High School Graduation, 1965.

Madison County, NC 2010

One of the underlying reasons for my solo road trip last fall was to think about my relationship with the place I’ve called home for the last forty-three years. To be honest I was tired of the place in a way that had not happened in the past – tired of the maintenance work around our farm, tired of the daily drama that often seems like the lifeblood of the community, tired of the expectations of others regarding my work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love where I live and continue to believe that moving to the mountains was the single best decision I ever made. But increasingly as I’ve aged, and ostensibly “seen it all,” I find myself asking what if? And if that question was persistent enough, what would I do about it?

Throughout my time in Madison I’ve heard the old adage, you ain’t from around here. I’ve generally ignored it, but lately I’ve come to understand its truth. My upbringing, my values, my cultural influences, my manner of speaking and acting, and many other characteristics all mark me as an outsider. Sometimes, those ways of being come into conflict, but most often they don’t because I’ve learned if I can’t be from the place, I can be of the place.

The difference is subtle. I think of it as the difference between thought and instinct. I’ve been able to learn how to live here: How to sort of manage our place – the firewood, the water, the gardens, the mowing, the dead animals; how to live and relate in a community as foreign to me as some small village in Sicily. I learned the dialect, and about ballads and tobacco, and how to be moderately self-sufficient. I learned about darkness and quiet. Some of those lessons were hard learned and few, if any, came instinctually.

What comes naturally for me are Italian Delis, Broadway Musicals on Sunday morning and Blues and Rock the rest of the time, and the ever-present light and hum of a big city. I know the proximity and abundance of people, the availability of anything I want, anytime I want it. I can talk fast and do so without thinking. I love to dress up. I know pavement and chain-link fences and comfortably motor the DC Beltway. I effortlessly find my grandparent's graves in Arlington Cemetery or my parent's in Gate of Heaven. Of course I can, this is where I'm from.

It's the same for people who are from Madison County or the wider region. I watch them – how they interact, or dig, or grow things, walk and talk, how they live their lives - and I say, “They are from here.” There is an ease about them – a sense that what they say or do comes from a knowledge learned long ago, so ingrained it’s now part of the DNA. “How do you know that?” I might ask a local friend about something that stumps me. “Why,” he would answer, “I just do. I'm from here.”

Mom and Dad on Their Wedding Day

 February 25, 1945, My parents - Robert Warren Amberg, Catherine Galeano Amberg,

with Anthony Vitto and Mary Mastromarino Galante. 

Today, had they lived, would have been my parent’s 68th wedding anniversary. As it was, my father died in February 2002 as they were approaching their 57th anniversary and my mother passed away in 2008.

My parents married in a bit of a rush. Mom had been dating Ralph for a couple of years – a career Army officer – and my father was Ralph’s best friend. When Ralph broke off the relationship, my father stepped into the void and he and my mother were married within two weeks of their first date. Part of the rush had to do with World War II, which was coming to a conclusion in Europe, and after a couple of weeks of marital bliss Dad was shipped off to Italy where he stayed until the end of the war.

But part of the rush to marriage also had to do with my mother’s sense of rebellion. She was a first generation American of Italian and Sicilian ancestry who was clearly ready to move away from that old world way of living. My grandparents, however, were not quite ready to let go of her or their traditions and my grandfather, especially, was so displeased with the marriage that he didn’t attend the wedding. It wasn’t just that my father wasn’t Italian, let alone not Sicilian, but nobody knew anything about him, his family, or his prospects. My mother’s two young Italian cousins –whose families were also from Gioia de Colle in Puglia, Italy - stood with them at the wedding as symbols of friendship and love, but also as kind of sanctioning agents who recognized and accepted that the old world was changing. The marriage was a leap of faith for my father as well. He was a mid-westerner, a meat and potatoes guy, a quiet man steeped in good manners and efficient organization, who was marrying into a large, loud, and emotional Italian family that loved to gamble, drink, eat, and party. 

 Mom and Dad, Ormond Beach, Florida, 1978. 

By 1978, at the time of the bottom picture, my parents had four children, one grandchild, a house in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and thirty-three years of marriage behind them. By that time, as is the case with most relationships, the romance and the rebellion had worn off and they were faced with not only the good things they had built together, but also their differences in temperament, belief, and culture. My father had taken early retirement from his government job and was ready to move to Florida where they had bought a lot in a subdivision. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear that my mother would never leave her family or the place she had always known as home.

They stayed together until the end and I, for one, often wondered why. But my parents were of the generation that stayed together and honored their commitments, no matter the differences that arose later in life. It’s a lesson many of us could well learn from.