We visit Conca Casale….
We circled the mountain to the small town, Conca Casale, high in the hills of Abruzzo where Diane’s grandparents were born and from which they came to America. (I wonder what it was like to walk down the mountain to Venafro, then to travel to Naples, so many miles and days away, to board the boat to America).
My brother-in-law, Frank, and Diane’s sister, Pat, arrived a day earlier. He wrote of a day as exciting as it gets in Conca Casale. “Our day began with cafe e’ latte at Rita’s house. We sat around for an hour or so and then delivered Gino’s lunch to his work site near the cemetery. We visited the tomba di Zia Assunta and then we headed to the Piazza at the entrance to the village to wait for Diana, Eduardo, and their friends. After an hour or more and several attempts to reach the travelers (us) by phone, they arrived with their sad story of being lost (nothing new) somewhere out of the Avellino area.”
He continued. “The Conca Casale families love to see new members of the family and were very excited to be meeting one of Patrizia’s sisters. There was a very warm reception waiting for them when they arrived.” He was right.
The day was beautiful, the mountain air crisp and warm, the countryside as inviting as our hosts. As we made the turn into the square of Conca Casale, there was Patrizia, sitting on a low irregular stone wall that bracketed the main street in this town of 250 inhabitants. Her smile welcomed us. She took a deep sigh when we arrived. “They were so worried about you.”
We parked, exited the car, and Diane’s family descended from everywhere and surrounded us. We were enveloped in, and became part of the family, as if we had always lived there and left for a little while, maybe for a day or so. They were people we seemed to know for years. They were people who showed no pretense. Their love was unrequieted; their acceptance total. We were stunned.
“I have family here,” Diane said. “I can’t believe it! Here they are.”
Frank and Patrizia, proud because they had the luxury of visiting six years earlier, introduced us. Their affection was palpable, their excitement described perfectly by the Italian word, “fretta”…speedy, quick, in a hurry…. in a hurry to grasp all they could in a the short time allowed.
There was Rita, the matriarchal contessa, unofficial leader of the group, a second cousin. She started talking in a babble that was difficult to understand, not because it was dialect, but because she was so excited and speaking in haste, in fretta. The words melded into one another. Husband Vincenzo stood quietly nearby with a subtle and calm smile. His bright eyes were happy; his face…wizened, weathered, and leathery…was rutted from years in the sun. Both he and his widowed brother, Gino, had the most engaging smiles… smiles brimming with confidence, pride and satisfaction.
They introduced us to their children and grandchildren, and then off we went to a restaurant reached by driving across a narrow dirt road to the next paese, the place where Nana Bucci (Diane and Patrizia’s grandmother) was born.
We proceeded in a caravan of four cars…”in carozza si parte”… six kilometers through the hills to a restaurant larger than we expected, obviously the place where the area events…weddings, communion, birthdays, etc., took place. It was appropriately named Il Lupo, a name that captured us in its jaws. The taxidermist did a good job with the wolf sitting on the table at the entrance.
Our meal started with antipasti of several different meats like proscuitto, salami, etc., followed by an interesting chick pea puree dish, a hot bean dish and then a primo piatto of gnocchi and tagliatini. Several meat dishes…liver, boar, and rabbit… followed. The wine flowed. Caffe’ and limoncello ended the meal. The Italian was flying in a staccato that I had never experienced. Everyone, speaking simultaneously, emulated Rita’s excitement and spoke as if they would never have a thing to say or another person to talk to when we left. I could not keep my head steady, turning to and fro like a cuckoo coming out of his clock, trying to grasp all that was said, trying to answer as best I could, making stuff up and muttering “Si, Si, davvero, buono, mi diaspiace.”
After the meal, we returned to Conca Casale to visit the church(of course), the cemetery(of course), new baby Stefano(of course), a bar(of course), and Rita’s home(of course). Giuseppe, Rita’s son–in–law, found out that I enjoyed writing, so took me to his home to show me his vast collection of classic books. He gave me one written in Italian, a history of Italy.
They opened the church for us. They were so proud of it, just as they were of everything else. It was charming, tiny, functional, and with the expected picture of Padre Pio in the corner. We looked at wooden benches with the Bucci name engraved on bronze plaques screwed to the back.
“Guarda. Guarda. Here it is. Nana Bucci’s bench. And your grandfather, and his brother. See. See.”
The day was ending. I was concerned about driving back to Avellino in the dark. We had to leave.They were not happy.
We were overwhelmed by the hospitality and the vitality of so many. Rita asked, “Tornerete?” There was a bit of sadness in her voice. I wondered why. Perhaps it was because so many had left Conca Casale for so many reasons…jobs, marriage, education, death. Perhaps it was because now there were empty houses in Conca Casale, houses left to relatives who could not fill them. Perhaps it was because the central point in town was the cemetery. Perhaps it was because she knew that once we returned to our hectic world in the States, we would move on to our own busy-ness and not think to call or to write or to return. “Will you return?”
We promised.“Si, si, “ I said. Diane and I meant it. We will return.
“Non lo credo, “ she replied as she looked down at the ground.
How could she not believe that we would return?
“No, no, Rita, Vincenzo, Gino, Giuseppe, “Torneremo! Voi siete nel nostre cuore. Non vi dimenticheremo mai.”
We will return. You are in our hearts. We will never forget.