I am an orphan, although at my age it’s difficult to claim such a title since most of my friends are orphans, too. Most of our parents are gone. In my case, I am an only child but one might assume I have some extended family but before departing this life, my parents, or more specifically, my father, saw to it that almost all of our relatives disowned us. Money, houses, and territorial foolishness caused multiple rifts. Years later, I realize my family is the sum of the people I chose or created myself. Luckily, I chose well and created some pretty awesome humans, so I am better off than many.
Still, we somehow managed not to alienate one branch of my family tree. My only child mother maintained a relationship with her paternal side, a collection of thick-accented Italian aunt and uncles who one-by-one came to America by sea over the course of thirty years, from the early 1920s until the mid-1950s. When I was a child, this spirited bunch enhanced my childhood as they fiercely held on to their traditions, spoke in another language, and demonstrated a palpable zest for life.
The presence of my Italian relatives spiced up our family gatherings. One aunt, Annuziata, spoke only Italian. Because of her, I learned to understand Italian. Even so, I never learned to speak the language (except for the bastardized expressions my mother and grandmother used–all grammatically incorrect and sometimes offensive). A simplistic conversation with Aunt “Nancy” (her Americanized name) sounded like this–
Nancy: “Vieni qua!”
Me: “No, I’m not coming over there.”
Nancy returned to the old country for good in the late1960s and with her went my cursory knowledge of the Italian language and my sassy ability to be a Euro-brat.
Aside from my Aunt Nancy and my Uncle Dario, both of whom lived for a time in my grandparents’ three-decker in East Boston, the rest of my Italian relatives settled in upstate New York. Grandpa’s brother and sister, Nick and Grace lived in Utica and Rochester, respectively, along with their spouses, Mary and Pete. Grace and Pete had one daughter (we seem to specialize in only children). Carmela was a few years older but I remember our childhood times together. Pete, Grace, and Carmela returned to Italy in the early 1980s, leaving me with memories and a few 8mm movies taken by Dario that memorialized the golden era of my Italian immigrant family in America.
Sadly, my Italian family never totally assimilated into American culture as proven by their collective gnawing desire to go “home.” With each of their departures, a part of me was laid dormant. For years, my mother and Aunt Grace communicated by phone, but back then, international long-distance phone calls cost a small fortune and required coordination. These well-planned trans-Atlantic conversations transpired in the late evening, Boston time, and early morning, Italian time. When my mother died in 2003, my father made one last call to our relatives to announce her passing, effectively closing the door on my Italian family forever.
Over the years, I have thought about reconnecting with whoever was left in Cisternino, my grandfather’s hometown, the place to which my family returned. I scoured phone records, Facebook, and ancestry sites for clues. Once I thought I had unearthed Carmela’s address in an Italian version of the online White Pages and wrote a letter that was never answered or returned. I wondered if she had ever received it or maybe she was cutting me off as well. It had been a long time. Did she even remember me?
My curiosity persisted. The history of my family intrigues me and I admit to a mild obsession with Grandpa Conte and his story. This summer, as I randomly searched for clues to my grandfather’s family and any link to my heritage, I searched Facebook once more. I typed in Carmela’s name–and there she was, picture and all. She looked the same, older but the same. As I typed a note in Messenger, I knew I was taking a chance. Maybe it was the wrong person after all. Maybe she didn’t want to connect. Or maybe this was my chance to salvage a remnant of my past and my family. I pressed ‘send’ and waited.
A few weeks later, as I scrolled through my iPhone screens, I clicked on the Messenger icon. Carmela’s message put to rest any fears.
Hello Marie…I’m so very very happy to hear from you. I often thought of you.
She continued, sharing the news of a newborn grandchild the month before, which explained the delayed response. When she proposed a video chat, her mixture of Italian and English endeared her to me even more.
We have a six hour differenza…I will wait for your risposta…LOTS OF HUGS AND KISSES
We arranged a call for that afternoon. After a few first joyous moments face-to-face, we reminisced about the members of our family who had now passed. While writing my memoir these past few years, so many questions had arisen. With no one to help me fact-check, I depended on the spotty memories of a little girl and the questionable facts ascribed to stories I had been told. Now, through technology, I found family and a resource to answer my questions. Carmela is my last living relative with a link to those sketchy images and the truth.
Over the course of ninety minutes, we shared and clarified details that supported my own recollections. I asked questions about things I had always wondered about. With her responses, my cousin added to, rearranged, and upended what I had believed to be the truth. The call ended. I sat back and took a deep breath. We had discussed a range of family lore but one revelation decimated a story I had never questioned. Part of my truth was a fantasy. My head swirled with more questions than before. I had some research to do.
(Next: Part 2–Not Seeing and Still Believing)