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Thursday
Sep102015

Finding Our Place in the Stories that Build Us

We barely catch our train. We barely find our train. My mother is nearly seventy years old, and yet I run full speed dragging her behind me while checking the platform signs for town names and departure times.

We had arrived at the station in Rome with plenty of time to spare. Forty-five minutes. Time enough for browsing the Tabacchi for souvenirs and maybe even having gelato — our daily ritual in Italy. But right away we had discovered that no one had any information about the small, regional train that would take us to the remote mountain town of Veroli. On our tickets, where our platform number should be, there is only a blank space. 

We ask for help in our best Italian. We scour the platform for clues. We are stuck in train station purgatory — desperate for the numbers that will tell us where to go. We check and recheck for updates. We ask attendants at each platform for help. Fifteen minutes go by, then thirty, then forty. We have only five minutes to board our train when I see it. Finally, a four-digit number appears beside Veroli on the information board. We run along the platform counting down the letters and numbers looking for our train. 

We can make it! I think. 

We are like a duo from The Amazing Race, except dressier. And with makeup. I pick up the edge of my skirt and run. We reach the end of the platform when I see the stairs to the second level. There is a second level? I check my watch. We are one minute past boarding time. 

All of our trains so far have been on time — or early. And the exchange is always so quick. The train barrels in and out, sometimes in less than a minute. I know it’s futile to run, but we do it anyway. At the very end of the second story platform, there is a train in the depot with people still boarding. A sign above, reads “Veroli.”

* * *

My grandmother, Alba, was sent to an orphanage in northern Italy when she was four years old. Her father had died young and her mother, though alive, could not take care of all of her children. Alba lived in the orphanage for ten years while enduring verbal and physical abuse — forced to kneel on needles and stones. Once, when they discovered a fashion magazine in her room, they called her nasty names and threw away all of her hair ribbons. At age fourteen, she finally broke and confessed all of this to her mother who would occasionally make the long journey to visit. Anna Scuotto was fierce and determined, and she took her daughter to the authorities who deemed the orphanage unsafe and shut it down. Still, with few resources, Anna could not take care of her youngest daughter. Alba would travel again — hundreds of miles away to Veroli, a small mountain town outside of Rome.  

* * *

This trip to Italy had been my gift to my mom and myself. I had just made it through four years of college, homeschooling my two children along the way, and my mother would be turning seventy the same summer. She flew in for my graduation and we left for Florence two days later. 

The art in Florence, the history in Rome, and our family in Naples, where my mother had been born, made the famous cities obvious choices for our tour of Italy. But Veroli is barely mentioned in any of my guidebooks. Veroli is just a name on a piece of paper in my mother’s handwriting — part of my grandmother’s history that my mother had written down before my grandmother passed away. Out of pages of stories, there are only a few lines mentioning Veroli.

“Kind nuns took me in.” 

“A town in the hills near Rome.” 

“So peaceful.” 

My grandmother only lived in Veroli for two years, but there is something about the mention of the place in the notes — the fact that she hadn’t forgotten it, that it was worth mentioning to my mother, that she had called it peaceful — that made it seem a vital part of her story, and an essential stop on our journey. I began to fantasize about getting to Veroli and combing through records like they do on the shows about “finding your roots.” Maybe I would find my grandmother’s name on a piece of paper and unlock the past. 

Although Veroli is not a tourist town, there is a famous abbey in the outlying hills. The social media page for the Casamari Abbey is all in Italian, but I left messages anyway. I gave all the information I had — my grandmother’s name, the years that she lived in Veroli, and the part about the nuns taking her in. Ágnes, a volunteer at the abbey, wrote back immediately and offered to show us around the town of Veroli if we wanted to visit. It was a kind and generous offer, but I wanted more surety about my grandmother’s time there before traveling so far out of the way — an address, a name, anything. Ágnes assured me that Veroli was a beautiful town to visit, even if we didn’t have all the facts about my grandmother. But could I find the very path she walked? The ceiling she slept beneath? I wasn’t sure, but I bought two tickets anyway.

* * *

Photograph by Flo Paris OakesThe hills roll on forever outside the window of the train. As far as I can see there is green. Rows of olive trees flash by in diagonal lines. Further out, there are taller mountain peaks. Occasionally, there are crumbling walls of olds stone. Remnants from an age much older than mine — much older than my grandmother’s. She may have traveled this very route. Did she see these walls? These mountains? She would have wondered what lay ahead, but she could not have imagined marriage to an American soldier. A life across the ocean. My mother and me — or our journey back to this place.

Our train pulls to a stop in the Frosinone station and we disembark. Already, new passengers are on board and the train is leaving the station when I see Ágnes, our Italian angel, waiting with her daughter, Flavia. Despite all of our planning, I am amazed and grateful that she is actually standing before us so willing to help. She has taken the day off of work to give us a personal tour of Veroli. My mother is already hugging her and crying while I silently scold myself for not having done enough research. Here we are, in the very town my grandmother lived, and I have no information. We have only this one day to find the place where my grandmother had found such peace after leaving the orphanage.

I know all the important elements of my grandmother’s story: the convent and her life as a young woman living through the Second World War. The details about how she and her sister, Carmela, would spy on the cute boys and hide from the gunfire. Her marriage in Italy to my grandfather. Her new life in America. The baby she lost, and the four children she raised. I know her warmth and her smell and her recipe for tomato sauce. Veroli is just one stone in her story, but I am desperate to know this one unknowable thing. I am so hungry to know this place that I cannot speak as Ágnes drives us up the mountain to Veroli. I sit in the backseat looking out the window and wondering how much of this same changing landscape my grandmother saw, when Ágnes says, “We don’t know for sure, but we think we might have found the place your grandmother lived.”

* * *

 “You preserved me through the day—the same through the night.
May your grace always be with me and with my dear family. Amen.”
—A prayer, translated from Italian, found in my grandmother’s journal

* * *

We are now standing on a cobblestone path overlooking a mountain ledge that is bordered by a short, stone wall. I press my palm against the smoothness of the stones and they do not move. The stones, Ágnes explains, were stacked centuries ago in an ancient practice. There is no mortar at all. Instead, the stones lock into place with one another like puzzle pieces. Each stone laid reinforces the one before it — the wall growing taller and stronger with the weight of the stones.  

Beyond the wall and among the hills below, the terra cotta rooftops stand out among the deep green of the olive groves. Ágnes points in the direction of the town square. We will walk the path down to the town’s center — a path that is lined with old, stone houses. Bright reds and fuchsias spill out of their window boxes. I half expect to see Pinocchio dancing along the path in front of us. It feels ancient. It is a fairytale — all street lamps and cobblestone and wooden shudders.

The view is stunning, but it is the sound that catches my breath. We had experienced both the forced, holy silence in the basilicas of Florence and Rome and the nonstop noise of chaotic Naples. Here in Veroli, there is only the sharp snapping of the wind. There are no tourists. No cars. So peaceful. What would it have been like to come here after life in an orphanage? A bed sheet hangs drying on a line between two stone buildings. Waving and curling in on itself in the wind. I wish I could drape it around myself and take it home — all of it. The warmth of the sun on these stone walls. The precise sweetness of the honeysuckle. The peace of the wind.

As we walk, Ágnes explains that there is a building in town that used to be a school — at one time, nuns lived there and possibly took in orphans and children like my grandmother. The records offices are all closed, so we cannot search for definitive answers. No “finding your roots” for me.  I am disappointed, but Ágnes has done my research for me — asked city officials, talked to friends at the abbey — and this is everyone’s best guess as to where my grandmother lived. 

Photograph by Flo Paris OakesWe turn a corner, and Ágnes points out a building. She speaks in accented English, “It is there.” “Instituto Filonardi” is carved in stone above the front door. My mother catches her breath and presses her palm tightly against her heart. I am searching for a sign, an omen in this wind. A message to tell us we’ve come to the right place or where to go next. More than a feeling that these are the walls that embraced my young, weary grandmother.

But my mother is crying. She is touching her fingers to the doorway. And suddenly it doesn’t matter if it is this door or the next. Whether this is the exact path or ceiling. Because it is not the place that makes the story; it is the story that makes the place. And I had already found it — made a home of it in my grandmother’s lap as her words built walls around us. It is a story over pasta. A memory while she served me anisette cookies. It is the pain of kneeling on stones and the redemption of building strong walls. It is great loss and sorrow, but also small moments of peace. It is her faith and belief that she was held and provided for day and night, even in the depths. It is her prayers for the future carried on the wind. Across walls and mountains and oceans and time.

That afternoon, my mother and I watch for the bus that will pick us up and take us back to Rome. No need for platform numbers now, there is only one bus, and Ágnes assures us it will come. Still, we must be mindful not to miss it. I notice my mother reaching surreptitiously down to the earth, and I wonder what she is doing, when the bus pulls to a stop. I call for her to come — like the trains, this bus will not wait for us. It will be gone before we know it. 

* * *

We are back in the States, standing in my living room. I dole out souvenirs to my two little girls: Venetian masks and beautifully painted fans. I tell them stories about our trip and about their great-grandmother. My mother pulls something out of her bag and drops it into my hand. Dusty gray. A stone from Veroli.


Flo Paris Oakes is a freelance writer, author, and songwriter whose passions include good food (both eating and making), storytelling, conservation, and especially the convergence of all three. Flo lives in East Nashville with her backyard-farming husband, one bird watching pre-teen, one aspiring ballerina, and their parakeet, Kiwi.

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