A Walnut in My Handbag

by Barbara Redman Carroll

18 October 2000

    I am walking around these days with a walnut in my handbag. The walnut is from a tree in Italy, which stands in the backyard of the house where my grandfather was born. I recently visited this grey stucco house with its stone sheds, and its olive trees, grape arbors and its one walnut tree, alongside a mountain road in Italy. The house stands on Via Annunziata in Rochetta Alta, province of Isernia, region of Molise. It is just below the crumbling and abandoned medieval stone fortress, church, and houses of Rochetta Vecchio, which crown the mountain. It is about a kilometer and a half from the Volturno River, where my Pontarelli family walked to get their water. It is surrounded by the Apennine Mountains, some of which are grey and austere, some softer, with green, leafy trees. All of the people are gone from Rochetta Vecchio, and most of them have moved from Rochetta Alta, to the more modern comune of Rochetta al Volturno, commonly called Rochetta nuova, on flat land, several kilometers away.

    It was purely by good fortune, and because I knew my family's direct line through fourteen years of genealogical research, that I saw this house. Other family members had been to Rochetta over the years, but hadn't been able to find the exact house where my grandfather was born. His birth was one hundred eight years ago, and his family had immigrated to America when he was seven. I had decided when we first talked about taking this trip that I wasn't going to look for any documents. I wanted this, my first visit, to be a time when hopefully, I could establish some relationships, and get a feel for the place. So I was taking pictures of the church, of the school, of the municipio, when my husband began easing his way into the municipio. He knew that I would not be able to resist going in. I had wanted to find the cemetery that morning, so I followed his lead and walked into the municipio to ask where the old cemetery was. Two men and a woman were showing us the location of the old cemetery on the map, when another woman walked into the room. She was apparently someone with some authority in the municipio. She asked what were doing there, and I explained in my halting Italian that my grandfather, Fiorangelo Pontarelli, was born in Rochetta, and we were looking for the cemetery to find the graves of his ancestors. She began asking questions, in Italian, about his father, his grandfather, and so on, and I could imagine the LDS microfilm in front of my eyes as I said, "di Vincenzo, di Raffaele, di Teodoro…" She just smiled and said "cugina." The other three people began laughing, and I could see that she was just as excited as I was. She turned out to be my third cousin, Nina Pontarelli. She ran for the record books, and showed me the originals of the records that I had been working with for years. One of the men, who spoke some English, said "She wants to take to you the house where your grandfather was born." She hopped into our rental car, and off we went, back to Rochetta Alta, where she took me to my great, great grandfather Raffaele's house, where my great grandfather, Vincenzo, and his brother Alfonzo, who was her great grandfather, had been born. Both of our grandfathers, Emilio and Fiorangelo, who were first cousins, were born there also. We went to the Volturno River, and we laughingly pointed at the family resemblance in each other's eyes. All fourteen years of my research proved to be well worth it because of this one thrilling meeting in this one special place. She knew the names of her branch of her family. We were able to make the connection because I also knew mine.

    A different sort of encounter, but one just as pleasant, occurred in the comune of Fornelli, when my grandmother, Enrichetta Zarlenga, was born. Fornelli is less than a half hour from Rochetta, but is a very different place. The old and new mingle atop the mountain in Fornelli. The medieval wall which encloses the very oldest part of the city is still in good condition. Fornelli is a place where the alleys wind around the hillside, where freshly washed linen hangs in the morning from balconies, and where people take good care of their beautifully polished wood doors and shutters, and clay potted plants. Many new houses dot the road leading to Fornelli. We saw an elderly lady bringing flowers into the Church, and lighting some candles. She had a bottle of homemade wine to bring to the priest. She remembered hearing stories about my Zarlenga family, none of whom live in the paese today. We spent several very pleasant hours exploring Fornelli, and were driving out of town, when I asked my husband to stop at the grocery store because I wanted to see if they had a local newspaper. I asked for a newspaper in my poor Italian, and the woman behind the counter said, "Are you American?" "Yes, " I replied. "Are you from Rhode Island?" I was more than surprised as I answered affirmatively. "Are you from West Warwick?' she asked. I was astonished! "No," I answered in amazement, "but my family lived there when they first came to America." Well, it turned out that the people of Fornelli were well used to visitors from West Warwick, Rhode Island, because that is where most of the immigrants from Fornelli went. Now there is a sort of reverse immigration happening, with fifteen West Warwick families building houses in Fornelli last year alone. The delightful couple who owned the store, Mario and Anna Santilli, had lived in West Warwick for fifteen years, and had moved back to Fornelli. They took us to their beautiful home for a delicious lunch. Their stories of the whole community pitching in to preserve tomatoes, press olive oil, make wine, celebrate feasts, provoked so much nostalgia. We had a lovely time in Fornelli, and came away with a real appreciation for their way of life.

    The history, art and architecture of Rome and Florence were certainly magnificent. Tuscany and Umbria were beautiful. The Amalfi Coast was spectacular. Every corner of Italy that we saw was rich and varied and fascinating. But nothing, to me, could compare to the thrill of being in my grandparents' villages. They are still small, still poor, still have very little to offer the young people. It is still very difficult to make a living. But they were so strong and simple, just like my grandparents.

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