"The Olive Leaf, a Symbol of Love" ©
Dear Family and Friends,
This February of 2021 is the 100th anniversary of my Italian grandparent’s immigration to The United States of America. Giulia Gabrielli and Luigi Fabiani married in Ascoli Piceno in le Marche Italy, in October 1920, departing from their beloved city in December of that year, on a journey to their new home. They arrived in Gibbstown, New Jersey on February 2, 1921. In celebration of this milestone, I am sharing their love story, related to me through their storytelling magic:
I remember myself as a child sitting at nonna Giulia’s kitchen table. Nonno Luigi sat across from me peeling an orange. I watched as he carefully started at the stem, peeling the rind in one continuous spiral. He laid down the paring knife lifting the long fragrant spiral, so my brother and I could marvel at his culinary talent? The rind was set aside to be used as citrus flavoring for desserts, or cut into small pieces for nonna’s delicious marmellata. Nothing in their home was ever wasted.
Slowly he divided the sweet orange segments and handed them to me and my brother one by one, to enjoy as he and nonna shared their stories. Nonna Giulia gently placed a small plate of biscotti in the center of the tablecloth, as she sat with us to fondly recall the memories of her youth.
Like many peasants in the region of le Marche, the Fabiani and Gabrielli family lived and worked on tenant farms owned by the Vatican. The homes were on a terraced mountainside overlooking the ancient city of Ascoli Piceno. Olive trees grew up through rocky terrain and large hilly areas were plowed with teams of white oxen to prepare the soil for crops. There was no plumbing in the houses and the women were responsible for walking to the well to bring water needed for cooking and bathing.
As Giulia remembered her morning walks to the well, we were all transported back to a time her heart had saved. We could imagine the smell of fresh baked bread from her mother’s kitchen and envision her younger sister sitting at the loom weaving linen cloth. Her mamma Maria wrapped bread and cheese in a woven cloth and gently placed them in a basket with some seasonal fruit, perhaps cherries or sweet plums, a noontime nourishment for the men working in the field.
Giulia carried the basket out to her brother Phillip. He and Papa` stood at the edge of the field hitching the strong oxen to the yoke for a morning of plowing. She set the basket down as Phillip nodded, “Grazie Giulia.” Smiling, she turned toward her father, “Buon Giorno Papa`.”
Walking back toward the house Giulia stopped at the small shrine to Mary and blessed herself, beginning her day with a silent prayer, expressing genuine gratitude in having her beloved Luigi back home after The Great War. Her faith had sustained and sheltered her through months of waiting for his safe return. Finally, their dreams of emigrating from Italy to America were becoming real.
As she closed her eyes, Giulia became aware of the delicate fragrance of lavender in the air, drifting from the garden of herbs near the kitchen doorway. Stooping down she picked a sprig of lavender, taking it in to her sister. The girls both loved the smell of the lavanda plant and for a few moments the rhythm of the loom was interrupted with their tender sighs.
Remembering her daily ritual, Giulia reached for the copper conca, as mamma needed water for the day’s cooking and washing. For her first task, Giulia wrapped a coarse linen towel into a ring and placed it on her head as a cushion. This helped to balance the sturdy copper vessel for her walk to and from the well. While she was gone, her mamma Maria would arrange a large flat basket of eggplant, squash, beans and tomatoes. After carrying in the water, Giulia planned to join her dear friend Pepina for a day at the marketplace selling the fresh vegetables.
Gracefully Giulia stepped outside and began along the well-worn path. The distinct tapping of a woodpecker echoed from the treetops. Sunlight glistened off the terracotta rooftops. A chorus of church bells rose from the city below to welcome the faithful to early Mass; a sound which lifted her spirit and lightened her step, a sound she would always miss after leaving her childhood home.
As she walked by the Fabiani home she hoped to catch a glimpse of her Luigi. He was up early every morning helping his father. As tenant farmers they worked long hours to ensure a good harvest. Luigi, the only son, was expected to spend most of his time on the farm. Although his first duty was to his family, Luigi secured a job after the war to earn lire working for Count Saladini. The Count owned a large property with vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees. Luigi, skilled in agriculture, was a valuable employee, pruning grapevines, harvesting olives and working with the honeybees. His goal was to save enough money to travel to America with his beloved Giulia.
As Giulia walked past Luigi’s home her thoughts drifted back to a brighter time, a time before the war. In her youth she often walked to the well with Luigi’s sisters, each carrying a conca, talking and laughing along the way. Their little brother Luigi would follow along teasing the girls and trying to get the attention of Giulia.
At this point in the story Nonno Luigi would interrupt with a boyish laugh. He related his memory of playfully tormenting the girls.To get Giulia’s attention on their return home from the well, he tossed sticks and scattered small stones in the footpath; his immature attempts at flirting. As the girls walked barefoot along the path, their copper concas now heavy with fresh water, they would have to choose their steps with care. As he told his version we all had a good laugh. I never tired of hearing their stories.
Luigi was four years younger, but as he matured from an annoying neighborhood boy into a handsome young man, their friendship turned to romance. Today, Giulia walked alone, smiling as she looked forward to meeting Luigi that evening. She and Luigi had a favorite olive tree where they liked to sit and talk at the end of the busy day. Resting in its shade, the young couple shared plans and dreams of beginning a new life together in America. At the base of this particular tree, she and Luigi had chosen a small crevice, a little space in the knotted trunk to tuck in an olive leaf or two. She would place one olive leaf in the crevice to let Luigi know she was waiting at the fountain in Piazza Arringo. Two leaves would indicate a meeting at the Ponte di Porta Maggiore, the major bridge leading into the old city. Tonight, three leaves would tell him to find her with their friends near the waterfall on the Castellano River.
This morning, approaching the ancient tree, she thought of the years the tree had survived and the lessons she had gathered. She slowed her pace where the tree’s gnarled branches stretched across the worn path. Its strong roots reached deep into the rocky earth. Giulia stopped to pluck three silvery-green leaves. She felt the familiar leathery texture as she tucked the leaves into the secret crevice in the weathered ash-colored tree trunk. This autumn the ripened fruit would again provide a plentiful abundant harvest, as it had done for many generations of the Ascolane people. The women of Ascoli Piceno would use the oil daily and prepare special dishes with the olives.
Through their faith Giulia and Luigi knew the olive branch as a sign of peace and fertility. Working and living near the olive grove, they also learned that olive trees had a resilience, an ability to thrive, resisting years of drought and staying evergreen through cold harsh winters. Every spring the creamy white blossoms promised hope and new life. For Giulia and Luigi this tree represented a deepening friendship and enduring love.
Giulia continued along the narrow path readjusting the conca. She recounted the first time she carried the copper vessel, walking to the well with her older sister Felicia. They would take turns carrying the conca until Giulia was strong enough to carry the heavy pot of water all the way home. In the beginning Giulia walked with both hands grasping the copper handles as she walked slowly with the precious water. As she became skilled in balancing, she would hold on with only one hand, resting the other hand at her waist.
Here at the kitchen table, nonno Luigi teased her saying, “When the boys were watching from the fields, the girls would let go and prance down the path balancing the conca with both hands on their hips!” At this point in the story, nonna would take a dishtowel, wrap it into a ring and place it on her head. I remember her standing in the kitchen, pretending to be that young girl in Ascoli Piceno. Nonno Luigi still had that loving boyish expression, watching her showing off and smiling in their kitchen, as she placed both hands on her hips.
Then nonno Luigi continued the love story. After finding three olive leaves in the secret crevice at the base of their special tree, he hurried to look for Giulia at the river. As he approached, he noticed his friend Augustino standing at water’s edge. Giulia and her dear friend Pepina rested on a fallen log, cooling their bare feet in the stream of water. They were all excited to see Luigi. Happy to be together, the couples finalized their plans. Augustino and Pepina would be married first with Luigi and Giulia standing beside them. A few weeks later, Luigi and Giulia would wed with Augustino and Pepina standing for them. The young men had earned enough lire to buy their passage by boat to New York City. Giulia’s sister Felicia and her husband Emidio would be waiting with open arms to greet them in Gibbstown, New Jersey. Felicia had written letters from her new home in America, letting them know that Dupont was building a plant in Gibbstown and hiring immigrants willing to work in the dynamite industry. They were set to embark on an adventure to a new country and a new life.
Although my grandparents, Giulia and Luigi were apprehensive about the rough journey ahead, they were happy to share their excitement with other young Italians who eventually joined them in America. Having the support and encouragement of friends was truly beneficial in making the transition to a new life.
The young couples carried with them their traditions, work ethic and family values to help them cope, thrive and raise families in a foreign land. Nonno Luigi continued to practice his skills in agriculture; starting a small vineyard, keeping bees, tending chickens, growing figs and lemons and making wine. Nonna Giulia used her domestic skills; growing herbs and flowers, sewing, making pasta and baking biscotti. With her mother’s recipes committed to memory, she prepared the special stuffed olives for many decades.
Giulia’s mother Maria, realizing the special significance of the olive tree, sometimes tucked an olive leaf in the pages of her letters when writing to Giulia and Luigi. The first time she visited from Italy she brought a special gift, a sprig of olive leaves pressed in her prayer book.
The love and the faith of Giulia and Luigi lasted a lifetime. I remember them in their seventies walking down Broad Street hand in hand, as they left morning Mass at Saint Michael’s Church. They were blessed to celebrate fifty years of marriage with an anniversary Mass in that church, as their dear friends Augustino and Pepina stood beside them to share their joy.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
In the very heart of your house,
Your children like olive plants
All around your table.
With heartfelt memories,
Grazie Giulia -Thank you Giulia
Buon giorno papa` - Good morning father
lavanda - lavender
conca -copper water vessel