My great grand-parents’ big family

The Locati family around 1918

That framed photo had been there for at least a decade, hanging on the wall of the study next to the bookcase. All of a sudden I realised it existed and how beautiful and meaningful it was. It was the family photo of my great grand-parents and their ten children, probably dating from the late 1910’s.

It dawned upon me it was an extraordinary document that could tell me something of what I am and where I come from. It awoke me to 100 years of family history and made me curious to find out more about those characters.

I peered at the sepia image and tried to make out lineaments and expressions, guess characters. All were dressed up in elegant frocks or jackets, blouses or wing collar shirts adorned with lace or silk ties. The women sported elaborate hairstyles and grand-mother Carolina had a black ostrich feather boa on her shoulder.

Behind the frame my father had stuck a label with the names of each. They were his grandparents, uncles and aunts. Some of the names were not new to me, but my knowledge stopped there. In my memory they all came rigorously preceded by the title zio or zia, which proved I had known them from the perspective of my father’s childhood recollections.

I’d never really had to do with these people because firstly they belonged to two generations up from me – and the time gap was made wider by my father marrying late. Secondly, I’d never really lent an interested ear to stories about relatives, for me just idle talk. And lastly, they were left behind in Milan when my grandfather retired to Bergamo, so distance added another reason for estrangement.

Still, I wanted to know more about this big family that looked like a full-fledged clan. I tried to imagine their lifestyle and wondered how my father interacted with his relatives. And especially I was desirous to find out more about my grandfather Emanuele, of whom I only have faded memories.

My informant was to be my father’s sister, the only living member of the family that I know. I sent her a scan of the old photo, which she had never seen, and her memory was indeed tickled. She emailed back recounting some facts that made my mind spin. Funnily, I would never have thought this could be exciting matter, but now, realising that the world captured in this photograph had gone forever with the passing of time and the passing away of the people, I deemed it precious information. As I greedily read the message, I raked up things I had forgotten and tied links with events I’d lived.

For example, my aunt evoked the story of the family chapel in Magolfa Street. I don’t think I’ve ever been there, but my father had definitely told me about it. The old Locati family were devotees of the Virgin of the Blood, whose icon was venerated in this private church of theirs. Before them, the couple of hundred chimney-sweepers that came down to Milan from Val Vigezzo until the 1880’s used to gather in this church, containing the familiar icon. The original Madonna is in fact from the mountain village of Re, where my grandfather used to go on pilgrimage every so often. Then the chimney-sweepers became extinct, and the attendance came to be composed of launderers and tanners.

The chapel, I found out, still belongs so some Locati’s, but who might they be? My aunt remembered the freezing cold in the Magolfa church where all the family was expected to gather on important festivals. Once in 1986 my father took us to Re after many years he had been missing. Maybe he had a wish to re-establish a long forgotten tradition and by this pay homage to his late father, nonno Emanuele. It was Maundy Thursday when we arrived and we attended the night service. I also felt cold and bored, just like the three altar boys who joked and giggled until the priest gave them a fierce glare and they shut up in fear.

My aunt, aged 86, thanked me for the opportunity I’d given her to dive into the past, but she warned that these were just ghosts and said she preferred to live in the present and in it to seek the future. How wise. I’ll try to delve into this with the interest of the historian, rather than the dangerous attitude of he who flees the present and hides in the past. But I know I still have plenty to find out and many memories to come to terms with. The ghosts live inside us.