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Postcard - Going Home, A Mystery Solved

Donna Layng from NC

May 18 - June 11, 2005: Returning to Sicily this past June, 100 years after my father's departure in 1905, was a momentous occasion for me and a beautiful closing of a mystery that began in the tiny mountain village where he was born.

Donna at her Father's house in Sicily

Returning to Sicily this past June, 100 years after my father's departure in 1905, was a momentous occasion for me. It was the beautiful closing of a circle and a return to my roots in the tiny mountain village where he was born.

The eighth of nine children, I came along when Dad was 51 years old. As long as I can remember, I was puzzled by my last name, "Crossed," and I often pestered my father for some clue to his real identity. I would climb up on his lap and begin my routine: "But your name couldn't be Crossed. It's not Italian. Was it Crossetti?" I would try various other proximities, and he would humor me until he tired of the process and then, in no uncertain terms, put me down and say, "Enough!"

Dad always said he came from Sicily with his older sister and a cousin. And, for some reason, he told us his mother's maiden name, Angela Messina, but never would tell us his real name or say exactly where he was from in Sicily. In 1917, when he married Mom, he told her he was going to Wilmington, Delaware to invite his sister to the wedding. But he returned and said his sister could not come. Both he and my mother perpetuated the story of a sister whom we never met. It was a mystery to me that my father, a man of utmost integrity and character, who raised his children to believe in "family" and imbued in each of us great loyalty and love for our sisters and brothers, did not have any contact with his own siblings and parents.

In the springtime of 1970 when my father was 83, his health began deteriorating rapidly. He began to talk about his early years in Sicily, and one day he said he wished an airplane could drop him there, over the village of Frazzano. I could hardly believe what I heard. That was the first time he had ever uttered the name of his birthplace. But, he would say no more.

I hurried to a bookstore for a map of Sicily and indeed, located Frazzano in the mountains of northeast Sicily. I wrote a letter to the Mayor, enclosing a new five dollar bill and asking for information about a man who identified himself as Charles Crossed, born to Angela Messina about 1890. I explained that he was very old and suffering from memory loss.

Months later I was surprised to find in my mailbox a letter with Italian postage stamps, a reply from the Mayor of Frazzano. He sent documents showing that Angela Messina married Giuseppe Fragale and had one son, Ignazio, who had emigrated to the United States in 1905 when he was 18 years old. He included the official records of my father's birth, the death certificates of his parents and six siblings, and said that the two daughters of his sister lived in the nearby villages of Mirto and Capri Leone.

I was very excited when I read the Mayor's letter to Dad, and yet, very sad, because he cried when he heard his real name pronounced - Ignazio Fragale. But, he would not offer any further explanation of why he changed his name. Given his fragile condition and evident sorrow, it was not possible to ask more. He knew I was writing to his niece and cried again when she wrote back, "Tell Uncle Ignazio not to worry, to keep himself calm. The past is the past. We hope we can help him by bringing some of his home to him with our letters." Dad died shortly thereafter, never revealing why he pretended to have a sister in this country, or why he severed contact with his family in Sicily.

A few months after his death, my mother and sisters and I went to meet his "lost" family, and over the years we have communicated with each other by mail. But still, none of us knew the reason why Dad, who always stressed the importance of family, had broken bonds with his Sicilian relatives.

His sister's daughter told us several stories that added to the puzzle. She said that her mother had never left Sicily. Rather, it was her father, Salvatore, who came to America with Dad. According to her, Salvatore, and my father, Ignazio, wrote letters home and sent money for several years. Then, one day a letter arrived from Salvatore saying that he wanted to return to Sicily but he had no money. His wife sold her few pieces of gold jewelry and sent the money to Salvatore. After some months, a letter arrived from someone in Wilmington telling Dad's sister not to expect her husband home, that he had used all the jewelry money to throw a big party. Shortly thereafter, all communication stopped. No more letters, either from Salvatore or my father.

Last year a distant cousin of Dad's told us an incredible story of infidelity and family honor. Why he chose to tell us now after all these years is yet another mystery. But, this is what he said: instead of making plans to send for his wife and three children, Dad's brother-in-law in Wilmington was living with and having children by another woman. A confrontation took place between my father and Salvatore that ended in Salvatore's death. It is not hard to imagine, given the importance of family honor in the Sicilian culture of the time, that a violent encounter resulted in such tragic consequences. We were told that our father went to a priest who advised him to change his name and leave town.

Finally, I had an explanation of Dad's hiding his true identity and severing all ties with his Sicilian relatives. My father was probably 21 or 22 when all this happened. I loved him dearly and it is painful to think of the burden he carried by himself all those years. Now, on the 100th anniversary of his departure from Sicily, and my 67th year, how glad I was to close the cycle and return "home" once more.

Dad's niece, who lived in Mirto, died two years ago at 98. I wasn't sure if her children would want to see me now that they also knew what happened to their grandfather, evidently at the hands of their great-uncle. I had written but did not receive a reply.

I must admit I was nervous. Upon arriving in Sicily, I traveled from Palermo by train to the coastal town of Capo D'Orlando where I took the only available public transportation to Frazzano - a school bus, delivering students up the 20 miles of s-curves from their high school to the mountain towns where they lived. I had reservations at a newly built hotel near the villages where my cousins still lived.

There was a message for me at the hotel to call them. Ah, reassurance. They did get my letter and knew I was coming. I walked the mile into town, enjoying the views of the countryside and the distant Mediterranean. Almost immediately I saw the familiar face of my cousin Concetta. She greeted me warmly and was surprised that I hadn't received her reply to my letter.

Much to my relief, everyone seemed happy to see me again. The five months I had just spent auditing a class in Italian at Wake Forest paid off. I was able to converse fairly well as we enthusiastically exchanged stories. Welcomed into their homes, I was served wonderful meals and met cousins for the first time. It was as though my father had left Sicily yesterday. I had at last bridged a century of "lost" family.

I saw the house where my father lived. Not much was left except the walls and broken remnants of an earth oven, but when asked who owned it, my cousin said, "You do." The Mayor of Frazzano graciously received us in his office and assigned a staffer to give me a special tour of S. Filippo di Fragala, a famous monastery built in 1090, closed but "open" for my visit. He generously gave me postcards, books on the city's patron saint, calendars, and other mementos.

I had recently published "My Dad's Story," a genealogy for the family, and the Mayor requested a copy for the town library. At the suggestion of my cousin, I asked him if I could become a "Cittadina Onoraria" (honorary citizen). He enthusiastically agreed and promised to send a certificate. Three days later, I left Frazzano with promises to return.

For me, it brought a closure to a life that had begun a century ago, and also a new beginning as I reestablished connections with my Sicilian family. A cousin's welcome words echoed in my mind: "What happened long ago was no one's fault. It was the culture."

© Donna Layng, 2005

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