On many a quiet night, my father would recall a place he came from in Italy, and I would listen with politeness, never thinking about it very much. To me, it was only another place where people were born and grew up.
He was a sincere man who tried to pass on a history to kids who sat and squirmed and remembered only bits of things, fixing the names briefly in memory.
What has brought the long, soft monologues to mind are the headlines about an earthquake in southern Italy, where thousands of people have lost their lives. Some officials say the death toll may reach 10,000.
My father was born there, in a hilltop village called Anzano, about 60 miles east of Naples, in the province of Avellino.
His ancestors had fled the coastal villages for the mountains to escape from the fierce Turkish privateers on slaving raids.
My earliest memories of his tales of poverty always left me with a feeling of bleakness. He told of long, dusty walks, at the break of dawn, to the small village miles from the family farm, and the return at dusk.
He told of hard work and hunger, and even until his 80s he would chuckle over stories of modern Italian cooking, saying he never had any food like that when he was there.
Once he recalled getting together with a gang of boys and running a cow off the cliff, and how the older men, angry at what they had done, went down to butcher it. Then he laughed and said, "But they weren't so mad when we all had meat for a few days."
When he was 5 or 6, some men came to Anzano to recruit the strongest citizens to go to a place called Boston, in America, where they were digging a subway. Taking a last look at the craggy mountain, my grandfather accepted the challenge with a promise that part of his salary would be sent back home for his family and part put away to send for them later.
My father had a sister, Angie, and a brother, Joe (three more brothers and another sister were born later in America), and the three were taken under the hand of an uncle, a very stern schoolmaster for the district. My father remembered his being very tall and strong, and a taskmaster.
The homes they lived in were of clay and brick, with dirt floors cut out from the mountain they lived on. My father would talk about seeing Mount Vesuvius miles to the west, and once in a while seeing a thin stream of smoke rising from the crater.
It was about a year and a half before my grandfather saved enough money to send for his family, and they said goodbye to Anzano forever. My father was 8 then.
He told of a long, rough crossing, seasickness, poor food, foul air, all huddled together in steerage, and how wonderful it was to land in Boston's North End, where his father waited with a wagon pulled by a scrawny horse.
His first view of the city was from the tailgate where he sat.
It was a short ride to their first home in America, a tenement off Hull Street in the North End.
Construction of the subway was hard and dangerous; it was as if my grandfather was destined to spend his life digging dirt. One day, when my father was in his early teens, a policeman came to the house to say his father had been buried alive in a cave-in.
A few years later, when he was 19, my father married, and he and his wife raised 12 children.
Only one member of our family ever went back to my father's birthplace, Anzano.
It was during World War II, when my older brother was serving in Italy. An artist, he was attacted to a propaganda leaflet unit with the Office of War Information.
He described his ride from Naples with a couple of friends in a jeep, up dusty, narrow, winding roads into the main street of Anzano.
The townspeople came out of curiosity to stare at the Americans; my brother looked for a similarity of faces. He learned that the major was named Mastrangelo, but a war was on and feelings were running high, so when my brother found out that the mayor was a Mussolini sympathizer he did not identify himself, but instead backed the jeep up and drove back to Naples.
In his old age, my father often talked about going back for one more look at his birthplace, but he never did.
Now the news tells us there is nothing left of that area of small farms, tiny stucco houses, the schoolroom, the church and the cliff where a cow was run off.
But traditions are passed on to the young and generations remember.
One night recently, one of his granddaughters, now teaching school near Boston, walked to a church in the North End where they were raising money for the victims of the earthquake and donated $25 from her small savings.
"It's for the people of Anzano, a small town near Avellino," she said. "My grandfather came from there."