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.
Heading 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.
The 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!