Dear Papa Nardi,
I wish I could have met you. I wish my mom could have met you. I wish I would have asked Grandpa more about you, and I wish you could have had more than 54 years to live and enjoy the life you built from nothing in your adopted country.
Of course, I wish I could have met all my great grandparents and ancestors. In some way, somebody back in my family tree had to let go of home & take a risk to cross an ocean and start over. So I’m really writing this to all of my great-grandparents, but for some reason, I’m drawn to you.
Maybe it’s because I know some about your story and maybe because you came to this country relatively recently in the grand scheme/annals of my ancestry. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with Italy. You know, “everyone” “loves” Italy now. The Rome-Florence-Venice (Roma-Firenze-Venezia) trip is almost a cliche at this point for middle and upper-class people. I’ve done it too. But I am Italian. I admit to feeling just a bit superior to the millions of foreigners who flock to Italy. I catch myself walking around Rome with mobs of other foreigners and thinking, “It is so great that you all love Italy so much, but I am Italian. This is in my blood. I belong here. Isn’t the history and the culture of my ancestors amazing?” It’s silly of course. I am Italian because of a million turns of fate that led to my birth. But still, there it is.
Maybe I’m drawn to your story because I’ve walked the streets of Simbario, your hometown, and seen the grave of your father.
Maybe it’s because I went to Northern Michigan University archives with my mom, your granddaughter, and I saw your signature on naturalization papers, held your passport in my hands. And I’ve spent countless hours scouring ship manifests, census data, and any other records to trace your life’s path back and forth across the Atlantic to get family members and bring them to the U.S and visit home. In these ways, I guess, you seem more “real” when I can trace a loose arc of your life.
*Note: you don’t make it easy with your evolving name – Vincenzo to Vincent to Vincent James to James Vincent. 🙂
I have so many questions for you. What did you know about America before you came here? What did you expect? Did you have a plan? Did you miss Italy? Were you ever looked down upon for being Italian? Did you ever regret your decision even for a moment or ask yourself why you felt called to cross an ocean? Questions I’ll never get the answers to, but that has never stopped me from wondering.
Did people disapprove of your decision? Did they ask you why you couldn’t just be happy living out your life in or near your hometown “like everyone else” or because you “should?” And for goodness sake, if you want to do something “bigger” or “different,” couldn’t you just have gone somewhere like Naples or Rome, in your own country, where you speak the language, and where you don’t have to cross an ocean to come home?
You must have seen the validity of their arguments. It would have been easier just to stay. There were certainly no guarantees in this new world, and what or who would you “fall back on” if it didn’t work out?
But you went/came anyway. Family lore has it that you crossed the Atlantic to the new world with $18 to your name and speaking not a word of English. And of course, you married another full-blooded Italian here in your adopted country – but a Neopolitan!
Well, you may be proud (or horrified, who knows?) that your great-granddaughter spent more than a year living in your native Calabria. But you already knew that. Isn’t that why, of all the 479 Italian schools I applied to, the job I got was in the notoriously poor south where the unemployment rate is among the highest not just in Italy, but in all of Europe? Isn’t that why I got a job an hour away from your hometown? Your granddaughter – my mom – thinks so.
And now I’m going back again.
Did I get this from you? This restless magnetism that pulls me around the world, and especially to Italy?
I don’t mean to equate myself and my travels to you and the leap of faith you took by coming here. Of course, it is much easier to cross an ocean now, and often there’s no “need” because technology connects us to people almost anywhere and everywhere around the globe. But often, when I try in vain to put into words what “this” is that has tugged at the very core of who I am for as long as I can recall, this part of me that needs to see the other side of the world and a different way of life… when I can’t even wrap my own mind around “this,” I think, maybe you would understand.