In 1976 my maternal Grandparents Sabato (Sam) and Josie (nee Muro) Serrapede celebrated their retirement by taking a three week trip to Italy. They were also very, very happy that I was just 6 months away from college graduation in January of 1977. My Grandmother called me in February of 1976 to tell me we were going to celebrate her retirement and my college graduation that June. She told me I had to see the beauty of Agropoli and the Cilento coastline in the shimmering light of summer, not the subdued light of winter.
At JFK airport, left to right, Grandma Josie, Grandpa Sam, Albina DiSchiavi and me. Grandma Josie’s niece Albina was part of the family group who saw us off. Albina is the daughter of Grandma Josie’s sister, Rose Muro D’Ambrosio DiSchiavi and Rudy DiSchiavi.
My Mother was very excited for me and we began to shop for a travelling wardrobe that we thought would work well in Rome. I also bought some Simplicity sewing patterns and made two pairs of shorts and two halter tops with jackets for when we went to the beach. I never asked my Grandmother what the Cilento coast would be like or what it was advisable to bring. I figured Agropoli was our ancestral home town. It would be a little bit like Dyker Heights. The boys would love to cruise in flashy cars and the girls would all wear form fitting jeans and tops. The summer would be full of bright times and everyday would feel like the Feast of Saint Gennaro or the bazaar at St. Bernadette’s Church. Lots of conversation, hugging, joking around, sightseeing and afternoon naps. Somewhere in between there would be a trip to the Vatican and maybe a museum. Those were my thoughts about how an Italian Summer would be.
First week in Rome
We spent the first week in Rome staying at the gorgeous apartment where my Grandpa Sam’s niece Italia lived with her husband Antonio and 9 year old daughter Stefania.
It took some time for me to adjust to life in Rome. I wasn’t used to such bright sunlight and dry heat. I did not miss New York’s high humidity but I kept thinking about all the tree lined blocks back in Brooklyn and McKinley Park where my favorite bench atop one of the hills in the park was surrounded by so many trees that I called the spot my green cathedral.
In Rome with (l-r) Grandpa Sam, Antonio and Italia.
Italia would always point out a fountain in the courtyard which her apartment overlooked. I think it was made completely out of hand gathered seashells and stones. Most of its appeal was lost to me. I kept thinking of how the courtyard would look if it had oak trees, maple trees, a sundial and a bird bath. I could not understand what was so inviting about a courtyard filled with white stones, a white fountain without any water and a few low green bushes.
What I was doing was clinging to thoughts of home and all that was familiar to me. I was very reluctant to let this new experience work on me and broaden my outlook.
It was the first time I experienced home sickness and also a little tinge of fear. Brooklyn was so far away and I was so dependent on Italia to guide me around. It was very hard to relax the New York State of mind I’d always lived with. Meaning, when you go to a new place keep a look out for what’s going on in back of you as well as in front of you. Don’t tarry around and get to where you have to go without bringing any attention to yourself.
After our week in Rome, Italia and Stefania accompanied us to Agropoli. Antonio stayed in Rome because of his work schedule. By that time the leisurely afternoon naps and long lunch times filled with conversations Grandma Josie would translate had gone a long way to work their magic on me. I thought the pace of life in Italy was wonderful. The afternoon naps meant a longer and more enjoyable evening. Being a night person I quickly fell into the rhythms of this pattern of living.
Up the stairs and through the Gate
On our first day in Agropoli we went to visit Grandpa Sam’s sister who was also named Italia. I called her the Elder Italia to distinguish her from her daughter Italia. She lived in an apartment at the base of the steps leading up the mountain to the Old Town of Agropoli. The New Town, as it was called, consisted of the area below the steps.
After an excellent homemade luncheon my Grandparents, the younger Italia and I went up the steps to visit Grandpa Sam’s relatives. I remember my first impression as we stood before the ancient Byzantine Gate.
Up the stairs leading to the Byzantine Gate and the Old Town of Agropoli.
Ancient times were no longer distant. Here was a part of the past that had endured and come down to the present time. I could not say anything except my attitude of being Italian-American from Dyker Heights, Brooklyn suddenly melted away. Things like the importance of wearing 14K gold jewelry, hitting the clubs in Manhattan and Bay Ridge and keeping track of which friend or cousin had the biggest and best wedding reception completely dissolved. I had to reach out and touch the stones of the ancient gate. They were warm in the sun and as we passed through and walked the cobblestone streets, I realized I knew nothing about the real Italy. All I knew was what I’d learned from my family and what I’d absorbed from pop-culture and the immediate environment of Dyker Heights. Here in Italy people did not have to pay a lot of money to vacation in a historic spot. The past was all around and a part of the present. To think that this gate was here in front of me and I could touch it brought home to me how much of my cultural experiences in the United States had been defined by packaged vacations and trips to museums. Nothing in my immediate environment back in Brooklyn was as old as the Byzantine Gate.
I knew very little about the family history except that the ancestors I knew by name were my Great Grandmothers. Grandpa Sam’s mother was named Emilia. Grandma Josie’s mother had been named Letizia. The reason why this was so easy for me to recall was due to the fact my own mother had been named Emily Leatrice in honor of both women. My Grandmother had used the Italian versions of Mom’s name in conversations but on official documents her first and middle names were always in their English versions. I knew about Grandma Josie’s father Nicola (whom I called Great Grandpa Nick) because I met him many times whenever we went on trips to Wilmerding when I was very young. I also knew Great Grandpa Nick’s second wife Rose. Great Grandma Rose was warm and welcoming whenever we visited. Great Grandma Letizia passed away in 1921 so whatever little I knew was from the tidbits Grandma Josie or my Mom shared with me. I always thought that it was very special that I had two Great Grandmothers, one in Heaven to watch over me and one here on earth to hug me whenever I visited.
Because I could not speak Italian I lost the opportunity to ask these questions of my relatives. I didn’t have any knowledge of genealogy or any vision of creating a family history at that time so the questions evaporated as quickly as they arose.
My Uncle Sammy and I discussed what we do know about our Muro and Serrapede ancestors on Sunday afternoon, September 7, 2014.
My Memories of Discussions about the family in Agropoli and Wilmerding
During my childhood my Mom sometimes talked about Letizia Scotti Muro with me. She had many children so close to each other, Mom would say. She may have been greatly weakened by the frequency of the pregnancies.
About Emilia Pappalardo Serrapede I know almost nothing. I do remember that while we were in Agropoli Grandpa Sam was in his element, greeting his friends and relatives each morning from the balcony of his hotel room. He had a unique sense of humor and was very outspoken about current events.
Grandma Josie and I shared a hotel room one floor below my Grandfather’s. Anytime he began to converse too loudly, too early in the morning, Grandma Josie would quickly go to our balcony and yell up to my Grandfather,”Sabato! Chiuda tu bocca!” (“Sam, shut your mouth!”)
View of the Old Town of Agropoli as seen from the New Town below.
On one morning I heard the name Emilia mentioned many times while my Grandfather was talking to someone in the street below. I asked my Grandmother if he was talking about his mother. She said he was talking about me (EmilyAnn) because he was so proud that I was graduating college with a good grade point average (3.5). My Grandmother again told him to lower his voice. When she came in from the balcony she said to me “If you think he’s something else you should hear what they say about his mother. She was one of a kind.”
Grandpa Sam could talk with anyone. He had no reservations about letting you know where he stood but in a very funny way. I never met anyone who walked away from a conversation with him getting mad. I like to think that maybe Great Grandmother Emilia was something of a card herself.
Of Grandpa Sam’s father Gennaro I know nothing. He never spoke to me about either his Mother or his Father except as he approached the end of his long life. Before his passing Uncle Sammy, Mom and I would visit Grandpa Sam at the nursing home in Cranbury, New Jersey. Sometimes he’d say that he saw his Mother waiting for him. There was a softness to his voice when he said that.
What Grandpa Sam told Uncle Sammy about the family life in Agropoli
Grandpa Sam did not get along with his father, Gennaro Serrapede. The relationship was so bad that Grandpa Sam stayed away from home as often as he could. Grandpa Sam worked very hard to get the $500 he needed to come to the United States. He worked as a fisherman, along with many other jobs. To escape having to pay his father any money for expenses at home, Grandpa Sam slept on the beach at night.
The beach below the Old Town of Agropoli.
Grandpa Sam’s sister Filomena was the first Serrapede to arrive in the United States. Once she got established she sent for Sam. In time Alphonse, Sam and Philomena’s younger brother, also came to the U.S. All three siblings settled in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York.
As we discussed these things my Uncle and I decided to use the research done by Anthony Vermandois of Imagines Maiorum as a starting point to get some idea of what the Serrapede, Scotti, Muro and Pappalardo families were like as far back as this research goes.
Anthony has done an amazing job of gathering data from vital records for the families in Agropoli. Most of the data consists of years of birth, death, and marriage. Along with whatever information I can pick up about Agropoli in the 19th through early 20th centuries we hope to create at least a sketch of who our ancestors were and what life was like in that little town entered through the ancient Byzantine Gate.
Discussed: September 28, 2014, Sunday, 1:00 P.M. EST
Written: September 28, 2014, Sunday, 7:20 P.M. EST