Opening the Door to Awareness and Finding Family
Nanas and grandpas are an amazing gift. My Nana, Angela “Angie” Gesmundo, was just that - a beautiful gift from God. To me she was a friend, a teacher, and my hero. When I needed a problem solved, or just wanted to share a story, Nana was the one I talked to. With her ‘say it like it is’ approach, she taught me life lessons: self-respect, the importance of family, and to always keep things honest. Her points were direct. “Don’t spit in the wind or it might come back and hit you in the face” is one example. Or she would say, “Listen, I won’t tell you what to do, but I will tell you what I will put up with!”
Besides lessons about life, she taught love of life by example. Nana loved to dance, to sing and she wore bright stylish clothes and make up. A hairdresser by trade, she constantly surprised us with a new hair color. She was so full of youthful fun, most strangers assumed she was my mom. In her fingers, which were adorned with extremely long nails usually painted sparkly white, she often held a Marlboro cigarette, a habit she never was able to kick.
Nana often talked about her family. Her mother, she recalled, came from San Giovanni la Punta in Sicily and her father, Giuseppe “Joe” Gesmundo, was from the province of Bari in Italy. Giuseppe came to America with his first wife, Anna, with whom he had three sons. Sadly, Anna died from the flu in the early 1900s. Nana’s now widowed father needed help raising his children, so he married his housekeeper, Maria, whose husband had also just died of the flu. While Maria was raising Giuseppe’s three boys, the couple had two children of their own, my Nana Angela and her brother, Joe.
For reasons unknown to me, Nana did not know much about her father’s history, including where he was from. She did recall stories about his having farmed in Italy and about owning some type of land. There were also stories of his possible political ties. This historical gap left me to wonder, who was great grandfather Giuseppe and where did he come from?
Nana clearly remembered from her own childhood that Joe Gesmundo had been a strict man who dressed impeccably and grew an enormous garden of row upon row of tomatoes and other vegetables at their home in Haverhill, Massachusetts.He had strict rules for his family and she never crossed them because he demanded they be followed, or else…
She also recalled how her dad found his first job in America. He approached a group of Italian construction workers and asked one of them, “How do I ask the boss for a job in English?”
Instead of giving him the correct response, the worker told him English swear words. The boss, did not find any humor in the bad language, and asked my great grandfather, “Who told you to say such words?”Giuseppe pointed to the man, who was laughing. The boss turned to my great grandfather and said, “You need a job? Well now you have one--- his!”
According to my Nana, her dad worked as a janitor at the local bank for many years. He also started the Italian Credit Union in Haverhill, an accomplishment in which Nana took great pride. Giuseppe Gesmundo, my great grandfather, suffered a fatal heart attack on his 71st birthday on April 18, 1958, in Haverhill.
It was Nana’s dream to someday visit Italy and find her relatives. She would talk about it often, looking into the distance as if she somehow knew it would remain just a dream. Sadly, shortly after I turned 18, my best friend, my Nana, my rock, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer that attacks the bones, and she died on August 20, 1990, before she could go to Italy.
We now live in an age of information, when it is almost too easy to find out anything about anyone. So a few years ago I began my search, to fulfill my Nana’s dream to find her family in Italy.
I began my research on the website ancestry.com where I discovered bits and pieces about Giuseppe, but nothing concrete. Then one day in my search I found his World War I draft card. On his card he had written that he was from a town in Italy called Terlizzi. As I never knew what town he was from, only that he came from Bari province, it was an important part of the puzzle. A few years went by and life got in the way, and I drifted away from my heritage research. Then in 2014 I began listening to a podcast on health and fitness, ‘The Angriest Trainer’, with Vinnie Tortorich and Anna Vocino. That is when everything changed.
The podcast is hilariously entertaining, as well as informative. It was and still is an addictive show to listen to. Their down to earth approach reminded me a lot of myself as well as my Italian relatives. No coincidence, because Vinnie and Anna happen to be Italian.
As I continued to listen to my new favorite podcast, I heard their ad for a 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil, called Villa Cappelli. As a longtime foodie, I decided to look up this olive oil and its history. After looking through their website, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Their 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil was made in, of all places, Terlizzi, Italy! Not only could I buy delicious food from this company, but I discovered that they also rent their villa! Wow!
As I stared at the screen and imagined going to the villa and finding my family, realistically I thought it would be impossible. I put my dreams aside, little knowing that my Nana from up above would intervene.
August 25, 2014 was an oppressively hot day in my hometown of Topsfield, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. As I stepped outside, I noticed a beautiful pigeon sitting in my driveway. I thought that seemed strange but left my house to do some errands. When I came back the pigeon was waiting for me. I decided to feed the visitor some breadcrumbs and water, and he seemed most grateful. For three days my new friend jumped around my yard, sat on my roof and one time even sat at my front door peering in the side window as if to say, “Do you notice me?”
After the pigeon left a not so friendly gift on the top of my husband’s car, we decided our visitor needed to be returned to his owner. He had a couple of identity bands around his ankle, but nothing that indicated his home. I decided to look up, via the internet, local racing pigeon clubs and found the contact information for a guy named Ron. After some exchange of correspondence, we agreed to meet and that I would hand over the bird.
With great help and effort from my son, Thomas, we managed to get our new friend into a pet carrier, and we went to meet Ron and his wife at an agreed location. Ron and his wife were an older couple, and immediately we knew they were genuine folks. Ron explained that sometimes when racing, pigeons can get lost. He looked over our pigeon friend and determined he was only about four months old and quite thin. He was most grateful we called him because he actually thought he might know who owned the bird.
The next day I received this email from Ron:
“Hello Again Beth, I want to thank you for the trouble you and your son went thru to get this bird. I spoke to the owner and he wanted me to thank you also...If there were more people like you and your family, this world could be a better place for us all... I wish you nothing but good health and happiness in your Life...”
After reading Ron’s touching email I decided to look up what it meant to have a pigeon come into your life. I grabbed a book off my shelf, “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews. He writes, “The Pigeon has a long history associated with the home and with fertility. The real name of Christopher Columbus was “Colombo”, which is the Italian word for “pigeon”…It is because of this that they are often symbols for a time or a need to return to the security of home. Pigeons can teach us how to find our way back when we are lost. They help us to remember and find the love of home and home life that we have either given up or lost…Have we forgotten our basic foundations, the heritage we have had passed on to us through home and family?”
Speechless, I closed the book and thought about the villa in Terlizzi and made my decision. We were going.
After exchanging some family emails, I found a relative in Michigan who had an address in Terlizzi, as one of my Nana’s brothers did visit family over 25 years ago. I quickly wrote a letter, explained who I was and my interest in meeting my lost relatives. I then emailed the villa, put down a deposit and announced to my parents, we were going to Terlizzi, to finish Nana’s dream to find her dad’s family.
Three months went by and we heard nothing. Just when I was about to lose hope, a letter arrived. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I danced around my kitchen, and my kids finally demanded I open it. The letter was from my great-grandfather’s brother’s family. They wrote how happy they were to hear from us and that they would be very excited to meet us in July, 2015.
As I sat in my kitchen holding the letter, I thought about all the events that led up to this moment - the World War I draftcard from ancestry.com, Vinnie Tortorich’s podcast, the Villa Cappelli 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil, and my beautiful pigeon “colombo” friend. In my heart, I know each event was carefully orchestrated by my Nana, in her quest to see her families unite, to finish one dream and start another.
Never give up just because a loved one has died. I believe our love and dreams for each other live on. We only need to stop, and inhale the small wonders our loved ones leave us each day. Maybe it’s a shiny penny or a small feather, a familiar smile, or a scent that takes us back to a loved one. All of these are signs that their love for us lives on.
By not giving up on our loved ones, even though they have passed, we open the doorway to our awareness, revealing the door between Heaven and Earth. By taking a moment each day to admire the beauty around us, we begin to discover the various loving messages they leave us each day. They help us to realize that their love for us is everlasting. These loving messages help us to walk through our days here on Earth with clarity, insurance and strength. This awareness is meant to be part of our lives, not hidden. It is important for us to acknowledge these messages and beautiful signs of love. Take a moment each day to see, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell all of these messages with an open heart. Soon you will become aware that our love for each other never dies, we are surrounded in it.
Now, when I see a pigeon look at me just right, or I find a feather, I take a moment and smile and remember, that my Nana will always love me.peace and love, Elizabeth Coughlin