Linda Gent Johnson, for years an Evanston teacher (at Dewey), principal (at Orrington) and music educator, decided at the age of 44 to delve into her Italian ancestry.
She has recently written about the experience of learning Italian, getting to know her Italian relatives and eventually buying and fixing up a house in Umbria.
“Il Girasole: Summers in Umbria,” is a compendium of carefully focused essays as well as photos, paintings by Johnson and illustrations by Barbara Ruiz. The book’s particular design makes it a warm and welcoming family history as well as a beautiful personal travelogue and description of Umbrian villages and culture.
As Johnson points out in the prologue, her intention is to pair the history of her mother’s family as they immigrated to Illinois in the early 20th century with the more recent history of her family’s involvement with Umbrian traditions and her relatives who still live there.
“Girasole” is the Italian word for “sunflower,” and Johnson includes photos of vast girasoli fields that “brighten the Umbrian landscape.” Umbria is the only landlocked region of Italy, “an area of vineyards and grains, cheese and honey, pigs and sheep, forests and streams.” Johnson helpfully includes a hand-drawn map showing the Via Flaminia and the Tiber River snaking north and south through the region.
Excerpts from journals of Johnson and her relatives are effectively interspersed in the family history she relates. The reasons for her mother’s family’s emigration from the village of Purello (2021 population: 622) in Umbria were simple: “There was little food. There was nothing to make life comfortable.” She quotes from her Uncle Merino’s journal: “As an illustration of how poor the family was … when he was small and told his mother that he was hungry, she would reply ‘go out and pick some garlic and eat that,’ which he would do.”
Her maternal grandfather, Costantino, who first crossed the ocean in 1901, worked for a time as a coal miner in central and southern Illinois coal mines, took on side jobs such as digging wells, and eventually worked for the State of Illinois as a road builder. He was illiterate his whole life.
Johnson’s mother (also Linda), who was born in central Illinois, moved with her family to Italy in 1922. The family then returned to Illinois in 1923 because the Fascists had come to power and her grandparents were worried about Johnson’s Uncle Domenic being drafted.
The carefully chosen subjects of Johnson’s essays range from erratic train service to religious and holiday celebrations, a grape harvest, her garden, and a challenging descent into a cave system to attend a Mass within Monte Cucco. In the final essay she recounts a visit to the local cemetery, where she recognizes many names and photos (which are typically included in Italian cemeteries). “With all this information and so many photographs I can certainly fill in many of the blanks. I am beginning to feel my place in the continuum of generations.”
Johnson obviously enjoys the culinary and gardening aspects of her Italian heritage and her visits to Umbria. Many family gatherings are described, along with their enticing menus. In various ways Johnson continually praises “the color and crunch of the fresh produce” from the nearby gardens and markets and emphasizes the pleasures of learning Italian cooking techniques from family and friends, and then cooking for them.
She is appreciative of the tradition of “Pranzo” (from the Latin “Prandium,” or “first meal”) which is the (nine-course, in some cases) midday main meal of the day. “We want to give our undivided attention to every course set before us, so lengthy conversations and picture-taking happen mostly between courses,” she says of this meal. The rhythm of the day allows for lengthy meals. “It’s what the Italians have done for hundreds of years and what they will keep doing,” she adds.
She includes a survey of influential Italian cookbooks, with the oldest dating back to 1470 CE.
The house that Johnson buys in 2003 (her original goal was to buy “something small with a balcony or terrace just big enough for a tomato plant”) immediately feels comfortable to her. “It’s the feeling I had the first time I went into my house back home in Evanston. I believe houses have personality and spirit, and I certainly feel in tune with this one,” she writes. They paint the outside of the house “a gentle yellow” and name it “Il Girasole.”
Johnson’s husband, Vins, a jazz saxophonist and avid biker, makes several appearances in the book as they work together on fixing up their new house and travel together in the region. For a Fourth of July celebration, Vins takes over the kitchen to make potato salad from an old Central Illinois family recipe. With it they serve local pork ribs with Hecky’s barbeque sauce, cooked on a Weber grill brought with them on an American Airlines flight. Although Vins has no Italian ties, she says, “he found his groove in Umbria with his fellow musicians and his bicycling.”
Johnson’s children and grandchildren make appearances as they start to experience and enjoy their summers in Umbria. Johnson has clearly loved introducing them to Italian traditions.
The warmth, richness and straightforwardness of the book are due to Johnson’s having carefully kept a journal every summer, as well as to her appropriate historical research which gives broader contexts to many of the experiences she describes.
Asked if she will continue to write about Umbria, she replied, “I already have enough material for at least two more books. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Umbria.”
“Il Girasole” is available at Bookends and Beginnings, Evanston Made and from the author.
Excellent article it got my attention right away. My oldest daughter attended Dewey school, and we were a resident of that area since the mid 60’s I was born in Evanston.
Great write up of a fun read. Even being a part of many of the summers, Linda’s writing educated me further.
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