Hmm, I wonder where the forks are? “Dove sono le forchett….” Le forchettE sono lì. LE FORCHETTE! Errrrrr how embarrassing to have my pronunciation corrected by a five year old in a fancy hotel breakfast room. Of course we were in Tuscana the birth place of the Italian language. Learning Italian has been challenging for me. It has also provided the entire village of Pontelandolfo with comic relief. From school children to shopkeepers to old men playing scopa – everyone corrects me and giggles. Some also roll their eyes and wander why they have to repeat a word 5 million times in order for me to remember it. Yes, it does take a village to teach this old dog new tricks. Hmm, that adage, “You Can’t Teach an Old Dogs New Tricks,” has really never resonated with me.
First of all – DEFINE OLD! Go on – I dare you. Secondly, learning a new language keeps the brain young and active. Thirdly – well – I started to learn Italian when I was 50. It has been 17 years and I’m still learning. I hear you – why didn’t she listen to her grandmother? Why didn’t she learn Italian as a child? Why? Because growing up in rural agrarian Somerset County, New Jersey I never heard Italian.
Unlike the kids growing up in urban pockets of Italian families, I never heard Italian. Not one of the five Italian families in Flagtown, New Jersey spoke Italian within my ear-shot. My grandmother, aunts and uncles – all born in Italy – spoke unaccented standard American English. I thought that was the norm. I didn’t know that some kids grew up in duo-lingo Italian American families. DUH!
When I was older I asked Zia Caterina why not one member of our family spoke Italian to us. There were two reasons – one was survival. They needed to assimilate to get jobs and not be picked on. Aunt Cat recalled the taunts of dumb dago or wop and the smack she got on the head from her first teacher in Dundee Lake (Passaic County) because she had just arrived and didn’t understand English. Simple, they had to be American so they had to learn English. The second reason infuriates me. I was born just after World War II – that period of time when Italian Americans were put in interment camps. Yup, just like the Japanese. Fear of Mussolini’s ties to Hitler and Fascism ignited the ignorant and Italian immigrants – many of whom had sons serving in the American military were whisked from their homes and locked up. No one talks about it. Italo-Americano refer to it as Una Storia Segreta – the Secret Story. Italian Americans couldn’t have a wireless radio. They had curfews. My Uncle Nick, who was too old to be naturalized with my grandparents, was threatened with deportation.
I’ve seen a few documentaries on this period and they incite me. Today, when I hear politicians talk about opening up interment camps and building walls I wonder how many Americans know their history and understand what that means? Not every person of a race or a religion is evil. Hell, my family wasn’t evil.
My family took the signs to heart and “spoke American.” Actually, they spoke English better than lots of folks I have known. They were so good at it that Italian may be in my DNA but it isn’t embedded in my cervello. Studying Italian is a challenge that grounds me in my past and opens doors to new beginnings. In New Jersey, I study with other Italophiles at Dorothea’s Housein Princeton. For total immersion in a fabulous ocean front city, I head to Alghero, Sardegna and Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera.
Learning the language has introduced me to parts of my heritage that I have embraced and history that has both saddened and intrigued me. My Italian – as rough as it is – has helped me research my family tree, become part of the fabric of the village and make new friends on both sides of the Atlantic. I figure, I am not too old to learn and if I wasn’t learning and exploring my brain would turn to mush.
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.
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.”
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.