When I walked in the door of their apartment at Villa Ventura, my father was sitting in his chair by the sliding door that gives him a view of the woods to the south. He held a legal pad and a pencil in his lap, concentrating on the few Italian words he had scratched across the page. Three or four sheets of paper were on the floor next to his chair. Mom and Dad and I chatted about the usual things, hearing aids and activities at their retirement community that never seem to quite chase away the implacable boredom.
I ask my father, “How’s that note coming?”
“Pretty slow. It’s hard work.” Shaking his head side to side, signaling frustration. I
looked at his page and saw penciled words and smudges. Upside down, I made out Cara Luciano at the top. His note was going nowhere.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “it’s not easy to write in Italian when you don’t speak it every day. It takes a lot of concentration.” I didn’t want him to feel bad. He had struggled to write this letter on my behalf, to help with my trip to Italy. A couple months before, I had begun planning to go to Italy, where I was hoping to meet some of our relatives, and my father had offered to write a letter to introduce me to them. For twenty years he had kept up a steady correspondence with them, sending cards at Christmas and Easter, remembering birthdays, giving updates about our family, always regular mail. But Dad had not written them in a while. These kinds of tasks had become more difficult for him. I told him I would write the letters—their correspondence had never evolved into email—and then I planned to slip his handwritten note into the envelope as a companion to my longer letter, which had dates and locations and requests. That was the plan, but the discarded attempts lying by his chair, penciled words and eraser marks on his legal pad, signified his struggle to write those notes. For Dad a short note in Italian was a mental hill too
steep to climb.
“Well, how about I type up a note on your computer, and you copy it out onto paper in your handwriting?”
“Okay, that sounds good.” Dad wanted to help. He has always been willing to do
anything for us, a man of bottomless generosity.
I typed up two or three sentences in Italian to say hello and tie me to Dad, and introduce me to the relatives. I left the lines on his computer screen so he could copy them out in his own handwriting. When I came back a couple days later, he had not copied them out. I wasn’t surprised. Events over the past year foreshadowed this. Dad was forgetting more and more. His motivation was waning. He was struggling to keep focused on simple tasks. Some months before he had driven his truck into a ditch. All this, according to his doctor, was fairly normal.
“You’re doing pretty darn good,” the doctor told him, “for eighty-eight. But no more driving.”
No more writing either.
Without Dad’s written words, then, I still had to figure out a way to give our relatives in Italy some assurance of who I was. So I decided to put a picture of Dad and me in with my letter. I added my email address to speed up future correspondence.
Over the weeks leading up to my trip, I talked with Dad a lot to figure out who was who in Italy, where they lived, how we were related. Some days, Dad remembered a lot of details, and other days he got frustrated. A week before I left for Italy, he told me he had a photo album from the trip he and Mom took to Italy twenty-two years ago. “Next time you are over at the house, I’d like you to look for that album and bring it over here. I can show you what I’m talking about.” Our old house still held a lot of stuff that would not fit into Mom and Dad’s new apartment. When I went back to the house, I found the album he wanted, and decided not to look at it too closely until I was with Dad and could also hear his explanation. I brought it to him, and every picture evoked a memory, a story, a description.
We came to one photograph that appeared to be just a plain stone wall. The stones were square and colored gray, beige, and brown with square, dark mortar joints. It seemed like just a wall.
“Do you know about the plaque on the wall?”
“A plaque?” I’m trying to recollect. “Oh yeah, I remember you telling me something
about that.” I had not exactly forgotten about the plaque, but I had not thought about it for twenty-two years. It was a memorial to my great grandfather, Sebastiano. I imagined a bronze or steel plaque with raised letters on it, explaining when and how he died.
“It marks the place,” Dad said, “where your grandpa’s dad died. Grandpa was just a year old when his father died. A rock tumbled off that mountain and hit him in the head. A freak accident. See there up on the wall.” I could barely make it out. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, the lines of the cross blended in like mortar joints, it was close in color to the rest of the wall.
“Luciano took me to see it when we visited Faver in 1990. You need to go see that
* * *
I have wanted to travel to Italy for a long time, but the thread that connects me to Italy has always felt a little tangled. I grew up in the Midwest, speaking English. Although I called my grandparents Nonno and Nonna, I could not speak more than a handful of words in their language. They always lived next door to us, they spoke Italian, and they were certainly Italian to me. But even that fact is more complicated than it seems. When my grandfather left the Trentino in 1908, it belonged to Austria, not Italy. He and his family spoke both Italian and German. His Italian friends nicknamed my grandfather Paul Tirol. When he got to the United
States, he changed his Austrian name, Telch, to Martin. So the markers of my Italian heritage are mostly rubbed out, like the words on Dad’s legal pad.
Some of the kids I went to school with had bonafide Italian names like Largo, Barbieri, Forte, and Consentino, kids who celebrated their Italian heritage with a volume and pride I could not muster. Like most of the Italians in Kansas City, they were southern Italian, often Sicilian, dark hair and olive skin, traits I envied. I never felt very authentically Italian around Italians in Kansas City. I think I even forgot for a time that any part of me was Italian.
After my father and mother traveled to Italy and visited relatives in the North, a little toggle switch quietly flipped in my head, and I began to pay attention, especially to the stories my father told and to other signifiers like food and geography and wine, not absorbing myself in them but just noticing. Some years after my grandparents had died, I asked my father if I could have my grandmother’s Dutch oven, two home-made cutting boards, and some home-made knives. He was happy for me to have them. The Dutch oven is enameled cast iron, dark and
worn on the inside. When I began cooking in it, I imagined that molecules left from Nonna’s tomatoes or chopped garlic escaped from the pitted surface, infusing my cooking with her spirit. Gradually over a period of twenty years my cooking veered toward Italy, olive oil and wine trickled into my kitchen, and in graduate school I took two semesters of Italian. Friends were more eager than I was to assert my Italian identity, a recognition I appreciated but received with hesitation. Identity for any of us is complex, and any trait is layered into the stratified substance that makes up a self.
When I finally got the gumption to go, I told friends about my upcoming trip to Italy they said, Oh cool, you’re going to love it. My friend Margie said, you are going to be amazed. You are going to find all of these people who are just like you. They love food, they love life. You won’t want to leave. You will fall in love.
* * *
When I went to Italy, I visited the place where my grandfather, Paolo Telch, was born. Faver is a tiny town—about 318 families—in the Trentino region of Northern Italy, called the Sudtirol by Italians, or South Tirol. As the name suggests, the area was once Austria before World War I. In the lower altitudes of the foothhills, they grow grapes and apples and do a lot of manufacturing. Higher up in the Dolomites the region is wholly dedicated to alpine skiing and related tourism. I remember my grandfather once telling me that he skied to school, a fact that I could not even imagine as kid growing up Kansas City. There is no tourism in Faver. Grapes
dominate the mountainside.
One of my letters had reached my second cousin, Luciano, he emailed me back and he became my host in Faver. He was gracious and generous. Sitting in his kitchen one morning, I asked if he would show me the wall with the cross. In my struggling Italian, I said, Vorrèi vedere a muro con la croce. I would like to see the wall with the cross.
“Vòglia?” he asked, maybe not sure I meant it.
“Si, si!” I was sure.
He said nothing else.
Luciano and I share the same great grandfather, Sebastiano, but Luciano is older than I am, retired and living out a later stage of life. Even though we are of the same generation, I tended to look up to him as a wise elder. When I visited, Luciano was in his sixties, just under five and half feet tall, soft grey hair, thinning only slightly, clean-shaven face. He walked with a subtle side-to-side bounce in his step, and he smiled a lot. When he did, his eyes became more like slits. It was a smile of amusement, contentment, restraint. Around his buddies, he joked and talked a lot. I sensed that these were lasting and important friendships. During my three days in
Faver, Luciano took me around to visit our relatives, without giving me an agenda but suddenly announcing the next stop right before we got there.
On my first afternoon there, for instance, he asked if I were settled. I said I was. And he said “Andiamo.” And off we went. We jumped into his little Fiat, squeezed out of the tiny space where he parked, and drove down the street, through a few twists. I saw the church in front of us and thought we were going there, but the car hummed on past. We parked by a small house. We got out. “La casa di Pierina,” he said. From studying the names of family members, I knew this was his sister. We walked up to the door, Luciano knocked, and without waiting for an answer, he opened the door and walked on in. “Ciao, Ciao, come stai.” I followed. Pierina had a huge smile, said buongiorno, and she kissed me on both cheeks. She had us sit down at their dining room table. She began asking me questions in Italian. I was slow to understand and answer at first, but the laughter and smiles put me at ease, and I began talking away in Italian, no doubt with many mistakes and mispronunciations. Pierina opened some Prosecco, and we had biscotti. Time dissolved and I felt as though I had known these people my whole life. Luciano
ushered me into many such spontaneous visits, where family or friends would stop whatever they were doing to talk, drink, eat, as if that moment were all that ever mattered.
Looking back, I have come to appreciate Luciano’s sense of responsibility as host,
committed to seeing that I got around to visit everyone. In three days’ time, I think I saw everyone living in Faver related to me, probably twenty people. We spent a lot of time together, and Luciano was often quiet for long periods of time until he got excited about a subject and then he could talk and talk—talk about his vines, about his working days in Trento, talk about wine. He spoke with a lilting Italian, melodic, jingling with harmonies that floated away with the ends of words. I struggled to understand his Trentino dialect. He also used curious bits of sound to fill in a moment or accompany an action. For instance, when he drove around a curve, and there were many, he would go “Zuuuuppp!” or when he parked his car and put on the emergency brake, he would go, “Bum, bum, BUM.” Something falling was “bloop.”
One afternoon, we were in his vineyard, and he was telling me about growing grapes and selling them to the big cantina in the next town over. He was explaining how he felt about the small amount of money the cantina paid for grapes, their mischief multiplied by the strict production limits enforced by the regulations of the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). He enjoyed growing grapes just the same. He spoke for a long time, sweeping his right arm to hit me in the shoulder with the back of his hand, pointing down to the earth or waving his left arm to encompass the small vineyard, the place he clearly loved. He went on for
two or three minutes, I understood maybe a third of what he was saying, but he did not seem concerned. He brushed his hands together like he was washing them clean of the big cantina and their hard bargain. “Basta, basta!” He did not ask questions, like some people do, to check if I understood. He just pursued his monologue. So I knew he could talk with great animation at times. About the wall and the cross, however, Luciano remained silent. Then one afternoon he took me there.
We had just visited his brother Clemente at his vineyard, and Luciano said something about il muro, the wall.
“Andiamo a croce?” I asked.
Faver is perched on a mountain. To grow grapes, the people have terraced the
mountainside with stone walls, running just one or two rows of vines on each terrace. They have trained the vines onto a pergola that slants the leaf canopy like solar panel to catch the most sun. Back in Kansas City, my grandfather built the same kind of pergola for his grapes, as if he had brought the mountains with him. In Faver, to get up and down the mountain, they have also built narrow roads with retaining walls and switchbacks. On our way to Sebastiano’s cross, we twisted through a roundabout, zuuuppp, and some switchbacks, di, di, di, threaded through a tunnel, and emerged onto a narrow road that ran along a terrace, a wall on our left up the mountain, a drop-off on our right, grape vines above and below. Luciano parked the car along the edge of the drop-off, opposite the wall. The canopy below was at the same level as the street, like I could step out and walk across it.
Getting out, we walked along about 100 feet on the side of the road opposite the twelve foot wall, both of us looking for the cross. I knew from the picture in my father’s album what to look for. After some searching, Luciano pointed it out, a rusted steel cross about a foot across and two feet tall. It was made out of straps of steel an inch wide and anchored into the wall, about eight feet off the ground. I could tell Luciano was worried about cars coming around the blind curve. I was worried too. The road along the wall left no room for people on foot.
Standing below on the road, we could see the cross, but we could not read the words. The cross was way above our eyes, and the inscription was obscured by rust. I wanted the cross to speak to me about this place and my great grandfather, offer me evidence of his life. I put a hand on the wall and stepped on one of the stones to get a foothold and lift myself up to look at the cross more closely. Another car came out of nowhere and buzzed by. I could only hold myself there for a few seconds then slipped down. A careless stagger backward could put me into the path of a car. I thought to myself, okay, be careful. It seemed like there was too much to think about. Ideally I would examine this cross in peace, in some quite place, but that just wasn’t possible. Again, I stepped up with one foot and reached for a handhold, and the cross was the easiest thing to grasp, but it moved in the wall and I worried both about pulling it loose and about doing something irreverent by using it to pull myself up. So I searched again for a handhold and found a stone I could get a purchase on, held myself there to get a look. I could read 1885, but nothing else. I dropped to the ground out of fatigue. Luciano, six inches shorter than me, then had a go at it and pulled himself up. He looked and said, “Mille otto cento ottanta cinque.”
“Si, si” I said, as another little car whipped around the curve and disappeared into the tunnel. I wanted more significance from that cross. So I got out my phone and stepped up with one foot and my left hand grabbing the wall. I held my phone in my right hand, reached as high as I could, and snapped three pictures and dropped back down. I pulled myself up again and snapped some more pictures. Had I been all by myself, I would have checked every picture and taken many photos until I got every bit of the inscription. But by this time, I could see Luciano was ready to go. He was worried for my safety, a dimension of the duty he assumed as a host. In my role as guest, I was committed to giving no offense. In my day-to-day life back home, I hate to offend anyone, and I probably carry this to a fault. As Emerson says, your giant goes with you wherever you go. So in Italy, I was careful not to be pushy or demanding or ungracious. I hoped I had gotten images of the entire inscription and said, okay. “Andiamo.”
I flipped through the photos after we got in the car, and found that some allowed me to read parts of the inscription and others I had shot too close to the cross and were blurry. On the left arm of the cross I could read Luglio 1885, no doubt the month he died, but some small words right before Luglio are hard to make out, probably Li and another character or two, perhaps the number 11, but I’m not sure. That would translate as There on 11 July 1885, and it would make sense I think. My photos of the vertical bar of the cross are clear, and on the lower half, I can
make out our great grandfather’s name in four separate lines like stacked checkers: Seba-stia-no-Telch, followed by R., a horizontal line, and then a skull and crossbones at the foot. Luciano said the R. meant riposo in pace or to rest or repose in peace. On the right arm the words again are a little fuzzy, but colpito is clear, and it means stricken. It might be preceded by some form of “to be”. He was stricken. The top of the vertical piece looks like it has Qui, which means here.
There is meaning to be made here, facts I had been told but never felt. Facts confirmed in these rough scratches in a steel cross, verifying that Sebastiano Telch lived and was struck and died in this place in July of 1885. My great grandfather, the man my grandfather never really knew, lived, and then died too soon. In a way I feel like I know him now, not well, not fully, not even substantially, but more than a few words etched in steel.
* * *
The day before I left Faver, Luciano took me to visit another cousin, Rosapia, and her husband Dario. They lived in the building across the narrow road one step up the mountain from Luiciano’s house. The buildings in Faver go back to before my grandfather was born in 1883. They are typically three or four stories tall and hold six or eight apartments, often occupied by members of the same extended family. At Rosapia’s and Dario’s house, I also met another cousin, Rita and her husband Julio. They all welcomed me unconditionally and asked me about my parents. We had frizzante, and then dolce and caffè, and finally grappa. Dario is rumored to
make the best grappa around. I had not had enough experience with grappa to be able to judge, but I can tell you it was very strong and it burned down my throat while a hint, a memory of grape melted away in my mouth. We watched some of Il Giro de Italia on television, Italy’s Tour de France. Everyone was interested, but especially Dario, Julio, and Luciano. I sat in the kitchen with the women and talked in my struggling Italian. They asked me a lot about my teaching and my three boys, Joey, John, and Phil. I showed them pictures on my phone. We talked about my grandfather and my father. Then at one point Rita asked if I wanted to see la
casa di tuo nonno, the house where my grandfather was born and raised. She explained that her mother, Anna, had been living in that apartment up until a year ago when she died, at a hundred and one years old.
I was stunned at the offer because I had no idea that my grandfather’s house was still in the family. I said Si, si! So the men stayed behind to watch Il Giro while Rita and Rosapia led the way to my grandfather’s family home. It was a short walk, maybe a hundred yards, a couple buildings down from Luciano’s house. We went in the front door and then up two flights of concrete stairs. Rita unlocked the door, and we walked in. Rather than the décor of my grandfather’s time, the place radiated the spirit of Anna, simple decorations, a few photos of family. For an apartment of this size, the dining room was larger than you might expect, no
doubt to hold family gatherings. The kitchen was small and separate from the dining room. Most kitchens in the Trentino have two stoves, one fueled by gas the other by wood. Wood fire, I am told, is essential for cooking an honest polenta. Anna’s kitchen had just one stove, the traditional wood-burning stufa.
Rita ushered us into bedroom, where my grandfather had been born, Paulo Telch, a small room with a wide bed, lace curtains, and a simple coved ceiling. The dresser still displayed Anna’s things set out on a white lace doily, a statue of Mary, two candles, small lidded containers, and a miniature of Michelangelo’s Pietà. I was moved by the thought that my grandfather, whom I had only known as elderly and foreign, lived here once as a native, that this would have been his normal environment and could have remained so for the rest of his life. I cannot help but think this place lives inside me in an inexplicable way, an essence I carry with me.
Rita and Rosapia opened a door that led out to a narrow balcony. When I stepped out, I felt like I was perched on a cloud above the valley. I could see off to the right the campanile of Faver’s church, La Chiesa dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo, and to the left, the terraces and vines clinging to the mountain beneath me and beyond them Torrente Aviso threading its way through the valley floor. Rita said except for the modern paved road, this is what my nonno would have seen. So I imagined him looking out on this valley, perhaps taking its beauty for granted, perhaps thinking how the beauty could not undo the poverty and strain of living here. Maybe he
was standing on this very balcony one day when he decided he had to go, go to look for opportunity across the Atlantic. He probably did not expect to leave this valley and never return.
He probably did not expect his American grandson would one day stand here and try to see through his eyes and imagine the world he saw.