As I grab my vacuum, I reach past a coat I bought 500 years ago, long since relegated to the no-man’s land of the third floor closet, where old bridesmaids dresses and graduation caps and gowns go to die. It’s a relic, out of style. The cut, color, length and trim, all fashion-forward once, are valueless today. I shrug it on, but it doesn’t fit, not really, not anymore.
Still, I can’t let it go. It’s the memories, woven into the worn fabric. It's the smell, mostly perfume with the faintest whiff of baby spit up. It’s the coffee stains and fast-food driblings from the days when my car was more home, table, and office than transportation; the on-air personalities on NPR my constant companions.
4,306 miles away, my grandfather’s old coat, the one that holds his secrets, the story of the boy who grew into the man who became my father’s father, sits high atop a mountain in the remote sixth century village of San Mauro Forte, in Basilicata, Italy. I’m on my way to shrug into that coat.
Haven’t heard of Basilicata? No surprise. It doesn’t get much attention or respect. Just a day before my drive from Amalfi to Puglia, by way of Basilicata (essentially from the front shin to the stiletto heel of the Italian boot) I meet a couple with the same plan. “We’re not looking forward to it,” they say perched atop the rubber seat of the zodiac boat we share, as it scoots across the turquoise water. “The guy at our hotel told us to fly. He says there’s nothing worth seeing, it’s bleak, desolate, ugly.”
For the first time in my life, I say nothing. I’ve made the drive before, so in my mind’s eye, I can see what they might see. It is autumn, after all, and the endless wheat fields that crown every hill and carpet every valley are shorn close to the earth, like prickly gray five o’clock shadow on an old man’s face. Distant plumes of white, grey and black smoke arise, like portents, as farmers burn refuse. Cows, sheep, and goats roam free, ancient brass and copper bells hanging from their necks, clanging their proximity to the road and my car. For me, these vistas are heaven, to others, perhaps one of Dante’s circles of hell. Mussolini certainly thought so, he treated Basilicata as his own personal Siberia, exiling critics there during World War II.
Still, I have an appointment with my past and I’m keeping it. I pull into the piazza, and park between the Norman tower and 16th C. church of Santa Maria Assunta. A small cluster of short, silver-haired men and women stand huddled together against the wind, talking. I immediately have their attention. I step out of my car into the group, and like Alice through the looking glass, directly into, if not my grandfather’s coat, then at least his closet, into the embrace of his past.
I bend at the waist to offer the prerequisite two-cheek kisses and full-on hugs. Already this feels familiar. 'Hmm,' I ask myself, 'as I age, am I destined to shrink at least a foot, just as my grandfather, my father, and apparently every relative I have in Italy has?' It looks that way. As I’m introduced, their names float in the air: Leonardo. Filomena, Pepino; these are familiar names, found on my grandfather’s side of the family stateside, a nod to shared ancestry.
I once asked my father why my grandfather was so terse and stern, an outlier in an otherwise open and loving family. My best conversations with my father happened in his garden, him, on his knees, grubby and dirty but happy; me, knowingly intruding in his sanctuary, leaning on a rake, treading on his plants.
“Poppy had a tough childhood,” he said, not looking up, “he was fostered to a local family for three years when his mother emigrated with his sister to join his father and brother, who were already in the Hartford. He was only 10. He worked in the fields, lived in barns. He did odd jobs. In one, he was lowered deep into the water wells in the country. Suspended above the water, his job was to scale the stone of limestone deposits. The wells were filled with black snakes. He’d be down there for hours. He never told me that story, my mother did. He didn’t emigrate until he was almost 14 years old, in 1910.”
I walk with my relatives along the cobbled streets; we pass my grandfather’s old family home. Its owners now are a family from Great Britain who use it during summer holidays. It is the exception. Little else has been updated or renovated, sold or repurposed. Chickens roost just beyond the street level doors of several homes, the only shelter available during winter months. The former grandeur of several palazzi betrayed by sagging shutters, broken windows, stooping stairways. Still, they are magnificent and charming. I am enthralled.
We arrive at Filomena’s house, one she uses only occasionally to visit friends here. The table is set for the five-course meal they have prepared to welcome us. They tell us these dishes are the specialties of San Mauro Forte. I nod, knowingly. I have eaten these same foods, prepared in the same way, at tables this large, my entire life.
We tour the house. Each corner, each cupboard, is it’s own archeological treasure of my family’s history. Birth certificates, death certificates, hunting licenses, military service records. Generations of schoolbooks and catechisms, their bindings cracked and musty with age. A calendar from 1985 hangs on the wall, just above a tube TV. I am convinced "I Love Lucy" would be playing in dubbed Italian if it were turned on.
There are piles of photographs that span generations, including one of my grandfather, circa 1970, during his first trip back to his village. He’s wearing a pink shirt and a wide tie. He, too, is pink and wide, age and sickness having not yet reduced him to pale skin and sharp bones. I almost weep; I wonder what childhood memories he carried with him as he walked these streets as a grown man. I wonder at my own memories of him, and how they will be influenced by this trip.
In the basement, a fire roars in the kitchen hearth, the only heat for the entire house on this brisk day. A trove of ladies fill the space, all gossiping madly in an Italian I can barely understand, curious about the visitors from America. The back room, where the animals were formerly sheltered, is stacked with old furniture, including three giant tin trunks.
They seem incongruous. They serve no practical purpose. I comment on them. Leonardo tells me that as immigrants returned to their roots, they brought the family they had left behind goods from the US. “We were so poor here,” he says, “after the war. We were barely surviving.” The trunks languish, dusty in a corner. At the time, there was nothing of material value to offer in return, reciprocity would come decades later, in visits like this one.
Just as my old coat is a memory of my life as a young, working mother, so, too is this village an expansion of my memories of my grandfather. My coat and this village are powerful memories of the past. Still, they are a not-so-subtle reminder that today, this present, the challenging, endless, tedious stuff of daily life, will soon find its place in history, like my coat in it’s closet, and my grandfather's legacy, in the streets of his village.