The day I went to the rest home with Mr. Orlando and Eleonora, I had just about 15 minutes to absorb the news that I had a second cousin in Curinga before we came face to face in the visiting area of the "casa di riposo". Despite the fact that Eleonora told me in the car about my relationship to Maria Orlando, I still couldn't believe what I was hearing. I wanted to believe her, but part of me was still holding onto my own beliefs that I had constructed based on vital records from the town hall: Maria's mother had no children because she had never gotten married.
I was tremendously emotional despite my lingering doubts. I sat in the visiting area and tears were streaming down my face. A box of tissues was no where to be found.
I waited in suspense as Maria walked slowly from her room to the visiting area. Mr. Orlando greeted her in the doorway and said,
"Maria. You have a visitor from America. She is here to see you now."
Maria responded, "Isn't that strange. I dreamt two nights ago that someone was coming to see me from America."
My eyes opened wide and Mr. Orlando said, "Look! She dreamt you were coming. What a coincidence."
Once Maria was seated before me, I was at a loss for words. I had to ask Eleonora to help me because I couldn't get the words out of my mouth.
Word by word, question by question, Eleonora and Mr. Orlando introduced us and asked Maria questions to make sure we were really related. It was an emotional conversation as Maria was reminded of her mother, Rosa Orlando, and Rosa's brother, Carmelo, my grandfather.
"I remember when Carmelo died. The news destroyed my mother. After his death, she became ill and she never really was the same again."
Imagining my great aunt Rosa grieve her brother's death allowed me to experience my grandfather's existence in a very different way. There is something about hearing memories and seeing tears that is much more powerful than reading a death certificate from the town hall. It didn't matter how many times I read my grandfather's death certificate. I couldn't feel his death with a piece of paper. Until I could talk to someone who remembered his passing, it seemed as if he didn't really exist. Before this moment, I had only a handful of stories about him and no pictures to create an image in my mind. My mother shared very little with me about him because he died when she was nine years old. She was never able to tell me much about him, except that he was Calabrese and he would carry her around on his back when she was very little.
It occured to me at that moment while I sat with my second cousin that we shared a commonality. Neither Maria nor I had ever met Carmelo. We had only heard about him through our mothers and we understood the impact his death had on both of our families. With his passing, Rosa lost her hope for her younger brother's future in "America." With his passing, my mother would experience her childhood without a father and her siblings would leave middle school to become the bread winners of the family. Just by hearing Maria speak about this event, I was able to feel myself in the year 1937. I was able to feel some of the grief my family experienced when Carmelo Orlando died.
Two years of my family research culminated on that day in the casa di reposo where I met my second cousin, Maria Orlando. I had worked for 2 years trying to uncover the origins of my grandfather's family. I didn't know who or what I was searching for, but I knew that something wonderful and unexpected was waiting for me in Italy. I had never imagined it would be Maria. Afterall, I had convinced myself that her mother had never given birth to a child since she was listed as single on her death certificate.
The day following my visit to the rest home, I pulled out my digital camera and I looked at a picture of Maria. I felt a surge of energy and assurance run through my body, and it was as if everything fell into place at that moment. I looked more closely at the picture and suddenly I could see my mother's eyes and my uncle's mouth. At that very moment, I had absolutely no doubts that Maria Orlando was my cousin.
I had found my own blood in Curinga.