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Movers and Stayers

'Lentamente," ("Slowly!") I pleaded. My one formal semester of Italian from 1959 was failing in the excitement. "Si, Sabatto prossimo," I promised. "This Saturday morning."

I was calling my cousin Elena Mirasoli from our apartment in Switzerland. I'd not seen her since 1963, when I made the first return visit of the American branch of the family since 1933, the year of the lone prior return, by my grandmother, Rosa Bertocchi Cattani. Elena's grandmother and mine were sisters in a large extended family. Elena's mother, Maria, and my Detroit aunts were the next family bridge between the New and Old World families. Now Elena and I are the bridge, and subsequently her son, Marco, and my two sons and daughter.

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The autostrada cuts south from the Swiss border through the rice fields along the Po River. Poppies fleck the roadside with red. The highway skirts the Via Emilia, the old Roman highway, right to the foot of the Appenines at Bologna. From there we took a road called the Porretana to Poretta Terme, a resort and manufacturing town near the family's hamlet, Borgo Capanne.

A television satellite dish sits afront the old family duplex. Houses nearby stand in various states of neglect and exacting restoration. Gentrification is occurring throughout Italy; village homesteads are renewed for weekend retreats by the more-prosperous younger generation; cellular phones and computers add to the flexibility to work from anywhere offered by superhighways.

It has been 81 years since my grandmother took her half-dozen children (my father was 12, the second oldest) to the foot of the mountain here, by the Reno River, to the train, and thence to Genoa. They sailed to Boston on one of the last vessels to brave the German warships. "They only sank the ships coming from America," Nona said.

I asked Marco, who was born the same year as my son Jeremy when we were living in nearby Florence, "Where are you going to live?" "Here," he insisted. I searched for some term like "Midwesterner" to determine how he placed himself. "I am Bolognese," he replied. Our village sits among the Appenine colli or hills descending to the plains city of Bologna. Marco pointed out the house where his mother grew up; it stood barely 300 meters from her present apartment, which she and her husband, Giuseppe, bought when they married.

Just 50 meters away stands the new house that Marco and his wife, Roberta, designed and built. They were married four years ago in Poretta, in the church near the thermal baths that date back centuries. "No," Roberta says emphatically, she will never move. Jobs are hard to find and she likes the one she has, assisting at a high school. Marco works nearby at a coffeemaker facility. They're just like my own children - although my family has been the movers, and theirs the stayers.

My eyes kept darting for a glimpse of my father as a boy of 12. The town square in Capanne is no more than 30 feet across, where the hillside drops away. The seminary around the corner, which took in a few town boys such as my father for schooling, has been closed for several years. An upscale restaurant has been making a name for itself. The chestnut groves still flourish. From the terrace of the church one can see my father's house, Elena's and Marco's compound, the Reno valley, and the cultivated hills and forbidding peaks of the Appenines.

But I did not find my father. He had gone to America. Technology has washed over the village. Family gardens are planted with the same varieties of tomatoes. American fruit trees are established here. But American sons only visit.

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* Richard J. Cattani is the Monitor's editor at large.

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