I was eleven years old, and I was primed for a mystery.
A Nancy Drew fan for years, I had stayed up late nearly every night, reading by the poor light of a 1970s-era Raggedy Ann lamp, devouring The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of the Ivory Charm. I tapped on the walls in my attic bedroom, hoping to find a secret door or passageway, and I too memorized the creaks in the stairway so I could ascend and descend noiselessly. There was little chance a mystery of any sort was ever going to come my way, but Nancy was always prepared, and I packed my suitcase and magnifying glass, vowing that I would be ready, too – just in case.
So many of Nancy’s mysteries revolved around important papers – wills, maps, letters, diaries and the like. While I was tapping walls and listening for hollow spots, I never dreamed that I would have my own mysterious letters to contend with, letters that have consumed me for the last thirty years.
I was eleven years old when my dear great-grandmother passed away after a short illness. Little Grandma, as she was affectionately known to everyone from mayors to priests to great-grandchildren, was nearly 104 when she died, a powerhouse of a woman standing no taller than 4’10 and constantly admonishing all of us to Mangia, mangia! Despite years of threatening to “kick the bucket,” I was still devastated when she died, the first real death that I grieved. Grief soon gave way to astonishment when we went to her funeral and I goggled at the cars in her processional, a processional so long I could not trace it to its end.
“Mom, who are all these people?” I asked incredulously.
“That’s the Bruce family,” she replied curtly, trying to maneuver the car through a red light. “There’s a lot of family on the East Side that you’ve never met.”
The East Side was a hazy place in my mind, a place where people lived who were so vastly different from us that we could never go visit them, even if they were family. Just how they were different I did not know, but I did know that East Siders stuck to their side of town, and we stuck to ours, and never the twain shall meet.
In any case, the funeral got me thinking about Little Grandma. I had heard a lot of stories over the years, sitting around Little Grandma’s round kitchen table on Greenview on Detroit's west side, pressing grooves into the flowered vinyl tablecloth with my fingernails. Aunt Mary, her oldest daughter, and Aunt Margaret, her youngest daughter, were there too, translating as Little Grandma spoke mainly in the dialect of Alvito, her native mountain town in central Italy. I knew the big stories – how Little Grandma’s parents had been crushed in a mudslide, how Little Grandma had survived, how she had married my great-grandfather, Domenico (dead now for so long that he, too was a shadowy figure in my mind, a man who may have fathered Little Grandma’s children but who had done nothing else, he was so absent from every story) and sailed to America on the Augusta Victoria. I knew about the mean woman Little Grandma lived with after her parents died, the evil woman who worked poor Little Grandma to the bone. Most of all, I had heard many jokes about Little Grandma’s boyfriend under the bed, an imaginary suitor named Adolfo with whom she intended to run off and marry some day.
Little did I know how real Adolfo was, and what a story lay behind his existence under her bed.
It was sometime that summer, the summer of 1985, a few weeks after her funeral, when once again I found myself sitting around Little Grandma’s table with Aunt Margaret, Aunt Mary, my mom, my grandmother, and my cousin Loretta. There were tears, yes, but there was lots of laughter, too, as we fondly remembered this tough little old lady. There we were, three generations of women crowded around a table groaning with food, pasta and polenta and prosciutto pushed out of the way to make room for handwritten papers charting four, perhaps five generations of the Brusca family. I didn’t know it at the time, but I – so very young, pigtailed, and freckled – had manifested a miracle. These women were the keepers of secrets, the guardians of family lore, and yet my driving curiosity and endless questions had led us here, and the Brusca family, in all its glory and shame, was beginning to take shape in those painstakingly hand drawn genealogy graphs.
One box on the table, however, remained mysterious. Purple and tattered, the green and white label on the side read Cambric Writing on a box that had once held 500 crisp new envelopes. Now it held yellowed envelopes – hundreds of them – all addressed to Mrs. Cesidia Brusca, and almost all of them bearing the insignia and return address of the Massachusetts State Department of Corrections in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The envelopes themselves, while fragile, were carefully preserved, their stamps – some dating back to the 1920s – perfectly affixed, standing at attention, seeking my attention.
“What’s in the box?” I asked with all the innocent curiosity of an avid Nancy Drew reader.
The easy conversation and laughter stopped. A shadow crossed Aunt Margaret’s face. “I don’t know if you are old enough…” she trailed off, as my pleading brown eyes begged her silently and her own eyes quickly shifted to her sister, Aunt Mary. A grave concern had settled over the table.
It was my grandmother who finally spoke after what seemed to be an indeterminable silence. “Just a minute, Jenni, give us some time to talk.”
Loretta busied herself with kitchen chores while Grandma, Aunt Mary and Aunt Margaret retreated five feet into the living room, whispering fiercely amongst themselves. I tried in vain to hear, but these women were crafty, clever, and well trained in shadowy conversations in the corners. They could have easily worked for the FBI or the CIA, these women, so long were their memories and so still were their lips.
I waited, with breath hitched in my throat, hoping, hoping, hoping.
After eons they returned, solemnly resuming their places at the table, while Aunt Mary grabbed my hand.
“Jenni, we are going to tell you a story, but you must keep it to yourself.”
I understood that I was about to be indoctrinated into a piece of the adult Bruce world, and I nodded silently, eyes round.
“You know how Ma always talked about her boyfriend under the bed? These are her letters from Adolfo.”
“Adolfo is REAL?” I asked, astonished.
For an answer Aunt Mary carefully lifted out a letter and handed it to me. “Be careful, the envelopes are old and fragile.”
I extracted a thin letter, postmarked in April, 1926, bearing the watermark and address of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, located in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Afraid I would tear it if I opened it, I scrunched up my nose.
“But I don’t understand…why was he in jail?”
Aunt Mary made a face. “Oh, he had a bad sister-in-law, oh, she was a bad woman, and he was set up."
I didn’t quite know what to make of this, but a vision of a big-breasted woman in a Satan-red dress suddenly sprang to mind. I knew Little Grandma to be a devout Catholic who had always advised me to trust in God, so whatever Adolfo was in jail for, it must be a mistake. Little Grandma would never have associated with a real criminal.
There were scores of letters in that box, letters that I took home and read by the same Raggedy Ann light in the late hours of the night. It was my very own mystery.
Unlike Nancy, however, I didn’t solve it in under 200 pages, or even in under twenty years. It has taken me thirty years at last count, has landed me in Boston, Concord, and Leominster, Massachusetts; in Ellis Island in New York; in Rome and Florence and tiny mountain towns in central Italy. The story is hundreds of pages long. I still have the letters, but I also have so much more of the story – newspaper articles, pictures of gravesites, birth certificates, death certificates, letters from the warden, century-old pictures of the prison, but despite all of the materials I have collected and all the research I have done, one big mystery still eludes me:
Just who was Adolfo Mattacchioni, and why was Little Grandma hiding him under the bed?
Here is what I do know: it all started one dark and stormy night in a little mountain town in central Italy: Alvito.