Debra Claffey

Hickory Had Seven, 2021; oil, encaustic, and marble dust on panel, 24 x 24 inches

Claffey: Fragmented Memories, a Family Scandal, a Trip Home

The older I get, the more fragmented the memories of my Italian connection become. My grandma, Giuseppina Rinaldo Messina—we knew her as Josephine— came to the U.S from Melilli, Sicily, in 1921 when she was 14, on the ship named Giuseppe Verdi. We were told her father had come to America years before, and that she was “sent for” to work, while her older brother Angelo stayed in Sicily to become a sculptor. We have one photo of Angelo carving a marble funerary monument and one other of his own mausoleum plaque with scultore under his name.


Bits and pieces of information about Josephine: Her cleaner’s wage of a nickel a day went straight to her father. She walked to work, since streetcars were much too extravagant to use any part of that nickel on. Her marriage at 20 to Joseph Messina was considered a good match since he had a job with Hartford Light and Power.


She had, we thought, three sons and two daughters. In the 1990s my mom, Stella, got phone call from a man who turned out to be a stepbrother—Josephine’s son from an affair! She was married when she had him. He was placed in foster care, but the details are lost to me now. It was a scandal, as you can imagine. My mother said, " I remember the fuss." I have few memories of my grandfather, mainly a fuzzy image of him in his casket when I was five or six. I am in awe of how my grandmother managed to keep the family together with cleaning jobs after his death.


The stories we heard and retold each other at holidays included the one about the humidor with the bullet hole from an accidentally discharged pistol. The bullet nearly hit my mom. The older boys were supposed to be minding the younger children while my grandmother was out at work.


My mother made a huge effort to define herself as American first. There was no Italian spoken in our house. She was fighting stereotypes that existed so that when she and my father left Hartford for the suburbs there was little mention of either’s cultural heritages. (My father is Irish and eastern European.) But the first thing I learned to cook was spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. And I didn’t learn that the way I was taught to cook an omelet—pour in the egg mixture, let it set, put a plate over the pan, flip it and slide it back in--was actually a frittata until I was in my 30s perusing a cookbook that described the process in detail. I had no idea it was the Italian way.


My mom’s tales are fragmentary now, too. She told us of being tasked with going to the butcher’s to choose the live chicken, waiting while the butcher went out back of the store to kill it, and then walking back to the apartment with it for the evening dinner. Or of having to sit on the back porch keeping flies away from the drying slices of fresh tomato.


My uncles never did move out of the neighborhood and got caught up in less lawful activities. I’ll leave that family lore for another time. My grandmother finally became a naturalized citizen 33 years after arriving at Ellis Island. I would love to have been able to ask her about being an ‘alien’ here for so long. I have no notion of where she considered home, what she left behind, or what her dreams were. It feels like a loss.


Josephine and Carmela in Catania, 1981, oil and graphite on paper


Josephine is my grandmother, Carmela a family friend. I made this drawing from a photograph taken by my mother. Mom made Josephine a gift of a trip home to Catania in 1979. They were able to reconnect with relatives. My mom could understand the language, but not to speak it. My grandmother would speak English to the relatives and Italian to my mom, to the delight and confusion of all. I think the trip made my grandmother very happy, though on her visit to Rome as part of the trip she remarked that everything was “so old and dirty.”

I get sad with these memories. We should have heard more stories, written them down, taken more photos. My mom’s family is all gone. My uncle, the youngest Messina, was taken in March of this year by the coronavirus.

I haven’t given too much thought to how my culture has impacted my art and work. I work in horticulture and organic land care, and I paint and print images of plants. The biological intelligence, fractal design, and stunning beauty of plant systems intrigue me. The imagery I create from these complex forms is the result of listening with all my senses. I use attentive vision to study pattern and rhythm, color and form, then reform it into a personal and unique expression of my awareness, yet my gardening experience as a child was limited to the six tomato plants my mom planted in our subdivision back yard. 


Leaf Music, 2021, oil on paper, 36 x 84 inches on 12 x 12 inch panels

Turners II, 2017-2019, oil and wax wax over monotype, 48 x 96 inches

Debra Claffey