To Italy, for Family

Travel Stories: After unearthing her great-grandmother's bridal gown, Valerie Conners traveled to Puglia to grasp the story of its origins. She found much more.

05.04.09 | 10:33 AM ET

I stood in the near-empty master bedroom of my grandmom’s condominium, tentatively trying on my great-grandmother’s mildewed bridal gown. The mirror no longer hung from the wall, and I couldn’t see how I looked. My mother and I had already packed most of my grandmom’s photos and clothes in boxes, but when I unearthed the dress from a trunk in the bedroom closet, it intrigued me. I could not stop staring at it, touching it. Now I wanted to wear it, feel it on my body.

Donata, my great-grandmother, wore this gown in her wedding to Martino Aquaro, a scoundrel by everyone’s estimation, in Martina Franca, Italy, some 90 years ago. The tiny ivory-colored gown barely fit over my own small frame. Specks of mold dotted the wraparound skirt and the high-necked shirt’s cloth-covered buttons appeared moth-eaten. The patient handiwork of the dress’s creation was evident—each stitch hand-sewn. I imagined Donata walking up the aisle of an unknown church in a tiny Italian town to face Martino, the man who would bring her to the United States.

This was the gown, theirs was the marriage, that began my family in America.

Here in my grandmother’s small apartment in Holland, Pennsylvania, the shades were drawn and most of the furniture had already been removed from the bedroom and living room. My mother was asking me what, if anything, I would like to keep for myself. My grandmother would now call an assisted-living facility home because her Alzheimer’s no longer allowed her take care of herself. At Arden Courts, she wouldn’t need most of her belongings, like her mother’s wedding gown.

I wasn’t paying attention to my mother. What I really wanted from the apartment was to comprehend the dress.

My great-grandmother died when I was still in elementary school, but I remember her. We called her “Granny.” She wore her white hair pulled into a loose bun, and honest-to-goodness rose-colored glasses perched on her nose. A blue and yellow afghan covered her lap at all times. She didn’t speak English, but I knew when she liked things because she would smile and nod, “That’s a-nice.” I could tell she was kind.

Unraveling myself from this antique bride’s gown, I taped shut the final boxes of my grandmother’s things and decided I wanted to go to Martina Franca. Decades ago, two relatives traveled there, but they were now long deceased, and their stories mostly forgotten. No one in my immediate, living family had been there. I wanted to discover what remained of my family before it disappeared altogether. I would at best find relatives, and at least understand the land my family left—walk the same streets, sit in the same piazzas and look at the same countryside that my relatives once did and, perhaps, still do.

Before I left America, I called my grandmother from the airport to remind her I was making the trip to Martina Franca. There was a time, just a few years ago, when she would have wept with joy. A minute after I told her where I was going, she asked, “Do you have plans tonight, honey?”

“Yes, Grandmom, I’m going to Italy tonight,” I replied.

“To Italy?” she asked. “You know, you should go to Martina Franca.”

We had this conversation six more times before I finally said goodbye. I hung up the phone and cried. She would never comprehend this trip, never know I’d tried. It made me ache.

Visions of poverty, wandering donkeys and elderly spinster relatives—that which I’d been told defined Martina Franca—filled my head after my boyfriend, Bob, and I landed in the Bari airport and fought our way through crowds, cigarette smoke and b.o. to pick up our rented Nissan Micra. We drove southwest for nearly two hours into the heart of Puglia, passing neatly planted rows of olive trees baking in the hot southern sun and a landscape of hills and valleys speckled with trullis, conical stone buildings unique to the region but with no known origins.

Finally we spotted our first sign, then another, and another, until I knew the sprawling clutter of buildings and homes rising from the hill ahead was, without a doubt, Martina Franca. And it was enormous.

There was no mistaking the town for a small Italian village. Not a donkey in sight.

Having pictured a town of maybe, at most, 5,000 people, I assumed finding the tourist office or the town’s center would be relatively simple. When facing the reality that nearly 50,000 folks called this place home, I was less certain where to begin.

It was noon, and there were mopeds, cars and bikes whizzing down streets, and impeccably dressed people strolling past countless shops. We headed away from the newer city, toward the town’s ancient quarter. Following signs for the old city, we crossed under an archway into the midst of cluttered homes stacked on top of each other, with shuttered windows and wrought-iron balconies draped with plants. Reaching the Piazza Roma, I spotted the tourist office and dropped in to grab a map.

The tourist office was little more than a room with a counter; Martina Franca doesn’t boast a vast tourist population. Still, four employees bustled around and looked up expectantly when we entered. We made polite chit chat, and a woman handed me two maps and one small English guide and sent me on my way.

I stepped away from the counter, ready to exit, but at the last minute I spun back around.

“My family lives here, the Aquaros, do you know them?” I asked. Before my trip, my mother had given me the only two names of relatives that were known; I figured it was worth a shot.

“Aquaro is a common name, but maybe,” the woman answered without interest. The other two women and one man behind the counter glanced up from their desks.

“Rita and Teresa Aquaro,” I replied, sparking a maelstrom of yelling, hugging and laughing. Of course, they knew Rita and Teresa, they said, the women were both teachers, quite well-known. Phone books were pulled off shelves and phone calls made, but no luck. No answer.

When it seemed all hope was lost, the lone man behind the counter emerged and handed me a torn sheet of paper that read, “Lino,” and listed a phone number. “He is their brother,” the man told me.

I had no idea there was a brother, I thought we only had the two spinsters. I begged them to call Lino for me, and finally, the man complied. His conversation, which I managed to translate from Italian, lasted less than a minute.

“There’s an American girl here, she says she’s your cousin. Yes. She’s at the tourist office. Two minutes? OK.” He hung up the phone. “Lino will be here in two minutes.”

I clutched Bob’s hand and waited. Everything had happened so fast, so easily, it seemed unreal. Within minutes, Lino arrived. And boy, can he make an entrance.

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15 Comments for To Italy, for Family

Kate Hedges 05.04.09 | 11:37 AM ET

A wonderful, warm hearted story that makes me want to get on a plane and go find some relatives.

Kate
http://www.nocrowds.blogspot.com

Terry Ward 05.04.09 | 11:50 AM ET

Fabulous story, Val. Loved it. I also have some long lost family connections to Italy (Sicily) with some alleged nefarious elements, too, but have no idea how to start tracking them down (my long last Italian family also came to PA - Philly). Your story might have inspired me to finally start digging!

Sophia Dembling 05.04.09 | 12:20 PM ET

Gosh, what a wonderful story, what a fabulous family discovery.

Julia Ross 05.04.09 | 12:53 PM ET

Thanks for a great story, Val. I loved how your relatives turned out to be the reverse of your “old country” expectations.

Sophia Dembling 05.04.09 | 12:56 PM ET

It reminds me of the time we rented a villa in Tuscany. We had to meet the owner to get the key. I had nurtured an image of a wizened little old man with a pipe—until a guy wearing a pink LaCoste, collar turned up, with a cell phone pressed to his ear, pulled up in a BMW.

Valerie Conners 05.04.09 | 1:01 PM ET

Thanks, so much for all the kind remarks!

I think it’s incredible to have the chance to dig deep, and find family whenever it may be possible. It was most amazing to me how different the reality was from my supposed perception - though in fairness to the relatives who travel traveled there - they were there in the 70s, so back then, it really might have still had a ways to go to catch up with contemporary times :)

Kathleen 05.04.09 | 2:02 PM ET

In the words of your grandmother, “Thatís a-nice.” Wonderful story. Bravissima, Val!

Kelley 05.04.09 | 3:02 PM ET

Val! What a heartwarming experience, thank you for sharing. I found the opposite in my travels to Ireland to meet my family- the cows and farms, quite the old world villiage I never expected to find. It is an amazing experience to travel and trace your roots. I loved that some of your cousins were also journalists, how interesting!

Kathy McCabe, Dream of Italy 05.04.09 | 3:15 PM ET

I really enjoyed your story. I had a very similar experience returning to my great-grandparent’s ancestral village in 1995. It was so life changing that my entire career is now based around travel to Italy and publishing a travel newsletter on Italy!

Kathy
http://www.dreamofitaly.com

Grizzly Bear Mom 05.04.09 | 7:35 PM ET

Great story of Apulia, where I was stationed from 1979-1980.  It was a lovely place to learn to live slowly and learn the sweetness of doing nothing.  The Truli’s were built with conical non mortered roofs to avoid being taxed.  You inspire me to look up my German relatives and take my mom for a visit.  Compared to you my family are newcomers.  We only arrived in 1925.

Jacob Bear 05.04.09 | 8:11 PM ET

What a great story! I lived in Italy for several years, and Puglia was always the most fascinating and beautiful region, even though most travelers overlook it. You’ve captured some of the essence of this magical place.

Whenever I go back to Italy, I always spend some time in Puglia. This time, your story took me back there and I didn’t even need to buy a plane ticket.

Thanks you, thank you!

Kathrine 05.06.09 | 6:03 PM ET

I am 68 yrs young.  My mother’s family was from Calabria.  I would love to travel to Italy to find my relatives.  I have no knowledge of traveling in Europe.  Would like to be a traveling companion and live in Italy for awhile.  I want to see some of the world before my life is over.

Angela 05.10.09 | 8:07 AM ET

Such a beautiful article! The ďDid you get the Americans?Ē shouted from the window is hilarious and SO Italian!
Iím Italian and come from a family of migrants too, my grandparents moved to France in the 1950s and now my motherís brothers and sister still live there.
It’s always fascinating to discover our family’s past as we have sincere tales of how people lived back their time.
Iím a migrant myself now and every time I tell my grandmother I’m heading back to London she cries as she remembers how tough had been for them, and she feels only a little better when I reassure her that today for me it’s much easier.
Only since I left Iíve started noticing even the smallest idiosyncrasies of my country. This article captures them well!

Valerie Conners 05.11.09 | 10:22 AM ET

Thanks so much Angela for your comment - it was such an amazing trip, and I’m glad that it can be appreciated by an Italian - idiosyncracies and all!

Also, Kathrine - I do hope you explore Italy, and Calabria and more of the world. I think that once you start putting it out there that you’re looking for a travel companion, they will start to come out of the woodwork!

I am hoping to go back to Italy this summer, but am not sure of my travel plans, or if I’ll make it to Puglia. Initially, I had thought not, but having just published this story, and getting such great feedback has started to change my mind - I do love Puglia!

A Traveler in Vietnam 05.14.09 | 2:16 PM ET

A very nice story indeed!!! Thank you for sharing here.

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