words & images anna weber
I've never liked going to the beach, but I'd never had a reason to cry about it before. Did Grandpa think this would be the way he'd return to his homeland? I was thinking as I stood on the shore at Paestum, clenching hot sand in my toes. My sandals hung limply from one hand, the other a white fist pressed to my trembling lips. Sweat crept down my back and the cave of my sternum; dust coated my eyelashes and clotted inside my nose.
Tides of sunbathers and swimmers flowed around me, trickling towards the lines of marine blue chaise lounges and sun umbrellas in bright primary colors. The Tyrrhenian Sea hummed and sighed as it caressed the ankles of shrieking children and their placid parents, every exhale a sonic lure to wade in up to my thighs, rinsing grit from the long walk off my calves, the hem of my sundress dragging in the water, the tips of my fingers trailing in the puckers of the water's surface.
In another plane of reality, I saw myself unroot my feet, mince my way across the sand to the water, and plunge forward, grabbing handfuls of my dress to keep it out of the water. On this timeline, I was seeing the beach through a grainy temporal rewind—German snipers lining the broken lip of the Torre di Paestum that rose from the macchia lining the battleground, barbed wire marching in jagged sutures across the bleeding coast, blood seeping from fissures in the sand split open by mines, blood lacing the water rolling in from the American naval ships out to sea, the battle of Bloody Salerno dredging the hills of Neapolitan Campania and leaving derelict in its wake.
Did my grandfather—1st Lieutenant Philip M. Wade, a participant in the American Army's amphibious landing in the Salerno gulf, and one of ten children born to first- and second-generation Italian-Americans—ever think this would be the way he'd return to his homeland?
The research that I did in Italy on my grandfather's regiment's deployment in Italy would prove irrelevant—he hadn't joined the war until half a year later, just after the battle at the Anzio beachhead. He did drop in Italy, but not here, not in the thick of the first amphibious landing of World War II.
So why was I crying?
I was born on Long Island, New York and possess American citizenship; members of my family as recent as my great-grandparents were immigrants. I am half Italian, half six other countries. My father's side of the family is a textbook picture of immigration to the United States between the late 1800s and early 1900s: central and Eastern Europeans, predominantly Jewish.
I've always associated my father's family with a loud, overt, joyful pride in our history. We joke that the secret ingredient to latkes is knuckle blood from grating the potatoes. We tell stories about Lena Balsam, who arrived in Manhattan by herself on a ship from Austria when she was ten years old; Joseph Weber, who became a popular and successful vaudevillian after growing up poor on the Lower East Side; Minnie Metz, who divorced her husband, never remarried, and became a successful independent businesswoman; and her sister Anna Metz, one of my several namesakes, who married into wealth and lived on the Upper East Side.
These were my bedtime stories: fables and legends about people whose actions had influenced where and how we grew up, as well as who we grew up to be—people whose DNA we shared, who were more to us than just statistics of immigration in the tri-state area. These stories—however much they overlapped, mutated, or evolved—left breadcrumbs that I could follow back through the woods, back through the maze of side streets in lower Manhattan, back across the Atlantic, back to the cities, villages, and shtetls where family and friends had been left behind hundreds of years ago.
On my mother's side, our memory stops at my grandparents, with the occasional story about great-grandpa Gallo's wooden prosthetic arm. Our cuisine during holidays or get-togethers is classic American fare, featuring a pizza rustica or pasta every so often. I know that we are one hundred percent Italian, straight back through the genealogical tree until the branches brush the coast of Campania. I know that Michele Gallo, my great-grandfather, changed his name to Michael, and Matteo De Vita, my great-great grandfather, was required to change his name to Matthew Wade—more American, less Sicilian mafia. I know my great-grandparents didn't want their children to pick up on their native language, for fear of them not becoming American enough.
That's all I know. And that's all anybody seems to know. Or, more importantly, all anybody seems willing to share.
When I wanted to go on a youth exchange program to Italy, my mother discouraged me. Italian is useless. The program only sends you to the island of Sardinia. You'll be stranded, stuck with your host family, unable to travel and explore more interesting countries. My takeaway: Italy isn't relevant anymore. Our heritage doesn't really matter.
I went to Belgium instead. Learned a useful language. Fell in love with a country where my family has no origins whatsoever. Worked hard for, and claimed, the unofficial title of adopted Belgian. Fabricated an old-country history for myself that did matter. When my student visa expired, I went back to the US and applied for another. When that one expired, I went back to the US and brainstormed ways to obtain an EU work visa. They were all weak ideas at best.
"There is a way you could become Italian."
I looked up from my plate of zucchini and pasta. Patrizia was leaning toward me across the table, eyes wide, hands paused over her plate. Her daughters sat to my left, bickering quietly in Italian over who got to eat the last steamed artichoke. Acquaintances from New York, Patrizia and her husband had invited me to Rome for a week, where I was taking advantage of the chance to soak up the antiquity and sunshine I'd sorely missed in northern France.
"What do you mean?"
"Our sitter from a few years back, she's American, but she found a clause in Italian law that transmits citizenship from your ancestors, if certain restrictions and rules apply. She even figured out where her family was from and went to the village." Patrizia narrowed her eyes at her daughters, whose voices had risen in pitch and volume. "Elisa! Vale! I'll cut it in half! A metà, sì?" She reached across the tabled and sliced the artichoke in one swift motion. The girls raised a small cheer.
She turned back to me. "One man came forward, saying he was her third cousin, brought her to his family—it was a massive celebration." She grinned. "You could be Italian! You could come back here to Rome, spend time with us, maybe work at the girls' school, as an English teacher? You could come back to Italy!" The girls were watching our back and forth as they chewed. "Mama, Anna diventa italiana?" Valentina asked. Elisa gasped. "Hurray! Yes, Anna, yes, please!"
I stared at them, then at the plate, trying to ford a way through the flood of images, ideas, and speculations that had stormed my head, crowding out the present, thrusting me simultaneously into the past and the future. The crisp pages of a new Italian passport, valid for work in all member states of the EU. Finding ancestral towns, tracing family. Being welcomed back into the fold, into open arms. The prodigal daughter returning home from the distant country struck by famine.
People forget, when they mention the parable of the prodigal son, what he'd done, what happened to him, what "prodigal" means. Waste, greed, sorrow, repentance, resurrection. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
What happened after the fattened calf was killed, the feast finished, the celebration over? The son had, after all, only returned home to find work.
He was lost and is found.
As I write, the "EU experiment" is in the process of potentially degrading past recognition and reparation. More and more people are contemplating—hesitantly, fearful of blasphemy—what Europe will look like sans the EU. If the EU no longer existed, would I still want to reclaim a citizenship that my great- and great-great-grandparents had disowned centuries before I was born?
I don't know why they left Italy. I don't know that I'll ever know why they left Italy. The pursuit of the American Dream, flight from strife or poverty, rift in the family—all of these reasons seem as likely as the next. We're all familiar with the myth: boats of immigrants, hopeful faces turned up toward the Statue of Liberty as she beckons them closer to shore, guaranteeing freedom and the pursuit of happiness, her fingers crossed where you can't see them.
Whatever the reason, the De Vitas and Gallos hidden in the canopy of my family tree didn't leave Italy on a whim. I am purposefully American; they renounced their native country and language so thoroughly that almost none of it trickled down to me. Am I throwing their hypothetical sacrifices in their faces by longing to go back to Europe, to a country where I have no blood ties?
In all likelihood, Grandpa Wade didn’t think of Italy as his homeland while he moved towards Rome from the coast and liberated the city with the American Army. Wearing the uniform of the American Army, he probably didn’t think of going home until he was on a ship heading west across the Atlantic after the end of the war.
My older sister has done research into our family tree. She found the most papers for, among others, Michele Gallo. When she forwarded me a document that listed his town of origin, I read the name once. Twice. Three times. A fourth, to be sure.
Padula, Salerno, Italy.
Two years earlier, thinking my grandfather had fought there when he hadn't, I'd stood on a beach fifty-five miles from my maternal great-grandfather's place of birth, and had no idea, and cried.