“Never hide things from hardcore thinkers. They get more aggravated, more provoked by confusion than by the most painful truths.” ~ Criss Jami
When we lived in Nashville, I had a great family doctor who threatened to throw out my computer.
“You think too much,” Dr. Gary Smith told me, “and you look too much stuff up. One of these days, I’m going to sneak into your house and throw your computer from the upstairs window.”
“I can’t help it,” I replied. “It’s not that I want to do it, I NEED to do it.” He laughed. “Besides,” I continued, “I went to Catholic school my entire life, and they told us not to question. Wrong thing to say to me. I question everything. I want to know.” I think I exasperated him.
I mention this because that is, unfortunately, how I really am, and I might be better off if I didn’t have a computer and the internet and information at the tip of my fingers these days. There are times when I will spend hours (hours that I should be doing something else) looking up old records and data and photos just to find out that there’s very little on the web about some immigrants….especially when you are working with limited “facts.” When we went to Pettorano in 2010, I felt I could at least get answers to the majority of my questions. Silly me. Not only did the comune not fill in the facts, I ended up with a bigger hole.
I remember driving from Sulmona to Pettorano sul Gizio for the first time. Mike was driving, and the man from whom we’d rented the apartment was in the passenger seat. I was in the back, and their talking was irritating me because, to tell the truth, I was nervous about what I’d find. I had looked at photos of the town on the internet, but I still had a picture in the back of my mind of how it should look.
“Your grandparents’ town is there on the right,” Michele suddenly announced. Sunlight gilded the old buildings that poured from the top of the little hill. Butter yellow. Terra cotta. Cream. Beige. Everything had that touch of gold that lights the world just before the autumn sun slips away. My heart, I remember, was pounding in my chest.
As we turned onto the road that would wind its way up to the top of the town, Michele continued. “Don’t be alarmed if the people stare and don’t say anything to you at first,” he advised. “Some of them tend to be wary of strangers.” Not 10 seconds after he mentioned that, we rounded the first bend in the road and saw two old women sitting on chairs outside of their homes. They stared. We waved. Their heads turned and followed the car’s movement up the hill.
Once we parked and started to walk around, we noticed that, indeed, some people did stare at us, but the people in the main square were quite curious as to what we were doing there. The one line in Italian that I could say without a problem at that time was, “Miei nonni sono nati in Pettorano.” (My grandparents were born in Pettorano.) Michele explained why we were there and told them my grandparents’ last names, and he and they had an animated conversation about us.
He motioned me to an overlook in the piazza and pointed to the valley in the distance.
“These ladies tell me that your grandmother was not born in Pettorano,” he said. “They say the Crugnales were from ValleLarga.” Having never heard of ValleLarga, I was more than confused. “Apparently,” Michele explained, “ValleLarga is the suburb of Pettorano. It’s where most of the farming was and still is.” That part made sense since I knew Grams had grown up working the fields. The sun had retreated, and we headed back down the hill, and Michele told us that the comune would be open the next day. “You can go in and ask for more information there. The clerk, Rosa, is expecting you.” Just then we rounded the last bend in the road, and we saw the same two ladies watching our now-forward progress. We waved again. They continued to stare. We all laughed.
The next morning, Mike and I headed back up the hill and to the comune. Rosa was in her office, and I walked in, offered my hand, and pronounced in Spanish, “Soy la americana.” (I am the American.) She looked at me as though I were the martian. “La americana. Cristina. Miei nonni sono nati in Pettorano. Michele said you knew.” If Rosa knew anything I was saying, she was doing a good job of hiding it. I somehow got through to her that I wanted my grandparents’ birth certificates, and I shoved a paper with their names and birthdates on it towards her.
Donato Berarducci Liberata Crugnale
Rosa found the birth certificates, made copies for me, and rattled off a bunch of words that bounced off of my head. I tried to talk with Rosa in Spanish, but she was having none of it. Grams had always told me that she had Spanish men staying in the boarding house that she ran, and that they could understand her, but she could not understand them. I guess it was the same with Rosa because I was getting nowhere with her.
When Mike and I got back to the apartment later that day, I noticed that the birth certificate I had for Gramps had the right name and date of birth, but that the names of his parents were wrong. My great-grandparents were Domenico and Antonia Berarducci, and while I don’t remember whose names were on that certificate, they sure were not Domenico and Antonia. In addition, my grandmother’s mother’s name was listed as Margherita Ventresca, but Margherita was the aunt who had raised Grams. Being as Rosa’s demeanor had been less-than-friendly earlier, I was less-than-excited about trying to get the corrections out of her the next day. Luckily, Michele volunteered to go with us.
I think I saw Rosa grimace when we walked in the door the next morning, but when Michele spoke to her in Italian, she perked up. Michele explained the problem with the birth certificate, and she once again machine-gunned her reply. I thought she was arguing with Michele, but apparently she was telling him I was an idiot for not giving her my great-grandparents’ names in the first place because she went back to her books. She said something to Michele.
“Rosa says that your grandmother’s mother’s name is correct on the paper,” he told me. I explained to him that Margherita was the aunt who raised Grams after my great-grandmother died in childbirth. He relayed that information to Rosa. “She said that Margherita is listed in the book as the mother. If she adopted her sister’s baby, that could be why.” Confused, I watched as Rosa continued to look through the books. Suddenly, her attitude brightened.
“She said you had the wrong birthdate,” Michele informed me. I was sure the date I had given originally was correct because April 17 was also my father’s birthday, and everyone had always said the two shared the same day. “Your grandfather was born on April 10, not 17. Apparently there are a lot of Berarduccis in the town, and two Donatos were born within days of each other. Your grandfather probably just didn’t know. She also wants you to go to the window with her,” he told me.
Rosa pulled me along all the while machine-gunning me with words I didn’t understand. Out on the balcony, she pointed at a house down below and continued to talk excitedly. Michele joined us on the balcony. “That is where your grandfather was born,” he told me. “And, the house is still in the family. Your cousin’s widow lives there.” Even though Michele was speaking English, I wasn’t sure I understood what he was saying. “Your cousin used to be the guardia here in the comune,” he continued. “He was the son of your grandfather’s brother.”
Uncle John, Grandpa’s brother, lived in Ohio and was one of the reasons Gramps had moved the family to Youngstown from Columbus. I explained that to Michele who relayed the information to the now-excited Rosa. “Not Giovanni” he told me. “Cesidio.” I stared at him.
“Who,” I wanted to know “is Cesidio?”