Under the Roman Arch

Nothing stays with us in quite the same way as the stories we hear from our grandparents. Even as children we realize these stories are important. As they transport us to a different time and place, they make the ground under our feet feel more stable.

My grandmother told me about Fano, the small town on the Adriatic coast where she grew up.  She left there on a September day in 1922, departing from Genoa aboard the steamer Giulio Cesare and arriving in New York October 1. The record of her arrival in her new home is scant, listing her name, age (21), her residence in the US (her brother’s home in Newport Rhode Island) and the fact that she was carrying twenty-five dollars.

She was afraid as she left the harbor that day. Who wouldn’t be? The trip from Fano to Genoa was probably a combination of horse cart and steam train. It was certainly the first time she had been so far from home.

Why did she and so many others of her generation cross an ocean? Why did they leave their homes and families, many times never to see them again? What made them so brave, so willing to venture into the unknown? I thought if I could see the place they left I would understand them a little more.

As we drove along the sea on AS 16, I wondered if changes in the town would make it impossible to walk in her footsteps. It was an unfounded worry. Across the new road that passes at the north of town, entrance to the old part of town is through an arch that dates from Roman times. A few steps in, across from a small café where two gentlemen enjoyed their morning espressos there is a statue of Augustus Caesar. It was at his behest the arch was built in 2 AD.

We passed under the arch onto Via Arco di Augusto. On a Saturday morning it was a bustling scene. Furniture, racks of clothes and tables of food, shoes, linens, hardware, blankets and sweaters lined both sides of the cobblestone street. Following the winding stone road between 17th century buildings, we came to the town center. I imagined my grandmother, a girl of ten crossing the square holding her mother’s hand. A  tower in the square dates from the 12th century, so she could have passed under it on a September morning like this one, and looked up to marvel at its height the way children do.

When we left the main road and ventured onto the narrow side streets, I felt her presence even more. She was at my shoulder as I strolled the narrow lanes. I stopped to watch two elderly women in conversation and realized she was all around me. There she was, the way I remember her, talking with her friends about…husbands, children, grandchildren, the passage of time and the price of groceries.

This is a time of instant everything, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so good. A wonderful byproduct of our right-now society is the ability to see photos you’ve just taken. As my husband snapped photos of it all, we saw them immediately. In a shot of the arch he caught part of a shoulder that looked familiar.  The shape of the arm, the curve of the shoulder, the posture and stride made me think we had caught one her relatives. But how could we ever find that woman again? She must be long gone, swallowed up by the crowd.

With a start, I realized it was my shoulder. The strong presence of hers that I felt as I walked was me. I was her. I had returned with her memories, her genes, all the stories and lessons she had taught me. A circle had been completed.

We drove back to our apartment that morning my head filled with thoughts of how brave and full of hope was the act of sailing away on that September morning so long ago…and how much I miss her.

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