Nonna Comes to America

Passport 1
Mia nonna coraggiosa e zii.
One woman alone
with three kids in steerage.

Before we can talk about my nonna’s trip to America, I thought we’d take a peak at where she came from. There isn’t much left of il casolare in pietra – the stone cottage my nonna, Mariarosaria Solla left behind. I was going to say hut – stone hut – but it was a tad bigger than that. Imagine a stone one-car garage built when all cars where VW Beetles.  When Rosaria (I never heard the Maria part of her name) left for America, she had been living in a one-room house of stone that dated back to the Middle Ages. Obviously, houses constructed of huge rocks were built to last. This one did until an earthquake took out most of the town.

Following sprightly nonagenarian Filamena as she scampered over rocks, past thistles and up the hill, my stomach gave a twitter. It might have been because I haven’t been able to scamper like a goat since I was ten and here was Filamena sporting the traditional kerchief, dark stockings, long dress and nun’s shoes laughing as she guided us to my nonna’s house. Or it could have been because with every step I took I felt more and more rooted in this community.

We found the house at the top of a hill in the section of Pontelandolfo called Brecciale.  From the remains of the cottage, one can see the village center, tower and church steeple. The view is spectacular! The thought of walking down the hill through the valley and up the hill to the central piazza carrying goods to barter or sell brought tears to my muscles. It was my nonna’s parent’s home – Liberantonio Solla and Mariantonia Rinaldi.  Story has it that my bisnonno, Liberantonio, was a musician! The vein of artists in my family obviously can be traced back to our beginnings. Accepting wages of wine, Liberantonio would play his concertina in the piazza. He’d make it down hill number one, across the small valley and be crawling by the time he was mid-way up hill number two. That’s when my bisnonno would bellow for bisnonna, Mariantonia, to drag him up the hill home. She’d ignore him. Good for her. I come from great stock!

Nonna did what the children of every other poor family did than and still do today, lived with her parents. As I explore the village that sprouted my family and meet cousins I didn’t know I had, I’m meeting families that still have two or three generations living under one roof.

Up a piece from nonna’s house was a patch of rock that the local farmers used to grind wheat. The marks from a heavy stone wheel are permanently imbedded in the rock. An oxen or mule was harnessed to a contraption that smacked on the grain. You can also still see the circular track of decades of animals walking round and round and round and round.

Living on the top of a hill, means to fetch water from the river or the nearest fountain Nonna Rosaria walked down steep paths.  Easy for Jack and Jill to go down the hill – but with buckets full – it is up hill to home.  Even though life was tough, nonna and her children loved living there. I understand now why my nonna’s farmhouse and land in New Jersey looked the way it did. She and my nonno, Francisco Guerrera, tried to remake their little piece of New Jersey into a little piece of Pontelandolfo.

Take a peek at the video of her house today – Nonna’s House

To find out more about my grandmother’s trek across the ocean to America, we took my Zia Caterina to see Ellis Island. She had made that journey with her mother and two brothers.  When we walked into the great hall of the immigrant’s reception center her face turned grim and she started shaking.  Like a soldier suffering Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, residual fear racked her body. It was the same fear she felt when the line watchers at Ellis Island ripped her away from her mother and put her in quarantine.  We passed a door and she shouted, “that’s the room – the room they put the sick ones in.”  “They left us there and no one could speak our kind of Italian and tell me anything.”  “I was scared but looked them in the eye and said sto bene – I’m well.”

Caterina’s Story:

When I was two in Italy I got polio – they didn’t know what to do then – not many got polio.  My mother, put hot rags on me and massaged and massaged my leg and arm.  She said I just cried all the time.  I walked when I was 9 months old – I talked at 12 months.  Then at 2, it was over.  The priest wanted to send me away – he said cripples couldn’t stay. My mother wouldn’t let them take me.  She kept rubbing my legs and rubbing my arms.  She never wanted to come to America. My father came first and worked in the Patterson silk mills.  Mamma was afraid that if we stayed in Pontelandolfo they would take me and put me away with the crazy people.  The priest kept coming to look at me – he’d shake his head. When papa saved enough to rent a place to for us to live in, he sent for us.  The Pontelandolfesi women told my mother to only pack her nicest clothes for America – in America everyone was rich. What nice clothes?  They were contadini – kind of like sharecroppers. (Serfs – I told you I come from good stock.)

Mamma was a fool and listened. She left her good wool skirt, heavy wool shirt and shawls. Beh, those stupid women kept saying only peasants dressed in those.  I think the other women wanted her warm clothes. On the ship it was so cold mamma couldn’t stop shaking.  She didn’t have anything heavy to wear.


She promptly made a warm cape in NJ!

Mamma was shivering and had a fever. She just stayed in the bed – we were all way down in the bottom of the ship – hundreds of us.  My brother Nick, Sal and me – mamma was so sick – we were kids. We didn’t know what to do. They didn’t give us good food only bread. We had a piece of cheese in our bag.  An old man felt sorry for mamma and took care of her.  He got coats from the other men and piled them on her. Somehow she lived.

When we got to Ellis Island because I had polio mamma was scared that they wouldn’t let me in America.  She made me stand between her and Nick in the long line – close so you couldn’t see my little arm and shriveled leg.  Men in white coats walked up and down the line and looked at us – even made some people open their mouths.  A man stopped and took me.  I could hear my mother screaming. They took me away to quarantine and she didn’t understand what was going on.  None of us did. They kept me at Ellis Island for a couple of weeks.  She and papa came every day to ask for me. They told her nothing.   Finally they let me out – I thought I would never get out.  My mother cried that day until there were no more tears inside her.

My nonna, Mariarosaria Solla, overcame her fear and was the rock that my family was built on.  She learned English immediately – I was never spoken to in Italian by anyone – we were Americans.  Also, I was born just as WWII was ending and even though young men like my dad served in the military – Italians had been persecuted in America – many put in interment camps and others sent back.

This woman of the country was now living in an industrialized part of New Jersey.  The long shifts that my grandfather worked at the silk mills meant that she had to learn to be self-sufficient in a new place.  Eventually, my grandfather and Great-uncle John bought a farm together in Neshanic, New Jersey.  Later nonno and nonna bought their own fifteen acres in Flagtown – where I was raised with the sheep, chickens and goats.  Nonna was an incredible farmer – my family continued to be subsistence farmers – just like they had been in Italy.   Nonna and Zia Caterina could grow just about anything.  Those skills came from Pontelandolfo. Yes, nonna did snap a chicken’s neck so we could have a roast and butchered goats, sheep etc.  I only learned how to kill and clean fowl – not sure if I could even do a rabbit.  But hey, life brings new adventures for all of us.  I just hope that I have inherited a piece of her courage for my journey.


15 acres to farm – and just like what I see today in Pontelandolfo – the women are in the fields. Nonno worked for the railroad.

Antimo – Keeper of the Keys to a Family’s History

 Chased by the emotions welling from a simple e-mail subject line – Invio Ricerca Famiglie Rinaldi e Solla (Search for Families Rinaldi & Solla), – tears race down my cheeks.   An incredible gift was soaring over the mystical internet highway.  I took a breath, double clicked and read –

Come eravamo rimasti, finalmente posso inviarti la ricerca delle due Famiglie Rinaldi Mariantonia e Solla, spero che il tutto sia soddisfacente.  (As we left it, finally I’m sending you the documents about the Rinaldi and Solla Familes – I hope this is satisfactory.)

Una caro saluto

Antimo Albini

How could it not be satisfactory?  It was so much more than satisfactory!  Attached were two incredible documents – documents tracing my grandmother’s family back to the 1500’s!

Family tree1
Little boxes of wonder! Pages of them waiting to be entered in my Family Tree software. Anyone want to help?

Immediately I sent  PDF’s flying through space to my family.  With a little more digging,  my newly found ancestors will share incredible stories.   But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning –

One beautiful morning Annarita Mancini and I walked up Via Municipo and stopped in front of a small attached stone row house.  This part of the Pontelandolfo dates back to the 1600’s.  Annarita rang the bell.


The shutter of the second floor window burst open and our guide into the past thrust out his sleepy head. “Beh?” Oops, were we too early?   Annarita explained that we had an appointment to see the church archives.  While he was mulling that over, the beaded curtain in front of the door parted and a middle aged woman peeked out.  Shouts from above moved her.  She ushered us into the front room.  More shouts from above and she ushered us up the stairs.  Annarita and I looked at each other.  Weren’t we supposed to go to the church?  Wasn’t he the dude with the archive room key?  Why are we going up to – well who knows what?  What had my quest for the family’s history gotten us into?  That quest had led us to the true keeper of the keys to knowledge – Antimo Albini!  After a cursory greeting,  Antimo promptly sat down at the computer, lit a cigarette and led me on a four hour journey into my grandmother’s past.

His head of thick grey hair bobbed and weaved as he pulled up database after database.  This passionate historian had decided that the history of Pontelandolfo would be lost if someone didn’t do something.  He decided to be that someone.

2012-06-29 05.05.29

Antimo spent four years of his life meticulously going through all of the church records and putting the information in a Microsoft Access database.  This was an incredible undertaking.  As he digs into my past, the gleam in his eyes  reveals a man filled with passion for both history and the story of Pontelandolfo.   He entered data from books going back to 1607 – separate books for each year of the census.  There were also combined year range books of births, deaths, and baptisms.  That is a heck of a lot of books.  Whoops – he had matrimonial books back to 1505!   He said, ” as the books disappear, their stories will be gone unless people like us who care about our pasts start passing the stories on.”   So get on the stick and start recording your stories!

Imagine reading thousands of pages like this one.

As he created the databases he noted the book name, page number and entry number.  That way if anyone really wanted to see the fragile old books they could just go to the relevant pages.  He also created separate data bases labeled by book.  Damn, he is good.  The organization will help future historians track data.

We learned that until 1903 the priest of each parish was responsible for doing a census.   The census held the tales of the village.  The priests would visit each house in the parish – why am I wondering if they also got donations for the church at the same time – and ask questions.  They noted the names and ages of people living in the house, if the house was owned or rented, what kind of jobs folks had, nicknames and what ever else caught their fancy.  Those notes are now safely ensconced in Antimo’s database.  In 1903 the state took over the job and started to do a census every ten years.  These sure has hell don’t include the interesting notes the priests wrote down.

Book in comune
Birth and death registration book from the 1800’s.

Before 1700 there were four parishes serving this mountain town of peasants and landholders – San Felice, San Angelo, San Piedro and San Salvatore.  So priests from all of those parishes kept records of births, baptisms, deaths, weddings.  These are great old journals with meticulous handwriting on paper so old that it crumbles when touched.  We know that because the Comune has it’s own set of unprotected books that are manhandled, falling apart and not digitized!  Che fa!  Thank God Antimo created a database of the much more complete church records.

In 1688, there was a huge terremoto – earthquake – after which the parishes were forced to merge.  Well. not  exactly forced, but San Felice and San Pietro parishes spent a lot of time fighting over who got to be the cemetery.  In those days that meant holding the bones of the departed in the catacombs of the church – you know that space just below the seats for the congregation.  In the throws of the fight neither church got rebuilt.   That narrowed the playing field and  in 1700 there was only the mother church of San Salvatore.  The church where my grandmother was baptized and twice married.  It still stands and we go to mass there often – not because I’m a good catholic but because I can feel her presence there.

Paolo Collection 2 (38)
San Salvatore
Paolo Collection 2 (47)
The art in San Salvador is awesome.
Paolo Collection 2 (48)
These are shots from the 50’s. Later we will have a blog on the parish and you’ll see glorious color.

As I sit in the piazza writing this, my heart fills and tears start to glide down my cheeks.  What is that about?  How could a middle aged, hard assed woman like me get so sentimental about finding my family?  I haven’t a clue but the universe sent me here and as my dad’s first cousin,  Giusippina, says often – sangue è sangue – blood is blood and I am the first of the family to return looking for those that stayed.

Finding one’s family is a backwards process.  Start with the birth and death certificates of today and work backwards.  Since I had already done a lot of research to gather the documents to become an Italian Citizen, I went to see Antimo with the materials he needed to leap even further back in time. (Read the blog about citizenship for more background.)

Antimo started by finding my grandmother’s birth records.  We had the day, time and name of her parents, Liberantonio Solla and Maria Antonia Rinaldi. (I am dying to know if we are related to the Rinaldi Olio di Oliva folks.)

Rosaria Solla Brith
Every village in Italy will provide you with your family’s documents. There was a very nominal fee for grandma’s birth certificate.

Then he painstakingly worked backwards, creating a new excel data base for me that included everything he could find.  The little details he unearthed painted a picture of the times and the people.  nicknames were used everywhere.  My great-great grandma Solla had the same name as mia nonna – Maria Rosaria.  It was also the same name as her mother.  Her birth certificate was noted as Maria Rosaria D’Addona.

Antimo said that baptisms were very close in date to birth records.  Many children died soon after birth.  Since everyone wanted the babies to go to heaven, people made sure they got those kids to church and baptized immediately.  Often if a child died, the same name was given to the next child of the same sex.  Boy, does that add another database layer of confusion.

Later we paniced – we couldn’t find  my grandma’s grand-mom, Maria Rosaria D’Addona, in any database.  Oh where oh where could my grande bisnonna be!  We only found the unborn (no birth record) Cesare D”Addona in all the family census databases.  Like she fell from the sky.  The brilliant Antimo scanned even more documents and realized that Cesare was Maria Rosaria’s  nonna’s name.  Since there were two Maria Rosarias in the family they  decided to call  my great great grandma – Cesare.  In 1839, Cesare was only 16 years old when she married the widower Felice Solla from Morcone.  I am guessing he didn’t have much cash because they moved in with her mother on Via San Felice (now Via Municipo –  the same street where Antimo currently lives.) That means I have walked past my great – great grandparents first marital home a million times!

I never would have figured that out.  We were blessed to have Antimo,  a focused detective, helping us by constantly  cross checking information from birth, death, marriage and census records.  OK, we found the lineage of my great grandma.  Now let’s talk about great grandpop.

My great grandfather was Liberantonio Solla – family tales are full of his musical ability.  Zia Caterina also remembered his ability to drink the night away and fall down the mountain on the way home to Via Porta Nuova.  On my second visit to Pontelandolfo,  we found my great granddad’s house . The rocks of this small medieval stone cottage – now in  ruins  –  held secrets that we will never know.  Or will we?

rock side wall
Only a few stone walls are left of the house that my young grandmother, grandfather and aunt and uncles shared with grandma’s parents.

What we didn’t know was that Liberantonio wasn’t called Liberantoino by anyone but his mama.  Pitocchio (flea in dialect) was his nickname.  As he played the concertina, villagers shouted Pitocchio .  I’m not quite sure of the name my bisnonna, Maria Antonia Rinaldi,  shouted when he came home dead drunk, having spent all he made singing at the bar.

Oh, I just remembered,  great grandma Maria Antonia Rinaldi  was born in a rented house.  Liberantonio Solla was born on Via San Felice – in the home of his grandma!  How the hell did we discover all this in less than ten hours?  My great grandfather was a “bracciante” – an ancient term for working the land for someone else and getting a piece of what you grew for yourself – yeah serf.  I come from a long line of indentured servants.  Weeoo.  My great-great uncle Nicola Solla (Liberantonio’s bro) worked for the commune.  We discovered that for generations a Nicola Solla worked for the commune.  I can’t wait to find out if one works for the town today.

So much to discover.  So many stories to hear, feel and relive.  So little time to do it all.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you  Antimo Albini for keeping the keys to family history at our fingertips.