This essay was published in The Christian Century on November 21, 2018.
My mother had longed to visit Priverno, her family’s touchstone, in 1973 when my father took us all to Italy. My father, also the child of Italian immigrants, said he had crafted our tour meticulously (Rome! Sorrento! Florence! Venice!), and we had no time to spare. I think Dad, a proud member of the burgeoning postwar middle class, did not want to indulge what he saw as the squalor his and my mother’s parents had left behind.
Returning 35 years later with my family, I wanted to see Priverno. At the train station we were greeted by cousins: a civil engineer, his young daughter, and a pharmaceutical executive who ably translated for us all day long. The medieval city of Priverno was at the top of a hill, so our car climbed the narrowing streets. Then we ascended the interior stairs of a compact apartment building.
We were welcomed into a sunny living room, filled window-to-wall with a table set for 12. Standing and sitting in every available space were old people and young people, garrulous people and shy people, all descendants of the matriarch, the 90-year-old wife of my grandfather’s youngest brother. We were led to the table, and from the bathtub-sized kitchen came plates of olives, buffalo mozzarella and artichokes, freshly made pasta, and red wine served in juice glasses.
We ate in abundance, leaned back, and started to rise. No, no, the chorus shouted, for out came platters of sausage and beef, green salad, more olives, loaves of bread, ricotta cakes, and platters of fruit. After an hour I stumbled to the tiny balcony for air and an unforgettable view of the hills and olive trees.
Later cousins took us for a walk around the oldest part of the town. We visited the 12th-century church where my grandfather was baptized and his family still worshiped. We saw my grandfather’s house, where as a young man he left the rest of his family (and, supposedly, a young woman and her angry husband). We visited a small museum directed by another cousin, featuring statues, mosaics, glassware, and other Roman antiquities.
As night fell, we returned to the apartment. We were greeted by more happy people and a table laden with dolce accompanied by red, white, and blue plates, napkins, and an American flag cake announcing “Welcome!” Everyone ate, laughed, and talked some more. I presented gifts and marshaled enough Italian to deliver a short speech of gratitude. With every pause, 20 people urged me on and beamed when I chose any Italian word at all. I concluded to cheers and kisses.
I was stunned to watch still more food appear: cheeses, hams, salami, sliced bread. No one would partake until I did, so I staggered to the table again.
Before long, a cousin escorted me into the hall to marvel at the family pictures, some almost as old as photography itself. Among them was a cherished photograph of my grandfather and grandmother and their five children, with my 20-year-old-mother, the eldest, presiding over them all. I had seen the photograph many times, but I gazed at it as I never had before. There in Priverno was my mother, among such loving people who had been strangers to me only a day before.