Sicilian Love: 24 shirts, 24 bedsheets

Rosa Balistreri’s life hangs on 24 shirts, 24 bedsheets and 24 underpants: the wedding trousseau that she hasn’t got. Aunt Mariannina demands it, if Rosa is to marry her son, cousin Angilino. Sixteen-year-old Rosa loves him and he loves her too.

His love is so sincere that, when she offers herself to him one night, when he’s staying over because of a storm, he delicately turns her down. He wants to do things properly with her: marriage first, sex later.

But it’s 1943 and, in the Sicilian village of Licata, marriages are a business transaction between families. Aunt Mariannina is going to provide Anginilino with a 24-piece-trousseau and Rosa’s parents must do the same.

Unfortunately, a 24-piece trousseau is beyond the resources of Rosa’s family. Her dad is a chair-repair carpenter, has three daughters, one disable son, and can barely feed his family. Rosa only got her first pair of shoes last year, when she started singing in church. She has never been to school but has worked since she could walk, one day gleaning wheat in other people’s fields, another transporting chairs to customers in nearby villages – walking on the searing hot slabs of the stone roads. There’s absolutely no way that she can put together a 24-pieces trousseau. The marriage banns have already gone out, but the wedding is called off.

Then men that come into Rosa’s life after Angilino are the worst kind. At seventeen, Rosa is given away to a man who rapes her, beats hers and causes her to miscarry their first baby. He immediately makes sure that another baby comes along, and Rosa gives birth to a girl whom she’ll love dearly all her life. Unlike her mum, this baby gets a trousseau of fine linen, courtesy of the family where Rosa works as a maid. But, one night, her father loses it at the cards.

Rosa is furious, stabs her husband with a knife and hands herself in to the police. She goes to prison. Her husband survives. Divorce is legalised in Italy only in 1970, so Rosa and her husband are legally separated.

But her sufferings are not over yet. She’s young and poor, and many of her male employers – and their sons – want to get their hands on her. She manages to fend off some, she’s raped by others, she falls in love with one, the son of the new family where she works. She falls pregnant with his child and he cons her into stealing his parents’ money to help him out of his gambling debts. Rosa ends up in prison again. Their baby is a still-born. After a few other misadventures and one kind employer (female) who teaches her to read and write, Rosa leaves Palermo and looks for work in Florence. There she has other disappointing love stories, but she finds work and invites her entire family to escape poverty and live with her. Unfortunately, her sister’s husband, abusive and jealous, reaches her sister and stabs her to death. A tragedy quickly followed by another: Rosa’s father commits suicide.

But in Florence Rosa meets a painter, Manfredi Lombardi, and falls in love. They move in together and their relationship lasts twelve years. Has happiness finally arrived in Rosa’s life?

Yes… and no (sorry). Manfredi adores her, appreciates her intellectual qualities (finally someone does!) and discovers her wonderful singing voice. He introduces Rosa to a music scout who turns her into a successful folk singer. Her powerful and husky voice embodies Sicily’s sorrows and the public loves her.  

Rosa_Balistreri_in_Sanremo
Rosa going to Sanremo music festival, 1973

 But… one day Rosa find Manfredi cheating on her with her best friend. She attempts suicide, but survives and returns to Sicily. She’s no longer the hungry girl without shoes, but a famous singer, and she continues to reap success in her work. Poverty is no longer hounding her, but love is still out of bounds for her. One day, they tell her that cousin Angilino, who’s been married to another woman all this time, is very ill and about to die. Rosa immediately goes back to Licata to give him her last goodbye. 

How would her life have turned out if she’d had 24 shirts and 24 bedsheets?

I’ll be back on September 22nd with another Sicilian Love story.

If you’d like to read my short stories, visit my kindle page at www.amazon.com/author/stefaniahartley

Sources: 

Antonino Cangemi, D'amore in Sicilia, 2015, Dario Flaccovio Editore

Nicolò La Perna, Rosa Balistreri, 2012 

Featured photo by Karen Maes on Unsplash

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