Go Back Where You Came From

I did!  One of the most incredible experiences I ever had was going back to where I came from.  My entire life I was surrounded by the crazy Italian Family that I came from- or at least half of me!  Holidays consisted of people yelling at each other, all at the same time.  Half in English,  half in a bastardized Italian that was spoken in southern Italy.  I should refer to it as a dialect but if you speak ITALIAN you might agree that the dialects were bastardized.  The area I came from in Italy is Basilicata.  The arch of the boot.  Calabria was to the west (the toe of the boot)and Puglia to the east(the heel).  The minute you drive south of Naples you begin to feel the difference!

Planning the trip was a trip in itself.  My partner called the only hotel in the area but they spoke no English.  So he called an Italian friend of his to call for us.  She arranged a conference call and within moments we realized they were speaking 2 different languages.   A subsequent call with someone on their end who spoke “English” resolved the issue and we were all set to go. 

The trip was phenomenal. As we flew into Rome I became very emotional. We drove from Rome south to the little town of Pietrapertosa, a little mountain town in the Dolomities(Little Dolomites).  The drive was incredible.  Dirt roads through the mountains, pigs blocking the roads, rock slides to drive around and then miraculously the town was right in front of us.  As we drove up the cobblestone street the emotion overwhelmed me.  Here I was on streets that my grandfather played on. 



We pulled into the only hotel  in town and parked.  It was 2 pm in the afternoon and judging by the lack of anyone around it was the traditional siesta time.  But the smell was unmistakable . From the kitchen wafted the smell of my dad’s sauce. I broke down!  The owner came out and introduced herself. When she heard my name it was as if the world erupted. Moments later we were in a car driving through the village to “commune” which we learned meant town hall.  Once there the mayor introduced himself snd obviously knew who I was as he went to a closet and from an old waterlogged shoe box took out my grandfather’s birth certificate from 1881.  From that point on the trip was out of our hands.  We went to every household in the town where my family lived, had grappa everywhere, then to the mausoleums.  In that part of Italy the dead are not buried but placed in mausoleums and I met many of my dead relatives.

To make a long story short, all of the living relatives in the village are teachers, and  our guide whose great great  grandfather was my great grandfather’s brother, had been a teacher but left teaching and like me became an innkeeper- Coincidence????

This does not do justice to the incredible feelings and emotions that I experienced, about the story of my Aunt Eleanor as a young girl, walking with Bartolo Longo who has become a saint since my visit, about having to eat at every relative’s house still there.  This is a case of not really being able to express the depth of emotion and love that overwhelmed me in this little mountain town from which I had originated.  We all came from somewhere else.  Ellis Island has all our names engraved there.  If you EVER get the chance to go back where you came from, GO!

NoWhere To Go

I envy George’s sense of place. But what do you do when there’s no specific place in which to return? Like George, my grandparents came to the United States in the early 1900’s. However, where they came from is not clear. Technically, my grandfather and his brother left a farming village somewhere near Rome and struck out for a new life in America with the idea of sending for their wives and family. Two years later they both returned to Italy and only my grandfather returned with his bride via Ellis Island in 1904. 

On my father’s side, my grandparents emigrated from Walthamstow, UK in 1924. The area in Walthamstow where they lived was devastated by Nazi bombing during WWII and was significantly redeveloped. Unlike George’s story, there are no memories and close family to investigate. I did recently learn that my grandmother was one of twelve children; it appears that this cohort was involved in railway occupations and distributed themselves far and wide. One granduncle left for South Africa, got into some trouble as a result of a railway accident and hightailed it to Argentina, then Uruguay to work in the railroad industry. A cousin now living in Mexico City has filled me in on their exploits.

Now, my grandfather (who served in the RAF) may have come from Edinburgh, Scotland, but since he sort of disappeared shortly after arrival in the US, there’s no way to confirm. My father’s older brother Alfred went with my grandfather when he left – soon after, it seems like Alfred may have stolen a car and was deported to Australia. He later died during WWII serving in the Australian Airforce. I do sense that the English side of my family tree had a strong sense of adventure and were not afraid to strike out boldly. My father used to say “scratch an Englishman and find a pirate”… seems like this could sum up our family tradition. 

Honestly, I don’t have any desire to search out places near London, Rome, or Edinburgh – I sense that these are places my forebears really wanted to leave behind. I did not grow up with fond retellings of life in the old country — I don’t feel a connection. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate and honor the effort it took to transplant a family in an entirely new country. It’s simply that my good non-piratical memories sit in this little corner of the world.

Going Back – Moving Forward

George’s piece likely triggers different memories and emotions for each of us.  His desire to go back to his family roots and the feelings that were evoked for him, brought up another kind of “going back to where you came from” for me.

My father rarely lived at home due to the nature of his business.  One day, when I was in my teenage years, he stopped coming home altogether.  For a short while there was some correspondence and financial support, but then that ceased as well.  Except for one ambiguous letter from him while I was in college, I knew nothing more about the man, his history, his intentions, his beliefs, or his rationale for abandonment.

When I turned forty, I felt the urge and found the courage to seek him out.  All I knew was that he had left the New York area due to legal issues and was absorbed into some other part of the country with no address that was made available to me or my mom and sisters.  I knew someone who knew someone who could, for a price, get me my father’s location.  The source turned out to be sound and one summer’s day, I found myself on a plane bound for Houston, Texas, with an address, a phone number, and a load of questions.

Good fortune was on my side.  After settling into my hotel room, I called the number and told the woman on the other end of the line that I was looking to talk to Joe and that I was an old acquaintance who would like to surprise him without giving him my name.  He was indeed surprised, and after a few awkward minutes where I could hear my heart beat louder than his voice, he agreed to meet me at a diner I had noticed on the way to my hotel and not far from his home.

I remembered my father as an imposing figure.  He was six feet tall, always confident and self-assured, and always in control.  Now, as I watched through the diner window, I saw an old man struggle to get out of his weather beaten sedan and lumber up to the door.  He was in his late seventies, just a few years older than I am now.  His gait was slow, his posture slouched, and he was clearly not in control as he walked in the door and I went up to introduce myself.  Uncharacteristically, he went for a hug but I offered my hand.  We shook and I took him to where I had been sitting.  I asked my questions and received vague responses, deceptions, and mostly evasive language.  In truth, he had no answers for me, nothing of substance that could help me understand how he could leave the four of us without explanation or support.  I felt little to no empathy from him when I told him how the man he had sold our mortgage to, foreclosed on our house and how we lost all of our possessions and had to live in a motel until we could reclaim my grandmother’s 800 square foot cottage from a reluctant tenant.  For whatever reason, I don’t believe he was capable of truly feeling another’s emotional condition and, time, it seemed, hadn’t changed that part of him.  As he spoke of his hardships I recalled he had always told us stories of his heroic efforts to ward off injuries and illnesses, injustices done to him, and fantastic tales of survival.  Most, we later learned, were fabrications and exaggerations.  It’s just who he was.

Since he had shown no interest in contacting my sisters or me over our adult years, I chose to answer none of his questions about my mom, or us other than mom was still alive despite what he claimed he had heard.  In less than an hour I confirmed what I had suspected about this man.  I had given him a chance to prove me wrong, to hear the other side of the story but, for me, there was none.  I shook his hand and wished him well as he ended our meeting with another one of his woe-is-me stories about an upcoming surgery that was critical for his survival.

On the flight home I reflected on my journey.  Meeting my dad as an adult I realized that despite our shared DNA and many similar characteristics, I was not, nor would I become, my father.  

It was also fortuitous that I chose to “go back to where I came from” when I did.  As it turns out, his last story was indeed true and his surgery, six months later, was not successful.

I’m glad I got to see him and was able to address the issues that were on my mind.  And while I would have preferred a different kind of reckoning, it provided the closure I sought.  

Afterthoughts: Today my reflections of that time include more questions than answers. Was I really interested in listening and understanding or did the anger and fever of the moment keep me from hearing? If we had established any kind of relationship, would he have been able to be more honest? Can I ever truly understand the intentions and choices made by another, having had only my experiences and not theirs?

5 thoughts on “Go Back Where You Came From

  1. I have also gone “home” to Ireland. I did not go seeking family, although there are some in the area of Louth. My grandmother, a Rooney, said her people were from there. My grandfather’s side,O’Brien, were or are (/) from the Cork/Clair area. My other roots are in N. Carolina. My mothers family trace back to early 1800’s around Raleigh/Durham. As kids in the 50’s, we would go there for a month in the summers with my motto visit, play farmer, etc.
    I will go back to Ireland some day, but for the culture( whiskey & Guinness) not the clans.
    Tom O’Brien

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    1. Thee is something mystical about walking the streets where your forefathers walked and played. In many places like the little town in Italy, time has almost stood still so you can imagine what it was like 100 years ago. It gets under your skin and haunts you. When I was there I just wanted to learn more!

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      1. I am sure if my family had remained in contact, the draw would be stronger. The ancestors I have researched came before our Civil War and nobody knew much about them. My mother once said, one guy had to leave Ireland because he was wanted as a horse thief. Of course he got a job working in the carriage stables of NY back then.

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      2. My grandmother and I had a very close relationship eventhough she couldnt [speak a word of English and I spoke no Italian but I always wanted to know more about where she grew up and what it was like. Too bad I didnt ask more questions and spend more time with some of my older relatives!

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