The first time I went to Italy, I spent a month with cousins in Grotte, Sicily, discovering my mother’s hometown. Then I was back in Rome, ready to start an internship with the Associated Press. I was 22. My Uncle Charlie was the next Grotte visitor. He and my mom went back to their hometown in the late 1970s, eventually reconnecting all of us with our roots. On this trip, he asked me if I wanted to meet him at Rome’s airport since he had a long layover.
Of course I did and I hopped the bus to meet him there. According to the journal I kept at the time, it was a Sunday in September, 1986. “It was so nice seeing family,” I wrote. “I had so much to tell him. I talked his ear off too. He wanted to know all about my visit to Grotte.”
That was the first of four occasions I would get to be in Italy with my dear uncle, who died last week. I was always close with Uncle Charlie. I enjoyed speaking Italian with him, talking about our past Italy trips, planning more Italy trips and keeping up with all the Cuffaro news from Grotte. He and I and my mom bonded over those adventures.
Upon his return trip to Rome, I showed Uncle Charlie the AP office and then we had dinner at Ristorante alla Rampa, near the Spanish steps, one of his favorites. The next day, we took the bus to the airport to pick up the rental car to go to Orvieto, a hilltown in Umbria. There was just a slight problem: Uncle Charlie’s license had expired a few months earlier and he couldn’t get the car. So the clerk tells us there’s a Hertz office at Termini train station, and we’d have no problem getting a small car there. (I think that’s hilarious. His license is still expired but if we go to the other office, we’ll get a car.)
So we get back on the bus and back to Termini and alas, no car available. We ended up taking a train and enjoyed a lovely afternoon in Orvieto. Back in Rome, we ate at a pizzeria next to the Pantheon and it became my go-to place during the next five months. It was so nice to be there, in bella Roma, with my uncle, just making conversation with the pizzaiolo (pizza maker), drinking a beer.
Uncle Charlie went back to Sicily more times than I can remember, including once to celebrate his 80th birthday eight years ago. His whole family went and from the video and photographs I’ve seen, it was quite a celebration.
“His visits were always something special and big that we would look forward to,” said my cousin Venera, who lives in Grotte. Her father Tony, Uncle Charlie, my mom and my Uncles Pat and Joe are first cousins.
I asked her about a favorite memory. “It was when he asked me if I would like to come to the states,” she said. Venera and her sister Mariangela visited us in Cincinnati in the summer of 1985. They stayed several weeks and it was such a treat getting to know them here.
She also remembered the day he visited her at school, where she taught. When he got back to the states, he sent her a care package for them. She said it was full of crisps, but I’m thinking it was likely Pringles, because you know, he’s a P&G retiree and all.
The second time Uncle Charlie and I were in Italy together was in 1996, when I was living in Bologna during a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship. He and Uncle Pat were traveling through and stopped for two days. They also brought me a garment bag of my summer clothes, for which I was most grateful. We went out to dinner with my hosts Paola and her mother and enjoyed the best tortellini we’d ever had. The next day I showed them around the city and we ate lunch at Osteria del Sole, a place where you bring your own food and just buy a glass or two of wine.
Then in 2003, my mom and I went over to celebrate the successful kidney transplant and we decided we’d meet up with Uncle Charlie in Cortona, in Tuscany. He was our tour guide for two days, driving us around the hills of wine country, stopping in Montepulciano, Montalcino, Pienza and Lucignano. The highlight of the day, in my opinion, was seeing the two of them walk up the steep streets of the towns without help. At the end of the day, we treated him to a memorable dinner at Il Falconiere, a fabulous restaurant on the outskirts of Cortona.
My last adventure with Uncle Charlie was in 2009, when we headed over to Grotte for cousin Antonella’s wedding. It was the first time I was in Grotte with him. He was already there with his son, my cousin Ted. One thing you must understand about what happens when you go to Sicily with Uncle Charlie: he knows everybody! During all of those visits, he would often just go out and about on his own, discovering places and meeting people. No matter where we went in those few days, there was usually someone in town who would stop to chat with him.
He seems to have done the same here in Cincinnati. My friend Margaret, who is a librarian, recounted how Uncle Charlie would come into the Harrison Library several times a week. They would talk about family, current events and his history. “He was such a wonderful guy,” she wrote me in a message. “I kept telling him I was going to adopt him as my grandpa. The world lost a terrific man.”
There was always something special about being with Uncle Charlie. Maybe it was speaking Italian and even learning Sicilian dialect. Maybe it was the attentive audience he gave me when I’d start talking about my latest big plan to get back there and live.
“You’re following your dream,” he’d always say. One day he met me for lunch and we sat in a booth with my laptop looking at my photos from my two-month sojourn in Italy four years ago. Most notable on that trip was Christmas spent in Grotte.
Maybe it all started one Christmas day in the late 60s when we made Italian sausage in his basement.
I will miss Uncle Charlie on Christmas Eve and the cheesecake he would bring to Aunt Joleen’s.
I will miss speaking Italian, talking about Italy, talking about all things Grotte and what life was like when he and my mom and his brothers first arrived in America in the late 1930s.
I will miss you zio. Thank you for the pizzeria in Rome and a day in Orvieto and Cortona and lunch in Bologna and an afternoon in Agrigento. My life is so much richer because of you.
Ti voglio bene.