Digging Up Roots | Teen Ink

Digging Up Roots MAG

By Anonymous

      Before heading home from our month-long adventure in Sicily, Mom had set aside a few days to search for relatives who are supposed to live in the tiny town of Delia. Driving the narrow country lanes, I can’t help but look out across the sprawling olive groves and vineyards and quaint cottages of the rugged interior and think, This is the land of my ancestors.

We arrive in Delia clueless, save for a brief e-mail Mom received months ago that read, “Your cousins are waiting for you.” The woman who sent it is married to the town doctor so we are supposed to mention his name to track down their house. Right. I envision us spending the next few days wandering the streets with our family tree asking strangers, “Excuse me, signore, are you a relative?”

Luckily Nancy’s husband is a pediatrician and the first person in town we see is a man with a carload of kids. So we find the house and nervously knock on the door. The woman who greets us is short and plump and, without even knowing us, draws us to her, planting noisy kisses on both our cheeks. We haven’t been in a Sicilian home before, so it’s a bit of a shock when she ushers us into rooms that are finely furnished with sculpture, Persian carpets, and crystal chandeliers. Her son, in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, is rolled in to meet us.

After an hour we are quite comfortable, which is when we discover we are not actually staying with Nancy and her family, but rather with the Borzellino family, who is even more closely related.

“They are a little anxious, however,” Nancy warns. “No one there speaks a word of English.”

I imagine sitting around the Borzellino’s table in silence since they can’t ask if we like the food and we won’t be able to reply. Everything is happening too fast, but I try to go with the flow.

We head across town to the Borzellino’s. As soon as we arrive, they throw their arms around us and pepper our faces with kisses. It turns out they’ve been talking about our visit for months and the entire family has come to meet us. Generation after generation stream in the door and line up to make their rounds. We just stand there as each pecks both our cheeks. Unfortunately, we were not warned that you are supposed to kiss from left to right, so many a jaw is whacked.

Our interpreter, a strange bird-like woman named Providence who speaks perfect English and Italian, flounders to keep up with introductions. But it doesn’t matter. They just kiss us and then find out our names afterwards. Before long the tiny kitchen is crammed with people kissing, hugging, and squeezing by.

Everyone is speaking Italian, tracing back the generations to where our blood pooled together. The sound is deafening, everyone talking over each other and the volume rising higher and higher like the crescendo by an orchestra with everyone conducting flamboyantly. The whole time poor Providence tries to take it all in and translate while Aunt Joanne scrawls the information in a notebook.

In the meantime, our hosts are plopping heaping plates of pasta in front of us and sawing off huge hunks of bread and pouring us drinks and grating parmesan cheese onto our noodles. Little kids are under the table playing peekaboo and the invalid great-grandmother is in the side room gurgling for water and the kitchen is packed tight and is louder than a school cafeteria and I just sit there eating spaghetti and laughing in disbelief. Where am I?

Our weekend is insane, but couldn’t be better. One day the family takes us to the country where we help harvest olives. We learn how to rake the hard green fruit from the silvery boughs with plastic comb-like tools and funnel them into bags to go to the press. We tour the oil press sheathed in olive mist to see how the oil is pressed from the ground-up fruit and the rich, cloudy fluid is tapped into bottles.

Every morning after cute Uncle Guisseppe with his round, shiny face and porky build goes off to harvest olives, Aunt Carmela lays out breakfast. She pours us cups of steaming milk, and coffee for Mom and Aunt Joanne, and we sit around eating rock-hard toast and biscuits with marmalade, trying to communicate. We play games where we go through the fruit bowl pointing to a banana or a bunch of grapes and say the name in English. Then she grunts it in Italian. Sometimes Aunt Carmela rambles on and on like we understand and finally, when we can’t hold back our smiles, we giggle, “No capice! No capice!” And we all laugh and pat each other, things we can understand.

Our first day there is Aunt Joanne’s birthday. All the families live in condos, one stacked on top of the next, and at night they roll up the doors on the garages and set up a row of tables pieced together for the party. The entire family comes, all of Aunt Carmela’s daughters and their families. We take a seat at the chaotic table as everyone reaches for the trays heaped with panini, bread, rolls, and homemade pizza. There are delicious dishes of fresh olives and dried tomatoes and plates of pumpkin seeds and dried chickpeas.

When everyone is finished gorging themselves, the lights dim and in comes a massive homemade ricotta cake glowing with candles. Everyone has presents for Aunt Joanne and apologizes over and over for not making the celebration bigger. And at this point they have known us barely 24 hours!

Something we quickly learn: You can’t visit a house without eating and every meal is a feast. Usually the first course is a heaping plate of pasta, already more food than I eat at home. This is followed by another entire meal of sausages and potatoes and breaded eggplant and fennel salad.

It’s impossible to finish Aunt Carmella’s immense helpings, and she insists on serving us herself so we can’t skimp on portions. I slide off part to Dad when her back is turned to get another dish out of the oven, though even he can’t keep up. We groan as she carries out trays heaping with fruit and roasted chestnuts and we munch these for awhile until she brings out cake and cookies.

The entire time we are dining, she is jabbing a ladle at the pots of food, trying to scrape another serving onto our plates. God forbid you sit back on your chair and stop chewing.

“Just keep your hands and mouth busy,” Aunt Joanne remarks, and I take as long as I can to shell a chestnut.

We spend some time walking around the streets getting to know Delia. In the evenings the main piazza is bustling with men. There’s a nut vendor smoking out the square with his roaster, and old men drag wooden chairs into the middle to chat in clusters. We don’t see women and when we ask, Providence explains, “They’re all in the churches praying while the men are outside talking about the women in church.”

Our days are packed with meeting relatives and my grandmother’s cousins. The whole point of finding our relatives is for my mother to fulfill a desire to share with us her family that we never knew. We hop from house to house, eating pineapple cake after pineapple cake and gathering information about our ancestors.

Some of the older ones recall mailing my great-grandfather in America dried prickly pear flowers to cure his bladder illness. It is amazing to find pieces of my mom sprinkled in the different families. One cute little lady has the exact same prominent jaw, another the same nose.

I get goose bumps as we sit around the cozy kitchens tracking the generations back, uttering the names of my ancestors. I can feel their spirits in the air, an electric buzz of excitement as someone remembers a story, a name. There is definitely power here as we piece together the family tree. It’s like solving a puzzle to solve the mystery of our past and know who we are.

The most touching relative we meet is a little old woman named Graziella. She is a cousin of my grandmother, a shrunken woman with round bugging eyes who stands on her tiptoes to kiss our cheeks. She lives in the house that was once my great-grandfather’s. My flesh prickles as I step through the door. I scan the ceiling, the walls. There is a picture of Graziella as a young woman that looks exactly like the ones I’ve seen of my grandmother.

Before we leave, Graziella is so overcome with joy to find relatives that she leads us to the faded portraits of her parents. Voice shaking and eyes watering, she begins praying and thanking her parents for bringing us to her. My heart has risen so far into my throat that I have to swallow. Everyone is bawling.

By the time we leave Italy, we have a whole new family. It is amazing that we were there for only 48 hours. It takes half an hour to reach the car because we must kiss everyone twice on both cheeks. Peck, peck. Peck, peck. But Sicilians tend to get sidetracked, and by the time you remember you were leaving, you have to start all over. We joke that we can feel calluses forming on our cheeks!

This experience of going back to find my roots left me understanding at least a small part of where I came from. Digging deeper is to understand what went into making me. Tracing back your roots is like tracing back the thread that connects you to your family, to people, to the world, to the great web of life.

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