Il Figlio di Lucia

by Jim Forti


Although I did not become a genealogist until later in life, even as a child I would ask my grandparents questions about their parents and their early lives in Italy. My grandmother would tell her friends that she had a grandson who asked questions that an old man would ask. At first, I was not sure if it was an insult, but as I now approach this status, I consider her comment a complement.

I first began to dream about visiting Italy when I was in elementary school and learned about the Roman Empire. My enthusiasm continued as I later learned about the Renaissance. Instead of a trip to Disney Land, I yearned for a trip to Italy. My grandmother was correct; I was not always a typical kid.

In 1980 I had the opportunity to fulfill this dream. My dear friend, Jim Del Rossi was going to Italy with his wife, Pat, and two other friends and asked me if I would like to join him. Included in the itinerary was a visit to the hometown of his father. I found the visit to his town to be so rewarding that my next dream was to visit the home of my maternal grandparents.

My motherís parents were born in Sicily in the town of Barrafranca, province of Enna, almost exactly in the center of the island. Although my grandfather had no family remaining in the town, my grandmother had one brother and many nieces and nephews remaining there. My fatherís father was born in the city of Messina, but I believe all his relatives had emigrated to Boston in the late 1890ís and early 1900ís, and if any family remained, they were all killed in the earthquake of 1908. My great uncles and aunts told me that their mother always refused to talk about Messina, stating that there were too many bad memories.

My friend Jim and his wife Pat knew many people who traveled frequently. These acquaintances had traveled to Sicily and were telling many stories about the fascinating sites and tremendous beauty of the island. He asked me if my wife and I (I was now married to Judi) would be interested in a trip to Sicily. We signed on immediately and scheduled a tour of the island for the last two weeks of April 1988. I did not notify my relatives in Barrafranca that we were coming because I did not know if we could find them.

I planned the itinerary, starting with a drive down the coast from Rome. Upon reaching Reggio Calabria at the toe of the boot, we would take the ferry across the Straits of Messina into the city of Messina. The city was almost totally destroyed by the 1908 earthquake and the accompanying tidal wave, rebuilt again, only to be totally destroyed again by Allied bombing raids attempting to dislodge the last remaining Nazi forces in Sicily. Although almost nothing remained that would have been familiar to my ancestors and I knew that I had no relatives remaining in the city, nevertheless, we planned to explore the area. We would then move on to Milazzo, where we take a hydrofoil to the Aeolian Islands, including Lipari. We would then drive to the capital, Palermo, and explore the city, including the magnificent Norman cathedral in nearby Monreale. Our next drive would take us to the beautiful ruins of a Greek temple in Segesta and then to the west coast town of Erice, built on the top of a mountain, with a spectacular view of the coast. We would then drive to the south coast to explore the ruined Doric temples at Selinute, and then on to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, famous for its seven Doric temples and other Greek ruins. We would then drive to Barrafranca with the hope of finding my relatives. After this reunion, we would then explore the nearby town of Piazza Armerina and the newly excavated summer home of a Roman emperor noted for its extraordinary mosaic floors. Then we would drive to Mount Etna, explore the volcano, and then finish our Sicilian tour in trendy Taormina.

Sicily was far more beautiful and far more fascinating than any of us could have imagined. The Sicilians were extremely friendly, the ancient monuments were magnificent, and the countryside extraordinarily beautiful, with fields and mountainsides covered with flowers. Each meal was exquisite and there was a pasticceria on every corner, with pastries and cookies calling my name as I tried to walk by.

However, the highlight for all of us was the visit to Barrafranca. My excitement grew as we began seeing road signs announcing our approach to the town. After passing Pietraperzia, the birthplace of my grandmotherís father, I knew were close. We continued to drive and then, after slowing down to pass a flock of sheep on the road, we looked up to see the town ahead of us. Barrafranca was unlike most towns that can be found throughout Italy, picturesque towns that are built on the top of a large hill or small mountain. My ancestral town sits on a small plateau surrounded by fields that spread to the hills and mountains on the horizon.

We drove directly to the center of the town. Our plan was go to the municipio, the town hall and asked for the home address of my grandmotherís one surviving brother, Angelo Bevilacqua. We could not find the town hall, so we stopped in a taverna. Everyone in the taverna immediately became excited and it was obvious that some Americani had arrived. The proprietor of the taverna asked us where we were from and whom we were looking for. I speak only limited tourist Italian, but my wife and friends all speak Italian. He was told we were from Boston and were looking for my relatives, and they looked at me for the name.

I announced to the proprietor, "Mio zio, Angelo Bevilacqua.íí

He looked thunderstruck. "Io sono Angelo Bevilacqua," he exclaimed. "I am Angelo Bevilacqua"

Now we were all thunderstruck, but I knew this man was not my great uncle. My Angelo was in his eighties and this man was only in his thirties. I also knew that Angelo had only daughters, so this was not one of Angeloís descendents. I explained this in English to Judi and she translated for our new Angelo. He was disappointed, but explained that the Bevilacqua name was extremely common in Barrafranca and then he graciously had a friend take us around the corner to the town hall.

After our arrival at the town hall, we walked around empty corridors with no sign of life. We had arrived after the start of the afternoon lunch break. Finally we found someone and we explained our dilemma. Soon word had gotten out of the arrival of the Americani, and now the room was full of people looking to help us. People kept coming into the room and everyone was talking rapidly, explaining to the new arrivals who we were and what we looking for. People were opening cabinets and drawers and pulling out files. Then the man who appeared to be in charge pulled out a card and stated that he found an Angelo Bevilacqua, but he was living with his daughter Rosa. I knew we had found our man!

The next problem was to locate the house. No one in the office recognized the street. Finally, someone stated that it was in the recently constructed section of the city but it would not be easy to find. A young man, Nicola Salerno, told us that he had an auto and we could follow him. We were skeptical at first, but we decided that I would ride with Nicola and Judi, Jim and Pat would follow in our rental auto.

We drove through the center of the town to the outskirts. Nicola then drove through the new streets until he found Via Marche, and then asked children playing in the streets for the house of Angelo Bevilacqua. As we approached the front door, numerous children gathered around, sensing that something exciting was about to take place. The noise from the children brought neighbors to there doors, all watching us as Nicola rang the doorbell. From the second floor balcony of the Bevilacqua house, two boys appeared. When they asked about the commotion, they were told Americani, Americani.

An old man answered the door and Nicola did all the talking, announcing that his cugini from America were here to visit. Angelo eyed us suspiciously; with his head tilted and one eye squinted. He knew he had relatives in America, but he also was going to require some proof before he would believe that these were his cugini. Meanwhile, in the foyer behind him, his daughter Rosa and her two boys waited anxiously.

Before we departed the states, I had wondered how I could identify myself if we were lucky enough to find relatives. I knew that Angelo would know the names all of his sisterís children, especially my mother, Lucy, eldest of all the daughters. He might also recognize my name because I was the oldest of all my siblings. However, I needed something tangible to prove that I was related. I had decided to bring a recent picture of my grandmother.

I stepped forwarded and announced myself. "Io sono Giacomo Forti, figlio di Lucia," and handed him the picture of my grandmother. Angeloís eyes grew wide and a huge grin spread across his face, and he extended his face towards me so that I could kiss both cheeks. I then introduced mia moglie and miei amici, and he extended his face to them for the customary greeting. Rosa and the boys were now hugging us and crying and the neighbors were cheering. There was not a dry eye to be found, with even Nicola wiping his eyes before departing. After Angelo shushed the neighborhood children away, we were invited upstairs to visit.

We all gathered around the kitchen table, with questions and answers reverberating across the room in rapid fire. Rosaís sons, Angelo, 14, and Roberto, 12, were introduced. The oldest son, Salvatore, was working with his father. Rosa prepared some food. We brought a camcorder with us and we asked Zio Angelo if he would like to record a message for my grandmother. With great flair, he gave an impromptu speech to his sister. Meanwhile, Rosa was cooking and making a telephone call. I did not know what she was saying and to whom she was talking, but I understood "America" and "il figlio di Lucia." We all had a bite to eat while Rosa showed us pictures, including a picture of my mother and some of her siblings that had been sent many years ago.

Rosa announced that she had called her aunt Stella, widow of my grandmotherís brother Francesco and we were going to visit her. We arrived and were met at the door by a smiling woman. Rosa introduced me, "Giacomo, il figlio di Lucia." Stella hugged me, kissed me, and as we entered her house she kept repeating "ah, Giacomo, figlio di Lucia." Our visit had just begun when the door burst open and a woman about my age rushed in. She introduced herself as Giovanna, daughter of Stella. Giovanna was extremely animated, talking nonstop while her mother kept kissing us, placing her hands on our cheeks, smiling and sighing. Soon Rosa excused herself, only to return a few minutes later with her youngest son, Fabrizio, 3. Giovanna excused herself and returned shortly with a neighbor who greeted us. "Welcome to Barrafranca."

"Do you speak English," I asked.

"Ah sure," she replied.

"Did you live in America?"

"New Jerse."

This vivacious neighbor became my interpreter as everyone talked in groups. I inquired about the location of the church where my grandparents were married and Rosa said that we could visit the church. We all started walking to the church, with my friend Jim filming the procession. Rosa led the way, marching proudly with her American friends, her smile so broad that it illuminated Barrafranca. Some old men playing cards on sidewalk tables, seeing our entourage and observing my friendís camera recording, yelled out.

"Whatís going on? Is the pope here?"

We arrived at the church late in the afternoon. After filming extensively to show my grandmother, Rosa informed us that the church had recently been renovated, and we realized that my grandmother would not recognize anything in the church.

It was now late afternoon and we returned to Stellaís house. We said our goodbyes to Stella, Giovanna, and the neighbor from New Jersey and then returned to Rosaís house. Rosa asked us to stay, but we told her that we had reservations in Taormina and had to leave. We said goodbye to Rosa and the boys, gave Zio Angelo the customary kiss on each cheek and promised someday to return.

As we drove toward Taormina, another dream began to form. I definitely wished to return, but now I wanted to return with my parents and my aunts and uncles so that they could meet the relatives that they all had heard about but never met. Almost as important, they could see the land that shaped the customs and attitudes that made them the people they are today.

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