FURLOUGH TO ITALY
Up until my trip to Italy, I had no grandmother or grandfather, nor uncles, aunts or cousins. All I had was my mother, father and brothers and sisters. Friends and classmates talked about their relatives and they were foreign to even my imagination. My mother and father did have photographs hanging on the walls. There was a large photo in an oval frame of my father’s mother; a photo of my mother’s mother and father; a photo of my mother’s family, which included my father obviously after my mother and father were married; a copy of a dedication with photos of my mother’s three brothers who were killed in WWI. To me these were pictures of phantoms not real people and I simply could not relate to any of them. None of these relatives were a part of my life. Nevertheless, I thought since I was stationed in Germany, it would please my mother and father to visit these relatives.
So I set a date for a 15 day furlough in May, 1953. Now I did not expect this trip to be very interesting, I figured I would just pay my respects and move on. So I asked one of my Army pals named Carr to travel with me and he agreed. We figured to make the trip worthwhile we would do some sightseeing, like going to Pompei and Rome.
Tuesday, May 12, 1953
We caught the 5:41 train out of Baumholder. On the train, I met an Italian man with his wife and started talking with him about where I was going. He said he would call up my cousin Laura for me when we arrived at the Milan station, because I did not know how to use the Italian phone. At the Milan train station he was ready to make the call when a lady came and stood in front of me. She looked straight at me and something clicked in me and I knew that she was Laura. I was kind of flabbergasted and all I could do was shake her hand and say that I am Michele. I had written to her the week before and told her that I would arrive at the train station at about 8:30 and there she was waiting for me.
Laura and her husband, Eliseo, took us to their apartment and she made something for us to eat. I felt very strange at first because I was afraid we could not talk to each other, until I realized that her dialect was the same as my parents, and I learned this dialect because it was the only way I could talk to my mother and father. After some fumbling with some words we managed to communicate very nicely. We stayed up talking till midnight. After all she was the daughter of my mother’s sister, which made her my first cousin.
This long day came to an end and it was time for bed. My friend and me would sleep in Laura and Eliseo’s bed. I felt terrible for putting them out of their bed, but they insisted and would hear no arguments. My poor friend Carr had no idea what was going on, and I was beginning to feel sorry for bringing him along with me. He stuck with me and took a lot of photographs and confessed after this trip that it was quite exciting for him and he was very happy for the experience.
Wednesday May 13, 1953
The next morning I learned that Laura was not well. She’d had a very difficult time giving birth to her child. Her mother, back in Bitonto, sent another one of her daughters named Graziella to Milan to help Laura care for the baby and do all sorts of chores until Laura fully recuperated. This is the way things were done in their family. When one needed help, there was always some other one to help out without complaining. This is how I met the second of my many cousins.
Eliseo had to work this day so Laura took my friend and me on a tour of the city. We went to the park and the zoo and a shopping mall. We saw the king’s palace even though there was no more king. Best of all was the cathedral, a huge magnificent church and we climbed to the highest steeple for an overall view of the city. After supper we took a stroll around the neighborhood and Eliseo showed us the lamp-post where the body of Mussolini was hung. There is a gas station there now.
Our plan was to leave Milan the next day, but Eliseo and Laura talked us into staying with them one more day. Eliseo wanted to take us to visit his family in Toscolano, a city on the Lago de Garda. Laura could not come because the train ride would make her sick. The lake was absolutely gorgeous; blue water with the Alps in the background and villas along the shore line, obviously a place for very wealthy people to live.
We were treated as special guests. We did a lot of walking and talking. We were shown parks with magnificent gardens and museums dedicated to Italian war heroes. We were treated to an excellent lunch with lots of wine. I left these people feeling quite content. I felt for them even though they were not members of my family.
My feelings were starting to change. I did not expect to be treated so specially, like I was a long-lost son or brother. Even Eliseo’s family, who were no relation to me treated me like I was someone special. I thought I was a nobody. If it was my mother and father, I could understand the treatment. Even my six brothers and sisters, who were born in Italy, I could understand this special treatment. But why me? And why was I beginning to feel so happy? That night we stayed up again till midnight talking and there was so much to talk about.
Friday, May 15, 1953
Eliseo walked us around for a while that morning while Laura prepared a lunch. At the table we ate and talked so much that we did not realize how the time was flying. Then we had to rush to get to the train station. I kissed Graziela goodbye and started to feel sad. Eliseo and Laura came to the station with us. We had about ten minutes to wait on the train before it pulled out. I kissed Eliseo and then Laura. I could feel the tears in my eyes and I told her to go. She understood because she felt the same; we were afraid of crying in front of each other.
As the train pulled away I unconsciously said out loud “Addio Milano.” An Italian man heard me and said, “Why so melancholy?” He started talking to me and I thought of where I was going and I felt better.
We were not scheduled to arrive in Bari till 6:00 the next morning. So we had all night to travel. As we were traveling more passengers got off the train and we found an empty compartment just for ourselves. When it got dark we went to sleep – a very restless sleep.
Saturday, May 16, 1953
Laura called the people in Bitonto telling them that I would arrive in Bari at six o’clock so they could meet me at the station. Bari is the main railroad station of the area and just a few miles from Bitonto. When Laura told me about the arrival time, I misunderstood her. So when the train got to Bari I figured we were early. Not expecting any one until seven o’clock we decided to get a cup of coffee at the cafeteria and pass the time for an hour. A man at the station asked us if we wanted him to carry our bags. I told him no, we were expecting relatives. My friend and I just sat down over our coffee when this same man came in and behind him were six other people, one of them a very old lady. I understood her to be saying, “Which one is he? Which one is he?” I stood up and they led her to me. She hugged me and kissed me and started crying saying, “Son. Son. Son of my daughter.” I was too excited and surprised and somewhat confused to remember now exactly what I did or said.
This old lady was my mother’s mother, my 91-year-old grandmother who everyone referred to as La Nona, no more than five feet tall. Hair combed straight back. Her countenance was beaming with a smile of joy and tearful eyes that gleamed. I felt like I was looking at an angel.
Among the others in the group were my mother’s two sisters, Mary and Anna. Aunt Mary looked just like my mother and Aunt Anna looked like my sister. One of the men was my father’s nephew Giuseppe, who looked like my father. I don’t remember who the others were. We all piled into a car (or maybe there were two cars). La Nona sat next to me and would not let go of my hand. We arrived in Bitonto and gathered in Aunt Mary’s apartment which consisted of two all-purpose rooms. The younger boys and girls came and it was very crowded in the two rooms. I was overwhelmed and quite confused.
Aunt Mary had laid out a spread of cordials and pastries, which she made herself and were the same as the kind my mother made. Everyone was excited, especially me. I felt like I was in a whirlwind of strangers. Finally my tongue started to loosen up and I started to talk and they all got more excited when they realized I could speak their dialect. Once I got started I could not stop talking, and they cheered me on. I told them about my mother and father and brothers and sisters. I showed them photos of my mother and father. When La Nona saw the picture of my mother and father at the kitchen window she kissed the picture and said, “my daughter, my daughter.” She insisted on keeping the picture even though she already had one. Whenever I was in the same room with Nona, I always sat next to her. If anyone else was sitting by her, they would always get up and give me the seat. So I was sitting next to her that morning and she kept kissing me. Everyone kept telling her that she was going to wear out my face with kisses. They would tease her and say “Save some for us, don’t be so selfish.” Her response was, “He is here now, when will I see him again, let me have him.’” And she always had an answer for any joke played on her, and she always laughed.
While we were sitting and talking, Nona got up and went into the other room, then came back with something in her hands. I was talking so much that I hardly noticed her leave and return. She placed a little box in my hand. I was very surprised and excited that I did not know how to react. Then everyone told me to open it. I opened it and found a gold cross and chain. I was overwhelmed and started to cry. I kissed Nona and thanked her. Aunt Mary put it on me and I insisted on wearing it outside my shirt so everyone could see it.
Later that morning cousin Giuseppe on my father’s side took over and with some of the other boys took us on a walk around Bitonto. We stopped at different homes of friends of my mother and father and were introduced; and naturally were invited to share a cordial in their honor. We were shown the building where my mother and brothers and sisters lived before they came to America. A most important stop was the Via Fratelli Miccione; a street named in memory of my mother’s three brothers who were killed in WWI.
When we arrived back at Aunt Mary’s, Nona asked, “Where have you been so long. I’m afraid I’ll lose you.” And I received another shower of kisses from her. After lunch Giuseppe took over again and we walked some more. That evening the boys and girls, the young cousins about my age and younger, took over and we walked some more and talked and laughed.
My friend and I were assigned to sleep in Cousin Rita’s apartment because only she had the space for us. Her husband had served in the Italian army during the war and spent most of the war in a British prisoner of war camp. I slept a restless sleep that night, because I wanted to start again and be with all those wonderful people and talk with them, and walk with them and eat and drink with them. And I think more than anything else I felt that they all loved me and I was overwhelmed by so much love, that I wanted to have it always. I did not want to lose it.
Sunday, May 17, 1953 – The feast day of St. Pasquale
We were awakened in plenty enough time for the 10 o’clock mass. Cousin Rita and her husband Giovanni had to explain to us how to wash in the strange bowls since they had no running water. Then they prepared breakfast for us, which consisted of coffee and a biscotti and a lot of talking.
Just before ten o’clock a group of the cousins arrived and escorted us to the church of St Pasquale. After mass we went for a walk. They showed us around old Bitonto. Two of the young girl cousins took possession of me. One was Finele, short for Serafina, named after my mother. She was one of Aunt Mary’s daughters. The other was Concetta, the adopted daughter of Aunt Anna. They each got a hold of one of my arms and the rest of the group followed along. I did not complain because they were lively, cheerful girls and were making a big fuss over me. They showed me the church of the Madonna of Sorrows. This Madonna was my mother’s favorite and she always had a picture of her in the bedroom. My mother referred to her as the “povera Madonna,” the poor suffering mother.
After our walk we went to Aunt Mary’s place for a feast of a dinner. Aunt Mary and Aunt Anna prepared this meal, so only their families were present at the table. When we got there, Nona was mad at me because she didn’t see me all morning. I told her to blame it on the cousins and they all offered some excuse to her. Before we sat down to eat they gave me a bouquet of flowers in honor of my father for St Pasquale day. This gesture touched me and I felt that my Father was with me at the table. The meal was exactly the same as my Mother would prepare. All through the meal someone would interrupt and make a toast: to my Father, to me, to Nona, to themselves and for any other reason they could think of.
After the meal the cousins came over, and we all gathered together and took a bus to Giovinazza, a small seaside town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. There we met more cousins. These were the children of my uncle Francesco, who was killed in WWI. I was introduced to his wife and her family. Some of her children were from her second marriage, but that made no difference. They all carried on like one big happy family. Some of the boys and girls took small boats and rowed around the sea. I stayed with the older folks and was treated to cakes and ice cream and naturally, glasses of cordials. My head was starting to spin. I roughly counted forty people all together.
Then we all piled on the bus back to Bitonto, singing and laughing all the way. But the day was not over yet. Being the feast day of St Pasquale, after the older folks were dropped off at Aunt Mary’s, the younger crowd went to watch the fireworks. Then back to Aunt Mary’s for some snacks and coffee (with anisette). Finally to bed.
Monday, May 18, 1953
Every day that I was in Bitonto I never knew what was going to happen. Apparently they all got together and decided that each day would be at least partly dedicated to dinner with one family at a time. Yesterday was Aunt Mary and Aunt Anna’s day. Today was dinner with Uncle Peppino and his family. For some reason this dinner was held at Nona’s apartment which consisted of one room. We were picked up by Uncle Peppino’s son Nicolino, and somehow Finele and Concetta became part of the escort to dinner. We ate home made orecchiette, just like my Mother made. I learned later that Peppino was the one who did most of the arrangements for my Mother and brothers and sisters to sail to America in 1927, right up to making sure they boarded the ship. But on this day I had no idea how important he was to my Mother. He was quiet and reserved and showed very little emotion. That afternoon Nicolino with Aunt Mary and Aunt Anna took us on a tour of Bari.
Tuesday, May19, 1953
This was Uncle Domenico’s day. His son Michelino picked us up at Cousin Rita’s house and spent the morning walking and talking with us and as usual Finela and Concetta joined us. About noon, Uncle Domenico’s daughter caught up with us and announced that dinner was ready. We left the girls behind and Michelino and his sister brought us to their place. Again, Nona was at the table with us.
Uncle Domenico was a very impressive man. He was tall, straight and handsome even for his age. But he did not have the kind of joy that his sisters had. He seemed to be overly serious. I felt very safe and comfortable with him. It was a kind of feeling that if a problem arose, I would want him on my side. At the time all I knew about him was that he was a retired sheriff and was losing his eyesight.
I later learned that he was my Mother’s second oldest brother. After serving his required time in the military he decided to make the army his career. So when WWI broke out he was in the thick of the fighting right from the beginning. When the Austrians and Germans encircled the Italians, he, as well as thousands of other Italian troops were made prisoners of war. Of the four brothers who served in the military, he alone survived. His older brother, Francesco was killed outright. His next younger brother, Michele, was declared missing in action and presumed dead. The next one, Pietro, died from tuberculosis while a prisoner. After the war Domenico put together a memorial declaration honoring his lost brothers. He also worked with the politicians in Bitonto to name a street in his brother’s honor, “Via Fratelli Miccione.”
I often wondered if my presence in a military uniform affected Domenico’s feeling toward me as the missing brothers and for that matter did Nona feel that her missing sons finally came back. It seems pointless to think this way but they sure did make a big fuss over me, which as I said earlier I could not understand.
As usual the meal was prepared just like my Mother’s meals. After the meal we sat outside and were just relaxing when suddenly cousin Giuseppe (Cariello) came by and invited me take a ride on his wagon. We were shown the olive and almond groves and the grape vines, and we saw a small patch of land that we were told was the property of my Father. We rode along singing and laughing but it was not the kind of loose and relaxing feeling that I felt with the Micciones. Later that afternoon Giuseppe dropped us off at Aunt Mary’s house.
While we were sitting around telling stories and getting Nona to laugh, a lady friend of the family came up to the house. She wanted to know if I knew any of her relatives who lived in New York. I told her that with so many people living in New York I could not possibly know them all. Then she started talking about some relative of hers who was in the U.S. Army during the war and came to visit her and her family in Bitonto, just like I was doing. She said that some time after he left Bitonto she learned that he was killed. As she was telling this story everyone was quietly listening. I started looking at everyone’s face, and a sadness came over me – sad that I would be leaving them soon. Then someone said “Look at the way he is looking at everyone.” They asked me “What’s the matter?” All I could manage was a feeble smile and said, “I don’t know, all of a sudden I feel very sad.” They knew what I felt and told me not to think of going away.
Wednesday, May 20, 1953
Today was the Cariello’s day. Cousin Giuseppe picked us up and we went to his brother Francesco’s house for the noon meal. I did not feel comfortable with them. They were too formal like they were treating me according to the rules. They did not have the sincerity and feeling of joy about them that the Miccione family had.
Anyway the brothers showed us around the house and property. They especially pointed out a grapevine that grew up the side of the house and almost covered the roof. They must have got a lot of wine out of that vine. After the meal we were taken for a buggy ride to Santo Spirito on the coast. On the way the brothers pointed out another strip of land that belonged to my Father, which they took care of. A whole crowd of us were on the buggy and all were in good spirits. We laughed and sang songs. One especially I remember: “Tira, Tira, cuciarella, la carousella,” “Pull, Pull little donkey, the little wagon”.
After the buggy ride Giuseppe took us back to Aunt Mary’s house and I felt very happy to be back with Nona. I think the wine was starting to catch up with me. I was feeling a bit wobbly. We were escorted back to Cousin Rita’s house for the night. As we passed the town square we heard a band playing. We stopped to listen and then a woman’s voice came through singing the Ave Maria. I froze and listened, and grew terribly sad. The day, the mood, the music the atmosphere smacked me to tears and I felt like I never wanted to leave Bitonto.
That evening Rita and I stayed up late sitting at the table and talked and talked. She understood how I felt. This was my last night in Bitonto and I did not want it to end.
Thursday, May 21 – the last day
If it wasn’t for my friend Carr, I would have stayed in Bitonto for all the time I had left. But it was hard on him and he wanted to see more of Italy. Everyone understood this and agreed. Although they wanted me to stay and I did not want to leave, it was only fair for my friend’s sake that we should leave. Our train was to depart from Bari at 5:20 PM.
I was up early. Had my coffee and talked with Rita until some of the others came over. Rita’s husband, Giovanni had a brother who was a barber. He insisted on giving us a haircut and a shave. He absolutely refused anything from us. It was his gift to us. We then packed and were ready to leave, but there was a lot of time left before 5PM.
So we went to Aunt Mary’s house for our noon meal. Nona kept saying that she was never going to see me again. So to make her feel better they told me to tell her that I was coming back. I told her that I was coming back for the Feast of the Madonna on August 15. They all asked me to come back. I told them that I very much would like to come back, but I could not promise that I would.
While we were eating Nona told me that she prayed to God to give her strength not to cry and break down until after I left and she prayed the same for me. All I could eat was the soup, because I was all choked up. I was looking into everyone’s face. Then just before the tears started coming out of my eyes they noticed my sadness and started forcing little jokes and the melancholy broke down and smiles returned. Cousins and friends of the family started to come to say good-bye, bringing with them some cookies for our trip. Our bags were half full of these goodies, and they even gave us a bottle of anisette.
Then Nona started telling everyone to have a drink and say goodbye because she was going to America with me. The young girls told her that if she went to America she would have to wear thin, short dresses and use lipstick and rouge. That changed her mind and she decided not to go to America. And everyone laughed. But I was getting itchy and could not keep my feet still. So, finally I said, “let us go.”
I made the rounds and shook hands and kissed them all. Then I looked for Nona. She was sitting with her head down. I went and told her, “my, what a pretty little girl you are.” And she answered “But of course, what else did you think.” Then I hugged her and kissed her, then she dropped head again. I held her hand and pulled away and I felt that I never wanted to her go. I backed away as far as I could and left leaving her empty hand still held out.
Two carloads of people were to escort us to the train station, but Nona was not one of them. As the cars pulled out of Bitonto I turned and looked back at the city where some of the happiest days of my life were spent and I felt that I brought some happiness to those I was leaving behind.
At the station I said my good-byes with hugs and kisses. We boarded the train and looked back at the group as the train pulled away. The last I could see of the group was Uncle Domenico’s great black hat waving good-bye. It seemed to me that all of these people, the Cariellos and the Micciones were in that great black hat.
Addio Bitonto, non ti scordar di me. For I will never forget you.
Michael J. Carrielo was born and raised in Union City NJ, taught middle history and English for 30 years. He’s 89 now and lives in Dorset VT.