I was intrigued by my communications with Margaret Allen, the former London Times journalist who visited Norwich last week. After all, itís not every day a small town reporter gets to interview someone with her background.
I was so intrigued in fact, that I made the trip to Norwich on Saturday night to attend the dinner given in her honor at St. Bartholomewís Msgr. Guy Festa Parish Center. I was every bit as impressed with the woman herself as I was with her credentials.
It wasnít just Margaret I found fascinating, but also her quest to trace the migration of people from the Aeolian Islands around the world. Having seen some of Frank Spezialeís photos of those picturesque islands, where he himself was born, I can understand why Margaret is so enamored with the place.
She spoke at length about the history of the Aeolian Islands. As something of a history buff, I found this incredibly interesting. In AD 59, they served as the headquarters for Hannibal. Barbarossa also made use of the islands. Later, Russian Jews displaced from their homeland emigrated there, where they converted to Catholicism. During World War II, the islands were used as a political prison.
Other facts she shared were that Lipari, the island to which many in Norwichís Italian-American community trace their roots, is a World Heritage Site. And recently, scientists have isolated an enzyme in the blood of Aeolian natives which leads them to believe that the islanders are actually the last remaining Ancient Greeks.
The Aeolian Islands have been depopulated and repopulated countless times over the centuries, Margaret said. It was during one of these times of depopulation which lead those Aeolians to the United States, where a large number found their way to Norwich.
It was speaking to these community members, and learning their stories, that brought her here this past week. In her experience, people who trace their heritage to the Aeolian Islands, and particularly to the island of Lipari, are passionate about their past, Margaret explained. Those in Norwich were no different. They brought photographs, ships manifests and all sorts of other documentation of their family history. And they were eager to tell their stories. So eager, in fact, that Margaret said she was almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material her visit had yielded. She urged everyone to write or e-mail her with any other information they had.
I was able to gather snippets of information, about how their great-grandparents or grandparents had made the journey by ship, some passing through Ellis Island and others further south through Philadelphia, on their way to Chenango County. They had names like Biviano, Natoli, Maiurano, Benenati, Caezza and Caputo. Once here, they remained a tight-knit community.
I really was fascinated by the tales they had to tell, and I left just as overwhelmed as Margaret. (With a strong desire to pull out my passport and book a flight.) But underneath it all, I felt something else. Jealous, I guess. That these families have such a strong tie with their past, when in my own family we know so little about ours.
My motherís brother did extensive research into their genealogy, and constructed an extensive history of the Farrell family tree. But on my fatherís side, the Stagnaros, we have hardly anything. My grandfather had been reluctant to talk about his family. And only recently, when we met up with a distant cousin, did we even learn where in Italy our family was from.
For me, this has always felt like a gaping hole in our family identity. Saturday night, I really saw what I was missing. I think it might just be time to start tracing our family roots.
Thank you, Margaret, for the inspiration.