Saturday, October 12, 2013

Like a Monet: The Same Love, a Different Life.

Looking at a map of Europe I see another Cuba, another island that is the crossroads of continents, placed near a precipitously dangling boot of a peninsula.

Sicilia. Sicily.  Sometimes independent,  sometimes split in two, sometimes conquered, never isolated.

This whole journey is making me see that no island is an island, and that I'm ending up all the way over there is not even a surprise at this point.

People on that island (and all islands, even the British Isles) are pushed an pulled by forces bigger than themselves - war, famine, plague, tidal waves, opportunity, hope, and a never ending parade of  boats bringing things, taking things.

 Sicily in the 1850s was pulsing with the conflict that would result in the unification of small states that would become Italy. Exports were dropping as California began to dominate the US market for citrus and olives and other delights that had once come from this region.

I'm not exactly sure if Jean Soldani family packed up and left because he was destitute, because he feared violence, or maybe because some family tragedy left him unable to live on this small island and keep their sanity.

Or maybe he left after years of planning and saving and writing letters to friends already in New Orleans, epicenter of the Creole Catholic Caribbean, preparing their way for a prosperous future.

In 1883, soon after his 23rd birthday, charming Sicilian Jean had an American son with Clementine Moti - her name tells me she might have had red hair or at least a loud laugh. I can't find their marriage record or anything else about them. They name him Achilles. Quite French, which was quite appropriate in New Orleans during the Civil War. I've been told that they have a daughter, too, I'm told, although I can't find a single record anywhere about her.

I hunt for women with her last name who lived in New Orleans at any time in their lives. She could be Maria, or Eugenie or Isoline or Guiseppina Soldani. Or maybe she was a half-sister or step-sister or a cousin raised as a sister?

What I know, or at least I've been told, is that Achille's parents died in a shipwreck off Cuba.

Why they were in Cuba or near Cuba during her 10 Years War is mystery to me.  Maybe they were travelling from Sicily or maybe to South America to look for land.  Maybe they weren't shipwrecked at all, maybe they died of Yellow Fever and the shipwreck story added a bit of cayenne to story.

The children, Achilles and his sister (Maria? Eugenie? Isolde? Guiseppina?) perhaps were entrusted to an orphanage in New Orleans. I know enough as a researcher and historian to shudder at the idea of an orphanage. Primitive sanitation (no running water, no disposable diapers, babies everywhere) meant no institution was immune from  periodic attacks of influenza, yellow fever and scarlet fever.

Achilles Soldani appears without his sister in the 1880 census; he is listed as living with a young couple -M. and E. Rabalais - in Placheville, Louisiana.

There are no additional lines; the household was only three people. For whatever reason -- perhaps it was better she stayed with the nuns? perhaps it was unfit for a young lady to be out on a farm? -- the family did not bring Achille's sister to live with them.

Family legend has it that he visited his sister in New Orleans, often. That was quite a distance before cars and highways.

All we know is that they loved each other, and life separated them.

Achilles became a farmer and had a large family. One of his sons would become my great grandfather.

My parents became engaged on their first date. It was if they re-found each other, remembered each other.

  When my father went home he announced he was engaged to Maria. "Maria who?" they asked and he famously replied, "Doesn't matter, it's going to be Soldani."

 They have been inseparable since.

Like Achilles, my father has become a modern day farmer, growing delightful crops of Fancy Hibiscus.

My mom has spent a great deal of her life working with nuns, with kids, with refugees and the poor.

When you step back and look at it from a certain angle, like you'd look at a Monet, all the blobs become a picture and the story becomes clear.

The same love, a different life.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But just writing this part of the story gives me the courage to keep going, to tell you the part that I'm 100% sure is not conjecture or coincidence.