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.