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Universal Languages

by Jillian Danback McGhan

“Madonna Santa, Diego!” Giusy shrieked and slammed the palm of her hand into the driver's side headrest. 

“Diego! Stai cercando di ucciderci!” she yelled at her husband. My mother, sitting to my right, gripped my hand until it started to tingle. I sat between Giusy and my mother, squeezed tightly in the backseat of Giusy’s cramped, hatchback Renault. My mother, slender and blonde, and Giusy, bronzed and fleshy, created an asymmetrical human buffer cushioning the sharp momentum from Diego’s dramatic turns. 

“Mother of God,” she whispered. “The way he drives… if I wanted to die in a car crash, I would’ve stayed home and driven with your father. 

I caught my father rolling his eyes in the passenger's seat. “I’m not even driving and still I’m in trouble,” he said to Diego, who removed his hands from both the steering wheel and the stick shift to raise his arms in indigent defense. 

The Renault moaned and begged for mercy with every pothole it encountered along our route. I watched the arid, dusty Sicilian hills loom over us as we shuttered along in the rickety, sun-bleached vehicle. A blanched, peeling sticker with the barely visible slogan “Bimbo a Bordo” adorned the hatchback window. I tensed as I noticed the sticker, recalling that Giusy’s only son was now twenty-two. As Diego swerved abruptly to avoid the deep pits marring the neglected and crumbling roads and jolted into the shoulder to pass other cars, my precarious position on the middle seat hump grew smaller and smaller as Giusy and my mother progressively huddled toward the center, frantic for the comfort of others to survive this harrowing vehicular experience. 

A few months earlier, my mother announced that she would be retiring. After 32 years as an educator and school counselor, she decided to step away and throw herself into the full-time work of doting her grandchildren. But first, she declared, she wanted a family vacation. She didn’t want a party to mark this transition – oh no, she couldn’t abide fanfare, she claimed – although she graciously accepted the offer of not one, but two parties and one official ceremony hosted in her honor by her friends and her former school district. 

“It was everything I wanted,” she recounted to me afterwards.

“I thought you didn’t want a party?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t want you to throw a party,” she responded. “All I want from my family is a vacation, just like old times. And I want to go to Sicily. Your father has never seen where his mother was born, and he’s certainly not getting any younger.” 

However, finding a time for a retired couple to go on a vacation with their three adult children and their significant others proved infinitely more difficult than the task of planning a party. Despite picking a week in the summer seven months in advance, my brother backed out early, having already committed to a summer semester at college. My husband declined next. He landed the job of his dreams, but needed to start the week of our trip. My sister and her family cancelled last. “I’m pregnant!” she announced joyously, before adding in the disclaimer that the baby would be born in early July, eliminating all possibility of travel for the entire summer. Still, my resolve to go remained. Despite multiple trips to Italy for work, I had never set foot in my family’s homeland. There had always been other places to explore with the limited free time my husband and I somehow managed to coordinate each year despite our frenetic and often conflicting schedules. As if to compensate for this filial error, fate saw fit to send me there with my parents, either by way of punishment or enlightenment. 

In anticipation of our trip, my mother reached out to one of our few remaining cousins who still lived on the island. My great-grandfather emigrated to the United States with his wife and three children – my grandmother among them – in the late 1920s. His brother, Giusy’s grandfather, remained to care for their parents, despite their urging otherwise. As the years progressed, his children left to go to university in Bologna and never returned. Giusy had stayed with my parents for several weeks when she visited the US in the early ‘90s, and she and my mother corresponded ever since, relying on my grandmother to translate. They eventually moved on to email and cumbersome translation apps, through which they coordinated another visit to the US for Giusy and her family in 2012. They recently graduated to more sophisticated messages using Facebook and Google Translate, though their ability to employ these apps left much to be desired. My mother showed me their sincere, absurd online exchange as the date of the trip approached: 

How my mother’s message appeared in Italian

We go vacation to celebrate my rest! Can we see you? Jillian will be with us. She speaks Italian. Help us. Dinner? If not inconvenience them. 

How Giusy’s message translated into English

Many hug to you! You stay with Diego and me. Driving to Cefalu to see you, dinner, then with us. We go see house of Nonno and other sites. Short trip, no important. 


The “short trip” Giusy alluded meant she would pick us at our hotel in Cefalu, a popular vacation spot city on Sicily’s northern coast. She omitted that she and Diego would have to traverse nearly half of the island, a three-hour trip through the center of Sicily on some of the island’s most battered roadways. We stayed overnight at their hillside home in Agrigento, a city that featured modern art exhibits in the ruins of Greek temples. From there, we piled back into their tiny car to commence our trek to Castletermini, my grandmother’s hometown and where most of our ancestors spent the entirety of their lives. 

“No one ever left,” Giusy told us as we bounced along on our drive. “I went as a child to see my grandfather every summer, and later to take care of him when he got older. He lived in the same house where he was born, where his father was born. The family lived there for centuries, maybe. Then everyone started leaving.” 

“You came back,” I responded. Giusy and I communicated in short, uncomplex statements. She slowed her rapid sentence cadence and stunted her vocabulary so I could comprehend her meaning. I savored every vowel-infused, elegantly rounded sentence on my tongue, a communion wafer comprised of my family’s native language, hyper-conscious of erring in my speech. I then translated to my parents, who would break in with urgent and involved digressions for me to relate to Giusy or Diego. 

“I thought you knew how to speak Italian?” my mono-lingual parents would ask if I hesitated in my translation duties, seeming slightly disappointed that their daughter couldn’t decipher languages with the fluency of a United Nations translator. They didn’t realize that language isn’t a stream you can control with the turn of a faucet. It is a slippery fish you had to catch and hold onto with your bare hands, ever flopping and tossing. Even though I grasped several languages – I worked on international trade deals and needed to understand how to learn languages quickly – I would never feel in control of it. It felt disappointing to have to disabuse them of the notion that their daughter wasn’t as brilliant as they otherwise thought. 

“Diego lived here,” Giusy responded, smiling. Then, she glanced over the driver’s seat to look at the speedometer. “He wants me to die here! Slow down!” Diego waved his hand as if to swat away her comment and downshifted. My father, in an attempt to break the tension, tried to engage Diego in conversation.

“What do you do again?” He asked. Diego shrugged his shoulders, as if to remind my father that he didn’t speak English. I could barely hear their conversation over the raucous scrape of the balding tires of the jagged roadway. “Lavoro?” My father offered. 

“Insegnante. Technologia.” Diego responded.

“He teaches technology!” I yelled so my father could hear me over the ambient road noise. 

“Ah. I’m in business. Finanza.” my father responded. After a pause he added, “Soccer? Football? Calcio?” 

“Si,” replied Diego with a laugh, casting my father an incredulous look.

“Juventus?” My father asked. 

“Napoli!” Diego replied. 

A sly smile crept across my father’s face. “Serie A, huh? 

Diego laughed. “Si, Serie A! Il vero gioco! Juventus, money too much. Bah.”

“Pavoletti or Leandrinho?” My father asked. 

“Pavoletti, ovviamente!” The two continued to exchange names of soccer players, expressing their approval with an emphatic “Si!” or “Bah!”. As I observed the scene unfold, I considered what my father’s life may have been if his family remained and smirked as I entertained a fleeting image of him as a taxi driver shuttling tourists to and from the Palermo airport and proselytizing to captive passengers about his opinions on the state of sports management in Italy. 

Meanwhile, my mother and Giusy settled into a resentful acceptance of Diego’s driving. 

“How is your mother?” My mom inquired. 

“Eh, not so good,” Giusy responded in English, then turned to me to explain her mother’s cancer and memory loss, her trips to Bologna for months at a time to help her mother through treatment. Giusy kept repeating a word I could not translate or even infer the meaning of through the context of her sentence. 

 “I’m sorry… I don’t.. Your mother doing what?” I asked. 

“Immunotherapy. She’s saying her mother is undergoing immunotherapy.” My mother replied. Involuntarily, she touched her hand to her short blonde hair. She motioned in this way whenever she discussed her illness, as if the specter of it all – the weeks in the hospital, the weight loss and weakness, the infections and emergency room visits – remained in the past as long as she no longer felt the rough stubble on her scalp where her hair had fallen out. 

“You?” Giusy asked. “You look good! Perfetta!” 

“Grazie,” my mother replied. She omitted how the treatment racked her body with tremors and fevers, or how she couldn’t muster the energy to walk up a flight of steps for months afterwards. “You’re a good daughter for caring for her.” She moved her left arm over where I sat to grab Giusy’s hand. She then contorted her torso in the cramped space so as to face us both and placed her right hand on top of mine. “A good daughter.”

We made our first stop at the base of a gravel covered slope when the road suddenly ended in an orange barrier. Diego parked the car, got out, and attempted to shove the barrier aside, motioning to my father for help. 

“Should he be doing that?” my mother asked. 

“It’s fine,” Giusy said. “We’re almost at the mine.”

“The mine?” I asked. 

“Where your great-grandfather worked.” Giusy responded dismissively. 

Diego and my father returned, and Diego shifted the car into gear. He slowly maneuvered up the hill, trying to avoid rolling backwards as he shifted. The road couldn’t have been more than a pedestrian footpath cut into the side of the dusty, rocky hill we now ascended. The stark contrast between the verdant, glistening city of Cefalu with its brightly painted tiles and azure water and this lonely, desiccated country town, seemingly occupied by discarded farm equipment and uninhabited hills made the two places seem as if they belonged to entirely different countries. No one spoke. Instead, my mother grasped my hand more tightly with every jerk and bump we encountered. After nearly ten tense minutes of silence, save the crush of stones and the rush of streams of dirt and pebbles cascading down the hill, Diego stopped the car in the middle of the path. 

“Be careful,” Giusy warned as she got out of the car. She lit a cigarette as she stepped to the edge of the path and pointed to a cluster of vacant, collapsing buildings nestled into the side of an adjacent hill. These structures, all of which were missing windows and crumbling to the point where they lacked any discernible architectural components, resided within the irregular boundary of a rusted fence garnished by flourishes of barbed wire. Overhead, the rich cerulean sky etiolated to a light blue, scorched - like most of the ground below - by an oblivious, tyrannical sun. I got out and stood beside Giusy, ignoring the warnings my mother issued from inside the car. When my father echoed her admonition, I glanced down and the precipitous drop only a few centimeters from where I stood. 

The assemblage of warped metal and disintegrating stone provided dismal animation for the otherwise sparse landscape, jabbed faces of unforgiving mountains, and a tenuous growth of scraggly brush that engulfed the area below. A deep black gas gut into the side of the hill, an almost violent disturbance in the lifeless scene below. 

“This is a country of ruins,” Diego murmured, taking a cigarette from Giusy’s outstretched hand. 

“This is where Nonno worked,” my father said, joining me on the edge of the cliff and putting his arms around my shoulders. “When I was little, he’d tell us all about what it was like. He was young when he started, maybe eleven or so. One day, there was a massive collapse in one of the mine shafts. Killed one of his best friends. Grandma and her siblings were babies then, so he decided that enough was enough. He left Nonna and sent for her a year later.” he pointed to the crack in the hillside. “That’s where it must have collapsed,” he said. 

“What did they mine?” I asked. 

“Carbone,” said Giusy. 

“Per la guerra,” Diego added. “Poi per il norde.” He flicked his cigarette over the edge of the cliff and returned to the car. 

“His grandfather died in the accident,” Giusy whispered as Diego departed. “They never recovered his body. Diego never knew him, and his mother barely remembers him. We met here. One summer when I was visiting my nonno after university. My nonno knew his father. And I never left.”

We returned to the car and continued to the center of town, stopping at a crowded market to grab snacks and bottles of water. The stained stucco faces of buildings stood sentry over the dirty streets. Laundry hung from corroding, wrought iron balconies, and a yellow sign announcing VENDE APPARTAMENTO adorned every other front door. 

Sticky and damp from the ride to Castletermini, I finished half my water bottle as I waited in line with my father to pay at the counter. In the corner of the market, a tube-style television bolted precariously against the wall played news footage of migrants arriving in make-shift rafts on the Sicilian shores. Seeing that the bathroom behind the counter was unoccupied, I handed my water bottle to my father and stepped out of line. When I returned, he had already paid and handed me his unopened water bottle. 

As we returned to the car, Diego praised my Italian. 

“Thanks,” I replied. I speak Spanish fluently, so that helps.”

“Ah,” he replied. Do you know why they’re similar?” 

“Yes,” I said. “Because… “

“The Romans,” Diego interrupted. “Portuguese is similar, too.”

“And French,” I added. 

“Bah,” He said, spitting onto the street. 

Diego parked the car on a busy corner and followed him and Giusy through a narrow alleyway lined with trash cans and discarded cardboard boxes. Narrow, pink-beige houses lined the alley with small gated courtyards and thick metal bars boxing each window. A curry-yellow edifice emerged into view at the end of the homes. 

“It’s here,” Giusy said, making no attempt to hide her tears. “This is the house.” 

My father walked up to the front door and gently laid his hand upon it, the tender touch he reserved for specific, sacred times: cradling his grandson for the first time, hugging my sister and I as we left from a weekend visit, holding my mother’s hand as she lay in a hospital bed. He turned his head from us, trying to prevent us from seeing his eyes swell, but none of us cared. My mother actively wiped her eyes, while Giusy stood beside her, arms around my mother’s shoulders, sobbing, “I loved my grandfather too much. He gave so much. I hope... I hope he’s proud.” 

I wandered away from the group, both engulfed by my own emotion and the stagnant air trapped between the buildings. At the end of the alley, a black dog with thick paws and softly folded ears sat motionless, staring at me intently. I considered this docile animal a moment, illogically entertaining the idea that he had always lived here – a type of guardian spirit standing watch over these houses, curiously observing our presence here now. Had he seen my grandfather depart? What did my great-grandfather imagine for his family – or for himself – when he took his final steps out of the mine, or out of the door my parents now stood before, weeping? His story had somehow always felt deprived of its magnitude, polished to a smooth, characterless stone by the many ensuing years that had passed and the commonness of southern Italian flight to the American northeast. Yet his were difficult, extraordinary steps, not dissimilar from those made by others men in other countries since. How much of our happiness depends on the sacrifices of our parents, I wondered, sacrifices and risks they may never see fulfilled? 

A burst of hot air and a soft, damp nudge to my hand interrupted my thoughts. I looked down at two deep, wet eyes staring back at me. I dug into my purse and handed him a piece of my granola bar. The dog remained impassive and never relinquished eye contact, even as I set the granola bar on the ground. 

“Attenta.” Diego cautioned when he saw me move to pet the animal. He, too, had stepped from the group and took long breaths from his cigarette. I backed away from the preternaturally placid dog to rejoin the rest of my family, who were listening to Giusy explain in broken English how the house used to look. 

“They changed it, much better. Before, it look like that one.” She said, pointing to the adjacent structure which bore a rust stain down the front of the house like a tear-stained cheek. 

We returned to the car and set off to find dinner. My mother shared pictures of my sister’s new baby as we proceeded back to the pockmarked highway. 

“Una bambola!” Giusy exclaimed at each picture. 

“She really is,” my mother cooed. “Our little Ella.” 

“Ella Bella!” Giusy added with a smile before taking out her phone to show my mother pictures of her son. 

“So handsome! And grown-up!” 

“At university!”

“Too fast,” my mother signed, lightly stroking my hair. 

“Too fast,” Giusy replied with a wistful smile. 

At that moment, Diego swerved to pass a car on the shoulder, unaware of another car that had pulled off to the side of the road. He narrowly avoided the car, maneuvering back into the flow of traffic, cutting off a three-wheeled truck in the process and provoking a chorus of blaring horns from other nearby vehicles. 

“Madonna Santa!” cried Giusy cried. 

“Mother of God!” cried my mother. 

I wordlessly bounced between them both, smiling.  

About the Author

Jillian Danback McGhan is a writer, management consultant, and former Naval officer. She is a graduate of U.S. Naval Academy, Cambridge University, and Georgetown University. After two decades of writing, her fiction will appear in print for the first time in the spring of 2020. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her family.

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