Not From Around Here

Oct 08

Everyone wonders who they are, and it follows that everyone wonders where they come from.  Some are fortunate enough to live in lands that have been theirs for millenia. The land has names they’ve bequeathed it, and the very environment vibrates with a meaning that is grasped on some deep, inner and chthonic level. Historical details about origins aren’t as important to these folk-the weight of their beginnings are found in myths and legends. Great heroes are the founders of these nations. The battles they fought to ensure the future of their peoples are conflicts of good and evil, where brave men defeat the darkness with the blessing of the Gods.

This isn’t the case, of course, for those of us living in nations founded later, as any American will tell you-however uncomfortably. Our national birth-pangs include mass genocide and enslavement. But what is more, none of us are from here. The hills, rivers and forests that we are born to are still too new to be fully ours. Our people came here from across the Sea. Regardless of whether you are European, Asian or African. So-who are we? Where do we come from?

I grew up in the American South. A place where the people  who have settled it are Europeans and Africans with decidedly Anglo-Saxon names, as well as appearance and folk-ways. My appearance made some difference obvious: I was dark haired and dark skinned, with a large nose and Mediterranean features. My religion was similar, but not the same: I was Catholic. But more than anything, my name: Ristuccia. It’s interesting to have a name that’s hard to pronounce and so, easy to remember. It was a source of oddity that marked me. Catholics with German or Irish names could avoid detection. Many Southerners have Native blood, and so have dark skin and hair. But my name, there was no getting around it. Ristuccia. I’ve heard it pronounced as many ways as you can imagine over the years-in school, on sports teams, at work. One of my favorites was an African American kid named Kim that I went to school with (he was a boy, by the way)-he’d pronounce it a different way every time I saw him as a joke between the two of us-and I still laugh about it today.

Ristuccia-what kind of name is that? Where are you from? Even before these questions might naturally arise-it was put before me. There weren’t any others in Athens, Georgia-the town I lived in. I never met any others in Georgia, or even the entire Southeast. We were Italian. My people were New York. New York-more than any other American city, is the center of the Italian experience in the United States. More than Chicago, more than Philadelphia. New York. I got that much just from my parents stories. New York, in some strange way, became where I was truly from-because it was obvious that I wasn’t from where I lived, despite the fact that I was born there. New York was my own mythic land of origin.

One glorious summer, my family took an extended vacation to the Big Apple. I left behind the small Southern time that was my home and flew on a jet to the de facto capital of the world. While there, we visited family, toured the sights. I got to see the Bronx Zoo and eat in traditional Italian restaurants nearby. We went to the top of the World Trade Center. While there, my grandfather, knowing about my interest in geneology, gave me my great grandfather’s papers. Old, brown, faded. It was written on in black ink, with a handwriting that was almost like calligraphy. It described my great grandfather in Italian. His eyes were ceruli. It named my great-great-grandfather: he was Giovanni. That’s Italian for John. John was my grandfather’s name, my father’s middle name-and I’ve kept it in the family, it’s the name of my youngest son. Giovanni. It was traceable to the mid-nineteenth century. What was more, I learned that we were from Lipari. Lipari is a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. It’ s relatively small, with a permanent population of ten thousand people. The chief crops are wine grapes and capers. The main industry is tourism. My ancestors were fishermen. The name Ristuccia had a poetic meaning: when you burn a field of wheat (something farmers used to do to refertilize their fields), the part that re-grows is the Ristuccia. It indicates life-death-rebirth.

Later, I learned that Lipari was completely depopulated in 1544 when the Ottoman corsair Barbarossa attacked it. Obviously, this meant we moved there some time after this. And then, in a random Internet search, I found a record of the names of the city in Lipari. Our name appeared in 1544. We were part of the contingent sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to re-settle the island. There, before me, was the history of my family going back to the sixteenth century. For an American, this is an exceptional experience and somewhat unheard of. And then, not too much later I met other Ristuccias from Lipari with Giovanni in their name. Cousins of mine from some earlier century. I am sure there is a history that goes further than this and maybe some day I’ll learn it-but for now, just being able to look back to the 1500’s gives me a sense of continuty to the past, a connection that is deeper in time and thus, deeper to myself.

6 comments

  1. Wow! I love your story Peter, and I love your last name…it is beautifully Italian.

  2. Hi Peter

    My father’s family name is Ristuccia and his forebears were from the Aeolian island of Salina – right next door to Lipari as I’m sure you know! My great-grandfather’s name was Giovanni and his wife was Mary. They migrated to Sydney, Australia and had seven (or eight?) children. We must be related!

    Regards
    Susan

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