As an adult adoptee looking back, one of my regrets was not growing up with my Italian heritage. In my recent memoir The Goodbye Baby: A Diary about Adoption, I lamented this “deprivation.” However, I DID meet my Italian-American birthfather just a few years before he passed away. I was able to travel with him to Abruzzo, where he was born.
When organizing my office last week, I came across this account, written in 2007 but never before published. As you, my readers, will see, I was heavily into running at the time. In retrospect, I realize what a special journey it was, what a privilege that I got this glimpse of my heritage. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed re-living the experience…
I was an adopted child, five years old when my new parents took over. I met my biological father many years later. Together we visited the town in Italy where he was born, and there I spent an unforgettable week getting to know cousins and doing a lot of running. Giovanni Cecchini began life in the tiny village of San Martino Sulla Maruccina. It’s on the east side of the Italian boot, 17 miles from the Adriatic Sea. Even though I had been adopted by a loving mom and dad and my young life improved dramatically, I longed for many years to find out more about my heritage. Shortly before Giovanni’s death, that wish came true.
Giovanni left the old country at age two. He’d returned to his home village every year since World War II. I spent most of my life without knowing him. Our reunion did not bring the communication I’d hoped for. My father, in ill health, was taciturn and grouchy. Despite this disappointment, I was able to get in touch with my roots. And I discovered the joys of running in Italy.
Being with long-lost Italian cousins, hiking through the fields, hills and olive groves that had belonged to my ancestors, enjoying the scenic beauty of San Martino, with snowcapped mountains to the west and the sea to the east were magical. Best of all, however, was running in my newly-discovered native homeland.
Nikes on my feet, I explored the streets and pathways of tiny San Martino (population 800) as well as nearby countryside. No doubt I was an odd sight. I like to think of myself as the first American to have jogged through the village for the sake of simply running. If the citizens of San Martino were running, it would be to catch a stray sheep, goat or child.
For one thing, the villagers are elderly. The young leave for Pescara or Chieti or Guardiagrele to attend school or take jobs. Furthermore, why would people need to run? The San Martino way of life incorporates vigorous outdoor activities: harvesting olives, gathering firewood, tending animals, plowing fields. My spoken Italian was not versatile enough to know what the natives thought of my running through their streets every day.
But run for the sport of it I did, and for the sheer beauty of the landscape. Running was not only a way to enjoy the incredibly beautiful countryside but also to work off the delicious pasta consumed during three-hour lunches.
San Martino-ans are not into lycra and singlets, so early each morning I donned pedal pushers and an oversized t-shirt borrowed from my teenage sons. I decided it was better to look like a nerd than a shameless exhibitionist. Shortly after the roosters’ last crowing, I left my Aunt Guisipina’s house and jogged up a narrow cobblestone road to the main street of San Martino. Sweeping their porches, small elderly ladies in black stared at me, first in disbelief, then with amusement. After a day or so, they began greeting me with a friendly “Buon Giorno.”