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For my sister and me,a trip back in time

The writer is a former Nonantum resident who is now an actress and screenwriter. Fans of ``The Sopranos" know her as Christopher's mother.

My father was born in San Donato Val di Comino, a medieval village of sun-bleached stone clinging to a mountain in the fierce wild heart of Italy. In 1926, when my father was 8, my grandfather had finally earned enough money in America to bring him and my grandmother to Newton.

The village of Nonantum in Newton is not called Nonantum by the people who live there. To them, it's ``The Lake," named after Silver Lake, which has long since dried up. The culture of The Lake, however, is anything but parched. Most of its residents are descended from Sandonatese immigrants who have preserved the food and customs of their ``gemellato," or twin village.

Every year in July, The Lake has a celebration that mirrors the festa in San Donato honoring the Madonna del Carmine, and it is alive and well, replete with games, songs, and the center strip of the main drag repainted in the colors of the Italian flag. This year's festival will start Wednesday.

My sister and I grew up in The Lake, and I decided to take her on a sentimental journey to celebrate her birthday and locate any living Leone relatives in the village of San Donato.

Lindy and I weren't typical sisters who had grown up besting each other. Poisonous plots, boyfriend-stealing, and schadenfreude, the normal adolescent stuff of sibling rivals, were not in our family history. I went off to college when she was 11, then on to New York, and we really got to know each other when we were past the minefields of childhood.

What we did share was the loss in one year of all the family elders, save one, and a sense of middle-aged abandonment endemic to a boomer generation leery of assuming the mantle of adulthood. So we were really looking to reconnect with our father and grandparents, and maybe for a little nurturing, too. If we reenvisioned their early years and dusted off some family history, could we recreate the rosy glow of love that had permeated our myth-steeped upbringing? That remained to be seen.

Today, San Donato Val di Comino has 2,000 inhabitants and no direct route from Rome unless you drive. I wasn't willing to jeopardize my sister's life with my nonexistent Euro driving skills. The concierge at our Roman hotel told us that we could take a train to Frosinone and a bus to Sora. Then he shrugged eloquently, as only the Romans can do. We decided to view it as an adventure. I knew we had cousins there -- two women whose grandfather was our grandfather's brother. While still at home in Massachusetts, I had tracked them down by using the ``pagine bianche," Italy's white pages, and a name dimly remembered of a ``cousin Looge."

There was one ``Lucio Leone" listed, so I wrote him in my fractured Italian about the planned visit. This led to a phone call from ``Joanna Doherty," who turned out to be ``Giovanna Leone Doherty," living one street over from my sister in The Lake. Lucio's son, Carmello, had passed on my letter, and we spent a day with Joanna's mother, Loretta, one of the long-lost cousins. She alerted her sisters in San Donato that we were coming sometime after Easter Sunday and we were on our way.

My mother and aunt visited San Donato 30 years ago. My father managed to get back just once, on leave in the middle of World War II. My grandmother and grandfather never returned.

Now here we were, in Sora, wondering whether we could walk the rest of the way. Two boisterous old ladies going to Settifrati, the next town after San Donato, told us we were still 20 kilometers away from the village. Our fairy godmothers hustled us onto a bus they seemed magically to have summoned and told us they'd alert us when we reached San Donato and there were two stops.

I worried about where we should disembark, picturing us schlepping up and down narrow ancient streets hoping someone recognized our family bloodlines in our faces. But, at the first stop, there was a surge of excitement from the old ladies and shouts of ``le cugine americane!"

Our cousin, Antonietta, and her husband, Armando, met the bus. Presumably, they had been meeting every bus for the last few days, since we hadn't told them the exact day we were coming. We had no time to ponder this act of generosity, however: We were quickly swept into a glowing circle of welcoming neighbors, our other cousin, Cesidia, and their 99-year-old mother, Lucia.

Soon we were seated at their kitchen table looking at family pictures while Cesidia, with an effortless artistry worthy of Todd English, produced a mouth-watering meal of fresh fettuccine, credit-card-thin veal cutlets, and ``verdura," bitter greens. The first taste of the homemade red wine sent me reeling into a Proustian memory of Sunday dinners when my Dad would allow me a ceremonial sip from his glass.

``This is my father's wine!" I said. Armando, grinning with pride, told me that indeed it was. ``He wrote to me asking how to make it," he said.

Dinner over, we sipped home made nocino, an herby-tasting digestivo made from walnuts. My sister made a face and surreptitiously slid her glass over to me. I gladly finished it.

We looked through old family pictures and came upon one of my grandfather at 26, right before he emigrated to the States. He stood with his brothers, his handsome face reflecting the gravity accorded a formal portrait in those days. I took a picture of the portrait and later e-mailed it to my brother so he could see his own face reflected in the tunnel of time.

We saw portraits of my grandfather's three sisters, who all died in childbirth, along with their children. Antonietta had lost a son, and I had lost my own teenage son the year before. So many mothers in our family had lost children. I asked Cesidia, half-jokingly, if she thought there was a fattura (``spell," in dialect) on our family. She smiled shyly at me and murmured, ``La vita e bella e dura" -- life is beautiful and hard.

After dinner, we toured the village. My sister staggered as we climbed worn stone steps in the narrow streets. ``How do they do this? It snows here," she huffed, as Cesidia, who had a good 15 years on us, glided along, leading the way.

A tiny square, little shops, a cafe where old men sat playing cards, and churches -- lots of them -- graced this little town. We visited them all and lit candles in memory of those who would never return.

I asked Cesidia if she knew everyone in the village. She just smiled, and when a sudden spring shower threatened to drench us, knocked on a random door. After a brief exchange, the signora of the house handed us two umbrellas, and we continued our walk. So much for dumb questions.

When we got back to the house, Antonietta was vigorously kneading dough for a pizza that was hands down the best I've ever tasted, the parmigiano reggiano, arugula, and olive oil perfectly complementing more of Armando's red wine.

When we finished, I asked in my halting Italian where we could buy our bus tickets to return to Rome that night. A burst of excited Italian followed. No, we weren't going back tonight. Two women, alone in the Rome termini, in the dark? No, we were staying. My sister looked at me quizzically. ``We're being kidnapped," I told her under my breath.

Like our mother and aunt 30 years ago, we had underestimated the generosity and practicality of our overseas cousins. My mother and aunt had also been ``kidnapped" and spent the night in this pristine room with two nightgowns neatly laid out for them. And, like our mother and aunt, we now had matching photographs of ourselves in the same flowing white nightgowns.

Lindy and I giggled together like children, looking around the room they slept in long ago and feeling a closeness to them sealed by laughter and love. Oh, and the nurturing we were hoping for? It was all there.

Our last stop in San Donato was a little stone house with a green door and steel earthquake reinforcements, the place in which my father and grandfather were born, the place in which my father waited with his mother for the summons to America, to a new life in The Lake.

Like a fairy tale, San Donato seemed to exist in a magical realm among the clouds, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

But like a fairy tale, the wolves lurked just out of sight -- hunger, earthquakes, poverty. La vita e bella e dura.

Life is beautiful and hard.

Cesidia had, however, placed the word ``beautiful" before ``hard." It was something to remember, always.

About the writer

Marianne Leone Cooper is an actress and writer who grew up in ``The Lake" and now lives on the South Shore. She has a screenplay in development, ``Conquistadora," with her real-life husband, Chris Cooper, and Patricia Clarkson, based on the struggles of a New York City family to obtain appropriate public school education for their disabled twins. She has played Joanne Moltisanti , Christopher's mother, in the HBO drama, ``The Sopranos," and says she is grateful for her `Lake' background, which she is certain nailed her the part. Her sister, Linda Leone Donalds, still lives in Nonantum.

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