WE PULLED INTO the village at about noon on the afternoon of the 24th of February. It was a clear, brisk day and the sun spotlit the piazzas and ancient churches of the settlement on the periphery of Bari with a pale orange glow.
Bari is a seaport city on the Adriatic known best perhaps as the final resting place of Saint Nicholas, whose bones lie in a crypt in a basilica by the sea’s gray waters. It has about as many inhabitants as Tallinn, yet even in a country like Italy, which is devoured by insatiable tourists year round, it’s still somehow out of the way, a mystery obscured from view.
Ringing Bari are a series of provincial communities with names like Toritto, Grumo, Sannicandro, and Adelfia. This is almond, grape, and olive country. In the past, most of the people of this area, which is engulfed by green plantations of flowering olive groves, were involved in or influenced by agriculture. The soil here is black, red, and pungent and divided by stone walls into uneven patches, giving the area the appearance of one lush and fragrant country garden.
In the village of Toritto, I came upon a group of older men standing outside a church and asked them for directions to the local cemetery. “I am from America,” I explained in Italian, “but my roots are from here.” The tallest of the men, a blue-eyed, cheerful soul named Gianni, tipped his flat cap to us and got in our car, just like that, to show us the way. He gave directions, though not in Italian, but in the curious Barese dialect, a delicious mix of French and Greek. This is the language my grandfather spoke as a child, a tongue that is utterly alien to me and for which I hold no key.
The cemetery happened to be closed, this being the Mezzogiorno, where even cemetery gates are locked at lunch time, so we returned later that day to study the stacks of interments. This soil may be suitable for olives, but not people. Everyone here is buried above ground. The markers for Giovanna and Lazzaro, the siblings of my great grandmother Maria, were found almost immediately, in one of the older vaults. As long as we searched though we could not find the markers for their parents — the grandparents of my grandfather — Angela and Francesco.
I knew these people on sight, as their images hang on the wall of my parents’ house in New York. The old man with the gray hair and mustache. The old woman with the dark hair and sad face. She had taught her daughter Maria how to cook, and Maria had taught my mother how to cook. My mother had taught me.
In the cemetery office, I asked for help in locating their graves. Two locals, both with the dark hair and olive eyes of the ancient Greek settlers of the region, passed dilapidated books bearing the names of Toritto’s dead citizens between them. In Tallinn, people were dancing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence. We were sitting in a dusty office, thinking of our own past.
Anna, our 10-year-old daughter, also wanted to find Angela and Francesco. She had been a brave traveler in this land of her roots, and even tried to explain to her somewhat bewildered Italian relatives how her friends like to collect deer antler sheds in the forests of Estonia for fun.
At last, I glanced a familiar name in the old book. It was our Angela, who had departed this life on the 15th of January 1922. But where was our Angela buried, we inquired from the men? “Well, she is no longer buried,” one frowned. “Her remains were transferred to the ossuary.”
“What ossuary?” I asked.
He stood and grabbed a large flashlight. “Here, come with me.”
Beneath one of the chapels in the cemetery, he shone a light through a grate, outlining piles of bones and dust. Because of limited space in the cemetery at times, they removed all the old burials and deposited them into a common dark mass grave. The ossuary! I gaped at the skulls and femurs.
This is what had become of Angela, and what became of her husband Francesco. This is what had become of our flesh and blood. This is what had become of the past. A whole century had since passed and the names had survived, the dates, old photographs, and some memories.
Yet all that was left behind was this.
“It’s just so sad,” Anna said to me as we exited the cemetery, “that there’s no marker for them.”
I took a long look at the olive groves surrounding the cemetery, flowering even in winter, and let out a sigh. “That’s just how life is,” I said. “When you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s nothing else left.”