Archive 2008 - 2019

A Holliston Connection in Rural Italy

by Eric Niermeyer

In July of last year, I struck up a conversation with a man in Florence, Italy, in a heavily trafficked piazza beside the Arno River.  The man was an illustrator and made a living selling his work to tourists like me outside the famous Uffizi art museum.

We exchanged the usual small talk, tracing a pattern of conversation that he must have gone through dozens of times every day.  I explained that I was stopping in Florence on my way to visit Borrello, the tiny village in Abruzzo province that the Italian side of my family had lived in before immigrating to America.

“Let me guess,” the man said. “You are from Boston or somewhere close by?” Surprised, I answered yes and asked him how he knew.  He laughed and said that half of Abruzzo had sailed to Boston after the First World War and that most Italian-Americans living there could probably trace their roots back to the province.  He himself was originally from that part of Italy but had moved north to Florence when he was younger.

While later research on my end proved what he said to be something of an exaggeration, the man was right in that my family’s story is pretty typical of Italian-Americans in our area.  After the end of the First World War and before the rise of Fascism, my family left their mountain hamlet and arrived just in time for my now-93 year old grandmother to be born in Boston.

With about 14% of people in Massachusetts identifying as Italian-American, there are thousands of people in our area whose families once lived in places like Borrello, separated when one branch decided to leave for the New World.  I was fortunate to be able to go and visit those in my family who stayed behind.

Borrello is a mountain village located directly east of Rome and about 100 miles south from the epicenter of the devastating 6.2 magnitude earthquake which ravaged central Italy last month.  It has a seasonally varying population of around 250 people, many of whom are elderly.  It is known for having the Cascate del Verde, the highest waterfalls in the Appenine Mountains, if it is known for anything at all.

After meeting with my relatives in the nearby coastal city of Pescara, who I had been in contact with via email, we drove west through the mountains and reached Borrello by noon.  Rural farmland gave way to sun-scorched cobblestones and piazzas suspended in a panorama of green mountains.

Almost nobody was outside at that hour, preferring to take refuge from the heat indoors.  This gave the village the feel of a vacant movie set or a museum piece that had been set up just for us as we walked around the town center.

On Via Roma, I saw an old house that many of my ancestors had been born in, a white stucco building with a second story terrace and a large sunflower garden in front.  I then visited my grandmother’s cousins, who showed me years-old letters from her that they had kept.

We drank from an ornate cast-iron well donated by a woman who had left the village to marry a rich American man in 1914.  We saw a small distillery and a civic museum dedicated to laborers and agriculture.  We passed by ruins of homes that were bombed in the Second World War and never rebuilt. We went into the village church, outside of which the flags of Borrello, Italy, and the European Union hung limply.

Proving that some things are truly universal, the entrance to the waterfalls contained a dinky little kiosk that sold magnets and postcards and the like celebrating the town’s only tourist attraction.  The falls themselves were stunning, and I was told that some of my relatives had hid in the watery caves behind them when German troops occupied the village.

Afterwards we stopped in a surprisingly bustling restaurant and drank perhaps a little too much Sambuca before going to the town’s cemetery.  Here rows of marble mausoleums housing generations of the dead were laid out on a tranquil patch of parkland overlooking a mountain-filled vista.  As is custom, the graves were marked with portraits of those entombed within. 

I saw the resting places of many family members I didn’t even know I had, including a great-grandfather who died after stepping on a mine the Germans had buried on his farm.  Here were all the patriarchs and matriarchs of a vast familial web, some branches of which stayed in Italy, some of which went far afield to places like Holliston, and some of which were truncated by an early or unfortunate death.

It was striking to think that I am a child of the people in these tombs, and that by returning to Borrello and visiting their graves I was closing a circle that’s thousands of miles wide and a century old.  Every family has roots in faraway places.  It’s well worth it to go and discover them.