The Bells Tolled: The True Story of my Great-Grandmother Filomena & Epilogue (The Palumbo Family)

Post Card of Albanella, Italy

In a tiny Italian village south of Salerno, Filomena was known for her beauty.  Her family was of high social standing so her community and parents had expected her to marry well.  But the young girl fell in love, and love is not always the best judge of character.  Although strikingly handsome, Francesco was from a more dubious family.  It was well known that his father, Benedetto, had been a notorious man who had left a legacy of fear in the hearts of the villagers.  Benedetto had been the “strong-arm” for the local Baron and had been hired, to “eliminate” any obstacle or person who stood in the Baron’s way.  Although Filomena was well aware of Francesco’s family, she chose to elope with him against the wishes of her parents.  The townsfolk whispered behind her back, “Silly Filomena, this will not end well.”

In the fall of 1895, Filomena gave birth to their first son.  Although it was tradition to name the first born son after the paternal grandfather, Benedetto’s name was infamous, so the young couple decided instead to name him Angelo.  Perhaps this was simply because Angelo was Benedetto’s father’s name, or perhaps the young parents thought that such and angelic name would offer him more protection from the evils of the world.  But as young Angelo was left clinging to his mother’s breast in Italy, Francesco decided to strike out for a new start in America.  He traveled across an ocean, leaving his family behind.  He found work on the railroads in the northeast and saved as much as he could.  As the years went by, he wrote to his wife and asked after their son who was growing into a strong boy. Finally, Francesco returned to Italy, if only for a short while.  In 1905, Filomena gave birth to their second son, Antonio.  Francesco was now the proud papa of two strong sons.  Renewed with a desire to bring his family to America, he left them once again.

Filomena had been married to Francesco for over a dozen years, but they had only spent a few of those years together.  When he left, this second time, she was left in despair.  As the lonely months and the years passed once again, Filomena found comfort in the arms of another man.  The villagers whispered again, “Silly Filomena, this will not end well.”

In 1908 Francesco returned to his family for a second time.  But this time, much to his surprise, he found his wife expecting another child.  This infuriated him!  She had caused a scandal with her unfaithful behavior while he had been working hard to give his family a better life in a new world.  A world where people did not know of the legacy that had been left to him and his sons by his own father, Benedetto.  In his anger, Francesco beat his wife until her spleen exploded.  When Filomena died, the villagers gathered at her funeral.  And as the church bells tolled, they whispered, “Silly Filomena, you brought this on yourself.”


A year later, Francesco met another village girl named Pasqualina who was living with her widowed brother and his children.  Every day, she would come down to the stream to wash their clothes. Francesco would meet her there as he did the same for his children.  But longing to return to America again and unable to leave his two young sons behind all alone, it wasn’t long before he offered Pasqualina a proposal.  The two were married quickly and in 1910, they gave birth to their first son, Luigi.  Now, with a new wife and a new son, Francesco once again left for the promise of America. In early 1912, he sent for his sixteen year old son Angelo and his twenty year old nephew, Francesco, to join him in New York.  But when Angelo debarked from the ship that had taken him to this new land of streets paved in gold, this new land that his father had left him for, this new land that had caused the circumstances under which his father had beaten his mother to death before his very eyes, he was greeted by boys throwing rocks at him saying, “Go home, Dago!”

A year or so later, Angelo’s father, Francesco, was injured while working on the railroad.  His thighbone was crushed.  Unable to work with this injury, Francesco left his son and nephew in America and returned to Italy a bitter man.  He lived out his days, with his wife, Pasqualina, and many more sons and finally a daughter.

When Angelo married and had a family of his own, he never told his children about his father or his grandfather.  When Angelo’s first daughter was born, he had named her Filomena, after his mother. His daughter, Filomena, later married and had a family of her own.  Her fourth child was born in 1958, a girl she named Theresa.  Angelo was proud to be able to make his granddaughter laugh as he enjoyed bouncing her on his knee.  But they were destined to only share a short time together in this life.  When Theresa was ten months old, her grandfather, Angelo, passed away.  And with his passing, the tenuous ties to Italy disappeared.

Thirty-four years later, Theresa decided to research her family tree.  In 1993 she called Carmela, the daughter of her grandfather’s cousin, Francesco, who had come to America with him.  Carmela, wrote to her cousins in Italy.  One cousin responded with a list of names and address of Theresa’s living relatives.  One was her grandfather, Angelo’s, half-brother, Luigi, who had only been two years old when his brother left for America in 1912.  She knew nothing about her grandfather’s family, but she had a photo that her mother, Filomena, had given her.  She was told that it was of her great-grandfather, Francesco, and his second wife. So when she wrote to Luigi in English, she also sent a copy of the photo, for an image does not need translation.  She received a response in English saying that he hadn’t seen that photo in over fifty years.  Francesco was in his eighties when the photo had been taken and he must have sent to his son, Angelo, in America.  Luigi told her that Francesco had died in 1951 of old age.  After their father’s death, he had never heard from Angelo again.  Now, after fifty years, Luigi was hearing from America for the first time.


(Francesco and Pasqualina, c. 1948)

Theresa and Luigi sent many letters to each other over the next years, until Luigi’s death in 2003.  In one of the letters, she discovered that the person translating the letters for Luigi, was his son, Francesco.  In 2010, Theresa and her husband finally visited Francesco in Italy.  He introduced her to his sisters and their families.  He even took her to meet his cousin, the son of Antonio, the only full brother of her grandfather, Angelo.  Antonio had passed away in the early 1990’s, but his son, also named Francesco, lived down the street from the house where her great-grandfather and his second wife had lived.  The two cousins brought Theresa to the old stone house that had been the backdrop for the only picture she had of  her great-grandfather.  But when she asked what had happened to her great-grandmother, Filomena, just as she had asked in her letters, no one would give her a satisfying answer.

In 2013, Francesco came to visit Theresa in America.  At the end of his visit, just before he was about to leave, he asked her, “Do you want to know the truth about your great-great-grandfather, Benedetto?” Of course she said, “yes” and he then related the story of his notorious reputation.  Then Francesco said, “There’s more.  Do you want to know the truth about how your great-grandmother, Filomena, died?”  Of course, she said, “yes” and he told her that story too.  Stories that had been buried long ago, stories that her own grandfather had wanted to keep from her.  Since then there are times when she can’t help but imagine, with great sadness, what her grandfather went through at the age of about twelve when he no doubt, watched as his father beat his mother to death.

By all accounts, her grandfather, Angelo, was a kind, gentle, loving family man.  He had wanted to shield his family from the truth.  His granddaughter, Theresa, hadn’t known what she would find when she went digging for family stories.  The lesson learned:  When doing genealogical research, sometimes, you unearth more than you were looking for.

Francesco & me

(Francesco, son of Luigi, and Theresa, granddaughter of Angelo, together in Little Italy, NYC, one hundred years after their family was separated by an ocean.)   Author of The Tin Box Trilogy

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