The package arrived at my door September 19, 2007.
I was hoping it might contain some useful information, a fact, or a new discovery to enlighten the few facts I had uncovered about the faces I knew only from old photos. They were becoming now familiar and familial. Existing in a past, like from a textbook. Before this, I saw them only one dimensionally, yet they were connected to my future then, staring back at me in black and white.
I was doing a little research, thumbing through old pictures and papers left in a box in the closet, browsing the web, trying to recall names and dates overheard at family gatherings as a kid. Like an incomplete puzzle there were holes in the story where now a picture was forming. I was looking for that personal link, the part of the story when, as a writer, you not only see but feel the connection to the characters.
For now, he was simply Nicola, the man in a hat with a moustache looking out from the expressionless past. I was trying to read his mind. What were you thinking then? What can you tell me of the story of your life, of the adventure that you shared with thousands of others. but that one which was uniquely yours?
In reality, I had no idea of you existing as a person until just recently. I had known of one other one like you. She had lived to be 100 years old but existed only as an artifact, the vague recollection one has as a baby of something so old as to be otherworldly. Did you know I might come looking for you? And if you did, could you tell me?
I discovered that he had been married three times and had children with each wife. I assume each of his first two wives died and that he had then remarried, as back then women often died young in childbirth. By the time he had married a younger third wife he was already in his fifies. Even so, with a younger wife, he would continue to have three more children including one daughter, Josephine. Twice on record, he left his wife to make the long voyage across the Atlantic to America. He worked in the US, living here a few years at a time before returning again, not once but twice to his ancestral home. Funny, it wasn't a place someone would seem to want to return. It was an exceptionally small village perched precariously atop parched chalk colored hills in a dry, remote area of southern Italy. By the first of the century, half the town's population had left. It was not a trip you would think to take lightly, as it was one trans-atlantic voyage by steamer ship, two trains and a day's donkey ride away. A trip that might do most of us in, but those were different times and they, different people.
The ship manifest reported he planned to reside with his son Vincenzo at 44 Baxter Street, NYC a notorious tenement for immigrants described in a New York Times article of the day as "the most ill-shaped, filthy, noisome buildings in the City of New York". Still this was considered better than what they had back home. From research, I know at one point almost half the town's population had relocated here. It must have been comforting to know there would be familiar countrymen to help him make the transition.
Each trip he would bring a different son along with him and each child would eventually end up remaining in the United States to make a new life. He, however, continued to return to his small italian village. Why hadn't he stayed in this new 'promised land' or brought his young wife and family over? Or, was she unable, unwilling to leave? Was this his plan all along? Or, did something or someone call him back?
This remains a mystery.
I was taught in school that once you made the trip to America it was like striking gold. You remained in this country to seek a better life. Isn't that what immigrants do? Ironically, what the history books leave out is that many of these new immigrants ended up returning to their rural towns. They went back to what can only be described as a very dire and hardscrabble life to a place even their nationals called another world. Those who did manage to save money in America might return initially better off, but with little little work and only arid farm land to work if they were lucky, they would quickly fall back to the life of the mezzogiorni, terroni, or peasant poor. To him, maybe it felt like home, as in fact it was the only land he knew. Its people, food, culture and way of life somehow comforting. Maybe he planned a return trip, I don't know.
As it was, it seems he never did return to America and lived out his days with his third wife Teresa in the same mountain top village where they and all their previous ancestors had lived and died. In the end, their only daughter Josephine, orphaned at 16, would be sent for by her brother Matteo. She would make her own life in America, marrying and moving far away from the remote mountain village she and her parents and their parents and all of their ancestors, my ancestors, had called home. A story which resonates with each new immigrant family whose grandparents and great-grandparents came from another, unfamiliar place.
So on that day when that package arrived, September 19th 2007, I opened it searching the contents for some record, a small connection across time to this figure I knew only by name, and few facts.
And it was in the bundle of papers that I discovered the link.
It was the date written in the ship's manifest, the date of Nicola's arrival here in America. This man of 3 wives, multiple countries, journeys, and questions, the man I knew only recently as my great-grandfather.
I learned a new fact which was that the day he had arrived here in America was September 19, 1907.. exactly 100 years to the day this package bearing his information arrived on my doorstep.
It was then that I discovered the missing link.
Maybe, just maybe, he knew I would be searching for him all along.
See movies from my other grandparents' villages in Italy:
Old World, New World - Craco, in Basilicata, Italy
Generations - Airola, Campania, Italy
Santa Sophia d'Epiro - Italy
Sorrento, Italy - Coming Soon
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