My grandfather, Gaetano Grimaldi arrived at Ellis Island in NYC on May 7, 1901. According to the ship’s manifest he was 14 years old, from Roccavaisano (actually Roccavivara), Italy. The ship, Trave, was built in Glasgow for the Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1886, reconditioned in 1897. Trave’s regular run was from Bremen to NYC until 1901 when she began trips from Genoa-Naples to NYC. On April 23, the U.S. Consul in Naples declared that the Italian passengers boarding were in good health, free from mental defects. There were 1240 on board. Several including Gaetano, were from Roccavivara — Michele Di Fanio, 32, married; Giovanni Gianico, 17, single; Giuseppe De Liza, 34, single; and Giuseppe Gianco, 26, single. Grandpop’s mother, Maria Rago, her second husband Fedele Porfirio and their 3 year old son, Roberto had arrived at Ellis Island the year before on March 12, 1900. Maria and Fidele were both 40 years old; Roberto would die young. Maria’s first husband Giovanni Grimaldi had died soon after my grandfather was born. For several years Gaetano was sent to a seminary in Trivento (a hill town away from home) but he returned to Roccavivara and may have learned shoemaking from his step father Fedele. In the U.S., he would change his step father’s name Porfirio to Profy.
It’s interesting to speculate about the hows and whys of Grandpop’s immigration. Between 1880 and 1920, 4.1 million Italians immigrated to the United States. Most were from Southern Italy. Land exploitation, low productivity, an increase in population, basically poverty, drove most from their hometowns to cross the ocean to America. The trip which probably cost about $15 took about 2 weeks. A journalist writing about conditions on a ship from Naples wrote, “How can a steerage passenger remember he is a human being when he must first pick the worms from his food . . . And eat in his stuffy, stinking bunk, or in the hot and fetid atmosphere of a compartment where 150 men sleep, or in juxtaposition to a seasick man.” But like many, Gaetano survived and thrived in America. With others from Roccavivara, he would operate a chain of shoe repair shops before purchasing a General Electric franchise in the 1930s. If not paved in gold there was opportunity in America. “Good times in a Merica,” he constantly reminded me.
I recently visited Grandpop’s hometown, Roccavivara. The comune (municipality) is in the province of Compobasso in the Italian region of Molise. When my grandfather walked (or maybe rode a donkey) down the hill in 1901 on his way to the ship in Naples, Roc was in Abruzzo; Molise was created in 1970. The population today is about 950, down from 1650 in 1901. I have visited the village on two other trips. In 2000, Diane and I spent several nights in Termoli, a seaside vacation resort on the Adriatic about an hour from Roccavivara. In 2002, my father and I spend four nights at my cousin Nick’s house. On this trip Nick and his wife Maria would again extend their hospitality to me and my traveling companion cousin Giuseppe.
Our arrival was celebrated with an classic Italian family dinner. Antipasto (a variety of meats and cheeses), followed by a pasta dish (mangia, mangia, eat, eat), veal cutlets, chicken (mangia, mangia), salad. Homemade red wine, water always available. Fruit and pastry, cafe. Grazie, grazie, basta, basta. Thank you, enough.
During our next week in Roccavivara, each day started with cafe and some pastry. Then a walk around the village with my cousin Nick. Nick (Porfirio) spent 20 years as a carpenter in the United States. Interestingly, we are related not through my grandfather’s step father, Fidele Porfirio but through Nick’s mother Rago. And to make it more confusing, I am related to his sister, Christine. But my genealogical discoveries are another story.
Amazingly Nick really understood my interests. On our walks he pointed out trees — olive, fig (several types), apples, cherry, walnut, hazelnut and oak for construction projects. We foraged for wild asparagus and visited his farms — one for firewood, where he proudly showed me the stump of the oak he cut to make the door for his son Gianfranco’s house. He had an amazing pride and respect for the land. We also visited his garden farm. I was disappointed because I thought it would be time for this year’s planting. I could help and learn. But still too cool. Last year Nick harvested 3 tons of tomatoes — those not eaten fresh were canned in jars for sauce, used throughout the winter. And I thought my 300 pounds last year was a lot. Traditionally, Nick and most Roccavivara families made olive oil, wine, tomatoe paste, put up peppers, eggplant, and zucchini. They made dried sausage, salami and prosciutto. Today Nick (he’s 81) buys some, things. And as much as he rails against the younger generation (bums), his sons continue the traditional ways. The oldest Massemo recently sponsored a workshop in pruning olive trees. He has over 50 and found several dozen locals interested in the advice of the professionals.
As Nick and I walk around the village, he pointed out doors that he made at the age of 17 before he went to the United States. In local churches he made pews and other woodwork. He also took pleasure in pointing out hand made stone block (no machines). Each house has a history. One building is the former macaroni factory of my great grandfather Grimaldi. A woman relative donated the lower floors to the church. One is rented; the other empty with broken windows. Maybe I could rent-buy it. Another house was owned by Angelo Rago. My father’s clock worker’s bench was made by Angelo Rago. A relative? What a small world. Even more confusing is the house of Fidele Porfirio. It’s where my grandfather grew up after his father died. It’s now owned by Christine Sallustio, cousin Nick’s sister. She married Peppino Sallustio, the son of Enrichetta Porfirio Sallustio. Confused. I was. Enrichetta was my grandfather’s half sister. She was born in the United States as was my Uncle Joe Porfirio ( cousin Joey Lentz’s grandfather). Enrichetta went back to Italy, married and had at least one son, Peppino who married Christine. I don’t even remember my grandfather mentioning her. For him, Italy was the past, done, not to be remembered. Giuseppe (Uncle Joe) stayed in the United States. Uncle Joe like my grandfather was a shoe maker in Bristol. I remember taking shoes to him for repairs. He had a large garden, family picnics and provided me with a touch of my Italian heritage. Small town. Food, family. Everyone related.
This trip to Roccavivara opened up whole new world of family genealogy, traditions, a way of life so different from Yardley, Philadelphia, and the United States in the 21st century. Roccavivara today isn’t so far away from the village my grandfather left in 1901. There is an auto road now, electricity and wifi at the Bar-Cafe. But families celebrate the same holidays, harvest and cook the same foods. Walk the same streets and hang out in the same square. For some a fire is the only heat and hot water is generated by water pipes running through the fireplace.
Hopefully my exploration of that life style and heritage has just begun. Stay tuned.