Back to Your Italian Roots: Recapturing the Love of a Bisnonna

| Fri, 07/05/2019 - 00:00

Marilyn Ricci grew up “100% Italian-American” in St. Paul, Minnesota, surrounded by the love and warmth of her Italian American family, and especially her great-grandmother, the person who inspired her to travel to Italy at age 19 to find her relatives.

“My bisnonna died when I was 19. I think I was searching for people like her when I traveled to Italy,” Marilyn recalls. “I wanted to recapture the love I felt from her. I wanted to see people who might look like her, cook like her, people who could tell me about our family and what it had been like for her and for her husband, a man I had never met, and others from my family.”

A few years after her first trip to Italy, back in the early ‘70s, Marilyn returned to Abruzzo to meet more relatives, spend time with them and experience life in Italy. “The dream of discovering real Italians by living in Italy never left me after those meetings,” Marilyn says.

Now a dual citizen living in Liguria, Marilyn helps others find their Italian families and heritage through her business, Take Me Home Italy.

Old photo with women

Marilyn, what prompted you to begin your search to trace your Italian roots?

I grew up in St. Paul (MN), as 100% Italian-American. My abruzzese Great-Grandmother, my bisnonna, lived until I was 19 years old. My Grandfather from Campania also lived until I was 20 years old. I had other grandparents and family members who I spent time with into my 30s who came from "The Old Country." My love for their stories of home and all the things that made up their personality inspired me to find my family that existed still in Italy.

Please describe the process. Did you already know your ancestral town? If not, how did you find it? Who or what was your first resource when you started your search for your ancestral town and Italian relatives (a relative, an office, an online service, etc.)?

Growing up, I knew that my mother's side came from a town in Abruzzo called Paterno. It wasn't on most maps, but I found it on Google Maps years later. Before that, I talked with another family member who had been there and began to plan a visit there. I studied Italian in college to learn the language so I could talk with them. Also, the turn of phrase in a language, the way you phrase things, helps us understand the way the people of that language think. 

My father's family was more difficult. I was told they were Beneventan from Franeto La Batt. Finally, I found a letter from my grandmother Ricci with the envelope. Now I knew the actual town was Fragneto L'Abate in Campania and I had an address. I was determined to meet these people. 

This was all before Ancestry, before the Internet, before Google. Once those things were in place and so was Facebook, I used them to find more family.

I first met the Abruzzese family them in 1971. My cousin, Maureen, who had visited before, was going to see them. I was traveling in Europe and met her in Rome. She introduced me to the family. We both spoke enough Italian and could communicate with them.

In 1974, I visited them again with my husband, and I also visited my family in Fragneto L'Abate. 

What were the obstacles, if any, during the process of finding your relatives and then getting in touch? 

Back when I met my Italian family and visited my home towns of origin, we had to send mail to them to arrange everything.  I had to write in Italian. It took forever, especially with my father's side. None of my Ricci relatives had visited them since World War I. My grandfather did not want to talk much about his family, did not ever want to return. He sent money home to help his family, but never returned. I had to write to them a year ahead of time to set things up. 

Now, I actually try to help others find their home town of origin by searching on line, writing emails and snail mail letters to people with their last names in the towns that they think they came from. Facebook has been a great help for people to find 3rd cousins, groups from their town of origin, talking with people with your last name, etc. Ancestry, if you get the full package with everything, can be very helpful too. You can find others looking in your province or town of origin. I have found cousins, maybe 2nd and 3rd cousins, living all over Italy now. 

People smiling in a photo

Please describe the moment when you first met your Italian relatives. How did you feel?

When I first met family in Rome, I was still reeling from Rome itself. My cousin, Maureen, and I first went to see Rosa Pina and her son Gianni. I was a hippy type and wore sandals and my feet were dirty from walking in the Forum. Rosa hugged and kissed me. Next she took me to the bathroom and stuck my feet in this oval thing and washed my feet. I had never seen a bidet before. And I could not believe she did that. But it reminded me of my family. I felt welcomed.

She and Gianni lived near the Colosseum, but were from Paterno. We talked and spoke of family for hours over a five-course meal that tasted just like my bisnonna had made it. It felt so good to be with people who reminded me of her that I could easily love them.

Next we visited the Buzzelli family in Rome. Here, I was lost in love with them all. Vincenzo drove me all over the city and showed me the view of the city. Celeste again fed us until we were going to burst. Little Adelina, this cute little cousin, definitely captured my heart. We were not even to our home town of origin yet. 

Upon arrival in Paterno, I discovered that I was related to nearly every person in town. My Great-Grandparents came from there as did my grandfather. I kept looking around at all the beauty in this valley between the mountains and wondered how they could have ever left there. We stayed with the Stornelli family and I thought that they were rich because they had a marble staircase and marble floors. I remember dreaming in Italian while there too. The first morning for breakfast Algerinda Stornelli asked me what I wanted to drink. I said milk. Someone milked the cow and gave me a warm, fresh latte (milk). I had no idea she would do that. It was culture shock for me but very memorable. I felt completely at home with the Stornellis and with all of our family there in Paterno. I was entranced by this huge family I had no idea existed, that was so much like those I loved in the States and yet so different. 

People walking on the street

Please describe how you felt the first time you walked the streets of your ancestral town.

We spent days there, climbing the hills to see the local saint's shrine, eating, talking, laughing, hugging. I could imagine my bisnonna working on the farm at age 5, running in the streets, I could imagine my Nonno Ricci as a child, running up and down the hills, working to help the family, and the pain of leaving for the States. I could smell the ragu cooking from many windows and it reminded me of my Bisnonna and Nonna.

These people, my father's people, were so kind, caring and welcoming. I was overwhelmed by their more gentle ways, their acceptance of us, their stories of the family and their desire to know all about our family in the States.

Any fun anecdotes about meeting your Italian relatives?

In 1974, when I traveled to Fragneto L'Abate, we were using public transportation and there was no train to this tiny hill town. We found what looked like a school bus that took workers home each night and it went there. We were wearing backpacks. My husband was a blond Scandinavian, and we were speaking English. Everyone was staring at us. I did ask someone in Italian to let us know when we arrived at Fragneto. One young man said he was going there and he spoke some English. As we got off the bus with him, I discovered that he was my own cousin! That was my first meeting with a relative on my dad's side of the family.

We spent a week there getting to know our family. We slept in the home where my grandfather had lived. We talked about the family connection. In fact, there was a framed wedding photo of my Ricci grandparents on the fireplace mantle when we arrived. I had warned my husband that he would have to eat everything on his plate. For the only time in his life that I know of, he gained weight.

The funniest thing that happened was this: we went into the barn area and were looking at the animals. There were rabbits in cages and my husband began petting one's nose. My cousin talked to him in Italian and Paul, my husband, just nodded. He had no idea what was said. A few hours later, we entered the home of Ida where we were staying, and, there in the kitchen was a skinned rabbit. Paul could hardly look at it. I think he had picked out our meat course for dinner. And I told him he had to eat it.

Did you discover any amazing story during the process of searching for your Italian relatives?

in Paterno, I discovered that my Del Fiacco family had worked directly for the Duke who ran the province. One was the the head of his armies who married his cook. She was an extremely tall woman and quite a cook.

I learned about the terrible Earthquake of 1915 and how all the homes but one was destroyed in the quake. That house was owned by one of my Palumbo cousins. All the homes had been on the hillside as there had been a lake in the center. 

I also learned that the Duke ordered the lake drained years before that to provide more farmland. 

Ultimately, what has the experience of reconnecting to your Italian roots meant to you?

Connecting with my family in Italy has given me a new feeling of inclusion in Italy. It gives me a touch of those I loved so much as a youth who are long gone. It spurred me on to trace my roots legally and become a dual Italian and American citizen and I have moved to Italy myself. Here, when I cook in my little Italian kitchen, I feel the women who went before me are in that kitchen with me, helping me spice my ragù, or make my pasta. I see them walking down the street sometimes when I see a short, older woman walking ahead of me. It has helped me accept who I am. I am American of Italian blood who was raised like an old fashioned Italian girl. Now I live in the New Italian world with that little girl inside me. 

In 2015, I brought 15 Ricci cousins and my daughter and granddaughter to meet their family in Fragneto L'Abate. They were all moved by walking the streets our grandfather walked, meeting our family, and tasting food we grew up with in St. Paul, MN, being offered in Fragneto L'Abate.

Thank you, Marilyn, for sharing your story.