Dreams & Miracles in Castelvetere: Dream of Italy Episode

Update: My beautiful mother passed away on April 16, 2018. You can see her with me in the Castelvetere episode of Dream of Italy on PBS.

My dream of Italy started here…

Castelvetere sul Calore

For my family, Castelvetere has always been a place of miracles and mystery

Those are the first three lines of the upcoming Dream of Italy TV episode about my ancestral hometown of Castelvetere sul Calore in the mountains of Campania, about an hour from Naples.

We spent four long but absolutely magical days filming in Castelvetere this summer. Everything, and I mean, everything, about my discovery of Castelvetere 22 years ago and the birth of this episode – which is my love letter to Italy – is a MIRACLE. If you remember my story about my mom, well, here’s a hint: she made it back to Italy again to film the episode with me.

The world may feel short on miracles these days, so I thought I would share a few of the miracles of Castelvetere with you and give you a preview of my favorite episode of the upcoming season, premiering in January on PBS.

The first miracle belongs to my great-grandfather Generoso Nargi  (the man standing in the photo) who left Castelvetere more than 125 years ago for a new life in New York. We often forget or fantasize about the immigrant experience but it was often lonely and brutal and filled with discrimination. Can you imagine leaving your family and home to almost assuredly never see it again? And arriving in a country where you know no one and not even the language?

Generoso was supposed to meet up with someone from his village in New York but they missed each other and he slept in doorways for a year before eventually getting a job on the railroad. He hurt his arm while working and the doctor said his only choice was to amputate it. My great-grandfather refused and booked passage back to Italy and Castelvetere (a very rare thing around 1890) because he knew there was something very special and healing about his town and its patron Madonna delle Grazie, who 1,000 years ago miraculously appeared to an old woman here and asked that a church be built in her honor.

MIRACLE: My great-grandfather’s arm miraculously healed and he returned permanently to the United States in 1892.

My grandfather, Generoso’s son, Louis Nargi dreamed of seeing this mythical Castelvetere his father always spoke of wistfully. It really was one of the great dreams of his life. My grandfather was a railroad engineer and would work overtime to save money so he and his wife, my grandmother Marie, could travel the world. And they did, visiting almost every continent.

On a cruise to Italy in the 1960s, he asked the cab driver in Naples to take him to Castelvetere, hoping to see the only town in the world where the last name Nargi comes from. The cab driver brought him to Castelvetere, but it was the wrong one; it was Castelvetere in Val Fortore NOT Castelvere sul Calore. This was post-World War Two southern Italy and the roads weren’t good. Dejected, my grandfather worried if the cab driver rectified the mistake, they won’t have enough time to get back to the ship. He never made it to the town.

“Well, the relatives would never have let me leave,” my grandfather would lament after telling the story at holiday dinners. He loved to tell stories and had many great ones. Sometime, I’ll tell you the story of his encounter with Harry Truman on a train.

NEAR MISS AT A MIRACLE: My grandfather was taken to the wrong town.

I was extremely close to my grandfather. He and my grandmother were my daycare and the apples of my eye. When I first went to Italy and every single time I have returned, Italy feels like I have stepped back into the warmth and love of my grandparents’ home. When I was in high school, I wrote a biography of my grandfather and discovered more about mysterious Castelvetere. I think subconsciously I knew I would fulfill my grandather’s dream to find it.

Fast forward to July 1995, my mother and I, blonde in sneakers and shorts (so very American in a still very conservative southern Italy) showed up by taxi in the piazza of tiny, beautiful Castelvetere sul Calore. What followed was a day that my mother likens to the musical Brigadoon, saying, “It was like to town came alive for only one day in 100 years.”

I’ll save some of this for the TV episode,  but short of returning to Castelvetere this summer, July 6, 1995 was the most incredible day of my life. We met Nargis, found my great-grandfather’s birth certificate, made new friends, saw the church he was baptized in and indeed learned that our Northern Europe features were because the Nargis were a originally a tribe of Norman invaders from Rugenland, Germany.

My grandfather was 93, mentally sharp but in a nursing home in New Jersey. We had finally fulfilled his dream.

MIRACLE: We honored my grandfather’s wishes – seeing the town his father left more than a century before.

But then like a plot twist you might only expect in a novel or movie, within 36 hours, my grandfather died unexpectedly back in the United States. We had not yet told him we found Castelvetere. But someone I imagine he knew…

“He only left this world when he new your mission was a complete, “ my new friend Manfredo Nargi in Castelvetere wrote to me in a letter, after I wrote to him about my grandfather’s death.

MIRACLE: I lost one of the people I loved most on this Earth but gained a deep love for Italy and Castelvetere and started down the road to what would become my life’s work, my calling, really.

Over the years, my mother and I returned to Castelvetere sul Calore several times. Traveling to Italy became “our thing.” I’m an only child and very close to my mother. I often travel to Italy for work and my mom would frequently come with me. In December 2015, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer and given just a few months to live.

As you may have read in my Mother’s Day piece, I tried to encourage her by saying she had to get better so we could go back to Italy but I didn’t think it would ever happen. It did — in April of this year (thanks to a miraculous immunology drug) — and I wrote that one of my sweetest moments in life was singing You’ll Be Back from the Broadway musical Hamilton while driving through Tuscany with my mother on our miracle trip. Her dream was to go back yet again.

And we made it happen much faster than anyone expected. My TV team and I had two shoots planned for this summer – three episodes in mid-May to early June and three episodes, including Castelvetere in late June and July. Sometime in late May while we were filming in Italy, I pulled my director John aside and said, you know it seems to make sense to have my mother in this episode, it is just as much her story as mine and I think physically she can do it. And if she comes, my dad should as well. John felt absolutely that was the right thing for the story and for me. We had just a few weeks to make it happen.

I can tell you one thing – when the Nargi/McCabe women (see my mom’s Tubes of Life necklaces) want to get something done, we waste no time. In something like 24 hours, I booked the tickets, arranged for my favorite driver in Italy, Andrea, to pick my parents up in Rome (while we were filming in Basilicata) and stay with them in Castelvetere during our entire shoot. Then I called up my friends at Castello delle Serre in Tuscany to see if my parents could stay there for some R&R at the end of their trip.

It is incredibly fitting that we scheduled our Castelvetere shoot around July 2 for the Festa della Madonna delle Grazie. When my mother was very very ill, I was in touch with my friend Gaetano Petrillo (you will see him in this episode) who lives in a nearby town. He didn’t know what to do to help me except go to Castelvetere where he asked the priest Don Andrea to say a mass for my mother and the townspeople in turn prayed for a Nargi in America most had never met. And you can be sure the miraculous Madonna delle Grazie did her part.

Every moment of our time in Castelvetere I would think to myself, “always remember this, just try hard to know exactly how this feels so you can remember” Those four days were the best days of my entire life. I was completely in awe of every moment. For my parents, to be alive and well, for all of us to be in Castelvetere together was beyond my dreams. One morning, I woke up and got sick to my stomach. I didn’t tell anyone. It was strange because I have the stomach of steel but soon realized, I was just overwhelmed by it all.

MIRACLE: My mother was alive and well enough to be in Castelvetere — and my dad was there too. They saw me become an honorary citizen.  My mother and I also walked behind the Madonna in the religious procession and we both cried.

MIRACLE: We finally met a direct living relative – the great-granddaughter of Generoso’s sister, the only sibling who did not emigrate.

MIRACLE: We discovered a document that still gives me chills. It showed that my great-grandfather had wired 100 lire (a huge amount back then) to the town in 1900 for the very same festival we were attending in 2017. It was like he was signaling us and honoring the Madonna across time. As my mother says, “Generoso was very generous.”

MIRACLE: We found the house that Generoso lived in so many years ago. Plus, there are more miracles that I will save for the TV show.

See a sneak peek of Castelvetere sul Calore in our Season 2 trailer:

There’s so much more that you will see in the episode and we worked hard not only to tell my story but that of so many Italian immigrants and how all of us – descendants of these brave and spirited men and women – can honor and explore our heritage.

Here’s the funny thing, in 15 years of running Dream of Italy, I have rarely written anything very personal.  I’m not sure exactly why; although I’m outgoing, there’s a part of me that is private and shy.  The story of my mother’s illness is only the second time I wrote something so personal (the last time was 2010 when a man I loved deeply died suddenly, but that was just in an email to my audience and not public). I was so very taken aback by the kind emails and messages I received in response.

Bringing Dream of Italy to television means I have to be more open and public to help the show do well – and it is doing great, thanks to all all of you! But the public nature of it all is something that still makes me uncomfortable. The first time someone recognized me from TV was early on a Saturday morning at my local Starbucks. I was so embarrassed that I think I turned lobster red but thanked the woman so much for coming up to me and made a joke about how did she recognize me without makeup? And then, who did I call? My mother. I knew she would get a kick out of it. And how lucky was I that she was here to call.

I worry about my mom – and my dad – constantly, and we have no guarantees beyond today. I try to focus on my gratitude for these past two years and for our magical journey to Castelvetere this summer.

My mother has also made lemonade out of lemons with her bladder cancer. She has tubes nephrostomy tubes to clear her kidneys and has designed Tubes of Life necklaces, with part of the proceeds going to the research of her doctor Dr. Jonathan E. Rosenberg at Memorial Sloan Cancer Center.

My dear friend and business coach Greg Walker often tells me, “borrow my belief” when I have something hard to do. So, maybe I’m telling you this story in case you need hope. Please “borrow my miracle” if you need one.

Top photos and last photo by Igino Moccia