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Here’s a sob story for you: my father died when I was four. My mother has always been legally blind, but shortly after my father’s death, when I was six, she fell and broke her back. Two years later, she had a brain hemotoma and nearly passed away. But this is not the story of how the fates were pitted against me and I survived; this is the story of how I discovered the support structure that has been the underpinning of my entire life.
I sat in my Venice hotel room perusing “Italian for Dummies.” I flipped the pages, nervously memorizing the last entries of the common phrases section. The phone rang. My heart skipped a beat as I picked it up. “Allo Mr. Mandese, your family is here to see you.” There was something in his voice that indicated uneasiness about sending fifteen Sicilians to my room. “Send them up,” I said. I stood by the door wondering what they would think of me. In a matter of seconds I was going to meet fifteen members of my family whom I had not seen since I was three months old. The only thing we shared was a love for my father, who had passed away 11 years earlier. I opened the door to a flood of tears and smiles. My uncle Lilo hugged me so hard that I couldn’t breathe, and my aunt Tina gave me such big kisses that my ears began to ring. In that moment there was no language barrier, no awkwardness, just a mutual feeling of something close to euphoria. “Joyemia” my aunts kept saying to me, (joy of my life) and with that, all of my nervousness vanished. I remembered why I had come and it all started to make sense.
I had gone to Italy on a mission, a search to find the ancestral spirits, the guardian angels that had kept me afloat through all of the tough times in my life. When I had all the fates pitted against me, I simply kept going. I never cried about my life and never wanted to be pitied. My whole life I felt as though I had an invisible army of support aiding me, but I could never put my finger on where it came from. Was it my father’s protective spirit? I could not explain it, but something was there to make sure I never felt alone, abandoned, or ashamed. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this support emanated from my father and this huge Italian family I had heard about my entire life. Could knowing that I had this alternate family to fall back on be the reason behind my independence? When I encountered my father’s family for the first time in Italy I felt as if I had known them my entire life. The goal of my journey appeared to be fulfilled, but for some reason I felt like there had to be more to it.
Somewhere between a terrifying moped ride with my cousin, feeding pigeons in Piazza San Marco, and the plane ride home, it hit me. What had made this all possible, the trip, the hotels, the airfare? I realized everything that had gone into my little family reunion. There was my best friend and his family who agreed to pay for my hotels and drop me off in Venice to meet my family, even though I had no money. My cousins who called me once a week and spoke only in Italian so that I could practice. Another friend’s mom gave me a job as a barista in her coffee shop - even though I was only fourteen - so I could have spending money. My aunts and uncles from all over pitched in and helped my mother scrape together enough money for my airfare. I saw the ironic truth: my journey to find support in Italy was only made possible because of the support from my friends and family back home. They were the invisible army that had helped me since my father died. They are as much a part of my family as the Italians, and without all of those wonderful people I would be nowhere today.
So now when people compliment me on how I have become so independent and resourceful, I simply smile and say “thank you,” knowing that I could have never done it without my invisible army of support.
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