Tuesday, May 1, 2018

An Orphan's Legacy: Maria's Secret

Left: Caterina and Lucille. Center Left: Andrea. Center Right: Marcellina and Filippo. Right: Giacomo and Maria.


The start of 2008 brought a lot of snow to Ceva, a small town tucked in the Langhe hills of Piedmont in northwest Italy.  Catterina, 76 years old, waited for a break in the weather so she could resume her weekly visits to pay respects to her husband, parents, and grandparents. Good weather finally arrived on February 7th. Caterina drove the two miles to the cemetery in her little green vintage 1950s green AutoBianchi, "a coffee pot of a car" as her brother Andrea liked to say.

Caterina is of slight build, a 5' 2'' sparrow with a fair complexion, unkempt white hair, and dark, distant eyes. She is warm and gracious in person, but when the cameras come out, she adopts a curiously expressionless and stiff pose, gazing anywhere but at the camera. The result is that photos of her look dour and sad, which couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, Caterina is very welcoming and is at home when her guests are at home. This being Italy, this means feeding them. As trains rattle by, only a stone's throw from the kitchen window of her 2nd story apartment, Caterina serves ravioli with ragu to guests while regaling them with stories of everyday life. In particular, she lights up when she talks about the summer months she passes in the old farmhouse she still has in the hills just outside town where she grows and cans vegetables and bottles Dolcetto wine.

As she enters the cemetery that February morning, Caterina nods to the caretaker and goes on her rounds. She removes snow and debris from the family tombs and niches, cleans photos and plaques, and straightens flowers. When she reaches her grandparents’ niche, she finds in the vase of fake violets attached to the tomb, a rolled-up green Post-it note. Her first instinct is to throw it away, but curiosity wins and she reads the note. Written in Italian, it refers to people and places that make no sense to her. She puts the note in her purse and finishes up her cleaning.  Later that day, when Andrea arrives for their usual dinner together, she shares the note with him. He can’t believe his eyes.


A few weeks earlier, in January 2008, Mark and I were in Piedmont visiting family and doing genealogical research. We were living in Florence at the time so we rented a car to drive the few hours from Tuscany through Liguria and into Piedmont. In the last hour of our journey we passed from the warm Ligurian coast, up over the Ligurian Alps to descend into the snow-covered Langhe hills.

The Langhe is located within the province of Cuneo, the southernmost province of the Piedmont region of Italy. The region is famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines, toma and taleggio cheeses, thin breadsticks called grissini, bagna càuda – a hot, garlic-infused dipping sauce, hazelnuts and their creamy incarnation as nutella, truffles, and a traditional breed of cattle called fassone which has a gene mutation that leads to abnormally large growth. As well as being the birthplace of the Italian reunification, Piedmont's largest city Turin acted as the capital of a newly unified Italy between 1861 and 1865, and was the birthplace of its first king, Victor Emmanuel II.

Over eight days, we ate and drank with family, visited old haunts, and collected genealogical information for Mark's Italian citizenship. We knew that his citizenship would come through a great grandfather on his mom's side of the family. And while we focused mainly on that branch of his family, curiosity drove us to collect everything we could about all his relatives, if only to complete his family tree.  My citizenship quest would unfold months later in Palermo, and eventually both Mark and I would get Italian citizenship.

We were also searching for a lost puzzle piece in Mark's family history. Mark's maternal great grandmother, Maria, was an orphan. Maria emigrated to America from Piedmont in 1921 and never said much of her life in Italy, not even to her only daughter, Lucille, Mark’s grandmother.  Lucille would say: "Momma never wanted to talk about it. I couldn't understand why." Maria was born in Ceva where she eventually married Giacomo, Lucille’s father, but that's all that was really known.

Maria died in 1967, but the question lingered in Lucille's mind. When Lucille visited Ceva with her dad Giacomo in the 1970s, they tried to make connections with the family still there to perhaps fill in some of the gaps in Maria’s past, but found nothing. For the 85-year-old Lucille, a widow living outside of Las Vegas, her mother's past remained a mystery.

In the first decades of the 20th century many immigrants from Piedmont settled in the La Puente region of Los Angeles, as Maria and Giacomo did in 1921. Soon after arriving, Lucille was born and Maria and Giacomo were busy running a 10-acre walnut orchard. Maria would ride out every day in a horse and buggy to bring lunch to her husband and the other workers. Maria had gray eyes and brown, wavy hair which she usually wore short. She was a stocky 5' 2". Lucille recalls that her mom Maria dressed in simple print dresses and plain shoes, and was a fantastic cook. Almost all of Mark’s family recipes are passed down from Maria. There was one other tidbit Mark’s grandmother told us: for years Maria sent money to an orphanage in Ceva.

While we were in Piedmont, we decided to see if we could find anything new about Maria. We felt a little like detectives picking up an old case that had gone cold, and not really expecting to find much. Mark didn’t need more information about Maria to satisfy his citizenship’s jus sanguinis requirements because his citizenship would come through another branch of his family. Yet we wanted to return something for Lucille’s sake, to give her peace of mind about her mother.

~~~Looking for Clues~~~

In Italian cemeteries, especially in small towns, the history of generations of families is written in stone and photographs. Italians use photos attached to tombs to commemorate and personalize tombs, more so than in the USA. In the past, we have sometimes found ourselves in cemeteries perusing these photos and lazily imagining the possible life stories behind them. This time, we had a mission, and were scrutinizing the faces and names more carefully. If those thousands of eyes were gazing at us as we strolled among their tombs, we were staring back as well.

In those eight days in January 2008, we visited a half-dozen cemeteries where we thought we might uncover genealogical clues about Mark's family. The process went like this: we searched first for niches (loculi) with a family name we were looking for, then checked the birth and death dates if given. If the dates made sense, we examined nearby niches for other relationships that might help confirm or invalidate the match. It's like trying to fit pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into part of a puzzle you've already assembled but aren’t really confident is correct. We spent hours upon hours in cemeteries scrutinizing these vague traces of lives past. It was Maria's story in particular for which we kept hoping for a break. By day 4 of our 8 days in Piedmont, we had found nothing promising.

Mark’s grandmother had given us an old photo that had belonged to her mother Maria. We assumed it might have been of her adoptive parents but that was only a guess as there was no written or oral information about the photo. In the sepia-colored photo, a woman and a man circa late 1800s sit dressed in their finest. Both are stern-faced, and the woman has a noticeable frown. They adopt a pose not unlike Caterina’s.

Views of the Ceva cemetery. Tomb niches (loculi), building, and close-up of photo on tomb.

~~~To the Cemetery~~~

On January 24th, we spend the day exploring the narrow streets and porticoes of Ceva. The Tanaro and Cevetta rivers encircle the historical center making for a compact old town. The surrounding countryside rises from all directions giving Ceva a dark, sunken aspect. We wanted to like Ceva, but it just didn’t have the immediate appeal of other villages we knew in the region, such as Cherasco, the birthplace of Maria's husband, Giacomo. Cherasco has pizazz as the self-proclaimed snail capital of Italy. The town sits on a small plateau overlooking the Lange hills and vineyards around it, you can find a great meal and buy bags of delicious baci di Cherasco - hazelnut pieces enrobed in dark chocolate. Ceva and Cherasco are both off the tourist track, but Ceva’s charms would be harder to crack.

We knew Maria was born and raised in Ceva.  She and Giacomo were married in Ceva. So, whether we liked the town or not, we wanted to find out something – anything – we could about her. Maybe by walking the cobblestone lanes we might conjure her ghost or some hidden clue would reveal itself in some dark, forgotten corner.

However, after a half day of inquiry, we had uncovered nothing new on Maria so decided to head back to our hotel. It was 3 pm on a sunny, crisp winter afternoon and as we drove out of town we decided to stop at the cemetery one last time.

Ceva’s cemetery sits just south of town perched high above the Tanaro River, three acres surrounded by a 15-foot tall perimeter wall. Within the cemetery, the wall encompasses the biggest part of an outdoor mausoleum with thousands of burial niches, honoring the majority of Ceva’s former citizens. The mausoleums have the feel of a cloister: airy, but protected. Families with more money have free-standing chapel-cum-tombs in the center of the cemetery, some saccharine and gaudy, others serene and touching.

A typical Italian burial niche is marked by a rectangular panel on a wall roughly 24 by 18 inches and running about 10 feet deep. When someone dies, the body may spend some time in the common, open section of the cemetery, and later be moved to their family niche. The remains in the niche of whoever was interned before are pushed backward to make room, falling into a common pile of bones and dust underground. We walked slowly and methodically through the porticoes of the mausoleum, endlessly scanning names and photos, proxies for the bones and dusty remains of all those who came before.

And then it happened. In the slanting light of the late afternoon sun, we caught a glimpse of the two unmistakable, stern faces we had been carrying in our pocket. We couldn't believe our eyes. We pulled out the photos and yes, these were in fact of the same image, perhaps the only photograph the couple had ever taken. The dates on the man's niche placed him about 50 years older than Maria but there weren't any dates on the woman's niche. It was promising: to match a photo in a sea of images surely meant something.

Their names were Marcellina Bottero and Filippo Bottero. Bottero is a common name of the region and a name that Maria had sometimes used on documents; the other name Maria used was Iuvara. Could this be the tomb of Maria's adopted parents? We weren't sure. 

The cemetery was closing. We were tired and excited, and unsure what to do. We decided to leave a note. A green Post-it. In the best Italian he could muster, Mark described who he was, who Maria was, when she was born and when she emigrated to the USA, as well as an email address to contact us.  We rolled up the Post-it note and tucked it into the vase of fake violets mounted on the tomb of Marcellina and Filippo and then departed. It was already dark.

~~~Back to Ceva~~~

We decided to return to Ceva the next day, buoyed by our find at the cemetery, to continue looking for clues about Maria. 

In Italy, vital records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates are maintained at the municipal level; every town has its anagrafe (vital records) office.  When we know what we are looking for, this is our first stop.  When we aren’t sure what we are looking for, we head to the cemeteries. After the previous day’s discovery at the cemetery, we now had some names matched to faces, so we headed to the anagrafe.

We explained what we knew about Maria and the two surnames she used: Bottero and Iuvara. They made us official copies of Maria's birth and marriage certificates - handcrafting official-looking certificates from the data they looked up in large massive record books. We learned that orphaned children were often given a surname very different from the names of families in the area. That explained the Iuvara name - a name not common in this part of Italy.

An employee of the anagrafe pointed across the piazza saying that the newborn Maria was likely left at mayor's doorstep by a desperate mother and from there she would have gone to the nearby orphanage. He advised us to inquire at the parochial church office for information about her time in the orphanage. We left our email and a cell phone number at the anagrafe and walked over to the church.
We spent an hour or so in the parochial office speaking with two kind nuns who braved our excited explanations in broken Italian. They consulted their dusty record books, searching for our Maria, but she wasn’t there. The orphanage had closed several years before and the records that we needed were still in storage. It wasn't clear when they would ever be accessible. As all things in Italy, we took a deep breath, smiled, and said va bene, grazie.

We were hoping that the parochial records would provide information about Maria’s date of adoption and possibly who had adopted her. But Ceva wasn’t giving up its secrets that easily. At least we had the satisfaction of imagining that this very orphanage might have been where Maria had been sending money for so many years, helping other orphans.

Back on the streets of Ceva, we walked aimlessly. The story of Mark’s great-grandmother Maria was starting to consume us. At this point, we were confident that Marcellina and Filippo Bottero (the stern ones) must have adopted Maria and that's why she used that name. But how to find anybody still living connected to them?  Filippo Bottero died in 1925.  We thought of calling Botteros in the phone book, but there were too many. By chance, we stopped in a clothing store with Bottero in its name. They listened to our story but could offer no help. The name was simply too common.  The Post-it note seemed to be our only chance, but how often does anyone visit the cemetery, and in particular to visit relatives who had passed away over 70 years before?

~~~Andrea and the Note~~~

On the evening of February 7th, 2008 when Caterina showed the note to Andrea, there was a loud howl in Caterina's apartment. Andrea was excited, at first cursing his sister for almost throwing the note away, and then cursing the world in general. Andrea, two years older than Caterina, was easily excitable. He never married and in some ways his relationship with Caterina was that of an old bickering couple. Caterina, the more cool-headed of the two was used to his excitement. She listened attentively as she cleaned up the dishes from dinner, tortellini in brodo.

Andrea looked similar to his sister, slight in build, and a few inches taller with a fair complexion and engaging dark eyes. He was always neatly dressed in a shirt, tie, sweater and sport coat. His white hair neatly combed and reading glasses suspended around his neck. Andrea was a respected science and math teacher. Of his siblings, Catterina and brother Eugenio, he was the most curious about the world. He had studied English in London and also lived briefly in New Mexico. He was also the family historian and realized immediately that the Post-It could answer a question he had been wondering about for years: a mysterious aunt who had emigrated to America before he was born.

On February 8th, Andrea sent an email to the address we left in the green Post-it note. It was cordially written in both Italian and English and started as:

        Io sono Bottero Andrea residente in Ceva  (Italy).
          I am Bottero Andrea living in Ceva (Italy).

        Ieri mia sorella Catterina è andata al cimitero e ha trovato il tuo biglietto.
          Yesterday my sister Catterina went to the cemetery and found your note.

We received the email and were shocked that someone had already found our note. We replied cautiously that we were happy and would write back in more detail shortly because we were in the middle of a two-week tour in Greece. Even as we were exchanging emails with Andrea, he was raising hell in Ceva, in particular, at the anagrafe. When he had found out that there were two strangers, two Americans nonetheless, asking about the Botteros -- his family -- and nobody had bothered to contact him, he went livid. He managed to cudgel our cell phone number from the anagrafe, and unsatisfied with just an email, he called us shortly after sending the email.

We are driving in the Peloponnese peninsula, when we receive Andrea's call. He politely restates in English the story of finding our note and urges us several times that we must come visit. We promise we will. We still don’t know for sure if we have found a connection to Maria, but an Italian invitation to visit is not to be taken lightly so we know we will go and then, hopefully, we will find out a little more about Maria.

~~~First Contact~~~

We first meet Caterina and Andrea on March 7th, 2008. When we pull into the parking area of their apartment building in Ceva, we see an elegantly-dressed man pacing out front. It's Andrea and he has been waiting for us. And as we would learn later, Caterina was watching from her dining room window on the second story.

Andrea greets us with a big smile. He is amused to find two middle-aged men in front of him. It's obvious that Mark is his relative, being fair-skinned and northern Italian in appearance. My shorter stature, hair and skin color testifies to my family's southern Italian origins.  That said, we’re both embraced as family, a feeling of belonging which would only grow from that moment.
After a few minutes of introductions and questions about where we are living in Italy and what we are doing, he guides us inside. We climb the wide marble staircase to meet the person that has made this moment possible: Caterina. Apartment door ajar, she is waiting, apron on.

We exchange the traditional Italian kiss on both cheeks as though we were old friends and are promptly shuttled to the dining room table to eat.  First things first in Italy: let’s eat!

The backbone of Caterina’s apartment is a long hallway with a small living room and formal dining room on the left; a kitchen and informal dining room on the right; and a single bedroom and bathroom at the end of the hall. The floors are marble and the walls sparsely decorated: a needlepoint proverb in Piedmontese, a map of old Ceva, and a pair of wooden praying hands. We would spend most of our day, as in all our subsequent visits, in her informal dining room and kitchen, which is the heart of her home.

During that first encounter, as trains rumble by, we begin to reconstruct the details of how Mark is connected to Andrea and Caterina. Andrea sometimes speaks in English, proud to show off his ability. Caterina could care less. She speaks in a mix of Piedmontese and Italian.

After several hours, we arrive at the following: Mark's great grandmother, Maria, was indeed adopted by Marcellina and Filippo Bottero sometime around 1906. The couple were older and already had six children. Maria was a step-sister to Andrea and Caterina's father; however, she had emigrated to America before they were born. Therefore Andrea, Caterina, and their brother Eugenio only knew Maria as the mysterious aunt who left for America.

Our bond with Caterina and Andrea grew over those few days in March that we spent with them. They wanted to know all about Maria's life in America, and all about her family.  Together we called Mark's grandmother, Maria’s daughter Lucille, who spoke with Caterina and Andrea for the first time ever, falling fluently into the Piedmontese dialect with even the same Ceva accent she had learned as a little girl from her mother Maria. Lucille was ecstatic; she talked for hours with her new-found cousins. Lucille now had a link to her mother's past.

Andrea took us to visit the old house in the hills above Ceva, the house that had belonged to his grandparents Filippo and Marcella Bottero, the house that Maria had lived in from when she was six years old until she married Giacomo and left for America. The house with its thick stone walls now in ruins, surrounded by tall grass and old fruit trees that Caterina still harvests herself. We peek in the doors and windows; the floor and parts of the tile roof now collapsed. We try to imagine it as it was in Maria’s time.

On the drive back to town, Andrea tells us stories of being harassed as a young boy by German troops during the Nazi occupation, and how he escaped. And later as a young man, studying engineering and going to London to work and learn English, of going to New Mexico, of returning to teach at a technical school, and of family stories past and present.

The serendipitous green Post-it note unlocked a family secret and reunited two long lost families, separated cross a century, two continents, and such different histories.

Left: View of Ceva, Italy. Center: Small square in Ceva. Right: At the anagrafe, records office.

~~~A Piece Found, A Piece Lost~~~

Here we are again in Ceva’s cemetery. It is a warm spring Sunday in May 2013. This time Mark and I are visiting with his grandmother Lucille, his mom Marianne, and dad Davis.  Andrea's passing only two months earlier in March dampens the mood. We had all been looking forward to seeing each other. Caterina meets us at the cemetery in her tiny green Autobianchi into which she has managed to squeeze Lucia (her brother Eugenio's wife) and Vincenza (a cousin).

The two American and three Italian women roam the cemetery together, sometimes solemnly arm-in-arm and sometimes laughing and holding hands. Lucille is in her element, all smiles, and even at 91 walking briskly so that her cane seems more a prop than a necessity. The women whizz around the cemetery visiting relatives and sharing stories. One story in particular is repeated often. It’s the story of how when Lucille visited Ceva in 1971. She and Mark’s grandfather Bernard were visiting the ‘old country’ with Giacomo, Maria’s husband and Lucille’s father. Maria had already passed away a few years earlier.  They had stopped at a farm that Giacomo had recognized. Perhaps the family was still there he thought. As it turns out, they met none other than Vincenza's mother who at the time knew nothing of Maria or that part of the family’s history. She invited Mark’s grandparents and great-grandfather inside for lunch anyway and they passed part of the afternoon together. This was the house of Maria’s adoptive family. These were the husband and the daughter of the mysterious aunt who had emigrated to America. But the Americans and Italians that day in 1971 never made the connection.

It amazes everyone – no one more than Andrea – that Lucille had been so close in the 1970s and that it would take a hastily scribbled Post-it note almost 40 years later to make the connection. There are no hard feelings though, just gratitude that they are all together now. Mark and I feel honored to have played a small part. Mark’s mom, Marianne, got to meet Caterina and Andrea in June 2008 when visiting us in Florence. And soon after in Fall 2008 Lucille returned with her son John to meet their new cousins. And of course, regular phone calls and cards have further strengthened our new-found connections.

We all stop before Andrea's grave. Caterina waters a rose in a pot at the head of the grave. She would later transfer the rose to her summer house in the hills above Ceva where it thrives today.

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