Below I’m sharing an excerpt from Chapter 2 entitled: Tangled Roots. It’s UNREVISED but it’s exactly what poured out of my heart as I began to write about a very uneasy subject matter. This particular chapter is near and dear to my heart. Why? Because it’s about the very blood that runs through my veins…my family. I hope you guys like it, again, it’s unfinished but hey it’s a start! (Forgive me it’s so very long). Stay tuned for more…Xo.
Chapter 2: Tangled Roots
The smell of old tattered pages in a book that you haven’t opened in some years is one of my most favorite smells. It always has been and probably always will be. Weird I know. I also loved the smells of the old weathered photo albums I would find buried somewhere throughout my old childhood home. Young Nives was very inquisitive. But not like most children. My thoughts, my musings, my childlike wonder and imagination would always go a step farther. Looking back now, I think some of it had to do with the nature of my illness, OCD. I was a deeply empathetic, highly emotional, overly sensitive, and supremely compassionate soul from a very young age. As I child my Mother would take me for walks with her to run her weekly errands. My Mother never drove, she was too afraid. So walking became a regular part of my life. The city we lived in was very diverse. I remember people watching and seeing all the different types of characters that walked the streets of my old neighborhood. I would study their faces intensely, imagine I was outlining the crevices of their faces with my tiny fingers. I would squeeze my Mother’s hand as each person walked past us. I would slowly turn my little head back towards them staring. But not for too long because I was also extremely polite and knew staring was not nice.
My Mother would gently nudge me to keep walking, with the same sweet steady smile. I always remember the glimmer of her greenish, hazel eyes as she looked down at me. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Where did these people live? Were they happy? Would I ever see them again? I always pondered these thoughts and questions each and every time. My Mother would tell me years later that I was most effected by the homeless people we happened to come across. Although the homeless population then, was nothing like it is today in my old neighborhood, we still saw a few on our weekly walks. There was one old man in particular that struck me the most. He was sitting up on a hard, grey cement wall in front of a large warehouse. His legs dangling carelessly about, he looked scruffy and unkept. His salt and pepper hair was curly, wild and thick. As we made our way past him my Mom smiled at him but he didn’t seem to notice. I kind of looked at him then kind of looked down. Even as little as I was, I knew this man was homeless and in need. Suddenly we heard a loud noise and a yelp. My little head and curly curls whipped around blocking my eyes as I quickly turned to look behind me. The older man had fallen off the cement wall, but quickly made it back onto his feet. He looked unsteady and was mumbling to himself. I’m assuming now he might of been drunk or under the influence of drugs. My Mom again gently nudged me along this time with more urgency. I followed closely but couldn’t keep my gaze or my mind off of this man.
“Mommy, what happened to him!” I said in a loud concerned voice looking up at her.
“Oh Nivey, don’t worry he will be okay. Look he made it back to his feet.” She said with a soft smile.
“I know but, will he really be okay? Will he have a place to go? To sleep? A place to get better?” I asked softly.
“Sweet Nives, it’s going to be okay. He will be okay. Mommy promises. Let’s go buy a toy huh? Barbie? You LOVE Barbie!” She exclaimed.
But Barbie was the farthest thing from my mind. I was still so very concerned and deeply affected by that homeless man. A man I didn’t know and probably would never see again in my life. But he still mattered to me. Even as we continued on our walk I tried desperately to contort my little body so I could see him, so that somebody could and would see him. But the quicker we walked the farther and farther he was in the distance. Until he became a fuzzy, blurry figment of what once was. Years later my Mother would tell me that I often asked about this man. Is he okay? Did she ever see him again? Was he still homeless? Does he have a family? My own Mother admitted to being shocked that I had remembered this old man so fondly for so many years after the incident. A man that to most would seem so insignificant. But again, to me, he mattered. Mom would smile and give me a big wet kiss on the cheek and a tight hug telling me how very sweet, kind and sensitive I was. She looked proud as she said this, but also a bit concerned. Maybe one day my overly sensitive ways and strong emotions would hurt me, hinder me in my life. But at that age I couldn’t tell. I just hugged her back a little tighter hoping she would never let go.
As the years went on and I grew up I became more curious about the old black and white, tattered faces that I would see staring back at me in our old family albums. The smell of mildew that these old withered and brittle photos produced never bothered me. I liked it, it reminded me of the very smell of opening an old book, where you carefully had to turn each page because they were stuck together. It was nice having a collection of old black and white family photos, some of which dated as far back as the 1940’s. I was thankful for my Mother having carefully saved them. My grandparents, in particular, my maternal grandparents were my favorite to look at. That’s because growing up in a big three family house they lived right above us for years. At that time that I discovered some of these pictures they were both still alive. But before me I saw two old and aging people. Not the young, vibrant, couple I had seen in all the old photos. These photos brought them back to life for me. I saw them in a completely different light and I was enthralled. This ignited a fire of curiosity within me. I couldn’t wait to ask my Mother all about them.
“Mom tell me more about Nonna Nives! I mean I was named after her! I want to know everything!” I said excitedly.
“Well, she was gentle, fragile, and sweet. A lot like you actually. You two also look alike. Except she had a much longer face. You have a nicer shape and profile.” She said with a faint smile.
As I looked at the weathered picture more closely I saw the resemblance. I began to trace my Nonna’s face with my finger tips. She must have been in her twenties in this photo. Sitting in a field of flowers on the magical mountaintops of Genoa Italy. She had on a tight plain dress that went right above her knee. She posed innocently her legs crossed daintily. She looked happy, but there was also a sadness behind her eyes. I soon would learn where all that sadness came from. Sad to say both my grandmother’s were abused by their husbands. My grandfather’s. It was hard to wrap my head around it because before me I saw two old, fragile men. They couldn’t even hurt a fly I thought to myself. They were kind to me and my older brother. My Nonno Emilio would take me for short walks in the very same neighborhood I saw the homeless man. He would buy me little Andes chocolates and we would happily walk hand in hand back home. For twelve years he battled Alzheimer’s Disease before dying well into his eighties, he passed when I was twenty one. He was my oldest living grandparent. I remember the confused and fragmented state of mind he was in during his illness. How could he be this monster I wondered? My Nonno Giovanni who only lived and worked in America for about twenty years before retiring back to Naples, Italy when I was a baby, I rarely saw. But the times he would visit us in New Jersey he was pleasant and kind. Laughing and taking loudly, his voice booming. He was always reading his Bible at our kitchen table every day. He was born again, a Evangelist or a Jehovah’s Witness? I was never sure which one. But okay, he’s a God fearing man, I mean how bad can he be?
Throughout the years I learned more and more about these men, and about these two women who were at the very core of my tangled and gnarled family tree. The more I learned about my grandparent’s the more questions I had about other members of my family that I saw in these old photographs. Slowly but surely over the years, small and fragmented puzzle pieces began to fall into place. My abused grandmother’s, one who suffered a nervous breakdown at the hands of her emotionally and physically abusive husband. Losing custody of her six children for a short time because she was unable to care for them while she was institutionalized. My Nonna Nives, my namesake, was more so emotionally abused at the hands of my alcoholic Nonno Emilio, who would scream and fight with her and their five kids, drunkedly sticking his head in the oven and playing with knives. Terrifying them all to their core. My poor Nonna Nives also had a alcoholic father. My great grandfather, who I never met and died long before I was born. He would lock my young Nonna and her siblings along with their Mother outside for hours in the snow because of another random drunken rage. I shivered when I was told this story as a young teenager. My poor Nonna Nives was so gentle and kind, so fragile. She had eight children but only five survived through childbirth, one of course being my Mother. I was shocked and deeply saddened by both harrowing stories of what my Nonna’s lives were really all about. So much more then what I had picked up on in the images I saw before me.
As more time went on I continued to inquire and ask more about other members of my large, extended Italian family. Again, still coming off of the shock of the revelations of my grandparent’s tormented lives, I had to brace myself for more of what I unearthed. But there was a yearning from deep within me, where I just had to know more. I needed to know more about my family and these people who shared the same bloodline as me. When I felt my heart beat a little faster before each new story I uncovered, I would press my palm over my heart a little closer to feel the beats more closely. They weren’t just my beats, they were the beats of my family. This time I learned more about my three aunts. My Zia Concetta, my Zia Maria and my Zia Odinea. Two were my Father’s younger sister’s and one was my Mother’s youngest sister. As I write and begin to recollect my memories, it feels very much like a women’s story, but it’s so much more than that. Not to mention at the heart of it lies the men. They are very much a integral part of each story and each life line.
My Zia Concetta stayed living in Italy and only visited America a few times over the years. She was married to a sweet and gentle man, who I always remembered fondly and had two daughters, my first cousins. My earliest memories of my Zia Concetta was of her erratic behavior. She would cry, moan and shuffle around in her seat. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on at the time, but her behavior was always the same, kind of hysterical. I later learned she had a obsession with Ivory soap. She desperately wanted the soap so she could use it to clean. It wasn’t available in the small island of Naples Ischia where she lived so her brother’s my uncles and my father would send her Ivory soap or bring loads of it with each visit. Hmm, peculiar I thought but not too bad. Maybe she was just quirky. That’s what I wanted to believe until I learned that her afflictions ran even deeper. Her devoted husband, bless his soul, (they’re still married today) had to take care of the two girls since infancy because she was unable to care for them. She tried to put one in the oven, yes it was turned off, but she did it and everyone soon realized, yes there was a real problem here. But in those days and in that small, impoverished island, there is no such thing as mental health, or therapy. To this very day my Zia lives in this way, in her way. Her own little world. I don’t know the exact diagnosis, sadly she never had one. She just continues to live in her own little land of hysteria. Although, now in her late sixties she’s calmed down a bit but still has a penchant for all things Ivory soap.
My Zia Maria my Dad’s youngest sister was a beauty! Look out Sophia Loren! Maria Migliaccio is coming through! She had long, thick, dark brown, almost black hair, clear skin, tan and always glowing from the hot Mediterranean sun. Gorgeous lively eyes and a sexy figure. The few times I met her, twice during visits to Naples and once when she came to visit us in New Jersey, I just remember this young, vibrant, gorgeous woman who had her whole life ahead of her. But sadly, that wasn’t the case. I learned over the years that she was under the strict rule and abusive thumb of my Nonno Giovanni, her Father. She watched as her Mother dealt with emotional and physical abuse for years. Here she was trapped in a tiny, poor, isolated island with nowhere to escape. Each year as her brother’s grew older, my Father being the oldest, she would watch as each ventured off for a better life in this magical wonderland called America. One, by one they all left Naples. But she was a woman, a girl, the youngest of six. She couldn’t possibly leave and certainly not leave her poor Mother behind. So she stayed and soon enough her young life spiraled out of control.
It started with a little marijuana on the island with some friends. Hey, they were bored nothing else to do really. Then quickly this so called harmless fun turned into a full blown heroin addiction. She shot up dope constantly. She was arrested for petty theft and drug paraphernalia numerous times. One of the times I visited her in Naples as a young girl she was on probation. Tensions were high but she still was this gorgeous and beautiful being so full of light and life that last visit I saw her. Sadly, at the age of thirty four she died in the arms of one of her brother’s, my Zio Toto. She died of full blown AIDS. When I saw pictures of her about a year before she died she was close to unrecognizable. But there was one picture in particular where she was leaning against what looked like a boat railing. When I looked close enough, I could still see the resemblance I have to her. I could see it in her sunken cheek bones, and in her blood shot eyes. Her tight, painful smile, stuck out to me the most. She looked like she was still trying so hard to be happy and to live, despite knowing she was slowly and painfully dying. I held the picture close to my chest, closing my eyes tight, wishing and praying I could have known her just a little while longer. My family roots were tangled indeed. But slowly I started to feel more grounded to this family tree. As troubling as these tales were to hear, I started to re discover myself in a whole new way.