Return to Cantalupo

When I was growing up I didn't know much about my Italian grandfather's story, only that he'd come from somewhere in Italy as a child. Later, my father talked about the tiny village his father, whom we called Poppop, had come from. Its name, Cantalupo, stayed with me, perhaps because of the sad and puzzling story that went with it.

Sometime in the late 1960s my dad, who was then with IBM, was invited to teach a week-long seminar in Salzburg. He convinced my grandfather to come along so that afterwards they could travel together to Italy and visit my grandfather's old village. I'm pretty sure it was the first time Poppop had been back to Italy since he came to the U.S. I can imagine how excited my father must have been to be able to give this gift to his father and share the experience with him.

Poppop, the local priest, Charles, and a waiter from a horror movie.
Like so many well-intentioned family projects, this one did not go well. As the time to travel from Austria to Cantalupo drew near, my grandfather became increasingly anxious and gloomy. Once they arrived in his old hometown, all Poppop wanted to do was go home to Pittsburgh. The town welcomed him with open arms and put on a big festa in his honor, but that only seemed to make him feel worse. My poor father couldn't understand why his loving gesture had backfired so badly, and felt both frustrated by his father's strange reaction and guilty that he had somehow caused him so much pain.

What upset Poppop so much my father never figured out. At the time my grandmother was ill with the cancer that would eventually kill her, which perhaps made contemplation of the past and his own future difficult for my grandfather. He was in any case a man prone to serious despair; he eventually killed himself when he was 89 years old.

Years later my father wrote a story based on that trip, which my sister Elisa recently unearthed. It is very sad, and gets sadder each time I read it. It also includes a detailed description of the town as it was when they made their trip. Knowing we would be heading to Cantalupo at some point during our own sojourn in Italy, I hoped to use my dad's story as a kind of guide to what we'd see. (It's long, and about a lot more than the visit to Cantalupo, but if you want you can read the story here.)

It's a pretty enough little village, though not especially picturesque or trying to be so. There's a recently restored church in what I guess is the central piazza.

Either the town has changed a lot in the last 50 years, or that aspect of my father's story was more fictional than I'd hoped, because the town we visited in the summer of 2017, during our first visit to Molise, and the one he described in the story did not match up very well.

For some reason all my photos of Cantalupo look a bit dreary. It's not gorgeous, but it's cuter than these make it out to be.

This is a view of the piazza.
During our first week in Molise that summer my husband and I went to Cantalupo by ourselves one day, after lunch in a restaurant nearby. The church was open but deserted, and there was no one on the streets. When we went back again a few days later with our two children, there were a few more people about but the church was locked. Lina and Max took a lot of pictures of the rest of the town, which are no doubt better than mine. Here is one of Lina's that certainly is.

My dad's story describes the graveyard next to the church, and how his father recognized some of the names there. But in real-life Cantalupo there's no graveyard anywhere near the big church or the other smaller church nearby. On our second visit we went in search of the cemetery, asking the locals for directions and hiking about half a mile out into the countryside to find it. We ascertained that it's the only cemetery in town. 

Italians like to bury their dead in above-ground tombs that look like little houses, some of them quite ornate. The more recent ones display photos of the deceased. (This is a tradition I approve of. Detailed life stories would be even better.) We wandered around and saw a lot of the same family names, but none of them were ours. 

Almost all the deceased had died after 1950; we couldn't find any that dated from my grandfather's childhood in the 1890s.  

Our Molisano friend Claudio later told me that Italian cemeteries exhume the old bones every 30 years or so and pile them up in the church basement to make room for new arrivals. Therefore old graves are a rarity. I'm not sure how precisely accurate this is, given the gaps in his English and my Italian. However, in several of the Cantalupo sepulchers we could see grates over a lower level full of crumbling coffins. Perhaps families just build over whoever was already there, figuring that the longtime dead no longer need so much remembering. 

Anyway, we now know that my grandfather's family came from a different village in Molise, so we probably wouldn't have seen any di Carlo graves even if the cemetery had been frozen in time.

Afterwards we had lunch at the town's one restaurant, a perfectly fine but not thrilling meal of prosciutto, provolone with jam, and ravioli filled with nettles and ricotta.

Before we left town, we looked at the photograph that someone had taken of my dad, my grandfather, the town priest, and another fellow who looks like a waiter in a horror movie but was probably some sort of local bigwig. 

We are pretty sure that it was taken in front of the little shrine on the side of the church. So we lined up for a photo in the same spot.

The railing has been changed but the wall below it looks the same. I can't understand, though, why the ground seems to be lower now than it was 50 years ago. Max looks like he's only as tall as my grandfather was, when in fact he's as tall as my dad. Another Catholic mystery...

It's strange to realize that when that earlier photo was taken, my grandfather was just a bit older than I am now, and that my father was in his mid-40s, closer to my children's age than to mine. The visit to Cantalupo didn't plunge me into a black pit of grief, but I did feel, more acutely than usual, how quickly my life is going by, and how finite it is.

I was not very close to Poppop when he was alive, because we didn't see our grandparents very often, but he was a charming man and this Italian adventure makes me feel very connected to him. I remember the faint Italian lilt in his voice. I wish I had been more interested in learning about his life while he was around to tell me about it. (When I was young only the future seemed interesting; the past, I figured, would take care of itself. Now more and more it seems the other way around.)

Most of all, I am sad that my dad, who died in 2004, is not around to tell us more about what happened during the trip to Poppop's old hometown and to hear about our visit to Cantalupo, and our ties to Molise. I think he'd be tickled that we are going through the process of becoming dual Italian and American citizens. How Poppop would feel about it I am not at all sure.