The Wall Makers—I Muratori
By Annie Rachele Lanzillotto
I drive from Strada Provinciale 48 to 236 to 90, to get from Acquaviva delle Fonti to Cassano delle Murge to Bitetto – three towns in the heel of the boot of Italy that form a trinity of olive and fig trees and grapevines – where all my ancestors were born for hundreds of years and many cousins still live. All my family, all the lineages, all my bloodlines, come from this small triangle of fertile earth.
Strada Provinciale—county roads, connect these villages. Endless stone walls line these roads. Miles of walls. I think of the men in my family. On their immigration papers, for occupazione—occupation, it either says: contadino—farmer, or muratore—wall maker. I’d always pictured my grandfathers building walls the way my father put up walls in the Bronx. He’d hold three nails in his mouth sharp ends sticking out his lips, lay a frame of two-by-four studs sixteen inches apart with cross-struts, then hammer vast clean sheets of plasterboard to the frame. As a finishing touch he’d hammer each nail just below flush, by tapping another nail onto its head with one shot. But on Strada Provinciale 236, it strikes me. These are the walls my ancestors built. I’m looking at them. These walls. These stones. These fields. These endless walls. My grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers built these walls, uprooted these stones with their hands, carried these stones across these fields, this sun stepping on their backs, simmering their spines. They built these walls.
My Grandpop Carmine, my father’s father, came to L’America when he was twelve years old and like many Barese in New York City, carried three-hundred-pound block ice to earn a living. This was work available to illiterate immigrants who were strong as oxen and willing to beat out the sun to work. The Barese in New York dominated this trade. At eighteen Carmine joined the U.S. Army, which was a nice break from the ice business. The Army fed him, gave him two good pairs of socks and leather boots. That’s something. Grandpop fought in the 1918 Battle of the Argonne Forest, in The Great War.
My father told me: “When Grandpop was in the Army, there was a rock pile the Sergeant wanted moved. So he ordered a private, a southerner, to move the rocks. “Private, move that rock pile. I want it moved over there,” and he pointed to another spot twenty yards away. The southerner balked at the order. The Civil War was always being fought amongst the ranks, so the Sergeant looked for a Yankee. “Watch this,” the Sergeant says, “the Dago will do it. He won’t even think twice.” He eyeballs Grandpop. “Charlie,” he says, “Move that rock pile over there.” Grandpop, they call him Charlie in America, thinkin’ nothin’ of it, carries all the rocks, a bunch at a time, to where the Sergeant pointed, with the whole platoon watching. When he was done, Grandpop says to the Sergeant, “Sir, where do you want them moved next?” The Sergeant says, “Put ’em back.” “Yes Sir.” And Grandpop carries all the rocks back without even thinkin’ about it. Rocks to him were child’s play.”
Imagine my grandfather, a boy, seven, eight years old in Bitetto. Imagine taking him out to a field and telling him, “Wallio! — Boy! Clear these fields of rocks. That’s your job, your career, your occupazione. Your post. Your stazione, your station. Unbury the rocks. Pull them up outta the earth with your bare hands. Your hands are shovels now. Your hands are spades. Your fingernails are blades in the earth. Carry the rocks. Arrange ’em into walls. Make ’em fit tight. Get all the rocks. Clear the fields of rocks. Make one long wall here. Along this donkey path we’re gonna turn into a road to connect the towns. When you’re done with that, make a row over there. See the edge of those olive trees? Make one over there. And when you’re done with that go a kilometer down and continue the wall. We need walls everywhere.”
Imagine being that boy. You look at endless fields in the hot open sun. You’re looking at nothing and you have to make something. And you know this job will never be done. One day you won’t be able to move your back is all, or close your hands ever again because your hands cast into shovels somewhere in the hot hard earth. Shovels like starfish, five thick muscular open fingers. When you get to Ellis Island and you’re twelve years old and built like an ox, and they ask you your occupation and you gotta’ give the guy in the hat and shiny silver badge a word to write on his paper, what are you gonna say? “I pull rocks outta the fields all day barehanded?” No! You say something that indicates pride in creation. I make walls. “Sono un muratore!” I am a wall maker!
Driving by these endless stone walls through fields of olive trees on Strada Provinciale 236, I see something red coming up on the left. A woman. Right there in the middle of two olive trees a woman is walking. She wears a fire-engine red bra, red thong, and red stilettos. She has long black hair and walks impossibly slowly around a big cream-colored cushy divan. So slow as if she is under water. She holds a red umbrella with a rippled edge, silky, that undulates in waves like a giant jellyfish when she pumps it up and down. Up up! Up up! She pumps it up to me twice inviting me over. This is her calling card. Up up! Up up! She sees me as a signore in my baseball hat, sunglasses, short hair, left arm hanging out the window, and sleeve rolled up over the shoulder revealing a muscular bicep. As soon as I notice her, I whiz passed and continue meeting her eyes in my rear-view mirror. Her skin stands out from the olive trees, sun-worn, not young, she’s been out here for a while. Bare arms, belly, long strong legs. She is of this land that she walks. Stilettos on soil. She watches as I go, pumps the umbrella—up up—twice more, knowing I’ll be coming back this way ’cause there’s only one road between these towns; my grandfathers’ towns: Cassano delle Murge and Bitetto.
I drive down from la murgia, the limestone plateau that characterizes this land west of Bari. Cassano delle Murge, where my mother’s father was born, is a thousand feet up on la murgia. I drive into Bitetto. At the rototoria, the roundabout, I read as quickly as I can, the names of the towns and the arrows. I drive in circles twice around, aiming to get off in the right direction on the first try. I don’t know how any American or Argentinian or Australian or Canadian or any descendant of the diaspora finds their right ancestral town on the first try, especially if going by the way your grandparents pronounced the town name in your ear. They cut off the last syllables when they spoke. Town names look different in lettering on signs than how the names flew off our grandparents’ tongues. Peasants carry heavy things. My grandparents were always working. When you’re carrying a hundred-pound sack of sand or cement or a thirty-pound lasagna, or sweeping the driveway or hosing down the sidewalk, you pronounce things differently. I’d ask a question on the fly and they’d shout an answer.
“Grandpop, what’s the name of the town where you were born?”
“Hah? Pitett’? Piteet’? Beetet’?” I worked hard to make the syllables stick in my head. The classic Italian you may be used to hearing, comes from the North. Maybe they didn’t heave such heavy things around all day long up north. Maybe they worked sitting down. That’s how you get a language that sounds like violins. Olio d’oliva, lalalala. Try talkin’ that way when you’re luggin’ two hundred-pound blocks of ice, one on each shoulder, up to the fifth floor tenement apartments.
At the rototoria, arrows point in different directions: Binetto, Bitritto, Bitonto, Bitetto. You gotta read fast. Which is it? If you go to a few towns before you find the right town, that’s all part of the journey. Town names are differentiated by just a consonant or a twist of a vowel. I got lucky, got it right on the first try.
I pull into Bitetto and park on the side of a road, relieving the car from the engine’s heavy breathing. A thousand years whirl inside me. Driving is the wrong pace for ancestral land. I need to walk. My grandparents walked. My grandmother spoke of hitching a ride on a donkey cart, a basket of figs balanced on her head, coming home from the fields. Maybe my grandfathers got a chance to mount a horse or a bicycle here though they never owned one. I walk. My legs have to do this. Meet the earth. My thighs need to pump memories through my brain. Walking orders my thoughts. The olive air swirls inside my skull. I want to breathe this air my grandparents breathed before coming to the Bronx. To my New York nose, this air is champagne. I pause at a memorial for Padre Pio, nod a prayer to the bronze statue, and make eye contact with him.
The first cross-street I come to is the street where my grandmother was born, the grandmother I am named after. I have the address written on a scrap of paper in my pocket. As a girl she was Anna Cianciotta, then after marriage Anna Lanzillotta. I walk down her street and find her house. Easy. I walk around the outside, touch the sandstone, close my eyes, and imagine the sounds one hundred years ago when she was a girl. I hear donkeys and goats and chickens. I feel a soft breeze coming in from the fields, just like now. The same breeze greets me now as greeted her then, silk around our necks. What happened in the hundred years and two world wars in between? I stood there in the mid-morning August heat. It was dead quiet. And hot. There was nobody out. I was being watched. And I knew it.
I walk back to the piazza and find an open caffè. I step inside and feel a jolt of coolness from ducking out of the direct sun. The caffè is charged with espresso and music.
“Un espresso con panna per favore.”
In Napoli, I’d learned to order my espresso with a top coat of thick fresh cream. The blonde behind the counter looks a little too tall for around here. I peek and see the floor behind the counter is raised. She takes one look at me and asks: “Hai parient’ Bitettese?”—Do you have relatives in Bitetto? She wants me to state my business. Maybe she recognizes my cheeks as wide as la murgia, my eyes the Constantinopile blue. Maybe she sees under this layer of butch Americanismo my inner little old Barese lady. It’s not so hard to see if you know what it is you’re lookin’ for. What it is, what it is.
“Sí ma no conosce’. Sto cercando.”—Yeah, I say, but I don’t know them, I’m looking for them. I tell her my whole name with pride, in fact I announce it to the whole caffè, my whole name loud, and the names of my father’s father and mother: “Io sono Lanzillotta, e Cianciotta.”
The blonde responds: “Uè! Uagnone Bitettese!”—Hey! Bitettese names!
A voice behind me, states firmly: “Io sono Lanzillotta e Cianciotta.”—I am Lanzillotta and Cianciotta. She’s got a healthy head of white hair and wears a crisp navy dress dotted with tiny white daisies. She’s sitting upright, formal, drinking her espresso like a queen.
I turn to her. “Certamente siamo cugini!”—Certainly we are cousins! I open my arms but no hug comes. I sense her reticence but take a step further. I offer the names of my grandparents and great grandparents, all who were children in Bitetto: “I miei nonne sono Cianciotta, Anna e Lanzillotta, Carmine. I miei bisnonni erano Scigliuto, Apollonia e Cianciotta, Saverio; Soranno, Arcangela e Lanzillotta, Giuseppe.”
She squints tight. A door shut. I had touched a nerve, struck something. You could feel the pressure. O! We are related. She doesn’t want nothin’ to do with me. Yet there’s something in her eyes I’d love to know. I ask if she knows Pasqualina, the cousin I am looking for, and she squints even tighter.
I don’t believe her. I remember hearing stories about family feuds decades ago and I know I’ve just fallen into a hole in that jungle camouflaged with underbrush. I step back and look down at my shorts, sneakers, unshaven legs, overweight belly, bandana around my head, and fanny pack. What must I look like to this woman? Some middle-aged, bulky butch, ’Mericán, Merde Cane—dog shit, no husband, no pockabook. Here, dressing is a mark of respect. It means you made it up from the fields. You got the earth outta your fingernails and can sit in a caffè—a human handling the tiniest of cups in all the world with ease, with your peasant tool-hands. Who drinks outta cups smaller than espresso cups with such tiny handles? Nobody. It’s tinier than a child’s tea set. I back off.
Who walks into Bitetto in the dead heat of August, alone, when you’re supposed to be at al mare—the sea? Alone, a woman traveling alone, that’s suspicious enough, no man, no child, no mother, no father, no nobody, a stranger, no lipstick, not even a combed hair. I strode into town, all open and available, like in the movies, that’s where the story begins, a stranger comes to town. Paul Newman jumps off the train and fjords the river by foot in The Long, Hot Summer, asks around, “Who needs a hired hand?” Gets a job in the hardware store, falls in love with Joanne Woodward. My God! And wreaks havoc on the town. I walked into Bitetto like that, all open, a cat sidling up to things to see what sticks. Maybe I’d move back and start an art colony? Who knows? Just sidle up, see what sticks. Since Mom died, I had no reason to be anywhere in the world. No mother, no child, no vestige of an umbilicus in either direction. The past decade had been a slow parade to the graveyard: Dad, Grandma, Mom. I had no tether. It was time to reinvent my life. I felt alone in the world. Did the woman in the navy dress sense this in me? This wanting? I expected it to be easy to waltz into my father’s ancestral town and find my living cousins. To walk in, announce my name and immediately bump into a cousin. And I did. Just the wrong cousin. Riffs can last for generations. Plus, strangers are threats. The province of Bari has known invasion after invasion, changing hands about a dozen times. Italy’s unification was an invasion from the north. WWII held no reason for southern Italians to fight their American cousins. Why fight your blood when you have zero ties to the north? Regional allegiance was everything and national pride nothing. Here, strangers are met with caution. Strangers are interruptions. Strangers beckon suspicion. Strangers want your land. Want something. In her eyes I saw she wondered what I wanted.
I booked a room for a couple of nights in a B&B. An old nobleman’s estate. A Bourbon invader from the sixteenth century. A mustard color compound with an interior rectangular courtyard. I wondered—who comes here to stay in all these rooms? I could bring eighty people here. One day, I’ll come back with all my New York cousins and we’ll fill this joint!
The front door trips a bell and a kid about thirteen comes through an arch from the back room to work the counter. I take one look at his face, all cheeks big as la murgia, big brown eyes, full lips and I know he’s my cousin. I say to him: “Certamente siamo cugini!”—Certainly we are cousins! But, nothin’, no response. I press him. “Comesichiama?”—What’s your name? And he tells me, and I say, “I knew it! You guys married Lanzillottas in Brooklyn! We’re procugini, like third cousins or whatever.”
Nothin’. The kid wants to get back to whatever video game he’s been playing in the back room.
At this point, I start asking myself, why are you so interested in finding long lost family? You got enough problems with the family you already know. There are feuds and schisms on both sides of the ocean. But I was curious. And I’ve cultivated curiosity. Studied opera libretti and taught myself the language. Fought to regain my cittadinanza—Italian citizenship by rectifying spellings of some of the names so they matched consonants and vowels on the chain of documents from birth certificates, through Ellis Island misspellings, then declarations for U.S. citizenship through death certificates. Still, I spell my last name wrong. Originally, it’s Lanzillotta. An Ellis Island mis-stroke of the official’s pen turned the final “a” to an “o” and I’ve chosen to leave that final “o” as it is, a scar on my name that represents the change that occurred in the crossing. I always felt the quest deeply. As a child, I paid rapt attention to my grandparents’ stories. I asked questions. And I always got along with cousins. Cousins are just distant enough. And most of all, I knew I was alive in a pivotal moment in history. My parents’ generation was just about all gone. The connectors, gone: the people who knew of each other, the dialects, recipes, stories, prayers, songs, saints, nicknames, the dead, the ways of the land, the language of leaves and trees and roots and crops, the knowledge of hands, how to make every single thing: vino olio formaggio terracotta cavateel. After exactly one hundred years since my grandparents immigrated from Bari to the Bronx, all the links were about to be severed. I had a sense of duty. And anyways, I was curious. As the aria says, “Sono una poeta!” I am a poet and the daughter of a U.S. Marine. Semper Fi. If I don’t do it, nobody will. I’m that third generation artist you hear about. The first generation of landless peasants comes to the Bronx, carries ice and coal, sews in Manhattan sweatshops. The second generation carries ice and coal from eight years old, then as times goes on, grows up to install oil burners, gives expert haircuts and manicures. The third generation writes poems and songs, and remembers.
I close the door to my room in the nobleman’s house and all the air gets sucked out the little window in the top of the room. Wshhhrrrrrrrrurrrpp! Time inverts. Flips. Time is infinity and like the symbol flips back on itself. Nothin’ comes before and nothin’ after. I can’t tell you if I was there a moment, a day, an hour, a month, a year, a lifetime, if my grandparents even ever left Bitetto in the first place, or if I ever came back a hundred years later. I walked backward through centuries of consciousness. I had the sense I’d watered my grandmother’s peach tree before she even spit the peach pit into the ground.
I took a cool shower and let the water run down my body rasping off the heat. It was time for the pisolino—the afternoon nap. I conked out. The effect of sleeping twice in one day took a weird hold on me. Sleeping twice. Dreaming twice. When I awoke it was afternoon but felt like morning. I needed an espresso to snap me back from dream time. 16:00—I climb back onto the rungs of the clock. I begin to grasp that rigid system of time, la sistemazione, the order to your day. As my mother used to say, “There were rules for how you had to do everything from the time you opened your eyes in the morning to the time you shut your eyes at night.” I grip rungs on the ladder of time to climb back into the present moment, to orient myself, to catch up with everyone in this country, to eat when they eat, sleep when they sleep, down coffee when they down coffee, dream when they dream. I begin to feed time. La prima colazione. La colazione. Il pranzo. Il pisolino. Un’espresso. L’aperitivo. La cena. La passeggiata. Dormire. First breakfast. Breakfast. Lunch. Nap. Coffee. Appetizer. Dinner. A stroll in the piazza. Sleep. I climb back to a number on a clock. The letters of the name of a day of the week. The numbers of the years we count. I feed time. This is serious. The whole country drinks an espresso at exactly the same time, 16:00. This is what unites north and south.
Early the next morning I sit in the common area for la prima colazione. On my first cappuccino I see a tough girl like me in the music video on the TV overhead. She does pushups, runs, throws punches, dresses like a twelve-year old boy, bright t-shirt and shorts, like me. Intercut with scenes of her sparring in the gym, are images of her father beating up her mother. This is a song on domestic violence. The first time I ever saw something like this in Italy. I am stunned. I have to know what song this is. I ask the ragazzo, my third cousin who says he’s not my cousin, her name and to please write it for me. He writes on a napkin: Fiorella Mannoia, "Nessuna Conseguenza.”— “No Consequence.” On my second cappuccino a woman smashes a car windshield with a baseball bat, dumps a man’s clothes onto the street then waves to a guy up on a balcony as she drives off, satisfied, with a friend in a convertible. He writes on another napkin for me: Nina Zilli, "Ti Amo Mi Ucccidi."— “I Love You Kill Me.” How many songs are there in Italian about surviving domestic violence? I feel seen, suddenly. Recognized—if only by these artists whose songs embolden and fortify me. Otherwise, I am an androgynous woman walking around alone in the paese, asking questions. These songs make me feel my childhood is capished, that these Italian songwriters understand my upbringing. It’s jarring. My quest has grown a new tributary. I’ve been wanting the hugs of cousins no one in my immediate family has ever met. Now, I also wanted to better understand the roots of the domestic violence I grew up with, and all the mental illness and maladjustment within my family in America.
My father’s domestic violence was born from war and also something else hundreds and hundreds of years old. I don’t want to simplify it with the word patriarchy or a culture of male dominance, or the church. I want to keep hunting, thinking, painting stories in my mind. My father was a U.S. Marine, First Division, Fifth Regiment, who fought in Operation Iceberg on the island of Okinawa in WWII. He came home with severe PTSD. My mother bore the brunt of his rage. Violence against women—how many roots, how deep, how far back, how intertwined? My mind swirls like a Chagall painting: intergenerational trauma, genetic memory, the degradation of poverty, generations of poverty and despair, the fraying of families by lifelong separation through immigration, the uncounted causalities of war—our families. I feel I am hemorrhaging, and well-wishers offer jelly beans. Sweet offerings. The psychiatrist tells me to lose weight. The career counselor tells me to change the font on my resume. The millionaire art patron tells me to seek Shambala Buddhism training. The yogi suggests a silent retreat. I want to scream. If I begin to scream, I may never stop. There have been women, elders, in my family who have lost their voices altogether. Years ago they’d say, “There’s a frog in my throat.” But it is these screams. There’s a scream in my throat. I relate to the central image in Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete. A ton of cement has fallen on all of us, all our hearts, our earth. I down the last slug of my second cappuccino and head outside for l’aria fresca—a breath of fresh air.
I stride into the Municipio—Town Hall. The clerk takes me into the back room. We stand, looking through shelves of books of handwritten records from the 1800’s. He turns pages to find my great-great-great grandparents. I notice that every birth certificate of every baby born in town has the same name. Page after page. Every baby, on the line where it says il nome—name, is handwritten Maria Donata, or Donata Maria. I ask him why the birth certificates all have the same name. It feels like a stupid question, because in my American mind, it can’t be true. Can it? Am I reading wrong? He tells me that indeed every baby has to be donated or offered to la Madonna, the mother of Jesus. Donata a Maria—donated to Maria. It’s a blessing and I guess at a time of high infant mortality, a spiritual necessity. “Masche, femminile, lo stesso: Maria Donata.”—Boy, girl, the same. In my stupefacente—stupefaction, if I understood him correctly, up until a certain year – I think it might have been around the 1861 unification when the whole archipelago was now called one country under one flag, all babies in Bitetto were named the same, Donata Maria. After that, it was no longer mandatory, but still traditional. Every baby was also given an additional name, a middle name. Like, I would have been Maria Donata, Anna Rachele. Even in my family in New York, this tradition has carried through to some degree. Every child, all of my cousins had to have the name of a saint. Mandatory. We were all dedicated to saints, under the protection and blessings of saints. Find me an Italian American and I’ll reveal a Mary or Joseph or Ann or Anthony or Francesco in their name somewhere. There’s dozens of variations of Mary and Ann, the mother and grandmother of Jesus. I have cousins JoAnn, AnneMarie, MaryAnn, Ann, Nina, Marie, Annette, BethAnn, Roseanne and on and on. And in Italy, in the south, people call me by my middle name: Rachele. The middle name is the signifier, the identifier. Plus, with the system of being named after your grandparents, many cousins all have the same name. If there’s one Lanzillotta, Anna—there’s fifty. This went on for hundreds of years. So, everybody needs a nickname, a street name—u soprannom’. Even in the Bronx in the 60’s and 70’s it was your street name you were known by. I know my great-grandfather’s soprannom’, “Mangiasard”—Eats sardines. But I don’t know my cousin Pasqualina’s soprannom’. How will I ever find her?
I wander around Bitetto, the old town’s labyrinthine streets, and I end up on my cousin’s street. It’s abandoned. House after house, abbandonato. All the buildings empty. I double check the address on my folded piece of paper. I’m devastated. Could it be I’m a few years too late? I walk back to the center and up the marble staircase into the cathedral. I think it’s afternoon. Is it afternoon? No. It’s before lunch. I didn’t eat yet. A wedding is taking place. My cells are buzzing. I want to open my arms. I can sense in my body that I have cousins in this crowd. I want to hug somebody and shout: Lanzillotta! Cianciotta! Silecchia! Rossano! Rutigliano! Squicciarini! Sgiliuti! Rizzi! If only I had the right intro, or an App that could tell me who in the room share DNA with me, it would be lighting up, buzzing. I want to yell: “Certamente siamo cugini!” I want someone’s arms to open and wrap around me tight as a vine. I have the strong feeling I’m related to almost everybody in Bitetto. I feel like sitting in the piazza with a coffee pot and a sign: “Ti faró un caffè si puoi dimostrare che non siamo cugini.”—I’ll make you a coffee if you can prove we’re not cousins. I’ll draw my family tree and we’ll see whose great-grandfather is whose great-grandfather and whose grandmother is the sister to whose grandmother. Capishe?
At the end of the church service, the wedding party exits the cathedral and poses on the marble staircase. The bride calls her bulldog and instructs him, “Sedutto!” to sit for the photo. He doesn’t sit. The groom holds the leash. The bulldog faces the camera in front. The groom bends down and coaxes the bulldog to sit. A drone buzzes overhead taking aerial photos of the wedding party. I bend back and open my arms up to the blue sky and spin around and around. I think of the whole loop of all my ancestors from Bitetto to Cassano delle Murge to Acquaviva delle Fonti, spiraling out to the south Bronx. Even if my grandparents never immigrated from la murgia to the Bronx, my parents might still have met and married anyway, right here in this Cattedrale di San Michele Arcangelo—the cathedral of Saint Michael the Archangel. The drone buzzed over us. I laugh when I think that right now, somewhere in Bitetto, in some photo album on someone’s coffee table, in an aerial photo of a wedding party outside the steps of la Cattedrale, I am in those wedding photos: a blue and white blur. That blue and white whirling blur is your cousin from L’America.
The wedding party vanishes. I walk around looking to get lunch, but everything is closed, shut, shuttered. All the gates down. Locked. Chiuso. I missed my chance. Everyone’s inside by now for il pranzo and il pisolino—lunch and a nap. Even the street cats. I don’t want to nap. I feel squeezed in. I gotta get outta town. Once you get out of synch with the people, it’s like you’re on a bicycle and your chain falls off. I jump in the car, eat some grapes and almonds stashed there, and roar onto Strada Provinciale 236. The Lady in Red pumps her red umbrella to me. Up Up! Up Up! There’s nothing more ancient than this—old stone walls, olive trees, and a big red hot hhhlrrrrrrpppp open cunt ready to suck you in. Suction is the primal force of the universe, not protrusion as the patriarchy would have you believe. I beep my horn, roll down my window and yell:
“Certamente siamo cugini!
The next morning I get up, down a cappuccino made for me by my cousin who says he’s not my cousin, and head for the cemetery on the edge of town. If I can’t find my living cousins, I’ll go find my dead. I drive through olive and grape and fig fields up to the cemetery’s white wall and locked wrought iron gate through which I see two women polishing a gravestone. I ask them how I can get in. They motion for me to go around to the other side. I drive around and around the walls until I see other cars parked. I walk up four steps through an arch, in through the one open gate by a small office with a sign on the door: Il Custode—The Caretaker. “Buongiorno,” I say as I step forward.
Before three aisles of graves, I stand. Ladies in dresses walk around with buckets of water, rags, and straw brooms. These are the elders wiping, sweeping, washing, the gravestones of their dead. I walk straight down the central row of graves. The first grave is a Silecchia. That’s one of my great-grandparent’s names. The next grave, a Squicciarini. Also a family name. Stone after stone, all the names on the headstones are my family names: Lanzillotta, Cianciotta, Silecchia, Rossano, Rutigliano, Gatti, Squicciarini, Sgiliuti. It feels like a private graveyard of all my ancestors. Can I be related to everybody in here? I walk slow, step by step, and stay in all the shade I can. Tall pine trees shower long green needles on the marble slabs that lay flat on the ground. The women mourners sweep the pine needles away. The sound of sweeping accompanies the breeze through the pine trees raining more needles down onto the marble. I step carefully to keep my footing. The graveyard is on a downward slope. I feel I am in a forest thick with pine air. Nina Simone’s voice: “Lilac wine I feel heady... Lilac wine, I feel unsteady” runs through my mind. Mosquitos on my neck, legs, arms, offer pokes and hellos like ancestors. Prick blood. Mosquitos fly with Bitettese blood all around the graveyard, landing on everyone standing. One grave stops me: Lanzillotta, Anna. My name. I look at her face on the oval porcelain cameo portrait. She looks exactly like my Grandpop Carmine. If you put an iceman cap on her, they’re identical. The same dark straight eyebrows, thin line of lips and blunt Lanzillotta nose. I wipe away the pine needles, smack my neck where a mosquito lands, drink water and stand affixed to the spot. Was she my grandfather’s sister? Cousin? To see my own name on a gravestone—it’s a spiritual vertigo. A disorientation. What realm am I in?
Il Custode walks by me: “Perché sei qui? Dovrest’ andar’ al mar’! Vai al mare! Al mare! Al mare!”—Why are you here? You should be at the sea! At the sea! At the sea! He motions with his hand. The hand is stiff. It’s a mannequin hand, just like a hand in a Macy’s store window. Long and stiff, peach colored, blackened with dirt. The Hand motions east toward the sea, where the sun is coming up. I ask him if he can help me find the graves of my great-grandparents. The hand motions south over the wall. I don’t know what he means. I jot down a list of names and hand him the paper. He raises an eyebrow as if to say I gave him too many names and tells me dismissively to come back tomorrow as if tomorrow will never come. “Vai al mare,” he tells me again, insisting I am in the wrong place.
In August, Italians go to the sea. Many elderly are left behind. The beach sands are packed with umbrellas and chairs. You rent a chair and umbrella and they set them up in rows. I don’t want to look at water. I want to look into the faces of cousins whom I’d never met. I don’t want to look at cliffs. I want to see the lines on their hands, the contours of their noses. I want gli abbracci forti—strong hugs, from those that know a lifetime has passed between us. I don’t want to be out in the hot sun. I want to be in the shade of my cousins’ voices; those sonorous resonant with a patina of hoarseness–– Lanzillotta vocal tones.
As the heat rises, I walk out of the cemetery and drive to the church dedicated to the town saint, my family saint, Beato Giacomo. My godmother Archangel prayed novenas to him especially the couple of times I had cancer. I had to continue my pilgrimage and thank Beato Giacomo for his part in my cure. All my life I’d heard his name but didn’t know anything specific about him. My aunts and uncles gave me his holy cards, where he’s holding his big bastone—a walking stick, or on his knees staring up in adoration at la Madonna. I parked close to the church entrance, and as I stepped out of the car found a shiny gold coin at my foot. That’s my father talkin’ to me, tellin’ me I’m on the right path. My father always spun quarters with me since I was a baby. Quarters he flicked into fast shiny silver pirouettes across the maple dining room table, mesmerizing me. He could get six going at once. Somehow the dead move coins. It’s metallurgy.
I walk into the church feelin’ lucky with my gold coin, and step up to the altar, and there, above the altar, is Beato Giacomo himself! He’s right there! His whole body. He’s wearing his Franciscan robe. He’s “incorrotto,”—uncorrupted. Rigor mortis never set in. His hands are folded. He’s barefoot. He looks like my father. He’s got a brow like a Lanzillotta, a blunt nose, real lips, and a kind expression. Since he’s right there, I talk out loud to him: “Thanks a lot for curing me of the cancers. I’m so startled to see you. No one told me you were here. You look like my father. Certamente siamo cugini! I gotta walk around and clear my head. I’ll be back.” I walk around the church in a bit of shock and come upon a reliquary, a carved gold pedestal with glass windows. Inside is a bone. A sign next to it reads: il dito di Beato Giacomo. It’s his finger! A big finger. Long. With three joints. A finger encased in glass and gold. An old man comes and stands face to face and worships in a whisper to the finger. He leans on his bastone—cane, and tells me, “Beato Giacomo aiutava tutti.”—Blessed Giacomo helped everybody. The man’s face lights up as he tells me stories. He has a sweet countenance, flushed, round and ripe with full-blooded soft skin, the combination of faith and daily doses of homemade vino and olio d’oliva. His name, like my father, is Giuseppe. There’s always a Joseph to guide me. It’s always been this way. Giuseppe tells me that before Beato Giacomo was beatified, receiving the honorific “Beato,” he was known as Fratello Giacomo or Fra’ Giacomo, a Franciscan brother. In the last years of his life, he took care of victims of the plague of 1482. Born on the century, in 1400, Fra’ Giacomo was eighty-two himself, yet he served everyone. He lived in a state of uninterrupted prayer, tending the garden, growing vegetables and cooking for all the brothers and anyone else who was hungry. He fell into ecstatic states of rapture while cooking and gardening. As the story goes, the Franciscan brothers in Bitetto loved fava beans. Beans were expressions of both humility and interior richness. Lives could be saved with nutrient rich beans. Meat was a luxury the poor could never afford. Once, as Fra’ Giacomo stirred a big cast iron pot of fava beans, he stared off into the fire underneath the cast iron pot and entered a state of rapture. As Giuseppe recounted this story, I pictured angels helping Beato Giacomo with the stirring rhythm of the tall wooden spoon around the cast iron cauldron over the fire, the wooden spoon carved from a branch of an olive tree. Giuseppe went on to tell me that while Fra’ Giacomo stirred the fava beans around and around in his ecstatic state, he wept in spiritual rapture and his tears fell into the pot of fava. In this way, he salted the beans with his tears. The fava’lacrime—fava salted with tears were considered blessed. When the Archduke of Conversano came to eat, he could have had anything he wanted. There were offerings of goats and lamb, but the Archduke asked for the fava’lacrime di Fra’ Giacomo. He insisted on eating the fava beans salted with Giacomo’s tears. To this day it’s said to be a blessing. I marvel at the idea of reaching a state of spiritual ecstasy while stirring beans, while performing any mundane task. He wasn’t meditating in seclusion on a mountaintop, he was just stirring beans. I gotta hand it to my ancestors. This is in line with who we are. You’re on a spiritual quest? You wanna reach Nirvana? Stir a pot of fazool.
Giuseppe went on to tell me another story. Fra’ Giacomo was in the garden with one of the Bitettese girls who is remembered as being disobedient. Fra’ Giacomo threatened to beat the girl to discipline her. He raised his stick overhead, but instead of striking her, threw the stick into the ground on a downward thrust like a javelin, and it speared the earth. The stick began to grow in place. It took root in the garden. The stick is still there to this day, six hundred years later. Every year the stick grows. Now, it’s about ten feet tall. At the top, it is shaped like a divining rod, a V shape crook where one could rest an armpit.
As Giuseppe told me this story, his face become enamored, his eyes and forehead opened, in love as he was with the saint, yet I felt more and more uncomfortable, my face squinched, pinched between my eyes. My walls went up. This is what passes for a miracle in my grandparents’ town? To not beat a girl! Given how I was brought up, this made sense in the basest of ways. Women were subjugated every step of the way every day. No wonder I never wanted to be a girl. In my childhood, violence was la vita quotidiana—daily life: yelling, rage, smacks, servitude, domination. I rebelled at an early age. You want me to serve my elder brothers coffee? What a you crazy! If this is what being female means, I want no part of it. Let my brothers clear my dishes. I’m gonna lean back on my chair and put my feet up on the table. Something was always raised overhead, a belt, a knife, a flat open hand. Men were ready to strike women. I’ll never forget the open hand of my father’s hand above my mother, above me. The very word fratello—brother, feels violent to me, it might as well be a curse word, the ultimate F word. In my lived experience, I’d say it’s common for Italian-American brothers to be raised to believe they should be served by their sisters, and that they have dominion over their sisters, and sometimes their mothers, particularly as their mothers age. I know Italian-Americans do not corner the market on this behavior, but like I said, I’m writing from what I’ve experienced and witnessed. My mother, in the absence of my father, would often threaten me with: “I’m gonna call your brother!” I thought back to the femminicidio walls in Napoli and Roma; hundreds of posters of women who were mostly all killed by men they knew or were related to. Feminicide. I don’t hear this word being used much in American parlance, but we should use it. In Italy it’s recognized as endemic, the history of honor killings in a culture where men are groomed to feel the right to beat and kill their women: brothers to sisters, husbands to wives, fathers to daughters, boyfriends to girlfriends. And what am I to think of this miracle of Beato Giacomo? What message is this to Bitettese boys? “You wanna be a saint? Drop it! Drop it!” This is where I come from. This is where my father comes from, and his father and his father and his father. This stick in the garden that is venerated. This stick at all. And this is the stick on the holy cards I was given as a child. And this is the stick on the cards I was given the two times I had life-threatening cancers in my teen and young adult years. This stick. This stick. I feel it sticking inside me right now. And it hurts.
All these thoughts jolt through me in a flash as I next asked Giuseppe, who now seemed like an apparition to me, about the finger. What of the finger? Why is the finger encased in gold? Why isn’t it kept with the rest of Beato Giacomo’s body? What’s special about the finger? Why is it over here away from him? Giuseppe told me that in 1619, Donna Felicia Di Sanseverino, La Duchessa di Gravina, a duchess, came to worship the body of Beato Giacomo and asked the Franciscan brothers if they could open the glass crypt, so she could kiss his hand. Baciare la mano is a supreme honor. Since she was a duchess, the friars nodded and unlocked the glass crypt. As Felicia bent down to kiss his hand, instead of kissing the hand, she opened her mouth and bit off his finger! She hid the finger. She hid the finger. I imagine she tucked it inside her brassiere, where Italian women tuck money and pin holy medals of saints and have all kinds of nicknames for that place, including il banco—the bank. Where else would a Barese woman hide a finger she just bit off a dead saint?
Felicia stepped down, thanked the monks, and headed for the door. As the brothers opened the church doors to escort her out, the sky turned black. Winds came. Furious winds and rain and thunder took hold of the chapel doors and blew them open like sails. The monks wrestled the tempest so the doors wouldn’t blow off their hinges. They couldn’t get the doors closed again. Il Scirocco raced up from the Sahara, over the Mediterranean, hot, humid, and low, spiraling sand into Felicia’s mouth and ears, making her scirocazza—crazy from the sandy wind whirling loudly in her ear canals. Il Maestrale came from Greece, across the Adriatic, swirling and fickle and lifted her gown and snapped her cape and ripped the hat off her head. Down from the mountains, sweeping down the spine of the boot, La Tramontana whipped an ice-cold slap across her face and whacked her from behind!
Felicia fell to her knees and cried. She revealed the finger to the brothers and confessed that she’d coveted it for her private collection of saints’ bones, but apparently Beato Giacomo fiercely protested. On the spot, she declared two vows. The skies quieted and became blue again, blue as the gown of La Madonna. One, she pledged a commission of a carved silver and gold reliquary to house Beato Giacomo’s blessed finger for eternity. Two, she pledged to construct a straight thoroughfare, the straightest street anyone ever saw in this labyrinthine town, a street linking the crypt of Beato Giacomo directly to il centro—the center of town. A straight uninterrupted street, a sign of honor and for pageantry. All who stood in the town center would forever see a direct path to Beato Giacomo. There would be no chance for wrong turns. No one would get lost in alleyways trying to find him ever ever again. Sempre dritta!— Always straight! Bitetto would be oriented toward Beato Giacomo every moment, every day, an open boulevard to the venerated saint.
And every year, for the past four hundred years, on April 27th, marking his death date, male devotees dress in powder blue capes, white veils, skirts, white gloves, and carry on a bier of white roses, the finger of Beato Giacomo up the straight street Via Beato Giacomo from his crypt to the center of town and around the labyrinthine streets. Centuries later Roma followed suit constructing Via della Conciliazione connecting the body of St. Paul at The Vatican to Hadrian’s ashes in Castel Sant’Angelo, the heart of the ancient empire.
I returned to the cemetery every morning, morning after morning, for the better part of a week and sat on the bench talking with the ladies with their brooms and rags and buckets. It was an ad-hoc sunrise club, a secret community of elders, all at the cemetery at sunrise, sweeping marble slabs, buffing headstones with wet rags, arranging amulets, flowers, and candles, praying and caregiving the spirit world. I meditated and walked through different sections of the graveyard. One morning I came upon my great-grandparents’ graves: Arcangela Scigliuti and Saverio Cianciotta. Arcangela means a high-ranking angel. I always loved that name. That’s my godmother’s name, my father’s sister, named after this Arcangela. One high ranking angel named for another. I felt protected by these angels of rank and power. I wiped the pine needles away with my yellow bandana and stood there praying. Then I aimed my cell phone and clicked a photo.
Il Custode, “The Hand,” saw me, approached, and shouted, “No foto! No foto!” Then he resumed his barrage: “Vai al mare! Al mare! Al mare!”—Go to the sea! To the sea! To the sea! The Hand motioned east toward the sea. I’m not interested in vacation. I asked him again about the names on the list I’d given him. In his office was a computer. How hard could it be to look up the names? In a New York cemetery this would be a simple task. The office gives you a map with your section and row circled. But here I forgot how things work. I was supposed to “grease his palm,” and it didn’t occur to me. Normally I’m a big tipper, but in some circumstances I forget, like in a cemetery or a church. I forget that in sacred spaces money is expected to fly around, out of your pockets and into their coffers. Americans especially are expected to be laden with greenbacks like pine needles falling from the tall trees. Looking back now as I write this, I realize, if I’d whipped out dollars, he would have ingratiated me. I guess I wasn’t listening to my father’s voice inside me, or the mosquitos or spirits nudging me with messages, the gold coin at my feet.
On my fourth or fifth morning, after realizing I wasn’t going away until I fulfilled my quest, The Hand made a pole-vault gesture, a motion that signaled to me that the bodies had been thrown over the far cemetery wall. I was confused. Finally, The Hand waved for me to follow him. We walked down the slope to the far end of the graveyard to an open area the size of a basketball court. We went around the side and he bent down, guiding me to peer through a little window covered by an iron grate in the side wall. I bent down beside him and looked inside. I saw a vast underground cave with stacks of boxes lining the walls.
“L’ossario!” he said. The bone place.
He went on to explain that after some years, he recycles the graves, washes the bones, and puts them in these boxes. Every All Soul’s Day, November 1st, the priest says mass on top of the cave of bones for all the ancestors of the town.
“Quattr’ossa!” he summarized the human condition. We all boil down to four long bones.
So this is where my great-great grandparents are? The Hand himself washed the bones of my ancestors? I felt as hollow as that big open cave. I stared at his hand. I thought of my great-grandparents. Bones in a box in a cave. I can’t stand beside them, or pray to a porcelain portrait of their beautiful faces, or sweep pine needles off their graves, or wash the lettering of the longest spellings of their names carved on their gravestones. Another layer of being American in the paese naiveté was peeled back. I had to learn my culture one shock at a time. This was a hard one.
The next morning, I sat and talked with the old ladies of what I came to think of as the cemetery sunrise club. They’d accepted me on their bench by now and invited me to pray at the graves of their departed. One woman kept a glass altar for her son who died at twenty-seven in a motorcycle accident. She arranged talismans inside the glass case: photos, a motorcycle statuette, a red candle, and the red and black leather jacket he wore when he rode.
Another woman befriended me. Her name was Anna, like mine. She was interested in my quest to find the graves of my dead and also my living cousins. Anna was the doppelganger of one of my Italian American butch friends back home, which made me love her instantly. I have a passion for strong unadorned women, whether of the heel of the boot, or my butch friends back home, and I love when my Italian American butch friends look like little old Italian ladies, myself included. Gender can be layered on or stripped off. As a teenager with cancer, I felt the accoutrements of gender expression stripped off me, stripped bare. I can put it on either way, moustache or mascara. I can also strip it away. I like that zone. I love the little old Italian lady inside every New York Italian butch dyke I know. And here in the heel of the boot, these women to me, were butch strong in their own way. Heel of the boot women, sturdy as tree trunks, who don’t hide their strength or disdain, who don’t play to the male gaze, who aren’t appeasing—in any way, shape, or form. And just as that cliché phrase entered my thoughts, I understood on a new level, the “way” and “shape” and “form” of us women who don’t contort our bodies to snake charm the phallus. We do in fact embody different ways, shapes, and forms. The trick as a butch dyke is how to skate not taking on the male gaze yourself, or knowing how much you do and when, and how you rein it in, steering attraction to women to where it’s welcome, and how to know where and when it’s welcome. Tricky terrain. The butch gaze is transgressive by necessity. To get any action, one must, one must transgress.
Anna told me to follow her. She walked with her cane over the uneven ground. I followed her down the third aisle of graves, turned right by a more modern tall wall of names on crypts, then turned left to another lot of the cemetery where her husband’s grave was set in the ground. She wiped the stone with her rag, turned on a red battery-op candle, and I joined her as she quietly recited the Ave Maria ending by making the sign of the cross. Mosquitoes and blades of sun pricked my neck from different angles. I veered into a swath of shade and snapped my bandana to keep the mosquitos away. Anna walked on and waved me to follow her. She stepped up through the arch to leave the cemetery and told me to drive behind her. I figured we might go for colazione. I didn’t realize she’d taken on my mission now, to find my living cousins.
Anna drove a grey Fiat Panda. I drove behind her. She drove swiftly and adeptly through the streets by the olive tree fields on the outskirts of Bitetto taking turns fast and confidently toward the center of town. She pulled her Panda into an alley near the Cathedral and left the car blocking the alley. She walked me to the street of my cousin’s address, the same abandoned street I had found a few days before. But she didn’t stop there. Anna stepped a few doors down and rang a bell of the first occupied house. A woman appeared on a balcony three flights up. Anna yelled up to her in Bitettese. This is how my Bronx ear heard what she said:
“Mmoh! Uè! Teng sta na Merr-kahn, chiann Lanz-il-lot-ta, Yann.
Eeyosh stamme va dende, c’e cos iè u fatte. Ma terrestr’ yeh a ken ye sacch.
Ca deesh a me va vol’ achianne pperr parient’
na cggin’ uagnone Lanz-il-lot-ta Pasqualeen.
U marritt’ a Vincenz. Tu i canush?”
Roughly, I understood her to say: “Hey I have here this American named Anna Lanzillotta who doesn’t know her cousins, but says she has some. She’s looking for her relative named Pasqualina Lanzillotta, who has a husband, Vincenzo.
The lady on the roof, threw up her hands. Anna walked on. I followed. She instructed me to take her folding chair out of the back of her car. She sat on an abandoned corner outside the cathedral. I leaned against the stone wall. Anna employed her second strategy to help me on my quest, namely—shouting to passers by. We were cut from the same cloth.
“Hey that guy’s related to a Cianciotta!” She called him over, an old man on his bicycle, and began the conversation. Then she’d go to the next, “I think this lady’s related to a Lanzillotta.” In this way we talked with a bunch of people, all who denied being related to me or knowing my cousins. The sun was directly overhead, and I was ready to give up for the afternoon. Wasn’t it time for an espresso? One by one the people came to talk with us, but no one seemed interested. Only Anna dedicated herself to my cause. A man shouted from the alleyway. I walked over to identify the source of the commotion. He was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get through, the way Anna parked her Panda. She had to back out a little bit to accommodate him. Then she resumed her post on the chair in the shade.
A lady approached us, a little fancier than the others, and because of the approaching lunch hour, interrogated Anna about me. It was almost the hour of il pranzo. Her questioning took that thematic turn. “Ma dove ke si mangge’? Caza du?”—Where will she eat lunch? Your house? Are you taking her home for lunch? Maybe if you can find the cousin, they can feed her. That’s the right way.
Anna waved me on, to her third strategy. We drove through the streets to a newer part of town. She knocked on a door. A young energetic lady came out and after a brief exchange, nodded her head and ran back inside. Then she came out with an iPad. She looked at the local directory of people, and streets. Ahh, she figured it out! There are three streets with the same name. Because the streets in the town were named after WWI soldiers who had been killed in action, there were three streets with the same name for three brothers who had been killed. The streets were differentiated with the initial of the first name. Further complicating our search, there were streets in Bitetto vecchio—the old section of town––whose names were replicated in the new part of town. We drove to the second street on our list and found the house number. Anna rang the bell hard. A woman popped out on a rooftop. Anna yelled up:
“Mmoh! Uè! Teng sta na Merr-kahn, chiann Lanz-il-lot-ta, Yann.
Eeyosh stamme va dende, c’e cos iè u fatte. Ma terrestr’ yeh a ken ye sacch.
Ca deesh a me va vol’ achianne pperr parient’
na cggin’ uagnone Lanz-il-lot-ta Pasqualeen.
U marritt’ a Vincenz. Tu i canush?”
The woman hollered she has no idea who the people are. By now I’m ready to pass out in the heat. I don’t know how Anna keeps going. I tell her that’s enough for today. I’m ready for an espresso, and there’s always tomorrow. I’m getting that Mediterranean/Middle Eastern mentality, domani, domani—tomorrow, tomorrow; bukra insh’Allah—tomorrow if Allah wills. Anna waves me on. We drive to the third street. Again, we do the routine. Ring the bell. This time, I step back. A man calls down the stairs. Anna yells up:
“Mmoh! Uè! Teng sta na Merr-kahn, chiann Lanz-il-lot-ta, Yann.
Eeyosh stamme va dende, c’e cos iè u fatte. Ma terrestr’ yeh a ken ye sacch.
Ca deesh a me va vol’ achianne pperr parient’
na cggin’ uagnone Lanz-il-lot-ta Pasqualeen.
U marritt’ a Vincenz. Tu i canush?”
“Aspetta nu pic” the man says—wait a sec—and he goes and gets his wife, and there at the top of the stairs is this beautiful face with big brown sweet eyes and cheeks as vast as la murgia.
And I yell: “Io sono la nipot’ di Carmine Lanzillotto, figlio di – Mangiasard’.
And at the mention of my great grandfather’s soprannom’, she grabs her face, and her eyes fill with tears: “Mangiasard’!” she cries, “Assomiglianze!”—You have a resemblance!
She recognizes my cheeks as vast as la murgia and opens her arms to pull me in. I climb the stairs and fall into her hug, the hug I’ve craved for so long. The circle is complete in the only way it could be.
Anna waved goodbye with a big smile and got back in her Panda. My cousins invited her in, but she said she had to go. We all yelled profuse thanks as she sped away.
I went inside and the story begins. The story of getting to know my cousin, and of her introducing me to more cousins and of me biting grapes right off their vines. Pasqualina cooked feast after feast through the August heat with the wisdom of generations of women’s hands. We ate to catch up on a century. Here, in her words, are the names of some of the miraculous delicacies she cooked: Melanzane ripiene con ouva, formaggio, pomodoro—stuffed eggplant with egg, cheese, tomato; melanzane a pezzettini—chopped eggplant; peperoni piccoli fritti—small hot fried peppers; fiori di zucchini fritti—fried zucchini flowers; fiori di zucchini fatti in padella con agli’olio e menta—zucchini flowers in the pan with garlic, oil and mint; funghi fatti in padella agli’olio—mushrooms in the pan with garlic and oil; and in honor of Mangiasard’, sarde fritti—sardines sautéd with the touch of the ancients. Then there were greens, the freshest of greens, the salads and desserts and pasta, and fava and ceci and who can recount even half of it!? We ate, we took naps, we sat over the next couple of weeks and talked of the century and our lives. We sat in the Maestrale winds at night on her terrace. We broke open black figs—i couloumb. We ate pistachio gelato in the piazza. We walked a passeggiata arm in arm. I became close with her daughters and husband in no time at all. In hours we traversed a century. They found a fan to point at me, L’Americana who couldn’t take the heat, as I napped on their couch in the afternoon heat, dreaming of ancestors and beautiful cousin after cousin, and biting the grapes directly from their vines, and thinking of the miles of walls and all the stones pulled out of the land by the hands of Grandpop and Mangiasard, and all the hands and all the stones and all the walls.
I bought a piece of sky blue oaktag and a box of colored pencils named Giotto, and over the weeks filled in details of the family tree: who crossed the ocean, who returned, who stayed. It struck me—all the gaps in the tree. Where are the gay ancestors? Where are the poets? What stories are missing? All the missing stories. How did some of the women die young? Women’s stories. I even thought of Duchess Felicia and wondered why she really bit off the saint’s finger, and was it his finger? Women’s stories. Unburied washed bones. The family tree seemed more to me like a grapevine with inter-tangled roots, cousins marrying cousins, names repeated over and over, and on my vine, I am the last grape at the bottom of the page, never marrying, never having children, and wishing my books and songs and poems could count somehow in the family. All as grapes on that vine. We are all as grapes on that vine.