Pietraperzia, Sicily -- Ancient Roots

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Search and Discovery

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The day was bright in Pietraperzia Sicily and the sunlight harsh. On the way into town we pass a shepherd driving his flock across the verdant green rolling hills. As we enter town we discover the community water supply my grandmother would have known and where this morning a farmer and his tractor is getting water and cleaning the tractor filters. Tractors are coming and going in and out of town and slowed us down a bit as we enter Pietraperzia. The possibly century old water fountain clearly suffers from neglect as it has both graffiti spray painted all over it and the stone is dirty and black from years of not being cleaned. The square or the roundabout has dirt and mud everywhere and trash strewn about as is often the case throughout much of Sicily. We stop to look at the water supply and catch our breath and walk around - and look into the main town before we drive into it.

We drive up the old cobblestone streets of Pietraperzia, to the commune as the city hall is called each of the small towns in Sicily, and park in a crowded small square on a very steep hill with very large rough hewn black cobblestones on the road. Around the corner from where we park is a man repairing some of those cobblestones.

This small village is much as we have seen throughout the countryside of Sicily where we often encountered many old abandoned buildings, some as long ago as the earthquake of the 1800s.

 The village of Pietraperzia

The village of Pietraperzia

 Pietraperzia

Pietraperzia

Into the commune we go to inquire about the location of the records office and encounter a woman serving as a receptionist who is partially blind and doesn't speak  English.  Because she was unable to see it is very very difficult to communicate with her - I can't show her the google translate questions.  As we are enter the building though we encounter a man whose name was Franco who, although he speaks no English, turns out to be exactly who and what we needed to get through this whole entire process today. As I am explaining to him what we are doing there and mention the names Alba and Marotta he tells me several times that he has a friend - Mia Amici - whose name is Filippina Alba. He takes us upstairs to the records office where we meet the two extremely helpful and wonderful and enthusiastic women who run the records office. After some negotiating between Italian and English with our Google app and showing them the immigration and naturalization papers I've brought with us for both my grandmother and grandfather, they knew exactly what to do and where to go. They proceed to a back room and come back with two massive hand written record book with extremely beautiful florid handwriting from the 1800s that are the town's birth records -  and in a heartbeat find Maria Alba and Francesco Marotta.

The paper is yellowed and in some cases loose within the book, and for them to be a find a specific record of our grandparents birth they consult an index at the back of the book with a record number locating the particular record. Old but simple and ingenious method. Maria Alba is record number 206 in the book and Francesco Marotta is number 150.

The records office is an amazing throwback to the 60s and 70s. It has the typical heavy metal furniture institutional green with large file cabinets, stuff strewn everywhere.  There are religious icons on every wall including crosses and pictures of Jesus and Mary and other saints.

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 Maria Alba Birth Records

Maria Alba Birth Records

We are at this point already unable to believe our good fortune as I for one had come to manage my own expectations about what we might achieve. It might have been enough on the day before to drive by the town unexpectedly on our way to Agrigento and see the tightly packed village on the hillside facing the road with the bright morning sunlight bathing the beautiful buildings. That was my grandmother's home town that could have been sufficient. I had assumed, apparently incorrectly so, that we would get there and get responses such as "no you can't do this, it is private information" or "this information doesn't exist or the fire in the old town hall destroyed everything years prior" or it was all just lost to the ages - we had just simply naturally assumed the least amount of success possible - this kind of success was beyond her imagination.

At this point everyone in the room is ecstatic - the two women who were helping us could not believe their own good fortune and in the process this man Franco who had been helping us begins to repeat that his friend Filippina Alba maybe the Alba whom we are looking for in Pietraperzia. What they all stress us is that there are hundreds of Marottas in the region, in only one Alba family. So, Franco calls his friend Filippina Alba and before we know it she's in the office.

And so our good fortune compounds as she comes with a man who speaks perfect English and is a former resident of Saugus MA, knows our hometown of Medford - and has moved to Pietraperzia to retire.

Through this translator I show him our genealogy which we have with my grandmother and her four siblings and we are astounded as our good fortune continues to compound. My grandmother's brother Giuseppe is Fillipina's grandfather! He is our great uncle. What this means is Filippina is our cousin. After she fills in some of the genealogy with more detail and we talk further, I asked her about our grandmother s visits to Sicily many decades prior. Maria Alba came on at least one or two occasions to visit with family and I ask her who she would have visited. She says her and her mother. And again our good fortune compounds as she says her mother is still alive and living in Pietraperzia, has letters from our grandmother. Letters I remember my grandmother sending and receiving, she even gave me the Italian stamps from those letters she received from our relatives here.

New Cousins And Visit With Our Aunt Cologera Alba

 Paul Marotta, Filippina Alba, Cologera Alba, Frank Marotta

Paul Marotta, Filippina Alba, Cologera Alba, Frank Marotta

After my disbelief she says she wants to call her mother, our aunt, and see if she's willing to visit with us, which she does. So, our whole entourage embarks with multiple cars to go the few blocks it takes to go over to Aunt Cologera's house. We park the car in a small alley behind what appears to be an abandoned house and are told that one of these abandoned houses is our great uncle Giuseppe Alba's former house where he lived many years ago.

Our translator leads us on the way behind Filippina bringing his American guests and their new family behind him, but before we enter Cologera's house, in old ancient Sicilian custom he asks her "Permisso"? Or in other words may we enter, and she replies "Si," so up we go.

On our way to her house there are many abandoned buildings. Our translator explains to me what we are seeing. The residents lived upstairs and beneath house the animals were often stored and often tied up outside to a metal hook. This village is ancient and modern at the same time. When we go to Cologera's house, it is a wonderfully restored building with nice wrought iron handrails and marble steps leading to a beautifully appointed kitchen.

When we meet Cologera she has some mobility issues and uses a walker with wheels, and has a smile that is huge and so effervescent, her eyes light up and her face is bright and brilliant. She is every bit as gentle and sweet as we knew our grandmother Maria Alba to be. She can barely contain herself meeting her nephews and manages to walk around the kitchen without her walker.

It seems however we have interrupted her dinner preparation activities as on the table is a mound of shelled fava beans. And on the patio is a bucket filled with unshelled fava beans. Filippina arranges three chairs for us, with Cologera's in the center so that Frank and I can flank her on either side. As I help her sit and she readily takes my hand to help place her into her seat, she immediately takes her arm and wraps it under and through mine as we sit and won't let go. She is so happy to see her long-lost family.

As we sit at the table she wants to clear the fava beans and we implore her to let them stay. Filippina goes to the next room and comes back with a couple of shoe boxes. Again our good fortune compounds as in them are not only those letters from my grandmother, but pictures. Photographs Maria Alba was sending of her family including us kids. Our grandmother was so proud of her grandchildren, including my dad's brother's children from New York, that she kept sending her pictures. It was amazing to see pictures of us as children in her box on her kitchen table in Pietraperzia.

As we look at the old photographs from the 1960s and 1970s and take cell phone pictures of them on the table, our translator reads one of the letters from our grandmother to Cologera. It is most gracious and elegant letter that you can imagine including things like "may good fortune grace upon you and smile upon you and we are so happy for you," it just goes on and on with graciousness and elegance.

One of the pictures she shows us is of  her mother and her father on their wedding day. Giuseppe and his new bride are proud and very happy. It seems the wedding dress that his bride, my grandmother's sister-in-law is wearing, is made from material that my grandmother sent her from the US.

After an hour or two of this we are a bit numb. My hands are shaking we have goose bumps - we are overwhelmed and cannot believe our good fortune. We take our leave and our hosts are exceedingly gracious - and Cologera is stunningly radiant in her late 80s or early 90s.

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Lunch and Yet More Cousins

Earlier that morning the women from the records office recommended we eat lunch at a restaurant called da Vicenzo. So, Frank and I head over to eat and sit down with more than a bit of disbelief. Life changing in Frank's words.  

Frank goes to the "Il Bagno" and I order water and a small carafe of the local wine. There aren't many people in the restaurant but it's clearly a well respected family-style restaurant. At the other end of the room is a large table with about 8 or 10 people eating. I overhear a conversation in English that says something to the effect of your sister was related to his brother who married their uncle, the same sort genealogy discussion which brought us here as well, and mention of Boston in Northampton.

 I'm stunned. I get up and walk over to their table and they all look at me as if to say who is the stranger about to disturb our lunch. I ask to them in English at the risk of interrupting your lunch can I say hello and ask you who you are. Turns outthey are a group of Americans in the restaurant and they can hardly believe their good fortune and I can hardly believe my good fortune as these folks were from Boston and Northampton. They are on their second or third trip to the region in search for their own relatives. At the table with them is an Italian man and his wife was named Francesco Marotta. It turns out he's no relation to us as he describes his father's family which consisted of 10 siblings.

However the relevance here is about to reveal itself. Frank and I talk with them for a few minutes and all are amazed at the coincidences, we all laugh and have a great time but Frank and I beg our leave to sit down to our wine. In the door walks a family of three - a man his wife and their child. They sit down, order some food, and the wife gets up and goes to talk to the previous table with all the Americans and Francesco Marotta who explain to her who we are.

The "who we are" is extremely relevant here as it turns out we are her cousins. Unbeknownst to her she walked into the restaurant where we are eating lunch and tho she had been told earlier by her sister Filippina who we were, she hadn't come here intentionally to meet us.  She comes over to our table and tells us that Filippina is her sister and Cologera is her mother!

We pick ourselves up off the floor yet again, hardly able to believe our good fortune, take pictures of us all, we talk with them, have lunch, everybody's having a riot of a good time - no one could believe that we have all just simply walk into each other's lives. After more time at the table with the genealogy and filling in more blanks, we let them know that we need to take or leave do a few more things around town and then get to Enna before nightfall as its already late afternoon. They, with the most gracious hospitality you can imagine, pay our lunch bill and will not let us leave without them. In fact they insist on taking us around town as one of the things we need to do is to go to visit the church where her grandmother had her first communion a century earlier.

What She Saw

It seems everyone to whom I show this amazing picture of my grandmother as a young girl on the steps of a church in her first communion dress makes people's jaws drop. When we show it to our latest cousins, by the way they have a child who is 16 years old who is our nephew, they insist on taking us to the church where the communion took place. The church was called Chiesa Madre and is now called Chiesa Matrice.

 Maria Alba on Communion Day in the mid 1910s

Maria Alba on Communion Day in the mid 1910s

It's early May and already the heat begin to be felt but as we walk around the town and I'm beginning to realize that I have a sunburn on my arms. The midday light is bright and beginning to feel like the harsh Mediterranean Sicilian sun we've all read about. We're only here for the day yet little adolescent Maria Alba, standing on the steps of the church for her first communion, grew up in this searing summer heat of Central Sicily and Pietraperzia.

Driving up the steep cobblestone streets was difficult in our over packed little rental car and it's really difficult to imagine what it was like to walk on these streets and play on them every day. Our knees creak and our ankles ache as our feet slip on the cobble strewn steep streets at the top of the town, it is simply not easy. She played on these streets, went to school here, went to church, shopped, had her first communion here. The picture of her brother Giuseppe at Cologera's shows a wrinkled weathered sun creased face.

Filippinasister offered to take us to the church of Maria Alba's first communion after lunch, and here we all are in the bright hot afternoon sun with the old stone façade weathered by the centuries and glowing in the mid afternoon light. It's imposing and ominous in its light orange and yellowish stone, but it is peasant country simple in its design and construction.

On the day of her communion Maria Alba walked up this very street, stood on these church steps and had her take picture taken in her pious and simple communion dress - her hands folded  in front of her as she looks into the camera. After walking around the church with everyone we were able to determine through the few details we could discern in the old photograph, that behind my grandmother is door she stood in front of and the steps she stood on.

There is a funeral about to take place at the church and out front are the pallbearers, young to middle-aged men all in black and smoking, chatting, standing around laughing and enjoying each other's company. I don't want us to interrupt funeral yet I want to take pictures of the church and the spot our grandmother stood on. I want them to understand how innocent our explorations are. I show one of the men who curious about us the picture of our grandmother on the steps from a hundred years earlier. It is for them an astounding moment as sacred as the funeral which is about to take place.

More than a hundred years ago she stood on those steps in that spot and looked out over the piazza in front of the church. We all have our pictures taken in front of the church on that same spot and I take a picture of the same streets in front of us that she would've seen on that communion day.

Hard to believe but our good fortune continues. It turns out our new cousin also knows the caretakers of the church and they offer to take us into the crypt in the original church that was built in the mid to late 1300s. The main church was built around this chapel which is no bigger than a large living room and on the wall are old and ancient frescoes. It is more of the ancient Sicily I have come in search of these past three weeks.

As we try to take our leave of our new cousins who are as overjoyed at our presence as we are of them, we exchange pleasantries and promises of reunions in future years. As we are trying to leave they are still insisting that we come and stay with them for the night. It's not easy to extract ourselves from them as they are so gracious and so pleasant to us. Our cousin Vicenza points to the beautiful green rolling hills beyond the village to the top of the hill we can see and she says that's their home, and that on our next trip we must stay with them.

Frank and I are simply overwhelmed and finally manage to take our leave. I walk around the church to take more pictures and Frank listens to a bit of the funeral now taking place inside. We decide to drive further to the top of the hill which is the very highest point of the Pietraperzia, to the old castle ruins take more pictures and we are both quite frankly simply beside ourselves.

We took a huge risk in undertaking this journey - we had no idea what if anything at all we would find. My own search has been not only for our family roots and more insight into who are grandmother was, she was an amazing and gentle but firm presence, but also the ancient Sicily she which defined her. We too are of that heritage, albeit more indirectly. Sicily was for me a complete surprise these pasts three weeks, I did not see the heavinessand the angst I thought I might - the food, the wine and most of all the people I encountered were of an elegance and a grace we all saw glimpses of in our grandmother Maria Alba. And to see that in our cousins and once lost family confirms at least a portion of our identity and heritage.

 Giuseppe Alba's former home in Pietraperzia

Giuseppe Alba's former home in Pietraperzia

 Maria Alba's birth home in Pietraperzia

Maria Alba's birth home in Pietraperzia

 Paul Marotta, Vicenza Alba Biondo, Frank Marotta

Paul Marotta, Vicenza Alba Biondo, Frank Marotta

 Maria Alba Marotta

Maria Alba Marotta