NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Saturday, April 6, 2013

# 27.6—The Half-Opened Door

Even as I was sitting in the restaurant in Pizzo following my tour of Maierato, it began to occur to me that I was to blame for what happened. Although blame might not be the right word because I don't really know what happened. I know only what I felt about what happened.

When Polma wrote back to me the first time, I couldn't just allow the adventure to unfold. I had to, I don't know how to say it, I had to create the adventure. I sent Polma a packet of documents that my neighbor Peggy had found regarding my grandparents' emigration and arrival negli Stati Uniti. I sent a family tree telling her all about us. I sent pictures. Just going to Maierato...showing up...allowing her to discover me as I would discover her was not enough. I was learning Italian, writing in Italian, very bad Italian, but oh look at my accomplishment. The adventure became a drama. My drama.
Without fully realizing it, I had wanted to change the past, to be embraced by the kind of Italian family I'd always wanted.

For as smart and festive and generous as my family was, it was nevertheless fraught with guilt trips, mistrust, manipulation, and animosity...all of this a legacy of the darkness my grandfather brought with him from Maierato to Pittsburgh.

That door of Polma's house, one side open, the other closed was a Cutuly thing. Who knows if it was intentional on her part, or just something that brought up thoughts of the past in me. Perhaps she had wanted something from our meeting that I had denied her by imposing my own drama on the situation. Perhaps she'd left the door open on purpose hoping I'd walk up the stairs and find her.

Except maybe I was tired of doing that Cutuly thing of responding to an invitation to reach out, only then to be mistrusted. I was, in fact, angry when I realized she was ignoring my calls.

I like Tolstoy's idea that all happy families are the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. We were not an unhappy family. We were in many ways a family tormented by insecurity, much of that torment originating in my grandfather's darkness of spirit: a bright inquiring and able mind imprisoned by a fear of...of, well, nothing...fear that life is like that boarded up station where there will be no one to help us.

It was a terrible thing that chronically pulled the Cutuly family together while simultaneously driving it apart. My father and I were at odds for decades, the doctor-scientist and the poet. He never got over the fact that my first words were "by sels." By myself. Or that I hated school when he made his mark in life by succeeding there so brilliantly. My mother opened his dark insecure world to music and travel, but he fought her every step of the way while building his world on her optimism and confidence. The tragedy of all this is that my father was a good and generous man, a kind and profound doctor who healed so many but not until the last days of his life was he able to heal himself of the terrible wounds of insecurity inherited from his father.
There was always great love in the Cutuly family. But it was love fraught with the tension of chronic and hyper-vigilant self-protection. When I was a senior in high school, I was inspired by a quote from Joseph Conrad's novel "Victory."—"Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to love, to hope—and to put its trust in life." This is always what I've aspired to but perhaps never understood until now.

After standing before Polma's house, seeing, feeling, reflecting on the poverty of this town from which my grandparents emigrated, I am ashamed of myself. I allowed myself to imagine a lovely little village, I guess like Rossano Brazzi's family in "Three Coins in the Fountain." Everyone would be loving and merry. The past would be different, the darkness washed away so that all that was left would be the talent, the creativity, the generosity of spirit, the love that could have made us a family that would have nurtured by support instead of criticism, the family that sometimes gave as a way of maintaining control.

Perhaps Polma was hoping for exactly what I was hoping for. But then I used my education and opportunity to create a situation that might open her up to criticism and judgment. Back in Rome, I bought a bracelet I am now wearing It's a leather strip that says,

"La cosa piu' bella? Avere un cuore grande e saperlo donare con semplicita'."

"The most beautiful thing? To have a big heart and to know how to give it with simplicity."

Calabria is a wild mystical land, rugged country where ruins and daily life coexist. It's tempting to think of this simply as beautiful and charming. Which, it is. But it's also country that is a living representation of the history of any civilization, of any life. Calabria taught me a lot in my short time there:

We must learn from the ruins, as we must also learn to love and be loved by the life that now is. It's easy to walk through the open doors and clear that we must find another way when a door is closed to us. There are so many beautiful places in this world calling us to visit and admire them. But what about those places where there is no way in or out unless you have someone to help you? And how do we respond with compassion and wisdom to those half-open doors? Then, finally and perhaps most importantly, where do we find the insight to recognize that while the half-open doors may appear to belong to others, they might well be a response to something in ourselves?

In these questions, we find the challenge to our humanity.

One day, I hope to walk through that half-opened door.

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