For Italian-Americans, the holiday season is unswervingly linked to family. It’s a time to reconnect with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or anybody else willing to share food, faith and tradition. Without fail, those members of the family born in Molfetta will speak of the “tìembe d’pràime,” and how the old customs were purer and more meaningful back in Italy. These conversations often formulate into good hearted debates between antique culture and modern ways. Often, no resolution is reached but instead an atmosphere of collective stoicism is agreed upon. The elders are not wrong about their past while the younger generations correctly support that change is inevitable and therefore good.
However, during these discussions, it would benefit the younger generations to step back a bit from the deliberations and just listen. Or better yet, begin to write down or record the old stories. Unfortunately, La Nònne, will not be around forever and when she departs, many of the people that filled her life-story will also disappear.
So this Christmas, talk about those who are no longer with us and record their stories for posterity. The task, however, is to go beyond simply creating a family tree. Although it is important to list every name in the family line, the true worth of ancestral folklore is to piece it together and form a narrative, one that touches upon legend but is also rooted in truth. In other words, become a true historian with information that only you are privy to.
Two masters of this genealogical enterprise are fellow “Molfies” Damian De Virgilio and Mark Palombella Hart. In his blog, “Knowing Nonno,” Damian explores his grandfather’s disappearance while serving in the Italian Army during World War II. Damian’s research and storytelling unravels information about his grandfather that had been locked away for decades. In his “Palombella Genealogy” website, Mark chronicles his family’s amazing journey from Molfetta to Liverpool, England, accumulating information from as far back as the early 1700s. Again, these writers are not simply putting together a family tree but are connecting their family stories with verifiable historical documents. They are true historians! …And I can state this with some authority because I have a master’s degree in history and I should be able to say such things after spending so much time with my nose in books…
Your assignment this Christmas is to bring a blank notebook to your family gathering. Perhaps during a game of Tombola, or in between the many varied courses of fish and frittelle, write down of few notes about the past and ensure that those who have come before will be remembered.