Finding My Great Grandfather

This morning when I got up there was a line of cars outside our house.

That is the line that starts the post I thought I was going to write.  You’ll get that one tomorrow or dopo domani.  It is about a funeral and the funeral/burial traditions of Pontelandolfo.  I can’t finish it today.  Because today in the basement of the Pontelandolfo Cemetary “Cappella” – Chapel, where the bones of the poor are stacked in wooden or tin boxes, I found my great grandfather.  Don’t ask me how I know it was him or how I found him.  When I saw the wooden box with the handwritten “Salvatore Guerrera” I just knew.  It doesn’t have a date – he died in the 1920’s – but I knew.

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There are hundreds of stacked boxes. I may be wrong, but when I saw this box – I knew.

My great friend, Nicola Ciarlo, had taken me to the cemetery to explain the rules, regulations and traditions of a Pontelandolfo funeral.  It is as unlike a New Jersey funeral as you can imagine.  The mountain is made of soil that is rocky and hard.  The cemetery has been used for generations and hasn’t grown in size.  People die – how could the cemetery not expand? Simple, after a number of years, the coffin’s are dug up, bones prepared and then placed in a little box that is placed in a nice marble drawer.  That’s if you can afford the nice marble drawer to share with your loved ones. But you’ll read that tomorrow.  Today I need to think about my bisnonno.

Nicola took me to the church basement to show me where the bones of the lost ones were housed.  The place is called “il ossario” – that is fitting because “ossa” means bone.  The lost ones either didn’t have family to reclaim their bones or they were too poor to be placed somewhere else.  In the 1920s in Pontelandolfo everyone was poor – my family was no exception.  They were contadini – farmers who worked the land for a rich dude. Back then, after World War I and the ravaging of the mountain by the troops, the poverty caused a mass exodus to the Americas. Noone had the money to come back for funerals or even knew that loved ones had died.  So, in the ossario there are stacks and stacks of wooden boxes.  Some were dated from the early 1900’s.  Most didn’t have any dates, just a name scrawled across one side.  Little white boxes held the bones of poor children.

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The bones of children are nestled in white wooden cradles for perpetuity.

As I covered my nose from the damp, moldy smell and looked around, I realized that the boxes had been piled in alphabetical order.  I kept walking and found a shelf containing the remains of Guerreras.  Since Guerrera is as common here as Smith, I didn’t think anything of the shelf.  Then, as though an arrow shot through my core, my entire being was pulled toward the box that said “Salvatore Guerrera.”  It has been 5 hours and I am still crying – though now I am crying in my scotch.  At first, I thought the overwhelming sadness was because the root of my family tree was tossed in a box and stacked on a shelf.  Or I was crying because of how very poor my family had been.  Then I realized that I was crying and felt an overpowering sense of loss for all the elders in my family that I didn’t know, haven’t found and haven’t taken the time to discover.  I cried from the depth of my soul.  The tears refused to stop.  Suddenly, I realized that I was mourning.  Mourning for my father, my Aunt Cat, my mommy, my Uncle Sally, grandma, Uncle Tony, Uncle Nick, cousin Roseann, Aunt Julie – mourning for all of the people I have loved, who had loved me unequivocally and died.  All of the sadness I had bottled up had been released by my great grandfather, Salvatore.  My sadness sits inside me and maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe in order for the sadness to escape I need to start whacking away at the memoir about finding my family.

Enough about me.  Let’s talk about Salvatore Guerrera. He was born on April 5, 1848 to Giovanni Guerrera and Maria Guerrera – since women here don’t change their names when they marry seeing the Guerrera married to a Guerrera was a wee bit disconcerting.  But hey, it was a small village and Guerrera is like Jones.  The Guerrera infusion in my body is even stronger – Salvatore married Caterina Guerrera.  Writing this makes me realize that my blood must also flow in over 50% of the people that I meet.  That connection is visceral for all of us and explains why I feel so accepted here. My great grandparents had five children that lived – Francesco – my nonno,  Maria Vittoria, Anna, Nicola, and Giovanni.

Book in comune

What I discovered years ago peering through the dusty books in the town hall was that Salvatore had a whole second family! He also married Giuseppa Iannicelli and had four more kids- Caterina Maria ( who died as a baby), Caterina, Michele Nicola and Antonio.  It is interesting that Salvatore’s first wife’s name was Caterina and he named his daughters with his second wife Caterina!  I wish I could flash back in time and hear that story.

Salvatore was a small man who was larger than life – a fighter, lover, leader.  I have only met him through the tales that others have shared. It isn’t the same as seeing his face and hearing his voice but it still links me to him.  Here are stories my Zia Caterina, Daddy John, and Carmine Manna told me.

Salvatore Guerrera was Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor.  In those days everyone was a poor sharecroppers – like a slave – worked the fields for the rich.  They had very little food or money.  Salvatore took and gave.  No one starved.

During World War I, Salvatore was out hunting and he heard some local women screaming. German soldiers were “having their way with them.”  Salvatore shot the soldiers.  He then dressed as a soldier, took their German guns and walked past the Germans – right back through the lines.  That took amazing balls.

With safety in numbers, peasants then lived in stone attached dwellings. The bottom floor was used to house the family’s animals and farming tools. The heat from the animals rose and warmed the second floor which was inhabited by the family. It was one room. The space was very small and yet everyone managed to live together.  The structure still stands in the Santa Caterina section of Pontelandolfo.

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Here is the set of row houses that date back hundreds of years. Now they are empty or used as storage space.
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Here is what is left of Salvatore’s. It was the end of the row and looks like I felt today.

Zia Giuseppina Guerrera, my dad’s first cousin, told me these stories:

Salvatore needed wood for a fire to bake bread.  In this time there were no trees left for wood.  (My grandmother told me that during World War I everything was taken from them and they started to make soup from the bark of trees.)  Everyone was poor and hungry.  Salvator wanted to cut down the tree of the the padrona.  Remember, Salvatore, like many others, was a serf and worked the land for the padrona.  The tree was incredibly large and the padrona said “No, you can’t cut it.  I need to tie my donkey to that tree.  So in the dark of night Salvatore cut off the just the top of the tree and tied the donkey to the bottom!

Tobacco was grown in the fields to make cigarettes.  The police – working for the rich – said don’t take this tobacco, it is to be sold.  Of course Salvator took a leaf of the tobacco, looked at the police and said, ” Beh,  don’t talk to me about this tobacco.  I will smoke if I want to – so get the hell out of here.”  Since he was as strong as a giant, the police went away.  The next day the police came back and Salvatore was smoking.  He was so very very strong and carried himself like a man of power.  There was no arrest.  They were afraid of him.

He was so strong that he would take things from the rich man to give to the others.  The rich man would say – “I’ll give you money to stop taking things.  Salvator laughed and said – “I’ll just take it.”  The rich man too was afraid of the very strong and persuasive Salvatore.

When Salvatore was very old he told Giuseppena’s father, Antonio, to bring him his cane.  “I want the cane.  Give me the cane because I want to beat these children.”  No one would bring him his cane. He was still really strong – even as an old man and everyone knew if he got a hold of that cane…

I obviously never met Salvatore Guerrera, the father of my father’s father and the very strong root of my personal family tree.  Those traits of his I have seen – in my father, my aunt and gulp – I hate to admit it but – myself.

“L saugu t chiama,” Zia Giuseppina, my father’s first cousin, constantly tells me in the dialect of Pontelandolfo, that “the blood calls.” “L saugu t’altira.” Blood like a magnet is drawn to like blood.  My saugu, is strongly attracted to the saugu here.  She hugs me and reminds me, that I am the only one who came back from America to search for those left behind.” 

The search continues.

 

Pontelandolfo Funeral Traditions

IMG_1512 Finally – the story you may or may not have been waiting for – the funeral traditions of my Italian home town. A shout out on this topic to  Art Adair of Somerville’s New Cemetery, Jimmy Cusick of Cusick’s Funeral Home and Mayann Carroll, former ace lobbyist for the Funeral Director’s Association.  Sorry that this particular blog was usurped earlier by my finding my great grand daddy’s bones and turning into a pile of weepy. (https://nonnasmulberrytree.com/2014/06/06/finding-my-great-grandfather/)

This morning when I got up there was a line of cars outside our house. (Thats a lie, it’s been a week since this happened but I didn’t want to mess with the story.) I mentioned the cars to Jack and he said they had been there late last night too. An all night bash and we weren’t invited?  Of course we are usually asleep by 10:00.  Our house is really close to the cemetery but it has a parking lot and this car line started further up the hill. H’mmm.

The yellow house on the left is ours - surrounded by cars.
The yellow house on the left is ours – surrounded by cars.

Our neighbor and friend, Nicola Ciarlo, stopped over for caffè.  Nosey Jack asked why Nicola wasn’t working.  “There’s a funeral, he said, don’t you see the cars?”  What cars, I said?  (Hey I’m not the nosey one.)  Looking at me like I had Campari for breakfast, Nicola said, “The ones on the road by the house?”  Oh those cars.  Why are they here? “People are visiting the family.”  We do that in the New Jersey too.  “With the body?” he asked.  I retorted, The real body – the dead body?

According to Nicola, here in Pontelandolfo they bring the coffin to the house, arrange the body in the bedroom or another room and everyone comes to the house to pay their respects.  People bring food and many kiss the dead person goodbye.  (Try bringing food to a NJ funeral parlor – I’ve gotten my hand slapped trying that one – right Jimmy.) 

The family stays up all night with the corpse.  My first response was YUCK will I ever use that room again.  Then, thinking about it, the idea resonated with me and actually sounds more civilized than schlepping the corpse from a drawer in the morgue to the paid company’s home. (Sorry Jimmy, your funeral parlor often feels like my home away from home.)   They don’t have funeral parlors in Ponteladolfo – they have funeral facilitators.  So unless you  want to cart the body to – well I don’t know to where – you have to use your own parlor.  H’mm that could be a lot of work.  I mean, how long is the body in the house — I’m thinking three visitation days – two hours in the afternoon and two or three in the evening – or something like that.  “Oh”, Nicola said, “its only 24 hours then the funeral at the church and burial.  People visit most of that time.”

I was blessed to be present when my dad died and moments after my precious Aunt Cat died.  During that period of time, I could feel the force of their spirits leaving.  It wasn’t ugly or scary – it was an opportunity to share yet another moment with someone you loved.  So maybe taking the process one step further and having your loved one pass on from their home isn’t’ so bad.  Years ago that was the American tradition too.

I only saw the sign for one “organizzazione funerali a Pontelandolfo” – notice it is not a “home or parlor.”  The company, Agenzia Funebre Diglio, located on Piano della Croce, 8 – 82027 – Pontelandolfo, BN, organizes funerals.  They do not embalm!  Bodies here are not embalmed.  I’m thinking the NJ Funeral Directors lobby would have a hissy fit if folks started screaming for our laws to change and bodies in their natural state were allowed to be viewed for 24 hours and interred.

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Conveniently located just down a hill from the cemetery.

My Italian is not the best so I may have misunderstood some of Nicola’s nuances but research and Jack’s memory of his Italian teacher saying the same thing confirms what follows – sort of.  Here you only lease a spot for a coffin.  If you have a lot of money you build a zinc box like thing and your coffin rests on a cement pad.  You then have thirty years to decompose peacefully.  If you have less money your coffin is partially buried in the dirt and you have a small shell of an exterior box. You get ten years of a cozy spot.

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The tall zinc model is on the left and next to it is the lower model.

After thirty years – or ten – the body is exhumed, bones are cleaned and put in a small box.  Often, there is another ceremony for the bones.  The bones are then placed in a smaller spot on one of the long walls of marble.  Poor folks who don’t have family drawers on the wall are placed in the basement of the cemetery chapel. Those of you who read my last post, heard that story.

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You can see how the coffin is not really deep in the ground.

 

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Here is a wall of family alcoves.
Here is a close up of a spot.  It reminded me of my favorite Aunt Cat.
Here is a close up of a spot. It reminded me of my favorite Aunt Cat.  Note the fresh flowers.

People of means have little private burial houses – what do we call those – memorials?   (If you know what these things are called leave a comment.)   The family’s remains can stay in the coffin in a place permanently or be removed later to make space for younger relatives, their bones placed in a glass box and put to rest in a smaller spot.

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There is a little village of these houses.
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This is the modern version.
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I peaked in side one of the houses. The flowers are fresh and changed often.

The people here visit their deceased family often. I see families come bringing new flowers weekly.  There is a real connection to the past.

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The cemetery association has these flower recycling bins to hold last week’s buds.

This exhumation and re-burial in a smaller spot is far from barbaric. It is done with love and a understanding of the cycle of life. The mountain’s rocky soil makes interment difficult. Usable land is farmed to bring food and income to the residents. The re-interment of remains has been going on for hundreds of years – think of all the bones found in ancient church lower basements- catacombs. More important than the burial process is the honor that is given to the dead – ongoing by even the younger generations.

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You can really see the height differences in the burial plots.

After Nicola patiently explained all that to me, I decided to walk down the hill and see the funeral precession for our neighbor.  I chose to watch from the great patio at Bar Mixed Fantasy. Whew, I got here just in time to watch the lead flower car slowly move up the hill to the old church. The hearse followed and following the hearse,  just like in every old movie of an Italian funeral, people from the village slowly marched up the hill too.  Wait a second – the person dies, is laid out at home and within hours folks are visiting, bringing food and clearing their calendars for the next day’s funeral.  How does the news spread that fast?  One of the services provided by the Funeral Agency is the immediate printing and posting of the large death notices.

These notices go up instantly.
These notices go up instantly.

The first time I came to Pontelandolfo – years ago – I saw plastered on the wall a death notice for Giovanni Guerrera.  It was a little freaky since I had spoken to my dad the day before and he was fine.  The death notices are either simple or adorned with art.  Within hours of the persons passing the notices are posted on the villages walls and posted at the cemetery.

Ok, back to my glass of succo d’arancia rossa and the procession.  I will admit I wanted to take pictures but I thought that it would be incredibly tacky.  It was a very quiet and somber movement towards the church.  OK,OK, I snuck one picture of the flower car. (This is for Cusick’s Funeral Home.)

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After the mass, the procession moved slowly down the hill to the piazza and on towards the cemetery. Where the loved one will be interred undisturbed until the lease runs out and they are moved to their final resting place surrounded by those that loved them.