With a break in between family visits, Maria Assunta took me for a long, bumpy ride to the mountain area the family owns. It is filled with acres and acres of Chestnut trees, some Olive trees too. The roads were narrow – one car only, they wound and curved upward. It was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time. When we reached our stopping point it seemed like just trees and weeds. Then she grabbed my arm and we started walking, through brush, sticks and many dropped chestnuts still in their prickly casings. ( Which by the way are like giant burdock with hundreds of thorns) Walking uphill still we sort of held on to each other to keep from sliding and I kept looking at the ground to watch my footing. Maria stopped, tapped my shoulder and waved her arm across the air. When I looked up, there it was…..Melfi. All of it in one view. “Bello, no”? “Si, Bellissimo” is about all I could get out. I was both out of breath from the hike and breathless from the view. At that moment I realized how alike Maria Assunta and I are. The need for nature, peace and fresh air. Needing some quiet from life and our strength to be restored by nature. Maria and I both stood there looking at that fabulous view and each taking long, slow, deep breaths of clean and pure air.
So here is where I apologize for my photography skills. This is the actual photo, untouched by computer software. In my defense I will say it was pretty cloudy that day and also you can see the smoke from the little fires the farmers make from burning their scrub materials wafting through.
When you see Chestnuts in your market imported from Italy
there’s a good chance they came from Melfi.
Maria Assunta, Filomena, Me
This was the one of the most emotional mornings of my visits. The person in charge of me that day was my cousin Rosa. An ever happy and smiling woman filled with laughter and love. We drove the streets of Old Melfi, narrow, hilly, curving and bouncy until we stopped at the home of this woman; another Palmina Sassone. I had met her only briefly at my surprise party the day before. We entered her tiny little home for cafe’. She has had a small stroke and her left arm is paralyzed, she also has that blood disease that makes her calves swell and they are black and blue. She looked so uncomfortable and my heart just went out to her. But she insisted that she “serve” us herself even after both Rosa and I tried to do it. It was both painful and sweet to watch her determination to be a proper hostess. Communication was very limited as neither Rosa or Palmina speak any English but we sure managed to get our points across. I think love crosses all language barriers at least it did this day. She pulled out photo books, cried when she spoke of her son who had died and did everything possible to hang on to me. She just kept looking at me and holding my hand. Then suddenly it was time to leave. I stood up from her small kitchen table and felt the tears start. I felt my heart racing and I distinctly remember my anger sparks. “This is it” I thought, I’ve never known this woman existed and she has wondered for years about the American family and now I have to leave. I was angry because I’ve spent 57 years of my life not knowing her and the short 20-30 minutes I had with her is all I’m gonna get. Chances are if/when I get back to Melfi she will be gone. As Rosa and I walked out her door and into the car my face was covered in tears and because I couldn’t speak Italian I couldn’t explain my emotions.
Next stop was to Vincenza’s. A happy surprise for me. I was really, really hoping to see her again! She is my grandmother’s niece and only one of two people that I know of directly related to me on the Monatanarella side. She was so cute when we walked into her kitchen, scrambling to brush off chairs and moving things on her table. She and Rosa spoke of my party the day before in Italian and I understood what she was saying because I she kept gesturing with her hands about my dress and saying “bellissimo”. Putting her hands to my face “bello” she’d say. So we sat for a few more minutes and then it was again time to leave. Again, my heart sank, the tears flowed and the anger surfaced. One last hug and kiss and out her door we went. My back was to her as we walked to the car, I opened my door, sat down and closed it. When I looked up in her direction she was standing there crying. I am so grateful that I had the presence of mind to snap one last photo through the car window. I cherish this shot.
Another day, another Palmina. Sadly, I did not get the details of this Palmina Sassone, who her parent was etc. But I sure did get the same wonderful reception! This Palmina has dementia and barley was able to comprehend who I was and why I was there. Though she is only 82, this shows what the disease does physically as well as mentally. I was able to get some conversation with her children Lucia & Antonio and though the visit was short I was so very grateful to have gotten this opportunity to both meet her and have my picture taken with her.
My dad’s cousin Armando in his gelato shop. Filomena and I had an afternoon of just walking and a little shopping. It was one of the few warm and sunny days while I was there and we stopped in so that I could meet Armando. He gave us free gelato and I’m not sure if it was because I was so happy to meet him or because it really was the BEST ice cream I’ve ever had. This was also the one and only meeting with him.
The Fountain Sassone
There is a story about the water in Melfi being some of the purest in the world. Fountain’s are spattered throughout Old Melfi, drinking, collecting and in years past, washing. This particular fountain is in an area where there is (was) the heaviest concentration of original Sassone’s. How long it’s been here I can only guess, but it’s a least 100 years if not older. To think that both my grandparents were here at this very place drinking from this fountain took my imagination to crazy places. There was a flash photo in my head; grandpa stopping to drink one last time, with his small suitcase, tattered clothing and cap as he headed to Napoli to board the ship The Cretic and sail to America…….
I am floating in a Sea that connects two worlds. Two histories and one family. Two cultures connected by the threads of an old and tattered past but able to hold on, to be restored to strength and make again the ties that bind.