It had been a long, dusty day in Pompeii. We were happy to get to the Forum, the main square in the city, close to the exits, knowing we could get a gelato at the snack bar. In the square there were a number of modern art sculptures on permanent display depicting historical and mythological figures. The sculptures were made of steel, and very large, and for the most part anatomically correct in that not-so-subtle Greek/Roman way. I enjoyed watching how different groups and individuals responded to Hercules' (I think it was Hercules) most impressive penis. This particular young man was with a group of friends, but he approached the statue alone with a confidence bordering on brashness. He sat down on the leg and put his mouth on the giant penis. The reaction from the group of people around the sculpture was quick and mixed. Mostly there were groans and sounds of embarrassment, but there was also laughter from his friends. The boy, sensing the displeasure, stopped, looked right at the crowd and announced, "It's okay, everyone. We are French."
Looking at this beautiful, mutely colored photograph of my mother when she was about twenty-one years old, it's easy to see why my father fell in love with her. I'd say I inherited my good looks from her, but I've never remotely looked this good.
My mother was a first generation American of Italian and Sicilian descent. She identified as American and was more than ready to give up the majority of her Italian background. At an early age she changed her name from Caterina Celeste Galeano, named after her two grandmothers, to Catherine Agnes Galeano, adding Amberg when she married my dad in 1945. Everyone knew her as Catty. She understood Italian, but I never knew her to speak it. We ate spaghetti most Sundays and lasagna on Christmas and Easter, along with my grandmother's classic Italian wedding soup. But we mostly ate my father's mid-western, German meat and potatoes diet. Early on, she traded olive oil for Wesson and Crisco.
But she was also a classic Italian mother. To say she was driven underestimates her and in her lifetime she achieved more than she dreamed possible as a young girl growing up in a Italian neighborhood in depression-era DC. She was adept at pointing that drive toward her children. There were expectations about education, cleanliness, family, church, loyalty and patriotism and she used guilt with the best of them to see those expectations were met. She could be fierce about this and it drove me crazy.
On our recent trip we stopped for a brief time in my grandmother's home town of Gioia del Colle in Puglia. There, walking around town, having coffee, and later driving through the immediate countryside, I felt familiar and comfortable, like I had been there before, even though I hadn’t. Psychologists call it genetic memory, that is, memory that is with us at birth even without any sensory experience of the memory. For me, there was something in the air, as we’re fond of saying, the smell, the taste, the salt coming off of the nearby Aegean Sea. It was something I knew, deep inside, but couldn’t quite identify. But I sensed the answer lay in ten or more generations of genetic memory that preceded me, most recently passed from my grandmother and mother, and onward to my children. For this I am eternally grateful.
Thank you all for sharing our trip with us.
Our final two days were in Rome, one of the world's most romantic cities, and my mind was on love. I booked a double room in a place that promised peace and quiet, a place of solace. What better way to end our trip, I thought. We were met at the entrance by the man we'd spoken with who escorted us into a stunning courtyard, filled with soft light and magnificent flowers and fruit trees. I was slightly suspicious when I saw the religious statues, but Rome is full of religious statues, I said to myself. Then I saw the nuns - three of them in full regalia - acting like they owned the place, which, in fact, they did. They lived in the other building, the man assured us.
Our room was spare and small. Two single beds (thus the double billing), narrow and hard with mattresses a short step away from bare ground. There was a single lamp between them and a small attached bathroom. A window opened to the street outside. As promised, it was peaceful and quiet. My disappointment was palpable. But I said to Leslie, "I've never made love in a convent before and it offers the opportunity to rid myself of any remaining catholic inhibitions. I'll show 'em nuns." Leslie, nothing if not a good sport, agreed to go along with the program.
We spent the day walking through Trastevere's elegant parks and gardens and suppered in a small family restaurant just up the street from the nunnery. Another great meal of pasta and seafood, wine, a light desert and we walked home arm in arm in the cool air. There, we undressed and I invited her to my bed. We are not big people, but cramped doesn't begin to describe the situation. Yet we persisted, thankful for the lack of creaking bedsprings, or any bedsprings at all, in the absolute silence of the convent night. But then, the bed itself took over, knocking, banging, wood on wood, wood on wall, making noise I only imagined possible on a boat in a North Sea storm, echoing both inside the building and outside in the street. I lost focus and began thinking of neighbors, the other residents, and yes, the nuns. "I'm sorry," I said, "i've got to stop." Leslie looked me in the eye, stroked my cheek and said, "well, I guess those nuns have still got you."
After long days of walking in Florence,
in the heat,
surrounded by the beauty of this elegant city,
aching legs and backs,
seeking respite from the other tourists
and their noise and disregard,
we would board the 14a bus for the
30 minute ride to Girone.
Once there, we would walk again.
This time, uphill,
but quiet and solitary,
the smell of countryside,
darkness offering the sight of stars,
things familiar to us.
We rested easy and
awoke to morning light
over olives and grapes.
- click photographs to enlarge
There was a moment on this trip when I realized that I was just another tourist. Until that time I had mistakenly, and arrogantly, believed I was somehow different than the throngs of people around me reading the same guide books, making the same photographs, and drinking the same bottled water they stored in backpacks. Just the number of selfie-sticks, and the corresponding selfies being made with them, was overwhelming. I had the sense people were less interested in the actual sights and more interested in showing the world they had been there. I thought,
that's not me.
I wanted to believe because I was half Italian and could speak a few words of the language, I possessed some unique and intuitive insight into the culture and history. That my photographs and observations would stand alone and mark me as an insider, rather than the outsider I clearly was to anyone paying attention.
Rome and Florence were on the verge of "too much." There are people everywhere. Europeans, Americans, Asians, and all points in between. Rude people, friendly people, tired and hungry people. People ecstatic about being in places they had previously only dreamed of being. People willing to stand in line for hours to see the Vatican art collection or wade through pedestrian torrents on the Ponte Vecchio.
Italy is absolutely dependent on these millions of tourists that flock to its churches and galleries and incomparable vistas and beaches. Tourism is a major revenue producer throughout the country, but some cities and towns would cease to exist without it. It seems that everyone in these places is a tour guide, or runs a hotel, or is an entertainer that caters to the fantasies of visitors.
So, here we are. Pressing flesh with unknowns on packed trains. Sipping wine and coffee in quiet cafes on remote side alleys. Vowing not to enter another church. Relishing the soft voices and respect in a little-visited, underground cemetery for those not able to afford to be buried in a church. A meal with my Sicilian cousins and their wives in a restaurant filled with locals where my cousin Enzo coaxed Leslie into eating things she never dreamed she would put in her mouth.
Throughout all of it, I play the tourist.
On our trip Leslie mentioned I seemed to want to go into every church we came to, hinting that maybe I had yet to truly give up the Catholicism of my early years. I countered by talking about ritual and pageantry, western civilization, the incredible art and the role the Catholic Church played throughout history in fostering and sustaining those things. In that sense she was right. I was still tied to the church and was easily sucked in through the gilded doors where I could bask in the sculptures, stained glass and murals, and the omnipresent depictions of the crucifixion that I had studied and grown up with.
My grandmother took me to Italy in 1967. I was nineteen and just starting my fifteenth year of Catholic education. To say I had been a "good Catholic boy" and "model citizen" to that point would be understating things. I was ardent, and a believer, a grand knight of our church's altar boys, who had once pondered the priesthood. But that was a changing time and I, too, was changing, coming in contact with outside forces, and beginning to think more for myself.
That trip forced me to confront my belief in the Catholic Church, and ultimately, my faith. Faced with the spectacle of the church, its immense riches and control over people's lives, I was left confused and questioning. Quite simply, how could a religion that preached humility and openness and a commitment to the poor, lavish itself in such splendor? it's a question I've never been able to answer with any satisfaction, and, if anything, my views on the church have only grown more extreme and negative.
That said, I didn't tire of these churches and found myself making offerings in many of them. I lit candles in front of altars that especially moved me and sat quietly in empty side chapels. And I did want to go into most all of them. I told myself I was supporting the art, the history, the sheer beauty.
But I left those places with my belief intact.
I've just got to ask, "How many pictures of the Coliseum do we really need?"
Obviously, one more.
I don't see much graffiti in Madison County, which might serve to explain my fascination with it. Italians, at least those in the cities, seem to believe every available surface is just another pallet, made to carry a message. Often, the language is political and speaks to dissent; there is clearly a sense of darkness somewhere below the surface. I wonder who paints them, and mounts these posters, and why? And I marvel at their existence alongside the Italy of light and color, that of gelato and high fashion.
Italy is a Catholic country, having become the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 380 under Emperor Theodosius. It's been here a long time. And while most everyone identifies as being Catholic, few people actively practice the religion. They might go to services once or twice a year, but otherwise go about their lives in a most secular fashion. But there is also a deep and sincere love of the rituals and symbols. And I sense people take comfort and security from the knowledge the religion is all around them and has been forever. Images of Jesus and his friends and family are quite literally everywhere.
My Grandmother, Jennie Lozupone, ca. 1915
Today would have been my Grandmother’s 114th birthday. She died in 1995. I was asked to give the eulogy at her funeral, which I’ve reprinted in this post. Rereading the eighteen-year-old text, I understand how much I’ve learned in the ensuing years from a series of great editors and teachers. I’m resisting the urge to correct grammar, syntax, and sentence structure within the text. There are also some factual errors that I’ve corrected at the end of the post.
So, what’s in a name? The woman we are honoring and saying goodbye to today was known by many names. Jennie Lozupone. Mrs. Galeano. Aunt Jennie. Mama. Gram.
Her life spanned the length of the 2oth Century and encompassed many of the great events of this county’s history during the Century. But as we know, history is more than great events. History is also the past and the past is both personal and intimate.
Jennie Lozupone was born in 1899 in Bari, Italy. She arrived in the United States in 1907, part of the great Italian migration. She landed at Ellis Island and her family first settled in Albany, New York, before moving to Washington, DC, where she lived her entire life.
In 1916, she married Joseph Galeano, a fellow immigrant, he from Sicily. They bought a home on Morse Street in Northeast Washington. It was there they had their four children – Vincent, Louis, Catherine, and Charles.
When the Great Depression struck this country in 1929 Jennie joined the workforce to help support her family. She began a career as a seamstress with the late Jimmy Bello. While her clients included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Supreme Court Justices, she was most proud of the First Communion dresses, the dance recital outfits and the Easter clothes she made for her nieces and grandchildren. She was always there to hem a pair of pants or sew on a button.
Two of her sons served in the Armed Forces during World War II. She suffered the insecurity of not knowing her baby son’s whereabouts for two years during that conflict.
After the war, as the middle class in this country grew, her family became part of that movement. She and Joe bought a house in suburban Maryland on University Blvd. Gram always accepted what life had to offer her – sometimes with resignation, but more often with grace and a willingness to make the best of any situation. Her husband Joe died unexpectedly in 1948 and it was then the second half of Jennie’s life began.
Gram loved life. She loved food – not jus the cooking and eating of it, but she loved to feed others. Her lasagna and eggplant are famous across the country given the travels of her children and grandchildren. She loved to gamble – bingo, horse races, poker. She loved to win, but really she was a safe bettor. Mostly, she loved the Fellowship that the gambling provided.
Gram understood the value of money. I remember a story of her getting held up at knife-point by a young boy whose situation was even worse than hers. She said she looked him in the eye and said, “You’re not getting my hard earned money” and started swinging her oversized purse at him. She was a giving and generous woman who understood that by giving she would receive.
As she got older and her eyesight worsened, she switched from sewing to knitting afghans although she never could get the name right, calling them Africans until the end. Hundreds of Africans that now reside all over the country. She made them for weddings, births and graduations – or simply because she liked you. Every Christmas and birthday each of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren received a savings bond.
When she was 67 years old she made the first of seven trips back to Italy to visit her late husband’s relatives in Sicily, often taking one or more of her grandchildren with her. She loved those trips – talking the language again, the food, the attention.
She was devoted to St. Camillus Church and was an active member of the Leisure Club. She put her sewing skills to use for the Church and often made Baptismal bibs for the newborn and did laundry for the parish priests.
Gram represented a sense of security and safety for all of us. She has been with us all our lives. Not just the literal security of a home, a meal, clothing or help when we needed it, but also a symbolic security of a safer place, a safer time.
So, what’s in a name? I can’t help but wonder if this Jennie Lozupone, this Mrs. Galeano, this Aunt Jennie, this Mama, this Gram had any idea she would be so blessed in her life. That she would leave such a wonderful legacy – four children thirteen grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren with two more on the way and seven great-great grandchildren.
The last few years she had forgotten most of our names although she still delighted in our company, especially the young children. She seemed to become more of a child herself. The last time I saw her was last November. She let me feed her her supper and carried on a long conversation with me – in Italian. As she finished her meal I struggled with my Latin and Spanish to ask her if she was done eating. “Fini?” I asked. She looked me in the eye, always the teacher, and answered, “Finito.”
Jennie Lozupone Galeano, 1992
My grandmother and her family lived in Gioia dei Colle, Italy, which is a small village just west of Bari. Gioia dei Colle means Joy of the Hill – if there could be a more perfect name for a town I haven’t heard it.
I’ve listed Gram’s birth year as 1899, which would have made her 95 when she died. After her death, we discovered a document that indicated she was actually born in 1897.
The number of great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren has mushroomed since 1995 to a point where I can no longer keep up.