There are echoes of Romeo and Juliet, but the ending is happier.
This story of forbidden love took place long ago on a Mediterranean island—1870s Sicily, to be exact.
Elizabeth Lagudice was a beautiful noblewoman with dark curls and big eyes. Dona Elizabeth, as she was called, made a fabled mistake: She fell in love with a tailor.
She was enchanted by Matteo Parisi, the hardworking young man who made dresses and evening coats for nobility. Because he lacked her social status, her parents did not approve of the match. And in a move that smacks of a Disney villain, they sequestered Elizabeth at home, hoping it would dissolve the attachment.
It did not.
Servants were sympathetic to the young couple, and they smuggled Matteo’s finest threads to Elizabeth to use as the cutwork for her hope chest. Among the hidden fabric was an exquisite white bedsheet.
It was a love letter made of linen. Elizabeth held it close to her heart, and it kept the flame of love alive while they were apart.
The needlework expected of young Italian women of that era was tedious. Elizabeth labored over the bedsheet from Matteo for two years, it is estimated, cutting tiny holes and then delicately threading them together, all while dreaming of a future with the handsome tailor.
Eventually the two were reunited and married. They moved to Canada for a new beginning. Far from home and the aid of her servants, Elizabeth faced a steep learning curve. According to one story, she didn’t even know how to do her own hair. But the love she and Matteo shared only deepened with time, blessing them with seven children.
They built a wonderful life together. They were self-sufficient, practical—they slept on the linen bedsheet Elizabeth had embroidered—and happy.
In 1908 tragedy struck back home: Europe’s most powerful earthquake shook Sicily, followed by a vicious tsunami, flattening the island and killing some 200,000 Italians. No one from Elizabeth’s family survived.
The family estate had vanished, cementing her new life without noble status. She never looked back.
Time passed, and Elizabeth grew to be a content old woman. One day in 1965, her daughter Josephine, herself an old woman, uncovered the bedsheet in a trunk. It was spotted and yellowed, but after being laundered and bleached, it came out beautifully—the Italian love letter, fully intact.
Then came a brilliant idea: to turn it into a christening gown. Elizabeth’s great-great grandson Michael was the first to wear it, baptized at one week old. His siblings wore it later and then the next generation, stitching the family together in a sacramental way. It enabled them to preserve their heirloom and their heritage.
The gown reminds the family that love trumps all. It’s a sign of hope, that a young woman could embroider for years and years, overcome opposition and finally marry the man of her dreams.
“It speaks to the determination of people who have not always had a lot,” said Michael’s mother, Beth, who was named after the Sicilian noblewoman and is now a 77-year-old retired postmaster.
The gown is also a symbol of trust in divine providence. Like Elizabeth’s other descendants, Beth has responded to daunting circumstances with courage and trust. She dove into an unfamiliar job as a postal clerk after staying home with her kids, she led computer training for her colleagues when she utterly lacked technical savvy and she uprooted her life and moved to South Carolina for the benefit of her husband’s health.
“Through the years I’ve learned that, as long as you’re trusting and have faith, what’s supposed to happen will work out,” she said. “Elizabeth waited a long time to get married. She had to stand her ground and say, ‘Nope, this is what’s supposed to be.’”
Christina Capecchi is a writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.