Last night I saw the film Nuovomondo (New World) or, as it has been called in English, The Golden Door. It’s the story of the voyage to America of Sicilian immigrants in the early 1900s, and it takes us as far as Ellis Island. My own grandfather made the crossing from Naples in 1905, and I feel as though I possess a distinct ancestral memory of the experience...especially after seeing this movie.
There is a particularly dramatic image in Nuovomondo, shot from overhead, that shows the crowd on board and the crowd on shore waving good-bye to one another as the ship slowly shoves off and the water between them widens. My grandfather was only seventeen when he sailed from his homeland. He started out in a little village called Boscoreale, which is a bit to the south and east of Naples, sort of on the hem of the skirt of Mt. Vesuvius. The ship on which he sailed was a two-masted steamer built in Genoa called The Citta di Torino; it held 1,536 passengers (40 second class, 1,496 third class) and arrived at Ellis Island on July 13, 1905. (I once stood in that great hall with my eyes closed and tried to imagine it as it was on that long ago summer day.) Nuovomondo powerfully and explicitly recreates the immigrant experience at Ellis Island, that portal to the promised land, but it is also a quirky movie, filled with dream and magic.
And it certainly does take a bit of dream and magic to leave an Old World behind, no matter how stong the push of poverty. I wonder how my grandfather felt saying good-bye to everything that was familiar to him, turning to look at Boscoreale one last time, perhaps knowing he would never be back. Amazingly, I have returned in his memory on four different occasions. How could he have imagined the ease with which we make such journeys, or the opulence of the life his migration bequeathed to me in the course of two generations?
My most recent trip to Boscoreale happened to be in July 2005, exactly one hundred years after his arrival in New York. I stayed with the children's children of one of his brothers, distant cousins with whom I share a great-grandfather and a name. And maybe I exaggerate my connection to these people, but to me it feels very real.
Boscoreale is a dog barking, laundry hanging, Vespa roaring, baby crying, people shouting kind of town with shabby houses of stucco and stone and impossibly narrow streets. Remnants of ancient Rome lie beneath its volcanic soil and archaeological treasures are still being unearthed. It’s a place where the past and present mingle.
In fact, while I was there I happened to be reading a book called The Time Traveler’s Wife. A family friend who spoke some English was trying to explain the meaning of the title to my Aunt Titina. Suddenly he turned to me and said, "But you are also the time traveler, for you have come in order to know your grandfather. Maybe you find him still here?"
He had it right. I was hoping for some slippage in time and space; Italy feels like a good place for that. And in a way, I did find my grandfather. I’ll write more about this trip in another post perhaps. It was complicated, and sometimes strange, and I often asked myself what I was doing there, but I felt the stirrings of my history, and it seemed to me there was a kind of symmetry to my being in this very place a century after my grandfather's migration.
One afternoon I went into a church and lit a candle (not very romantic -- you turn a switch on ) in memory of the ones I love. I said a special thank you to my grandfather for having had the spirit to leave -- and for the life I have inherited through that courage.
I've been given all I wanted,
Only three generations off the boat.
I've harvested and I've planted.
I'm wearing my father's old coat