Finding My Family
By Name withheld by request
“In Gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my father and mother, whose blood, ﬂesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them I see all four of my grandparents whose expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed I am practicing to transform.
I open my heart, ﬂesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and all ancestors. I know that I am only a continuation of this ancestral lineage. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to ﬂow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”
—Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh
“Margherita.” My mother’s name means daisy, and she is indeed as delicate and as beautiful as that ﬂower. Born into a large family in Sicily in 1950 during an economic depression, she was introduced to the dark demon of abandonment at an early age. The Puzzo family had three boys and two girls, and was not able to ﬁnancially support them all. Knowing that the boys could provide income for the family by working in the ﬁelds, the family gave their two little daughters to the local orphanage, “Il Boccone dei Poveri” –– roughly translated: “A bite of bread for the hungry.” At just four years old, my mother was alone, scared, and without a family.
Four years later and six thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mary had just ﬁnished burying her forty-ﬁve-day-old son who had died of pneumonia in Brooklyn, NewYork. Overwhelmed by grief, yet still full of the desire to love and to nurture, Mary and her husband, Joseph set about organizing an illegal adoption for an orphan child. At eight years old, my mother found herself on a boat with a lawyer, headed in true United States-immigrant-style for the Statue of Liberty.
Unable to overcome the loss of her ﬁrst child, my grandmother, although still yearning to be a loving mother, treated her adopted daughter with anger and resentment. If Margherita misbehaved, she was reprimanded with such comments as, “You are not my real child, anyway.” Or, “Is this the thanks I get for taking in a rejected orphan?” This lack of nurturing and the concrete garden of the Brooklyn sidewalks made it difﬁcult for my mother to blossom into the beautiful ﬂower she was born to be.
As the years passed, the communication between my mother and grandmother did not improve. At twenty-two, my mother left my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan where she spent a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue and enjoying ﬁnancial freedom for the ﬁrst time. It was then that she met my father, who was traveling from South Africa on business. At a party of a mutual friend, Albert and Margherita got drunk on red wine and fell headﬁrst into what they both thought was love. My father returned to South Africa, but after telephoning and writing each other for six months, they decided to get married. Seeing this as an opportunity to begin anew, my mother ﬂew to South Africa with visions of creating a secure and loving family of her own. She invested her idea of happiness into her marriage and two years later, in a small clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg, I was born.
It was a turbulent marriage from the beginning, as my father had a restless heart. On his frequent business trips he met many women who were responsive to his good looks, quick wit, and irresistible charm. After eight years of marriage and the birth of my brother Joe, my parents divorced.
My mother’s world was shattered as she confronted the ruins of her broken dream with two small children. Filled with anger, the three of us returned to the United States. She did not tell my father that we were leaving, and forbade us to ever speak to or see him again. “He is the ruination of our home,” she would often say. “If I ever ﬁnd out that you love him, or that you speak with him, you no longer have a mother.” At four and six years old, my brother and I took these words to heart, and promised our mother that to us, our father was as good as dead.
Starting My Healing Journey
As the years passed, I began to feel an undeniable longing to know my father. As this longing grew, so did anger and resentment towards my mother. Though she worked hard to give my brother and me everything we asked for, and though there was always delicious home-cooked food on our kitchen table, we were emotionally starving. My mother’s inability to forgive my father was poisoning us all. I began to feel a strong compassion for my father. I knew that he had attempted to contact us children many times, but that my mother had prevented it. I understood how my father must be suffering, feeling rejected and abandoned by his own children. At age sixteen, I began to communicate with him secretly through letters and telephone calls. Initially, he resisted my attempts to get to know him. He felt hurt, and believed that my brother and I hated him. He had constructed a wall of guilt, sadness, and confusion. It took several years of loving and compassionate listening to earn back my father’s trust, but today I enjoy an open, loving relationship with him, though our communication is infrequent and he still lives far from me in South Africa.
Ironically, it is the parent I lived the closest to geographically with whom I felt the most distance. The anger I had built up for my mother was insidious; it grew and disguised itself so well that I did not recognize its true face until one day, I found myself with no desire to speak to or see her. I left home at sixteen, eager to leave New York City and my mother’s biting resentment. For ten years I traveled around the world searching for a place I could call home. At age twenty-two, just like my mother, I found myself in a foreign country, engaged to be married. But several months before the wedding, I became very ill. I developed a severe hormonal imbalance, producing seven times the amount of male hormones normal for a woman, and three times the normal amount for a man. My subconscious rejection of my mother and my own feminine self was physically turning me into a Superman! Sometimes not able to leave my bed for days, I fell into a deep depression––vomiting, crying, and yet praying constantly. The wise insight of my body told me that I was not ready to provide my partner with a stable love and home. One month before the wedding––dress made, invitations printed––I broke off the engagement. Although I desperately wanted to stop traveling and to plant my roots somewhere, the anger that festered in my heart against my mother prevented me from being able to love myself fully. I knew that in order to be able to settle into my own skin, I’d have to deal with my internal rage. How could I ever expect to be a loving mother if I could not love my own?
Four years have passed since the onset of my illness. I can now see that my anger at my mother for not being able to let go and forgive my father was part of my problem. However, my own inability to forgive my mother mirrored her difﬁculty and prevented me from feeling compassion for her and for our relationship. I am tired of ﬁghting with my anger, and am ready to forgive. When my grandmother passed away three years ago, my mother yelled and cursed at her until the last breath left her body on her deathbed. I do not want to repeat this.
My spiritual practice is helping me to dig into my dirt, to unearth the brittle and withered roots of the maternal and the Goddess within me. Today I celebrate the eightyear-old Sicilian orphan girl who still dances in the music of my mother’s laughter, basks in the sunshine of my mother’s eyes. I embrace this little girl as the same uprooted little child taken from her home in South Africa. Breathing in, I smile at the wounded Sicilian cells within me. Breathing out, I prepare myself for the road of practice which lies ahead.
I know that I need to go to my mother’s village in Sicily to look for the family that she believes has forgotten her, in order to start this healing process with her. I have only the family name and the name of the village. So I go forward, step by step, with forgiveness in my heart and love as my guide. I try to remember the uncanny parallels in my mother and in myself, both in our internal and external lives. I trust that the daisy-bud within me, the precious Margherita, has already begun to blossom, and that one day I will be able to pass this beauty on to a small ﬂower of my own.
Traveling to Sicily
It’s seven in the morning, and already the blistering eighty-degree weather has ﬁlled the hotel pool with several guests and their children. It’s one of the hottest summers in Southern European history, and Sciacca, a popular tourist destination in Sicily, is ﬁlled to capacity. I’ve ended up at the only hotel room available, at the ﬁve star Hotel delle Terme––way beyond my budget.
I pick up my knapsack, slip on my Birkenstocks, and head down to the bus stop, in front of the Franciscan monastery at the piazza in the center of town. I’m armed with only my mother’s last name and the name of her village. Deep breath. I’m on a mission to ﬁnd my family. I’m in God’s hands.
After a pleasant walk through the bird-ﬁlled central park, I arrive at the modern, bright blue bus parked with its doors closed. In front of it, smoking a Marlboro light, stands a young guy. With his stylish haircut and sunglasses and his golden chain glistening over his dark curly chest hair, he looks stylishly out of place in this antiquated little town. He smiles as I approach him, and I ﬁnd the strength to mutter my pieced-together question: “Scusi, ma voglio andare a Montevago. Cuando parte il pullman?”
He takes off his sunglasses and looks at me with kind blue eyes and a big smile. He tells me that the bus leaves in twenty minutes, and asks me where I am from.
“New York.” I say.
“Me too!” His response surprises me, but immediately I can see him blending in with the Brooklyn Italians that hang out every day at Sal’s Pizzeria on my corner. His name is Vito and he was born on Grove Street in Ridgewood –– the same street where my mother’s high school still stands, the same sidewalks that my mother walked on to school for four years. We are both amazed at this coincidence, and immediately he becomes a sacred ally on my mission. I conﬁde that I am going to Montevago to look for my mother’s lost family, but have no information other than her last name. He asks me her name.
“I know everybody here and there is only one Puzzo left in Montevago, my friend Guiseppe’s girlfriend Maria’s father, Vincenzo. All the others left for other parts of the world, or died.”
Vito assures me that if my family name is Puzzo, then this Vincenzo will know something about them. Maria works at Guiseppe‘s ﬂower shop on the outskirts of Montevago, and he says that he’ll take me there directly. The monastery bells chime eight o’clock and Vito turns to open the bus doors.
Finding My Family
On the ride to Montevago, I notice how the landscape of Sicily is a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. In between rugged lines of jagged brown stones sprout bushels of bright green prickly-pear fruits and deep purple grape vines. The horizon is vast, open, and welcoming, yet the valleys run deep and feel in places desolate and abandoned. I can feel the appropriation, the subjugation, and the violation of this island’s history embedded like ancient seeds in its soil. Simultaneously, its resilience, pride, and commitment to survival spring forth in every ﬂower blossom and luscious ripe melon.
The big blue bus pulls around in front of a tiny yellow storefront. “Maria!” Vito yells, while honking the horn. “Maria!” Again, I am instantly transported back to Brooklyn.
“Che? Che?!” A tiny yet tough female voice calls out from behind the plants and trees lining the bright stone storefront. A few seconds later, peering nervously from behind the tinted bus windows, I see a short girl of nineteen or twenty sprint from behind the green jungle and walk deﬁantly towards the bus. “Si, whaddya want?” Her gait and her energy are feisty and strong, though physically she is very skinny and delicate.
Vito tells her that I am here looking for my family. Maria’s expression changes to one of profound curiosity. I feel my mother’s ﬁery energy coming from her. Even her eyes radiate my mother’s temperament. I can feel my blood in her. My heart beats faster.
Maria boards the bus cautiously, peering in at me. “Are you Theresa’s daughter?” Maria asks me, studying my face carefully. Theresa is my mother’s sister, and I know that I have found my cousin.
“No, I am Margherita’s daughter.”
A space of silence hangs heavy in the humid air of the bus before Maria’s big brown eyes begin to well with tears. Overwhelmed by relief and disbelief, my heart is swollen and sits heavy in my heaving chest. Maria and I stare at one another, speechless.
“Mamma mia....” Vito’s deep voice breaks the weighted silence, and Maria and I turn to see him taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks. Vito seems to be both a man and a very old woman. I recognize him as my angel, my divine charioteer.
Vito’s reaction brings Maria’s composure back, and, wiping her eyes, she snaps back into her old self. She remembers that my mother’s brother is about to have one of his life-long wishes fulﬁlled––to reconnect with the sister he never knew. Grabbing my hand, she looks me squarely in the eye. “Come on, let’s go. My father will want to meet you...what is your name?”
Deep breath...my mother has ﬁnally come home.
Sharing with My Mother
My short time in Montevago was ﬁlled with love, joy, tears, stories told over espressos and home-baked Italian pastries. Pictures were taken, gifts given, and lots of spaghetti was eaten. However, it was the anticipation of my return home to my mother in New York that ﬁlled me with the sweetest delight. I was eager to share with her the pieces of her past that I had found, and to see how she would respond. I knew that this was a sensitive part of her life, and I was curious to see if she would open to it.
Returning to New York, my mother seemed overjoyed at my journey, willing to receive what I had brought back. Sitting at the dining room table, I spread out the pictures of me with her brother and her aunts. I placed the rock I had taken from the rubble of what was once the house she was born in on the table, and shared stories of each wonderful family member I had met. “They love you so much, mama. They miss you so much.” She looked at each picture carefully, curiously ﬁngering the outline of her brother’s face. “I don’t have his nose, thank God.” She laughed. There was a precarious joy in her, an awakened inquisitiveness, still too new to be understood or deﬁned. “I’m going to visit them.”
A few months later, my mother left for Sicily. She stayed a week with her brothers, met the townspeople, and traveled, seeing everything as if for the ﬁrst time.
The meeting with her family was not one of carefree joy and celebration. With hearts still heavy, heads still carrying years of confused stories and misunderstandings, my mother’s return home was wrought with anger, confusion, and many unanswered questions. Upon her return to the States, she said that although she may never return, she felt that she had fulﬁlled a kind of duty and for that she is happy. Though she may never fully understand exactly what happened, she knows that a bridge has been re-built, a severed root re-connected so that new stems may grow––and in their own season, bear bright new blossoms.
Author information withheld by request.
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