In search of my Sicilian roots

October 22, 2014
cobblestone tom flower gratteri

When I saw this tomato and dandelion flower in the cobblestones, I had to snap a shot.

It’s easy to forget that I live in a new country, one with only a few hundred years of history. But where I’m from? Where my mother’s family came from? Gratteri, Sicilia?  That place goes back centuries. It’s said to have been founded by the Romans, but its design has many Arab-Medieval characteristics.  As an American, feeling connected to ancient times feels different. Unusual. I like it.

scenryThe Comune of Gratteri is in the province of Palermo, some 37 miles southeast of the city of Palermo. It rises up 2,000 feet from the coast near Cefalu with beautiful hills and pine and oak woods as far as the eye can see. The Madonie Park is nearby.

gratt church cuThe population is only 1,000–but there are seven churches. Seven.

Its agricultural products include cereals, olives, chestnuts and almonds. I wasn’t surprised that it’s known for its crocheting, as my maternal grandmother did beautiful crochet work.  Her surname was Mazzola, and many of my her family still inhabits the old town. But after coming to the United States, she never went back to her town of origin, leaving behind –but never forgetting–her brothers and other family.  How hard that must have been!

walking up hill

Originally a Byzantine fortress conquered by the Muslims between 835 and 838, Gratteri has retained so much of its historical flavor. I loved walking its hilly cobblestone streets. Even though I was still recovering from a terrible bronchial infection that had hit me 10 days before.

I met my Gratteri family some 25 years ago, when I spent four days in Palermo and visited them each day. They were warm and wonderful and I never forgot how welcome they made me feel.  My grandmother was still alive at the time and she had one surviving member of her generation left, a sister-in-law. That lovely woman had a beautiful face, the many lines betraying her age. But she navigated hills and stairs like a teenager.  Mountain people are a hardy breed.

I knew I would return one day. That day was this month.

gratteri from highAlthough I have no children I have an interest in where I came from, who the people were and what their lives were like.  I had a date to meet city officials at City Hall to do some genealogical research, followed by lunch with my Mazzola family. Because my Italian is rudimentary at best, I engaged a translator and research assistant to drive and help do the research.

city hall

Beautiful, old City Hall.

When we arrived at City Hall on a  hot weekday, this is what we found:

My Mazzola family in front of City Hall.

My Mazzola family in front of City Hall.

Some of my Mazzola family was waiting for me in the shade of an old tree. Greetings, hugs and kisses all around as we reacquainted ourselves. That young woman on the left wearing glasses? Chiara–and she was a little child when I first met her.  And my grandmother’s sister-in-law? The woman I’d met 25 years ago? She had just passed away days before at the age of 100. I just missed seeing her again.  These mountain folks really are tough–my grandmother was 99 when she died.


The Mayor of Gratteri

We all entered City Hall together and went up a long flight of stairs to the Mayor’s office.  Introductions were made and the family all crowded into the office and stood clustered in the door way.  In Italian, he gave a comprehensive speech about the ties the comune still feels with the people who left to find a better life in the United States. He talked about how Gratteri soldiers fought side by side with Americans in World War Two and it didn’t take long before I was moved to tears.

functionary talks

City official explains the research he has done for me.

And then, his aide presented me with a family tree that the Comune had done for me. That’s right, they did ALL the research I expected to do and made a beautiful family tree. They also researched additional information about my family.  And they had pulled all the old original records and marked the pages so that I could photograph the originals.  HERE is a video of the city official telling me that my family was in the transportation business, transporting goods by donkey, etc. I think you’ll get the flavor of what it was like to be there, and that I do understand a part of this.

Here are some of the original records.

2014-10-11 13.51.25

My grandmother, Santa Mazzola. Note the long tail on the Z for the first Z but not on the second, something the city official pointed out. Also, in my family you simply call out Giuseppe, Giacomo or Santa and you’ve pretty much got names covered.

It was so kind, so considerate and so overwhelming. Even as I write this weeks later and thousands of miles away, tears have filled my eyes.  Unexpected kindness does that to me.

The family then took me over to Seraphina’s house. I think Seraphina is the last of my mother’s generation and we worked hard to communicate, since she has no English and my terrible Italian wasn’t up to the task.  If you CLICK HERE, you’ll see a video of part of the conversation.

family at lunchFrom there, we went to a restaurant for a big family lunch.  The family is a lot of fun–and even with the language barrier I felt close to the women and knew that I could become friends with them. The male cousins were hilarious.

“So what do you write?” the famiglia asked. Pretty soon I started to smile– most of the men had my blog pulled up on their phones.  And they friended me on Facebook. The women in this small town were not online, though.

the twinsMeet the twins.

ginoCousin Gino has a twinkle in his eye and bears a strong resemblance to a first cousin of mine in Rochester, NY. and I do mean uncannily strong!

gratteri stepsThese streets are seriously steep.

another hill

 No gym membership needed!

 via delle scuoleI knew that my grandparents and their two first-born lived at 9 Via Delle Scuole.

9 via scuola

The place has been significantly upgraded since its days as an old stone house.

9 via window

It was a thrill to see the place my grandparents lived.

old window 2

Modern Gratteri is a study in contrasts, with old and new coexisting side by side.

Gratteri pretty

Modern and pretty.

 (Note the stairs to the left.)

gratt vry niceAnd this. I love how the potted flowers sit mid-stair. It’s lovely.

pretty overviewThis is a view out the restaurant window. Yes, it’s high.

As I walked the ancient streets I thought about my parents and how I wish they had done this, themselves. How different my life is from theirs–I see possibilities and go after them, poking and prodding to satisfy my curiosity. That wasn’t how they were at all. But oh, how they would have loved this! I remember my maternal grandfather telling me “One day we’ll go to Sicily together.”  That day never came for him.

My visit to Gratteri was by far the best part of my trip to Sicily. By far. Even though I was still pretty sick.  I can’t tell you how much fun it was to connect with these lovely people and spend time together. I did it for myself, but I also did it in honor of my parents and grandparents, who didn’t have or take the opportunity.

Allora. (loose translation: “so then”)  What’s next?

While I’m in my hometown next month I’ll be sitting down with my nephew and a couple of my Syracuse cousins, granddaughters of my Uncle Joe, the first born of my grandparents. I’ll share the information I have.

I’ve decided to aggressively study Italian this year in order to be able to communicate more directly and clearly with my family when I return, which I hope to be in 2016 and I hope to have with me some of my U.S. family. I also hope to stay in Gratteri and spend more time learning about my family history.

If you’ve done something like this, a trip to find your own roots, I’d love to hear about it below.


39 comments on “In search of my Sicilian roots
  1. PatU says:

    Just wonderful!

  2. I am glad you had the opportunity to make this trip. My mom and step-dad went to England and visited churches where my ancestors worshipped. And then when they got home they accidentally overwrote the drive with the pictures on it before printing them or transferring them. GAH! I am launching my own kids right now, but if I get the time and money, I’d like to redo that work. Spending a week touring the countryside of England sounds like a good task to me!

  3. Nora says:

    What fun–and what memories. Good for you for connecting with so many wonderful people.

  4. How wonderful that you were able to go and meet all of your family members, Carol. I’d love to get to Scotland to visit my mother’s family. Have always thought it would be fun to go with my 2 sisters and brother to see all the places my mother spoke of so fondly. Thanks for sharing your adventure, the pictures are beautiful.

  5. Laura says:

    What an experience for you! Just being in such an ancient place is experience enough but to carry with you a cellular connection must have been deeply satisfying.

  6. How wonderful Carol. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure and your family with all of us!

  7. Karen says:

    Carol, what an amazing experience that must have been! I was overwhelmed with your family’s thoughtfulness in preparing that family tree for you–what an incredible gift! Even through your very poorly timed illness, it really was a trip to remember.

    (One tiny point about the relative histories of Europe and North America: while our written history is only a few hundred years old at most, the original nations on this continent have a much longer and richer history than most of us know.)

  8. kim tackett says:

    Wow Carol, what an amazing experience. I love that you did more than visit…you immersed yourself into your family. And imagine what it did for them as well? To know how much you valued where they are, what they have?

  9. Aren’t people amazing and loving? How wonderful your family and the residents of Gratteri turned out to be. I hope you make it back in 2016

  10. dorothy says:

    I made my way to Italy about 3 years ago and can’t wait to go back. The next time I go, It will be to explore my sicilian heritage. P.S. you made me laugh when you wrote ” no gym membership…” I went with my husband, and we never walked up and down so many stairs and hills in our lives!

  11. What an amazing experience. Fabulous photots!

  12. What a privilege! My roots are in Ireland and Holland. Would love to meet a few.

  13. Michelle says:

    How VERY beautiful!

  14. I lived in Switzerland for 4 years. While there, my parents came over and we explored the family from my paternal grandmother’s side. So incredible to stand over Lake Interlachen standing in a castle ruins that once were your ancestors. (I wish you pictures were bigger so I could see all the details of your fabulous trip. Read every word hungrily!)

  15. Mary says:

    Oh, how I loved reading this. It makes me want to plan a trip as soon as possible to Sicily to meet my relatives. I find it remarkable how people adapt and can still communicate even when there is a language barrier, it still does not stop the communication.

    • My translator said that he’s been part of reunions that didn’t go as well as mine did, and also those that have. It’s not always a slam dunk. But I’m happy mine was.

  16. Sherri says:

    I am fascinated with how you pulled this all together and shared the story of your family. I often think about how it would be to live in a country with real roots and heritage, over hundreds of years. Would love to visit Italy one day, your images are charming and beautiful.

  17. What a FABULOUS trip you had! I think it’s such a blessing you were able to connect with your family there. I think it’s great you’re going to learn Italian for your next trip—very exciting! I hope one day to go to Scotland to visit my ancestors.

  18. Diane says:

    When you told us about your family all waiting there for you under that tree, I started to cry. And didn’t stop through to the end of your article. What a wonderful, beautiful experience! I spent a month in UK, going from Husby’s family site to family site. The trip of a lifetime! I’ll never forget it. But we didn’t meet a single member of the family. After reading this, I’m going to go back and hunt down my Husby’s relatives. In a non-threatening way, of course . . . 🙂

  19. What an amazing experience to go to such a beautiful place and learn about your roots and your history and, best of all, meet your family. I loved reading your story and seeing your pictures.

  20. Lana says:

    Wonderful experience! My husband went to Norway after college and met many of his distant relatives, and he still talks about it to this day. His mother never made the trip, and I know it is a great regret of his. Thanks so much for sharing this with us – it made my day!

  21. OMGoodness Carol your family’s kindness made me cry! What an amazing adventure.
    My father took me to visit my German family when I was a teenager. I am hoping to visit my Irish and Italian family some day soon.
    I am so happy that you are planning to go back, it was such a shame you were sick.

  22. Myke Todd says:

    What an incredible story
    You make me want to set out for Ireland, at the crack of dawn.

  23. Hi Carol! I just came back and found this great post and all the photos. How wonderful to have connected with so many relatives and places from your personal Her-story! And as you say, it is a great reminder of how fortunate we all are to be able to go and explore such places that our parents and grandparents only dreamed of doing!

  24. Jennette Riches says:

    Hi Carol,I’m headed to Gratteri in May of 2018. This is where my grandfather (Domenico DiMaria) is from (my mom’s father). He immigrated in 1902 at the young age of 15 years old. He only went back once when he was in his 80’s but my parents visited a couple of times. So I have known of my relatives for my whole life and although I have met a few of them, I am in contact on facebook. I am interested to know who you contacted about researching your family tree. If you can help me with that I’d really appreciate it.
    It was great to read how your trip turned out, I can only hope for something equally as wonderful.
    Thank you.

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