Thursday, October 23, 2014

Italian children’s tales are part of Nonno’s legacy

Nonno (Michele Spadoni) in his Shore Acres farm yard.
My sister and brother had the good fortune of living in Nonno’s house during their early childhood. Linda was seven and Roger five when Dad and Mom moved from Nonno’s house to Rosedale, and I was born a few months later, just as our family was moving to the new house. Dad had spent all but the first few months of his life in the Shore Acres neighborhood of Gig Harbor, and when he married Mom, she moved into the Spadoni family home. Linda and Roger remember waking up on cold winter mornings and crawling into bed with Nonno, who would often tell them stories with his heavy Italian accent. For me, unfortunately, Nonno was just the name of the old man who held me on his lap and gave me money when we went to his house on Christmas Eve. He died when I was six.

Nonno’s stories, however, live on. His children told them to their children, although not frequently enough for most of us to remember them today. Though I barely knew Nonno, at least I had the good fortune of having Linda and Roger for sister and brother, because they probably knew Nonno better than any of his grandchildren still alive today.

It is mostly from listening to Linda that I know the stories of Pigottino, Patuzzo and the Filli Billi Macola. The latter story, I have concluded, was concocted entirely by Nonno, as none of my Italian relatives has heard anything like it. However, last April when Linda and I visited our cousin Grazia in Italy, we asked if she had ever heard the story of Pigottino. After a little prompting, she said she did remember it. In fact, she said, it was a well-known children’s tale in the Tuscany region, but we had the name wrong: It should be Pochettino. Armed with this new information, I did a web search and located the story on several Italian websites. The sites confirmed that the story has been told for many years throughout Tuscany, and the hero of the story is usually named Pochettino, but some versions call him Buchettino, Pezzettino or Minuzzolo. I even found one reference to the story of Pigottino, although the text was not provided, and I eventually discovered that a Pigotta is a rag doll, so Pigottino would be a diminutive form of that word. Each version is slightly different, but most all have the same key features in common, and overall I am amazed at how closely the online accounts match the story as told today by Linda.

Children’s stories—favole, in Italian—were passed from person to person, and each story-teller added his or her own personal flair. Nonno and Linda both added details that are not in the online accounts I found. Since I found only one version written in English—using the name Buchettino and in a book from the early 1900s that is out of print—I have decided to translate one of the Italian versions myself. It does not have some of the embellishments added by Nonno and Linda, but perhaps at a later date I will mix those in as well. I would be interested to hear from other Italian-Americans to see if their parents or grandparents told them a similar story. I have left a few words and phrases in Italian so as not to interrupt the rhyming.

In the days that cats could fly and holidays were held every other day, there was a beautiful child whose name was Pochettino. To teach Pochettino how to work, his mother hid a coin in the house, and every day she said to him: “Pochettino, Pochettino, sweep the house well and you’ll find a soldino.”

Pochettino always swept well and made everything shine, and finally one day the broom swept out a penny, and Pochettino jumped with happiness.

“Now that I’ve finally found it,” Pochettino said, “I have to think hard about what to buy and spend it wisely. I think I will buy a bag of cherries . . . no, because I have to throw away the pit and the stem! Then I will buy nuts . . . no, because a part of the penny will be spent on the shells! And if I buy apples, I’ll be paying for the core. I know: I’ll buy a bag of figs, because we also eat the skins and don’t throw anything away!”

And so he went to buy a bag of figs, but it was a small bag because a penny wouldn’t buy very much. After returning home, he began to eat on the window ledge. As he was eating with great gusto, the last one fell below him in the lane. Pochettino began to cry, calling his papa to find the fig that had fallen. But his father said to him: “Pochettino, leave the fig where it fell, because soon a beautiful plant will be born. Fig trees grow quickly, and then branches will be here in front of the window, and you can go up to eat the figs!”

In fact, since fig trees do grow fast—even faster in stories—a beautiful tree soon grew outside the window, and Pochettino climbed on the branches and went up to eat the figs. One day Pochettino was eating a fine meal when an ogre passed by and saw him there dining on the beautiful figs. He called out:
Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

(Give me a beautiful little fig with your little white hand; some versions say “santo manino,” would could mean sainted or more figuratively, precious little hand.)

But Pochettino said to him: “No, because if I reach out my hand, you will eat me! I will throw it to you.”

Pochettino let a fig fall to the ground.

“I don’t want that; it went into the mud,” said the ogre, and he called again:

Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

“No, you want to eat me! Take this one.”

And he threw another down, but the ogre dropped it and said:
“I can’t eat that. You see it fell into some cow poop.” And once again he called:
Pochettino, Pochettino,
Dammi un bel fichino
Col tuo bianco manino.

Pochettino was a kind-hearted boy, so he said: “I’ll give you one, but don’t eat me.”

He reached out to hand the ogre a fig, but the ogre grabbed him by the arm and put him in his sack. He threw it on his shoulders and began to run home to cook and eat Pochettino with his wife.

On the way he needed to stop and relieve himself, so he put down the bag and told Pochettino to be good.

“Go farther away, ogre. Otherwise I will smell the terrible stink,” said Pochettino from the bag.

The ogre moved away a little, but Pochettino had a good idea, and he said: “Go farther. The stink will disgust me.”

“Is this OK?” said the ogre with a voice far, far away.

“Even farther,” shouted Pochettino.

When he had sent the ogre so far away that he could not see, Pochettino took a little knife from his pocket and cut the string of the bag. He took the largest stones he could find and stuffed them in the bag. Then he re-tied it and ran away.

When the ogre had done his business, he returned to pick up the bag and put it back on his shoulders. He said, “Oh, Pochettino, how did you become so heavy: when I caught you, you seemed lighter. But that is better, because now we can eat you for several days.”

As the ogre arrived in sight of his house, he began to cry out to his ogress:
Mogliera, my mogliera,
make a fire for the caldera
I captured Pochettino!
Mogliera, my mogliera,
make a fire for the caldera
I captured Pochettino!

When he got home and found his wife, the ogre danced for joy, and said: “Did you put a fire under the caldera?”

“Yes, everything is ready,” she said.

In fact there was a fire that looked like a furnace, and the boiling water looked like a volcano. The ogre opened the bag and dumped it out into the water, but the large stones broke through the caldera and the water came out in a wave, washing over the ogress, killing her and badly burning the ogre. He was so enraged that he bit into his hands and fire spurted from his eyes. The next day, still in pain from the scalding water, he took the bag and ran to recapture Pochettino.

When he heard the ogre coming, Pochettino climbed out a window onto the roof. When the ogre saw him up there, he pretended that everything was a joke, saying, “Pochettino, how did you get on the roof? I want to come up there too.”

“Certainly not. You will eat me.”

“No, I don’t want to eat you. Just tell me.”

“No, you will eat me!”

“I won’t eat you. I promise.”

“Then I’ll tell you. I made ​​a ladder with all the pans that were in the house!”

The ogre went into the house and took all the pans, making a ladder, but when he was in the middle, the pans tumbled down, and the ogre fell and broke some bones.

“Pochettino,” he said, rising with difficulty. “Tell me the truth! How did you get up on the roof?”

“This time I’ll tell you. I made a ladder of the dishes.”

The ogre believed it and made the ladder of dishes, but it ended the same way.

“Look at how I’ve been hurt, Pochettino! Do not be evil and tell me: How did you come up?”

“This time I’ll really tell you,” said Pochettino. “I made a big ladder with the glasses.”

The ogre, with great effort and the few healthy bones he had left, made a ladder of glasses, but after arriving almost at the top, he fell like a log, and died.

Pochettino came down from the roof and climbed up the fig tree and went back to eating his figs, finally at peace . . . and if you go to his house to see, the tree may still be there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Linda’s unhappy biking tale turns out to be blessing in disguise for all

Linda gets off the train in Pescia
May 2014
My sister is a master story teller. No one who knows her well would oppose that statement. She doesn’t just tell children’s stories, although she’s great at that. She also tells stories about the interesting things that have happened to her, and she does a marvelous job at this as well. She’s not technically a professional story teller, although that can be debated, since she was an elementary school teacher for much of her life and thus was paid while she told stories to her students.

Since story telling is so much a part of her nature, it seemed a bit cruel to take her to a foreign country where she couldn’t speak the language well enough to tell any stories. But that’s what happened when Linda visited us in Italy for three weeks in late April and early May.

Of course, she could tell her stories to me and Lucy, but we’ve heard most of them (sometimes more than once, but I don’t stop her from repeating them). In Italy, she met many cousins on both the Spadoni and Seghieri sides of the family, but since few of them speak English and her Italian is limited to about a hundred words, she had to bottle up her stories She was stuck with amusing things to say and no way to express them except a few words and some sign language. She could tell Ivo that he had a “buon cuore,” a good heart, and that she enjoyed the fried snails he prepared for us and the sweet wine he gave us, but we could sense her frustration with not being able to say more. I could relate: I had lived through the same experience for the past three winters here. Finally this year I could communicate reasonably well enough to feel comfortable conversing with my Italian relatives. A couple of times I even said something clever or funny enough in Italian to make people smile or laugh—an important milestone by my reckoning.

A smiling Linda mounts the bike for the first time.
Finally, when something extremely story-worthy happened to Linda as she tried to ride a bike along Via Mattonaia, the need to tell about it became so strong that she broke the language barrier, spending hours on Google Translate and enlisting my help to write down what had happened so she could read it to our relatives. She would show it to me to smooth out the phrasing, and just when we thought she was done, she would go back to the dictionary to add more details. I’m sure my corrections were imperfect, but I knew that a little awkward wording along with Linda’s accent would just add to the charm, so I didn’t sweat the details.

Unfortunately, the first time she had a chance to tell it we were with Enrico Spadoni and his family, who had invited us over for an authentic pizza dinner at their house. Linda had borrowed the bike from Gilda Seghieri, the padrona of the Casolare dei Fiori agristurismo. Because Linda was writing the story for Gilda, she hadn’t thought to bring it along to the dinner. Thus she told it from memory, a little bit in Italian, quite a bit with gestures and pantomime, but mostly in English with me trying to translate. We did an adequate job, but Linda knew that next time she would need to be more prepared.

Linda gives a dramatic reading to Gilda.
That chance came when Francesca Seghieri and her mother Dosolina paid us a visit in our apart-
ment. They were about to leave when Linda pulled out the story and this time read it with polish and dramatic expression, even if she did mispronounce a handful of words. This time her audience was more impressed, as were Lucy and I.

Finally, on our last full day in Italy, we called Gilda away from her
Gilda shows her appreciation for the story.
kitchen at the agriturismo and sat her down in our apartment. Linda did a masterful job, and Gilda smiled and laughed throughout, although she did feel the need to apologize for the trouble Linda had encountered with the borrowed bike. We assured her that the problems were not her fault and that they had actually been the highlight of the trip for Linda, in a backwards sort of way. Without the unfortunate bike experience, Linda would have lacked a great story to tell her relatives, both in Italy and when she returned to America. “I told Gilda grazie mille,” Linda said, “and said that it was an experience I would never forget, that it would be a good memory of my visit, and it would be a great story to tell people when I got back home.”

And for Lucy and me, it also helped us feel more a part of our extended Italian family. Despite having lived at the Casolare dei Fiori for portions of four years, we had never really had an extended conversation with Gilda or shared any of our experiences in detail with her. Laughing together with her advanced our relationship more in those five minutes than the previous ten months we had lived in San Salvatore.

Here is the English version of Linda’s story, as she provided it to me in writing later:
Paul and Lucy had an extra bicycle, but it was too big for me. Gilda told Paul she would provide a bike and she brought it to the Casolare. She said it had been her mother’s and that her mother had been a short person, so she thought I’d be able to ride that bicycle. It did seem to be the right size, so after Paul adjusted the seat, I tried it out. It was different from bikes I’d ridden before—it had hand brakes, and the handlebars were straight across rather than curved.

"This is not the woman from my past."
Here is the story of the bicycle and me. Most of it is true.
On Monday I got on the bicycle and followed Paul and Lucy down the road. The bicycle thought, “This is not the woman from my past. She is not even Italian! She is not the woman I want riding on me! IF SHE DOESN’T GET OFF, I WILL PUT HER IN THE DITCH!” 

(The valley had been a vast wetland, and ditches had been dug to drain it, so the narrow lanes had deep ditches on both sides with varying amounts of water depending on whether it had rained recently.)

I didn’t know that the bicycle was unhappy, just that it was hard to keep the pedals going around unless I pedaled fast, and when I went fast, it was hard to go straight. I didn’t realize that the bike wanted me to get off, and when I didn’t, it followed through with its plan, took me to the side of the road and put me in the ditch. I didn’t know why the bike did it, but there I was, upside down in the ditch.

Paul and Lucy returned quickly and helped me out of there. I picked up the bike and walked it back home. I told Paul that I wished he’d taken a picture of me, and he replied that he had thought about it but decided it was more important to get me up and find out if I was hurt. I was muddy and wet, but I wasn’t hurt, and he did take a picture of me with the bike, which I’m sure was quite satisfied with itself.
Linda adds some dramatic expression,
but the mud stains are real.

On Tuesday I tried again, but it ended the same way—although at least this ditch was dry. I waited for Paul to get there and take a picture, but this time he didn’t have his camera!

I told the bike, “OK, now I understand. You and I are not to be together. I will leave you in peace with your memories of the woman from your past.” The bike and I walked back to the house one last time. We said good-bye.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Four Seghieri immigrants to San Francisco all worked in family construction businesses

Monday, April 21
I recently heard from descendants of Severino Seghieri, a distant cousin who immigrated to San Francisco in the early 1900s. I wrote about discovering our family connection in a blog on April 8. I gave them information about their ancestors, and they added to my knowledge about their branch of the family.

My confusion about the family has gradually cleared up, although I still have some unanswered questions. I originally thought Severino and Alessandro Seghieri were the same person, because Severino’s middle initial was A, but it turns out the A stood for Adolfo. When I realized they were not the same person, I next assumed they were brothers, because the business was listed in 1905 as A. Seghieri and brother, and later as Seghieri Brothers. This was also incorrect. It’s now apparent that Alessandro started the business with his brother Alfredo. Severino was not their brother but instead was a cousin. When Severino went to San Francisco in 1906, along with his uncle Dante Antonio Seghieri, they worked for Alessandro and Alfredo, who were first cousins to Dante. Alfredo returned to Italy around 1910 and did not come back. What happened to Alessandro is not clear, because his business no longer appears in the phone directory after 1917, but soon after that Dante and Severino had their own cement business, so it is likely that they took over Alessandro’s business. Alessandro may have died or returned to Italy, because neither I nor the descendants of Severino who still live in California can find any records of Alessandro in the United States after 1917.

Severino’s brother Giulio also come to America in 1921 and joined his brother in business. He is listed in the 1921 phone book as a carpenter and living with Severino, so the business once again had two brothers involved. However, Giulio died in 1923 at age 30. I'm not sure when Dante died, and I don
t find any evidence that either Giulio or Dante married or had any children. Severino’s daughter Gloria wrote me, “Severino was a contractor and built a number of homes, one of which I lived in until I was married.  He also was part of a group that laid the mosaic tile in the state capitol building in Sacramento, California.  I believe the name of his business was the Bay Concrete Company. He spoke almost nothing about his family and only through my mother, Ada, did I know of his parents and siblings. I only know about Giulio and Dante because they are buried with Severino in Colma, California.”

Severino has another tie to our family. He married Ada Pantera of Montecarlo, and according to other research I have done, Ada had an uncle Narciso Sabatino Pantera who married Attilia Spadoni, who was the second cousin of my grandfather Michele.

As for the family construction business, Gloria said that Severino sold it and retired. His son Edward did not follow in his dad’s footsteps, becoming instead a post office employee, and Edward’s son Lawrence had his own business selling motorcycle parts. They are both deceased now, but Lawrence had a son Rob, who lives in Morgan Hill, California.

“I am indeed grateful to you for pursuing the genealogy,” Gloria said. “Without it, I only knew the family history as far back to the year 1906.” Her husband Stuart is putting their families’ genealogies “on the computer for our children, so that they can trace their heritage back through the years.”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"The Francis Effect" strong in Italy: "He never ceases to amaze us"

Sunday, April 20
The number one boys name in Italy is currently Francesco, and it’s no coincidence that this is the same name that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio adopted when he became pope in March of 2013. For the most part, Lucy and I find the Italians that we meet are extremely happy with their new pontiff. True, the Holy Father is head of the Catholic Church for the entire world, but Italians have always been rather possessive about the pope, since the Vatican is in Rome and at least 90 percent of the popes have been Italian.

Pope Francis greets the public after Easter Mass in Rome April 22.
Photo courtesy of Albert Yu.
Of course they like the fact that he speaks Italian and that his parents were from Italy, but their fondness for Pope Francis goes far beyond nationalism. Opinioni, a political polling company, reported recently that more than four in five Italians had a “positive” or “extremely positive” opinion of the new pope. Italy’s Center for Studies on New Religions reported that around half of the 250 priests it surveyed reported a significant rise in church attendance since Francis took office. The phenomenon has been dubbed by the media “The Francis Effect.”

“He has been able to get into the hearts of many people, even those who are not Catholic,” said Launa Raveggi, an Italian woman I see regularly during my afternoons of research at the parish archives in Pescia. “He has a great ability to communicate.

His humble lifestyle, compassion for the poor and willingness to speak out against the excesses of the rich, including other church officials, are often cited as reasons for his popularity. He was noted for his simple lifestyle while archbishop of Buenos Aires, and he has since refused the opulent trappings that usually come with his position. In Argentina, he gave up his chauffeur and took the bus to work, and as pope, he refuses to use the famous “Popemobile,” a Mercedes-Benz, choosing instead to travel in a 30-year-old Renault. He doesn’t wear glitzy gold or rich velvet robes; his papal wardrobe often consists of sensible black shoes and a white cassock so thin you can see his black trousers through it. He resides in a small suite in the guesthouse rather than the luxurious papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace in Rome.

The Italian economy has not yet recovered from the recent recession, and many Italians often tell me their lives have been changed because of the current economic “crisis.” A pope who lives simply, like many Italians have traditionally done, is someone to whom they can relate. “My wife and I think
that his way of being humble has an immense media power,” said Massimiliano Caniparola, an Italian friend of many years. “The gestures he has done and continues to do bring people closer to the Church.”

I didn’t realize how important his simple lifestyle was to the Italian people until I saw a headline in an Italian paper stating that the pope uses a normal toilet like everyone else. It could be translated as “He never ceases to amaze us: The pope pees just like all of us do. Even in the bathroom, the pope gives us a lesson.”

Of course his leadership is admired elsewhere in the world as well. American Catholics think the church has benefited from his leadership. A CBS News pool revealed that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say he has helped the church, while 27 percent describe his leadership as mixed. Not a single Catholic in the poll said Pope Francis’ leadership has hurt the church. In contrast, Pope Benedict, who stepped down last year, fared much worse in the CBS polls; 52 percent of Catholics viewed his leadership as mixed; only 26 percent said he helped the church.

I also asked Andrea Salvoni, a rare Italian Protestant who attends the Valdese church with us in Lucca for his opinion. “Would four words be enough?” he said. “Peccato che sia Catholic (It’s a pity that he’s Catholic).”