It’s easy to forget that I live in a new country, one with only a few hundred years of history. But where I’m from? Where my mother’s family came from? Gratteri, Sicilia? That place goes back centuries. It’s said to have been founded by the Romans, but its design has many Arab-Medieval characteristics. As an American, feeling connected to ancient times feels different. Unusual. I like it.
The Comune of Gratteri is in the province of Palermo, some 37 miles southeast of the city of Palermo. It rises up 2,000 feet from the coast near Cefalu with beautiful hills and pine and oak woods as far as the eye can see. The Madonie Park is nearby.
Its agricultural products include cereals, olives, chestnuts and almonds. I wasn’t surprised that it’s known for its crocheting, as my maternal grandmother did beautiful crochet work. Her surname was Mazzola, and many of my her family still inhabits the old town. But after coming to the United States, she never went back to her town of origin, leaving behind –but never forgetting–her brothers and other family. How hard that must have been!
Originally a Byzantine fortress conquered by the Muslims between 835 and 838, Gratteri has retained so much of its historical flavor. I loved walking its hilly cobblestone streets. Even though I was still recovering from a terrible bronchial infection that had hit me 10 days before.
I met my Gratteri family some 25 years ago, when I spent four days in Palermo and visited them each day. They were warm and wonderful and I never forgot how welcome they made me feel. My grandmother was still alive at the time and she had one surviving member of her generation left, a sister-in-law. That lovely woman had a beautiful face, the many lines betraying her age. But she navigated hills and stairs like a teenager. Mountain people are a hardy breed.
I knew I would return one day. That day was this month.
Although I have no children I have an interest in where I came from, who the people were and what their lives were like. I had a date to meet city officials at City Hall to do some genealogical research, followed by lunch with my Mazzola family. Because my Italian is rudimentary at best, I engaged a translator and research assistant to drive and help do the research.
When we arrived at City Hall on a hot weekday, this is what we found:
Some of my Mazzola family was waiting for me in the shade of an old tree. Greetings, hugs and kisses all around as we reacquainted ourselves. That young woman on the left wearing glasses? Chiara–and she was a little child when I first met her. And my grandmother’s sister-in-law? The woman I’d met 25 years ago? She had just passed away days before at the age of 100. I just missed seeing her again. These mountain folks really are tough–my grandmother was 99 when she died.
We all entered City Hall together and went up a long flight of stairs to the Mayor’s office. Introductions were made and the family all crowded into the office and stood clustered in the door way. In Italian, he gave a comprehensive speech about the ties the comune still feels with the people who left to find a better life in the United States. He talked about how Gratteri soldiers fought side by side with Americans in World War Two and it didn’t take long before I was moved to tears.
And then, his aide presented me with a family tree that the Comune had done for me. That’s right, they did ALL the research I expected to do and made a beautiful family tree. They also researched additional information about my family. And they had pulled all the old original records and marked the pages so that I could photograph the originals. HERE is a video of the city official telling me that my family was in the transportation business, transporting goods by donkey, etc. I think you’ll get the flavor of what it was like to be there, and that I do understand a part of this.
Here are some of the original records.
It was so kind, so considerate and so overwhelming. Even as I write this weeks later and thousands of miles away, tears have filled my eyes. Unexpected kindness does that to me.
The family then took me over to Seraphina’s house. I think Seraphina is the last of my mother’s generation and we worked hard to communicate, since she has no English and my terrible Italian wasn’t up to the task. If you CLICK HERE, you’ll see a video of part of the conversation.
From there, we went to a restaurant for a big family lunch. The family is a lot of fun–and even with the language barrier I felt close to the women and knew that I could become friends with them. The male cousins were hilarious.
“So what do you write?” the famiglia asked. Pretty soon I started to smile– most of the men had my blog pulled up on their phones. And they friended me on Facebook. The women in this small town were not online, though.
No gym membership needed!
(Note the stairs to the left.)
As I walked the ancient streets I thought about my parents and how I wish they had done this, themselves. How different my life is from theirs–I see possibilities and go after them, poking and prodding to satisfy my curiosity. That wasn’t how they were at all. But oh, how they would have loved this! I remember my maternal grandfather telling me “One day we’ll go to Sicily together.” That day never came for him.
My visit to Gratteri was by far the best part of my trip to Sicily. By far. Even though I was still pretty sick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to connect with these lovely people and spend time together. I did it for myself, but I also did it in honor of my parents and grandparents, who didn’t have or take the opportunity.
Allora. (loose translation: “so then”) What’s next?
While I’m in my hometown next month I’ll be sitting down with my nephew and a couple of my Syracuse cousins, granddaughters of my Uncle Joe, the first born of my grandparents. I’ll share the information I have.
I’ve decided to aggressively study Italian this year in order to be able to communicate more directly and clearly with my family when I return, which I hope to be in 2016 and I hope to have with me some of my U.S. family. I also hope to stay in Gratteri and spend more time learning about my family history.
If you’ve done something like this, a trip to find your own roots, I’d love to hear about it below.