Zabaglione

The city of Bronte on the western slope of Mount Etna. This photo appears here with the gracious permission of Bronte Insieme. (http://www.bronteinsieme.it)

We parked the rental car on the street in front of the stone building with the wooden door. Actually, all of the buildings were stone, old, gray stone, and I’m pretty sure they all had wooden doors. But this was 177 Via Messina. We got out of the car, Maria and I and our son Shaun, and approached the house. I double-checked the number. We had been told this was where Nunziata lived with her daughter, Tina.

A century earlier, almost to the day, my grandmother had been born in this house in Bronte, Sicily. When she was nineteen, she got on a boat called the Patria with her husband and their nine-month-old baby, my mother, and sailed for New York. They arrived on November 1, 1922. Years later, my grandmother would return once to visit her family, but my mother seemed to have no desire to see her birthplace. I don’t remember her ever even talking about it. My questions about their reasons for leaving were always answered with shrugs and silence. Or, “What does it matter?” It was a time for looking forward, I guess. Where you came from wasn’t nearly so interesting back then.

By the time I was born, my grandfather was dead, murdered in his own barbershop during a holdup. “Seven dollars. He had seven dollars in the cash register. They shot him for seven dollars.” That’s all the information I could ever get out of anyone. Maybe there really was nothing else to say about it.

The family eventually moved to the Bronx. Our home was a three-story brick building. My parents and their five kids occupied the two lower floors. My grandmother lived on the top floor with her second husband. Their place became my sanctuary. I loved to go upstairs, to hear the scrunch as I threw myself onto the plastic-covered couches, to inhale the sweet scent of smoldering pipe tobacco, or to sit on the floor and watch The Untouchables. It was a safe place, and they were safe people. They spoke with thick accents, and with gentleness and caring.

My grandmother often made me a special drink when I went to see her after school. She would go into the living room and take a crystal glass from the cabinet. Then she’d crack a raw egg and let it drop into the glass, followed by some vermouth and honey, and mix it with a rotary hand beater. I can still hear the blades knocking against the inside of the glass. I can see the foam as it rises to the rim. She never called it anything but eggs and vermouth. Did she think I wouldn’t be able to pronounce its name? Or was she still trying to shed her Sicilian identity, and prove she was a true American? My mother seemed to be caught in the same struggle. So did several aunts and uncles. Maybe that’s why they never taught their kids to speak Italian. They reverted to their native language only when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about. I would listen to the rambling, meaningless words, occasionally punctuated by my name and a head flicked in my direction. What were they saying about me? Even with a language barrier, and partly because of it, the Sicilian paranoia was passed to the next generation.

My mother was a stunning woman when she was in her thirties, and well into her forties. I don’t know that I have a clue about her relationship with my grandmother. Maybe it was because they lived in the same house. They never greeted each other, or said good-bye. They interacted the way any two people interact when they’re together all the time. Conversations would just pick up where they’d left off.

We spent most of our time on the bottom floor’s faded linoleum. Side-by-side refrigerator and freezer stood like short sentinels against one wall. There was a front room, filled with greasy tools and cobwebs and wooden cases of seltzer. There was a back room, with a boiler in the corner and a radiator beside it, where we put our wet clothes in the winter to dry, and where our cat had given birth to seven kittens one spring day. We ate all of our meals in the kitchen. On holidays, when aunts and uncles and cousins came over, we opened up a long aluminum folding table and set up enough chairs to seat eighteen or more. The tables were slightly different heights, so there was always a little drop from one to the other, from the adults’ table to the kids’ table.

There were two water pipes running across the ceiling from the front of the house to the back. My mother sometimes banged on those pipes when it got cold downstairs. I guess my grandmother had the thermostat and controlled the heat. My dream as an eight-year-old was to someday jump up and touch the pipes, as my two older brothers could do with ease, and which they often demonstrated for my benefit.

A concrete driveway separated our house from the one next door. The driveway was where I often played with my younger brother. It’s where I did my homework on warm days, and where we had parties in the summer. It’s where I had played stickball before I was old enough to go into the street. It’s where, when my mother had warned my grandmother not to give me any candy, I waited with outstretched hands as the candy flew from the third-floor kitchen window, wrapped in a napkin and tucked inside a brown paper bag. My grandmother liked me, I think in a way that no one has since. And so I still remember the tone in my uncle’s voice when he came down the stairs one March day and yelled to my cousins and my brother and me, “Can’t you kids keep it down? Don’t you know your grandmother died today?” No, we hadn’t known. That was 1966. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor the previous November. In my memory, she had been sick for about two years, but in reality it had been just a few months. Hers was the first death in my life. I was ten, and confused. Why did they call it a wake? Was she in heaven with my grandfather? And what would happen when her second husband died and went to heaven? Would she have to choose? I tried asking my mother, but always the answers were abrupt, deflective, or non-existent.

My mother had a bite, a sarcastic tone that may have been there all along, or may have developed as a result of my father’s infidelities. Or my older brother’s drug use. Or her mother’s illness. Or she may have reserved the tone for me. Maybe I was like my own kids and went through a period of incessant questions. And maybe my mother grew tired of them, or was distracted by pressing issues. I don’t know. I remember only my questions and her answers. “Where are you going?” “To the moon. You want to come?” “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in my pocket.” “When are my cousins getting here?” “When they get here, they get here.”

And so it’s no wonder, at least in the recollections stored by a young boy, that I had shuttled between my mother and my grandmother, looking for a little attention and a soft place to land. Always feeling that I was never quite where I was supposed to be.

After high school, I enrolled at Fordham University, looking to prolong my time in the Bronx, and to stay close to home in case my father succumbed to the emphysema that seemed to have him permanently trapped in the intersection between life and death. I studied Italian for four semesters. I learned very little, often unknowingly pulling out a Spanish word from my high school years and inserting it into the middle of an Italian expression. It was my first feeble attempt to connect with a nearly-lost heritage.

It’s always startling to look back after making a long series of seemingly insignificant decisions. You realize that if you could go back and change any one of those choices, you would be in a different place. Certain relationships would have never been possible. Children would have remained unborn, while others, now permanently non-existent, would have been here and causing us to wonder how we could ever live without them. It gives me the shivers to think about it. Had I known my father would dwell in the intersection for eleven more years, what would I have done differently? Where would I be now? Who would I be? And when I looked around, who would be there?

In the summer of 1996, my mother noticed a lump in her throat. She went to the doctor, who told her that she shouldn’t be too concerned, and that he was going on vacation. They did some tests in the fall and discovered there was cancer. Again he advised her not to worry, that he would operate and remove the cancer and that her prognosis was good. In October she went into surgery and was back in her room in less than an hour. The doctor had found so much cancer, he knew there was no point in trying to remove it. He said she would live six months. Some radiation and a few rounds of chemotherapy took away her hair and her ability to eat and gave her face that sunken look that we didn’t really notice at the time, but seems so shocking when we look at photographs now. Six months after her prognosis, she obeyed the doctor and died. Two of my brothers sat by her bed. I was holding her hand when she took her last breath.

Several years after my mother’s death, I found myself pulled to Sicily. I couldn’t explain it, but I had to go. Maria needed no explanation, and although we couldn’t afford the trip, she agreed that we should go anyway. Born in Japan, she still had family there, had been back to visit them, and understood the importance of maintaining that connection. So we went, Maria and I and our eight-year-old son.

Tucked into my carry-on bag was a slip of paper with a few names and telephone numbers. Three weeks before we were to leave, I spoke with my uncle, my mother’s brother, the one who had announced my grandmother’s death. We hadn’t spoken in years, but when I heard he’d been to Sicily, I called him. He told me that my grandmother’s sister, Nunziata, was still alive and living in the same house where my mother was born. Even after forty-seven years of life in a family of secrets, I was unprepared for this piece of information. My grandmother had a sister? Has a sister? She’s alive, in Sicily, living in the same house? She’s ninety-eight? I imagined a frail, white-haired woman dressed in black, lying in bed in a dark room.

When the door opened, we were met by a woman with coarse brown hair and large glasses. “Nunziata?” I asked. “No,” she answered in perfect English. “I am Nunziata’s daughter, Tina.” We entered and introduced ourselves. Tina was my mother’s cousin, but they could have been mistaken for sisters. Had my mother ever mentioned her? Did she even know about Tina? It seems like an absurd question, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine my mother shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Tina who? I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

The far end of the room was the kitchen. A table and four chairs stood not five feet from the front door. The furniture was thick wood, heavy, shiny. A crucifix hung on a wall. A huge long-haired cat sat on the floor under the table. Across the room, a silent woman stood waiting. Tina made the introductions. “This is my mother, Nunziata.” I kissed the older woman’s unmoving face. She almost smiled, and spoke to Tina in Italian, flicking her head in our direction. I translated some on my own, but there was no need, because Tina easily alternated between the two languages. She was explaining to Nunziata who we were, as though we had arrived unexpectedly. We hadn’t, of course. We’d been in touch with another cousin, who had arranged the visit earlier that day.

I pulled out pictures from my pocket, old black and white photographs of my grandmother and my mother, taken in front of our house in the Bronx in the 1950s. In one, they held an infant I believe was me. Another showed Nunziata and my grandmother as middle-aged women, reunited in Bronte. Tina and Nunziata studied the pictures for long minutes, mumbling in Italian, nodding happily. Meanwhile, I kept trying to comprehend. I looked at this woman, nearly a hundred years old. She reminded me of an ancient tree, her outer growth rings clothed in wrinkled bark, her spark of life deep within and hidden from strangers from America. I peered around the room. This has been her home the entire time, I thought. I scanned the decades in my mind, beginning with 1905. Theodore Roosevelt was president. World War One, the twenties, the Depression, Mussolini, World War Two, my mother’s marriage and five children, the Cold War, the assassinations in the United States, my grandmother’s death, Vietnam, Watergate, my mother’s death. All of these things and thousands more had happened while she lived in this house, ate in this room, slept upstairs. Her own husband had died in 1964. She had been a widow for almost forty years. And now, here we were, these three visitors. Three more people in a lifetime of countless faces. But, I reminded myself, in all that time there had been just five people she could call brother or sister, and my grandmother was one of them. The kind woman who threw candy out the window to me, and who always made me feel as though she’d been waiting for me to show up. I tried not to stare, but I looked hard at Nunziata, wondering if this is what my grandmother would have looked like had she lived to this incredible age.

It might have also been in that very room that decisions were made. The decision to leave that house, that town, that island, that country, and go to New York. What if the decisions had been different? They could have left sooner, or later, or not at all. They could have listened to the pleadings of parents and stayed in Sicily. They could have headed for Naples, or Rome, or Philadelphia. Even Brooklyn would have been enough to change a family’s path. Shaun and I would not exist. Nor would my daughter, my siblings and their families. Maria would be married to someone else, and they would have their own children. A slice of the world would have been different in ways I cannot possibly imagine.

The thoughts wandered around in my head like a parade without a leader. Meanwhile, the Sicilian instinct kicked in and Tina began searching for food, emerging from somewhere with a box of chocolate and a plate of the pastries we had brought. I asked her about the drink my grandmother used to make for me, with the egg and vermouth.

“Zabaglione,” she said, then again, one syllable at a time.

I repeated the word: “zah-bahl-YO-nay.” I was sure I’d never heard it before. And suddenly, Nunziata was holding a rotary hand beater. Tina was putting eggs and vermouth into a glass, and after adding a little honey, she pushed it over to her mother. Maria had heard about this drink several times before, because I mentioned it whenever I spoke about my grandmother. I had just recently told Shaun about it. The room was silent, save for the sound of beaters hitting the sides of the glass. And as the foam rose to the rim, I took a photograph with my mind. Nunziata, Tina, and my little boy. It was as though I were looking back in time: my grandmother, my mother, and me. For the briefest moment, but then again for the rest of my life, I was back in that upstairs kitchen, feeling as though I belonged.

A photo of Nunziata (left) and my grandmother during their only reunion. It must have been sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

 

Nunziata seated at far left, Tina in the center, me at right. Shaun and Maria are standing. This photo was taken in 2003.

 

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141 Responses “Zabaglione” →

  1. Marie M

    June 15, 2010

    I believe this is one of the best pieces of yours I’ve ever read. There’s something homey and sweet about it, yet at the same time I feel your sense of alienation and I taste the bittersweet. It is a glimpse into a deep part of you. Thank you.

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  2. I felt so lucky to be able to meet this part of my family I knew nothing about. Thanks for reading it, Marie, and for the kind words.

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  3. charlespaolino

    June 16, 2010

    That’s an absorbing story. The details are an invitation to stop, go back, and read a phrase again and maybe again. Your grandmother’s fondness for you, and how much you valued that, is a moving element. I appreciate your motivation to visit that house. I have done similar things in Italy and Lebanon and would have felt that my life wasn’t complete if I had not gone.

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  4. Thanks. I just noticed two details in the photos that I hadn’t seen before. In the middle picture (the one with the old black and white photo) there’s a family tree to the right. My oldest brother had sent that to me, and I took it to Sicily hoping to pick up a few more pieces of information for him. In the lower right corner, you can see that Tina has added her name and that of her deceased husband. In the bottom photo, again in the lower right corner, that’s the glass Nunziata and Tina used for the drink.

    Have you posted anything about your experiences in Italy and Lebanon? I would love to read about them.

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  5. charlespaolino

    June 17, 2010

    I don’t recall any posts I’ve written about my visits to Italy and Lebanon. Our first visit to the family home in Italy took place in 1977, so it predated the Internet as we now know it. We’ve been back several times and probably will go again next year. We went to Lebanon about 10 years ago after almost accidentally locating the family my mother had never had contact with – in fact, didn’t know existed. Fortunately, she lived long enough to meet one of her cousins who was visiting the United States. That was 25 years ago. Mom was gone by the time we traveled to Lebanon. We had put it off because of the risks involved, and because the State Department for a long time barred Americans from going there. The country was still occupied by the Syrian army when we decided to make the trip, and we had a lot of conversations with grim men carrying automatic weapons.

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  6. So did you get to see any of your family in Lebanon? And what part of Italy?

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    • charlespaolino

      June 17, 2010

      My cousin Selim, who had visited us about 15 years earlier, met us at the airport in Beirut and drove us all over the country while we were there. We met several members of my family, including Wadih Akl, whose father was my grandmother’s brother. At the time we visited Lebanon, Wadih was a member of Parliament, which made it easier for us to come and go without a hassle. He has since died of cancer. My family are Maronite Catholics, although my mother adhered to the Latin rite, because there was no Maronite church in New Jersey during most of her lifetime.

      My family in Italy lives in a small village called the Valley of Sessa Cilento. It’s in the province of Salerno, region of Campania. It’s in the mountains, but not far from the Gulf of Salerno. My cousin Paolino Luigi and his wife live in a house our family has occupied for several hundred years. They have two daughters. Luisa lives with them, but her sister Giuseppina married a fellow named Cirilli Mario, and they live in a new house only a short walk from the old place. They have a son, Carmine, who is about 14 years old. We have traced my family there back to my grandfather’s grandfather. The first time we visited, my grandfather’s brother, Paolino Giuseppe, and his wife, Luisa, were still living. They both have since died. My grandfather didn’t talk to us about his family — and we didn’t ask — so Grandpa died before I knew he had a brother. My grandmother came from the same village, but her family has died out there. Her parents’ surnames were Giordano and Della Greca. My grandfather’s mother’s surname was Longo.

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      • So many similarities, especially the fact that you didn’t know your grandfather had a brother and that he was still living. Have you thought about telling these stories about your Lebanese and Italian ancestry? You have such a voracious interest in history and such a wonderful touch when conveying detail. I’m sure it would be fascinating for many readers, including me. In fact, I’d like to pre-order the first copy.

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  7. What a great story! I love stuff like this; heck, I write enough stuff like this. Thanks for sharing some of your family history; course, I know I’ll forget how to pronounce that as soon as I leave. lol

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    • Thanks, Mitch, for taking the time to read it. I thought about your “Invisible Man” post while writing about my relationship with my grandmother. I guess we’re in that role long before we realize it.

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  8. Julia Harris

    July 15, 2010

    Oh. My. Gosh. This is beautiful. Amazing. So well written it should be published, somewhere, for forever, like Harpers? The New Yorker? You are such a good writer. I have shivers. So moving! You put words together the way artisans string beads together to make something amazing, meaningful, priceless. Really. I don’t say nice things like this just every day, you know. I want to scoop up each sentence like water from a stream. My goodness. I sound like a freak. Sorry. But this is just SO SO good. Have I mentioned that it’s good? Please do something with it other than store it here on your blog.

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  9. Thank you, Julia. That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time. I did make a half-hearted attempt at getting it published, but that’s such a drawn-out and frustrating process. You send something out to a magazine, months go by, and either you get one of those two-sentence rejection slips or you hear nothing at all. And meanwhile it’s been read by no one, except this faceless person who cranks out negative fortune cookies for a living. At least here, I know a few people have read it and liked it, and that’s worth more than the payment I might have received from the magazine.

    (And don’t worry about saying something nice and ruining your reputation. I won’t tell anyone.)

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  10. What a great story! I realize you wrote this some time ago but I had to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Had the shivers when you described the house where the old lady aged 98 still lived, and that the egg and vermouth drink had a name…

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    • Thanks, Rose. That meeting was one of the highlights of the trip, and gave me another memory I’ll always have. I’m glad you liked the story.

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  11. partialview

    November 4, 2010

    Loved the way you likened your grandmother’s sister to an ancient tree. The expressions used there are so very heart warming. Such sensitivity is something you must always, always treasure. And let it light your way.

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  12. Charles, I am so grateful to have found you. I owe Rachana, big time! Your descriptions of your surroundings, your feelings and your family pulled me in and set a great big glass of Zabaglione directly in front of me. I have drunk it with all senses flaring!

    Thanks so much for your fabulous gift – and for deciding to blog. What a loss otherwise.

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  13. I lived in Italy (Firenze) for a few years in the mid-1990’s. I haven’t been back since, but the times I have lived abroad or spent a vast amount of time in a place other than my home have always filled my head with a million snapshots of memories. Capturing them all in a way other than photographs that never quite come out the way we want them to is what this kind of writing is all about. This is the sort of thing that is entered into one of those self-publishing photobook sites to make for your family as a treasure. Since publishing houses are so asinine.

    Lovely!

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    • What a nice compliment. Thank you. It sounds as though we’ve had similar experiences with cameras and publishers. Have you written about your travels?

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  14. Kate Decker

    January 5, 2011

    Wow! Uncle Charlie, this is so beautiful! And yes she does look like Grandma! Love you all! Thanks for teaching me a little more about my past 🙂 I love to learn about it.

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    • I’m glad you liked it. We saw Tina and her family again this past March. She looks great, and we keep in touch with written letters. I think you’d love Sicily.

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  15. I am starting a blog…..you’ve inspired me to start writing again! Thanks!

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  16. Will do!

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  17. Wow! Val from Absurd Old Bird told me about your site. I love this story, and I really relate to it. I was born and raised in Queens, New York. My mom was of Italian descent (Sicilian and Neapolitan) and many of my Italian relatives lived in the neighborhood. So, I grew up predominantly Italian and unlike your story, my incessant questions about our background were answered as thoroughly as possible. Somewhere along the line, we were reunited with a cousin who had extensively researched our family tree and that provided even more information.

    However, I am not just Italian. My dad is of Cuban, Polish, and Russian descent. There were Polish/Russian relatives around who knew some of our history. In fact, one of my aunts just turned 99 and is a storehouse of info. However, my Cuban grandfather was the only living link to that past and he was not as forthcoming with his family history. I’ve always felt a pull toward my Cuban side. Latino food, dance, a major in Spanish Language and Literature…you name it. A few years ago, I began research on Ancestry.com and found out tons of stuff we never knew, and solved quite a few mysteries. There’s more to be done, but obviously it’s difficult because it’s Cuba. Nevertheless, it felt amazing to uncover the bits I did.

    I’m so happy you had the opportunity to travel to Sicily and reconnect with the past. It’s like another puzzle piece put in place.

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    • I’d thought about trying to research family history in Sicily, but the records are all in that old world script. And they’re in Italian. I would think the same kinds of obstacles would exist in Cuba.

      Do you know where in Sicily your mother’s family was from? We were just there last March, and went to Naples again, as well. Have you been to Cuba? (Can you go? I’ve heard the restrictions have eased, but I’m not sure.)

      I really appreciate hearing from you, Margaret, and hope we can keep in touch.

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      • Lucky for me I can read Italian and Spanish. With Cuba, the issue is political. I tried contacting the Catholic Church there several times and even emailed back and forth with a priest, but in the end, they never got back to me.

        My mom’s family is from Trapani and Pacheco (Sicily) and Naples. I returned to Italy in October, this time to visit a town called Gaeta. It was amazing. I’m working on a blog about it.

        I’ve never been to Cuba though I long to visit. I’ll wait until the restrictions have more than just eased and make sure I get there before the first McDonald’s is built. 😦

        Hey, we’ll definitely keep in touch. We’re blogging “paisans” now.

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        • I met a man about a month ago who (I think) has dual American and Canadian citizenship. He conducts bike tours on three islands: Prince Edward Island (where we now live), Sicily, and Cuba! He talked about traveling to Cuba as though it were no different from any other country. If you’d like his email address, I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing from you and answering any questions you have.

          Please let me know when there’s something on your blog about Gaeta that’s ready to read.

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          • That would be great. Thanks. I believe you have my email address via my subscription info. If not, let me know.

            I’ll definitely let you know when the Gaeta piece is up. Now there’s a bit more pressure to get it done. 😉

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  18. Well here is another amazing post that I had missed. I never clicked on it because I thought a Zabaglione was a pastry and just figured it was a recipe or pictures of yours and Maria’s attempt to make some! I cannot begin to tell you what reading this did to me. I have the distinct advantage of knowing exactly what the house and yard looked like, and how that drink tasted. I wish I had one of those hand beaters because it does bring back memories. I feel bad that I never knew what a great relationship you had with Grandma and that you, too, never quite felt that you were all right with mom. (I seriously always thought you were the favorite -so smart and talented, is all I ever remember you being.) I was also blown away by the fact that Nunziata’s house was where mom was born. Why didn’t I know that? Did I not listen carefully when you returned from that trip? I’m sorry that I didn’t share in your experience there, more fully. Reading about you guys being with mom when she died, brought back some grief and anger, that I wasn’t there. I wanted to come but Michael told me not to, and I’ve always regretted listening to him. I was surprised on learning the reasons why you went to Fordham and why you studied Italian.
    It amazes me that 2 kids, with a good relationship, not that far apart in age, can still have so many things that they don’t know about each other. But I sure feel like I know you much better today and I like the person you are, even more than ever. I’m sure mom realizes now, that you are all right.

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    • Jac, I’m sure there are at least as many things about you that I still don’t know. Thanks for reading this, and for your thoughts about it. I still hold out hope that one day we’ll all go to Sicily together.

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  19. Val Erde

    January 30, 2011

    I keep meaning to comment on this page, Charles, and say how lovely it is and how well written. And to say that I used to think Zabalione was a pudding!

    It’s curious isn’t it how things get untalked about in a family and then stay hidden. My great grandfather was a ‘black sheep’ of the family and no amount of questions would get out of the older relatives (when they were alive) the actual truth of why he left his wife and family of eight children to fend for themselves. Some say drink… I personally have my suspicions it might have been something worse, but nobody will ever know now. I have a letter from him to another family member that I can’t read because it’s in Yiddish! Who knows Yiddish these days and if they do, who’d knows it enough to decipher the scrawl? My dad told me that it was probably just a work thing – a list of goods sold – but even so, it’d be nice to be able to read it.

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    • That letter sounds intriguing, Val. There are people around who speak Yiddish, and I’m sure someone would be able to translate it for you.

      Thanks for taking the time to read this. I always appreciate hearing from you.

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  20. I have to inform you that you are a part of my post today. And the best place, in my opinion, to leave the invite is this post of yours.

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  21. jesswords10

    February 5, 2011

    What a wonderful memoir of your experience meeting your family. Think how much that will mean to your son someday as he begins to ask questions about where he comes from. Last summer I was able to take a trip to Boston, and a spent a day in Plymouth touring the plantation and living museum there on the pilgrim settlement. My mom and one of her cousins spent time doing family history and found out we’re related to two of the pilgrims that came to the new world on the Mayflower. It was really meaningful even to be in the same place as my ancestors once were. In fact, we visited one of the only remaining houses still surviving from the time, and it was our ancestor’s son’s home, which he and his wife stayed in during the winter. That was a truly wonderful moment, and I’d love to go back and take my mother. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    • Have you written about your visit to Plymouth? I’d love to read it, and I’m sure others would, too.

      Thank you for your kind words. I hope we’ll be in touch again.

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  22. Hippie Cahier

    February 11, 2011

    >>My grandmother liked me, I think in a way that no one has since. <<

    I don't know why, of all the beautifully crafted sentences in this piece that one made me stop and read again and a third time. I thought maybe I should say so.

    I am just beginning to explore your blog. From this very first glimpse, I know I will enjoy it very much. Congratulations on the well-deserved recognition of your stylishness.

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    • Thank you, Hippie, for wading through this extremely long post. I promise the others are all shorter, and most are lighter, as well. I’m not so sure about the stylish part, but I appreciate the sentiment.

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  23. Charles. I wish I had the words. The words to explain the way your words and this story took me to a place and a time I never knew, but now feel as if it’s a part of my own history.

    You write about belonging. Such a universal need, and you captured it so eloquently.

    My grandmother lived with my family until she passed away in 2001. When I read about your grandmother tossing the candy out the window — I was thrown back to my own childhood, and my grandmother unearthing a bag of candy in the part of the basement converted to her living room. Dusty sunbeams playing through the high basement windows, and her hunched frame, covered in a housecoat turning towards me, a gleam in her eye as she handed me the candy.

    Your writing is that powerful. It connects us all. Thank you for the memory.

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    • Thank you, Melissa. I have great respect for your writing, so your feedback means a lot. And I wonder if you’ve written about your grandmother. I’m sure that story would be just as powerful and moving.

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  24. This is such an old post, I’m almost embarrassed to comment. I came to your blog to find something to read, and then clicked on this link.

    Your posts make me laugh most times, but this one made me cry. Very very few pieces on the internet have ever been able to do that.

    My parents did not change countries, but they moved far away from their ancestral homes nevertheless. I have not been to the homes of any of my grandparents, and sometimes the pull is strong. But India has changed so rapidly in the last ten years, I am now terrified I’ll find anonymous concrete buildings where my ancestral villages once stood.

    I don’t know why this piece and many others like it are not in a book. I’d buy it in a heartbeat and treasure it on my “Do Not Part With” bookshelf!

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    • Thank you once again for your always-uplifting and heartfelt feedback. I hope you will one day visit the sites of your grandparents’ homes in India. Whether the villages are still there or have been replaced by the dreaded concrete monstrosities, I have no doubt you will write about the experiences with great insight, and love. I hope also that we will be exchanging copies of those books someday soon.

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  25. Christy Stillwell

    June 8, 2011

    Charles,
    I can’t explain why this post hit me so hard. I don’t even come from immigrants (ha–we all do, really) that is, your story is so very different from my own, and yet this was so terribly moving. When you take the mental photograph of your little boy and Nunziata and Tina, I just felt my heart cave in. And you couldn’t afford the trip and yet KNEW you had to take it. This is just so powerful to me. I just finished a novel about family trouble, and all family relationships seem troubled to me: that is, they are just so complex. The thing took years to write; an agent has it now but the process of writing it, finishing it has sent me on all kinds of family journeys…my own family moved from one region of the country to another when I was 16 and this has left me feeling like I have no past; my kids ask if I have cousins, or if they are dead! And the way you described Nunziata, so OLD. I had an old grandmother who lived almost to one hundred. I just read the novel Familiar Ground, which also features a super old woman. There is something about the ghost like quality to old people–well I am rambling. I only found your blog yesterday. I’ve been wandering around in it and found this and had to comment. I’m new to blogging (Saysomethingyoumean.wordpress.com) but I’ve learned so very much from yours. Thanks for this piece, really.

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    • Christy, thank you for that wonderful comment. Family relationships are very complex, so the fact that you were able to write a novel around that subject — and get it into the hands of an agent — is impressive. Please let me know when it’s published. I’d love to buy a copy. Meanwhile, I look forward to visiting your blog. I’ve been at this blogging thing for just over a year myself, so I’m relatively new also. But in that time, I’ve met a group of talented and supportive writers who have made this both enjoyable and instructive. I’ve also made some great friends in the process. I hope your experience is similar.

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  26. Your son’s going to love reading all your recollections of these times in your life. I’ve recently gotten the opportunity to help my father organize and edit his memoir of an LDS mission spent in Argentina, memories he juxtaposes against a return visit to Buenos Aires to rewalk that path thirty years later. So i can definltely appreciate the sentiment here.

    I spend so much time reading and writing about popular music, I think I’m going to appreciate your site as a welcome respite … good essayists are hard to find — I’ve treasured the Leon Hale essay collections my father brought back to Indiana with us from our year in Houston — but I can understand how you’ve gotten books published 😉 The style is infinitely readable. So I hope you continue to be successful 🙂

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  27. What a great phrase: “this faceless person who cranks out negative fortune cookies for a living.”

    My paternal grandparents ended up settling in the Bronx in the 1920s, though they came not from Sicily but from what is now Ukraine, and they spoke not Italian but Russian and Yiddish. I have many memories of their apartment at 608 Prospect Ave., now long gone.

    Congratulations on your literate and most readable blog.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

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  28. Congrats on freshly pressed! I liked this story- esp. since I’m in Sicily at the moment- cycling around the Elymian area- lovely country, friendly people and I don’t have to tell you how fabulous the food is. You have a great following and some cool essays. Hope to check in now and then. Being away for a week I’ve been away from posting, barely enough time to check email and comment on a few blogs. Hope you check out my blog. I too find it addicting!

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    • You must be in Sicily right now, so I’m trying not to hate you. I did visit your blog, and left a comment. And the Danbury News-Times — did you live in Danbury, and if so, when? I was there 1989-1990 and 1993-1998.

      I hope you’re having a great time. Thanks for the kind words, and please keep in touch.

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  29. First you got me laughing with “Don’t ask, don’t yell.” Now I’m crying. Sigh. Thanks.

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    • Thank you, Leanne, for taking the time to read such a long post. I hope to visit your blog, too, as soon as Hurricane Freshly Pressed moves out to sea.

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  30. I heard many times from an old man that one of the brain’s functions is to forget. Now I think, it’s why the heart keeps back ups all the time. I have never heard of the word zabaglione before and I have never been out of this island called Mindanao. But when I read you, I felt like my life was paralleled to yours. Somehow, in some way. I suddenly missed my grandmother and the candies she gave me as a child. I have asked myself too, the what if’s.

    I have always wanted to get far away from home and explore. But whenever I do and come back, I feel like a stranger in my own bed. I would plunge into that deep ravine, craving for the old times, wishing for happy memories to come alive. And during one of these times, I dug the net. And then you made me cry.

    Thank you for your wonderful post.

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    • And thank you, Tamiyat, for your beautiful comment. I like what you said about the brain and the heart. Life seems to be a constant process of discovery and letting go. I don’t know if we ever get good at it.

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  31. I love this, thank you for sharing this side of your life. You are fortunate to have been found by such a wonderful grandmother. She really noticed you. And now you hold her memory so tenderly. That’s a beautiful love.

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  32. Hello! I’m sitting in my tiny Korean apartment but I was just transported to your family’s home in Bronx, to Nunziata’s old Sicilian home. This is a really incredible and personal story. Just thought I’d chime in. Do you know what happened to your Grandmother’s other brothers and sisters besides Nunziata? Did any of them emigrate to the U.S. or otherwise?

    Thanks again for sharing such a beautiful piece of writing. I stumbled across your blog when one of your entries was “Freshly Pressed” today but I’m glad I decided to stay and poke around after I enjoyed that piece as well. I aspire to be a writer like you. 🙂

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    • I’m pretty sure my grandmother was the only one to leave Sicily. My older brother did a lot of research into our family history, and one day I hope to pick up where he left off. From the little I know, there are some interesting stories back there.

      What are you doing in Korea? Are you teaching? And what kind of writing do you want to do?

      Thanks for the nice comment. Sorry I’m just getting around to replying now.

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      • Family history is really interesting… especially when you think about your own actions affecting future generations of your own family like Nunziata affected you. I hope you pick up on your brother’s research!

        You guessed it! I am teaching English to elementary school kids in Korea. 2010 was a bad year to graduate from university. But my experience here has been rewarding in so many ways, so I’m glad I didn’t get stuck in a cubicle right after graduation.

        Your last question is much more challening. I don’t know. I was good at poetry and essay writing in school and I think I want to continue my Master’s in literature/writing but hell if I know what direction I want to go in. I wish they taught a class in college about how to find what you love to do (and then how to make a career out of that) that would be useful, wouldn’t it?

        I subscribe to your blog nowadays and your writing is really crisp and humorous and I really enjoy reading it. Thanks for your reply!

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  33. Very moving story about finding yourself, your family, and your heritage. You’re able to express the innocence and honesty of your emotions both as a child and as an adult. I feel honored that you took the time to visit my blog. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Like many others have said, I’m also glad I found your blog through Freshly Pressed!

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    • Thank you for the sweet words, LSF. I don’t remember what I said in the comment I left on one of your posts, but I do remember being very impressed with your writing.

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  34. When you talked here about your mother dying of cancer I had to pause a long time before reading forward. My step-mother, Joann, died of lung cancer and sometimes I miss her and her Italian cooking so bad I want to drift back in time just to smell it again. I remember that she use to sing Italian opera with Pasquale Carpino whenever he came on television for his cooking show. I remember when she discovered Mrs Pacman and became addicted until she mastered flipping the board. She bought the new Mario Brothers Nintendo for “Us Kids” and proceeded to also master that game as well. It is strange the things you remember. I remember her talking with her hands so much I would tease “You’d be mute if you sat on your hands.”

    Whenever I come to your blog I rationalize to myself that I am just going to see what you posted today and then quickly get back to the business at hand, but then I end up reading each line leisurely the way other people read the paper. You write so smoothly I find myself drawn in until I am halfway down the page and completely into the story before I know what hit me. Then there is the way you write. You write like you are having a heart-to-heart chat with a friend..and that is just plain wonderful. I am not tossing out compliments here, I am too stubborn to ever do that actually, I simply am in awe of your skill. Hopefully I will learn things from you for my own writing. I am certainly taking notes anyway.

    I am rambling, this happens when I read this blog a lot. I am usually the type to read but not comment. Your posts tend to bring out my inner chatterer.

    B

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    • Chatter away, B. I always feel better after hearing from you. Have you written about Joann on your blog? It sounds as though she was a wonderful person and a real character, full of humor and passion. I’m sure you could bring her to life for your readers. Please let me know!

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  35. Sir Charles! thanks to Melissa i could across such a beautiful post as this. When you wrote this post, i was n’t even born in this blogging world. But in a comment to one of my post, Melissa mentioned me about this post of yours with link of this one. May be she knew that i am lazy enough to search this one. But thanks to her, i could come across such a beautiful post as this. It’s just awesome. I am not going to termed it as a piece of writing. You gave your soul and all emotions you have to this one.
    How could you write such beautifully sir Charles! I am not going to say much about this one. I just want to thank you, although i do not know, if you are going to read this comment or not, as it is such an old post. But i can’t stop pressing the keys to post a comment to this one. Hats off to you !!

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    • And i have a request for you. Please re post it in your blog, if you can. As there are lots of new & young bloggers, just like me in your follower list now. And many of them not having the luxury to get this wonderful post’s link from Melissa. Just give everyone one more chance to come across such a beautiful post. This is a perfect example of how something can be described so beautifully considering the limitations of number of words. I hope you will consider my request Sir Charles.

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      • Arindam, thank you again for your kind words. I’m sorry it took me so long to reply, but I don’t look at the old posts too often. Actually, this is a page, not a post, so it’s always there on the main page of my blog. I think most people read it to find out what zabaglione means.

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  36. Very, very good stuff. And also the replies. Very, very good.

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  37. I loved this story.

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  38. Charles, this was one of our great trip and hopefully many, many, more to come. It was amazing that we found your mother side of your family. It was such a good idea, that you brought the pictures of your mother and grandmother. Tina and Nunziata’s eyes just lit up and they started to find their pictures of your family. With the language barrier, pictures just brought them back to the time when they were younger and remenising. Tina is amazing learning English by reading. Tina speaks so well. We have been there three times and each time is better than the other. I think it*s because it has to do with seeing family and being with family. I love you Charles. YO&OLW Maria

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  39. Charles, after my recent sampling of Zabaglione while in Germany, I just had to return to this post. At first I didn’t even recognize the word “my Germans” were speaking when they discussed ordering this for dessert. Then I saw it on the menu and the light bulb went on.

    We’d had a nice, light luncheon and I expected an egg-sized serving of something sweet. On the menu the Zabaglione (I still can’t pronounce that word) came with ice cream, which we all
    agreed to defer. The 3 glasses arrived with long spoons. The glasses where the huge variety of white wine glass that is so popular these days. The Zabaglione was not drinkable; it was more the consistency of a thin pudding and was made with Marsala rather than vermouth. It was tasty, but oh so feeling. So much for a light lunch!

    I relate so well to your description of a family split in two by an ocean and by choices made two generations ago. And to your struggles with the language. And now I understand Zabaglione, even if I can’t pronounce it or spell it without cheating!

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    • I find that many Italian confections are made in a variety of different ways. For example, I’ve had tiramisu five or six times, and it’s never been in the same form twice. I’m glad you were able to experience zabaglione, whatever its consistency. And I’m even happier that you’ve been able to establish and maintain a connection with your family on the other side of the ocean. It’s always good to hear from you, Linda.

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  40. Wow, Charles. I’d just finished reading your most recent post, “Ebb and Flow,” when I noticed the link at the top of the page to this piece.

    It is such beautiful writing. Thank you for taking the time to write about this experience in the beautiful, thoughtful way you did.

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  41. What if we had made different choices in certain parts of our lives? Yes, I get to ponder about that too every now and then. Somehow we always end up convincing ourselves we couldn’t be happier other than the circumstances we are currently in.
    I’ve been trying to preserve some of the stories that still live in my heart as well through blogging, hoping my son would take the time to read them one day.
    You seem to genuinely care about each and every one of your readers which is something I hardly see in highly regarded writers these days. That’s one thing wonderfully special about you, Charles.
    And I believe you must have inherited your mom’s stand-out brand of humor.
    You have written your story above beautifully. Quite touching. I hope I’ll get to read more stories like this here. Thank you for sharing.

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    • We all make thousands of decisions that seem to be trivial, but that affect our entire lives. It’s almost always impossible to know how things would have been different if we had chosen another path, so those other possibilities remain murky and even a little scary. I think everyone has a story worth telling — and worth listening to. I’m sure your son will be grateful that you took the time to put your memories and experiences into writing.

      Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Marj. For me, meeting people like you is the best thing about blogging.

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  42. Wow, your writing style is amazing! I definitely think that you should consider publishing fiction as well 😉 I will be following your blog from now on and have a poke around your other posts!

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  43. abasnoor

    July 3, 2012

    Don’t know how I ended here, but I’m happy that I did. “For the briefest moment, but then again for the rest of my life…,” that brings a hint of tearing to my eyes because I know exactly what you mean. Summertime does that to me, where the breeze only lightly presses against your ears and you look up to a tree off to the side and see the light shining through–that reminds me of my grandfather. Although they are brief moments, I know that it will be there for the rest of my life.

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    • I often have those memory triggers, too, when something takes me right back to a small incident from many years ago. Sometimes I immediately forget what the trigger was, and frequently I can’t even recall the memory — kind of like what happens when I try to remember dreams. But I bet your grandfather memory is locked in, and you have it every time you catch that glimpse of light through the trees.

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  44. I loved this piece. Thank you for sharing ❤

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  45. I just found your blog—I loved this piece. My mother’s family is from Sicily as well although I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting there. What a nice story. I wonder about the “what-ifs” too. Sometimes just a matter of a few seconds here and there made the difference in so many things. Thank you for this.

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    • Do you know what part of Sicily your mother’s family is from? I hope you’ll get there someday. Meanwhile, thank you for working your way through this post, and for your thoughtful feedback. I really appreciate it.

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  46. I read incessantly: almost every minute I’m not doing something outside, I’ve got words in front of me be they online or in newspapers, magazines or books. I can say for a fact I have NEVER read anything more impressive than this real life story of family love amidst the secrets of an unknown past. I just shared it on my facebook timeline.

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    • That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in quite a while. Thank you. I hesitated to post this essay because of its length, so I appreciate when anyone takes the time to work through it.

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  47. what a wonderful piece of work and story. I rarely can wade through family stories but you keep this fresh and appealing. Being a fan of Sicily I can see it all unfold. Great piece!

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  48. “The thoughts wandered around in my head like a parade without a leader. ” Wow. I wish I’d written that. Sounds like an amazing adventure. Good for you!

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  49. This is beautifully written and I know exactly how you feel. Did you ever find out about their motivation to leave and be so secretive about it?

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    • I did ask my grandmother’s sister, but it was so long ago; she had no memory of that time. Their reason could have been as simple as a desire for better opportunities. Or there could have been something negative they were trying to get away from. I’m going to try to find out, but it won’t be easy.

      Thank you for the kind words, TAE. Happy New Year.

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  50. I’ve enjoyed your posts, but only now read this wonderfully sweet and tender story about your trip “home”. You guided us so lovingly through your experience. I wish you luck in your family history research. Thank you for sharing this lovely story. You are an amazing writer!

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    • Thank you very much for the kind words, Laura. And now your blog has rekindled my interest in discovering even more about my family history. If it turns into an addiction, I’m blaming you.

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  51. Oh! I love when the puzzle pieces of life start to come together. Even when a few pieces are lost, or otherwise missing, the end result is still beautiful. I think it interesting that I happen to read this essay only now (how did I not notice it before?). I learned the meaning behind the name “Bronxboy”. I learned some family genealogy, and part of the reason why you don’t know the name(s) of your great-great-great grandfathers… I learned that you have been to Sicily on your journey towards putting your own puzzle together. I echo the other commenters above who say this piece of writing deserves more exposure. I encourage you to re-submit it to The New Yorker. It is a powerful and moving essay. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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    • One of the problems with submitting this to a magazine now is that most print publications want pieces that have not already been published — and they consider blog posts to be a form of publishing.

      Thanks for being so nice, Rufina. I always appreciate hearing from you.

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  52. What a wonderful piece this is. Word count means nothing when it is as interesting and well-written as you make it .There is still a lot of mystery to unravel and we’re all hoping you will let us share, whether by book or by blog. Good luck!

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    • Thank you for the encouragement, HW. There’s always more to the story, isn’t there? I hope to get back to this one someday.

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  53. So lovely and beautifully written. I came across you on my WP reader page, which I seldom look at. Your blog is “followed by people with similar interests.” They seem to have gotten it right this time 🙂

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  54. What a family history. Rich and sweet as Zabaglione. This was a pleasure to read.

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  55. I’m at a loss for words after reading this. It is touching, poignant, honest, and lovely.

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  56. This is such a beautiful and brave piece of work. Soul-bearing.
    As I get older and watch my kids grow the meaning of family and roots in my life seems to hold a stronger position than ever, influenced further by my Dad and his reflections which seem to intensify as he ages. Thank you.

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  57. Great story. It’s always amazing to learn about your family’s history. My family originally settled in the Bronx before moving to Brooklyn. I recently learned that my Great Grandmother had a sister who came to the Bronx with her as well. I will have to write about that one of these days…

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    • I hope you will, Rick. So many of those stories are about to be lost forever. In my family, there are very few people left who are old enough to remember what was going on back there, a few generations ago.

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  58. Wow. This was amazing. I’m not sure what affected me the most, but ‘the scrunch of the plastic covered couches’ was a zinger for me…I must have something similar in my memory stash. I am looking forward to exploring your blog. Thank you.

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    • Thank you for the wonderful response, Rebecca. I just visited your blog, and can tell that your memory stash is rich with stories.

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  59. Anne Porretta

    September 3, 2013

    This piece, which I just found by accident, has moved me beyond measure. You are a master of the writer’s craft, and whether you write to remember, to reflect, or to respond to your love of the written word, you have achieved your goal. Yours is a book I would pay to read.

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  60. Well. I don’t read lengthy posts often. I read this one. It is dispassionately written with the sensitivity of a mature writer. I was there as I read it.

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    • Thanks, George. It usually helps to let a little time pass before writing about an emotional experience. I appreciate that you took the time to read this lengthy post, and to let me know what you thought.

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  61. I have tears streaming down my face. This piece is hauntingly beautiful, I was mesmerised throughout. Your writing is uplifting but melancholy at the same time, so very poignant. It’s such a shame that you have found it difficult to get published (yes I read through most of the comments too!) as I would definitely buy something written by you. There are certain books that I never tire off and re-read time and time again. I will certainly be reading this post again. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    • And thank you for taking the time to read this long post, and also for leaving such a kind and thoughtful comment. As you know, it always feels good to have made a connection with someone.

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  62. I’ve been longing to read another sensitive, lengthy, personal story – similar to this – from you. Better yet, I hope your memoir comes out real soon.

    Happy Birthday to you! I’m glad you are still a good part of my blogging world. I wish you well.

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  63. great story, thanks to share! It sad that Italy’s expratiate are re-starting these days, after almost a century!

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  64. Charles, you popped up as a suggestion in my reader today – I generally ignore these suggestions, but for some reason I clicked and had a look and read a bit here and a bit there. Then I opened ‘Zabaglione’ and read all the way through. As I finished reading, I heard myself sigh and realised I had been immersed in your world without a thought of anything else. This is the sign of a great writer I think! I’m following!

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  65. This is such a beautiful account. What a joy to connect with family and understand another piece in the puzzle that is you!
    my husband and I met his maternal aunt in 2004 after moving to Italy. Sadly, the family had lost contact after his mother died in South Africa of a brain aneurysm. He was two years old at the time and we can only surmise that maternal relatives never forgave Rob’s dad for taking her to South Africa – and her early death.
    The joy for us was in finding this part of his family and also in her recognising her beloved sister in a photograph of our daughter. We had often wondered where our daughter got her looks. Now we know!
    When Zia passed away not long after our reunion, our sadness was tempered by the knowledge that we hadn’t arrived too late, and we continue to keep in contact with Zio Pino.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I have just finished The Long Hall. What touched me most was the honesty and insight into your heart and mind. I think many people in similar circumstances may be comforted to know that what they feel is part of being human. Blessings to you and your family!

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    • Here’s a sad coincidence: When we met Nunziata, she was ninety-eight, and we’d planned to return to Sicily for her hundredth birthday. She passed away not long after our visit.

      Thank you, Margie, for your kind words about this post, as well as the memoir. I hope both are as relatable as you suggest.

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