Connecting to My Familial Roots
Last year during the winter months I was completing evening classes to receive my New Mexico state teaching license. During one particular class the instructor had us participating in a small group activity, where we would rotate around the room every few minutes to different stations and briefly discuss a question.
The question our group had to discuss at one station was related to cultural heritage and our connection to it. I recall a fellow classmate (a young woman in her late twenties) in our group who said she felt no connection to her family’s ancestral lineage. Her main point was that it’s in the past, and her life has always been here in the United States, and did not feel a connection to the countries that her relatives hailed from.
I remember being flabbergasted by both her words and apathetic attitude. It was like she was basically shrugging her shoulders ever-so-nonchalantly at the thought of her ancestral roots! Is this the perspective of this younger generation nowadays? I couldn’t help but wonder that evening.
Is this the perspective of this younger generation nowadays?
A Chinese Proverb says that “to forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” This perspective has resonated with me over the years as I’ve gotten older. My paternal great-grandfather was from Italy and my maternal great-grandparents were from Poland.
Even before visiting both countries this past summer, I felt a connection (a “rooting”) to each of them through the stories my parents and relatives have shared over the years. While planning for these summer travels, I made it a priority to visit the towns that my great-grandparents had lived in before immigrating to the United States.
My paternal great-grandfather, Egidio, was from the small village of Fibbialla, located in the Tuscany region of Italy (about 10 miles outside of Lucca city). Egidio’s father, Giovanni, had worked as a judge. Had Egidio remained in Italy he would have continued with a privileged future that lay before him.
Egidio had other goals, one of them being to immigrate to the United States. His father was not too supportive of this idea, especially since Egidio did not speak English very well. Egidio’s chutzpah outweighed Giovanni’s protests, though, and around 1912 Egidio set out for the United States arriving at Ellis Island.
A Chinese Proverb says that “to forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.
During the morning drive to Fibbialla I was delighted to discover that it was a quaint hilltop village (prior online research had not given that impression). In the narrow alleyways were rustic apartment villas, brightened with green shutters and flowers adorning the doorways and windowsills. The main landmark in Fibbialla is a cistern tower, which dates back to the XII century. (The village and castle in Fibbialla had once been fief of the Canonicals of S. Pietro).
There is no tabacchi shop, school or post office in the village. However, even without those essentials, the peacefulness added to Fibbialla’s beauty, along with the views of the surrounding Tuscan hills in the distance.
After two weeks in Italy, I boarded a Polish Lot flight to Krakow. While in Poland the plan was to stay a few nights in Kazimierz Dolny, where my maternal great-grandparents (Anton and Annie) had lived before immigrating to the States in the early 1920s.
Each of these countries was the “starting point” of my family– where it all began.
Located along Poland’s Vistula River, Kazimierz Dolny has a bohemian vibe to it with art galleries sprinkled throughout the town. The art galleries are what draw visitors here, along with the Church of John the Baptist which overlooks the cobbled market square.
But even during the height of the European travel season, the town had a mellow feel to it and wasn’t overrun with tourists. On the fringes of town is the kirkut (Jewish cemetery), a memorial site with a split “wailing wall” which denotes the devastating fate of Polish Jews.
Similar to what I felt while visiting Fibbialla, there was a surrealness to those few days in Kazimierz Dolny. I had to postpone this trip for a couple of years, but finally being there added a new layer of appreciation and love for the “motherlands” of my great-grandparents.
Besides the surrealness of visiting Fibbialla and Kazimierz Dolny, the other thing that nourished my ancestral connection to Italy and Poland was the deepened pride in my heart. A feeling of pride not rooted in arrogance, but one rooted in joy and knowledge. Each of these countries was the “starting point” of my family– where it all began.
If both great-grandparents had chosen not to immigrate to the United States, mine and my family’s lives would have probably turned out very differently— perhaps a life that was either more Polish or more Italian.
A feeling of pride not rooted in arrogance, but one rooted in joy and knowledge.
When reflecting on this, I still get a little awestruck at the level of courage that my (and so many other) great-grandparents had when immigrating to the States all those decades ago. They took more risks back then— risks that really mattered because they had skin in the game when boarding that boat bound for Ellis Island. And even though their reasons varied—whether they were escaping war or persecution, wanting to change their destiny, or following their wanderlust—their courage is an attribute we should all strive for in life.
Photo credits for Connecting to My Familial Roots by Rebecca Biage.