Callings from the Origin Country
From the author: I am a grafted person. I come from six Italians who immigrated between 1905 and 1910: two from Basilicata (Ferrandina), two from Calabria (Longobucco) and two from Campania (Naples), who all settled in New York and New Jersey, and then converged in Brooklyn where my parents met as children in the 30’s. I was born in Staten Island (considered the countryside in 1961, before the Verrazano Bridge connected the island), but was raised in Connecticut, west and east of the Connecticut River.
Many of the articles in this series will explore aspects of the experience as an Italian American whose ethnicity was both central to my identity, yet was minimized and isolated in Mystic, a small New England historic whaling town.
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My father often told the “joke” that we were the first Italians let into the yacht club, “I knew we’d get in because the year before they had accepted a Jew.” I didn’t really understand the humor or truth behind this joke until I was much older; we moved to Mystic and sold the boat, something strange for sailboat owners.
But until then we made many weekend trips, and we spent two weeks of each summer, sailing the New England Sound: to Block Island, to Nantucket, and often an extended stay at Mystic Seaport. We tied up at the dock, and slept on the boat.
Each day we would explore. In Mystic, there was a lot to see without leaving the property; the Seaport is an elaborate historic whaling village, with large restored whaling ships, and many of the trades involved in whaling reenacted: blacksmithing, glass blowing, weaving, and many more.
The village was self-contained. My parents weren’t with me (this was before 1970) to nudge me onward, so I spent hours standing in these shops. I was mesmerized:
Iron getting red hot, and then pounded over and over on an anvil. A blob of molten glass, being pulled from the fire, quickly blown and twisted as it grew, like magic. But I stood the longest at the weavers shop. Two large floor looms stood beyond the stanchions, with historically clad women who played the loom with their hands and feet, like an organ, as the narrow cloth, with a diamond pattern, got longer and longer in front of my eyes. More magic.
But I was eight. Wouldn’t any child be transfixed? That’s what I carried for decades.
While back on land, I had a similar attraction to the stone walls that I found while walking in the woods of western Connecticut. You could come upon them anywhere, perfectly balanced sedimentary rock layered into two-foot high walls with no mortar; they were remarkable. I longed to learn about masonry whenever I saw them or elaborately constructed stone houses. (The closest I came was designing brick patios and stairs as a landscape designer.)
So was I surprised when I discovered the following professions in my ancestry research on my relatives: Ferraio (blacksmith), Filatrice (Seamstress), Muratore (bricklayer, mason)—I wasn’t.
But when I was researching the songs of Ferrandina and Longobucco in an attempt to begin to further connect with my towns of origin, I found something very startling:
“…Longobucco has a well-documented history. Various poets, including Padula, De Giacomo and Corso, who ventured into the small town in La Sila, left precious accounts of the splendour of the weaving in Longobucco in ancient times, praising the characteristic designs and colours of a textile craft that was quite unique…”
Longobucco, the home of my great grandparents? My great grandfather was a skilled mason, and built many structures in Brooklyn, but weaving—this was an unknown art form to me—or was it? I stood hours in the weavers shop, the longest in the village. Where does this resonance come from?
Many have posed theories about genetic memory, and generational memory. I care less about the science, as I do affirming experience, and mine was profound. I felt drawn like to these trades, and yet became a musician, a teacher, and a performer.
But I have always felt detached, disconnected, outside the center of things. I believe that is because as immigrants we were cut off, and required to be completely American; this what Baldwin describes as the "Price of the Ticket" to becoming White (a cost he extends to willing immigrants, but on a different scale as the profound cost to black folks involuntarily enslaved).
So, for my genealogical readers, and those who wonder if they should begin: What research and ancestry work gives you is simple: it gives you yourself, on the deepest level.