FULL CIRCLE c 2005 Marcia Iannizzi Melnyk
In the fall of 1999 my husband Jim and I traveled to Italy to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Having done extensive research into our Italian ancestry we knew the comunes of our ancestors. We did not know what to expect as there was little information available via the Internet at that time. We were not disappointed. It was a magical trip that fulfilled every expectation and more. We spoke often of a return trip to spend more time in the communes and hopefully locate living relatives.
After our return we continued on with our lives, not knowing when another trip might occur. I belong to several web groups with Italian interests so I posted several photos of my grandfather's comune in Calabria to the Il Circolo Calabrese site [www.circolocalabrese.org] Several years after our trip, I received an email from a young man living in Rome. His name was Giuseppe Ientile and he wanted to know what my interest was in "his beloved Grotteria." We exchanged emails and learned that his great grandfather (Francesco) and my grandfather (Bruno) were brothers! I was amazed at the power of the internet and how small a world it truly was.
Giuseppe and I corresponded by email for a couple of years. I shared stories about Francesco that were told to me by my aunt. Aunt Suzie loved her uncle Frank and had told me many heartwarming stories about him and his gentle, caring ways. Francesco had been living in Boston when my grandfather arrived from Italy and had stayed in the states for several years before returning to Grotteria. At that time my grandfather had 3 children, Jimmy, Suzie, and Teresa as well as a step-son William. When Bruno's first wife, Anna, deserted the family around 1910 it was Francesco who took care of the young children. Suzie had many warm memories of her beloved uncle. He would tell them Calabrian folk tales while they did the dishes at night, and tell them stories about Italy at bedtime. She remembered him as a handsome and compassionate man, unlike his brother, Bruno, who was abusive to both his wife and children.
My grandfather, Bruno, married my grandmother Emilia in 1911 and Francesco returned to Italy soon after, his care of the children no longer needed. Aunt Suzie told me how heartbroken she was when he left. She cried for days and wanted to return to Italy with Francesco.
Over the years letters crossed the Atlantic and Suzie learned that her beloved uncle was very ill. He had developed a large growth on his face, which turned out to be cancer, and was horribly disfigured and in pain. In 1938 word reached the family that Francesco was dead, having committed suicide – an unthinkable sin in Catholic Italy. Suzie was devastated by the knowledge that she would never see her beloved Uncle Frank again. But, life went on. She had her own family to care for.
Francesco had a family in Grotteria that consisted of his wife, Angela Maria Femia, and 6 children, 2 sons and 4 daughters. Only one of the sons, Salvatore, lived to adulthood. Salvatore was Giuseppe Ientile's grandfather and he stilled lived in Grotteria. I compiled a binder of family information, photos of the American relatives, and typed up the stories that Suzie had told me (Suzie passed away in Nov. of 2000 at 99 years and 6 months of age) and sent it to Salvatore and his family. Sal was thrilled to know that his American relatives remembered his father so warmly and was amazed at how much I had learned about the family through my research. We talked of meeting someday, although we did not have any specific plans at that time.
As Jim and I approached our 30th anniversary I jokingly said that we should spend 30 days in Italy to celebrate. Little did I know that the dream would become a reality. As we began to make plans in early 2004 Salvatore became ill and his family was not sure how long he would last. His diabetes and other ailments were taking their toll. I prayed that he'd get better and we'd be able to meet him in the fall. Once he heard of our plans he rallied and we made solid plans to visit with the family in October 2004.
Our trip began with 5 days in Brussels, Belgium at a business meeting my husband had to attend. We then went on to the Bologna area to stay in the commune (San Giovanni in Persiceto) where his grandmother was born. We spent 10 days in the Bologna area, 10 days near Avellino and then went on to Calabria for another 10 days. We stayed at the wonderful Azienda Agrituristica Cannazzi in Mammola, the town that Suzie was born in and right next to Grotteria.
We spent several days walking around Grotteria and Mammola and taking many photos. Our plans were to visit with Salvatore on the weekend when his grand-daughter, Samantha, would be home from the university and could help us with translations. We visited the cemeteries and located the graves of many family members including Salvatore's mother, Angela Maria Femia and my grandfather's sisters.
On one of our daily visits to Grotteria we stopped at the roadside to take a photo of the Welcome to Grotteria sign for our scrapbook. Around us were beautiful panoramic views of the countryside, including the village of Grotteria clinging to the mountainside in the distance. On Friday night we called Salvatore's home and spoke with Samantha and made arrangements to meet Samantha and her mother, Anna Maria, in Mammola on Saturday morning so we could follow them to their home as they said it was difficult to find. After hugs and introductions we were on our way! My excitement was almost too much to contain – my dream of meeting my Italian relatives was coming true!
We followed Samantha and her mother Anna Maria over the mountain roads toward Grotteria. When Anna Maria stopped to tell us we were there we were actually right next to the sign we had taken a picture of the day before. The sign was actually at the end of Salvatore's driveway! We had been that close and not even been aware of it. My anticipation grew as we climbed the steep dirt driveway. The driveway seemed to go on forever and when we finally stopped we were high up the side of the mountain. There, sitting in a chair under the metal awning was Salvatore. Seeing him was like looking at my father and thinking this is what he would have looked like if he had lived to be 88 years old.
I got out of the car and walked over to Salvatore. Samantha had explained that he was nearly blind but could see me if I got close to him. I took his hand and said hello. The tears were rolling down both of our faces as we made a long overdue connection. He held and patted my hand as he said my name several times. Those first moments were magical and seemed to last forever. We hugged and held each other for several minutes and I said a little prayer of thanks that we were actually standing there together.
Further introductions then took place as all of Sal's family had gathered for the occasion. We met both of his daughters, Anna Maria (Giuseppe's mother) and Angela, his wife Rosa, and his grandchildren. It was a beautiful, warm day in southern Italy and we sat under the awning outside of their home for several hours getting to know each other – all the while Sal and I held hands. We heard stories of his life and the many hardships he overcame. Sal had served in WWII and was taken as a prisoner of war in Libya. He was held in a POW camp in England for nearly a year and then returned to Italy. He spent nearly a year in an Italian hospital recovering from his ordeal. Sal then explained that he had tried to contact my grandfather, his cousin Bruno, in the US as he wanted to come to the states. He was unable to determine where his uncle was and decided to go to Argentina where other relatives were already living. He married Maria Rosa Manno in 1955 and began to raise his own family. After about 12 years he returned to Grotteria and had lived there ever since.
When lunchtime came we were escorted into the house for what was described as a "simple lunch." This consisted of salami and pancetta made from Salvatore's pigs, sun-dried tomatoes, cured olives, eggplant, cachi (persimmon), fresh figs, oranges, rustic Calabrian bread made by his daughter, homemade wine, cheese and pastries! All but the cheese and pastry were from Salvatore's land. What a feast! My husband said that after two glasses of wine he could no longer feel the tip of his nose – it must have been 30 proof! It was all delicious and Salvatore was so proud of his homegrown and homemade delicacies. We talked, laughed, and ate for most of the afternoon.
During lunch I had asked if it might be possible to go to the family church later in the day. The church of San Nicola di Franco had been closed for nearly 10 years and was only open at Easter, Christmas and on its patron saint day. I had a few photos that Giuseppe had taken at Christmas time but wanted to see the church for myself and to stand where my ancestors stood. Anna Maria said she would make some calls to see if she could find the person who had the key. Samantha cautioned us not to get our hopes up as it was not likely to happen. I told Samantha that I knew we would get into the church – I had no doubt about it. Anna Marie made many futile calls and finally Samantha said we were going to go to the church and see if we could locate the man with the key as they now knew where he lived near the church. All the while Samantha was telling me not to get my hopes up. Salvatore stayed at the house as the area around the church was too steep for him to negotiate.
After a rather harrowing ride (try following an Italian driver in his home territory) we arrived at the church. It sat high on the mountainside, clinging to the rocks. Only the ancient castle was higher than San Nicola di Franco. The view was spectacular. We walked around the church and Anna Marie shouted up to a woman on a balcony above us. Seconds later a man appeared with the key to the church! Excitement prevailed as we walked up the steep steps to the small churchyard and the man inserted a large key in the door. After the sound of the ancient lock sliding open and the creaking of the door we were faced with a simple but beautiful interior. The sun was shining in the high windows and it was bright and airy, not exactly what I expected for an inactive church. The interior was immaculate - the alter was dressed with a beautiful lace cloth and candles. The floor was tiled with dark and light brown tiles set on the diagonal. Chairs lined either side of the sanctuary and the baptismal font was set to one side. There were beautiful paintings and statues along the sides of the room, and it appeared to have been recently painted a brilliant white. The only altar was of white marble with multi-colored marble inlaid in a pattern and topped by terra cotta colored marble columns.
As I took it all in Samantha walked towards me. She was amazed that we were actually standing here as she had really not thought we would be successful. I told her that I never doubted we would succeed as I was meant to be there. We walked around; taking many photos, knowing this was a special moment. Both Samantha and I had a common history right here in this church. Our ancestors had stood in this very spot, baptizing their children, marrying their spouses and saying goodbye to their loved ones. While we have very different lives, we also had a common bond, and this church was it.
After about 45 minutes we expressed our thanks to the man with the key and watched as he locked the church and walked away. We took some photos around the church and returned to our cars for the hair-raising ride back to Salvatore's house. Sal was still sitting in his chair waiting for us. We were given a tour of his land. We saw Anna Maria and Angela's homes (Sal and Rosa's daughters) as well as his sister's unoccupied home on the property. The oldest home in Grotteria was on his property and was over 1,000 years old. The stone structure stood as a testament to the history of the Calabrian area. His land had many olive trees, grapevines, and an extensive garden. Fruit trees on the property included persimmon, fig, lemon, banana, and mandarin oranges. Flowers were everywhere. Anna Maria cut a perfect rose from one of the bushes and handed it to me. It was just beginning to open and was the most beautiful color of red-orange I had ever seen. I enjoyed that rose over the next few days and then pressed it in one of my books as a souvenir.
Our magical Saturday was winding down and Sal was getting tired. We said our goodbyes, assuring Sal that we would return the next day. Hugs, kisses on the cheeks and words of thanks ended a perfect day. We would return the next day for another "simple lunch" and more stories. It was certainly a lot to absorb all at once but I felt so lucky and thankful that we were here.
On Sunday morning, before going to Sal's, we decided to go back to the Rione Nucara, the area around San Nicola di Franco, where my grandfather grew up. I wanted to get more photos and just walk around. As we walked up and down the narrow streets admiring all of the beautiful flowers, doorways, and vistas many people greeted us. An American need only walk around with a camera to pique an Italian's curiosity and many people came out to say hello. One woman asked why we were there. In my limited Italian I explained that my grandfather was born there and his family attended the church. As we were talking a man approached us – the same man who opened the church the day before. The man was the woman's husband! He asked if we would like to go back into the church again and we obviously said yes. He went to get the key and before we knew it we were again standing in the sanctuary.
I asked the man if he knew where the records were now kept. His reply was to point to the credenza on the far wall and he asked if I would like to see them. He removed several boxes of altar decorations and linens. Under one of the altar cloths was an old book. He lifted it out and placed it on the table. The book contained the church census records from the churches establishment in 1686 through 1771. The book was in perfect condition and the writing was clear and legible. As I carefully turned the pages my ancestors' names appeared before me. I located many of my families in the 1771 census pages. The man allowed us to take photographs of the pages since there was no copier nearby. I spent nearly an hour looking through the pages of the book. I was grateful for the man's kindness and did not want to overstay my welcome. It was, after all, Sunday afternoon and his mid-day meal was probably waiting for him. We expressed our gratitude and left the church to go to Salvatore's. I was already thinking about my next trip to Grotteria and getting back into the records that I did not have time to see.
We spent another glorious afternoon with Sal and his family. We again had a feast for lunch, more wine, more stories, laughs, and hugs. As Salvatore told many stories his language would go from English (learned while a POW), Spanish (from Argentina), Calabrian dialect, and current Italian. Many times Samantha would say "Nonno, non Espanole!" and we would all chuckle. Amazingly we had no trouble understanding each other. It did not matter what language we were comfortable with, the meaning always came through. As the sun began to set I knew that our visit was nearly over. I couldn't imagine a more wonderful place to be. Samantha and her mother brought out the few family photos they had. Using our digital camera my husband took photos of the pictures to add to our albums at home. Especially precious was the photo of Francesco taken in 1897 when he was in the military. It hung proudly on the wall in the dining room of Sal's house. He was indeed a handsome man. Salvatore expressed his thanks and amazement that the American relatives remembered his father so warmly. He stated that he'd always wanted to meet his American relatives but thought it was too difficult and didn't believe it would ever happen. It warmed my heart to know I had granted him this wish.
Sadly, we said our goodbyes, hugs, kisses, and tears were everywhere. I felt as though I had finally come home. I had completed the circle and returned to my ancestral roots. I had such a sense of belonging that is difficult to explain if you have never experienced it. I know I'll go back many times to this place of my roots and my soul.
I received word in early December that my cousin, Salvatore, had passed away peacefully in his sleep. I cried many tears and relived the two glorious days we spent together. Sal's family is learning to live with his absence but I'll always remember him sitting in his chair under the awning, his bright red peppers hanging to dry behind him. His warm smile, firm handshake, and loving embrace will always be with me. Ciao Salvatore and mille grazie!
In loving memory of Salvatore Iannizzi 1916-2004
Marcia (Iannizzi) Melnyk