Why I learn: connecting with long-lost relatives

Dylan Lyons
Apr 5, 2018 · 3 min read

Meet the family torn apart during WWII, and the man who made it his mission to reunite them. But first he had to learn Italian.

By Tom Postorino

Our Why I Learn series features stories from real people about why they decided to learn a new language and how language learning has impacted their lives for the better. Are you learning a language? We’d love to hear your story! Submit it here.

When I was a young boy — I can see it in my mind’s eye so perfectly — must’ve been 3 years old or so, we were all sitting around. We have a family tradition, probably a hundred-year-old tradition, of dinner together, Sunday dinner … and I recall my parents telling me when you go to school, do not speak Italian because World War II was going on.

My uncle, who was a pilot in the American Air Force, was shot down in Romania. Our family in Reggio Calabria (Italy) had the false impression that he was bombing them. So there was tremendous anger between the families. From that point on, I heard very little Italian in my house and basically lost my language. It was awkward at the time, but we just accepted it. And nobody ever talked about where we come from, who we are. I got a little curious, I’ve always been curious, but my parents, my grandparents, nobody would talk to us. Where are we from?

I’m a marathon runner. I’ve run all over the country, all over the world. Every time I’d go somewhere, I’d pick up a phonebook, and young people don’t even know what a phone book is anymore, but I’d pick up a phone book and I’d look for my name, Postorino. Never, never did I see that name.

At one point, on this crazy internet that I knew nothing about, I saw our family name. This is 45 years later. So I got the grandkids together and they contacted these people, and the people responded. I told my wife. I said, “Wow! This is unbelievable. I’m so excited!”

I discussed it with my uncle whose brother was killed over there, and my uncle immediately said, “No, don’t go there. These people are gonna work against you, they want your money, they’re scamming you.” I said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

We sent letters back and forth, and we got a letter with pictures. Holy cow. I looked at those pictures and they were us. I could see myself in those pictures. So I told my wife, “We’re gonna go.” We decided to make our first trip to Italy.

We got on the plane, and on the way, my wife was asking me, “How are we gonna know who they are? We get off the airplane and see a bunch of people in the airport, how do we know, and how do they know who we are?”

But when I got off that airplane, I walked down into the terminal and looked at my wife and said, “There they are.” I could see it, I could see myself. I was right: it was them.

We had to stay at their house, they would not allow us to go to a hotel. My wife and I got into the room they put us up in, and she closed the door and said, “Tom, I can’t do this. I can’t understand a word anybody’s saying.” She kinda panicked, and I said, “No no, don’t worry. We’re ok.”

When I was in my 50s, I started relearning Italian. And I’m still studying it. I do it every day. And it makes me feel good. It’s almost like saying my prayers every day. That’s the way I feel about it. And I’m reasonable at speaking it.

Anyway, our family in Italy invited relatives from all over the area to come and welcome us and have dinner. They found out who’s in America, and we found out who’s here. We told them all our stories, and they told us all their stories.

And the most amazing thing that struck us was that we erased 45 years of anger in one week. Just by coming together.

-Tom Postorino, Scottsdale, Arizona

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First Person

Stories of language, travel and culture conjugated in the first-person tense. Brought to you by the team at Babbel.

Dylan Lyons

Written by

Senior Content Producer @BabbelUSA, covering language + culture + food + everything in between. Have a great language-learning story? Tell me: dlyons@babbel.com

First Person

Stories of language, travel and culture conjugated in the first-person tense. Brought to you by the team at Babbel.