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On a hill in Italy

June 20, 2010

Featured Article, Words

This being Father’s Day, I am reprinting this tale of a visit to the sunny  hillside in southern Italy where my father, Dulio Faustino Imbrogno, first checked into the world. Originally published Father’s Day, 2006, in the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va.. This essay is adapted from the website ‘Calabrian Journal.’

By Douglas Imbrogno

I peer out the window at the Atlantic Ocean’s white-flecked face, 30,000 feet below. We rocket eastward. If I could peer 75 years into the past, down there I’d see a ship churning westward. It bears my grandfather, Eugenio Imbrognio, gone to America out of the hills of Calabria in southern Italy.

A few years later comes another ship. In steerage, sits my grandmother, Caterina Napoli Imbrognio, summoned to America by Eugenio. He has found work in an Ohio steel mill. She journeys with their three boys, the youngest just 4 years old. The toddler, who would one day become my father, has left Italy and will never return.

I turn my attention to the cabin, which is filling with light. The pilot announces we’ll land in Rome within the hour. Goodbye, America, ciao, Italia. We’ve traveled 3,100 miles this night, out of the New World, into a bright sun rising above the Old World.


Exotic, Yet Familar

My older brother David and I meet up in Rome with our two aunts, Loretta and Teresa, my father’s younger sisters. Born in America, both still retain some of the Calabrese dialect spoken in their house while growing up. From the Termini station in Rome’s heart, we plunge six hours south by train to Cosenza in Calabria. We whip past Naples, Positano, Salerno, the train tracing the coastline along the Thyrennian Sea. Then, it veers inland into the Italian hillbilly heartland.

Our bloodlines go far back in these hills. Yet once introductions begin in Calabria, I soon become thoroughly befuddled as to who and which is a blood relative. Family ties criss and cross here, where Imbrognos, Napolis, Lupanos, Fazios, all intermarried. Too many oil-thick espressos in teensy white ceramic cups keep me awake in the jet-lagged evenings. I scribble and ponder, soaking up something that isn’t quite knowledge. More like music, a tune exotic yet familiar.

One night, David and I look down on the glittery lights of Cosenza and it suburb, Rende. Ernesto, a second (or third?) cousin on the Napoli (or Imbrogno?) side, points into the valley. He has brought us to this high place to show us something.

That, he says, in Italian, is where somewhere il tesoro di Alerica il Barbarian — the treasure of Aleric the Barbarian — is buried. In the Crati River. Or maybe in the Busento, which joins the Crati in Calabria, which flows to the Mediterranean Sea.

For centuries, treasure seekers, scholars, dreamers, have come to Cosenza, seeking but not finding the treasure of this invader who breathed his last here and was buried with his loot in the diverted bed of a river. The river was returned to its course and his treasure passed out of history.

I imagine another history. I try to sense it in the night. The exact hillside where my father, where il mio nonno, la mia nonna — my grandfather and my grandmother — grew up, in houses of stone. I listen keenly to the hills that sheltered my family for centuries until some took flight for the valleys  and hills of America. Pursuing other treasures, other dreams there.


It’s All Relative

'Parole Di Vita Eterna' (Words of Eternal Life) up in the attic | photo by douglas imbrogno

In Rende, we’re adopted by Teresa and Vittorio, a good thing. Teresa’s mother was one of my Grandma Catherine’s 12 siblings. That makes her my great aunt. From a side porch off their fifth-floor apartment we glance upward into the green hills ringing the town, to a tiny bloom of tan buildings: San Pietro in Guarano. For the first time, David and I glimpse the tiny hilltop town near the hillside where my father was born. We gaze awhile.

Then, Vittorio appears with scissors in hand. He bends over a pot on the porch, snips a handful of small hot peppers from the pepper plant growing in the pot. Inside, at the kitchen table, he hands me the  scissors and a small bowl of the pepper. I clip a few into the fresh-made penne pasta to add a kick to that day’s lunch. Teresa serves many memorable meals: pan-fried slabs of nutty scamorzo cheese, homemade gnocchi, spicy plates of corkscrew fusili.

Vittorio urges David and me to eat yet more of the fresh local olives that always sit on the table, in pool of light oil. And to keep our glasses full of the homemade red wine always at hand. “Douglas,” he says, noodging the bottle down the table. “Finish.”

One morning, a local man named Roberto, fluent in English and a surprise relative (we seemed to be related to every fourth person in Rende), drives us up to San Pietro in Guarano. As children, my father and grandparents would trek from their farmhouses, by foot or donkey, for a visit to the bustle — such as it was in the early 20th century — of San Pietro. There’s still not much bustle in this town of precipitous, serpentine streets, perched snug against the lowest clouds.

When asked about my roots, I sometimes joke: “I come from a long line of Italian peasants.” Are these “my people”? On my dad’s side, the family raised sheep, sold horses. I think that’s right. The family history is foggy, snatches of half-remembered tidbits, possibly wrong. Yet here we are, standing where my father took his first fumbling steps. It’s another kind of knowing.


Houses of Stone

Olive Trees above the Old House | Calabria, Italy | photo by douglas imbrogno

One morning, Roberto arrives to drive us to the hillside where my father was born. After a switchback 10-minute drive, we park the car. We take a five-minute hike down onto a green hillside. We are standing upon the hill where my father, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather called home.

The hillside is remarkably fertile still. An orange tree stands near my grandfather’s house, fruit the size of billiard balls. High hedges of roses grow by the porch, pink with a musky, spirit-lifting aroma.

Regimented rows of olive trees ring the ridgelines like a thick broccoli forest. We can be sure, Roberto notes, we’re looking at trees my father and his father looked upon or perhaps harvested. A wall of cane lines the lower hillside. The stiff cane stalks make good sticks to whack olive trees, bringing down a rain of olives when the time is ripe.

As we walk, my hand tickles the heads of thousands of sprigs of yellow-budded fennel, a common sausage flavoring. Its licorice freshness is good straight up as we walk, nature’s gratis breath mint.

My Aunt Loretta, the family’s devoted genealogist, pauses in the middle of the hill where our family history can be seen as if in chapters. At the bottom rests the house where my grandfather, Eugenio, lived as a young man. At the top, a steep walk of about 100 yards through the fennel, sits a larger stone house where his future wife, Caterina, was born and raised. (The story goes that my grandfather would see my grandmother on horseback or donkey on the hill. From those first flirtatious glances a family of nearly 200 descendants — and counting — sprang.)

In the middle of the hill, off in the bushes, lies an even older house where Michele Napoli, my great-grandfather, lived. And his parents, Pietro and Caterina, before that.


Doors to the Past

Jacket on the wall | Calabria, Italy | photo by douglas imbrogno

I eye a copse of old trees and wonder: Did my father rest against that tree when it was a sapling? Did he flee his own father’s draconian, Old World discipline? Escaping into bird calls and rustling leaves? A vision comes to mind of a dark-haired, hazel-eyed boy, peeking from behind gnarled bark.

We’re unsure whether my father was born in the lower house or higher one, where the Napolis lived. That’s where Eugenio and Caterina moved after they were married and began having children. For sure, from one of these front doors my father was led one day as a child, the door closing behind him for good. Forever. I picture Caterina hand-in-hand with her youngest boy, named Duilio (the name is spelled that way on his original passport, but would be changed once he came to America to ‘Dulio’ like ‘Julio’) Across the ocean they go, Caterina and her three boys, ages 4, 6 and 7, through Ellis Island, the  front door to America.

Mother Nature grasps at the houses with tendrils of vines and assaults of weeds, tenacious in reclaiming all that has been imposed upon the land. But Calabrian contadinos built tenacious homes of their own.

A door to the back of my grandfather’s house gives a glimpse inside this peasant world. I expect to find gloomy walls and decay. But the walls are cheery, splashed with faded, but still-bright pastel colors of pink, green and blue.

All three houses are no longer lived in, although the land is still kept up. Other families resided here after my relatives left. The rooms remain full of the evidence of living: piles of dusty wine bottles, steamer trunks, weathered books, old jackets, ancient calendars. One of these rooms is where my father was birthed one day in late September 1925.

Inside a storage room lie tools for wresting a living from these hills — a rusted pickax, a draft horse collar. It was as if someone had stashed them after a day’s hard work 80 years ago and walked away. David and I are both struck by the sight of an old coat, hung on a nail in a room whose floor fell in ages ago. It’s easy to imagine it is my Grandpa Eugene’s work coat, hung there after a day working with the tools around back.

I’ve arrived in Italy wearing a $300 distressed leather jacket, purchased at a Kenneth Cole shop in Las Vegas. I bought it new but paid so much since for it it looks and feels old, the leather deliberately smudged and buttery soft. It’s nearly the same color, nearly the same cut as this genuinely worn jacket which has hung on this Italian hillside for who knows how many years.

The reason I could ever afford mine, I remind myself, is because of all the blood, sweat and tears encoded in these three houses, perched in a row on this hillside.


Root stock

Cemetary with a view | Rende, Italy | photo by douglas imbrogno

In the house of my great-great-grandfather, we find empty wine barrels. Centuries of wine were made in this room, says Roberto, our newfound relative whose family also once lived in the topmost house.

Here, he says, they would “jog on da’ grapes.” He points to a concrete basin in the petite two-story stone house. “This maybe 200, 300 years old,” he says, wrapping his arm around the ancient wine press as if it’s an old friend.

Other relatives lead us to a well-kept, often-visited cemetery near Rende, where we discover family graves and Imbrognos buried in profusion.

Once my father had moved from the Ohio town where his father settled — a place where many Imbrognos would eventually be listed in the phone book — the pickings got slim in other cities where we came to live. We kids would search for our name in phone books and come up empty. Now, to see tomb after tomb lettered with the names of related Imbrognos and Napolis — here is Divina, my grandmother’s sister, here’s Michele and Luisa, my great-grandparents — is a reminder of our root stock.

Later, my brother and I spend a quiet afternoon in the houses where my father was born and raised. It’s a gift. A lesson. We were a seed blown across the Atlantic from these rich fields.

We bring something back. David finds a portion of the red roof tile from my grandfather’s house, fallen to the ground. Back in America, on my father’s last day on earth in a Cincinnati hospital — Jan. 8, 2005 – David eased into his dying hand a tile from the house that my father first called home.

~ View an extended, photo-essay version of this essay at Calabrian Journal

~ See “The Key to My Grandfather’s House,” by my older brother David Imbrogno, a  wonderful and moving photo essay, inspired by the same trip, in which he stumbles upon a key in the grass outside the house where our father was born.

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