I saw a picture on my Facebook page today that got me to thinking about my heritage. One of my Facebook “friends” is someone from Italy who keeps a page dedicated to the Cilento area of Italy. Cilento is an Italian geographical area of the Campania region, in the central and southern part of the Province of Salerno. Undertanding the geographic structure confuses me. Add the seaside hamlets of Ogliastro Marina and Santa Maria di Castellabate on the Tyrrhenian Sea and my head starts to spin. Ogliastro nestles among the foothills due south, southwest of the mountain town of Castellabate; Santa Maria, at the foot of the mountain, lies due northwest of Castellabate. And, oh by the way, Ogliastro and Santa Maria are in the Commune ( administrative division) of Castellabate. Whew! I had to email my brother several times to write those few sentences correctly. According to Wikipedia, Castellabate’s cuisine is based on local products of wine, olive oil, cheese (such as mozzarella), garbanzo beans, salami, and confections made with figs. Sounds good, no? But more about all of that some other time.
My grandma was born in Ogliastro, and my grandfather was born in Santa Maria. In the summer of 2006, my brother and I had the good fortune to visit the land of our ancestors and get to know the people who lived in these hamlets. It was an experience I shall never forget, an adventure I’d like to write more about in the future.
When I look at pictures of this area, I typically think about my grandparents. Although the details are sketchy, I know that my grandfather came to this country once when he was about 15 and returned to Italy. He came to live in the United States some time between 1920 and 1921. After he settled, he sent for my grandma, who traveled, like him, in steerage class to make the long voyage from Naples to Ellis Island. She was pregnant with her first child. I can only imagine. Think “Titanic” and the gates closing as the steerage passengers tried to escape the sinking ship. What a brave thing she did. I forgot to mention that she was traveling with her step-daughter, who was barely more than a toddler. They lived in Pennsylvania for a short time but when my father was very young they moved back to New York City. My grandfather passed away when my father was a young teen. My grandmother, who spoke little English and could not read or write, was left with five children in her care. She eked out a living cleaning offices on Wall Street at night, and the kids made artificial flowers to make ends meet.
The story of how they all came to live in Rochester is best saved for another time. Suffice it to say that Grandma had few options. Her sister, my great-aunt, died at a very young age and, as was the custom in those days, my grandma married my great-uncle. He was the man I knew as Grandpa and his story is also a tale for another day.
I have so many childhood memories of my Grandma. She could be both stern and lovable at the same time. And, even with her lack of education, inability to speak English and her strong accent, she never hesitated to speak her mind. Sometimes we would get dressed up and take the bus to downtown Rochester. I would go with her to Niesners, a five and dime store, where she would get her hair shampooed and set, and finished off with a hairnet to cover it! Afterwards, we would walk through the store and sometimes she would buy me something. I have a vivid recollection of her buying me a kerchief as they were called in the fifties. A “kerchief” was a scarf, typically woolen, that you wrapped in a triangular shape around your head and tied under your chin. That day Grandma made me put it on and wear it home. I didn’t know how to tell her it was “pinching” me so I just sat there on the bus ride and hoped we would get home soon. I also have fond memories of Grandma’s “broken English” as it was called back in those days. I can hear her asking me as she set the last course of every meal we shared, “You want insalate?” I love when she visits me in my dreams. I love when all of us cousins are together and laugh at all the good old times. I love remembering.
It wasn’t until after I visited Italy that summer that I realized the magnitude of my grandparents’ courage and determination. After spending a week in the region of Cilento, I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to leave that beautiful Mediterranean countryside to live in the ghetto known as Little Italy. These days Ogliastro and Santa Maria are vacation getaway hot spots for the local tourists. Times were much different when my grandparents left — they yearned to live in the land of milk and honey. After visiting Italy, I can’t imagine what they must have thought when they got to New York. At first perhaps dazzled at the sight of so many skyscrapers and hustle and bustle, how were they able to assimilate into a strange new world, make a living and raise their children who would become part of the greatest generation?
We’ve all been given gifts in our lifetime. One of my gifts is the beautiful heritage I share with my brother, my sister, my aunt and all my wonderful cousins. My visit to Italy was almost five years ago. I’ve let the “busyness” of life keep me from learning more about my heritage. What would Grandma have to say about that?