An Open Heart

May 16, 2017

Right now, I am sitting in my quaint, little apartamento in Liguria, wishing there was someone here to share my feelings.  It is another overcast day. The weather fits my feelings.

In 1971, I made my very first visit to Italy. And Italy took hold of me and has never let go. I love the art, the architecture, the natural beauty nearly everywhere in the country, the language, the music in the language and of the language. I love the color and characteristics of its seas.

Above all, I love the people of Italy, especially my people, la mia Famiglia, my Italian family.  My first visit occurred after the loss of my bisnonna, my great-grandmother Orphelia Palumbo Del Fiacco. I remember so much about her. She told me stories in her broken English of how poor she had been as a child. She began working on the farm at age five. She chose to marry Vincenzo Del Fiacco because he promised to take her to America. And he did.

In America, she and her husband ran a store and she bore six children. She lost both of her boys and her husband before I was born. She told me she had not smiled since her son Gianni passed away. She may not have smiled, but the woman was a powerhouse. Having never learned to read and write, she recalled debts from customers in the Depression as late as the 1960s. During the time she ran the store, she would dictate everything to the first child who came home from school. That child would then enter it into the bookkeeping for her.

Orphelia could COOK! She made all the homemade pasta for us on holidays. I helped her cut the ravioli, put the dents into the gnocchi, whatever she wanted. She taught me how to make sauce, make chicken soup and more. In fact, I inherited her soup pot and made it just the way she did.

Her first child was my grandmother, Amelia, another woman of strength. We didn’t call her Nonna. We called her MAMMA. I spent so much time with her that sometimes I believed she was my mamma. Amelia was the baker in the family and in the neighborhood. Her cookies were perfetto!  Of course, when she made a mistake or one moonshine ball was not perfectly round, her son and I ate them. No one outside of her hot and tiny kitchen ever saw an imperfect treat. When I knew her, she was an eccentric. Have you ever heard the taunt, “your mother wears combat boots.”? She not only wore black, corrective boots that looked like combat boots, when she baked in the kitchen she wore men’s boxer shorts and a long-lined bra! She was so unique. What a remarkable nonna I had.

She was also a magnificent seamstress. She handmade my clothing and it fit like a glove. However, sometimes she used old material she had around the house. For my first school Homecoming dance, I wanted an empire waisted, fringed dress. She fitted me to the pattern and made it so well. However, she used DRAPERY MATERIAL AND FRINGE ON IT.  I cried and did not want to wear it, but, another strong woman, my mother, said “You wear it or you stay home. I don’t want to hear another thing about it!”

Mom, Muriel Mattia Ruscitti (a.k.a. Rossi) Ricci, was without equal in the neighborhood, the family, maybe the world. My mother raised six children while my father worked evenings at Hamm’s Brewery. This was not her life dream. Mom was brilliant. She hoped to go to college to become a DOCTOR in the 1940s. And she could have done it. But her father died suddenly right before she graduated from high school. She had to take care of her mother and her 13-year-old brother, JR. She gave up her dream and worked for Northern Pacific Railway as the secretary for the executive vice president until her first child was born.

In 1971, I met their family in Italy, in Paterno di Avezzano, Abruzzo and in Rome. Italy had captivated me. My family opened my heart and moved right in. For those of you who have returned to your home town of origin, the place that your immigrant family members left behind to begin their lives in America, you will understand. You meet people who look like you and act like you. They resemble your grandparents. Their red sauce tastes THE SAME. Their hand gestures you have seen before. And they accept you as part of their family.

And you accept and love them right back. They teach you more about who your parents are or were and who you are becoming.

The land speaks to you too. I could not understand how my bisnonni (great-grandparents) and my Nonno Ruscitti a.k.a Rossi (grandfather Ruscitti or Rossi) could have left behind their family and that beautiful, peaceful place. Now, I understand more of their heartache and desperation that drove them to leave for America. I feel that loss whenever I leave Italy. But the loss of my family members here in Italy is more painful.

I have lost so many already. Every time they pass, I realize I have lost a part of my history and a part of myself. I have lost the stories of the old times, where we came from and what our family was like. I have lost their gentle smiles and kisses on the cheeks, the cordiality toward those who return, their acceptance of their strange cousin from across the sea who doesn’t speak Italian well but wants to communicate with them so badly.

The pain of loss from my Abruzzo side ties into the loss of Orphelia, Amelia and my mom. Also, Auntie Josephine, Auntie Emma, Auntie Sandy, and Auntie Fran. And Zia Amelia, Zia Lucia and all the rest who came from Paterno. I mourn them all, all over again.

Today, I am mourning the loss of my father’s last living first cousin in Italy, Francesco Mascia. On my father’s side, it was his father Giovanni Riccio who left his home in Fragneto L’Abate, Campania, and followed his brother Pasquale to St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of my Nonno Riccio a.k.a Ricci, I, my daughter and granddaughter are now each a dual citizen (doppia cittadinaza) of the USA and of Italy.

Grandpa Ricci passed away when I was in Europe in 1971. Nonna Rose Ricci survived him. While growing up, I saw them both every single Sunday of my childhood. Grandpa played the squeezebox, the accordian, for us. All of us cousins would play in and around their tiny house. We played tag in the backyard among the tomato plants that covered the entire thing. It was a madhouse of chaos, laughter, noise and gestures. We were all together after mass, and on Christmas.

When I returned to Italy in 1974 for a late honeymoon, I finally visited Fragneto L’Abate. I even slept in the home where my grandfather was born. But what I recall the very most was the differences I experienced with the cousins of the Ricci family in Italy. They were quieter. There was a sense of peace with their simpler lifestyle. And, frankly, I had a bit of a crush on the gorgeous Pasquale and Francesco Mascia, my dad’s first cousins. Francesco was unmarried and in Fragneto whereas Pasquale and others worked in Zurich to bring in more money for the family. I went to see him there.

Francesco was with us every day in Fragneto.  One story that included him was funny in a macabre way. My husband, Paul, and I were in the barn area with Francesco. We saw chickens and four legged animals there. Paul noticed the bunnies in cages. Paul (who spoke zero Italian) was petting the cute nose of one of the bunnies and Francesco approached him. Francesco talked with Paul and Paul just nodded. He had no idea what was said.

We left the barn and Francesco to walk around the town. When we returned to the house of Ida and Pasquale where Francesco often ate, we saw a skinned rabbit hanging in the kitchen. It would be our secondo, our second course, of our big meal that day. Paul had inadvertently picked it out.  We were sick. But we ate it.

For years, I wrote to Ida and to Francesco and the family. But my insane, divorced, single mom life took over and I could not keep up. Then I lost much of the Italian language I had learned. And I could not afford to fly to Italy and raise my daughter, including college.

In 2014, I began to plan a return to Fragneto L’Abate with many cousins. We arrived in May of 2015, 15 of us including my daughter and granddaughter, and Francesco was the only blood first cousin still alive. Ida who I adore, the wife of Pasquale, was still there as were so many cousins. It was Francesco’s 83rd birthday. I brought him more family as a gift. And he said to me, “Don’t wait another 40 years to return!” I promised that I would not do that.

Francesco, the healthy younger man I had met, was now on oxygen and moving slowly. But he was so happy to see me and to meet everyone else. We all enjoyed being with our Mascia cousins and we even ate ciccadilli, a small cavatelli pasta that is a specialty of that area. My father always called them CHICKADILLS.  Only Grandpa Ricci or my dad ever used that term with me. It was a reminder of our connection by blood and history.

Francesco scolded cousin Kathy Donovan for attempting to eat bread with the pasta. He told her it was not done that way. We all laughed and followed his rules. Everyone loved him, and the entire family was very accommodating.

We from the USA talked about how the Mascia family was like our Ricci family with a bit more serenity and decorum. It was like Ricci Light.  I loved that part too.

In 2016, I returned with my brother Michael and his wife Roxanne. Francesco made a huge fuss over Michael. Michael brought the card game, Scopa, to play with Francesco. They both enjoyed the contest of wills and they seemed to bond. Francesco looked a bit weaker than the year before but I had seen my own mother on oxygen like that and I did not expect him to go downhill so quickly.

I had wanted to visit them all in April. But after all the illness I had experienced here in Italy and the exhaustion I had arrived here with, I decided I would have to wait. I am so sorry I waited. I wish I could have seen him again, heard his teasing, given him more hugs and heard more from him.

Antonella contacted me last night. She wrote:

Cara Marilyn

Ti faccio sapere che papa’ mi ha lasciato! Purtroppo ultimamente le sue condizioni si sono aggravate e non ce l’ha fatta!

Un grande bacio Antonella.

Dear Marilyn,

I am letting you know that my father has left me! Unfortunately, lately his condition has worsened and he did not make it this time!

A big kiss, Antonella.

We talked for quite a while. I am so saddened for her, for her family, for us all. I wish my father and his siblings had taken the opportunity when they were younger to meet him and the family. Now he is gone and they are too old to travel so far anyway. I wish I had gone in April. If wishes were fishes, how does that expression go?

My heart hurts today. It reminds me of the time I could have spent over the years with them and I could not afford the trip or chose other things. It reminds me of the beauty of Fragneto L’Abate and the abandoned homes waiting for an occupant. It reminds me of the love I feel from my cousins there and that I feel for them. It reminds me of things gone away, away forever.

It reminds me that I was not there when my Grandpa Ricci died either. It reminds me of Uncle Richard and Uncle Frankie and my Ricci Aunties I have lost, especially Carmel. It reminds me of all the family I still have in the States yet I do not see because our families have all gotten so big. It reminds me of the days among the tomato plants, of hanging around with Kathy and Janet while Gina tried to tag along. It reminds me of days our children will never really know, of family before everything else, of cousins as your best friends, of simple pleasures of a ball game with your cousins on the playground. It reminds me of a couple female cousins skipping out on doing the dishes on Christmas at Nonna’s house, or sneaking into Carmel’s room and trying her perfumes or her lipstick when she wasn’t around to stop us. It reminds me of birthday parties with 20 or more cousins there eating pasta and cake and having more fun with the wrapping paper than the gifts. It reminds me of my mother’s laugh, my father’s singing, everyone dancing with my dad and grandpa playing the accordian. It reminds me that family is forever and it is in my heart.

My heart hurts. But it will heal. The memories will remain there and they will trigger other good memories. The bad memories cannot compete with the good ones.   

My heart hurts and yet I feel very blessed. I have had the chance to know Francesco and all the others who are gone from my Italian family. I feel gifted with more and more cousins and relatives who are beautiful inside and out. I feel enriched because I have had the opportunity to share time with Palumbos, Ruscittis, Del Fiaccos, and Mascias. All have given me back my grandmas and grandpas. All have taught me more about what it means to be Italian. All have helped me to feel whole.

My heart is open. In the past, when the pain of life was too much I would close my heart. It feels safer that way, hidden behind a wall of brick. But now, the bricks are gone. I must feel the ache to remember who I am, who we are as a family, and what is important in life. My heart is open. And so it shall stay.

Ciao for now Francesco. Ci vediamo nel futuro, io prometto. We’ll see each other again in the future, I promise. And I doubt it will be 40 more years until we meet again.

Ciao for now!

Follow the Ciao For Now Blog!

Thank you for following! 
Ciao for Now!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Follow the Ciao For Now Blog!
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form