One of my nonna’s mulberry trees was a perfect climbing tree. I’d creep higher and higher into its branches surveying the world as I knew it and dream of other worlds far away.
Lots of little girls imagine themselves princesses – twirling, whirling, prancing at the ball and bedazzling a prince or three. Well, I tried to visualize that, but after tripping over a hoe, stepping in chicken poop, and chasing a run-away goat, somehow, I figured out that my family wasn’t royalty.
Something told me that in order to understand my present I needed to look to my past. Travelling to Pontelandolfo, Italy in 1996, I discovered my dad’s first cousins. Family that no one in New Jersey even knew existed.
“L saugu t chiama,” Zia Giuseppina told me in the dialect of Pontelandolfo, “the blood calls.” “L saugu t’altira.” Blood like a magnet is drawn to like blood. My saugu, is strongly attracted to the saugu here. She reminded me, that I was the only one who came back from America to search for and discover those left behind.
Over a period of twenty years, I have shared many a long and wonderful Pontelandolfesi2 meal with my new extended Italian family. When the coffee was served, I often steered the conversation to stories about Salvatore, my bisnonno3. The family elders, his grandchildren, vaguely remembered him but vividly remembered their parent’s tales of the invincible Salvatore. In the ancient dialect of the village, Carmine and Giuseppina, regaled me with the legends of Salvatore Guerrera – depending on your point of view he was either Robin Hood or a scoundrel. Even though I was smiling and nodding, I didn’t understand ninety percent of what they said. They knew I didn’t have a clue what the words meant but was absorbing instead the spirit of Salvatore. They kept right on talking.
Talking, gesturing, occasionally crying and loving every second that I sat there listening, saying si4 and taking notes, these alert octogenarians made sure I walked away understanding Salvatore’s strength, tenacity and willingness to leap into the fray for justice. Sounded just like my dad and a wee bit like me. Afterall, Guerrera does mean female warrior.
This tale stayed with me. Salvatore, the patriarch of my family, was a contadino5. Don’t think of the agri-businessman of today or even the funky granola local organic farmer. In the Pontelandolfo church and commune6 records my family members are all listed as contadino and/or bracciante7. They were peasant farmers who “gave their arms work” for another person. Serfs or sharecroppers – these men and women worked the land for a piece of the garden pie – a very small piece.
Young adult Salvatore, with a wife and children worked someone’s land. In the late 1800’s the community had been razed by battles and earthquakes. Firewood was a premium. One land baron had a huge tree that survived. He used it to secure his pampered donkey.
Salvatore, a strapping fellow, approached him and asked if he could trim branches to dry so that the community could burn the wood in the village oven and make bread. NO, bellowed the owner, I need that tree to shade and tie up my donkey. Salvatore, stared, glared and left. That night he returned and cut down the top of the tree. The donkey was left tied to the remaining stump and shaded by a low hanging branch. The wood was given to the baker for the forno8. Everyone ate bread that week!
A few summers ago, my best friend and neighbor, Nicola, accompanied me to Pontelandolfo’s cemetery. I was curious about the local funeral traditions. What I had seen was as unlike a New Jersey interment as you can imagine. The Sannio Hills where we live is made of soil that is rock filled clay and hard. The cemetery has been used for generations and hasn’t grown in size. People die – how could the cemetery not expand? Simple, after a number of years, the coffins are dug up and emptied. The bones are prepared and then placed in a little box that is placed in a nice marble drawer. That is if you can afford a nice marble drawer to share with your loved ones.
Nicola took me to the chapel basement il ossario9to show me le ossa, bones, of the lost ones. The lost ones either didn’t have family to reclaim their bones or they were too dirt poor to be placed somewhere else.
In the 1920s everyone was poor – my family was no exception. They were still farmers who worked the land for a rich dude. Back then, after World War I and the ravaging of the mountain village by the latest troops, the poverty caused a mass exodus to the Americas. No one had the money to come back for funerals or even knew that loved ones had died. So, in il ossario10 there are stacks and stacks of wooden boxes. Some were dated from the early 1900’s. Most didn’t have any dates, just a name. Little white cubes held the bones of poor children.
As I protected my nose from the damp, moldy smell and looked around, I realized that the boxes had been piled in alphabetical order. I kept walking and found a shelf containing the remains of Guerreras. Since Guerrera is as common here as Smith, I didn’t think anything of the shelf. Then, as though an arm reached into my core, my entire being was pulled toward the box with “Salvatore Guerrera” scrawled in chalk across one side. Don’t ask me how I know it was him. The old box didn’t have a date – he died on May 29, 1920 – but I knew.
After 5 hours, I was still crying – though I was then crying in my scotch. At first, I thought the overwhelming sadness was because the root of my family tree was tossed in a box and stacked on a shelf. Or I was crying because of how very poor my family had been. Then I realized that I was crying and felt an overpowering sense of loss for all the elders in my family that I didn’t know, haven’t found and haven’t taken the time to discover. I cried from the depth of my soul. The tears refused to stop. Suddenly, I became conscious of the fact that I was also mourning. Mourning for my father Giovanni, my Aunt Caterina, my mommy Maggie, my Uncle Salvatore, grandma Rosaria, Uncle Tony, Uncle Nick, cousin Roseann, Aunt Julie – mourning for all of the people I have loved, who had loved me unequivocally and died.
Released by my great grandfather, Salvatore was all of the sadness I had bottled up. Some sadness still sits inside me and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in order for the sadness to fully escape I need to start whacking away at the boxes of notes I have on my family.
From a new perch near a stand of mulberry trees, it is time to share their stories.
I am seventy years young, solvent and able to spend time in Italy, reinventing myself as a writer, program creator and theatre lover. People call me “program builder or fixer.” This Italian/Czech with advanced degrees embraces Southern Italian life by absorbing its educational, political and arts centered core. – Midge Guerrera