Acquaviva delle Fonti

Acquaviva delle Fonti

Last week I celebrated my birthday in Italy with my daughters. We spent a few days in the Puglia region, where both of my father’s parents came from, and on Tuesday we took the train from Bari and spent an afternoon in this town, the birthplace of my grandfather, Luigi Giuseppe Balestracci (1892-1972).

We didn’t do any of the things you might expect me to do — track down relatives, go to the cemetery and find the graves of my great grandparents, or even just to make a decent tour and photographic survey of the town. I didn’t want to do any of that, not this trip, anyway. My only goal was to be there, to know what it was like to get off the train and know that I was actually there in Acquaviva delle Fonti, Fountain of the Living Water, a magical place name that’s lived in my imagination for as long as I can remember.

It was a gray and overcast day, threatening rain when we got off the train. I had the irrational notion that we’d step off the train and find ourselves in 1911, the year my grandfather left for America, and that gaily dressed Italian peasants would be dancing around the fountain singing folksongs. Or that my unknown relatives, the descendants of my grandfather’s brother Domenico, would just happen to be strolling by the train station and would see me and instantly recognize me as one of them. But none of that happened…we just got off the train and aimlessly wandered around town for a while. It felt good to be there, and to see the ordinariness of the town. I wondered what my grandfather would think of me bringing his adult great granddaughers, born after he died, to his hometown. It was nice, but I still wanted a little more.

Jean, Lucrezia, Luigi, Oseo and Betty BalestracciHeading back to the train station, we passed a restaurant and decided to stop for a late lunch. We walked in and the first thing I saw was a dark wooden cabinet with glass doors, holding wine glasses. It looked a lot like the one in my grandparents’ dining room, seen in the background of the photo on the right. And on the wall was a landscape framed in a distinctive thick oval wooden frame, just like the frame that held photographs of my great-grandparents in my grandparents’ house. I know these aren’t really amazing coincidences, but these familiar objects made me feel more connected.

Acquaviva delle FontiThe waitress was friendly and patient with our limited Italian, and the food and wine were great. We had a good time sitting there, enjoying the food and conversation, and I decided that although I miss my parents and grandparents and honor their memories, it’s better to live in the present and appreciate spending time with the living members of my family!

My Grandfather’s Ship

Duca Degli AbruzziMy grandfather often talked about arriving in America with five dollars in his pocket. I pictured the scene in my mind, the young Luigi standing on the deck of a ship pulling in to New York Harbor, seeing the Statue of Liberty and taking a deep breath, removing the old wool cap from his head in respect. I could see the chaotic scene at Ellis Island, crowds of immigrants from many different countries, mothers whispering soft words in Italian, Polish, Swedish and a hundred other languages to soothe their frightened children. A lot of paperwork and then they all burst out into the streets of New York, ready to begin their new lives in America. I could see this scene like a movie in my mind, and it was so vivid to me then that it feels like a memory now, as if I were really there.

A few months ago, I went on the Ellis Island website and found the record of my grandfather’s arrival. Our family name was transcribed incorrectly, but the search engine’s “sounds like” option brought up the right record. It was quite thrilling to see my grandfather’s name and information in the ship manifest, to know the date of his arrival, and to know the name of the ship, the Duca degli Abruzzi, and to see a picture of the ship. I loved the picture so much, I ordered copies for my daughters and sister and nieces for Christmas. There were two different versions of picture, so I ordered both. I hope they will all keep their copies, and that children in future generations of the family will come across these, and look at the picture, and want to know a little more about their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, where we all came from and their family’s story.

My grandmother came from the same region of Italy as my grandfather, but she didn’t come through Ellis Island. She took a ship from Naples to Boston. I was able to find her records as well, and learn the name of her ship, the Canopic. Here’s a postcard from showing that ship:

White Star Line Canopic Old Postcard

Christmas Music and Memories

Good King WenceslasI’m working on my Christmas playlist, and I want to put in songs dedicated to family members no longer with us. For my mother, it’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” for my father, “Good King Wenceslaus,” for my brother Peter, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

But I am finding it more difficult to choose the right one for the living. For my sister, I think it would be “We Three Kings.” Not sure if she now considers it her favorite, but she certainly enjoyed dramatically singing the more depressing verses when we were young. For me, it’s definitely “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I’m not sure anyone knows that. For others in the family and some of my friends, I have some ideas, but I’m really not sure.

Does everyone have a favorite Christmas song? What’s yours, and why? Do you know the favorites of your parents and grandparents? We should record these things — I am currently working on family trees for both sides of my family, and I’d be much more interested in knowing the favorite Christmas songs of my grandparents, great grandparents, etc., than in finding their graves or figuring out if they were really born in 1896 or 1897.

Maybe people should put this in their wills — I hereby request that my heirs and their descendants play ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ once each year, and think of me.

For my mother, here’s her favorite, as sung by Judy Garland in the movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Worcester History Images from the Internet Archive

Ames Plow Company's Works

I love roaming around through the amazing collection of public domain books on the Internet Archive, but there’s no good way to search just the illustrations within the books. I have been copying some of the images and posting them to Flickr, linking back to the Internet Archive book record both as a credit and for more information.

Taylor's BuildingRight now I am working with James Arthur Ambler’s Worcester Illustrated from 1875, which has lots of pictures of commercial buildings, factories and more. The size and quality of my images vary as I experiment with using different versions of the Internet Archive files and different ways to make copies. I’m also fooling around with the files a bit, straightening and cropping them, doing minor color correction and adding borders. I’m not very good at this, but I’m not going to worry about it. I feel like I am making these images more findable and more shareable, and that even at their worst they are way better than noting.

I am putting these in a Flickr set called Worcester History Images along with some of my scanned old Worcester postcards. When I have time, I’d like to get these into a real database, put them on a Google map, do some then-and-now photographs, etc. But right now, I just want to get these out there so they can be search and found, so someone might find a picture of the factory where his great grandfather worked, or the school his great-great-grandmother attended.

You Made Me Love You

Just remembering my mother with this movie clip of Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” to a photograph of Clark Gable. My mother loved this song and sang it often, and described this scene to me many times. She was around 13 when she saw this, and thought it was wonderfully romantic. I never saw the movie, Broadway Melody of 1938, so I was happy to find this clip on YouTube.

I’ll Be Seeing You

I’m posting this in memory of my mother, in honor of her birthday. She loved this song, and I often hear it in my head as I sort through all these old photographs, seeing her (and too many other loved ones now gone) in all the old familiar places…Pheasant Hill Street, Westchester Circle, Columbus Street, Swift’s Beach, Crystal Park and more.

Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry

My aunt has Alzheimer’s Disease. Both my parents died young, and when I see my aunt fade away, I know I’m losing one of my few remaining connections to my parents and their generation.

During one visit with my aunt in the nursing home, I reminisced about what a great dancer she had been. “Do you remember?” I asked her. “You could do all the dances. You taught for Arthur Murray.” I was just talking, I didn’t think she was actually listening. But when she heard the name Arthur Murray, she jumped up and launched into a lively rendition of the song Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry. She knew all the words and did the whole dance routine, with lots of turns and kicks.
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Hard-Hearted Hannah

My mother loved to sing, in the church choir or just for fun. She sang all the time, singing along with the radio or record player, or just a cappella. I especially remember her singing while doing the housework. She sang all kinds of songs, including hymns, show tunes, jazz, TV jingles, and pop songs from Kate Smith to Herman’s Hermits.

But Hard-Hearted Hannah is the song my sister and I always refer to as “Ma’s big number.” I remember she especially liked to sing this one while vacuuming in rhythm. We found this song slightly thrilling and embarrassing, what with lyrics like this:

An evening spent with Hannah sittin’ on your knees
Is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs

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Polaroid Memories

Instant Karma — “Before Polaroid fades into history, let’s remember how influential — and cool — the art of the snapshot, and the cameras themselves, could be” [Mark Feeney, Boston Globe : March 16, 2008]

Polaroid announced last month that they would no longer produce instant film was just an inevitable step in the long, slow decline of Polaroid and the world of instant photography. Instant film photography, killed off by digital photography. In the world of cameraphones, Flickr, photoprinters, who needs instant film cameras?

But Polaroid really was once so cool. In Feeney’ words:

“…there are those who remember when it was the Apple of its day: feisty, ubiquitous, pioneering. The Polaroid Land Camera was like the Mac, with all other consumer cameras PCs. There was the same sense of engineering superiority and cultural cachet.”

My Father's SlidesWhen I was a child, my engineer father had a serious camera with a light meter and a lot of accessories. He took slides and wrote the technical data on the frames, and he carefully ordered and organized the slides in trays for the projector. My mother had an old Brownie box camera, later replaced by an Instamatic, totally point-and-shoot. She had some of her older photographs in albums and baby books, but most of her pictures were just tossed into shoeboxes, undated and unlabeled.
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Remembering Sputnik

History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball… and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.” [Sputnik, the Fiftieth Anniversary]

Fifty years ago, I was sitting on the back porch of our house in Dedham, Massachusetts, playing with some little plastic Disney characters. I was lining them up on the floor of the porch, using the gaps between the floor boards to divide the space into different “houses,” so I could pretend to have them visit each other. I was making Donald Duck knock on the door of Mickey Mouse’s house when my father came outside to talk to me.
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