Growing up, Grampa Mike’s story was such a part of our family that it was, in a way, a non-story.
We all knew that he immigrated from Italy as a teenager. We knew that he left the small home where he and his big Italian family lived, sailed across the ocean for weeks, landed at Ellis Island, and started a new life in a new land without home, job or command of the language. Even people who didn’t know his history could easily figure out that his was an immigrant’s story, for Grampa’s thick accent forever revealed his history. Sixty years in America could not undo the first eighteen he’d spent in Bari-Carbonara, one of Italy’s southernmost towns.
Like many immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century, Grampa worked hard to jump right in to the the culture of his new country. By the time I knew him, it was like he had always been here. Somehow, young Michelangelo became Mike, learned the language, found a trade, settled on the west coast. Even though I never heard him speak a word of Italian, I knew his love for Italy was strong.
“In Italy, all-ah da roofs are flat-ah,” Grampa would tell me again and again as a child, adding vowels to words with Italian flare. “One day, I take-ah you dere. You want to go to Italy, Stacy?”
Although I was just four, I desperately wanted to! Grampa told me we would sleep outside, under the stars, on the flat roof of his childhood home.
It sounded magical, and I started yearning for that faraway place. I credit him for igniting my lifelong fascination with Europe.
Incredibly, forty years later, I found myself on that flat roof, in the home where Grampa was born and raised with his rowdy bunch of four brothers and two sisters. The stars of his youth winked at me and my children in the balmy Southern Italian night, as if I had finally figured out their secret.
Grampa wasn’t with me on that trip, in fact, we had never realized our dream of being in Italy together. I had lost both him and my Dad (Grampa’s his beloved youngest child), years before. But four-year-old Daughter was there, constantly in my arms or by my side, standing as proxy to four-year-old, wistful me of long ago. To wander our ancestral home, and stand on that flat roof with the descendants of Grampa’s sisters who never left Italy, surrounded by my children and husband, I felt as though I had been placed nel mezzo di una fiaba — in the middle of a fairy tale.
Grampa’s piazza is really Piazza Umberto I in Carbonara di Bari, Puglia. Situated at the top of the heel of Italy’s boot along the Adriatic coast, Bari is an ancient and thriving port city much larger than I expected. But Carbonara (like the pasta!), only a few miles inland, is just how I pictured it – small, cobbled and crumbly, and authentically Italian.
Grampa’s piazza is enormous and clearly the center of town (as piazze tend to be), both literally and figuratively.
To my delight, it’s just a few quick blocks from the family home. The piazza still boasts its capo di ferro (“Old Ironhead”) – the nickname for the fountain which was once the main source of water for the homes in the vicinity.
I remember Grampa telling me how he would fetch water for his mamma, and even though the century has changed, as I walk the same streets that he once did, I easily imagine Grampa as a scrappy ragazzo (little boy) racing to and fro, sloshing water, pail in hand. I envision his grateful mamma, Grazia (Grace) – whose name lives on in my daughter — waiting to boil that water for the big pot of pasta which I imagined was a constant, active presence in her cucina, ever nourishing her family. The family which would branch, eventually, in two spots in the world — one taking root in America, the other firmly planted in Carbonara and its surrounds.
It felt magical to me to walk from our family home, down the narrow streets lined by crumbly houses in bright, Italian hues and into the piazza, framed by shops and dotted with Italians doing what they have done for centuries in their squares — fare una chiacchiere, fare una passeggiata — have a chat or take a stroll, or just sit quietly together watching the world pass by. Truth be told, on this morning they were pretty occupied staring at Daughter and I, obvious newcomers.
In Grampa’s piazza, under the hot southern Italian sunshine, I stopped, looked around, inhaled deeply. And breathed in the full circle moment that was swirling around me, standing in the square where my grandfather once stood. Could he have ever imagined that his bold move across ocean and country would afford incredible opportunity for his future descendants? That one day, his little great-granddaughter would be fortunate enough to return to his homeland and play in the piazza of his youth?
As a teenager, Grampa sometimes made me feel very self-conscious when we took him places. He seemed to enjoy attracting attention when we were out and about, and, to an introverted, bookish teenager, that was a bit mortifying.
For one, Grampa was always talking really loud with that strong accent and waving his hands and arms all around to accentuate the point he was trying to make. For the record, I now find this enthusiasm for life quite charming, particularly when I’m in Italy. One time, he took an apple from a restaurant buffet (meant to be merely decoration) and then belly laughed with a twinkle in his eye when the server caught him. Or, on the occasional Sunday when we would join him at his big Catholic church for mass, he’d walk around, fedora askew, with his brigata — his brigade of elderly men seemingly plucked straight from the piazza — like he owned the place, even though he was just a volunteer usher. He would save us a pew near the front, and he’d make it real apparent that we were his family and that these special seats were for us. I’d sneak in to the pew next to Grandma Anna, her delicate, porcelain fingers already worrying the rosary beads. As Grampa Mike went about his work of seating the others, his arms would fly into the air again as he pretended to conduct the choir, as they looked down on us from their perch.
What I didn’t know then but what I know now was that the spirit and the spunk of Grampa Mike is probably what allowed me to live my comfortable life. Because I believe that’s what gave him the strength to transform from uncertain, impoverished immigrant to middle class American. I have no specifics of his journey across the ocean – I never knew better to ask and he never talked about it. Grampa has been gone for nearly 30 years now, and, more than ever, I really want to know, from his point of view, the details of his voyage across the Atlantic, and the early years in his new land.
As I stood in Piazza Umberto I in the storied little Carbonara, I also yearned to know the ragazzo Michelangelo, the little Italian boy whose spirit was always a part of the man who became Grampa Mike, American husband, father, business owner, grandfather, great-grandfather. The man who dreamed of taking his granddaughter to his flat-roofed childhood home, and sleeping under the twinkling Italian stars. It took forty years to get there, but with every step I took in Grampa’s piazza, I felt him there with me.
I Cinque Fratelli italiani / Five Italian Brothers in America
Ecco i cinque fratelli — here are the five brothers, well settled in America by the time this photo was taken. Pictured youngest to oldest from left to right are Agostino, Nicolo, Valerio, Michelangelo (Grampa Mike), and Michele. It was customary for many immigrants, no matter which country of origin, to work to assimilate immediately into United States culture. One of the easiest ways to do so was to Americanize names, and hence, the brothers became Gus, Niki, Val, Mike and Michael.
In Grampa’s Piazza ©2017 Stacy D. Pollard | Updated March 2021
Photo of Piazza Umberto I via Giornale di Puglia