Finding My Grandfather

One of my hopes for our trip to Italy was to connect with my grandfather’s relatives still living in Volturara Irpina, a small village about 40k outside of Avellino,  south of Naples.  My grandfather died over 40 years ago, but his memory still shines bright.  He was a man with an easy smile, who loved cooking, family, his dogs, and his gardens.  His wonderful family suppers filled a long mahagony table from end-to–end with dishes of homemade ravioli, baskets of crusty bread, and casseroles of meatballs, sausage, and bracciole.  I knew with a child’s intuition and certainty that he loved me.  He would draw me into his lap, his arms wrapped around me, and together we’d watch a  baseball game on TV. Quite simply, I adored him.  Now, all these years after his death, I wanted to know more about him, walk the streets where he rode a donkey and rang the church bells.  Instead of stories of the old country, my grandparents said nothing.  Instead, they shrugged as if to say, “Why bother talking about it?”  They were absorbed with the present and trying to make a living. But I needed to know about the past so I could better understand them and connect to the world they had left behind.  In my grandparents’ rush to become Americanized, they had mistakenly tried to negate all that history.  It was unfortunate.  By robbing us of the past, we could never learn from it.   All that hard-earned wisdom,  knowledge was evaporating unless we could reclaim it.

Before we left, I had connected with the village historian in Volturara on Facebook.  Dr. Edmondo Marra told me I had some relatives in town and he promised to introduce me to them.  “Come late Sunday morning,” he wrote.  “I live in the piazza.  Ask anyone where my house is and they will tell you.”  Anyone?  I was skeptical.  But as we prepared for our trip, I printed out directions from Google Maps and identified the main square, Piazza Roma, in the center of town.

The Sunday after we arrived in Rome, we ate an early breakfast and drove south on the autostrada.  I still didn’t know what to expect.   Maybe I would never find Dr. Marra.  Maybe we would just drive through the village,  and simply walk through the streets where my grandfather once walked.   Maybe Dr. Marra would give us a lukewarm response.  Maybe no one in town would want to meet us, the Americans.

After passing Avellino, we exited the autostrada and climbed deeper into the mountains.  The road cut deeply through steep ravines and passed lush hillsides, reminding me of the terrain in the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia.  Smoke rose from stone farmhouses scattered here and there along the road.   As we drove into Volturara, plain two-story cement buildings with tall windows and narrow balconies flanked the road.  Men with tweed caps and jackets filled the streets chatting and smoking.  We approached two men, asking directions to Dr. Marra’s house.  “Ah, Dottore Marra,” they exclaimed, their faces lighting up.  They directed us up the street, telling us to stop at the next square, where, under a tree, we would find Dr. Marra.  “The tree?” I repeated, thinking I had misunderstood their Italian.  They walked us there.  Sure, enough, in the square in front of the church, there was a tree.  Underneath it, a man with a weathered face was smoking and chatting with a group of men.   He greeted us with a big smile and shook our hands.  Edmondo Marra is one of the 3 doctors in town, the former mayor, the town historian, and a cousin on my paternal grandmother’s side. He introduced us to Artillio, whose wife Rosa was another cousin.  Soon, Rosa emerged from the church with the other women in town, which explained why we had only seen men up until that point.

We met Dr. Marra’s wife Elena, who taught German in high school in Avellino, his daughter, Marie Stella, a high school student, who already spoke English with confidence and shared her mother’s love of languages.  We also met two other cousins, who had lived in France and came back to Volturara years later to raise their children.  The women shook our hands, kissed us, and chatted eagerly about our mutual relatives.  Many of them wanted to feed us and invited us back to their homes for coffee and cake.  Elena took us to the church where my grandfather was baptized and drove with us to the highest peak in town, where a white stone church crumbled and cows grazed freely.  She pointed to the town far below, its orange-tiled roofs dotting the terrain.  We heard music.   We asked where it was coming from.  “The cows,” she replied, smiling.  They roamed free, their bells tinkling.  Communal cows?  And how did they milk them?  “They all come to the same stream in the evening to drink,” Elena explained.  The people simply took their empty buckets to the stream and milked whatever cow they wanted.   We pondered over this concept, so foreign to us from the States, where farmers build fences to pen in their livestock and branded their herds.

She told us more–about the perils of this land, besieged by earthquakes and volcanic ash from Vesuvio.  And its people, who were fiercely loyal to the earth, and farmed it with stubbornness and tenacity.  They were a close-knit community, keeping a watchful eye on not only their own children, but their neighbor’s, scolding and praising them when needed.  But with sadness, she told us that her son, and other children, had to leave when they were older.  Her son was studying for a degree in Rome and would find a living in a large city or maybe even a neighboring country.  “It’s difficult for us,” she admitted, her eyes filling with tears.  “But we accept it.”  Then she added with a smile,  “But they return in the summers and on vacation because they are happy here.”

We returned to the piazza and visited relatives who set before us cups of coffee and plates of cheese, fruit, and cookies in their homes.  “Come back in July,” they insisted.  The biggest event in town was the festa of San Antonio at the end of July.  “You walk down the street and everyone is talking English,” Artillio told us.  He had worked for years in New Jersey and came back to Volturara with his wife Rosa to retire.  Like many Volturese he had ties to America and other lands.  Far from a closed community high in the mountains, the Volturese welcomed their own, no matter how far away they had moved, no matter how long they had been apart.  Deeply moved, we kissed them goodbye, promising to return.  And we will return, I am sure of it.  These people, these relatives, are not easily forgotten.  Their warmth and kindness will stay with me, always, a part of my grandfather’s heritage and gift to me, to my family.

If you’d like to learn more about Volturara, here’s a link to the village website: www.volturaraonline.it.

Have you explored your family history?  What have you learned?  Did you feel it was important to understand the past?  What did you learn from it?

Photo Credits: Patti Moed

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