror continued to remain silent, and the girl who stared back was glaring in anger and disgust. She wanted nothing to do with me.

I knew I needed her, to understand her, to be her. I longed to have the super powers of that little girl, who could silence her bullies and kick the winning soccer goal with just the stroke of a pen—a happiness I had not known in decades. Writing had been that power.

I flipped another page in the journal and found this next poem—it was undated, but I knew I had written it in elementary school. This one was written in the messy scrawl of a young girl, much of it without rhyme or sense—hardly what anyone would call poetry. But there was something there that I found compelling. What my early work lacked in structure, it made up for in persistence, eagerness, and quiet strength. There were even a few nuggets of gold—writing and emotions I had long ago forgotten.

Maybe this little girl did still exist, even if only in the recesses of my mind.

A Happy Place

Happiness leads to laughter

like sparkling skies.



Glowing magical stars

shine in my heart.



A peaceful soothing song—

sweet as Nonna’s biscotti—

sounds like a lullaby.



It leaves me with a happy place

Inside my heart.

I sighed again and then turned to the next page and found a poem entitled “Ode to Blue.” Oh, I think I remember this …

I’d had more trouble than most children identifying colors, because of my vision. Even as I got older, I was never sure I could tell one color from the next. But luckily, I had an extraordinary grasp of the nitty-gritty of life, thanks to my thoughtful and caring mamma (from now on, read the word “mamma” with an Italian accent—it’ll make a lot more sense).

Red resembled fire, and Mamma had warned me not to play with fire because I could burn and bruise and that would make me cry. Black was what I saw when Mamma left the room after tucking me in bed. “Don’t forget, you can see the stars only when it’s dark,” she whispered every night after turning out the lights. Yellow was brightness, which I never liked, because it symbolized the color of the sunlight that stabbed my eyes and stole my vision. But blue … “Blue,” Mamma would say, “is like your gorgeous blue eyes”—and so I knew the color blue had to be magical.

Ode to Blue

Oh blue, my favorite is you.

When I think of blue I begin to sigh

and I feel a wave of calmness

washing over my body.



Blue like the color of the sky,

blue like the color of the ocean,

blue like the color of my eyes.



Blue you’re the key to my happiness.

I cannot take a single step without wearing

my blue socks and blue shoes.



Without them I cannot see a clear path.

I have a bad day if I am not wearing

my fancy blue denim shirt.



It’s obvious, my obsession for blue.

I give blue thumbs up!

I was drawn to this journal as if I were in a trance, desperate to rediscover this little girl, her soul, and her creative spark. If I could find her, she would help remind me of who I was and why I might want to keep on living.

With my body shaking, I stretched my hand and picked up a black marker, barely able to hold it between my trembling fingers. I sat at my desk and started tapping the marker nervously, waiting for a spark of creativity to well up within me like a caffeine rush. I stared out my window, the awkward silence of emptiness keeping my nerves as tight as violin strings.

But the hush didn’t last long. The sounds of my papà snoring from the next room echoed throughout my room. My clock was ticking, my puppy was now snoring, too, and finally—I was drawn back to reality. I was tired beyond belief, but there was no way I could sleep—not if I didn’t find Little Maria that night.

I stared closely at Little Maria’s journal and clung on tight until my fingers began moving on their own, flipping through old pages from my youth. I hoped the words on each page would provide a roadmap back to Little Maria, illuminating the path and steering me away from the dark world where I was being held prisoner.

And then the hope was gone. It only took a few moments for the dark shadow of depression, suicide, and self-hate to begin hovering over me once again, tapping on my shoulder and laughing at me louder than it had ever done before. I sighed and dropped the journal so I could cover my ears with my own two hands, waiting for the shadow and the cruel laughter to pass. “You are not needed. Can’t you see you are only a burden to everyone around you?”

The time is two a.m.

Chapter Two

In That Little Town of Bagheria near Palermo, Sicily

There it was, yet again, that awkward silence in the apartment. You could hear a pin drop—or at least, my puppy snoring. Where is everyone? I thought. My parents—hard workers, left the apartment at five a.m. every day for work.

I placed my hand on the doorknob and opened the door ever-so-slightly to peek out into the apartment, to see if anyone was home. It sounded so quiet. I called out, “Mamma. C’è nessuno? Is anyone there?” No one responded but my puppy, Lucky—who began to yap “Bau, bau!” (Yes, my dog barks in Italian).

I decided to tap into my inner Nancy Drew and investigate. Moments later, I exited my bedroom and began tiptoeing toward the kitchen—moving slower than a slug with a bad case of vertigo.

It might have taken at least ten whole minutes before I even set foot in the kitchen. There were two empty espresso cups sitting in the dish rack—my one and only clue that my parents had left for work. Mamma’s passion for style and her attention to detail had earned her a job at Saks Fifth Avenue as a Merchandising and Operations Manager. Papà worked as a horse trainer and driver.

To satisfy my full-fledged caffeine habit, I found my new espresso cup and poured myself a shot (or three—okay, maybe four), grabbed a cookie to appease my empty stomach (not to mention my sweet tooth), and then drank a full glass of water.

The time is eight a.m., my watch reminded me.

After rubbing my eyes, I snapped off the kitchen lights and dragged my feet back to my bedroom. I was perplexed, still in a bit of a daze. My eyes were puffy and half shut. I raised the blinds ever so slightly and opened my windows to let some fresh air in. I heaved a deep sigh.

The sun was beaming bright and the birds outside were chirping away. I could even feel a light breeze gently tickling my cheeks. This is nice, I told myself. I stretched my arms as high as I could, cracked my neck, shrugged my shoulders, and then stretched the rest of my body, followed by a big yawn—which was loud enough to scare away the birds outside.

It seemed like the perfect day to enjoy the outdoors—but instead, I hopped back onto my bed. Lately, it seemed like the bed was the only place I wanted to be. I began to feel worse by the second.

But Lucky jumped on my bed, too, and then I decided to pick up my notebook very carefully, because it was as fragile as I was. I grabbed a roll of tape from inside my drawer and repaired a few of the pages. And so, at last, I was ready to take this journey to find Little Maria. I was desperately wishing to be reunited with my former happy-self.



In That Little Town of Bagheria

I am a little doll

In that little town of Bagheria

Where bodies are jammed and noisy

In the Go Merry-Go Merry-Go



In that little town of Bagheria

I whirl in the spinning cup

Mamma, hold my hand,

Buy me a sweet cottony cloud



To trigger laughter

Rippling, twirly, Mamma quickly —

The spinning cup

Of my childhood years



I am the little doll

In that little town of Bagheria

Where bodies are jammed and noisy

Go Merry-Go Merry-Go

* * *

From the time Little Maria was three years old, Sunday was her favorite day. Every weekend Mamma took her and her six-year-old sister, Elisabetta, to the carnival in Bagheria. Mamma paid for her girls to climb onto the merry-go-round. Although the spinning Smurf cup frightened Little Maria, it was the biggest ride she could go on, and oddly, it was still her favorite. Whether it was waving to her mamma as the merry-go-round spun in circles, racing her sister on a stallion, or holding tightly to Mamma’s hand while eating her cotton candy, Sundays were filled with fun and laughter for Little Maria, because of her lovely mamma and their special bond.

Everyone said Little Maria’s mamma was kindhearted and classy. Taking her girls to the carnival was a major fashion excursion. Little Maria loved sneaking open the door to Mamma’s bedroom and watching as Mamma put on her pearls and her lipstick. Mamma was an elegant woman, and whenever she and her daughters went out, she wore one of her gorgeous designer dresses—a Valentino or a Roberto Cavalli. Little Maria and Elisabetta sashay along behind her at the fair, also dressed to the nines in their frilly frocks, white gloves, and little hats—looking like a royal Sicilian family. Elisabetta fell head over heels for Mamma’s dresses and gloves, and especially the matching sequined bag—but Little Maria had better things to do. She liked to play with her stuffed animals and figure out how she could sneak extra chocolates without her parents finding out.

Mamma loved to dress up her girls, but unlike most ladies in their neighborhood who loved fashion, she was no snob. With her long brown curls and her taste for fashion, Mamma lacked the snootiness that often goes with expensive clothes. Their family wasn’t rich, but Mamma saw to it that they looked chic. In a way, clothes were one of her few freedoms. At that time, she was a stay-at-home mother, and they lived in the same duplex as Little Maria’s papà’s parents.

“Franca,” Little Maria’s Nonna, her grandmother, would call to Mamma. Nonna would sound agitated, like the house was about to catch fire.

“Mari, please see what Nonna needs this time,” Mamma would ask Little Maria as she applied her mascara and anxiously glanced down at her watch. Sigh… “We don’t want to be late for the carnival.”

Little Maria could tell Mamma felt irritated by Nonna’s orders.

“You're going to the carnival soon and your Mamma is still not ready,” Nonna scowled while nodding her head.

Little Maria couldn’t tell Mamma to hurry up, so she kept busy by going through Mamma’s closet while trying on her high heel shoes. Little Maria and Elisabetta loved to try on Mamma’s dresses and outfits.

But before heading to the carnival, Little Maria had to tie her shoes, which gave her a hard time. Mamma dedicated some afternoons teaching Little Maria the bunny-ear trick, and Little Maria was never a quitter. She was determined to learn how to tie her shoes. To practice, every day she would go around the house, untie all the shoes her little fingers could find, and then re-tie them again. By the time Little Maria started pre-school, she had mastered the bunny-ear trick and was ready for the real world.

She was sure she would make tons of friends if she showed them the secret “bunny-ear” trick. This trick would make pre-school the best years of her life. But after Mamma walked Little Maria to school, and let go of her little hand on the steps of the school, Little Maria began to cry. She was a tough kid on the outside, but sweet as a cannolo on the inside.

The time is ten a.m.

* * *

My eyes were bleary and my mind temporarily was distracted from the deafening thoughts of self-hate and suicide all over again. Maybe if I kept my head and mind in the notebook and on Little Maria, I would be okay for a while. But when I glanced in the mirror and saw the pain in my expression, it looked oddly familiar …

And then it hit me—like my own persistent sadness, I could vividly recall my mamma’s sadness. I had become aware of it from a very young age. Mamma had tried her best to never show these gloomy feelings to anyone—especially her girls, Little Maria and Elisabetta.

My mamma’s “sadness” had seemed like a constant in her life for as long as I could remember. I had a clear image of the look of despair on her face and that frown she wore whenever my sister and I pretended not to be looking. Eventually, I started to question my own feelings. I wondered, “Was I sad, too, like Mamma?”

Mari, what are you saying? This is so silly! Stop it and go back to bed!” my brain answered back.

And after a quick trip to the bathroom, I found my way back to my bed. My body was aching and I was starting to feel exhausted again, but without wasting any more time, I dove into the notebook again and traveled back to Bagheria. Thumbing through the pages brought back memories of my nonni, my grandparents.

* * *

Little Maria’s nonno, Nino—who was her Mamma’s papà—was her very favorite grandparent. By the time she was three, he had taught Little Maria to play cards, and she loved him for it.

“Turn around,” Little Maria giggled as she mixed up all the cards.

It was nonno Nino’s chuckle that Little Maria loved the most. And after his passing, Mamma made sure to remind Little Maria that she had her nonno’s blue eyes. Little Maria loved hearing that, because it was like a part of nonno Nino was still alive. Nonna Grazia, her Mamma’s mamma, was remembered as the best baker in the town and known for her delicious cakes, cookies, and all sorts of goodies. Nonna Grazia was now resting in peace with nonno Nino.

Both sets of grandparents, including Little Maria’s paternal nonni, had been raised in families where the elders—especially the men—were always in charge, no questions asked. The men were the commanders-in-chief, because that was their vision of how an Italian family should live. That was how their parents had raised them.

Little Maria’s papà’s parents liked to dictate the food they had for dinner each night, from the fish on Friday to the cannoli on Sunday. Little Maria’s family was expected to eat with them every day, every meal. Little Maria’s family used their duplex only to sleep.

Despite their close-mindedness and controlling manners, Little Maria’s nonni did a lot of wonderful things for them, too. Little Maria and her sister were constantly spoiled by her paternal nonni with lots of love, toys, and goodies like Kinder Sorpresa (Kinder Eggs) or Ferrero Rocher.

It was overwhelming at times, but papà’s parents wanted to be sure their idea of a proper Italian family was carried on, so they passed along their strict and sometimes dogmatic values to their son.

Her Papà, Antonino, was a thin and handsome man, always dressed elegantly. When he left for work, he wore one of his blue suits with a silk handkerchief and tie. He wanted Little Maria to be stylish like him, like her papà, and like Mamma and Elisabetta.

Papà was demanding, strict, and overprotective of his family, but Little Maria’s papà loved them unconditionally, and he would do anything for them—even though he demonstrated his love in his own unconventional way.

One of her favorite times with Papà was when he would come home from work and take her and Elisabetta for ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate on a cone with a swirl of whipped cream and a cherry on top—that was Little Maria’s favorite. And she always made sure to bring back souvenirs from the ice cream shop: drips of chocolate everywhere, from her hair to her dress, and even her shoes.

* * *

A little sneezing fit brought me back into the present moment. I could have taken my dog Lucky for a walk. He would have enjoyed the balmy weather. But the bed looked so soft and inviting, like a cozy hand coaxing me, that my mind refused to allow me to do anything else. So, back to bed I went.

I often felt like a doll whose body was attached to a pulled cord—in my case, my bed. Only this doll, “Pull-String Maria,” would scream things like: You are ugly, you’re not worthy, go back to sleep!

But once I found myself back in my bed, I couldn’t close my eyes or fall asleep—the amount of espresso I’d already consumed probably didn’t help. I had no choice but to visit my innermost thoughts and Little Maria again.

* * *

Little Maria, Elisabetta, and their Mamma held a special bond: they loved their mother-and-daughter time. It included simple things like playing with Barbies, stomping around in the rain, decorating with Mamma for the holidays, turning bed sheets into wedding dresses, and sometimes getting dressed up for no reason at all.

One summer afternoon, Mamma ushered Elisabetta, who was six years old, and Little Maria, three, out of their duplex to a neighborhood child’s birthday party. Elisabetta ran ahead as the three of them set off. Little Maria’s hair was like Mamma’s, but Elisabetta had naturally curly hair—not to mention Mamma’s green eyes. Little Maria could hear her sister’s feet bouncing ahead. Everyone said she had Mamma’s lovely, lithe body, and she always seemed happy. As Little Maria stumbled along, holding tight to Mamma’s hand, other children would yell, “Elisabetta, come play with us. Come to my house.”

Little Maria wanted someone to shout, “Maria, come play with me.” Elisabetta had lots of friends and parties to attend. But Little Maria was the kid who tagged along to parties where her mamma finally had a chance to talk to other mammas her own age.

Before every party, it would take Little Maria’s sister what felt like a decade to decide which shoes matched her outfit, which Maria never understood. So Little Maria played on the steps, jumping to see how far her little feet would land. Plus, Little Maria had better things to do—like plan her future escape with her childhood crush, Ricky Martin. Together, she and the pop star would live “La Vida Loca.” She may have been four years old, and Ricky Martin hadn’t come out of the closet yet, but Little Maria knew exactly what she wanted from life.

“Little Maria, let’s go, we are ready to go to the party,” Mamma called from the front of the car.

Little Maria hopped toward Mamma faster than Pooh’s friend Tigger ever could. She wasn’t drinking espresso yet, but she had enough energy for four kids.

Little Maria wanted to sit in the front, but because she was the youngest, she would have to sit in the back of the car. Little Maria always began the car ride pouting, but she didn’t stay upset for too long. She would crank open the window and thrust her tiny arm out—trying to see if her short fingers could reach anything. She would wave at the nosy neighbors or, too often, at trees. Little Maria felt everyone already knew where they were heading.

The neighbors were already gathered outside waiting for the bread man to bring their fresh loads of bread. In that little town of Bagheria, no one woke up from the buzz of an alarm clock or from the song of birds, but from the shouts of a peddler in a three-wheeler, who would go door to door, calling from his vehicle about his fruits, vegetables, and other household products.

This was the town of Bagheria for Little Maria and her family: small, loud, and filled with unwanted detectives—neighbors who knew their business and everyone else’s, too.

Thankfully, Mamma’s car—a beige Fiat 600—was small enough to fit through the small roads with no sidewalks. And once Mamma parked, Little Maria’s sister would take the lead, hopping out of the front seat and racing ahead to ring the doorbell. Little Maria would always hide behind Mamma’s dress.

The door opened. “Hi, Francesca,” Mamma’s friend said. “Glad you made it, come in.” She kissed Mamma on both of her cheeks. Little Maria would have to think fast to avoid that lady kissing her, because her lipstick left marks all over Little Maria’s face. Yuck.

Mamma’s friend, as usual, would pet Little Maria on the head and squeeze her cheeks.


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