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.
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.
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.
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.
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.