I just had a walk through Matrice, where four of my great-great grandparents were born, at around 4:00 PM. It was eerily quiet. It felt like a ghost town. The town is basically one main street, laid out on a hill, about a half a mile long, with a few very short side streets jutting off in some places. There are very old-looking stone apartment buildings which line the street. The only businesses in town I saw are a barbershop, two very small markets with fruit, deli meat, bread, and snacks, the post office, and two “bars” which, if you recall from some of my other posts, are really small little coffee shops.
I’ve gone on a few walks through the place and it’s always very quiet. I’ll generally see one or two other people. This evening I saw one old lady looking out of her second story window at the street. I also hear voices coming from the houses as I walk.
I passed the city hall and snapped a few photos and continued downhill. I saw a street sign, “Via della Libera,” which I recognized immediately. I had seen it on the birth certificate of my great-great grandmother. I pulled out my phone and opened up the document. She was born at Via della Libera, 35. I kept walking and got almost to the last few houses of the town, and saw the numbers count up, 26, 27, 28, 29. But after 30 there were no more buildings. I kept walking another 50 yards or so, past the edge of the town, and came up to another, larger and more modern house. I couldn’t find the house number on this house, but it had to be more than 35 based on the distance I walked.
All I could hear was the birds chirping and all I could see were trees and brush and a road going into the distance. A car or two passed by while I walked.
Somewhere near where I stood, my great-great grandmother was born, over 100 years ago. I let that thought sink in. I guess that was really what I was looking for by coming here.
My parents and my grandparents… they always had the stories and traditions of their heritage available to them from their grandparents or great grandparents. But with each generation in America, a little of that heritage is lost. I’m part of the fourth generation of this family to be born in the United States, and much is lost. I’m on the precipice of it being lost forever. I think that’s why I came here… not just to Matrice but to Italy in general. I want to preserve it somehow. So now I’m here.
But there’s another side of this coin. I’m definitely foreign here. It’s some kind of symbolic homecoming, but I don’t think I feel home. As I walked back up the hill, there were now a couple of guys sitting on chairs outside of one of the bars. I could tell they were looking at me wondering who I was. I don’t really care for small towns for this reason… they creep me out a little bit and I prefer the more anonymous life a larger town or city provides.
I’ve seen many small towns in rural Ohio during my years working as an auditor. As the country industrialized and then transitioned into a service economy, populations have moved from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, rapidly. Today in small rural towns in the United States, you’ll come across small towns with some proud residents, families who have been there for generations. But you’ll also see some run-down homes in the center of town, and even some abandoned homes. Many of the young people leave the town after college – the modern economy just doesn’t have as much of a place for these small towns.
I’ve only been here for two days, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to say it’s exactly the same, but Matrice gives me the same kind of feeling. It’s only a few miles away from the City of Campobasso, which seemed relatively lively to me, but it feels a world apart.
Being here makes me think about my ancestors and their coming to America. I think they had amazing amounts of courage to do what they did. I’ve traced their steps… I’ve been to neighborhoods in Cleveland where they lived, I’ve been to Ellis Island where they arrived, and now I’ve been to the place they came from. I’ve completed the journey, and along the way I’ve gained even more respect for what they did, because it’s not easy to travel to unknown lands. They were people who didn’t want to settle. The economy where they were from was set up at that time in such a way that they’d never be able to get ahead. So, they left everything they knew. They risked everything, they walked away from everything. They came to Cleveland and went all in. They faced, at times, difficulty, humiliation, and extreme homesickness, and they soldiered on to create a new life for themselves and their families. Looking at my family today, I think they succeeded in their goal.
Remember how I said I came to preserve my heritage before it’s lost? Learning the stories and the cuisine and visiting the towns is a wonderful thing to do and I will value and pass down this knowledge for the rest of my life. But mostly, it’s too late to preserve the heritage. It’s gone. I’m American, and my children and their children will be American. And that’s ok.
That one large decision they made, in these rolling hills of Molise 100 years ago, was incredibly consequential, not just for them, but for all their descendants. They changed our lives forever, they swapped one country and one culture for another and the decision was permanent. What would our lives be like if they stayed?