It occurred to me as my children were growing up, that since my parents died at a young age (both 57 years old) and my children never knew them, for the same amount of money as going to Disneyland, we could fly back to the homeland that my grandparents immigrated from. They could learn about their heritage, why their mother behaves the excited way that she does and experience REAL Italians. They could walk the streets of the same village their ancestors came from and try to find our relatives.
Digging up Roots
As soon as we step into the door of our relatives in Delia, Sicily, they throw their arms around us and pepper our faces with kisses. They’ve been talking about our visit for months, and the entire family comes over to meet us – generation after generation streaming in the door. They all line up to make their rounds and we just stand there as each one pecks both our cheeks. Unfortunately we were not warned that you are supposed to kiss from left to right, so many jaws were wacked.
Our interpreter, a woman named Providence, flounders to keep up with introductions. Before long the tiny kitchen is crammed with people, kissing, hugging, and squeezing by.
Everyone is talking in Italian, tracing back the generations to where our blood pools together. The sound is deafening, everyone talking over each other and the volume rising higher and higher like the crescendo of an orchestra with everyone conducting with flamboyant hand gestures.
While this is happening, our hosts are plopping heaping plates of pasta in front of us and sawing off huge hunks of bread and pouring us drinks and grating parmesan cheese onto our noodles. Little kids are under the table playing peekaboo and the kitchen is packed like a tin of sardines and louder than a school cafeteria. I just sit there eating spaghetti, laughing in disbelief. I look over at my mom and finally get why she behaves the way she does.
Each morning, after cute Uncle Guisseppe with his round shiny face and short porky build goes off to harvest olives, Aunt Carmela lays out breakfast. She pours us cups of steaming milk, and Mom and Aunt Joann coffee, and we sit around eating rock hard toast biscuits with marmalade and try to communicate. We play games where we go through the fruit bowl pointing to a banana or a bunch of grapes and say the name in English. Then she grunts it in Italian. Sometimes Aunt Carmela rambles on and on like we understand what she is saying and finally when we can’t hold back our smiles we giggle “No capice! No capice! No capice!” And we all laugh and pat each other. Things we both can understand.
Our first full day here is Aunt Joanne’s birthday. All families live in condos- one stacked on top of the next, and at night they roll up all the doors on the garages and set up a row of tables pieced together for a party. The entire family comes. We take a seat at the chaotic table as everyone reaches for the trays heaped with Sicilian panini, bread rolls, and homemade pizza. There are dishes of fresh olives and dried tomatoes and plates of pumpkin seeds and dried chickpeas.
When everyone is finished gorging, the lights dim and in comes a massive homemade ricotta cake glowing with candles. Everyone has presents for her and mutters over and over apologizing for not making the celebration BIGGER!!! And at this point they barely even know us 24 hours!
The weekend is insane, but couldn’t be better. One day the family takes us out to the country and we help them harvest olives in the Borzellino olive groves. We learn how to rake the hard green fruit from the silvery boughs with plastic comb-like tools and funnel them into bags to go to the press. We see how the oil is pressed from the ground up fruit and the rich, cloudy green fluid is tapped into bottles.
We spend some time walking around the streets of Delia and getting to know the town. In the evenings the main piazza is bustling with men. There’s a nut vendor smoking out the square with his roaster, and old men drag wooden chairs out into the middle of the streets to sit and chat in clusters. We don’t see any women around and when we ask, Providence tells us, “They’re all in the churches praying while the men are outside talking about the women in church.”
Our days are packed with meeting relatives and cousins of my grandmother, whom I’ve never met. The whole point of us finding our relatives is my mom’s desire to share with us, her children, her family we never knew. We hop from house to house, eating pineapple cake after pineapple cake and gathering info about our ancestors.
Something we are learn right off: You can’t visit a house without eating (and every meal is a feast). Usually the first course is a heaping plate of pasta, already more food than I eat at home. This is followed by another entire meal of sausages and potatoes and breaded eggplant and fennel salad.
It’s impossible to finish such immense helpings, and our hostess insists on serving us herself so we can’t skimp on portions. I slide off helpings to Dad on the side when she has her back turned getting another dish out of the oven, though even he can’t keep up. We groan as she carries out trays heaped with fruit and roasted chestnuts and we munch these for awhile until she brings out cake and cookies.
“Mango! Mango! Mango!”she barks. “Eat! Eat! Eat!” we utter back laughing. God forbid you sit back on your chair and stop chewing. “Just keep your hands and mouth busy,” Aunt JoAnn remarks, and I try to take as long as I can to shell a chestnut.
It is amazing to find pieces of my Mom sprinkled about in all the different families. One cute little lady has the exact prominent jaw, another the same shaped nose. One cousin even has the same monstrous thighs peeking out from her hem.
I get goose bumps as we sit around the cozy kitchens tracking back the generations and uttering the names of my ancestors aloud. I can feel their spirits tingling in the air, an electric buzz of excitement as someone remembers a story, a name, Aunt JoAnn poised at the notebook. There is definitely power here as we piece together the family tree. It’s like solving a puzzle, I ruminate, the mystery of our past, and truly of who we are.
But the most touching relative we meet is a little old woman named Graziella. She is a cousin of my grandmothers, a shrunken little old lady with round bugging eyes, pale powdery skin, and who stands on her tiptoes to kiss our cheeks. She lives all alone in an empty house that was once my great-grandfathers.
She beckons us in, and my flesh prickles as I step through the door. I scan the ceiling, the walls. There is a picture of Graziella as a young woman. She looks exactly like the ones I’ve seen of my grandmother.
Before we leave, Graziella is so overtaken with happiness to find relatives when she thought she was alone that she takes mom and Aunt Joann by the arm and leads them over to the faded black and white portraits of her parents hanging on the wall. Voice shaking and eyes watering, she begins praying and thanking her parents in Italian for bringing us to her. My heart has risen so far up in my throat I have to swallow. Everyone is bawling.
By the time we leave, we have a whole new family. It’s amazing that we’ve only been in Delia for 48 hours. I feel like I’ve known everyone my whole life!
It takes a half an hour to reach the car. We make our rounds and kiss everyone twice on both cheeks. But Sicilians tend to get sidetracked, and by the time you remember you were leaving you have to start all over. We joke that we can feel calluses forming on our cheeks!
This experience of going back to find my roots left me feeling like I understood at least a small part of where I came from. Your past is what makes you who you are, all your experiences, your mistakes, the lessons you’ve learned. But digging deeper is to understand what went into making you. Tracing back your roots is like tracing back the thread that connects you to your family, to people, to the world, to the great web of life.
I think it is important for others, especially teenagers to go back and find where they came from. It gives you a sense of understanding and confidence of who you are. Roots. They give you a solid foundation to grow from.
As teenagers make the transition from child to adult, it is often a struggle to understand and become your own person. Often we attempt to sever the bonds with our families and break free, when establishing strong, hearty ties are a necessity. When it comes down to it, shoots can’t grow without their roots. How else can we grow to become our own beautiful and independent tree?
MY TWO CENTS
I brought my children to Sicily so they could learn who their people are. It has nothing to do with the amount of time spent together or how much you have in common but on your capacity to care. And even though it may not be in your nature, like Todd, it can be infectious and come easy when the people you are sharing with possess a huge capacity. I would never have has believed my German husband could even deal with it, yet alone enjoy it and thrive in that environment. Todd always said says he has only three relationships, but he now has a boatload in Sicily and they aren’t even in his bloodline. It doesn’t matter, you’re “in the family.” Sierra & Bryce can decide which parts of them- German reserved or Sicilian demonstrative, they want to nurture in themselves, or both at different times. Another amazing lesson was although we lacked actual shared conversation, affection can be more powerful than the spoken word.
The children spent most of that 48 hours mesmerized listening and absorbing, learning about their grandparents. Knowing who came before, gave them a glimpse into who they are today. What a gift to know this at 15 & 13 years old. This experience could never be found at Disneyland.