Growing up in Southwest Philadelphia, I was always close to my four Italian immigrant grandparents. Every Sunday, my family would drive to South Philadelphia to one set of grandparents or the other for a typical Italian Sunday meal.
I was especially close to my Mansi grandparents because I spent the summer with them at their Shore home in North Wildwood. During those summer days, I was told story after story about their ancestral hometown of Ravello. My grandmother never tired of telling me about the beauty of the Amalfi Coast and insisted Ravello had no rival. I was curious about this place and hoped someday I could visit it.
When I retired, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Amalfi Coast. My research showed that 10 percent of Ravello's 2,500 inhabitants had the surname Mansi. I made my way to Italy and visited Ravello's municipio (town hall) and went to the anagrafe (registry office), where the staff couldn't have been more accommodating. One clerk, Franco, retrieved the 1885 record book to look up my grandfather Matteo Mansi. He then photocopied the original page and prepared an official "birth record."
A second clerk, also named Franco, brought two espressos for my wife and me. I showed them pictures of my grandfather; his brother, Panteleone, who immigrated to the U.K.; and his younger brother, Michele, who was killed in WWI. The second clerk, Franco Giordano, who was about 60, examined the pictures and asked me the family name. When I told him Mansi, he said he knew this family and asked whether I wanted to go to the cemetery and see my great-grandfather's grave. I wondered: How could he know my great-grandfather when my grandfather had been dead for 50 years?
He drove us to the cemetery in his car and took us to the grave site of Luigi Mansi. The dates on the tomb were correct, but this Luigi was interred with his wife, Teresa. I said to him: "Franco, I don't want to disagree with you, but this is not my great-grandfather. My great-grandmother's name was Francesca."
He looked at me, smiled, and said: "Ah, yes, your great-grandfather was married to Francesca. They had six children. One, your grandfather, immigrated to the U.S. A second immigrated to the U.K. Francesca died when she was 40.
"Luigi then remarried this Teresa, a woman who was 34 years younger than he was. They had three more children." My father never said he had half-aunts and -uncles. I then asked how Franco knew this family history. He said Teresa was his father's sister, his aunt. I was dumbfounded. Finally, I asked him why my grandparents left this beautiful place on the renowned Amalfi Coast.
His response: "Mike, you're seeing Italy on a full stomach."
That day in Ravello provided three valuable lessons: a lesson in Mansi family history, a lesson in Italian social history, and a lesson in humanity.