The video below, “The Key To My Gandfather’s House,” originated as a powerful photo-essay, crafted by my older brother, David. We traveled to Italy in Fall 2003, along with our Italian aunts, Teresa and Loretta. The goal was to meet family we still still have in the Calabrian town of Rende. And from there to head into the hills and visit the house where my father was born, on a hillside where generations of family lived.
The village of San Pietro en Guarano—the town named on my father’s birth certificate—was visible high in the hills that ring Rende. The town appeared only as a small tan smudge up in the green hills as seen from the 5th floor balcony of a relative’s porch. After pointing it out, our relative used scissors to snip off some small red peppers growing in a pot. They added a spicy kick to that evening’s homemade pasta.
The hillside where my father, Dulio, was born and our Italian forbears lived for generations was a short drive downhill from San Pietro en Guarano. Or a longer donkey trot. (I came home with a rusty donkey or mule horseshoe found in the tall grass near his house. It’s in my living room behind a Buddha statue, as we speak.)
It was a momentous trip in many ways. I will let the video speak to that.
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A couple of months after we returned, a Fed Ex package arrived at my house in West Virginia, sent by David in Ohio. I pulled from the envelope a thick print-out of what looked like a long poem, illustrated by some of the remarkable photos he’d shot throughout the trip. It was so powerful and so good, I was weeping before it was done.
David and I later collaborated on a shorter video version of what we call in brotherly shorthand “The Key.” Here it is below. I invite you to set aside some moments of your sheltering-in-place to experience it. It’s the immigrant tale of one Italian family, but it could be the kindred tale of millions of families across innumerable cultures through time.
This particular story began on a steep Calabrian hillside in the early 20th century. It then shifts to two ocean liners, leaving the nearby port of Naples in the 1920s, but at an interval of a half-decade. The story steams across the Atlantic through Ellis Island. It lands in the multi-ethnic town of Lorain, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.
Through it all, the tale circles around themes of family, emigration, loss, stormy emotions and heritage. Your reactions are welcome in the comments below with any feelings or thoughts it may stir up, perhaps from your own immigrant roots. In one way or another, we’re all descendants of immigrants from somewhere and someplace. (And we remain a nation of new immigrants and are made stronger by them.)
As David puts it so eloquently:
The tale of “The Key To My Grandfather’s House” is not mine, nor my brother Doug’s. It is our family’s story. Normally, I would say that I wrote it. Actually, I feel as if I “channeled” it from our ancestors. I am usually a visual communicator but here the words came to the forefront and my photographs reverted to snapshots. Our aunts, Teresa and Loretta, who accompanied us, might have been the mediums through which our ancestors channeled the story.”
NOTE: The video can be viewed as a separate stand-alone work of art, but it is also a companion piece to a spoken-word live performance by David.