Sweet Orange Buns

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My brother and I were driving today taking care of some things for our father. It was one of the many car trips I’ve taken with my brother in the last few weeks. He looked at me at one point during the drive and asked me what day it was.

He told me he didn’t know what day of the week it was any more. I said I knew exactly how he felt as I find myself constantly wondering what the date and day is. My brother, mother and I spent a whole week with our father at the hospital until the day he passed. Those days driving together to see him at the hospital were bittersweet. We would drive through familiar streets in my dad’s town that we drove through before we moved out and started our own families. During these daily drives, we would reminisce about different people we knew and places. I haven’t talked with my brother about these things in years. He would start to talk and the memories would pour out of him as I slowly drove dreading where we were going. Maybe he talked to distract himself. Maybe he talked to distract me.
 
I started to write this post past back in January and never got back to finishing it. I think it’s time to move on with it.I baked these orange buns one day while he was in the hospital. It made the kids happy and it relieved a little of my stress for short bit that day.
I walked through the hospital swiftly thinking I didn’t want to miss a moment with my dad. I didn’t even bother to check in after the second day because I knew the way to my dad’s room with my eyes closed. I would keep my head down avoiding eye contact with people I passed thinking I wouldn’t be able to control my tears if I had to say hello. On the fourth day I knew things were different and I wouldn’t get to argue with my dad any more about why he had to stay one more day until he got better. He left us a note before he lost consciousness wishing us a Happy New Year. I couldn’t believe how neat his handwriting was and how sweet it was that he thought to write us one more time. Just the day before he put his hand on his chest and exclaimed passionately, “Io sono il dottore!” “I’m the doctor” he told us when we explained the doctor wanted him to stay a little longer to have the antibiotics clear his infection. Still  full of that Sicilian spunk and stubbornness. I didn’t believe it could be near the end.
 
The last few days with him were heartbreaking. He grabbed my hand one more time when I thought he couldn’t hear me any longer. The nurse told me he could hear me and to talk to him. What should I say to him? Don’t go? I love you? I asked the nurse if she was sure he was near the end. Could he really be leaving us when he still can hear us?  I told her that he’s crying. I see tears coming out of his eyes. Can you please put his IV back on and maybe there is still hope? I couldn’t breathe as I asked her that question. The nurse Darby looked at me with gentle pity and didn’t say any thing. She hugged me and told me to tell him it’s ok to leave us. It’s ok to let go. She told me sometimes they just need to hear that you will be ok without them.
She smiled and said it’s normal for them to move near the end. They call it “rallying”. When their time is close they sometimes get a sudden burst of life.
 
So I did. I went back in the room and told my dad I loved him. That I will be ok. You can rest now in peace, dad. You’re family is waiting for you on the other side. I think he knew they were waiting for him.  I wasn’t prepared to say good-bye to him just yet. He couldn’t be leaving us just yet. There was so much I wanted to know from him still. I did see him conscious one more time the day before and he rushed me out of there to go see my kids. I said good-bye not knowing it would be the last time I’d see him awake. He adored his four grandchildren. I wish they knew him when he could speak clearly and was able to enjoy food the way he used to.
 

Mio caro figlio amato Rosario

 
My dear beloved son Rosario. That is how my grandmother would start every letter to her son that left her to pursue the American dream. My brother and I have been sifting through hundreds of letters he saved from his family in Sicily that he received over the last 40 years. My father was an amazing story teller and loved to write. It would be incredible to see his responses to all of these letters. DSCN0756
I’m piecing together stories about my father and his family little by little and at the same time getting to know a little more about my father. I’m learning about what his life was in Sicily before leaving to come to America where he met my mother. He was a fascinating man. He was a man like no other I’ve ever known. He lived for his family here and for his family in Sicily. He left his family but never forgot where he came from. He instilled the values he learned in my brother and I. Family honor and respect were essential to his existence. He supported his family financially in Sicily almost as much as he did his family in America. He never forgot his responsibility to his parents and siblings. The bond he had with his brother was irrevocable even though it was tainted with deceit and broken promises. He honored his older brother and unfortunately in the end, the honor was not reciprocated. I’m learning things about a person I admired. Things I wish I knew while my father were still alive. Because my father saved every letter and every receipt, there is a way to prove that certain things did happen as my father told me. He purposely kept things together for us to find one day. The truth always comes out.
 

Honor thy father and mother

It was our way of honoring our father by bringing him back to his hometown in Sicily for his final resting place. It was always his wish to rest one day in this beautiful cemetery overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The funeral director here knew my father. He was admired by many in the town he lived in. He told us our father would be proud of us for what we were doing for him.
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The view of Licata from the entrance to the cemetery.

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The mass was held at a church built in the 13th century.

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We arrived 15 minutes before the mass began. The entrance to the church was filled on either side with bunches and bunches of flowers. I was holding back my tears trying to read the enormous ribbons wrapped around the flowers. The ribbons had messages on them. My cousin Marisa all of a sudden put her arm around mine and led me to the first pew in church on the right side. On the way to my seat I saw faces of cousins I haven’t seen since I was last in Sicily 10 years ago with my parents. I arrived at the first pew to see my father’s sisters lined up all dressed in black and took my place next to his sister Angela. My brother was directed to the opposite side next to our uncle and all the male cousins. The casket was surrounded by more flower bunches and ribbons. I tried to read all the messages stop my eyes from resting on the casket. I would repeat my brother’s words, “That’s not dad in the casket. It’s just his shell. Just his shell.” I heard one of my aunts trying to muffle her tears with a tissue and then I started to cry. The priest talked about how their brother Rosario finally returned home. After the mass, my cousin Giuseppe read a note my father wrote 2 months before he passed. It was a message to us and to his family in Sicily. It talked a little about how he always wanted to return to Licata but that he was too sick to make the trip.
 
It was time to leave the church and it was all so awkward and emotional for me. I’ve been to funerals before but never one for a close family member and never one in Sicily. My cousin Marisa once again came behind me and wrapped her arm around mine. She directed me behind the casket. Behind my brother, my father’s brother and the male cousins. It was first the men behind the casket then followed by the women family members. We walked outside of the church and there were so many people. So many people I didn’t know where to begin. I cried some more following the casket and my brother’s slow pace behind it. He turned around when he heard my crying and also started to cry. We got to the entrance of the church and I felt once again like a little girl. I stood there a little lost as my brother kept walking with our uncle to where all the men were standing. One by one, people began to approach me to give their condolences. Where was my dad when I needed him to tell me who everyone was? I needed him to remind me of each face. I was asked over and over again, “Lory, ti riccordi di me?” Some faces I did remember and at the moment, couldn’t remember the name and if we were related or if they were my related to my cousins. This lasted for about a half an hour and then Alessio told us it was time to go to the funeral home. I wanted to shout out to everyone, “Thank you. Thank you for showing respect for our father. Thank you for showing respect to us by being here today.”

Just a dream

 
We drove a little outside of the main part of town. I was staring at the unfamiliar buildings trying to figure out where exactly we were. Then I realized it was a part of town I had dreamed about over and over again for a year. In my dream I was driving in a car in Licata and would wake up wondering where exactly in town I was because I could not recognize the buildings. I smiled. Crazy to be smiling on the way to a funeral home following my father’s casket. But I did. I smiled and felt relief. It all was meant to be like this. That very moment was meant to be as it was. My cousin Mattia told me that I’m like them with those kind of dreams and laughed. The saddest part of the evening at the funeral home was seeing two of my father’s best friends. They looked exactly as I remembered them. Neither one really aged besides their heads full of gray hair. They both were heart broken telling me about my dad. And of course, I was told I looked like just my father. Their eyes filled with tears and so did mine one more time. The one friend told me, “Your father has pictures of us on the beach. I know he does. We had so many fun times together when we were young.” I know. He did. I have all the photos to prove it.
 

Here I am sitting next to my cousin Marisa, my brother, some other cousins and their children after the mass. DSCN0345
Here is me as a little girl in Sicily sitting next to my cousin Marisa, her mother Angela and some other cousins.

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We always knew it was our father’s wish to return one day to Licata. We didn’t know how complicated it would be when the actual day would come. It was with the help of our cousin Alessio that facillated this whole tricky process that was dotted with red tape and beauracracy. The same cousin whose parents brought my father to America when he was 28 years old helped to bring him back home one last time.
 

This is family.

 
I heard my brother say those three words quite a few times the week we were in Sicily. He was talking about the warmth, hospitality and love we received from Alessio, his family, his sister and his mother. They weren’t expecting any thing in return from us. They certainly were not obligated to help us prepare our father’s funeral in Sicily and host us for a week and treat us as their own children. They just did because they love us. I kept thanking Alessio and his wife. Over and over again. My heart felt it with burst with the gratitude I felt for them and their kindness. I made them feel uncomfortable with my daily “thank-you’s”. Zia Giuseppina told me to come back in the spring when it’s warmer. In the summer. She told me to come back whenever I want to stay with her. That her house is my house. I promised her I’d be back soon.

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That’s zia Giuseppina on the left and her son Alessio. Giuseppina was too sick to go to my father’s mass. We returned home later in the evening after eating at Alessio’s house. His sister Eleanora prepared a seafood feast that was filled with typcial dishes my dad loved. The flavors I have only ever eaten in Licata. I feel my dad was with us at the table that evening.

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Tu sei tutto Saro

I can’t tell you how many times I heard those words: You’re all Saro. My dad’s nickname was Saro, short for Rosario. I wasn’t sure if Giuseppina was still awake and I quietly entered her room to give her a kiss. She opened her big blue eyes and told me, “Tu sei tutto Saro.”
 
My brother and I with the view of the old part of town behind us. The first time we’ve been together in Sicily in 20 years.
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She was so proud telling us the story of how she brought my dad to America. Her eyes welled up with tears as she explained in pure Licatese dialect that he was her favorite of my father’s 7 siblings. Giuseppina has the same blue eyes my nonno Giuseppe (my grandfather)and I have. Of all the 17 first cousins, I was the only one born with the same blue eyes. She told me how her mother raised my grandfather and that she and my grandfather were like brother and sister. My great-grandmother died at the young age of 33 from tuberculosis. My grandfather was just 13 years old. My grandfather’s family and Giuseppina’s family lived in two houses side by side that shared one entrance. You entered the doorway and went to the right to go to my grandfather’s house, which is also the house where my father and his siblings were raised. To the left would bring you to Giuseppina’s house. They even had farms that were attached to each other and my grandfather, father and his brothers worked every day next to Alessio’s father and his family. I kept Giuseppina up until almost midnight a few of the nights. She talked and talked and had crystal clear memory of so many events. I devoured her stories and felt guilty keeping her awake.
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We stayed that week with zia Giuseppina in the apartment above hers on the second floor. We had invitations to stay with other family members the week of our father’s funeral. It only made sense to stay on the street where he grew up. To stay with the lady that brought him to America a long time ago. To listen to stories of my father I’ve never heard before and to feel a little closer to him for just a few days. That’s a photo of my father’s old house that unfortunately, is no longer filled with love, laughter and amazing food. My father’s love and appreciation of great food definitely started here with his mother and four sisters.
 
Every morning we would go down the frigid stairs to warm up with a hot cup of caffe latte and talk a little with my father’s cousin Eleanora. Alessio would meet us and then we would leave to spend the day around town. Each morning when we would go out into the street my eyes would immediately be fixed on my father’s house.  Alessio would tell me to stop staring at my father’s old balconies because they’re still the same as the way were the day before. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them when we would get out onto the street. I would stare at the beauty of the balcony details and remember my father’s old photos of the same balconies filled with plants and clothes hanging on the lines.

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Here is baby me with my father and his sister Giovanna on the top balcony of the house he grew up in.

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That’s my father on the left. His beloved Moto Gilera.
 
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It was kept in the house where he grew up years after my grandfather left it to go live with his daughter Giovanna. I remember my father bringing us to his house and showing us the motorcycle. He was so proud of it. It’s difficult to imagine my father feeling carefree riding through the streets of Licata to go to the beach or to meet his friends to play cards. My aunt Mariolina told me he used to go against his brother Vincenzo sometimes and sneak her out of the house to go to the beach with him. She told me he put his money aside every week to pay for this moto. It was very disappointing to learn that my uncle had this bike supposedly destroyed so he wouldn’t have to pay for its taxes any longer. It’s sad that a debilitating illness took away my father’s ability to speak and that he didn’t reach out to us to speak for him. I would’ve done whatever I could have to ensure that his motorcycle, his land and whatever else he left behind was given to him before he passed away.
 

Tuo padre ancora pensava a questo moto?

Your dad still thought about this moto? My brother was asking my uncle where it was. That was the response our uncle’s wife gave us. My brother had every right to get his father’s old motorcycle and try to get it restored. Alessio had just finished telling us the story of how my father asked him 3  years ago when he came to America for a visit to find out about his motorcycle. He asked Alessio to help him get it restored. Why is it so incredulous to want something to remind you of your father. Especially something that reminds you of your father before he was sick and full of worries. Something that was rightfully his and should be passed on to his son. Just as was the land my father farmed on until he was 27 years old.
 
Another cousin of my father told me a story, of course after he told me I look just like my dad. He had tears in his eyes. He told me that he and my father slept on one of their farms every night until they were 16 years old. Their parents were first cousins and the they were sons chosen to do the most difficult shift: the night shift. I recently read a really long letter my father wrote a few years ago. It was talking about the work he used to do on the farms and how they raised many different kinds of animals. He also talked a little about all the vegetables they grew. He was so proud that their vegetables were the most beautiful ones at the market. People knew that those vegetables where from my father’s family’s farms. They were remarkable. Just as most every thing my father put his mind to accomplish.

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I feel that that week in Italy I finally became a true adult. I know. It may not make sense. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. How could I not feel like an adult? It’s not that I never felt like a grown-up all these adult years of my life. It’s just that the passing of my father changed my life. I lost the person I depended on for so many things for so many years. I helped organize one of the biggest and most important trips to Italy for my father without his help and it all turned out just fine.  I had to write some of the stories here as the details will soon disappear about our week in Sicily last month. I heard so many stories from so many of my dad’s cousins and siblings. Stories my father once told me and I should’ve written down.
 
Day by day
 
There is so much left to do for him here and in Sicily. There’s his house he had here for 40 years. Forty years of clothes and memories. We’ve been cleaning it out little by little. The first time I was going through his drawers and private papers I felt like I was violating him. I hated to see his robe and his glasses on the chair where he left it before going to the hospital. I hate going to his empty house. I hate seeing his favorite records all lined up next to his favorite cassettes. It’s too quiet. Just way too quiet.  My stomach ached looking at his bed made perfectly with the blanket covering it that my grandmother knitted before he came to America. My in-laws were here from Italy for a month. They are true angels. They helped us to clean out his house. They helped me to dig out some of his plants and bring them to my house. They planted them and watered them. I think it was sadder to look at my dad’s lovely flowers and plants than it was to look at his dishes and clothes. I found a new avocado tree this past September. He had citrus trees and papaya trees. Beans and so many different types of flowers growing on every corner of his yard. He was a farmer until the last day.
 

Alessio and my brother choosing oranges a few weeks ago in Sicily. Alessio stopped at a vendor he goes to every week in the orange season. The blood oranges were just starting to present themselves. They were incredible. So were the tangerines.

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My father always enjoyed my baking. It would make me feel so proud to watch his eyes light up over one of my breads or a cake that he loved. If he wasn’t coming by the day I was baking I would save some to bring him. I’m going to miss his puttering around the kitchen on my baking days giving me tips and rushing me so he could get a sample. I’m going to ease myself back into the baking swing of things. My kids are urging me to get moving. We were slightly spoiled by my mother-in-law Teresa this past month. She was making her incredible Calabrese bread and her famous crostata’s almost every day. I can promise you my next posts will not be this long. I am hoping to find the energy again that I had before all of this happened. I am fighting the typical sadness one feels when they lose someone they love dearly. It comes in waves. For some reason, it seems to hit me more heavily in the morning. Maybe it’s because I wake up and feel the natural urge to reach for my phone and dial my father’s phone number to check in on him. Then while I’m driving the kids to school, my mind drifts. I drift to that week in the hospital and I wish I could forget every single day he was there.
 
Everyone says the memory will be easier to deal with and I’ll just remember the happy times with him. Day by day. The first weeks when he passed, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep the week he was in the hospital and I didn’t sleep an entire night until the day we left to bring him to Sicily. That first night in Sicily, I did finally sleep the whole night through. The rain that started when he was in the hospital and continued each day until the day we left here, followed us to Sicily. It rained the day we arrived in Sicily and it finally stopped the day he was buried.
 
I do appreciate your kind emails, comments, texts, calls. Your friendship has been a gift these past years and I can’t thank you enough for your sticking by me when I’ve disappeared these weeks.
 

Sweet Orange Buns
Ingredients:

Dough
1 cup whole milk
1 (1/2 ounce) envelope active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
4 1/2-5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Filling
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup orange jam
3/4 cup sugar
zest and juice of 1 orange (4 Tablespoons juice)

Orange Glaze1 cup powdered (confectioners’) sugar
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Directions:
Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat and let stand until cooled to room temperature.  Meanwhile, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large bowl.

Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

Beat in the remaining 2 T sugar, eggs and butter.  Beat in cooled milk.  Gradually add the flour and salt, scraping down side of bowl, until a soft dough forms.

Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead the remaining flour into the dough, adding more flour if too sticky.  Knead for about 10 minutes until smooth. The dough will be soft.

Grease a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough.  Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to an 18 x 12-inch rectangle. Spread the butter over the dough. Spread on the orange jam and sprinkle on the orange sugar.

Starting on one long side roll up jelly roll fashion and pinch seam to close. Cut crosswise into 12 generous 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Lift up bottom edge of dough and roll it into a log; trim ends and cut log into 12 rounds. Transfer rounds cut side up to a greased 9″ × 13″ baking dish; cover with plastic wrap. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot until buns double in size, about 30 to 45 minutes. You could leave in the refrigerator overnight and bake them the next morning fresh for breakfast.

Heat oven to 375°. Uncover rolls and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Drizzle icing over rolls before serving

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