The Mermaid's Daughter

me in calabria walking beach.jpg

This June I’ll be taking a return pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland of Italy. I am currently preparing for it by spending time in deep study and listening with my family lineage and ancestry. My grandparents were Italian immigrants and my relationship with them has had a profound impact on the shaping of who I am. I grew up in an immigrant and refugee community in the city of Utica, NY. My neighborhood, during the 1970’s and 80’s, consisted of mainly 1st and 2nd generation Italian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Lebanese, some German, and Vietnamese immigrants. I really didn’t understand or consider my neighborhood an “immigrant community” at the time, however. I just thought we were all Americans. This was my America; the statue of liberty took us in, “America is made of immigrants, a melting pot”, a place of refuge from famine, fascism, war, and colonization. My mother is 2nd generation Irish and she still carries An Gorta Mór/The Great Hunger in her belly, as do I.

non and pop 1939.jpg
me and non an pop.jpg

At the same time as I knew myself as an American, I also knew I was from “somewhere else.” It felt to me like it does when there is a shadow or a slight motion just out of the corner of your eye. It’s a sense of not quite being in place, almost like missing a beat in a silent rhythm.  There were times when I would catch glimpses of it; the way my grandfather ended all of his English words with a vowel sound, my grandmother talking about the superstitions of the “Old Country”, the way my great-aunt only spoke Italian and would do so while looking me straight in the eye as if I should somehow understand her.


Irish language speaker and poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill describes it perfectly in her poem, Cuimhne an Uisce/A Recovered Memory of Water about the loss of Irish language.

Here it is in both Irish and English:

Cuimhne an Uisce

Uaireanta nuair a bhíonn a hiníon

sa seomra folctha

ag glanadh a fiacla le slaod tiubh

is le sód bácála,

tuigtear di go líonann an seomra suas

le huisce.

Tosnaíonn sé ag a cosa is a rúitíní

is bíonn sé ag slibearáil suas is suas arís

thar a másaí is a cromáin is a básta.

Ní fada

go mbíonn sé suas go dtí na hioscaidí uirthi.

Cromann sí síos ann go minic ag piocadh suas

rudaí mar thuáillí láimhe nó ceirteacha

atá ar maos ann.

Tá cuma na feamnaí orthu—

na scothóga fada ceilpe úd a dtugaidís

‘gruaig mhaighdean mhara’ nó ‘eireabaill mhadraí rua’ orthu.

Ansan go hobann téann an t-uisce i ndísc

is ní fada

go mbíonn an seomra iomlán tirim arís.

Tá strus uafásach

ag roinnt leis na mothúcháin seo go léir.

Tar éis an tsaoil, níl rud ar bith aici

chun comparáid a dhéanamh leis.

Is níl na focail chearta ar eolas aici ar chor ar bith.

Ag a seisiún síciteiripeach seachtainiúil

bíonn a dóthain dua aici

ag iarraidh an scéal aisteach seo a mhíniú

is é a chur in iúl i gceart

don mheabhairdhochtúir.

Níl aon téarmaíocht aici,

ná téarmaí tagartha

ná focal ar bith a thabharfadh an tuairim is lú

do cad é ‘uisce’.

‘Lacht trédhearcach,’ a deir sí, ag déanamh a cruinndíchill.

‘Sea,’ a deireann an teiripí, ‘coinnibh ort!’

Bíonn sé á moladh is á gríosadh chun gnímh teangan.

Deineann sí iarracht eile.

‘Slaod tanaí,’ a thugann sí air,

í ag tóraíocht go cúramach i measc na bhfocal.

‘Brat gléineach, ábhar silteach, rud fliuch.’

A Recovered Memory of Water

Sometimes when the mermaid’s daughter

is in the bathroom

cleaning her teeth with a thick brush

and baking soda

she has the sense the room is filling

with water.

It starts at her feet and ankles

and slides further and further up

over her thighs and hips and waist.

In no time

it’s up to her oxters.

She bends down into it to pick up

handtowels and washcloths and all such things

as are sodden with it.

They all look like seaweed—

like those long strands of kelp that used to be called

‘mermaid-hair’ or ‘foxtail.’

Just as suddenly the water recedes

and in no time

the room’s completely dry again.

A terrible sense of stress

is part and parcel of these emotions.

At the end of the day she has nothing else

to compare it to.

She doesn’t have the vocabulary for any of it.

At her weekly therapy session

she has more than enough to be going on with

just to describe this strange phenomenon

and to express it properly

to the psychiatrist.

She doesn’t have the terminology

or any of the points of reference

or any word at all that would give the slightest suggestion

as to what water might be.

‘A transparent liquid,’ she says, doing as best she can.

‘Right,’ says the therapist, ‘keep going.’

He coaxes and cajoles her towards word-making.

She has another run at it.

‘A thin flow,’ she calls it,

casting about gingerly in the midst of the words

‘A shiny film. Dripping stuff. Something wet.’

Being the granddaughter of immigrants and American, with very little knowledge of my family beyond 2 or 3 generations back, I feel very much like the mermaid’s daughter. Knowing that there is something familiar speaking to me in the water, but not knowing the language to hear it:

“in the bathroom

cleaning her teeth with a thick brush

and baking soda

she has the sense the room is filling

with water.”

The vague belonging to “somewhere else” that I experienced as a child and throughout my adult years has grown into a rich and generative path to self knowledge and a developing connection to my ancestors in both Italy and Ireland, as well as an intrinsic sense of “home” but for which I didn’t:

“have the terminology

or any of the points of reference

or any word at all that would give the slightest suggestion

as to what water might be”

Feroleto Antico, Calabria, Italy

Feroleto Antico, Calabria, Italy

Although as a child I wasn’t conscious that I longed for belonging or a sense of home, I had some inner craving or spark that drove me to prod my grandfather with questions about where he came from. I hung on every word of his stories about this “somewhere else” place that seemed to me a mysterious, magical, far off world. My grandpa spoke of “my village” of Feroleto Antico in Calabria, Italy.

I remember asking him to say it again, “Where are you from?” “CAh-lah-bree-ya”, he’d say.

Ohhh, CAh-lah-bree-yaahh! It sounds so beautiful!

Do you miss it?

Whenever I asked him this, his eyes would darken and his expression would grow dim. He would look away and lean back like he was remembering something. My heart would tighten and my throat would clench. I wanted him to say something that made sense to me. Something that I could compare it to. I wanted to know the word for water. So I kept asking.

Do you miss it?

Finally he’d answer, “I was always hungry there. My belly hurt. By the end of the week we had nothing but hard bread for dinner. That’s why my teeth are so strong! Every now and then a goat would come through and if you had a coin you could get some milk. Mussolini was in power and we had nothing.”

He’d continue:

“My village was on a mountain and when you looked either east or west you had a view of the sea. There was always a breeze. We lived off the fat of the land because that was all we had.  We raised chickens and every family took turns helping each other. There was a large olive press that we all shared and each family had their day to press olive oil. There was a donkey that would walk in circles turning the press. We told time by a sundial. It was in the piazza so everyone could see it.”

sundial in the piazza of Feroleto

sundial in the piazza of Feroleto

My grandmother was born in Benevento in the province of Campania. When I asked about Benevento my grandfather always answered by saying it’s “la città delle streghe, the city of witches. Anche il vento*! Even the wind is bad there!” And he would laugh and laugh.

*This is written in Italian. My grandfather said it in his dialect that I don’t know how to write so I translated it into Italian.

My passion and devotion to studying my ancestral traditions is what is leading me back to Italy again where I will be going to Benevento for the first time. While there I will be meeting  and learning from the traditional healers/witches who continue to carry the old traditions of the region today. Benevento was an ancient center for the worship of the goddess Diana and the cult of Isis. There is a long tradition of witchcraft there as it was a center for the indigenous shamanic traditions of Italy during the inquisition. In fact, there were no witch trials or executions of witches in Benevento because of a deal made with Rome, hence it became a sanctuary for pre-Christian healers and spiritual practices.

my Nonna, bottom right, and her mother and sisters

my Nonna, bottom right, and her mother and sisters

Many of these practices are known to Italian Americans as the “superstitions” of their grandparents, such as the “malocchio” or the “evil eye.”  The traditional healers in Italy use various methods of curing the malocchio and other illnesses with rituals and prayers. Many herbal remedies are incorporated as healing tools and modes of invoking protection.  Ritual chanting, dance, and celebrations still happen to honor some of the old gods and goddesses as well as Christain saints and the blessed Madonnas.

As I am discovering more about the traditions of my ancestors I am gaining the words, the terminology, and the points of reference for that which I have never had before. The sense of something moving in the periphery of who I am is becoming less of a sense and more of a knowing. Learning my ancestral traditions informs my understanding of myself as American because it enables me to track back the paths that led my people here and how their traditions, my traditions, have evolved through the generations. It also informs the possibilities for how those traditions might emerge in the future.

One of the questions that always comes up around talk about ancestry is, what about those of us who are adopted or don’t know our ancestry? This is very common and there is some amazing folks doing work in this area. We all have ancestors and ancestral traditions. Certainly, some of us have to dig deeper and further to find them but the possibilities for connection are infinite. Below is a link to the work of Kimi Kawabori who works with adoptees doing ancestral recovery:

To stay in the loop and up to date with my upcoming pilgrimage follow me on instagram and facebook where I will be posting regularly during my trip!

Stairs going down to the water from the Temple of Hera Lacinia, Crotone, Calabria

Stairs going down to the water from the Temple of Hera Lacinia, Crotone, Calabria