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  • Gianna Patriarca

Tea and Cannoli with Lee

By Gianna Patriarca

Gianna Patriarca is an Italian-Canadian author and educator. She was born in Ceprano (Frosinone), Italy, in 1951. At the age of nine, she immigrated to Toronto, Canada, along with her mother and sister, in order to join her father. She taught in the public school system until her retirement in 2006. One of the most internationally known writers of the Italian diaspora and of Canadian poetry, she is the author of twelve works: ten collections of poetry, one collection of short stories, and one children’s book. She is also a regular contributor to Panoram/Italia magazine, where she publishes editorial articles and essays on Italian-Canadian life. She lives in Toronto and is working on her first novel.

(From "Gianna Patriarca", The Literary Encyclopedia, entry by Paolo Frascà)

It was a summer afternoon. On a typical Toronto street in a Toronto neighbourhood Lee Maracle waited for a visit from my friend Anna and me. Anna was a visiting researcher from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” writing her doctoral thesis on First Nations Women Writers and wanted to meet and to interview Lee. We searched her out and Lee was gracious enough to invite us to meet her at her home at the time. Anna was ecstatic. We brought Sicilian cannoli and her nephew made us tea. The three of us sat at her kitchen table, where all good things often seem to take place. Lee had never eaten this particular Italian pastry and she was delighted with tasty discovery.


Lee was curious as to why Anna, a young Neapolitan woman, in her mid-twenties at the time, was interested in the writings of First Nations Women and had chosen the subject for her PhD.  Lee had some previous knowledge of my writing having been introduced to my poetry by her daughter, which surprised and pleased me at the same time. I had read two of her early books but really was not very knowledgeable about the many women writers of Indigenous background. We were three quite different characters, all perhaps in search of something uniquely different. I think Lee found it interesting meeting two Italian women who shared a love of writing. We were excited to learn more about her work, her life and her experiences as a revered author and sister.


I came to Canada as a child. My life experience in Canada has been lived in Toronto. How Canadian am I?  What do I really know of this place I’ve called home for six decades? I am an immigrant. I struggled in a patriarchal environment growing up in the sixties, in a catholic community with other immigrants who spoke similar dialects from our mother land.  Growing up in the sixties was somewhat claustrophobic in certain communities. There was little concern for the ambitions, needs, or dreams of the Italian/immigrant/girl. The expectations for us were clear and uninspiring and the opportunities to express ourselves non-existent. Most of my young years were spent relatively in my own world with pen and paper writing my own angst which is reflected in my first book Italian Women and Other Tragedies. Anna grew up in a small town not far from Naples, Italy, her experiences were certainly unlike anything Lee or I might have had at her young age. When she visited Canada for the first time she brought her young spirit, curiosity and passion along to explore a world foreign to her and to learn more about the writings of Lee and other Indigenous women. Lee was happy to share as elders do, offering wisdom to the young.  It turned out to be a most enjoyable afternoon with pastry and tea and much conversation about any subject which happened to spill onto the kitchen table. 


Lee was a completely open and generous person who listened and spoke freely with a giant smile, never refusing to answer any question. She exuded a wonderful aura of dignity, respect and love in knowing the person she was. We spoke and shared stories of our histories, our culture and family. We found many similarities in the spirit of our traditions, in the respect for our elders, in the love of land and nature and in the need to respect and protect all of it. The very things I was taught by my grandparents in Italy. Lee and I were similar ages, Anna listened attentively and politely to the two, may I say, elders in the room, with curiosity and delight in her eyes. She must have been writing part of the thesis in her head at Lee’s kitchen table that day. This meeting would be a wonderful adventure, and it was. It is a memory I hold dear since Lee left us much too soon into the spirit world.  She would have had many more stories to tell and much wisdom to share.


Over the years I kept in touch with Lee through emails. But life keeps us busy and we did not have a chance to share cannoli again in person. But somehow I have a feeling Lee would have tasted the sweet ricotta pastry on other occasions. Anna completed her PhD and is now a professor teaching in Naples, Italy. I wrote this poem on Lee’s birthday this year and went out for cannoli at my local café.


For Lee Maracle

                          July 2

you were born on this summer day

i married forty years ago  on this day

today i celebrate you      and me

women  in a different dress

from a different landscape

born to a different language  and yet

there we were    in your kitchen

on that little street in Toronto

tucked away near the  No Frills

where we sometimes shopped 

that afternoon you made the tea

i brought the Sicilian cannoli and  Anna

we talked  shared   as sisters  will do    

poetry   history   memory  in every word

some words in those first languages we

had learned   and then the laughter 

if only the world could be as warm

welcoming  as your kitchen was  that day.        


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