The Golden Chain of May

IMG_5875As in any meaningful relationship, my initial encounter with a special tree remains in my memory. I first met Maggiociondolo in Trentino, Italy in 1995 while visiting my cousin Angelo. Soon after my arrival, we were walking one day when I saw the most beautiful tree in bloom, heavy with golden yellow blossoms that hung in grape-like clusters.Che cos’è?” I asked in awe. “What is it?”

“Maggiociondolo,” Angelo replied. It was a difficult word to master, and I had to repeat it several times, until he explained that it was “Maggio” – May, “ciondolo” – pendant. Of course, the pendant of the month of May! May’s Necklace. It felt like this Golden Tree was personally welcoming me to Italy for my extended stay, as I wrote down its name in my spiral notebook of important vocabulary.

The following May, when I was back home in the Northwest US, I was astounded to see this tree, laden with yellow blossoms, growing on the nearby school grounds. It grew on the Island where I lived! I learned that its common name is Golden Chain, although I always greet it by its Italian name, Maggiociondolo. Embodied seasonal memories of delight rush in when I first see the blossoms appear in the canopy of spring growth.

One autumn for my birthday, my friend Theresa gifted me with a Maggiociondolo tree, knowing the story of how much I loved it. With loving intentionality, she planted it so that my kitchen window perfectly frames its seasonal beauty.

When May arrives, the first blossoms begin to form, often coming into fullness right on Theresa’s birthday, when the days are long and warm. It feels meaningful that Maggiociondolo blossoms in the month that Angelo left this world, and that Theresa entered this world. Seeing its flowers fills my heart with golden memories of Trentino, and with gratitude for this living expression of friendship.

The Calling of the Ancestors

Dark MotherMy ancestral calling began decades ago with a curiosity about my heritage. Growing up, I knew only that my four grandparents, immigrants from Europe to “L’America,” were from “The Old Country.”  Their early deaths, differences of language, and the pressure for immigrants to the United States in the 20th century to assimilate all contributed to a loss of transmission of cultural identity. As a result, I was raised without an explicit knowledge of my cultural heritage. In my twenties, when I first located my grandparents’ villages in the northern Italian region of Trentino, and walked on the paths there, I felt a stirring of recognition, a genetic memory of a long connection to that land. Some part of me came alive and felt connected in a different way than I had experienced in my Colorado birthplace.

My initial research took the form of on-site genealogical research in the village churches, carefully paging through centuries-old, hand written documents, a thrilling and sometimes frustrating endeavor. Years later, while on a sabbatical to do family research in Italy, I encountered a rich spiritual heritage in the folk Catholicism embodied in the form of the Black Madonna, which became the focus of my graduate studies and master’s thesis. Through mitochondrial DNA testing, I realized more fully that my very body carried the knowledge of my family tree, one that extended much further back than the 500 years I had managed to research so far, to my oldest known mother – and the mother of all humans – in Africa 150,000 years ago. The paths of my research, both genealogical and spiritual, led to a Dark Mother.

After several research trips to document Black Madonna sites throughout Italy, my Ancestral Mothers called to me once again to know more about them. As part of a PhD program in Women’s Spirituality, I researched and studied my cultural history, with a focus on women, spirituality, and folk culture. It has been a deeply meaningful work to discover and uncover the layers of my story across time. Although I lamented having no material possessions of my grandparents, I realized that their values – including caring and sharing, respect for elders, honoring the ancestors, and care for children – have been passed down. These values, still present in the living culture, became evident in my oral interviews in the US and in Italy, and in the folk stories told across the ages.

In the days and months to come I will be sharing more of what I learned. While my stories draw from my specific cultural heritage, viewed from the perspective of a third generation Trentino American woman, I hope they will provide guidance and inspiration, just as I have been informed by the culturally specific stories of others. My cultural history – that is, the story of my culture – roots me to the past, unites me to others, and grounds me for the future. This particularity of my history, one that often has been submerged under other stories, enhances my understanding of self and others. Through this endeavor, I feel connected to the spiral of life.