The morning flight over Italy was breathtaking. I could see what I thought were the Swiss/Italian Alps and when the white-capped mountains started to turn green I knew we were getting closer to southern Italy and Napoli. When the plane landed in Naples I could feel my heart beating and could feel the tears coming…..I made it….I am in Italy….100 Years to the day.
Once outside of the airport building, my feet firmly planted on Italian soil, I soaked up the warmth, the sun and the air. My cousin Filomena was there with one of her daughters and her husband, we cried and laughed and hugged. I was whisked off to her daughter’s apartment in Naples and the feasting began. A huge lunch of lasagna, pasta wrapped with meat, bread and fruit and my first taste of Italian coffee! Then we headed out for the 1 ½ hour drive to Melfi. Filomena telling me that I was to stay at her brother’s home, “it is big” she tells me. What did not translate well was the fact that her brother, Armando, was giving me the lower half of his family home; a huge apartment all to myself!
Upon arrival at Armando’s, we unload my luggage and family members started coming. Food comes, more people, more food and even more people. I was in shock, they all came to meet me and feed me, everyone speaking Italian smiling, laughing, hugging me. There was a lot of “hmm and ah’s” during this time with all of us trying to find words each could understand. In that moment I realized that it’s true, love crosses all language barriers. I had brought with me the DVD’s of the old 16mm video my great Uncle Alex had taken when he and his wife visited Melfi in the 50’s. You’d have thought I came with bags of gold; the reaction was one of laughter, joy and amazement as they recognized relatives in that old film. They were played over and over during the night. Luckily for me two knew English, Ida and Maurizio. It helped in that initial meeting of no less than 25 family members who came to welcome me. About three hours later, as most of my newly met family had left, Filomena tells me there is a radio interview set up for me on Tuesday. I was taken by this and couldn’t understand who would want to put ME on the radio or why.
The following morning Filomena and I hit the ground running. Our first meeting was with Vincenza and Angelo Montanarella. My grandmother’s niece and nephew that she found while waiting for me to arrive. I was just as much a surprise to them as they were to me! All of us grasping to comprehend our family connection, and here we were, meeting for the first time. What I did not know until after I came back to Rochester was that the home we visited in was the home my grandmother was born and raised in.
We said goodbye to Vincenza and Angelo and headed off to one of the many Palmina Sassone’s for lunch. Then it was back to my place at Armando’s for a rest and back out again later for dinner at Rosa and Guido’s until about 11 that night. They returned me back to the apt where Armando and his wife Maria Assunta insisted we have a night-cap with them and the computer set to Google translate.
The following day was Tuesday, the day of the interview. I asked why and was told that not only was the family thrilled and touched by my coming to meet them and 100 Years salute to my grandfather, the people of Melfi wanted to hear my story! This is the moment it started to sink in, my 100 Years quest which meant so much to me also deeply touched the whole city. During one museum tour with Ida and her husband, the man who had given us entry was standing at the exit as we tried to leave. He and Ida had a little conversation in Italian. Then Ida turned to me and said “Jacquie, You are a celebrity! This man wants me to tell you how honored he is that you came to find your family. He says he thinks you have courage to come so far alone and to salute your grandfather – the 100 Years. Everyone in Melfi is following your journey on the internet.”
My whole first week was filled with personal tours of the famous Castello Federico, The Bishops Palace, The Diocese Museum, La Basilica Cattedrale and Laghi di Monticchio in between meeting my new-found Melfi family, sharing a meal or coffee and listening. They were so excited to share their lineage, their stories and their memories. They couldn’t love enough, hug enough, and feed enough. Each visit became an emotional connection to my past and my future.
Around Thursday of that first week I was told that I was to have lunch at Filomena’s on Sunday “an elegant” luncheon with a very special person. When I asked who it was the only answer I would get was that it was someone “very important to the family”. I did not pack (nor do I own) anything “elegant” to wear. Not to worry, they had it all covered. On Saturday morning Filomena and her sister Anna Maria showed up with bags of clothes and shoes for me to try on. “The BEST”! Anna Maria kept saying as I tried on each outfit. Once we decided on the dress and shoes for the next day’s event, it was off to meet more family. On this day we headed again into Old Melfi. The narrow, curved and hilly stone roads intended for people, horses, donkey and carts now barely accommodate the small cars that are the norm in this lifetime. We were in the place my grandparents knew as children and young adults, the streets they walked, the homes they passed and the drinking fountains. Never did I feel more at home as I did this afternoon. There was nothing “foreign” about this place, it was as comfortable as a favorite sweater on a winter’s day. The visit this day was with more of my father’s cousins; Palmina, Titina, Maria Incoronata, Michela, Mauro, Palmina, Antonio, Anna Maria and Carmen. Again the laughter, the tears, hugging and the wonder on their faces touched me. They wanted to tell their stories, share their photos; they wanted to hold my hand as if to be sure I was real. They’d touch my face and smile. I didn’t want to leave this home, filled with so much love and joy, but I was told we must walk a bit. I said my goodbyes and we headed off to the twisting path on the old stone road towards Mauro and Michela’s home. But there was one thing coming around the corner I could have never in a million years expected. Filomena spoke the words; “Here is the home of your grandfather, his birth home.” In an instant my heart stopped, I stood still, and me with the tears again, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was standing at the door of the home my grandfather was born and grew up in! His parents, his brothers and sisters had lived here, they had played as children. The rings for tethering the work animals still attached to the wall, the opening where the pigs had been kept below still there. It was an amazing sight and an amazing feeling; me, I did this; I got to see this, to meet these people, my family. Each day was more thrilling than the day before and I hadn’t even reached the one week mark yet.
Each night I would send emails and messages to family back in Rochester. I tried to convey the excitement, the wonder and the sense of peace I’d found in this magnificent place called Melfi. The family I met, how they were connected on the family tree. I would send them to my sister Marsha and she would in turn forward them to family and friends here. It wasn’t until I got back that I found out how many people were following this incredible journey of mine. The effect was humbling, I had no idea my little quest would touch so very many people, in two countries no less!
Sunday 19 May started out beautifully. It was warm and sunny for the second day in a row and I was quite thankful for that as I had not packed enough warmer clothes. We headed out first thing to the Pentecoste Festival and Parade in Old Melfi in the Cathedral and Palace square. I watched in awe at the pageantry and recreations of Melfi’s history during Mid Evil times. The honoring to Saint Anthony the city’s patron Saint and the people of Melfi so proud of their breathtakingly beautiful city. The celebration was truly a feast for me. The colors, marching bands and people and horses dressed in vibrant period costumes had me captivated. We stayed until the end and then it was time to prepare for the “Special Guest Luncheon.” I could not get out of anyone who this person was that I was to meet. When I was dropped off at the apt Ida and her husband were there waiting for me. Ida helped me get ready and insisted on doing my hair and makeup. Then they dashed off saying that Filomena would be there in 10 minutes to pick me up. It was the longest 10 minutes and sure enough Filomena was there, right on time. “I have to pick up our desert” she said. We pulled into what looked like a catering place and she asked me to help her, so I got out of the car in my frilly purple dress and my high-heeled shoes and went in with her. She opened the door and “SURPRISE”!!!! It was a party for ME!? The room was filled with family, so many people. (Yup, I cried, again!) It was such a shock, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, hearing….”Jacquie, Jacquie, Jacquie” they chanted and clapped. I could feel my face getting hot and flush, I didn’t know what to do! They all came towards me with laughter and smiles more hugs and kisses. “We wanted to show you how much we love you. You brought our family back together!” So many of the people I had already met just once were there, some I had not gotten to visit with yet. Vincenza Montanarella was there seated at my table, my sweet Vincenza whom I fell in love with my very first day. We enjoyed seven courses of the most fabulous Italian seafood dishes together as one huge family. Just as I thought it was over, the crowd gathered in the center of the room and out came the cakes! Two cakes – connected with a rainbow. It was the perfect picture of my years of research, my quest to find my family in Melfi and the end result of all that; a family reconnected.
The following day I was in the hands of Rosa. Again we headed to Old Melfi and though I understood we were going to visit more family I was not prepared for the emotions that I was about to experience. Another Palmina Sassone, this one is Luigi’s daughter. She lives alone in a small but pleasant home sort of off the main area. This Palmina has had a mild stroke which left her partially paralyzed but able to take care of herself, she also has a blood disease that has wreaked havoc on her lower legs and feet but she still INSISTED that SHE serve us coffee. Her pride and determination to entertain her guests reminded me of a little girl and a tea party. We looked at photographs and talked as best we could, but the emotion was there in her face and eyes. I was thrilled to have my picture taken with her and then it was time to leave. When I stood up to say goodbye I was suddenly overcome with sadness and anger. My whole life of 57 years I never knew this woman existed and now I must say goodbye knowing that I will probably never see her alive again. I walked to Rosa’s car overcome with the feelings of “What did I do? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, this visit of mine. It hurts too much to know that my life and their lives have passed not knowing each other. Would it have been better to keep it that way?”
We were in the car and off to another destination in no time. Rosa speaks no English so I couldn’t tell her exactly why I was crying but she looked at me and smiled and I think somehow she knew. The next stop was to Vincenza’s. I was thrilled to get the chance to see her again! She didn’t know we were coming and when she spotted us her face lit up and a smile appeared in seconds. Arms open wide she hugged and kissed me and cleared chairs for us to sit. She and Rosa talked and I sat there and smiled. I could pick out some of the words and got that she was saying she thought I looked beautiful at my party. A little while later it was time to say goodbye, again. This I knew was the last time I would get to see Vincenza, at least this visit. I hugged her tight wanting to remember how she felt in my arms and said goodbye with those damn tears of mine. When I walked to the car I felt the exact same feelings as when I said goodbye to Palmina moments earlier, sadness and anger. I wanted to stay, I wanted to take care of them, to love them and make sure they were okay. I sat in Rosa’s car and looked back at Vincenza’s home, she was standing in the doorway, her arm half waving with tears running down her cheeks. For one split second I had the presence of mind to grab my cell phone and snap one last picture of her. I look at it every day now and I remember how she felt when I hugged her. We have exchanged letters since and I couldn’t be happier, unless I was there taking care of her. I pray she lives until my next visit.
The rest of my time in Melfi was filled with home parties with family, meeting whole and complete families, more of my father’s cousins and trips to the countryside, and the mountains surrounding Melfi which hold the forests of chestnut, olive and cherry trees. I was gifted trips to The Padre Pio churches, the San Michele church carved from caves and Matera. I got to see the Adriatic Sea from the Mountain top and watched the amazing views of the southern Italian countryside along the way. I wanted to soak up every moment like a sponge and savor every drop for this was a once in a lifetime living dream.
Wednesday 22 May was my last full day in Melfi as Filomena and I were headed back to Naples on Thursday morning. Filomena picked me up in the morning and we went in to Melfi so I could grab a couple of small trinkets to bring home. She parked near the Municipal Building and we walked through the doors. As we entered and office area she gave her name and a woman came to us with a piece of paper. To my amazement the paper held the names and birth dates of all the 11 children of my great grandparents Donato Sassone and Palmina Corona! I was shocked to see this most important piece of my puzzle! We both left that place on cloud nine. Filomena is very much like me; a family historian of sorts. She has thanked me more than once for re connecting the family. As it turns out even those in Melfi had “miss placed” family members, with my visit she had scoured the small city to find every one she could possibly find for me to meet. In doing that the family there was re connected. Filomena and I became more like sisters than second cousins. We discovered, even with the language barrier, that we are very much alike and our bond became stronger each day. She is my hero; if not for her leadership and organization the visit could have been very different.
One last dinner in store for me on Wednesday evening and then it was time to pack and say goodbye to Melfi. It was difficult to put the last 10 days into luggage and I did so with a very heavy heart. But there was one more surprise that truly caught me off guard (again) and made the leaving even more bitter-sweet. The goodbye visits; and presents. Presents? Really? Oh yes, each family came by to bid me farewell and brought presents! The list is long and my luggage now quite chubby. It was so unexpected and humbling, I’m a great giver and a lousy receiver but this time I took their offerings as they were intended; with a lot of love.
As I lay in my bed that night I had a hard time turning off my mind. Going over the absolute epic adventure of my days in Melfi was hard to digest. Thursday morning came with much dread and sadness but my time in Italy was not quite over yet. We packed me up into the car and headed into New Melfi for one last goodbye; it was with Armando. Filomena’s brother who works many hours as the manager of a large grocery store. We walked into the store and there he was with arms open and a sad smile, I did not have words to tell him how much I enjoyed staying at his home and how attached I became to his family. Dang those tears!!! Then it was off to the bus station for our ride to Naples.
While I was waiting for May to come I happened to spot the European Tour List for Bruce Springsteen. I’m a huge fan and have been for many years. As it turned out he was playing in Naples while I was to be in Italy. The 23rd, two days before I was to leave. I bought 2 tickets!! Who could pass that opportunity up? Filomena was to be my guest. While waiting to get to Melfi I had sent her videos of his music subtitled in Italian so she could get an idea of what his music is about. That night we headed to the other side of Naples and settled in to the Historical concert venue. Filomena was excited and nervous, I was just plain excited. This was an amazing cap to an unreal trip! Bruce played his usual three hours nonstop and Filomena and I had an absolute fantastic time. She smiled and laughed and said “I LOVE Bruce Springsteen”!
Friday, my last day in Italy was spent being guided through the gorgeous city of Naples. Filomena and her daughters MariaTeresa and Nicla walked me to the most beautiful and historical places. I got to see “The Veil of Christ” and the San Gennaro church amongst many other places. We had lunch at a fun Pizza restaurant complete with singing musicians and authentic décor. It was a whirlwind day of beauty and history. I couldn’t have asked for better people to spend those last few hours in Italy with. But the sun was setting and it was time to come to terms with the fact I was leaving at 4 am the next morning.
Long before the sun rose on my day of departure we were up and in a Taxi, the streets of Naples quiet and dark as was the feeling inside the cab. My dream had come to an end and I must spend the next multiple hours of air time preparing for the return of my “real” life, the one before I found my other home, my other family and my other country.
“I am floating in a sea that connects two worlds. Two histories and one family. Two cultures connected by the fabric of an old and tattered past. But able to hold on just long enough to mend the threads and bring back the strength and love that once was the family cloth. Let it be our sail, our legacy to all Sassone’s, that no sea, however large, will destroy ever again.”