Discovering My Family History

I didn’t want to write about this, because it’s so personal. But I think it’s important to let people see stuff like this, so here we are.

My Creative Writing major (which my brother insists will condemn me to the barista life) requires a twenty- to twenty-five-page piece of creative writing. I chose to write about my grandmother’s immigration story. I thought it would be simple enough; she came over from Orsogna, Italy in 1939 to escape the Nazis and stayed here for eleven years before returning to her decimated village.

I didn’t think I’d have enough to write about. I thought I’d write some historical fiction piece loosely based on her life. But instead, I started with some essays on visiting her village after her death. Sounds boring, I know, but the catch is that literally everyone in my family in Italy insists that I look exactly like my grandmother. I’ve talked about this before, in other blog posts.

So I started with the village. I started with my connection to the village, and to my grandmother’s past.

But I had questions. Why did my grandmother really come over? Tickets at that time cost a fortune and she could not have chosen a more opportune time to get out–– Italy joined the war a month after she arrived in America. So what made my great-grandfather put her on a boat? My Italian family says he had a German friend who warned him of the coming danger. But who was the man? How did he know my great-grandfather? And bigger than that, what was it like, living in Fascist Italy? Did my great-grandfather believe in fascism? What did he do when the war broke out?

I knew I had to do research, just like a real historian. Ah, research. That’s my comfort zone. and both told me things I already knew; my grandmother’s father, Nicòlo, had married Vittoria Damiano in 1923, and she died giving birth to my grandmother in the same year. Seventeen years later, my grandmother got on a boat and set out for America. But I found records; the passenger list from 1912 with the name of my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s side. A census with my grandmother’s aunt and uncle’s names, the relatives with whom she stayed in America. My great-grandfather’s marriage certificate.

This was all fine and good but I was missing something.

That’s when I decided to look into the bombing of the village.

A couple of Google searches brought me to a massive online database of firsthand New Zealander accounts of their battles in WWII. A couple of clicks brought me face-to-face with a full-fledged play-by-play of the assault on my grandmother’s village.

Every hour of every day of the assault was accounted for. The names and nicknames of the soldiers who died or were wounded or did something heroic or said something funny stood out like bright lights in the darkness of every page. Not a single name of an Italian civilian was mentioned, though the Orsognians were briefly said to be kind and accommodating, but scared and desperate. They had three options, according to the lieutenant in charge of the assault: they could stay in the village and be bombed or killed by Nazis on the “scorched earth” warpath, they could hide in caves in the countryside in midwinter, or they could be held hostage by Nazis in an internment camp in Lanciano, a few kilometers away.

And then there was the bombing itself. Images. Videos from 1944, ending in a title reading “Two Thousand Tons!” The bragging of the lieutenant in his reports about how well they had conquered Orosgna after months of hard fighting, alongside lists of civilian casualties.

I looked up after hours of reading and watching, tears streaming down my face and feeling stupid. My dad had told me how bad the bombing had been; every time we visit, he says, “The Allies bombed the shit out of this place,” at least twice. But nobody could have prepared me for seeing it.

My project became about the discovery of this history, and the silence of my grandmother. She just never talked about it. That pain had to have been too great. Imagine, leaving your home for the first time, alone, at seventeen, for a country whose language you don’t speak and not knowing when or if you’ll come back. And once there, you don’t go back for eleven years. And even when you do go back, nothing is left. Nothing would be the same. It’s no wonder my grandmother wouldn’t talk about it.

But now it’s time for me to write about it. To fulfill the major learning outcomes of my Creative Writing major, I have to think about my form, my audience, and my style. I’m using a collection of nonfiction essays as my form, peppered with some historical fictional renderings of my grandmother’s experience. My audience? Anyone who will listen and has a reading level above the fourth grade. I like to think my style is like a really rich chocolate cake– too much and you want to stop. But I’m working on it.

My revisions have been pretty intensive; I meet with Dr. Cozzens (she insists I call her Christine, that’s just the relationship we have) every week to discuss what to add and take away. But mostly, we discuss what to add. I have a couple of stories on the agenda, and I’ve been shaving down some of the bits that don’t really progress the story. Hopefully, I can deliver a great final draft that my family will be proud of. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even go into a 490.

This is the rough draft of my Creative Writing senior project. Please be kind and remember, it’s a rough draft. Hold out for the final!

A Portrait of the Author as Her Grandmother (Rough Draft)


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