In 2001, I visited Italy with my grandmother—a whirlwind of confusion and chaos. At 14-years-old, I was only then becoming confident in my skin, and only then beginning to suspect that perhaps I really did know everything.
Yet, my grasp of the language faltered. Everyone spoke too fast. Their words poured from their mouths and into their hands. And everything was so different, from the wall plugs to the grocery stores. They made grilled cheese differently! The elevators were death traps. All the norms that I had been forced to learn, and the socialization that I had been indoctrinated to, was now incorrect.
More to the point, I was lost in a tangled morass of identity and lineage. I was now being introduced to a large subset of family members that not only had I never spoken to before, but had never even been spoken of before.
It’s not unusual for an American to have family in other countries, and it’s equally not unusual for us to entirely lose our connection to them. In this case, we had been two generations removed. And while the Italian emphasis on familial bonds had made me a notable figure to them, they were nothing but strangers to me.
It was isolating and alienating, and what should have turned into friendship quickly turned fearful. I was given tour after tour of houses, shown photographs and documents that I could not even begin to understand, and ultimately shut down entirely.
It wasn’t that I had no interest. It was that I had no context.
But that would change. And for a very curious reason.
We were some days into a last minute trip into the heart of Tuscany. That summer, all our plans kept getting preempted by bombs, something that seemed regular at the time, but now seems somewhat surreal. An aunt—to this day, I’m not sure whose aunt—handed me a small, weathered book. With a firm smile and shaky English she said: This, history, family.
It wasn’t the history of the entire family, of course. That would be a monumental endeavor.It was was the history of the founder of the family. And it, like him, formed the foundation of the things the family now believed in.
Some time after he had passed, the wife of the family’s great progenitor had taken the time to pull together his letters, photographs, and writings. She had then paid someone to put together a memoir that would be passed down from generation to generation.
She had loved him so, that she never wanted him to be forgotten. And she had loved him so that she wanted his memories to be remembered in his own words—or at least as close to it as she could get.
It was a thin spine. It was probably no more than 120 pages. And it was in Italian, obviously. But it was something real and physical that I could grasp.
With what little Italian I knew, I could put together the story of a man, a great man. A man who started an entire fortune with a single bull, and who would later go on to purchase his own small township. A man who was able to build something out of nothing in a world that delivered unto him only hardships.
The township itself was fact. The rest? Probably mostly legend. But that didn’t matter. By creating this myth of the man that she loved, his wife had developed a tidy package of the values that she wanted her family to hold forever. She had taken the inspiration that she saw in her husband and asked that it continue to live on in her children, her grandchildren, and those far after.
Of course, it was all ghost-written, despite being in first person, and despite being an extremely intimate retelling.
For the most part, people reveal their true selves in their actions, their day-to-day conversations, their love letters to their spouses and their family. They don’t sit down and write a treatise on how to start a major enterprise with a single healthy bull. Successful people are busy doing things, not writing about them.
I’ve thought about that book often. It was a small publication that wasn’t meant to go outside of the family, but it had probably passed through hundreds of hands simply because the family itself had grown so large. It had been passed to newly married spouses and their in-laws. It had been passed to close friends and acquaintances.
But while it was such a small publication, the impact it had on the family itself was incredibly profound. It wasn’t a book that they had purchased on a store shelf. It was a book that they had created through their blood. It was a book that told them who they were and who they could be.
It was the story of their people.
I, myself, had no such close relation to it, but it still helped me to understand the pride and the work ethic that had been driven into the family from the start. And between you and me, the real secret is: It didn’t matter if any of it was truthful, if all of it was truthful, or if the truth had been cherry-picked to become even more fantastic.
When you are eight-years-old, listening to your uncle’s stories at a family dinner, you aren’t concerned with the truthfulness of it.
First: You’re a child. People lie to you constantly.
But what you’re listening to isn’t a factual recounting of events to begin with. What you’re listening to is a recounting of the man that your uncle wants to be. The man that he wants you to see him as.
Memoirs have this intimate closeness to them. It isn’t always about what you’ve done or what you’ve achieved. Sometimes, it’s about who you want to be perceived as. They can be factual or fantastic, and they can be distributed to friends and family members or o the shelves of Barnes and Noble. A memoir is a snapshot in time, a depiction of the things that you want to leave behind, and, in some ways, a vision of a better person that we wish could be.
I would visit Italy many times after. Eventually, it would even lose its magic. But I would always remember seeing my distant family in animated conversation, amicably fighting over the color blue or the last bottle of Coca-Cola (despite being surrounded by expensive wines), and seeing the shadow of their ancestor. Through his love, and through his life, he was locked onto them forever: a permanent, tangible legacy handed down from hand to hand.