A young writer journeys to Italy in search of connection with her family’s history.
By Cara Cambardella ’08, M’10
White June hail pinged off the twin glass doors in front of the small train station in Dicomano, Italy, a town of 5,000 people, 30 kilometers east of Florence. A group of 10 or 12 rain-soaked travelers stood waiting in the gray lobby, watching the water pour and whip with the rare black gusts of a summer storm in Tuscany. Christina, one of the two owners of the raspberry farm my boyfriend and I were headed toward, met the two of us there that day. For what seemed like hours, we stood quietly together by the glass, silently watching and listening, waiting for the pounding waves of Tuscan summer rain to ebb.
Last May, I graduated from Bucknell University with a master’s degree in English. For the two years of my graduate study I researched and wrote about my Italian great-grandmother’s life, attempting to name what there is to name in memory, family stories, documented history. I remember her — four feet tall, white-haired, black-eyed, with golden, olive skin, the same as every other 80-year-old Italian woman I have ever known. She loved me with an old-world fierceness I distrusted, and yet I intently watched her, studied her, felt drawn to her. When I was a toddler, my nonni mesmerized me: she was at once familiar and foreign — one of my mothers, one of my supposed protectors, yet intimidating, unnerving. Her grasp was firm, her face was as serious as mine was around her. In photos and home videos I watch now, I see that she looked as bewildered at my youth as I was at her old age.
For my thesis, I wrote about my great-grandmother’s history, her immigration from Campania, Italy, her difficult childhood; I wrote about my grandmother’s story, and my mother’s story; I wrote about my own experiences traveling around the world, where I found figures of mothering, and feminine images in unexpected places — Thailand, India, Egypt. But at the end of spring, in my writing, and in my life, one essay was still missing. I had to experience my great-grandmother’s world. I had to work the land in Italy the way she had done as a younger woman. I wanted to dig into the same ground she dug. I needed to feel Italy’s dirt deep beneath my fingernails. In early June, I traveled to a small, organic raspberry farm in Tuscany, the closest thing I could find, 80 years later, to return to.
My nonni grew up farming fig and olive trees within the agricultural triangle made by the southern cities of Caserta, Naples and Avigliano. Without money or resources she raised her two younger siblings after her father died and her mother became deathly ill. As an older woman, my great-grandmother hated to remember her younger life — that time and place in which she first learned the gnaw and struggle of living that she would carry with her forever. “I work all ‘a time,” she would tell my mother. “All ‘a time I worka. Up on the stone. No shoes. No elettricitá. No thing.” My great-grandmother picked coal as a little girl, gathered water, worked the fields, chopped wood, cooked, cleaned, raised her sister and brother and nursed her dying mother. In Carbondale, Pa., decades later, my mother would ask questions of her increasingly frustrated grandmother. “You’ll never know,” she told my mother repeatedly. Telling our family only the framework of her life in Italy, my great-grandmother must have been able to remember only pieces of a childhood working in the mountains. I imagine she could bear to tell no more than displaced fragments.
At the age of 24, my nonni left her family’s farm in the hills of Campania for a husband and a small house in Carbondale, the town in which she lived for 60 years. Now, at 24, I am the same age she was when she left Italy. Now, in the midst of my own becoming, I hold an even greater fascination and curiosity about her than I did when I was a child. I went to Italy in search of the details and landscapes she refused to remember — the memories that may have made her feel sad, empty, nostalgic, resentful. I hoped in traveling to discover a little more of her history, a few more details of her lost stories.
On our second day in the mountains, we walked a quarter mile to see what Christina had described as a small overlook — a “pretty little walk”. Bare and vertical, a narrow climb straight up led to what seemed to be a stage wide enough for only one of us to stand. I put one foot cautiously in front of the other, never looking down or beyond, thinking of all the things I had ever heard about overcoming a fear of heights, a fear of conquering, a fear of success, one foot and then the other. I slipped once, caught myself on the rocky path, and eventually ascended the cima. The breeze kicked. I felt the ground ease level with my hips. I knew there was nowhere else to go but down or off the edge, so I raised my eyes from the path. Knees weak, breath shallow, stomach in my chest and bowels at once, I looked out onto a panorama as wide and unobstructed as the view I remember of the open ocean from a ship’s top deck. The mountains seemed to heave and turn over — spines of sleeping giants, breathing beards and shoulders, shifting hips and thighs enfolded — but then suddenly inhuman, stiff, solid, other-worldly; they were enormous reminders of their ancient lives, the age and beautiful ache of the earth. I felt my incredible smallness. Lush, soft, layered, overlapping, those mountains met me there and seemed to look back at and see through me — tiny me standing atop a 700 meter peak in the Apennines — as though they knew I would someday finally arrive.
Miles and miles south of that mountaintop, in Campania, is the mountainous land my great-grandmother knew. I thought about my nonni from that vantage in Tuscany, on top of that summit, from where I could see the small, 10-row raspberry fields on either side of our cabin, the gardens, the terracotta roof of Christina’s house, the storm rolling away across the horizon, split in places by the crests of mountain waves, the distant, winding road which took us from the city to that mountain, where I heard Italy’s baritone rumbling, where I felt I had finally found a new piece of my great-grandmother’s youth, my family’s history, my own inheritance.
In my memory, I seem to leap, plunge miraculously straight off of that mountain top into the raspberry fields below. A sharp scene change of a grand panoramic vision to the acuteness of concentrated work. Days after that first day on the cima, my knuckles throbbed and my skin peeled from weeding. Fingers and fingernails, knees and feet, a sore back from mornings spent working in the fields. My boyfriend uprooted huge parasitic vines. And I, covered in dirt and sweat, forearms stinging from raspberry thorns, paused every once in a while to allow the overwhelming thought of my great-grandmother and her young life’s work to settle, or pass.
The work I did was nowhere near equal to the work to which my great-grandmother was bound. But as I hiked those mountains, dug in that soil, felt that sun on my neck, breathed that mountain air, spoke and listened to her language, I felt as though I was completing something bitterly, painfully abandoned 80 years ago. She left that landscape at 24; I found it at 24. When I was a young child, my great-grandmother pulled me unwillingly into her, and quietly, forcefully, adored me — my youth, my privilege. I feared her; I ran from her. For the past two years I asked questions about her life, gathered fragments about her world. Eighteen years after she died I traveled to her country, stood on top of her mountains, dug fiercely into her soil, spoke her language, cooked her food and felt her still pulling me, her tired hands forever urging me closer.
I didn’t travel this summer to discover any simple truth behind the disjointed, ever-changing stories my family recounted of my great-grandmother — those stories whose foreignness and fragmentation compelled me to delve into them. I went to Italy to further detail what I already knew about or family’s heritage. I experienced the big cities, the northern countryside, the Tuscan mountains, the southern oceans, the seaside towns. I will never completely understand my great-grandmother, or the life she left. I will never have access to her world. But her younger life became clearer with every experience I encountered, every cracked tile pieced together with her story’s grand mosaic in my mind, every meal of minestrone, every new landscape. Every conversation I had with an old, weak-voiced woman at midnight about where to buy bread gave me one more part of Italy, one more idea about my great-grandmother, one more image, one more piece. As I learned about Italy, I learned about my inheritance, my heritage, my family, and myself. At the end of the summer, after farming, after almost everything, that weak-voiced woman, whose name I never learned, who lived downstairs in our apartment by the Adriatic, patted my face with hands as soft and small as a child’s when I asked where I could find bread. She answered me in a gentler way than my great-grandmother ever did, with familiar eyes — eyes I recognized — shimmering joyously against the moon’s reflection on the nearby water, for love of youth and desire for connection.