Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Maria Orlando: 1924-2009

Maria and Jennifer holding a picture of Maria's cousins, October 2009

Mi dispiace dirti che Maria Orlando e morta oggi presso l'ospedale di Lamezia Terme. I funerali si faranno lunedi alle 13,30.
November 21, 2009

I am sorry to tell you that Maria Orlando died today at the Lamezia Terme hospital. The funeral will be on Monday at 1:30pm.

I woke up this morning and stumbled to the kitchen to prepare my morning coffee. On the way to the kitchen, I grabbed my Blackberry and opened it up to that message. I stopped in my tracks. Maria died only one month after my departure from Italy.

It turns out that Maria was hospitalized two weeks ago for renal failure and an enlarged heart. She looked fine when I saw her at the rest home. She was slow and needed a walker to get around, but there was no indication that she was about to die. I am still stunned by the news. Stunned by the fact that I made it in time to meet my cousin. Only two weeks after my departure she would fall ill and start her journey over to the other side, that which awaits us all.

I feel a mix of sorrow and gratitude. I am sad because I have lost the most precious part of my trip to Curinga: Maria Orlando. At the same time, I feel grateful because I was given the opportunity to find her and meet her before she passed on. If you have followed my journey closely, you know that my meeting Maria was a major milestone in tracing my roots back to Curinga. Maria was the treasure, the last survivor of my grandfather’s family tree, and she was a surprise to top it all off. I never knew Maria existed because vital records for her mother did not indicate that her mom had given birth to Maria. Rosa was single, “nubile” as her death certificate read.

In the days since I returned from Curinga to my home in the United States, I have proudly showed everyone my picture of Maria. Each time I have an opportunity to tell my story about this journey, I pull out my Blackberry and I fondly show my friends the picture of Maria and me holding a picture of her first cousins, Bruno, Lucy, and Angela. She had not known about her first cousins, since they grew up in the United States and she stayed in Curinga her entire life. Nonetheless, I felt it was important for her to be aware of them, not only because they were all so close in age, but also because my mom was her first cousin.

When Sister Anna Lisa took that picture of us in the rest home during my second visit, I was overcome with a feeling of completeness. Despite the fact that my mother and her siblings had passed on and we only held a picture of them in our hands, our connection at that moment was the reunion of two branches in our family tree. Two branches that had been separated in 1909 by an ocean, a different language, a new life in Pennsylvania, and the early death of my grandfather in 1937. 100 years later, I would make my way to back to my grandfather’s town to discover Maria and introduce her to the rest of her family. We had come full circle together. We found each other and we mended the tree.

For me, the timing of these events is an affirmation that our actions and decisions are not necessarily a mere coincidence. There is a greater force at work here, call it/he/she what you would like. The fact that I would arrive to Curinga to meet Maria for the first time only a month and half before her demise, the fact that I didn’t wait until Christmas like I had originally planned, the fact that Maria had dreamt she would have a visitor from the United States two days before my arrival to the rest home...This experience has allowed me see God’s work in all its beauty. I am humbled and grateful to have been given this gift of Maria Orlando, as brief as our time was together.

Maria Orlando, September 14, 1924 – November 21, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lettera Aperta a Jennifer

Jennifer at her grandfather's house in Curinga

About a year before I arrived to Curinga, I sent an email to the webmaster for the Curinga Insieme website. I saw that they invited readers to send publications and letters, so I decided to take a chance and send my letter to be published on their website. The webmaster, Cesare Cesareo, was nice enough to publish my short note and we continued to exchange emails about my interest in Curinga.

During my last weekend in Curinga, I had the pleasure of visiting Cesare's home where I met his wife and adorable cat, Kalos. We talked about my genealogy research, my impressions of Curinga, and my desire to return to Calabria to experience more of Curinga and the surrounding areas.

Cesare has written a very moving letter about my desire to turn back the clock, or perhaps stop it as he says, so that I could find my roots and pay homage to my ancestors who once resided in this beautiful town on a hilltop overlooking the sea.

I plan to translate this letter to English, but for the moment, I have it here as Cesare has written it Italian.

Thank you, Cesare. Thank you for your genuine interest in my journey back to my roots, back to Curinga.

"Jennifer è una persona che è nata, vive e lavora in un piccolo stato del grande continenteamericano, nulla di eccezionale o di trascendentale Come lei, milioni, miliardi di individui vivonolavorano, amano, socializzano, ma Jennifer forse è un po’ speciale.

Un po’ speciale forse perché immersa nel nostro caotico mondo ritmato da un tempo che sembrasempre più veloce, ha sentito la necessità di fermarsi un attimo, di rallentare il tempo, di fermarlo,anzi.. ritornare indietro in un passato non vissuto ma vagheggiato ed amato.

In un mondo che corre solo verso il futuro il suo è stato un gesto controcorrente, un atto di fedenella ricerca di cose mai viste e lontane, che sembrano senza tempo, senza forma, immerse in unlimbo nebbioso che solo la volontà e la determinazione riescono a chiarificare.

Jennifer ha voluto rivivere, anzi vivere, un esperienza mai vissuta, che fermentava nel suo cuore enei suoi più reconditi pensieri. Un salto nel grembo di quella madre terra che ha visto nascere i suoiantenati. Curinga, un punto insignificante di questo nostro mondo ,Curinga, un nome come tantialtri, Curinga, però, punto di arrivo di un percorso d’amore e di ricerca interiore.

Ed eccola in questo lembo di terra tra mare cielo, tra ulivi secolari e fertile pianura, tra storia eleggenda , tra fatica di restare e forza per andarsene, Curinga piccolo per tanti, ma grande per chi dalontano lo vede come punto fermo inscindibile dal proprio essere.

Il passeggiare tra le strade percorse dai propri cari, il vicolo, la casa, la ruga, il contatto umano, ilcalore del camino, il baccalà fritto, i fagioli con l’olio nuovo, i sorrisi, i racconti, il dialetto, lasperanza e, poi… Maria… trovata, ritrovata …contatto vero con il mondo fino ad allora immaginatoe sognato.

Grazie Jennifer, per averci ricordato le tante persone le centinaia di famiglie che col pianto nel cuore hanno dovuto lasciare la loro terra, ma vivendo in una terra lontana hanno mantenuto e vissuto quanto di positivo e di bello era rimasto nei loro cuori."

Cesare Natale Cesareo

Letter at the Curinga Insieme website

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rosa Orlando

Filming by Rick Allred

I keep thinking about my great aunt Rosa, Maria Orlando’s mother. Rosa was born in 1881, and she was the older sister of my grandfather, Carmelo.

Before I even arrived to Curinga, I had been creating an image of her in my mind. The image was based on written documentation that provided a few scant details about her life. She was single, she was a spinster, and she died at the age of 70 in 1951. Then there were my own colorings, those that came from my vivid imagination and from a 21st century perspective. Even though I tried to be cognizant of the fact that she lived in a different time period, my own assumptions crept into the picture. The biggest assumption of all of them was that she never had children because she never married. I had painted her as a somewhat angelic woman who stayed at home spinning yarn and taking care of her elderly parents. OK, so I was a bit off. Nobody’s perfect though. So, we can cut her some slack.

I sit here and chuckle now as I recall my first reaction upon learning that my great aunt Rosa did have children despite the fact she never got married. Her first child died at birth in 1915, and Maria arrived in 1924. I think I felt a bit embarrassed because I didn’t know how my other relatives in Curinga would respond to this information. I know, it’s completely ridiculous. As if the Orlando family could disapprove of me because my great aunt, whom I never even met, had a child with a man who was married to someone else. “Oh dear! An affair!”

I also felt a strange mix of curiosity and sorrow. Curiosity about whether she had the two children with the same man, or if they were two different fellows. Curiosity about how they met and what sort of interaction took place between them up until the time she got pregnant. I felt sorrow too because I know that she lived in poverty and couldn’t provide for her daughter the way she would have wanted to.

In talking to people in Curinga about Rosa, I have two very different accounts. The first came from Maria, her daughter. Maria described her with great sorrow and tears in her eyes. She described her as “an old woman who was very poor and had to take donations ”. When I asked her if she was a spinster, she nodded and told me that Rosa would even spin thread from her bed when she was ill in her last years.

The other account I have is quite different. It comes from a couple I met on the same street where Rosa and Maria lived. Imagine what a serendipitous moment this was for me as I strolled along with my friend, Rick Allred. He and I were taking pictures together, and a man saw us from a distance. He signaled us to come to his woodworking shop so we could take pictures. He gestured and said, “Foto per l’America.” Then he asked us what we were doing in Curinga. I explained that I was visiting the house where my grandfather was born, just up the street. He asked me who my grandfather was, and I responded, “He was the brother of Rosa Orlando.”

Well, never did I expect that he would tell me he knew Rosa. But he did. He remembered her from his childhood. And he was convinced his wife would remember Rosa too because he said his wife “has a very good memory.”

So, Rick and I were gracefully invited into their home to have a coffee and talk about Rosa. In this account, Rosa was described from the perspective of two children who knew her when she was already advanced in age. Their impression of her was that she was nice, happy, and she liked to play games with them. She was a short woman, and rather rotund, and she had no teeth. I asked them whether she liked to sing (because my grandfather sang and played the accordion) and they said she would sing in the street.

Two very different accounts about the same person.

Rosa, the single mom who lived in poverty and had to ask for donations to eat and feed her child.

Rosa, the old spinster who was pleasant and who liked to play games with the children.

So much of how we perceive people depends on our own relationship to the person at the time in which we interact with them. What I remember as a child about the adults who surrounded me is much different than what I would notice today about the same people. My memories of my mother are far different from the impressions of the people who worked with her because they only saw one side of her at a given point in time.

This I believe is an important consideration when doing genealogy research. When we interview family and friends, it’s important to remember their context, age, and relationship and how all those factors can influence their perception.

Both accounts are real and valid for me. Which one is more accurate? I don’t know. What I like about the two accounts I have is that they balance each other out. If I had only talked to Maria, Rosa’s daughter, I would have settled with a very somber impression of Rosa’s life. Nonetheless, this couple brought some hope to my character sketch. They let me see a woman who clearly left a favorable impression on them.

In the end, the most important piece of Rosa that I discovered during this trip was Maria Orlando. Little did Rosa know back in 1924 that her new born daughter would be the missing link, 85 years later when I arrived to Curinga in search of my roots.

Thank you, Rosa Orlando.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Grandfather's House in Curinga

It has been two weeks since I returned to the United States after my two-week sojourn in Italy. My body has practically adjusted to the time change, the food and solitary dinners at home, but I hang on as best I can to some of the emotions and sensations that ran through my body during those two weeks in Curinga. I know that much of what I experienced in Italy was a better reflection of my true self, that is, who I really am at my core. It’s sad to think that I don’t have those feelings filling me up every day of my life. Isn’t that what life is about? Feeling we are being true to ourselves so we have no regrets later on?

Here are two small piece of the joy I recorded while searching for my roots in Curinga. One is the video of me finding my grandfather's house, and the other is this written testimony:

“I can't help but think that my mother, my grandfather, and Maria's mother, Rosa, are observing Maria and me in complete satisfaction. They must be filled with joy, and perhaps their happiness is what's overflowing inside of me. I rarely have felt so full. For our ancestors to observe such beauty, such love, without emotion would be impossible. I know my grandfather, Carmelo, is pleased with this journey I have made. He is playing his accordion to celebrate this homecoming, and the Orlando family ancestors are dancing to the sound of a tarantella, a song that has been composed just for this trip to Curinga.

There is no material possession that can substitute the happiness we carry within us. When our hearts are full, there is no need to look outside ourselves for something to fill the void. Sometimes we need experiences like these to remind us about what really matters in life."

Circolo Calabrese