“Fa Caldo!” It’s hot! I hear the phrase again and again, as the temperatures along Lake Como have been hovering in the low 90s for days. My cousins and I escape the heat in Mandello, and head for higher ground in Lierna. It’s not significantly cooler, but there is a small pool, a garden hose with a mister, and a view of the the lake that is heaven on earth. Under the hot sun, I cool off with the mister and tell Ale, my cousin Chicco’s wife, that I am in Palm Springs. She laughs and Chicco looks to her for an explanation. She repeats my words in Italian. He smiles. I’ve been staying with them and their daughter Bea in Mandello. Bea plays translator when my Italian and her parents’ English reach their limits. If she has grown weary of this role it doesn’t show.
In late afternoon we lounge in the shade. Chicco leans forward in his chair, legs crossed, and reaches for a yellow plum floating in a bowl of cold water. I immediately see the familiar posture of my dad, and Nick, my brother. I study his pose for as long as it lasts, fascinated by the subtle ways in which shared DNA is revealed. I want to document these moments with a photo, but they happen so quickly.
In another quest to beat the heat, Chicco, Ale and I drive to a much higher altitude, Magreglio. We hike through shaded woods, and Chicco begins whistling a tune. I lift my phone to capture on video the same crisp whistle of my father. But he stops. I continue filming, hoping he’ll start again. But he doesn’t. As he approaches several wooden posts he extends his arm and presses the palm of his hand firmly against the first one, a greeting of sorts as he passes. In this simple gesture, I see my dad. And though I cannot name a time I witnessed my father doing this, I recognize it as though I had seen him do it a hundred times. I replay the video several times, marveling at the similarities. I text it to my siblings. They see it too.
We didn’t grow up visiting our grandparents in Italy. We visited as a family just once in 1976. In 1990, I traveled solo, a trip combined with business in Germany. I saw only my aunt and cousins near Rome. Then in 2006 my girlfriend Randi and I went to Lake Como, my paternal grandmother’s birthplace. Without a plan, we wandered the village of Somana, found its tiny cemetery, and my grandparents’ gravesite. Pointing to their headstone, I used an awkward combination of English, Italian and sign language to ask a stranger if she knew the Rompani Family. Somehow she understood and led me to one of dad’s many cousins. Since then I’ve been a regular visitor and even lived in Italy for a year. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t live to see this chapter of my life. But, I continue to see glimpses of his spirit in his brother and his cousins; the creases near their eyes when they laugh, the passion in their voices when they speak, and even the way they cross their legs. The Rompani genes are strong.
With Bea’s help I tell Chicco and Ale about my DNA detective work, my observations and the video. I’m nervous that something will be lost in translation, and I’ll be seen as the kooky cousin from California trying to conjure up ghosts. But the eagerness in Bea’s voice as she retells my story, and the growing smiles on Chicco and Ale’s faces as they listen, put me at ease. I lean in and play the video for them. It doesn’t require explanation or translation. The decades without contact, and the thousands of miles between us cannot prevent our DNA from connecting the dots.
In truth, I am the kooky cousin from California. I travel to Italy looking for ghosts, and the missing pages from my father’s story. His shortened life took all of us by surprise. I thought I had decades to ask the questions that can only be answered with the passage of time; when wounds are healed, and forgiveness makes room for vulnerability and truth. Instead, I use my terrible Italian, and enlist Bea’s help to learn all I can in his absence.
And, when my cousins run out of answers, when I must accept that I have learned all I will ever know about my father, I am comforted by the faces of those who remain.