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Italy Stays with an Immigrant Forever
In Loving Memory of Michele Di Meglio
December 11, 2005 - The eldest son, a pioneer, died at 1:20 a.m. or so on Saturday morning. He was strong and rugged - a hunter and gatherer in the literal sense. The last of the Italian cowboys. It was his brave heart that brought one branch of my family - the Di Meglios - from the small island of Ischia, off the coast of Napoli, to the big, burly United States. He was my Zio Michele. His recent passing proves that Italians might physically leave Italy but their first culture lives on in their hearts and minds to the very last moment.
In the hours since his death, all anyone can talk about is the way the 76-year-old patriarch of our extended family said good-bye. As I've been told, Zio Michele was with his wife and two eldest daughters. Just before he left them for Heaven, he called to his mamma, my Nonna Francesca, who has been dead for almost 20 years. And when his wife asked what was going on, he replied, "Mah-jah-yee." In Neapolitan dialect that means, "I have to go." Then, in an instant, he was gone.
When he died, he had been in the United States for more than 50 years and had only returned to Ischia once - with my parents, siblings and me. In fact, he spoke more English than any of his brothers and sisters, including my father. Zio Michele, for all intensive purposes, was an American. He credited the United States with giving him a beautiful life - a successful landscaping and nursery business, adventure in the way of his many travels, and a loving family that included four children, nine grandchildren, and three great grandchildren to date.
But he reverted to his first language and called for his mamma at the end. I'd like to think he was going home again. There's an old Neapolitan folk song, "Dduie Paravise," that I'm finding comfort in at this very moment.
Mo, San Pié', si permettite,
"Nuje simmo 'e nu paese bello e caro
Two recently departed Neapolitan musicians are telling Saint Peter that they can't stay in Paradise. Saint Peter thinks they're crazy but they explain that they know of a beautiful place that has everything and no one can leave. “Our Paradise is there,” they sing in reference to Napoli and all its towns. I'd like to think Zio Michele has met his parents, the sisters who passed away before him and all the other relatives in this paradise.
Even though Zio Michele felt he had no choice but to leave our small island for a better life in the States, I know there are things he missed about Buonopane, the Ischia town in which he lived for the first 20 years of his life - his family, the wine, wild mushrooms, the sunrise from Bucetta, a mountainous part of Ischia where he cultivated the land. When we returned with him in Ischia at the end of 1998 to celebrate the start of '99, he reminisced about it all. We heard stories about his old girlfriends, one of whom he ran into on the street, the nights of playing cards and drinking vino with his friends, and the harrowing story of his arrival in America as an illegal immigrant.
Before we left on that trip, I had written a booklet about our family as a Christmas gift for everyone. I had interviewed my aunts, my father and Zio Michele individually. It was their chance to tell their stories and at the time I was a novice reporter one year away from graduation. The truth is even after three years of living in Washington, D.C., I was still homesick. I missed the smell of the sauce on the stove every Sunday morning, relatives stopping by at 6 a.m. whenever they felt like it, and the accented voices of my papa?, aunts and uncle. In a way that book was a selfish gift. I needed to be with each of them just for a little while to hear their stories and connect them with my own.
Yesterday morning, when I heard the news about Zio Michele, I saw a reel of memories in my mind. But the first among them was the dinner we had when I interviewed him for the book. He served me filet mignon and lettuce with lemon, oil and salt. The whole meal melted in our mouths. And he spoke passionately about his life. He was good at living, better than anyone I know.
"He was the dancer," said my cousin Francesca Di Costanzo Liao when she was remembering him yesterday. It's true. Zio Michele, shuffling his feet and lifting his arms like an old-fashioned Tarantella performer, was always the first on the dance floor at every family event. He showed everyone a good time until the very end. In October, his granddaughter got married and he was already suffering with cancer. Weak and tired, he still worried about me because I had just had a third knee surgery. As soon as I arrived on my crutches, Zio Michele summoned someone to get me a glass of water and give me a seat. He was dying - but he still thought of my good time. You can't say that about many people.
That's why I don't want to remember the last time I saw him on Thanksgiving. He was in his recliner hooked up to machines with the scars from his recent surgeries showing on his frail, sick body. He was the eldest son, the first prince, in a family of nine children. And he had been reduced to this. We Di Meglios won't accept that.
"I used to hear the music from Napoli and Ischia while working in the moonlight at four o'clock in the morning in Bucetta," he said to me when I interviewed him. Rather than remembering him in sickness, I prefer to remember him in health. Yesterday, Zio Michele became a young Italian again. In my mind's eye, I see him listening to that music as he works the land in his Paradise with my nonni and his sisters. Whenever the rest of us join them, the lettuce will be ready for picking and we'll eat it with lemon, oil and salt. For us, Zio Michele will dance again.
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