La Famiglia Scarpino

By Andrea Scarpino

Calabria

Photo

Zia Antonietta is my father's first cousin and the keeper of Scarpino family history. She is the one who asked Salvatore to look for me on the internet, and she is who Zac and I are staying with in Calabria, the region from which my grandfather moved. Really, she is the one responsible for this entire trip, as she immediately wrote me (through Salvatore) about visiting, immediately offered her home to me, immediately made sure I would be taken care of.

So far, we have explored Crotone in depth–home to Pythagoras' university, to millennia of artifacts from Greek and Roman and Turkish invaders, to destructive earthquakes, to centuries of poverty. To the sea–Ionian. To mountains and twisting roads built into them. One day, we visit Zia Antonietta's summer home in a national park one hour above Crotone. She builds a fire in the fireplace to warm her unheated house, and immediately makes us an amazing meal–without the use of running water. My cousins' boys play soccer with Zac in the yard, dried thistles litter the grass from last summer, and cows wander from neighboring pastures at will, eating the herbs and grass as they go, the bells around their necks ringing.

Another day: the sea. The Ionian has very high salinity–I taste salt immediately when I dive in–and it feels like you could float for hours without getting tired. We sunbathe and play games and eat lunch in a pine forest near the beach. Then we visit the remains of a nearby castle and eat the best gelato I've ever had–dark chocolate and coffee and vanilla and pistachio. One cousin, Ottavio, eats his gelato in a brioche bun–a hamburger made from ice cream.

A third day: Sersale, my grandfather's town. We visit his house and the houses of many other relatives, the name "Scarpino" on apartment doors and businesses everywhere. Zia Antonietta brings drawers and suitcases of old photographs out of storage for us to look through–photos of my father I've never seen before, photos of my grandfather before he moved to the US, photos of his brothers who remained in Italy. She tells stories I've never heard about my father's sister Lucy, raised her first seven years speaking nothing but Sersale's dialect and terribly punished once she began school in New York for not knowing any English. My father was younger than Lucy and Zia and I wonder if that's why he never spoke Italian–maybe his family learned from Lucy's school experience and didn't instill in him the same love for the country they had left behind.

"I think," Zia says, "your father was tired of Italy." And that is an explanation I understand. For me, Italy is a luxury–I can visit when I want, claim my Italian heritage when it suits me, look at photographs–or not. For my father, maybe the weight of Calabria was too much; maybe he felt more oppressed by our history than enamored with it. Whatever the case, when Zia tells people in Sersale that I am Pasquale's daughter, they immediately smile. One even bursts into tears, says, "Pasqualino"–little Pasquale–and grabs my hand, shaking.