A Story from my Grandmother

A bit of oral tradition from the “Old Country”

Back in the Old Country (Sicily, fwiw), our family lived a pretty hardscrabble life in a tiny village that may not even exist any more for all I know. As you may or may not know, there aren’t a lot of forested areas on the island; even stands of ‘old growth’ were likely planted purposefully by SOMEBODY — maybe Romans, maybe Normans, maybe Moors, maybe Vikings, maybe even the ancient Sicels (everybody conquered Sicily at some point).

Suffice to say, the small, but ‘ancient’ stand of trees located a short walk from the village was held in high regard as a place of serene pilgrimage, a quiet reservation where the poverty-stricken villagers could retreat for a while into the cool shade and forget their worries. It wasn’t some kind of remnant of pagan tree worship (this is a STAUNCHLY CATHOLIC country here), it was just a place to be loved and enjoyed.

It was a huge deal, then, when it was announced by the local Roman Catholic Parish that the land housing the copse had been purchased, and the trees would be razed in order to construct a new Benedictine monastery. Everybody knew the kind of ‘dealings’ that went on in Sicilian land purchases, and although dejected, the village elders knew that protesting against the removal of the grove would mean going up against not only the powerful church, but also “whomever owned the land” (yes yes, read MAFIA).

Also, all too often in these cases, after the sale went through, construction would begin and then, as other favors began to be called in, would slowly grind to a halt. Sicily is covered in these half-finished, shoddy kinds of projects, standing where untold numbers of groves once acted as sentinels over millennia of human history.

Sadly, they were resigned to having to sacrifice their forest and have it replaced by a half-constructed monastery.

Still, the villagers petitioned as well as they could. They offered to ‘bargain’ with the local ‘businessmen’ who’d made the deal. They hosted elaborate, and expensive feasts for church dignitaries (and Sicilian food is pretty danged persuasive). Apparently one man even went to Roma to try to look into a bureaucratic “work-around,” although also apparently he met a Roman girl, fell in love, and never ended up returning to town. It seemed as though all was lost.

But then there was my great-great Uncle Luciano (“Lou” for short). According to my grandma, Lou was always a little strange, and very fond of the grove. A field hand by trade, he would often spend the night among the plane trees (Platanus spp.). In the mild winter, he would prune damaged limbs and transplant seedlings in danger of being shaded. He had a special relationship with the place, and was particularly devastated when he heard the news.

Nobody expected Uncle Lou to do anything; he was perhaps the smallest fish in a tiny pond, the most powerless member of a powerless community.

Then came the day of the groundbreaking ceremony for the monastery.

Esteemed members of the Benedictine Order and representatives of the local “business community” gathered at the outskirts of the grove. The villagers (all 40 or so) also assembled, morbidly fascinated but also likely attracted by the celebratory feast promised for that evening.

After a round of speeches and a brief outdoor mass, the head of the local Benedictine Order stepped to the center of the grove, shovel in hand. Just as he raised a foot to step on the blade and break the earth, everyone heard a voice. “Wait!”

Obvs it was Uncle Lou.

He approached the assembled dignitaries from the grove, where he had spent the previous night, hidden among the vegetation. In each hand, he held a burlap sack. He went, first, to the head of the local “Businessman’s Association.” He reached into one of the sacks, and removed a small, potted seedling, and handed it to the man. Then, slowly crossing in front of the assembled villagers, he did the same with the Benedictine, who, unsure of how to react, dropped his shovel and grinned, weakly, with a small “grazie, signore.”

Uncle Lou, smiling, addressed both figures. “Well, honored gentlemen, my children will not have the opportunity to spend time among these trees as I have. They have become my friends, and so this is very difficult. However, even these trees have children, and I’ve given each of you one, so maybe your children, and theirs, will carry on the same kind of friendship.” Then he stood, silently, for a moment longer, and turned and walked away.

What happened next was, of course, the kind of small miracle that happens every so often, and which you probably expect, having read this far. It is kind of an “obvious” story. The Benedictine left his fallen shovel, walked over to the Head Businessman, and the two whispered for a moment, still clutching the potted seedlings. After a very short discussion, they walked away, each to his vehicle, and departed.

Nobody told the villagers what had been discussed that day, but it was soon announced that plans for the monastery had been cancelled. A different site had been chosen at a different village.

As far as I know, the grove is still there. My grandmother and her husband (and Uncle Lou) left for America shortly thereafter (a different story, of course). Still, the story of Uncle Lou defeating the Benedictine Monastery passed down from family member to family member since that time, and I can still hear my grandma’s voice as she concluded the tale with a moral, a motto which I fully intend to pass down to my own son when he’s old enough to understand.

The moral of the tale? The moral, dear reader, is this:

Only Lou can prevent forest friars.

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