When I drove a tiny car with a standard transmission up the narrow, winding road to Tripi, Messina province, Sicily, Italy two weeks ago, I felt I was paying a debt to the great-grandmother I never knew. Guiseppa Rao married Rosario Cicero and had 13 children, 12 of whom left their tiny town for Rome, Pisa, Argentina and the United States. The idea that a woman from a culture that treasures family would have so many children, yet so few grandchildren around in her old age, has long made me sad. I suppose my great-grandfather would have shared her pain in some fashion, but as a mother myself, I feel as if I might understand her feelings better than I might understand his. When I actually knelt by her grave, I was struck by the softness of her image, an image I had seen in photos many times before, but which seemed so much more compelling as my fingers traced its rim.
Tracing not only her image, but her journey compelled me to make the trip. Now two generations removed from those who left, the contacts, the houses, the memories of those still there are swiftly fading. Yet the place itself with its profound silence, its stunning view of the sea miles away, and its current population carrying on their lives reminds me that places are living organisms. For those of use with roots in far away places, the people who live there today are not part of a living museum to our past, but are elements of their own vibrant present: moving, changing and growing with the times. The “old country”/”new country” dichotomy that we heard around the holiday table left me with the feeling that there was an unchanging “old” that owned an authenticity I would never have as a new world hybrid. Instead, I found people hybrids in their own ways, and whose stories released me from an internal label as a cheap knock off. I hope to share some of those stories in the coming days.