It is almost time for us to leave the one place where I can feel my grandmother in every corner – and I am depressed. This is not an unusual state – every year as I start to close up the house in Pontelandolfo and make arrangements to be picked up at JFK in New York, I get depressed. Pontelandolfo, village of my grandparents, aunts and uncles resonates to my very soul.
Maria Rosaria Solla and Francesco Guerrera – Happy Owners of 221 South Branch Road
Why do we leave? That question smacks my soul at the Mini Market, Marcelleria, Pasticceria, Farmacia – as I tell folks we are about to depart yet again, everyone asks the same question. Why not just stay here? Because Flagtown – the village where my Pontelandofese family settled, where my dad was il Sindaco, mayor, and where we even have a street named after my family – resonates with me too. The pull in both directions is so very strong that at times I feel my heart being ripped apart. Giusippina Guerrera – my dad’s first cousin – reminded me that 20 years ago I was the first one from America to return and search for those left behind. She constantly tells me that blood attracts blood – like a magnet finding its way to those who are part of who we are. Sitting outside of Kaleb’s bar looking out over the Piazza, thinking about Giusippina, my family and friends in the USA and my trips to Italy over the past 40 years made me really think about the first time I saw Pontelandolfo. Saw it, left it quickly, but felt the incredible pull to return.
Twenty-one, knowing everything there was to know in the world – but being far from worldly, I was blessed to have my Aunt Catherine offer to take my younger cousins Bobby, Maryellen and I to Italy for the first time. Thank God, it was 1971 and I’m glad I was able to score happy pills. We landed in Milano and the first thing I discovered was that no one could understand Aunt Cat’s Italian. Never having heard anyone in my family speak Italian, but knowing that Aunt Cat spent her formative years in Italy, I just figured we’d be OK. I didn’t realize that she spoke the ancient dialect she grew up with in Pontelandolfo. Actually, Northern Italians were rude and said things like “we don’t speak Spanish here.” The official checking passports at the airport said it first. Aunt Cat’s face dropped and she refused to speak again – until we reached Campania. Luckily, I had taken a year of Italian at Montclair State, carried a Berlitz phrase book and could get us to the car rental agency and put gas in the car. Bobby and I drove the car – when we got back we told everyone it was a Ferrari – but I haven’t a clue what it was. That trip was like a rapid fire slide show – 100 towns in 100 minutes. Zip there went the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Zap, I think that was the Amalfi Coast – shit – the curves – how did we get here. Wham – Grosetto and a film crew shooting a spaghetti western.
After the whirl wind but frustrating tour, we got to Pontelandolfo late one morning. The village looked like a movie set – it was pristine. We discovered that the powers that be -I think the Communist party was in power then – rehabbed the city to promote tourism. (Boy, did I hear that line over and over again in the next 30 years.)
On the stone city walls were funeral announcements. A number of them said Guerrera. That was kind of freaky – realizing that people with my last name really did live and die in this place so far away from Flagtown. I wondered if my nonna or nonno knew them – had played with them as children – gone to their weddings.
Aunt Cat started acted skittish the moment we got to Piazza Roma and looked at Pontelandolfo’s iconic tower. I didn’t understand why. (When I was older and wiser I figured it out – she was having flashbacks to being the crippled kid that the local priest kept insisting should be institutionalized. Here is an earlier blog – Nonna Comes to America.)
As we wandered the tiny medieval streets, Aunt Cat told us tales about coming to the village for market day. She tried to point out where they lived on a little hill outside the village center. It had to be a long walk for a little girl with polio. Coming from modern New Jersey, it was hard to imagine her walking to a communal fountain for water or helping her mom wash clothes in the communal laundry trough. Her grandfather, my bis-nonno Liberantonio Solla, played the concertina in the piazza, for weddings, parties – and often drank his fee away. After aimlessly wandering and not really talking to anyone – we sure as hell weren’t invisible but must have had a don’t talk to me wall up – we realized we were starving.
Great roasting over an open fire smells spilled onto the piazza. We followed our noses. There was a beaded doorway and a smiling face beckoning us closer. No one understood the sign but we figured out it was a tiny osteria – local restaurant. The three of us went in and ate what ever the owner was serving that day and listened to more of Aunt Cat’s stories. I don’t remember what we ate but I do remember it triggered a visceral response and my heart got bigger and bigger in my chest.
Leaving the three of them sitting in the sun and digesting lunch, I whipped out the Berlitz, wandered the narrow alleys and tried to introduce myself to older people I met to see if anyone remembered my grandmother or grandfather. One older gent with a gleam in his eye remembered Maria Rosaria Solla! He took me to meet a woman he said was a relative. She promptly wanted us to come back for cena later and meet everyone.
I raced back and told Aunt Cat. She was horrified. “Absolutely not! They know we’re from America and want our money.” Bobby and Maryellen were bored and wanted to go back to civilization. Being 21 and ornery I stomped off. Not knowing where I was going, I ended walking up a cobblestoned hill to get as far away from my chicken shit family as I could. I found myself on the steps of the church where my Grandmother was married, my aunts and uncles were baptized. High on a hill, I looked out over the alley, popped a happy pill and while tears streamed down my eyes, I vowed to come back.
As long as there is a wind in my sail, I will return.