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.

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