My grandfather’s name was Carmen Anthony Patavino. He was born in the Bronx in 1911. He was the youngest of four. His older brothers, Pasqualle and Giovani, were born in Italy, and he and his sister, Lucia were born in the U.S. His parents, Anna Maria Micone and Michele Patavino left the village of Montelongo in 1906 for New York. After Carmen’s birth Michele planned to return the family to Italy, disenchanted with America, but he fell ill and died. The widowed Anna Maria raised the four children in the Italian neighborhood of the Bronx. Carmen’s brothers, significantly older than he, worked for an auto mechanic, and at the age of fourteen he joined them. Years later Carmen fell in love with the company secretary, Helen Marano, and married her. Together they had two daughters, five grandchildren, and celebrated their sixty-fourth anniversary. Everything Carmen did he did with care and he did it well. He told long stories with precise detail and patience while his long slender fingers made silent gestures in the air. His skin was thick and dark but not coarse. He had hands that everyone loved to hold. In his ninth decade he had a full head of hair, mostly white, with still a few streaks of black. On his left wrist he wore a watch he bought at Bloomingdale’s in 1962. He died wearing that watch. He was small but strong, insisting on using his body, until the very moment it was no longer possible. His house was neatly appointed with relics of his long golfing career, German beer steins collected during the war, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records, newspaper clippings about the New York Yankees, and framed photographs of his beloved family. Every well-used tool in his garage had its own place next to his meticulously neat and maintained Buick. Year after year he grew brilliant azaleas and roses in his backyard. Carmen was a man who understood that his body and mind could take him where he wanted to go. Step by careful step he created a life worth admiring. He took great pride in the things he loved. He kept his family strong. Carmen lived ninety-two years.
I had planned a five-month solo trip to Italy. I wanted first and foremost to spend a significant amount of time out of the country knowing that soon my busy schedule would make even a short trip impossible. I chose Italy because it was a way for me, to experience something new and remain, at the same time, physically, and emotionally close to my family and connected to home. My goals for Italy were to visit with a beloved Marano cousin in Torino, to discover the village of Montelongo, see the sights, learn the language, and fall in love with the lifestyle. I was to fly into Milan where my cousin would meet me, but beyond that my itinerary was quite loose. I was confident in letting my mood and circumstance fill in the holes of my time abroad. As my departure date grew nearer I spread an old map of Italy out on the dining room table. With a pink marker I circled the places that I thought I’d like to go. Torino, La Cinque Terra, Napoli. My fingers traced the mountain towns of the Abruzzi, but did not land on one named Montelongo. I was only able to circle the general area where I thought the village must be. It remained something of a mystery but I never doubted that I would get there. I imagined that I would arrive there by bus alone, and I would spend the day wandering in silence trying to imagine people who were my own, living out their lives one hundred years ago. I would attempt to connect and give profound meaning to a place that gave me only a blurred conception of my roots. I imagined that I would approach and converse with strangers, in a language that I hardly spoke, hoping that the names Micone or Patavino would sound familiar. I imagined I would take photographs and leave at the end of the day feeling like I had done something important. I did not, in anyway, imagine what I was to actually find, for one week before I was to leave on my visit, Montelongo took on a much larger significance. With the help of the internet I not only located the village, but I located a man who I now know to be my mom’s second cousin, named Marco Micone from Montelongo. Marco and I quickly exchanged e-mails, phone calls, and photographs of our families. My mom and I pored over each picture for any resemblance that would make us certain of family. It was in the eyes. We learned that Marco and his family had left Montelongo for Montreal when he was a teenager. He has lived there ever since marrying and raising two sons. Recently retired, he spent his career teaching Italian and writing plays, in French, about Italian immigration to Canada. Marco was gracious and kind, openly welcoming us into his life, as if he had been waiting for us to find him. During his childhood Marco had been very close to his grandfather and remembered him saying that he had a sister who had gone to America. He had never heard of her since.
“That would make us second cousins ,” Marco said to my mother over the phone.
“Yes, I guess it would, and our father’s first cousins.”
“I still own my grandfather’s home in Montelongo. It is pretty empty right now, but you are welcome to stay there as long as you wish. Let me know when you will arrive and I will ring my aunt Lorenza. She has the key. She lives in the house next to the fountain.”
Within a week we had become family, and thus there was no other way to experience Montelongo than from the house of our family’s origin, the house that our relatives had once called home. My mother decided to accompany me to the village and suddenly my trip to Italy had a distinct focus.
Grandpa was happiest when we were all together gathered around a dinner table or scattered among chairs, couches, laps, and pieces of the floor. He was proud of what he and Grandma had created. But this pride and happiness didn’t begin with us. It had a past as well. A man of such strong family values was not just born into the world. Those values came from somewhere and it now seemed possible to put the pieces together and observe the place where they were formed, not only for myself, but more and more each day I felt I needed to do this for Grandpa. I longed to touch a piece of the past that he had become estranged from, and contemplate a history that had been somewhat forgotten by the rest of us. There were no stories of the Patavinos like there were from Grandma’s family, and for so long her family was our only connection to the old country. We had filled in the Marano family tree and had been exchanging letters in broken Italian and English for years. With his brothers so much older than he, his father dying young, and his mother so burdened with everyday survival, Grandpa had lived much of his life without an immediate connection to his roots. There was something that told me that nearing the end of his life, he wanted to reconnect, that he wanted to be reminded of, and encouraged to contemplate, his past. He never told me any of this, I just knew.
With the passing of Grandpa’s 90th birthday and the engagement of his first grandson it seemed as if the generations would soon be shifting. Grandpa was a fighter and was in no way ready to leave us, he wouldn’t be until he no longer had the energy to put on his white gardening gloves and putter in his backyard. This day would not come for two years, but with the discovery of Marco it seemed clear that now was the time to go. Working around my mother’s schedule, we planned a mid March visit to the village, and Montelongo became my trip’s sole purpose. Everything else became periphery. Five days in a small village would connect my past and present in ways that I never imagined.
On the secondary highway that travels south along the Adriatic coast, the towns anticipate summer. Pastel homes and hotels are boarded up, empty, or under construction. With them comes a loneliness that cannot be escaped. The surf rolls in against concrete jetties in shades of bluish brown. A silver Fiat pulls into a petrol station where the north/south road meets a road running east to west. Inside the car my mother and I pull out a well-creased map of Italy and lay it on the consol between us. We locate our destination, the Village of Montelongo, the township of Campobasso, the region of Molise.
“What do you think? Should we keep going?” my mother asks.
“Probably about another hour, right?”
“That would be my best guess.”
“I don’t know. What do you think? It’ll be getting dark by the time we get there. We could stay in one of these creepy hotels or just take our chances and go.”
“You sure they know we’re coming?”
“Marco said he would call them. Let’s go. I don’t want to stay here.”
On we drive as the waning March sun sinks lower in the uncharted sky in front of us. At this moment my mother and I enter into a world completely of our own and are guided through safely, a time and place that will highlight our lives as mother and daughter. Winding our way through early spring hills of wheat there is nothing left to do but follow the blue and white signs that lead to the village. The soft hills rise and fall around us in shades of the freshest green, its few inches of growth remaining motionless in the breeze. Nervous excitement runs through us as we giggle, shedding our roles of mother and daughter and letting them slip down the hillside and back into the hotel room in Umbria where we began that morning.
The road leads us past a cluster of stone houses where it intersects another. Outside the houses the sidewalk is lined with potted geraniums and rosemary bushes. We continue on. “I think that was it,” I say.
“Yeah, me too. I saw a fountain.”
Already heading out of town and down the other side of the hilltop, I stop the car and turn around, bringing us back to Montelongo. A group of older men standing in the town center had watched us carefully as we passed knowing that we would be back momentarily. You don’t just drive through Montelongo. It’s on the way to nowhere.
We parked the car and I checked my back pocket for the name of the woman, scratched on a piece of notebook paper, who supposedly held the key to Marco’s house. I turned to my mom, and took a deep breath. We were in the heart of old world Italy and I was about to leave the comfort of our rented Fiat and become, as never before in this country, very American. My mom stayed in the car leaving me to be our representative while she watched through the rear view mirror. In my jeans and New Balance sneakers I walked slowly across the cobblestone towards five older men wearing wool caps. Their complexions were bathed in the warm glow of evening, each face a true reflection of Mediterranean twilight. They discontinued their daily chatter to watch me approach.
“Bona sera,” I say.
“Sera,” one of them responds.
“Dove una donna che se chiama Lorenza…?”
I referred to the piece of paper in my pocket feeling foreign and young. Simultaneously all five men pointed their equally short arms to a small old woman standing behind a glass door watching as we tried to make sense of her village. She knew exactly who we were and that we were looking for her, but she waited there and watched as the events unfolded and solidified in my memory, until my mom and I knocked upon her door.
We were greeted by Lorenza, her sister Pepenella, and Pepenella’s son Pepino. These first moments were a cluster of confusing introduction, however clarified by warm hugs, two cheeked kisses, and the presentation of food and drink. Lorenza was a slight and wiry woman who wore large glasses and short hair. I watched as she stuffed a used tissue under the sleeve of her sweater and I thought of my grandmothers who had often done the same. Time after time I would learn that traditions that I assumed belonged to my family actually belonged to this country, to a whole nation of people. Pepino, short for Guiseppino, is Marco’s cousin on his mother’s side, the side not related to us. But what I’ve learned growing up in an Italian family, is that the word cousin can be used to strengthen almost any relation. I have ten first cousins, but there are at least thirty others that I refer to as my cousins with no explanation that they are actually my second cousin once removed, from the other side of the family that I actually have no blood relation to, or a first cousin of a close family friend. It doesn’t matter. Family is family. And cousins make it better.
Lorenza’s house, where the three of them lived together, was small and had the simple yet refined feel that distinguishes an Italian home. In the front room there was nothing more than a knotted wood dining table, five short backed chairs, and an old television set back in the corner. The room was dimly lit. Behind it was the kitchen where an open fireplace glowed with slow burning olive wood. Two child-sized wooden chairs sat on either side of the fireplace. The wall above the mantle was dotted with copper plates and color prints of Jesus. From the ceiling hung fresh sausages from animals raised, butchered and processed in this very village. This house would be our base camp for food and direction for the next five days. My mom and I sat in the front room and replenished our travel weary bodies with pastries, and our first Montelongan café.
Pepenella was a round and toothless woman, dressed all in black. She did not look much different from the many other widowed women we would see tending and preserving their home of Montelongo. She wanted to speak to us, tell us of her pained leg muscles, of the clams she would cook for dinner, and of her love for her youngest son who had returned to the village to care for her. She wanted to tell us of her life because, unlike the rest of the town, we didn’t know anything about it. She spoke with a thick Molisian accent, dropping the end of each word leaving a sound, low and breathy, to fill the room.
Pepino, equally rotund as his mother, stood in front of us and reached to the left of the door, under the window, where a rack full of keys hung under the window. He asked his aunt which keys belonged to Marco’s house. It was then I realized the role this woman and this house played in Montelongo. Lorenza was the key holder. She held them for all the families who no longer live in the village, and they first came to her when they returned. The keys hung there motionless, waiting to be touched, while their owners buzzed about in large cities living lives vastly different from the ones they once knew. But eventually they would return, if only for a short visit and be reminded of what they left behind. Lorenza held the heart of a village once vibrant under her front window.
Pepino left us to relax and settle into Marco’s house. He offered us the most important staple items he could at the moment, espresso, and an unlabeled jar of hand pressed olive oil. “Tomorrow we will buy provisions,” he said. We thanked him and went silent. My mom and I shuffled around from room to room for what seemed to be a long time. The house was small, only three rooms, but the act of tracing the steps of our grandmother and great-grandmother made it seem huge. The front room was the largest and least furnished. Its musty walls were painted white and an old leather couch sat unwelcoming against the far wall. I looked inside a large armoire and found children’s blankets and beach towels which seemed at the moment, completely out of place. In the kitchen was a fireplace that I imagined had not been lit in a long while. Above it hung a poster advertising a production of one of Marco’s plays. A simple table with a plastic checkered tablecloth sat in the middle of the room with four chairs around it. Next to the sink stood an espresso maker and four small wine tumblers. The bedroom was off of the kitchen separated by a door with a fogged glass window. In the room were two single beds made into a double, one dresser, and two night tables. “It is not the Hilton,” Marco had said to us in his beautifully blended French and Italian accent. The house was sparse and damp, as a summer house often is in winter. Marco and his family come only once a year in August when many other Montelongo townspeople return from Montreal. It is then that Montelongo breathes with life that it hasn’t since the early part of the last century when families sailed across the Atlantic in search of something more. Most of the year the village whispers a quiet song of desertion. Old stories travel from widow to widow through the black threads of the clothing worn day after day.
With dampness seeping into our bones, fatigue setting in, and two hours to kill before dinner; we wanted to change into more comfortable clothes. I lent my mom my long underwear and we made the double bed and got in it. We laughed and sighed in disbelief. It was March of 2002, but we could have been anywhere in time. Warming up under quilts, my mom and I played hang man and tick-tack-toe until the moon rose over Montelongo.
We walked arm in arm across the stone studded streets that had narrowed in the darkness. We clutched each other closely, fending off the unexpected cold known to this craggy hilltop village. The sound of our own footsteps broke the silence. A woman stood with a broom in a yellow lit doorway and watched us with questioning eyes as we walked past. By tomorrow the whole village would know who we were, but tonight we remained on the outside. I wanted to tell her, I am Marco Micone’s cousin, my great-grandmother and great uncles were born here, this is my mother. But I didn’t. I squeezed my mom’s arm tighter, thankful for her company, and continued into the darkness.
On the outside of Montelongo lay the village cemetery. My mother, Pepino and I approached slowly on the dirt road in Pepino’s 1960’s Fiat. The air was significantly warmer, making an effort towards spring, but the northern wind of winter still swept down the greening hillsides rattling the just blossoming olive trees. The air blew through me and I found myself detached, as if watching from somewhere else, as my mother and I stepped into the past. There sat tombs, stacked four high, above the ground, each displaying a black and white photo of its occupant, the year of their birth and death, and at least one brightly colored plastic flower. In Southern Italy the soil is too rocky, and there is no money to dig. My eyes scanned the first row; Nicolina Carlone, Stefano Brunetti, Lucia Macciagodena, and there were their eyes, staring back at me. Born mostly around the turn of the century, these men and women of Montelongo represented the generation that stayed behind. Five or six names made up the majority of the gravestones, one being Micone. Michel Micone nato 1878 morto 1973, Rocco Micone nato 1900 morto 1997, Rosina Micone, and so on. All related, somehow, to me. I thought how glad Grandpa would be to know that his bloodline is long lived. At ninety he expected at least a few more good years, and he got them.
We slept in, letting the sun rise high enough to spill in through the balcony and warm the kitchen. It rose with a strength that we had not felt since arriving in Montelongo. I lingered in its luxury while my mom rinsed her underwear and then her hair in the kitchen sink. In my pajamas I made her a cup of tea, milk and one Equal, or the Italian version thereof, and sat at the kitchen table to eat buttered biscuits. While her tea cooled I waited for my mom to join me. Pepino had planned an afternoon outing to Termoli, the closest large town on the Adriatic coast where we would find a woman known by everyone as Zia Maria. She was the oldest living person from Montelongo and perhaps she would recall my great-grandparents. Pepino left us to our own morning which sunk slow and deep into us both.
My mom and I stepped outside to the balcony leaving the sliding glass door open behind us. The cloud speckled sky was still. Nothing, not even time, seemed to separate this century from the ones that came before. In the distance lay the next village, Santa Croce, perched atop the neighboring hillside. It is visible from here, but from inside the walls of Montelongo, it is not even a thought. It is like another world, separated if only by a slight contour in the land. Its people are separate from the people of Montelongo; they have their own fountain, their own key holder, their own stories. In the distance smoke hovered over a pile of burning olive wood. It smelt sweet and as it traveled down into the valley that separates the villages. I gazed over layers of red tiled roofs. Their clay was cracked and flaked giving way to time and weather, but never completely giving up. Was it standing here on this balcony one hundred years ago, looking out over the same scene, that they decided to leave?
“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” I asked my mom.
She laughs a little and says, “No, this is like nowhere I’ve ever been before. Do you?”
“I don’t know.”
I wanted to say yes, to say that somehow it is strangely familiar, that I knew that this place has been a part of me before, that I have stood on this balcony and looked out on these fresh hills, but I confessed no, somewhat disappointed in the ancestral connection that had not materialized in my subconscious.
“Did your grandma ever talk about this place?”
“No, not that I remember really. No one ever did. As soon as they left, they cut all ties in order to start over. And, none of them could read or write, so there was no way to communicate with the ones that stayed. It was the future they talked about, not the past.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true….How do you think they got to Napoli from here?”
“I don’t know, it already seems so far away.”
As I stood there I contemplated the bravery of shoving off with small children to an unknown place. They had probably never been to Campobasso, let alone Napoli, let alone New York City.
My mom hung her underwear on the banister and shook her cleansed hair towards the sky. She was managing quite well with the limited comforts this house has to offer and I felt proud of her self-sufficiency. We unfolded the yellow plastic lawn chair collapsed in the corner and brought out two chairs from the kitchen. I settled into one chair with my legs stretched out on the other and open up the green notebook that held our notes. Our attempts at making a family tree had become a confusing mess of Pepino’s handwriting. It seemed every woman was named Rosina or Lucia, and every man Michele, Guiseppe, or Pasqualle. I did my best at untangling the web of relation until, in my mind, the pieces we had, made sense. My mom was fully reclined with her eyes closed next to me. She dozed in and out of sleep and I watched her breathe and thought how lucky I was that this sixty-year old woman sat beside me. Our concerns right then were not influenced by our individual lives, they were exactly the same. For the purposes of the newly detailed family tree this woman who sat next to me is by title and definition my mother. But in solidifying this relationship on paper, we were opening up others in reality. My mother was becoming the friend and travel companion that she had never been before. I too closed my eyes and indulged in the warmth of our quiet balcony.
It was only hunger and the sound of two solitary church bells that drew us back inside. My mom and I began to pull out, one by one, the makings of lunch, and place them on the table. A crispy loaf of bread, a bottle of olive oil, an assortment of prosciutto and salami, fresh parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and roasted red peppers. These we would tug and drizzle and spread and cut until we had created our own, perfectly constructed panini. For dessert, oranges and apples, cut and peeled, sectioned and shared with care.
Sitting across from my mom, our spread of food between us, we tiptoed back to her childhood, to New York, to the stories whose details I’d never heard. She told me of her Sunday afternoon visits around the neighborhood when she would join her grandmother and sit on folding chairs under grape arbors in Mt. Vernon. She told me of the bed on which her grandmother would lay sheets of freshly cut pasta. She told me of warm summer nights when three generations would gather on one stoop. She told me that outside of these homes she sometimes found ridicule rather than pride in being Italian-American. She told me about when there was nothing, there was always enough for that special something and that made all the difference. A handmade dress for Easter Sunday, or a new doll at Christmas left my mother and her sister with a sense of gratitude for the smallest gifts and pleasures. I imagined my grandpa as a young father home from the war, scraping by with next to nothing, spending his days at the auto body shop and evenings with his wife, daughters, and garden. He took great care of the things that he loved. He nurtured them with patience, persistence, structure, and strength. As the stories spilled from my mom’s mouth across the table Grandpa’s words swarmed my head. “Whatever you do, do it well, and enjoy yourself doing it,” he had said to me once over the phone as I aimlessly wandered through young adulthood. It may seem like a piece of simple and straight forward advice for a grandfather to give his granddaughter, but time after time those words have made me stop and think, and most importantly slow down, and attempt to fully carry out with success whatever I was engaged in. This is the best advice I have ever received and sitting there with my mom it became clear that Grandpa lived a happy life by following the advice himself. He was becoming my hero.
Peacefully filled we let our bodies process the food and words they had absorbed. While the rest of Montelongo shut its windows and bedroom doors, so did we.
We approached Termoli at about mid afternoon. Pepino, who had ridden in the back seat of our rental, continued his chatter interrupting his own stories to direct me towards the home of Zia Maria. We rang the bell and a slight shuffle could be heard from three flights above. The shuffle grew louder until a pair of wrinkled ankles slipped into a pair of shaggy green slippers appeared on the landing above us.
“Zia Maria,” Pepino called out.
“Ciao Guiseppino,” a stuttering but strong voice answered back.
We climbed the stairs to meet her, but already Zia Maria had welcomed us into her life.
“Oh Madonna. Estati Uniti,” she repeated throwing her long fingers towards the sky.
“Il cugini Americani, Madonna mia,” she continued as we exchanged kisses and followed her up the stairs.
We entered a comfortably furnished living room, much more contemporary then those we had become used to. Here we were given more kisses from Zia Maria’s son, and his wife Rosina. We sat down and Rosina brought out a tray of Campari and Perugia chocolates. Pepino made introductions around the room. Rosina turned quickly to my mom and me and said “sorelli?” They were surprised as many others had been and would be, to learn that we were in fact mother and daughter, not sisters. We had been told before how much we look alike but never had anyone questioned that a generation separated my mother and me.
“Zia Maria, these women have come to find out about their ancestor Maria Micone, born in Montelongo. Do you remember anything about her?” Pepino asked. The ninety five year old Zia Maria paused and thought intently for a moment, repeating “Maria Micone” to herself. I showed her the family tree I had drawn in hopes it would help jog her memory. She repeated aloud every name written on the paper in a monotone voice gasping for what seemed could be her last breath between each name.
“Rocco Micone, Lucia Micone, Guiseppi Micone, Regina Micone,” she said until she reached my great-grandmother’s name. She paused once again and finally belted out “Si, Maria Micone!” as she threw her hands up in what seemed like surrender rather than recognition. There was no emotion in her voice that affirmed our search. But it didn’t matter. Zia Maria was certain, no matter who we were and what our story was, that we were related not only to Maria Micone, but somehow to her. It seemed as if anyone could have walked in off the street and she would have had the same reaction calling them il cugini Americani. For a moment her arbitrary insistence tumbled my confidence towards doubt. I looked around and thought to myself, “What are we doing here?” We have come all this way to drink Campari with strangers searching for a connection that was lost a century ago. I looked at my mom and I knew she was thinking the same thoughts. Sitting next to me on the couch she whispered in my ear, “What he hell are we doing here?” and we both smiled, unable to control a small outburst of laughter that had been flowing unconsciously for days. Her voice was not full of dread or disappointment, but rather of a light and youthful acknowledgment of what is.
And then Rosina turned to me and said, “Si, lo vedo negli occhi.” I see it in the eyes.
Zia Maria had no distinguishing memory, no revealing photographs, but the trip to Termoli was worth the effort. We thanked them for a pleasant afternoon and Zia Maria got up to walk us out. Again she descended the three flights of stairs shaking her hands towards the heavens on each landing. She walked us to the street where the car was parked, prayed to the Madonna one last time, and turned around to climb the stairs and finish her Campari.
As we waited for our homemade pizza dinner, Lorenza and Pepenella offered my mom and me seats in front of the fireplace. I sat down in the small wooden seat which barely held my rear and felt the dry warmth of the flames. Pepenella passed with confidence and ease between the living room and kitchen. A widowed mother needs hardly to speak in her own home. It has become her life’s companion. She clings to it with tenacity and rarely leaves it alone. On the television the nightly show has begun. Posto nel Sole, an Italian nighttime drama filled with love affairs, scandal, and manipulation. These two toothless women watch from their hilltop village with anticipation and desire. They will live out the remainder of their lives like this while unknown worlds on television and otherwise play out in truth and in fiction around them. Sharing dinner while watching a silly sitcom on TV, my mom and I have often thought of Lorenza and Pepenella, who are no doubt exactly where we left them. I wonder if like us, it is not the actual drama that they are captivated by, but rather the feeling of reacting to something together.
After dinner and coffee and Pepenella’s refusal to let us help clean up, Pepino offered to take us to the bar for a gelato. In Montelongo there is one business and that is the bar. It does not have a name, just a sign that reads BAR on the outside, facing a lonely street. There was a soft murmur coming from inside. A man behind the counter talked quietly with his friend who sat under dim lights alone, drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes. The cigarette smoke swirled under the light and inside the air felt heavy and stale. Pepino greeted and introduced them to his two female American companions. They took little interest in Pepino’s animation as he encouraged us to make the very best ice cream selection. My mom, who never eats chocolate because it gives her a headache, ordered a chocolate cone. When she does eat chocolate it means she is happy, for that happiness is enough to fend off any discomfort. I am not surprised that on that night she feared not the onset of pain. Right then, it could not touch us. We strolled back outside leaving the scene inside the bar to continue without our interruption. The three of us, gelatos in hand, walked without speaking to the middle of the street, the center of Montelongo. We heard footsteps from behind the church and a solitary voice called out to the darkness. The only other sound was our own. Pepino pointed to a few houses and told us, as he had all week, that in them, there is nobody, that their owners have moved away.
Pepino walked us to a building which sat nondescript behind two homes on the west side of town. On the outside was a sign which read Municipio, meaning for our purposes, Town Hall. Inside we found Antonio De Michele. He sat reading a newspaper in a folding chair with his feet crossed on his desk. Pepino explained once again that we were searching for any information that would confirm our connection to Montelongo and our relation to Marco. Having to spend the day out of town, Pepino assured us that Antonio would help us with whatever we needed. With the green notebook clutched under my arm we moved into the records room where a long table separated a bookshelf full of records from the rest of the room. My mom and I stood on one side of the table, Antonio on the other. Behind it hung a blue and red flag which proudly proclaimed the town where we had found ourselves. Feeling a little foolish I snapped a photo. Next to that hung a Xeroxed sign that read “Non Fumare,” Do Not Smoke. Antonio stood in front of it, pulled a cigarette towards his mouth and lit it. This, I regret not capturing on film.
We started with what we knew for certain, the names and dates of birth of my great uncles, Pasquale and Giovanni, my mom’s uncle Patty, and Uncle John. From the shelves behind the table, Antonio pulled out a large leather bound book which documented all births in Montelongo dating back to the 1700’s. Puffing on his cigarette Antonio opened the book and let the pages fall and separate slowly from one another one by one. He showed no fear as the burning ember at the end of his cigarette dangled above his town’s highly flammable history. I thought this funny, but was not surprised, for this was Italy, where rules and laws are only a suggestion, meant in most circumstances to be broken. Under Micone their names were there, scrolled in thick almost illegible cursive across the wide page. Pasquale and Giovanni, born to Maria and Michele. Except there had been another. The first born, Pasquale, two years prior to my great uncle who as it seemed was named after his deceased younger brother. He had lived only one week. Grandpa never knew he had another brother, or my mother, another Uncle Patty.
We then moved to the marriage files which were held together in a similar leather bound book which sat impressively large in front of us on the table. My mom did not know the date of her grandparents’ marriage, and neither did my grandpa. I thought how strange that once they are gone that information is so easily forgotten. I know that my grandparents were married on October 8, 1938 and that to their reception they asked their guests to bring their own chairs because there wouldn’t be enough for everyone. I hoped that these details I would never forget. Antonio turned the pages letting them crinkle and fall into place at will until there it was in front of us. Maria Micone, born Anna Maria Micone, married Michele Patavino in Montelongo on such and such a date becoming Anna Maria Patavino. Knowing her full name Anna Maria, not simple Maria was immediately important. I turned to my mom acknowledging in a different light, her full maiden name, Ann Marie Patavino. She had never known that she held the same name as her grandmother and I saw pride swell up in her as she recognized this. “That is my name,” she said to Antonio. He took little interest in these details and continued to turn the pages. I was gathering evidence and facts, concrete numbers in order to put them down on paper. But these moments truly belonged to my mother. For these were people to her, not just names and stories. They were the people she called Uncle and Grandma. I suppose she had always known and recognized that they were born in this country but in those times the past was something they tried to forget and push out of their consciousness. There was a silenced gap between the moments recorded on the papers in front of us, and my mother’s life as an American that had been filled with the rumble of a new city, the talk of cars, and the prospect of tomorrow. However, I at this moment, felt that silence was becoming something audible as I watched my mother make sense of a history that no one talked about.
“I never knew her name was Anna Maria, not just Maria. I don’t think Grandma and Grandpa knew either.”
“Really, you think Grandpa never knew his own mother’s full name.”
“Oh, he probably knew, but just forgot.” I felt sad for Grandpa knowing this. These are the details he needed to remember. That is why I was here.
“I wonder how much my uncles remembered of this place. They must have had some memories. I just wish I had heard them when I was young. I can’t believe that this, Marco’s house most likely, is where they were all born.”
Friends of Antonio’s walked through the room sporadically. They asked what we were doing and upon explanation found themselves momentarily interested in their own family history. But after five minutes of page turning, these long time residents of Montelongo lost interest. There is nothing romantic to them about this town, and about the people related to them. The fact that our relatives were born here and left for America did not impress them. Why should it? They left because their lives were hard, and remained hard until the day they died. For Antonio and his friends this record searching held no significance to an old man who sat at home watching the Yankee’s spring training on TV. They wished Antonio farewell and were off to do whatever it is they do day to day in Montelongo. As he lit another cigarette, it became clear that Antonio has become committed to our search which has proven to be the most successful activity yet. We wonder if Pepino has intentionally withheld this visit in order to stretch our stay out as long as possible.
Why is it that we as Americans so longingly search for our roots? Is it because we are so displaced from our origins, that our traditions have been so manipulated and blended with others that they have lost their original meaning? Is it because our blood has been stretched so thin and far away from where it runs thickest that we have hardly anything to hold on to? And so we look, and we go back to that place to feel at one point that we belonged to something worth belonging to. I suppose with Grandpa on my mind, this is what I was doing. I went because he couldn’t, but in doing this for him the time in Montelongo was becoming as much for my mom, and me, and my unborn kids. As a third generation American it is unusual to be a descendant of one country. Most of my peers are able to list off a number of places from which they hail, some of which they are not totally sure of. In all that I do my Italian roots, and the traditions that have remained, have grounded me. The history we have translated into our present day life makes our family who we are. We eat 13 fish dishes on Christmas Eve, or try to, and pasta, or macaroni and “gravy”, as we call it, takes precedence over turkey on Thanksgiving. We toast to La Familia. Desserts of sfuadele and ricotta pie are always served alongside Sambuca and espresso. We turn down the lights and nap at mid-day when we are together and practice with each other what we know of the language. As adults we share homes never feeling the desire or need to be completely independent from each other. But I suppose for me, all this was not enough. I wanted to go as far back as I could and see where these traditions came from. To do this I had to go to Montelongo; it was like going back in time and as close as I was to get to the lives of my great grandparents. I needed to physically touch and observe the place and its people for myself, and let them seep into me as they had never been able to before in order to navigate my own past and future
We woke to the sound of thunder undulating through the hills. The air had turned cool again. Neither winter nor spring had its hold on the village. Each tried to stake its claim but inevitably the other’s force would be momentarily stronger until the roles were suddenly reversed, creating what we know to be the month of March. Hail was falling and winter was winning as I jumped from the bed and into warm clothes as quickly as possible. Outside the produce truck bounced ungracefully over the stone studded streets. “Fruta, verdura” the driver was shouting through the loud speaker to the sleeping houses as if its occupants didn’t know what he was selling. The truck is the only clamor in town. My mom and I packed up returning each other’s clothes and toiletries. I drove the two blocks to Lorenza’s house, parked right in front, walked in the front door, and was offered a seat again in front of the fire. We took pictures and drank our last café. What can one say but grazie, to the three who had created the framework for a story that is still being told? We did not make promises of returning or open up invitations for them to visit us. We knew neither situation was likely. We drove away and it seemed like a different place than when we had arrived, anxious and unsure. We had gone from being Marco’s house guests to the relatives of people who had spent their lives in this town. Though far from calling Montelongo home, we now had something, a piece of the past that was worth belonging to. But perhaps more so, we now had something that belonged to us, my mother and I. We had Marco, we had Pepino, we had the house, the hills, the quiet streets, lonesome church bells and we had the memory of experiencing these things together. We had come to understand our roots, one as a representative of the generation who, at one time, wanted to free herself from them, and the other from the generation who wanted more. In the process the generation gap that separates my mother and me became for a time, almost invisible. We were strung together not by age, but by welcoming this town and its people into our vocabulary. We now had the same knowledge, gained from the same experiences, that we would ultimately pass along to the generations that surrounded us at home. We did not speak until we had wound our way down that hilltop of stone and green. My mom having effortlessly endured days without hot water and clean sheets suddenly wanted, more than anything, a hot shower and a warm bed. I did not contest her desire nor her insistence on paying for a “nice” hotel and we drove north until she was satisfied. We slid our way through a small opening of the encapsulating bubble called Montelongo and remained unscathed but changed on the other side. We could look back, but from the outside the bubble had become opaque and we could no longer see in. And so we became tourists again speaking English and buying postcards, and I became again my mother’s daughter. She treated me to dinner and hemmed my pants. Tomorrow I would take her to Pisa where she would fly, via London, back to Boston. We would be left to tell our stories on our own, but they would be missing something, until three months later when we could tell them together.
My mom and I have had our share of tearful goodbyes, not because we didn’t know when we’d see each other again, because it’s never been that long, but because we’d miss each other until then. This goodbye was different. Yes, we’d miss each other until I returned home, but her getting on that plane in Pisa marked the end of a time in which secretly, we contemplated our past, laughed in the present, and strengthened our future. It was a time when we lived outside of time, outside of the realities that were our lives; it belonged to us. The experiences of Montelongo were tucked away in Marco’s house, in the cemetery, in the olive trees that burned on the hillside, never to be had again. We were anxious to talk with home, but at the same time we were in no rush. For as soon as we began to translate into words our experiences they would lose the very thing that made them worth telling.
Leaving her in line to board the plane I walked slowly to the other end of the airport. Later she told me she watched me the whole way until I disappeared into the train station. I never turned around, but I knew she was watching me.
On a dark evening I walk into a camera shop in a deserted harbor village. I take my time deciding which picture frame to buy. It has to be perfect. I choose one, sleek and refined with room enough for five 4×6 photographs. On the floor in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve I select five pictures of Montelongo and place them carefully in the frame. The Micone farmhouse sits crystal clear in the center. With a black felt tipped pen I write as neatly as possible, Montelongo, Italy, at the bottom of the frame. I wrap the picture frame up in green and red paper and place on it a snowman tag on which I have written, “To: Grandpa From: Leigh.” I was not thinking this would be his last Christmas.
Grandpa put great thought into hanging my gift, trying it in a number of locations, first in the bedroom, then above the fireplace, but nothing seemed right. On the far wall of the living room hung two individually framed photographs of Grandpa’s parents. They had hung there, almost unnoticed, for years. Thoughtfully Grandpa took these down and placed them alongside the pictures of Montelongo. He hung all three frames in the front hallway of the house where everyone passed through and stalled for hellos and goodbyes.
“It looks real nice, Doll,” he told me. “And now, every day when I walk by I say hello to my mom and dad, and you know, they were a real good looking pair!” The pictures of his parents were moved from a far wall to the front hall, and next to pictures of the village they were born. In doing this Grandpa had moved this place and these people likewise to the front of his mind. I had helped bring them there. Every chance he had now Grandpa spoke to me in the Italian he thought he had long since forgotten. It was with the same thick accent I had heard in Montelongo. Somehow it had surfaced and he spoke with an ease that surprised us all. He was beginning to put all in place, preparing subconsciously for the days that would be his last. In the year and a half to follow Grandpa and I were closer to each other than we’d ever been. I often took breaks from the loud bustle of my brother and cousins to spend quiet moments with Grandpa once the dinner table had long since been cleared. With each visit I made I brought him a box of his favorite pastries and with his full instruction I helped him mulch and plant his garden. Grandpa spoke to me often of Italy and asked me if I would like to live there. I told him yes, that it seemed as if at some point I would, and he was contented with this answer, even knowing that he would then be long gone. In these months I learned that knowing a grandparent in adulthood is a true blessing. They become more than Grandma or Grandpa in your mature mind. They become a full, realized person who has lived a long and meaningful life. I realized now how much of him I shared and that these shared qualities comes not from daily interactions, but from the same blood that runs through Grandpa and me. It is the same blood that runs through Montelongo.
July 16, 2003
It is Carmen Anthony’s 92nd birthday. It is also the day he has decided to end his dialysis treatment. Until today he has continued to say, “It’s not my time.” Instead he waited until all the pieces fit together perfectly and chose for himself the very way in which he would pass on. The last days of his life were executed with precision and care, just as the decades that preceded them.
Grandpa sits quietly with my mom. He tells her what he wants for his birthday.
“No junk,” he says. “I want a perennial garden on the side of the house with six red azaleas.” He continues to explain to my mom running his soft fingers along the bed spread exactly how he wants it, and how it should be done.
“A scalloped edge coming in towards the center, the bushes four feet apart. In the fall I want to put a peony in the middle. I want Mom to be happy.”
Grandpa lies in a hospital bed in his den. His wife, two daughters , son-in-law and all his grandchildren take turns holding his hand. At nightfall he wants to join the laughter coming from the living room and so slowly we help him make his way to his couch. He is surrounded by the family of his creation. We toast to him. A resounding “Salute” bounces off the wall and into the crevices of the high ceilings. And that is enough. Slowly he returns to his bed passing for the last time the pictures of Montelongo and his mother and father.
Thunder claps send warning of warm summer rain. I peel myself away from the couch that has nestled my body since mid morning. In the other room my brother and cousins watch a movie all huddled like children on the living room floor.
“I’m going down to see Grandpa,” I tell them.
“Dad, it’s your one and only granddaughter,” Aunt Emma says as I slide into the chair on the far side of his bed. He doses in and out of sleep as I sit quietly next to him looking through old photo albums of Grandpa and his handsome WWII days. He looks up at me and for a moment I look deep into his eyes and know his contentment. In less than an hour he is gone.
In the hot mid day sun, my cousins and I break ground on the side of our grandparents’ house. We turn topsoil, and laugh, and make sure the edge is perfect. We know that Grandpa is with us and we know we better get it right! We each, including my cousin’s wife, plant one azalea bush and go inside to eat lunch with Grandma.
In my bedroom hangs an old picture of my family. Under it hangs a picture of my Grandpa. Under that hangs a picture of Montelongo. Each has grown out of the one that hangs beneath it. None can stand on its own. To their left, on a bedside table sits a picture of my mother and I on our latest trip to Mexico. We are tan and full of giggles happily sipping margaritas on the beach. Unintentionally, but not without significance this picture is set aside from the others. As much as we are both integral parts of our family’s progression through time, my mother and I now have the ability to together, stand on our own.