4. Nigerian Princes and Family Trees

After the sobering experience of coming so close to seeing what Macchia was like, I knew we needed to know more stuff: more about the area, more of the Italian language and more about my actual family.

More about the area was not easy. I couldn’t find much (anything) to read and I had no idea about the geopolitical structure of Italy. It would be years before I understood that Macchia was a frazione, a small subdivision of a larger comune or what we might call a municipality.

I tried, and continue trying, to study Italian. My mother taught me a little bit when I was small but the family on the whole seemed to think it was better to stick with English. That wasn’t an uncommon attitude then, and it really was a pity. I guess the idea was to move “beyond” being considered “an Italian,” which for some time meant being thought of as dishonest, stupid and prone to violence. But learning another language at a young age is a gift and I still sigh when I think that I might have been bilingual.

Naturally, to learn more about my family, I wrote to yet another aunt on the Arberesh side. There’s always another aunt or uncle, at least in my family. This time I learned of a cousin who had a family tree. Of sorts. Still living in that Internet free world we can barely imagine now, she’d hired someone to do some digging. She sent me a copy of his report. My first reaction was to wonder how on earth every relative mentioned had been “a nobleman,” a founder of a collegio, a saint–or at the very least, a lawyer. One guy was supposedly “created a Count.” I don’t know what that means but it sounds positively Biblical. He went on to become Chief Commissioner of Police for the Province of Cosenza. Sounds like a TV show—the Count Who Became Commissario. The funniest part was, the relatives of this cousin who were not relatives of mine as well—that is, her mother’s side of the family–they seemed to have been “Counts” too.

But the report was all I had. Surely somewhere in there was something of use. After all, isn’t it more likely that the information that survives in the records would be about people who had accomplished a great deal? So, maybe—it could be that—nah, probably not. And as for why both sides of the family, well, maybe that made sense. Counts hang out with other counts, right? Still, … But wait, I did remember my great-grandmother, Nanny, saying her family was important in Macchia, that they had not been poor. Yet she was only four when they came here. Judging anything based on a four-year-old’s view of the world is dicey at best. So probably not. Almost surely not. But still, it was all I had.

So, I could tank up on some more Italian, scope out some better maps and go back, armed with my Nigerian-Prince equivalent of a family tree and a fair amount of nerve. A plan.

But again, like all plans, this one changed. We had a couple of kids. Travel to Europe, especially on a quest for information about possibly non-existent relatives in a tiny town, wasn’t an appealing idea when they were small. As it turned out, we wouldn’t go back  to Italy for another dozen years. In that time, three very good things happened for my quest: TV language lessons, the agriturismo movement in Italy, and—the Internet!

Do you have a family tree that makes you wonder? Stories in the family that have been passed on through the generations and maybe grown into something a little bigger than life? I’d love to hear about it. Just let me know, or share any thoughts you’d like, in the comment field below.

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4 thoughts

  1. From Stephen Sposato:
    I do like your post! My own family is from Cosenza, the municipality of Acri, Sposato, Esposito and Brogna are the names. We too discovered a Count or more precisely my cousin did. Why Italian Americans feel this need to “be somebody” is a bit beyond me, sad really. All the best in your search. Italy is a wonderful place, the mafia still prevalent in Calabria and fascism are two ills we still need to cure but we will.

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I have an Esposito in my tree too. A great-grandmother, born in Scala Coeli.

      As for the needing to be somebody, it is peculiar, isn’t it? It reminds me of how many people who claim to remember past lives remember either being or being close to someone famous. Suspicious, I’d say.

  2. I’ve fixed the Comments issue but I am having to repost a few on behalf of the people who made them.

    From Eileen Kelber:
    So interesting. I love your writing Lydia.

    1. (And then I get to look like I am replying to myself!)
      Thanks, Eileen! This process has been so very interesting. Even if it had not worked out, I would have learned so much that it would have been worth it.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!