Nonna’s mulberry tree…Just like the ones they left behind in a tiny little village called Pontelandolfo, my grandparents small substance farm in Flagtown, New Jersey was full of mulberry trees. They planted these fruit filled trees all around the farm house. They were messy trees, dropping berries on cars, kids and goats. The berries went into pies cakes and, of course, were used for wine. The mulberry tree was a touchstone to the past for them and a touchstone to who I was for me. Nonna’s mulberry tree – the one growing between her house and ours – was the perfect tree to climb. I’d creep higher and higher into its branches surveying the world as I knew it.
Lots of little girls imagine themselves princesses – twirling, whirling and prancing at the ball. Well, I tried to imagine that, but after tripping over a hoe and feeding chickens, somehow I knew that my family wasn’t royalty. Actually, I heralded from a long line of serfs! Hey, quit smirking – a lot of us first generation folks come from families who – well – didn’t have the proverbial ‘pot’.
Salvatore, the patriarch of my family, was a contadino, farmer. Don’t think of the agri-businessman of today or even the great local organic farmer. In the Pontelandolfo church and commune records my family members are all listed as contadino and/or bracciante. They were peasant farmers who “gave their arms work” for another person. Serfs or sharecroppers – these men and women worked the land for a piece of the garden pie – a very small piece.
To help me understand my present, I searched for my past. I discovered family in Italy that no one in New Jersey knew existed. Over a period of twenty years, I have shared many a long and wonderful Pontelandolfesi meal with my new extended Italian family. When the coffee was served, I often steered the conversation to stories about my bisnonno. The elders, his grandchildren – my dad’s first cousins, vaguely remembered him but really remembered the stories about him that their parents told. What was he like? Where did he live? What did he do? These alert and fun filled octogenarians regaled me with tales of the past – all in the dialect of the town. I didn’t have a clue as to what they said. They knew I didn’t have a clue, but kept right on talking. Today, having taken years of Italian, I still only understand about 20% of what anyone says in dialect.
Join me on my journey, through the past, present and hopefully future investigations of my Italian roots. Why? Why not – spying on someone else’s life is always fun. Maybe, my questions are your questions and this blog will give you a gentle push or massive shove into exploring your own roots too. I’ll be a regular chiacchiera chatting about finding my family, visiting places that most tourists don’t see, eating, shopping and unearthing the dormant Italian in me.
Come along on my adventure, la mia avventura, as I explore Italy and the small Italian village that my family comes from. Pontelandolfo, in the Province of Benevento, is the tiny mountain town that mia nonna remembered whenever she sat on her Flagtown, New Jersey front porch and smiled at the mulberry tree.
(To become part of the adventure explore our village through Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo.)