Serradifalco, Sicily, on Friday, 26 April 1889, the sun rose at
5:04 AM and set at 6:39 PM.
But my grandfather, Gaetano Coniglio the elder, never saw it rise or
set, because he was down in the bowels of Stincone, one
of the local sulfur mines, working to earn a meager living for
his wife Maria Carmela Calabrese and their family.
Maria Carmela had borne him eight children, but
Raimondo, the eldest, had left for Argentina, and three others
had died in infancy, including little Leonardo, three years
Gaetano had entered the mine long before sunrise, and
as the hour approached eight in the evening, he packed his gear
and made the long, slippery climb out of the mine. He trod
on footholds barely carved in the rock, slippery from the sweat
of the labors of the carusi, the mine-boys who toiled all
day, carrying the raw sulfur to the furnace outside the mine.
The moon was new, and invisible, but even so, as he
left the black mouth of the mine, by comparison the starlit sky
shone like dawn. His cumpari, pick-men like
himself, were the brothers
Vincenzo and Salvatore Barile. They accompanied him as he walked the
three miles to his humble home at Via Migliore number ten.
Like them, he was virtually exhausted, but his thoughts were
about Maria Carmela. She was in her final
days of pregnancy, and it had not been an easy one. He
knew that his only daughter, thirteen-year-old Maria, not only
would be tenderly caring for her mother, but also would have a
bowl of hot minestrone ready for him when he arrived, perhaps
even with a shred of the lamb they had relished on Easter, the
But as he approached the corner of Via Roma and Via
Migliore, he saw Maria anxiously pacing there. When she
spied him, she ran to him, shouting "Papà,
sa veni, sa veni, lu bamminu arrivà!" (Papa, Papa, come sir,
come sir, the baby boy has arrived!)
He and his friends hurried into the building,
scattering the family livestock kept on the ground floor - two
hens, a rooster and one remaining lamb. Gaetano rushed upstairs
to the living quarters to see Maria Carmela calmly suckling a
red-cheeked, black-haired cherub. A stoic who did not
often show his emotions, Gaetano laid a tender hand on his
wife's cheek and muttered "Ha fattu beni, cara."
(You've done well, dear.)
Carmela took the praise and jokingly responded "Unn'ha
statu? Era natu a li cincu. Iddu antura si mpara a parlari!" (Where
have you been? He was born at five o'clock. He
already knows how to speak!).
The rest of the evening, into the early hours, was
spent in an alcove of the living area by Gaetano and his friends
'Cenzinu and Turiddu, made somewhat festive by the
decorations and baskets of palms Gaetano had woven two weeks
earlier. The cumpari nursed a small
bottle of wine that Turiddu had magically produced from
his pack, while Gaetano sang the praises of his new son, not
omitting the fact that he had fathered the child at age
fifty-three! Home-made bread dipped in the wine helped to
sustain their revelry, as his friends cried "Tanuzzu, tu puru
ha fattu beni!" (Gaetano, you, too, have done well!)
The night deepened, and they realized they must return
to the mine that morning: each found a warm spot on the floor
and napped as best he could, while Maria tended to the needs
of her mother and her new baby brother.
As Saturday morning approached, the men shook
themselves awake, grabbed crusts of bread and their packs, and
began the walk back to Stincone. Dawn was staining
the sky, and they approached the mine with trepidation.
The mine owner was Mastru Licalsi. They called him 'Mashu
Babbu', 'Master Dummy'. He was standing arms akimbo in the
mine's entranceway, and he berated them for being
late, saying he would dock them for the lost time.
Emboldened by his new fatherhood (and perhaps by last night's
wine), Gaetano retorted "Go ahead, and while you're at it, you
can dock me for a half-day, because this morning, I'm taking my
son to the municipiu to have his birth registered!"
Before Mashu Babbu could sputter a response, 'Cenzinu
and Turiddu piped up "You can dock us, too, because we're
going as his witnesses!" And they turned on their heels
and trudged back into town.
So it was that at ten that morning, 27 April 1889, 'Cenzinu
and Turiddu, with Gaetano gingerly cradling his baby boy,
took the short walk to the town hall on Via Duca di
Gaetano presented the child for Town Secretary Pasquale
Vaccari to see, while a clerk recorded the details:
"Your name?" - "Gaetano Coniglio"
"Age?" - Gaetano, with obvious pride, replied "Fifty-three!"
"Occupation? - "Sulfur miner."
"Date and time of the birth?" - "The twenty-sixth of
this month, at five in the afternoon."
"Address?" - "Via Migliore number ten."
"Mother of the child?" - "Carmela
Calabrese, my wife."
"What do you name the child?"
There was a rigid naming convention in Sicily,
requiring the first and second child of each gender to be named
after their respective grandparents. This tradition had
already been met with Gaetano's earlier children, so he
responded "I'm not likely to have any more sons. I'll give
him my own name, and the name of my grandfather, Gaetano."
"Have you brought witnesses to this registration?" -
"Yes, my friends Vincenzo and
Salvatore Barile. They're sulfur miners, too."
"Can any of you write?" - "If we could write, would
we be sulfur miners?"