07 maggio 2000

Ninety Years - End of the Rainbow - Return to Campobasso By Robert Bruno

My name is Robert Bruno. I am second generation Italian American. My parents were born in America and three of my grandparents were born in Italy. I am one hundred percent Italian heritage. My father’s father was from Naples and his mother was from Bari. My mother’s mother, Josephine, was born in New York, but her parents were from Rome. My mother’s name is Rose Casertano and her father was Pasquale Casertano from Campobasso.
I was always familiar with the name Campobasso because Campobasso was the home frequently mentioned by my grandfather. My grandfather came to America through Ellis Island on October 24, 1913. I did not know at the time, but October 24 was going to be a very special date. Pasquale was sixteen years old when he came to America following his two older brothers Giuseppe and Giovanni. They had arrived in America a few years before but I do not know the exact dates. Unfortunately, none of the brothers ever returned to Campobasso or ever saw their family nor did they ever get the opportunity to speak to them again. Lately I realized that it had to be very difficult and devastating for everyone in the Casertano family in Italy. For three brothers to leave a beautiful family and beautiful country never to see anyone again had to be devastating.
I was the first grandchild of Pasquale and Josephine Casertano. My family had always lived with my grandparents. Pasquale wrote to his family in Campobasso until his death in 1963. My grandmother, Josephine, did not speak or write Italian very well, so shortly after my grandfather’s death, the communication with the Casertanos in Campobasso ended. In the fall of 2000, my wife Mariann and I began our long planned trip to Italy. We left Miami International Airport and flew to London where we made our connection on a flight to Nice, France. We spent two days in France and on the third day we headed toward Italy.
We had planned our route for months. Our destinations included Santa Margherita, Orvieto, Positano, Amalfi and Rapallo on the Amalfi Coast, Siena, Assissi, and of course, Campobasso. We were both very excited that we were finally going to visit Italy. There were many places we wanted to see including Campobasso, the birthplace of my grandfather. I would not leave Italy until I visited Campobasso. A strong feeling within told me I had to see where my grandfather came from. After all, Campobasso was all I really knew about my heritage.
Mariann and I were in Italy for a couple of weeks when we arrived in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Following our stay there, our next destination would be Campobasso. Campobasso was a two and a half hour drive northeast of Naples and the capital of the province of Molise, west of the Adriatic Coast. As we were getting closer to Campobasso, it became very dark and started to rain. It rained for a short time and then the sun came out and shortly thereafter it became dark again, rained, the sun came out again, repeating its prior sequence. This sequence repeated itself several times as we were approaching the city limits. As we proceeded on our drive towards Campobasso, I saw a sign that read “Campobasso 2.5 kilometers.” Shortly after reading that sign, a rainbow appeared in front of us. We actually drove through a rainbow into Campobasso! It was quite a fascinating feeling that I cannot explain. It was as though we were being welcomed by all of my Campobasso ancestors. It brought goose bumps to both of us!
We arrived in Campobasso late in the afternoon. We found a hotel called “Le Cupolette” outside of the city. It was very exciting for me because I knew this is where my grandfather and his two brothers came from. I was the only Casertano who ever had the opportunity to return. It was like traveling back in time. We went into the city and walked around. I wanted to tell everyone who I was and that my grandfather was from here. I wanted to tell everyone I was a Casertano, an “Italo-Americano.” I wanted to tell everyone that a Casertano from America had finally returned! That evening, I called my mother. She was really happy and excited because she knew I was the first Casertano to return since the three brothers left in the early 1900’s.
After a wonderful Campobasso style dinner, we returned to the hotel. Mariann went to the room and I decided to sit around in the hotel lobby. I thought maybe I would run into somebody that knew the Casertano family. I realized that wasn’t going to happen because no one spoke English. I was excited about where I was. While sitting in the lobby “people watching,” I asked the hotel receptionist for a phone book. I said to myself, “let me see if there are any Casertanos in the local phone book.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but of course there would be. As I thumbed through the phone book and came to the Casertano name, I saw two Salvatore, Michele, Rafaele, Fabrizio, Francesco and Bianca. I wasn’t really surprised to see all the Casertanos in the phone book. I also wasn’t surprised that they all lived on the same road, in Mascione, 10 minutes from the center of Campobasso. Living near family was also very typical for Italians living in America.
I knew my mother was coming to visit us for Christmas, so I asked the receptionist at the front desk to make a copy of the page in the phone book that listed all the Casertanos. I wanted to show my mom all the Casertanos still living in Campobasso. The next day we left Campobasso and continued our trip north towards Siena. I can’t explain the reason but as we left Campobasso I felt in my heart that I would return to this place again.
Shortly after our return to America, my mother arrived for the Christmas holidays. I was very anxious to show her the page I copied from the Campobasso telephone book. When my mother saw the list she became very excited. She started saying “Oh, I remember grandpa writing to Salvatore, Nunzio, and Rafaele.” She went on and on. She was so excited. I knew these were not the people my grandfather wrote to but they had to be the sons, nephews and / or cousins of the family members my grandfather left behind and frequently wrote to.
Being curious, I decided that I would write a letter to Campobasso. There were about seven or eight Casertanos listed in the phone book, so I had to choose one name that I could send the letter to. I chose Rafaele Casertano. The reason I chose Rafaele was because my grandfather’s brother Giovanni had a son named Rafaelle. I knew Rafaelle all my life in America because he was very close to my mother. Although he is my second cousin, out of respect I always called him Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph is now 83 years old and still lives in the same house that Giovanni bought many, many years ago in Staten Island, New York. It was the first house the Casertano family bought in America.
Our friends Olga and Steve Delpietra from Trieste, Italy translated the letter I wrote to Rafaele into Italian. I sent the first letter to Rafaele in February 2001.The letter basically was an introduction of myself, who my mother was, and that my grandfather Pasquale came to America in 1913 with his two older brothers Giuseppe and Giovanni. In the letter I told him that I wanted to know if we were in some way related; and, if we weren’t related, did he know anyone in Campobasso that I was related to. I included my e-mail address, mailed it, and hoped I would get a response.
I mailed the letter on a Friday. The post office told me that it would take seven to ten days to reach Campobasso. Five days later while I was at work, I received a phone call from my wife Mariann. Mariann informed me that I had received an e-mail. I asked, “from whom?” She said from Rafaele, in Campobasso. I asked, “what does it say?” She said, “I don’t know. It’s in Italian.” I told her to print the e-mail and as soon as I got home we would go to Olga and Steve’s house so that they could translate it for us.
I couldn’t wait to get home. We were so excited. As soon as I arrived home I immediately ran across the street to find out what the letter said. Olga translated the letter for us. It turned out that Rafaelle is my mother’s first cousin. His father, Antonio, was my grandfather’s youngest brother. Although Rafaele is my mother’s first cousin, he is closer to my age than my mother’s age.
It was an extremely exciting moment to find out that I still had relatives living in Campobasso. I always knew they were someplace in Italy but I never realized that all of my grandfather’s brother’s children incredibly were all still there in Campobasso. From the first time I communicated with Rafaele and up to now, I have been communicating with Campobasso, mostly by e-mail and letters by regular mail. We also began sending photos back and forth. When I received a photo of Antonio, it was incredible how much he resembled my grandfather - his older brother Pasquale. I made copies of the photos and sent them to my mother in New Jersey who shared them with her sisters, Lucille in Long Island, Annette in Pennsylvania, and her cousin Rafaele in Staten Island. It was a lot of fun sharing each others photos.
One day I received another e-mail from Campobasso. This time it was not from Rafaele but from his daughter Laura. Laura is my third cousin. It was quite exciting receiving another e-mail from another member of the Casertano family. She was with her cousin Claudio and introduced herself and Claudio to me. I was so happy because the first few paragraphs were in English and I didn’t need to have anyone translate for me. Laura said she was happy to meet me and someday hoped to meet me in person and she hoped someday to visit America. She thought her English was not good and began to write in Italian. For the record, Laura’s English is very good. I hope someday my Italian is as good as Laura’s English.
Communications went back and forth for the next three years. I said I would eventually return to Campobasso to meet everyone someday, but I was not sure when that time would be. Over the next three years certain events took place that prohibited me from returning as early as I wanted to. In August 2001, I had an opportunity that I could not pass up to return to college to earn my Bachelors Degree. The following month an event took place in America that would change our way of life forever. On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and another plane thought to be heading towards the White House was foiled in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a good time for an American to be traveling abroad so we temporarily put our trip on hold.
In 2003, Italy had an earthquake not far from Campobasso, killing more than 25 children at a local school. When I learned the earthquake was in the vicinity of Campobasso I immediately sent an e-mail to make sure the Casertanos were not harmed. I did not get a response for almost two weeks so I decided that it was time to call Campobasso. It was a Sunday so I called Olga to come over to our house. When the call went through, Lucia, Rafaele’s wife answered. When she heard it was a call from America,she immediately called Laura. We all became very, very excited. It was a historical moment for our family. It was the first verbal communication with the two Casertano families since my grandfather left Campobasso in 1913. Pasquale, Giuseppe, and Giovanni never spoke to any family member on the telephone since they left Italy. I confirmed this information with my mother –no phone calls were made. I don’t believe communication technology was very good prior to 1963 and whatever was available was very expensive. It was truly a moving moment for all of us to speak. At that time I was beginning to study Italian, but whatever I did learn at that point I forgot because I was so excited. I’ll never forget that day. Mariann and I spoke with Laura and Rafaele but Olga did most of the talking. I’m glad she was around to translate. From that day on I think we all became a reality to each other. Writing was great, but once we verbally made contact, we entered into another dimension of the relationship.
We continued to communicate by e-mail and in June of 2003, Mariann and decided that we would return to Italy. As we planned our trip we were not completely sure we would be able to leave. Mariann’s father’s wife was ill and her father had his own health issues. Mariann struggled with this for months. Although we had our flight reservations, Mariann did not want me to tell my family in Campobasso that we were coming. She did not want to disappoint anyone, including ourselves, in the event we had to cancel at the last minute. We waited to see what would take place over the next few months. We were scheduled to depart Miami to London and then on to Nice, France on October 19, 2003. We would follow the exact same itinerary as we had three years before but with a few minor adjustments. I mailed a letter to Campobasso on September 29, 2003, telling everyone that we were coming to Italy and wanted to come to Campobasso to meet everyone. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from Laura. Everyone was as excited as we were. Lucia and Rafaele insisted that we stay with them.
We left Miami on Sunday, October 19 to London, had a six- hour layover at Heathrow Airport and arrived in Nice on Monday, October 20. While in Nice we visited our friend Rita Meloni that we met three years prior in Eze, France. Rita’s family is originally from Sardegna. The meeting of Rita three years prior is a whole other story. We spent the next day, Tuesday, October 21 with Rita. She took us on a guided tour of Nice. The following day, Wednesday, October 22, we left Nice and headed to the Italian Riviera. Our first stop would be Viareggio. We chose Viareggio because it was on the coast and not far from Pisa. We planned to spend Thursday, October 23, in Pisa and then make our way southeast towards Campobasso on Friday, October 24. Laura said in her letter the best time to come was on the weekend, because everyone would be home. I knew that October 24 would be a special date because we would meet everyone, but I didn’t know we would all be in for a wonderful surprise.
On Friday morning, we left Viareggio and continued our journey towards Campobasso. According to the directions I received from Mapquest, Campobasso was about a seven to eight hour drive. The directions would not take me directly to Mascione, which is a few miles outside of Campobasso, but would only direct me into the city. When we arrived in the city I had a plan. I was going to go into a café, pizzeria, gelateria or any other store I could find that would listen to me. I thought with all the Italian that I had learned I would be able to at least introduce myself. I planned on telling them who I was and that my Italian was not very good. I also wanted to tell them that my family’s English isn’t good either so would you help me and call my family for me. I wanted them to tell my family where we were and would they come and get us. Well, it didn’t go as well as I planned. The first store I went into could not help me, the second store, a fabric shop had no phone, the next store a pizzeria had a phone for incoming calls only and finally after the fourth try a gelateria, the owner made the call for me. This was the first time that it was necessary for me to communicate in Italian. I guess I did pretty well because the man made the call for me. Ironically his name was Pasquale. He called Laura and told her where we were. They were waiting all day for our call. Pasquale told me they knew where the gelateria was and would be there in ten minutes. When I return to Campobasso, I plan on visiting Pasquale.
Anticipation and anxiety started to build up. We were extremely excited. I was still in the geletaria and Mariann was down the street still in the car waiting for me. I came back to the car to tell Mariann they would be here soon. We were parked in a “no parking zone and Mariann was getting nervous. She was afraid the police would come and give her a ticket. In ten minutes Lucia and Laura arrived. It was an extremely moving moment. I was so excited I was lost for words. I didn’t know what to say. I was very happy. We hugged each other and just looked at each other in amazement. We then went to our car to get Mariann. The three of them were so excited they were jumping up and down. Mariann went with Lucia and Laura came with me in our car. Laura and I were trying to communicate with each other. We were laughing a lot. Mariann said her communication with Lucia was just fine. We felt like we knew them all our lives.
The four of us headed to 16 Mascione Centre that was about ten minutes away. It was starting to get dark. We arrived at the house and there I finally met my mother’s first cousin Rafaelle. It was another great moment. We were both very excited. We received huge embraces from everyone and a homecoming welcome. Everyone was so happy to see us. It was a milestone moment. I also met Michele, Lena, Francesco and Santina. Shortly thereafter I met Sandro. Then came Massimo and shortly thereafter Maria arrived. I was meeting cousins I didn’t realize I had. It was great. Then finally Rosaria arrived. It was quite a surprise because I had no idea that Rosaria spoke fluent English. Rosaria is Lucia’s sister. Rosaria lived in Australia for twenty years. For the next four days Rosaria was our translator. When she wasn’t there and we couldn’t understand each other we all would say simultaneously “aspetta Rosaria”. It was funny. We were all having a great time. Lucia, whom I nicknamed “Santa Lucia”, began her cooking marathon. The food was incredible. We had pasta, fresh killed chicken, pizza, salad, lasagna, home made bread, and all kinds of desserts. Maria brought the bread and homemade pizza. We also drank Raffaele’s wine and ate his homemade prosciutto. It was incredible. We talked, ate, drank and talked, ate and drank again all night. It reminded me of the family get – togethers’ we had over forty years ago when my grandfather was alive. It was a celebration, “Return to Campobasso”. I began to really get to practice my Italian. I took my teacher Myria’s advice. She said “don’t worry about the grammar or making mistakes, just jump in and speak”. It’s their language they’ll figure out what you’re trying to say. She was right. They said I did pretty well. Once they started feeding me all that wine I really was on a roll. It was a fun night. It was about 1:00 in the morning. Everyone had gone home. Mariann was tired and went to bed. I was still full of a tremendous amount of energy although it was late and I had driven all day. I was on pure adrenalin. I was in the kitchen with Raffaele, Lucia and Laura. I was still drinking Rafaele’s wine and having a great time. I was trying to tell them about the Casertano’s in America and other topics in general that I could easily translate. Because my Italian was not very good I tried to keep it as simple for me as possible. It was a little difficult but over the next few days I was able to convey a lot of information to them about us and I received a lot of information from them. There was a lot to absorb. I brought some of my grandfather’s documents that I thought would be of interest to everyone. They were very interested and were happy I brought them. While showing them the documents and trying to explain in Italian what the documents were, Lucia brought something to my attention. Lucia with exciting expressions on her face was saying “Roberto, Roberto, what’s this, what’s this?” She was pointing to Pasquale’s official document that was used to process him through Ellis Island the day he arrived in America. I looked at what she was pointing to. Although it was in English, it was a date. The date was October 24, 1913. After a few seconds I realized why she was so excited. The day was October 24, 2003. Mariann and I had returned to Campobasso exactly 90 years to the day my grandfather arrived in America. The four of us just looked at each other in amazement. There was no language barrier at that moment. I think we were all freaking out. That was the third sign. The Rainbow was the first, Pasquale from the gelateria who made the phone call was the second. October 24 was a beautiful day.
The three days that were to follow will remain in my mind for the rest of my life. Rafaele had a picture that my grandfather sent to Campobasso over forty years ago. It was a picture of “Tippy” our pet chihuahua sitting on my grandfather’s lap in the living room of the first house my grandfather bought during World War II. It was quite a surprise because I hadn’t seen that picture in over 40 years. Cousins were coming from all over Campobasso. We met Salvatore, Angelina, Luca, Alessandra and Chiara. We also met Rafaele’s sisters Angelina, Lucia, Irene Carmelina, and Elvira. Massimo’s girlfriend Laura came to meet us also. We then met Marco, my cousin Laura’s boyfriend. Marco’s aunt lives in Staten Island and his mother lived there for four years, before returning to Campobasso. I couldn’t believe Marco visited Staten Island. His English was very good. What a small world. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to meet Claudio, hopefully on our next visit. My cousin Laura and her boyfriend Marco had all kinds of plans during our stay. Laura and Marco had so much they wanted to show us. They took us to Old Campobasso and a guided tour of the city. It was another history lesson. I went back in time trying to learn and absorb so much of my family history in such a short time. On Sunday, they took us to the church where my grandfather attended. We also saw the resting place of my great- grandparents, Michele and Irene. There I met my cousin Giovanna and her mother Elvira. Elvira is another first cousin of my mother’s. Giovanna was so happy to meet us she began to cry. Once she started crying it didn’t take long for Mariann to cry. That afternoon I wanted to see where my grandfather was born and grew up. I thought my cousin Laura was going to take us by car to show us where the house was. Instead we went for a short walk. The house where my grandfather grew up was 50 yards away. It was the house next door from 16 Mascione. It was incredible. Laura had another surprise for me. She pointed to the three pine trees that were out in front of the house. Each time my great grandmother gave birth to another child, they would plant a pine tree. My great grandparents Michele and Irene had nine children altogether, seven boys and two girls. Three trees are still standing. I realized that all the Casertanos’ continued to live on Mascione, the same place my grandfather left ninety years ago.
When we first arrived in Italy in the fall of 2000, the first town we visited was Santa Margherita, on the Ligurian Coast. It was at that time I knew Italy would be a very special place for Mariann and I. Meeting my family in Campobasso was very important to me. I plan on keeping my relationship with my family in Campobasso and I hope to return many more times. My wife and I have no children to pass our Italian heritage to. It is a heritage that I am very, very proud of. Pasquale Casertano came to America when he was only sixteen years old. He came to America for economic reasons and an opportunity that he passed on to me. The Italians that came to America were very strong, proud and hard working people. They helped make America become the strong country it is today. I want the Casertanos in Campobasso to always remember the three brothers who came to America, and although it took ninety years, I hope I am always remembered as the Casertano who returned to Campobasso. On Sunday, October 26, 2003 after another wonderful dinner, my family presented us with a cake with an inscription on it in English that read “Welcome to the Casertano Family”. It was so moving for the both of us that it touched our hearts and it inscribed a memory that will remain on our hearts forever. The next day we were preparing for our departure. We were going to head south towards Calabria and then into Sicily. Rosaria gave us a prepaid phone card so we could call them and let them know where we were and that we arrived at our destinations in Italy safely. Lucia and Laura prepared us for our journey. They put together enough food for us to last us a month. They also gave us a big bottle of Rafaele’s wine for our trip and a bottle of olive oil to take back to America. Lena and Francesco gave us some homemade sausage, some croissants and candy. Angelina stopped by to say goodbye and gave us some beautiful cheese. We ate all the Casertano food and drank the Casertano wine all the way to Sicily. It was wonderful. We still have some of the olive oil left and whenever we use it to cook, Campobasso and the Casertano’s always come up in our conversation. Whenever Mariann and I talk about our visit to Campobasso, it brings smiles to both of our faces.
We want to thank the entire Casertano family in Campobasso for making our visit there a memorable one and the highlight of our trip to Italy. We will always remember the warm welcome we received by everyone and we hope to return to Campobasso sometime soon. We also want to give special thanks to Rafaele and Lucia for sharing their lovely home with us during our visit. I also want to thank my cousin Laura for keeping our communication alive. Thank you, Laura.

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