Trip Itinerary, 1995: Rome, Positano, Sicily.

In 1995, a recently discovered box of 100-year-old letters belonging to my grandmother initiated a decades-long search into the lives of my Sicilian ancestors.  “All My Uncle Tonys” is a chapter from my book in progress.

Without Google, without Ancestry.com, without any of the research tools that would be available 25 years later, I embarked on my first ancestral hunt armed with one age-creased letter. Addressed to my great-grandfather in Pennsylvania from his sister in Sicily, it was dated 1924 and postmarked from Corriolo, Milazzo, Provincia of Messina. I had no way of knowing if anyone from my family lived there anymore.  Maybe they too had moved on at some point or maybe the sister of the letter had died an old maid and that was the end of the line in Sicily.  Maybe there would be no one to greet us at the end of our 8-hour drive from Positano to the port of San Giovanni and across the Strait of Messina.  I made reservations for my then-husband, two daughters, and myself at a hotel in Taormina, the exquisite coastal town founded by the ancient Greeks and loved by Emperor Tiberius and Goethe. Taormina, a mere one-hour drive to our destination, would be our home base on this expedition.

We drove our rental car down the Amalfi Coast through Calabria and onto the ferry that makes the crossing over to the port city of Messina over 50 times a day,  a 20-minute crossing from the toe of the boot. The joke goes that Italy keeps trying to kick Sicily as far away from the mainland as possible. Some  Sicilians might think “Just keep on kicking, what have you ever done for us?”

After securing our seats on the ferry, it wasn’t long before my heart began to see beyond what was in front of my eyes.  Maybe it wasn’t what my grandparents or any of the early 20th-century immigrants felt while coming into New York harbor during the Great Migration. No grand statue stood as a welcome beacon of new life. But there was something.  As the outline of Messina came closer into view, it was as though Sicily began slowly slipping under my skin. Italy and especially Rome had already pulled me in, but this was different—this was deeply internal, as though that wine-dark sea below was connecting me to some ancient ancestral thread. Something had been here all the time waiting for me to arrive. A few tears, yes, the kind that sneaks out of your eyes unexpectedly. I shook it off with the announcement to get back into our cars and prepare to disembark.

We drove our rental car off the ferry and onto the birthplace of my mother’s family and followed directions to the San Domenico Palace, a hotel that in years past had done business as a Dominican monastery, hosted D H Lawrence and Oscar Wilde, and still in 1994 was complete with exquisitely carved wooden confessionals in the main lobby. (In 2022, the San Domenico would be all gussied up for the TV series “The White Lotus.”)

It was late afternoon when we pulled up to the hotel, but before we even had our bags brought up to our rooms, I hightailed it over to the concierge with my letter. He looked it over and with a cursory wave of his hand, told us to settle in and come back after lunch.

I was expecting to be handed directions to the hall of records. I like digging through old archives, so that would have been okay.  Instead, when we returned a few hours later, he pulled out a black rotary telephone from behind his desk and dialed a number, his face stretched into a big self-satisfied grin. He spoke to someone in Italian, translated it all back to me, and the next morning we were on our way to the return address on the envelope. Whoever wrote that letter all those years ago hadn’t moved far away after all. 

 We were always a little bit lost no matter where we went in Italy, and so as we drove into Corriolo, a little village hanging out between the mountains and the sea,  we stopped at a restaurant to ask directions. It seemed we were expected because before I could fully open the car door, a woman came out from the restaurant and pointed down a narrow side street, gesturing for us to leave our car right where it was, it was okay, it was safe.  I think she was happy to be part of this extraordinary event taking place in her neighborhood.

 We did as told. Our very American-looking family walked down a small road, lined on both sides by rows of houses, and then, as though someone suddenly yelled “Action,” all the doors opened at once and people began pouring into the street, one after the other.  They seemed to be guiding us to one particular home, where a man of about 35, who looked an awful lot like my mother’s Uncle Tony, came toward us with open arms, followed by another who looked like my mother’s uncle Joseph, two women—one younger with two little boys—and then an older man, obviously the patriarch who looked, not a little, but exactly like my great-grandfather Filippo, the recipient of the 1924 letter. We hugged and introduced ourselves in a mix of languages, our group slowly being encircled by the curious neighbors. It was hard to sort out friend from family, and then I realized that the gene pool was so small here that the whole town looked like my mother’s Uncle Tony.

Domenico Mariano, the great-grandfather look-alike was my grandmother’s first cousin and the son of the good daughter who didn’t get to go to America back in 1910. Blocking out the neighbors, the Marianos practically shoved the four of us into their house. I think they wanted us all to themselves and in the privacy of their kitchen which is where we ended up.

And so, my then-husband, my daughters ages 17 and 12, and I joined Domenico/Filippo and his wife Rosaria;  their unmarried son Carmelo/Tony;  their older son Matteo/Joseph, wife Angela, and their two little Tonys around a large wooden table all done up with what I’m sure was their Sunday best dinnerware, overlapping platters of food one after the other down the center. Angela and Rosaria must have stayed up all night preparing this banquet, which could easily have fed all those curious neighbors who had been left out in the street.

Unfortunately, language skills don’t come packaged inside your DNA along with eye color and stubborn streaks. Since 1990, I had been trying to learn Italian through a mix of conversational classes, audio tapes, plus the occasional tutoring session for grammar. I was far from being fluent. Only Carmelo/Tony spoke a rudimentary English which matched fairly well with my rudimentary Italian. The others spoke standard Italian, including the two little Tonys. Domenico, however,  had only an old Sicilian dialect to converse with—the language of the letters, which didn’t stop him from speaking to us at a rapid pace and always looking toward me for a response. I could only answer by smiling and saying “si” or “si, si” which got us all the way through dinner to dessert when he stood up at the head of the table and, with a flourish,  began cutting up ripe golden peaches to plop into our glasses of red wine at the end of the meal. We all then stood in front of our chairs—even the children—clicked wine glasses, and performed a chorus of “salutes” around the table. A baptism by wine. Domenico Mariano, who didn’t realize I couldn’t understand a word he said, had created a moment that none of us would ever forget. We were a family united from across the sea and generations.

Cousin Carmelo (Tony) with me and my daughters

We left after the three or so hours of feasting at our first authentic Sicilian home-cooked dinner (no chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs on this menu) and started back to our hotel before dark.

We came back the next day and let the Marianos parade us into the homes of cousins, mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles. We never quite understood who was related to whom or how, but they all accepted and fed us as family. The limitations of language didn’t seem to matter at all. “Si, si” seemed quite enough to them.

At the end of that second day, we said our goodbyes with hugs and double kisses, promising to return, and then drove back to Taormina. My maternal grandmother’s family who had stayed behind had done all right for themselves, having gone from shepherds to cheese-makers in two generations.     

Our Sicilian sojourn had come to an end. Driving the car back to the porto traghetto in Messina, I knew that something had taken root in me here in this ancient land, this Sicilia, island of myth and mystery. I would be back one day, fluent in the language and driven by the still unanswered questions in that box of letters on my desk. Domenico and Rosaria would have passed on by then and the little Tonys would be all grown up. I would be different too. But for today, a connection was made between those who left and those who stayed behind.

Santa Lucia del Mela, birthplace of my great-grandmother Maria Carbone who was an abandoned child of the wheel

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