7. Just Looking, Thanks

The family was getting a little ragged around the edges after a full afternoon of clueless window-shopping for relatives. Now, we pulled up in front of a large three story house in San Demetrio Corone, and the owner came out to greet us speaking excellent English. Antonio invited us in as if a crew of bedraggled strangers showed up at his door every day. I looked around at the marble floors, elegant stairway with beautiful bannister, spectacular views out every window–it was a fabulous house. In the impeccable living room, I used what I hoped were subtle hand gestures to assign the kids to the chairs that looked least likely to show dirt or be damaged by fidgeting. Antonio brought us refreshments and as we talked, part of my mind assessed and reassessed how likely it was that the combination of his fancy glasses, my kids and those marble floors would end well.

We settled in for some introductory talk, describing where we lived, what we did and what life was like in Connecticut. Then the subject turned to Antonio. Now, I was born in Brooklyn and lived there for close to 25 years. It has become a fixture of my life that wherever I go, I meet someone from my native borough. This amazes my farm-boy husband every time, including this time. Antonio had indeed lived in Brooklyn as a boy and young man. We began the game of narrowing down the where and the when, and zoomed right in on Franklin Avenue, the street I was pretty sure my father had grown up on at the very same time.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, the period Antonio had lived there, Brooklyn had been home to 2.7 million people. The thought that he and my father had played ball in the same street, gone to the same school and probably had some friends in common—well, it was such a coincidence, I was sure it  would turn out to be not quite right. But when I got home and asked my father, I learned it was right. In fact, when I asked if he remembered a bar on the corner when he was growing up, he remembered it by name. And that was the bar Antonio’s father had owned.

Antonio wanted to know what information we had about my family. Against my better judgment, I brought up the genealogy report, complete with its alleged Counts and priests and collegio presidents. I handed him a copy and he studied it for a moment, then offered to accompany us to the church, where he felt we had the best chance of finding some records. By now, not only had I lost track of my goal of taking a walk in Macchia, I’d even forgotten about my newer goal of meeting some living Liguoris. I’d moved on to stalking some ancestor Liguoris, even if they were from that worrisome genealogy report and maybe not ancestors at all.

Both Ernesto and Antonio led us to the center of San Demetrio. There, we all parked near the pinkish-tan stuccoed church, which I was surprised to learn was Greek Orthodox since my family had always been Roman Catholic. But it turns out that the Italo-Albanian Greek Catholic Church, also known as the Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church, retains the Orthodox culture but is under Rome. The priest who greeted us was happy to help and he and Antonio discussed the genealogy report, which by this time, to my discomfort, was out of my hands—literally—and taking on a life of its own. Like a scrap of paper in a children’s cartoon that dances down the street–with music–and everyone scampers to follow.

The priest led us into a dark office room brimming with cardboard boxes of handwritten records. We watched as he began searching. I was surprised to learn he was searching every priest in his records, starting with 1800, for one named Liguori. I had to wonder–why a priest? Priests couldn’t be in my direct line, right? Well, it was a start. He was friendly, chatting with Antonio and seeming to enjoy the challenge as the search went on. And then, looking triumphant, he waved a card. As he read the record, his smile faded and he directed a rapid river of words to Antonio while glancing at me with suspicion. I could understand the word “why” coming through over and over. The priest kept looking at me the way the teacher looks at the child sitting next to the one caught cheating. After quite a lot of talk and way too much sighing for my anxiety level, both men turned to me. The priest did not look amused. “He says–” Antonio began, suppressing a smile, “he says that he has found a Don Pietro Liguori who was ordained here in 1872. But, Don Pietro left San Demetrio for the United States in 1888. The father here is a little worked up. He thinks this is very strange behavior for a priest.” Another sigh; a small hand gesture. “He wants me to ask you why he left.”

Me? This wasn’t even my Liguori as far as I knew and even if it was, this happened 110 years ago. Why was the priest looking at me that way? I didn’t even know who Pietro was but it was apparent that some of the tar from his brush was splashing onto me. “I have never even heard of a Pietro in my family,” I said, “however, I have a good guess about why a young priest would run away—far away. Probably quietly in the middle of the night.” I tried a test smile. Antonio smiled back and said, “I think I have that same guess. And so does he. That’s the problem.” He laughed. “Don’t worry. I will tell him that he is not your relative.”

It was getting late and, the mini-tempest calmed, we had to say goodbye and thank you to the priest. He offered to look some more, going back to pre-1800 records, taking our address in case he found anything. In fact, we all exchanged addresses as my family and I thanked Ernesto and Antonio for an afternoon we would never forget.

On the way back to our agriturismo, I thought about the evolution of our juggernaut that day. How many people had kindly given of their time to us because they wanted to help? Maybe Macchia was not a place outsiders could approach for a casual walk—not without drawing attention. “Thank you, but I’m just looking” might be appropriate when you’re browsing in a store, but probably not in a community of under 300 people. I felt a little ashamed of myself, as if in my desire to see what my great grandmother had left, I’d forgotten those who lived there today. My “window shopping” involved their windows. If we were to do this again, we certainly needed to have a clearer focus and a little more sensitivity. It looked like I had some serious homework ahead of me when we got home. But first, I needed to get back to our place and sleep. For a couple of days.

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4 thoughts

  1. As a mother, I could appreciate your disaster averting behavior. I can’t imagine it going so smoothly. What fun with the disapproving priest questioning you about why that young priest fled town oh those many years ago! For whatever reason, I saw Marie Barone’s facial expressions (from “Everybody Loves Raymond) on that priest!

    I’m enjoying following you and your family around on this quest.

  2. As one who was there, I want to commend my wife for so vividly bring that bizarre and wonderful day back to life.

    1. It was a day that, in looking back, didn’t get us much further in learning about the family. It didn’t even get us a closer look at the streets of Macchia. But it was an incredibale human experience and I would not have wanted to miss it.

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