Monday, April 16, 2018

Finding my Italian Roots
A Trip To My Homeland

Me standing on the street where my grandfather lived - Casamassima, Bari, Italy.

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Been Busy
Sorry I haven't posted much lately but I've been buried in genealogy research (as many of you are), brushing up my Italian, and traveling to Italy to discover my roots and the rich history of southern Italy.  

Finding my Italian Roots – A Trip to my Homeland
I was born and grew up in an Italian home in Brooklyn. Even though I was born in this country, I have always first thought of myself as an Italian. I talk with my hands. I could eat pasta for every meal. When I’m sick, the only thing that comforts me is a bowl of pastina. I’m emotional, passionate about everything I do, and stubborn. I often interrupt people when they are speaking. Sometimes, when I am just talking, people think I’m yelling. I can’t picture a life without children and grandchildren. I grow my own vegetables and I cook way too much food when I entertain - just in case. I love wine. Like I said, I’m Italian. 

Dad's Side
My father’s parents were from Bari. They came here as newlyweds when they were in their early 20’s. They had 8 children and lived a long and happy life but were never able to return to their home country, even to visit. I was told that for their 50th anniversary, their children saved up for them to either have a big party or to go back and visit Bari. They chose a party with their children and grandchildren. And what a party it was!

Pietro (Pete) Mummolo and Domenica Favale Mummolo, from Casamassima, Bari

Mom's Side
My mother's parents came to America when they were younger. Her father was from Messina, Sicily and her mother was from Naples. When I was a child we lived in the same apartment building with them and their only son, my uncle Benny, and his family. Both of my parents worked so this sweet grandmother pretty much raised me. 

Giuseppe (Joe) Giacobbe from Messina, Sicily
Vincenza (Jennie) Gargiulo Giacobbe from Naples

Living in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn in the early 1900’s was like living in Italy. You could go to the grocery store, the butcher, the fish market, etc. and buy most of your favorite Italian foods and not utter a word of English. You could even buy the Italian newspaper, Il Giornale. I would venture to guess that my grandfather, who was a carpenter working on trolleys, probably had an Italian-speaking foreman. So it’s no wonder that despite living in this country for over six decades, my grandparents from Bari never mastered the English language and preserved their Italian culture, recipes, holiday rituals, card games, and language. My other grandparents, having come to America before they were married, spoke both English and Italian but they too lived an Italian life. 

My parents never taught us to speak Italian because it was the “secret language” that they spoke when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. So when I went off to college, I studied the language for several years and was so excited to be able to finally speak Italian to my grandparents when I came home to visit.

Unfortunately, as a young person, I didn’t ask my grandparents all the questions that haunt me now. What was your country like? How did you feel leaving your home? Why did you come to America? Now, as they and all of their children have passed, I have no one to ask. They never went back to their country. None of their children or grandchildren had been to their towns. I didn’t know anything about my great grandparents. I only had their names and one picture of each of them. I wanted to know more because, as being the oldest generation now (I’ll soon be 70), I knew this information would be lost forever if I didn’t uncover as much as I could and pass it on to my children, nephews, cousins, and their children. So I’m obsessed with putting together the story of my ancestors. On I can discover pieces of the puzzle of their lives in America, but I was pretty “in the dark” about their lives in Italy.

As if a sign from the Universe, we received a brochure for a cruise that went to Italy and the itinerary included Bari, Messina, and Naples. I screamed out loud and immediately said to my husband, “we have to go!” Doug found a company that did genealogy research called “The Italian Side” to get more information about my grandparents before the trip. To my surprise, with just the small amount of information I was able to give them (a few names, birthdays and marriage dates), they were able to fill out my family tree for each of my grandparents back to the late 1700’s! It even had the addresses of where they were born, or at least the specific neighborhoods. They even provided me birth and marriage records from their research.

Casamassima, Bari
So off we went! In Bari, we hired a guide associated with the company to pick us up at the cruise ship and take us to their town of Casamassima and visit the block where my grandfather lived, the church where he was baptized and married, and the cemetery where his relatives were buried. It was an overwhelming experience. 

Chiesa Matrice di Santa Croce
The alter where the Mummolo's were married.

And where my grandfather was baptized.
Where some of my relatives are buried.

In Messina, because of a misunderstanding, we thought the port was too far from my Sicilian grandfather’s house to visit so we didn’t plan for a guide. But after spending the entire day in Taormina, with only two hours left until the ship disembarked, Doug tried Google maps once more and we realized that the house was just a twenty-minute walk away from our port! 

We ran off the ship and tried to find my grandfather’s house. We were pretty close but a bit lost when I was reading aloud the name of the street, “via Santa Maria la Nuova”. Suddenly  a ninety plus year old woman, with the exceptional hearing of a bat, popped out of her 3rd story window telling us where to go. Sure enough, we found the apartment and his local church. When we came back, the old lady popped out again asking, “la trovato?” (did you find it?). Besides her, two other kind people offered their assistance while lost. Having watched the entire Godfather series, I was pretty surprised how kind and helpful the Sicilian people were. Even the police, who gave us the original directions, were real sweethearts. We ran back to the ship with only a few minutes to spare. We celebrated our successful search with Prosecco.

S. Maria La Nuova
Church near grandpa Giacobbe's house
The address of Giuseppe Giacobbe. Looks like it was once a one story building and perhaps after the war the top 5 stories were built over it. His address, "13", was visible on the first story.
This monument, in front of the government building, was about a 15 minute walk from his house.
Our Lady of the Letter in the harbor of Messina
Cannoli are celebrated in Sicily. No wonder it was my favorite dessert before my dairy allergy.

On to Naples
Naples, the last stop, was the only town where we didn’t get to go to the actual neighborhood where my grandmother was born. But just stepping on the soil of my napoletana nonna sent chills up my spine. While in Naples, however, we did get to see Sorrento and Pompeii, which was amazing.  


City of Pompeii - discovered in 1748 after having been buried in ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD

I can’t begin to describe how meaningful this trip was to me. I discovered my roots. I now know the names of all of my grandparents and their grandparents back 4 or 5 generations. I have their birth certificates and marriage documents. I took pictures of where they lived, worshipped, and where the family that remained behind were buried. I have memories that will last a lifetime. I have all this history to pass on to the next generation.

If your parents and grandparents are still alive, ask them everything you want to know now about your family history. Take notes. Even if these things don't seem important to you now, they may be someday and you'll be glad you asked when you had the chance.


The Veggie Queen said...

It sounds like an amazing trip. I bet that you are thrilled that you went. So inspiring.

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Yes I am Jill. There's still so much history to figure out. Going nuts with to figure out the rest of the story.

Unknown said...

Hi Joanne, thanks so much for sharing your incredible journey - I got chills reading all of this. Cannolis in Sicily were mouth-watering, as was one of this Jewish Woman’s favorite desserts. Being a New Yorker and the wife of one born in Brooklyn, I’m sure you can understand!!! Continue with excitement as you connect with your ‘findings’ - Love and hugs to you and Doug.����

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Thanks Debrah. The journey continues as I am spending way too much time on trying to find more pieces of the puzzle. Can you believe Doug ate a cannoli in every city and didn't gain a pound!

Unknown said...

Amazing trip, thanks for sharing. I was going to comment on the cannoli picture, then read your comment about Doug eating them everywhere. Go Doug!

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Yes, he ate enough for both of us!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this post