Piacere, Cugini: Finding relatives on the other side of the world (part 2)

Forget Rome. Italian relatives are the main attraction. Here is the second part (part 1 here) of my family's magical trip in 2005 when we discovered our life blood in Italy. The scene: We are hopelessly lost in the Italian countryside, waiting at a McDonald's, trying to find our relatives.

We were doing great until we got off the highway. And took a wrong turn. And another. At this point we became so hopelessly turned around that we could have ended up in France, and not been surprised.

This is how dire the situation became: I’m not ashamed to say that for the first time in my traveling life, the Golden Arches were a symbol of hope and rescue, an American oasis in a foreign landscape.

We grinded to a halt and dialed Laura frantically. After shouting “Good night, the cheese is in the car with the McDonald’s bathroom!” several times over our erratic cell phone signal, our relatives miraculously divined our location. They told us to stay put. They would meet us there, and lead the way back up the unmarked mountain roads to Fiugni.

The crisis was averted for the moment. Salvation was on its way. As we waited in the steaming parking lot, I reviewed our massive, gnarled family tree. Laura was Dad’s second cousin Laura. Her father was Mario DiMarcantonio,, my grandfather Mario Rocchi’s cousin. And Mario D.’s mother Maria and Mario R.’s father Pasquale were siblings. All this made Laura’s little children Simone and Francesca my third cousins, and my head one aching mess.

Then came an unholy tire screech. A black car swerved into the parking lot and squealed into the parking spot adjacent to ours. A young, pretty woman with blonde hair was waving frantically from the window. Then she became a blur, a smudge in a tan suit, a whirlwind of gestures and exclamations as she opened the door and flew out of the car. Before we had time to register what was happening, she was in my father’s arms, crying, laughing, and hugging him as if he were leaving for America again in the next moment.

Here was Laura. This was our cousin. Not a melancholy subject in a photograph, not a disembodied voice on an answering machine, but a real, live human being. I was impressed by the unabashed sincerity of her welcome. She was lovely, warm, emotional, not at all reserved with us, foreign relatives she had known for truly 10 seconds. And when it came time for her to hug me, and our arms encircled one another, I realized why no hesitation existed.

Blood really is thicker than water. It transcends the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. It runs in the well that sits at the center of our shared ancestor’s village. Yet her family stayed, and mine chose to go to America. So we now live half a world apart, going to school, marrying, buying homes, raising children, and growing old in infinite parallels.

Such distance tests the strength of the original connection. But we know it’s still there, because on each side of the Atlantic, we feel a lonely tickle, a small emptiness that reminds us of the old separation -- however necessary it was -- and we mourn it all the same.

With my cousin in front of me, that unnamed sorrow vanished. Laura was the photographic negative of my American immigrant past. She was the homeland.

Moved to tears, I watched Laura caress my father’s overjoyed face. In her emotion, she alternated between English and Italian terms of endearment. Her husband Marco grinned in the background, a dark and jovial bodyguard, and their two children peeked out at us from behind their father’s legs. Laura beamed and spread her arms.

“We all go to my mother now, si?” she said. “We eat?”

Eat! Now there was a word that needed no translation. Everyone broke into laughter, a harmony of old and young voices. I wiped away the last tear clinging to my cheek, and got back in the car to follow Laura home.

Francis, me, and two of our cousins.

Dad and Laura.