Spoltore. Near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
What I knew then, what I know now...
Spoltore. Near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
That sentence was the lone thread of my maternal grandparents’ existence in our household after their death. Though the region is now known as Abruzzo, there are few pictures and even fewer stories left behind from their life in another place in time. Fragments of their being were sprinkled throughout recipes in my mother’s cookbooks, and figments of imagination flashed upon photos my mother stored in old shoeboxes. The problem of never asking questions about my grandparents until it’s too late, is that “too late” comes too early, grandparents perishing too soon, my mother, developing dementia while I was in the midst of raising kids, sending them off to college, trying to gain a foothold in my own life.
Still, I dreamed. And schemed. And studied for two years, and learned. And I would plan to hike up and down a few mountainous regions in the many national parks of Abruzzo to find out just a little more about my mother’s family than she might have been able to share.
Records show my grandmother, Raffaela Scurti, arrived in America in 1927 with my mother in her womb. My grandfather, Vincenzo Giuliani, for whom my mother, Vinzenzella, would be named following his death, made several trips back and forth from Spoltore to America, before finally arriving in the U.S. for good. Their final trip was embarked upon together, on the same ship, the Duilio, with markedly different destinations, as well as different destinies for each of them including Mom.
Rafaella went to New York, to stay with a cousin, Ellis Island records state. Perhaps readying a home for his new family, Vincenzo returned to the Steubenville, Ohio, area, where many Spoltorese had settled (Yes, one is not only Italian, one is not even only Abruzzese, but one can be Spoltorese). He departed for Maryland to pick up work wherever it was available, separated from his beloved and his soon-to-be daughter. He died five months later, in Baltimore of encephalitis, after working as a trackman, leaving Raffaela a widow in the small town of Salineville, Ohio where her brother had settled. She gave birth to my mother there. One year later, her mother remarried. The trio moved to Lorain, Ohio following that.
Those intervening months, those during their separation, those after his death, will always remain a mystery. I wished I had asked. I wish I had known more than Spoltore. Near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
Two years ago, one month after the pandemic hit in the U.S., I was naive enough to email Mirella Ammirati, in Abruzzo, Italy, who operated a genealogy research firm, thinking we would all simply have more time on our hands for a bit. I did not recognize the extent to which Italy would succumb to the travesty of Covid-19. She apparently didn’t either. Through her network and the few scraps I could feed her, we pieced together the story of my relatives in Italy. Some of those pieces were woven into my application for Italian citizenship, still in process. Other pieces I neatly filed away for the future.
A future that recently occurred. One involving Spoltore, near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
My siblings and I often wished we could have been more Italian (more so than 100% derived from Italian stock and the talking with the hands), like some of our cousins, or those we called cousins. We wished our distinct ancestral lines was more bold than a few thin strands of a mother’s half-brother and a father’s brother. If only I could find one single thread to warm me in Spotlore. Near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
For months, I planned a trip to Abruzzo, always cautious that Covid or any number of issues might block my path forward. On a rainy Sunday, a few weeks before our embarkation, I decided one last time to dig around on the Internet for any remaining morsels left behind at the family table in Spoltore. Some folks show up in Italy with nothing but photos, and try to locate long-lost relatives in that manner. I was not that kind. I discovered the profile page for an online journal for the town of Spoltore. The editor agreed to post my “notice” asking for relatives connected to certain bloodlines. Within minutes, messages poured in.
There they were: Luigina, Antonio, Viola (named after Violetta, her grandmother). We were second cousins, once removed. I didn’t care about the “removed” part, I wanted to reconstruct.
Our words to each other were sparse. We all had questions, some in Italian, but we didn’t bother much with the details of our lives. We quickly made plans to meet. Spoltore, near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
I planned the first leg for Mark and I to fly into Rome, and settle outside of Spoltore for a night, in a small town of Rosciano. There, where I could nearly look upon Spoltore, we watched Series A soccer with the locals, and drank Cerasuolo wine. I fretted. I wanted my feet firmly on the ground to prepare myself to meet the town that had formed my mother before she knew it, and me, as I wanted to know myself now. All the next day, I procrastinated driving to Spoltore, including a short walk on the long beach of Pineta where the stabilimenti (beach clubs) were closed but the Adriatic was open to accepting my tired toes. The wines of Abruzzo are mostly drunk in place, other than the more widely known Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo. We tasted them all. While none of those activities were a hardship, I didn’t know if I could finally face the outlines of the town, the steeple of San Panfilo, the remnants of the medieval towers. It was Mark who finally asked, “Isn’t that Spoltore,” while I drove. There it was, planted on a hill, with its views of the shallow Adriatic and its old stone buildings spilling out of the town center all the way into the sprawling city of Pescara down below. Though GPS directed us up and up, we could hardly figure out how to navigate throughout the center where the stone mura (wall) separated old from new. Me from being there. What if my Italian wasn’t proficient enough here? I had already been tested by the turnpike worker after we realized we didn’t have a biglietto to get through the gate. What if nobody cared about who I really was? Who was I really?
After settling into our bed and breakfast, a new FB friend living in Spoltore, Antonio, treated us to nighttime tour and dizzying views from the old plaza. The San Panfilo steeple lit, shone a light on where my grandparents had married. The next morning, with the sun risen, our caffe drunk, feet walking lightly on sacred ground, I finally made contact with Spoltore. Near Pescara. In Abruzzi.
In the piazza, my friend Mirella was now accompanied by an older historian, Giustino Pace, (later we would learn was 87) who breathlessly ran up and down the steps of the old town to demonstrate his complete mastery of somewhere I had only stepped inches upon. He’d written several books on the history of Spoltore, greeting us on the plaza, pointing to where my great aunts and uncles once lived. Then, one by the one, the cousins arrived Speaking too fast in Italian, but hugging. Oh, the hugging. Have you ever had a hug that felt like home? I have.
Giustino was anxious to show us the sites where family members once lived (unfortunately, not my grandmother or grandfather), but I felt closeness in the breezes whimpering along the alleyways. He also pointed out the plaque commemorating the invention of the first set dentures, and while we walked, shouted “attenzione” often, to capture my wandering mind.
Finally, I envisioned the town as it existed in early 1900s with its 360 degree views of the Gran Sasso and the Grand Maiella off to the west, the Adriatic Sea off to the east. Of my grandparents’ way of living. Of homes where the animals, mostly sheep, might have lived on the first floor, and the people up above, and maybe that’s why Italians still call the ground floor piano terra and the next floor piano primo. On the northern edge of the valley below, Giustino noted the high rise buildings (maybe four or five stories) where the Giulianis (my grandfather’s side) lived on “that side of town.” The Scurtis would have been more townspeople, or perhaps lived in the dip below where olive trees now crackled in the wind. It would take a few more days, probably months, and an eternity, for this to settle in, to understand the history of the movement of people. Italians didn’t leave their country just because of jobs. Poverty didn’t come from just war but before. The reunification (Risorgimento) brought wealth to those who could already buy the land. And the contadini (my grandparents) lives as farmers were anything but easy, unless you had “sheep money”, of which they had none. What looks lush now only held a whisper of a promise then. From here, I imagined a trip across the Apennines to the port of Napoli where their ship would depart. How do you say goodbye to the fuzzy, cool Adriatic blue in exchange for Atlantic waters and a “blue” no one ever mentions?
In the television series 1883, Sam Elliot as the character Shea Brennan, says to the band of Roma gypsies who must leave behind their worldly belongings to cross the river, “He’s not a musician! And you’re not a carpenter! And he’s not a f*cking blacksmith! You are pioneers! And that’s all you are until you get there! You have no home, no job, no farm! You have the journey. That’s it!” The same was true for an immigrant’s passage to America. Pioneers were just immigrants wearing cowboy boots. It required the same approach to survive.
You have the journey. That’s it. I had to remind myself of this often.
Several times throughout our excursion across the region, I would mention to the proprietor of our palazzo or bed and breakfast about my grandparents being from Spoltore. Near Pescara. I could leave out the Abruzzi part finally. A few remarked with a shrug. Spoltore wasn’t considered a tourist stop. Their main festival was not related to food, like Santo Stefano and lentil beans, but they lived for their Madonna del Popolo parade. But we weren’t here to be tourists. And I have often described the town as possessing a “working charm.” Essentially, Spoltore existed as a place to live, work, survive. Its occupants had. My grandparents had. My mother too, in a way.
Later in the day, after our tour, we met up in a ristorante our cousins’ friends had surprisingly opened just for us, as the business was usually closed on Tuesdays. The name of the ristorante was Bella Addormentata, Sleeping Beauty. This is how they refer to the Grand Maiella. The rise of rock does appear restful, ready to hold a thousand journeys in her body and hands. The meal was exquisite and the antipasti selection was six courses in itself (we counted each one as we stuffed our stomachs), before we were served ravioli con funghi i tartufi. The cousins arrived once more, and we passed around photos we hoped might have belonged to their grandmother, whom they never knew. I wasn’t the only one looking for something.
When our camineriere asked if we’d like a digestivo, the ratafia and the genziana came out. Italians will make liquor out of most anything available. Chestnut wine. Walnut liquor, Gentian root (the root flavor in many amari), Elicriso (everlasting flower). And they will certainly make a party out of an everyday occasion. Though that particular Tuesday would never be described as everyday. Those hours could not have passed more perfectly, the views could not have been more enticing. How could one leave this?
Not to be outdone by his sister’s connections, Antonio called in another favor and opened up the Convento di San Panfilo Fuori le Mura. It’s currently being renovated into an event center, winery, and bed and breakfast. It will most likely put Spoltore on the map, so others might not shrug. The property was stunning. I’m figuring they will be open for bookings when I return. But our walks with Viola’s grandchildren, playing Italian and English words games with them, and talks about our own children with Luigina, and the death of Antonio’s wife only a week prior, those moments when we tried to communicate after our translator had left, moments of being in the company of one another, will last in my memory. Our time came to a close, as the sun was beginning evade even the sleeping beauty. Luigina and Viola drove off. Antonio offered us a ride back into the centro storico, maneuvering through roads in a way we had never accomplished. Later, we would learn the value and romance in getting confused, stuck, backing up, bickering and making up.
Parked in the piazza near our bed and breakfast, a very tall Antonio eased his way out of his small car for one final goodbye. All of Spotlore was contained in that one sweep of his arms around me.
Maybe we all need that connection to make the world feel accessible, life doable, and love touchable. For the next week or so, the cousins checked in through FB and WhatsApp. How was I finding Abruzzo? What else was I doing? Biking, hiking, eating every possible form of pecorino cheese. I shivered and sweat, drank and ate. Mostly, I missed my mother.
In 2005, when I took she and my father to Italy, along with my sibling, I explicitly asked, almost begged, “Should we go to Spoltore, near Pescara, in Abruzzi?” We would could have found the time in our itinerary, or a private escort. The province and town was only two-hour drive from Rome. My parents would drive two hours in a half day if one of their kids needed something, anything. We’d drive two hours just to find the best Italian delis or an ancestors’ grave near Steubenville.
I never knew what made my mother choose the pope (she was insistent to see all of Rome that we could) or Assisi (frescoes of St. Francis populate the convento) over her family. By then, she had lost contact with relatives there. Also, there was little internet information available at that time. It’s hard to go back to a place you know your parents left because of difficulties or being downcasts, when you know they forsook their own parents. As it was hard to return to Italy without my mother at my side, smiling as she did, to represent the saying how Abruzzese are forte e gentile, strong and kind.
Later, in the cimitario, we found graves of my mother’s first cousins, those she had written to, one who had more or less chastised, I have not heard from you in a long time. I don’t know why they lost contact. Life became consuming for my mother, with grandchildren helping to raise, cookies to be made, ravioli to be rolled. She was becoming strong and kind.
Or she had no need of roots, something she learned from Raffaela. She was busy growing her own, roots that grounded me.
As we packed to leave Spoltore, tears bubbled out from the corners of my eyes. “You can’t miss a place you haven’t left,” Mark said. Non puoi perderti un posto che non hai ancora lasciato. But I could
Nearing the end of our journey in Abruzzo, we stayed in Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Luca, the owner of the palazzo where we lodged, and I had several conversations, me speaking Italian, he wanting to use English. During our goodbyes, he hugged me, saying “Ciao, paesano.” The sunbeams emanating off the palazzo frescoes mingled with that of my own light. I now belonged. To Spoltore, near Pescara, in Abruzzo.
I’ll have more to share in the upcoming weeks…but work returns:
My colleague, Pauletta Hansel, and I continue to offer writing experiences for caregivers and those who grieve. Our next offerings our November 9th for caregivers, (FREE, virtual, 1 p.m.) and November 17th in partnership with Hospice at 5:30 in person. (email Marjorie_Rentz@trihealth.com).
Here’s a little something new: October 22: A Lloyd Library writing workshop in conjunction with Women Writing for (a) Change. As a nurturer of the written word, and also photography, you might have particular interest in a workshop that is in partnership with this year's FotoFocus theme of World Record. As you can imagine, there's plenty to write on that particular subject! Here's the link for more information and to register!
Look for more upcoming announcements about workshops on revising with a new set of eyes—coming soon!
Last week, I was a featured speaker at a caregiving conference. I’m so thankful caregivers have found places to feel safe and share in their challenges. One piece of advice I gave was based on my recent travels. To be strong and kind. My mother always was. As we caregivers, we can learn to do this too. But sometimes, at first, we have to be strong.
Thanks for following along and reading about my incessant obsession with everything Italian. I’ve left out a few lessons and experiences, but they will make their way into my writing soon. Let’s stay in touch!
Annette, this search for the past is very like my own. My grandfather, Donato DiPasquale was born in Villa San Giovanni a commune of Rosciano where did you stay there! We, my husband, son and future wife made our journey in 2018 after my genealogical research on Ancestry, Facebook, Italian sites etc. my grandfather came to Pennsylvania in 1912, worked in the H.C.Frick coal mines south of Pittsburgh and married my grandmother in 1917. He was drafted and fought in the final push of WWI in 1918. He did return home and they had 5 children. But as a result of his severe war wounds he died in 1930. My mother shared a lot and I listened a lot and there were various pictures and documents. My mom passed and I continued with half a heart. Donato left two sisters and a brother in Villa San Giovanni. We used Italia Sweet Italia as our tour guide and we visited with my second cousins in Villa Oliveti. I definitely left part of my heart there. We stay in touch.
As always, a great read. I want to go to Spoltore too now, and be Italian <3