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Annunziato LaBate and Maria Santangelo LaBate

As a young boy growing up in Amsterdam, New York, I never really knew my grandfather LaBate very well. He didn’t speak much English, and my only conversation with him went something like this.

I was at Grandpa’s house one Sunday afternoon when he asked me, “Would you like a cookie?”

I was about four or five at the time, so I eagerly responded, “Yes.”

So Grandpa walked into the kitchen, returned to the dining room about a minute later, and handed me my “cookie,” which turned out to be a small cup of coffee. Confused and disappointed by our miscommunication, I silently and obediently drank my first-ever coffee. No, I didn’t enjoy the coffee, and I never did acquire a taste for it. Last year, however, I had another unusual experience that brought that conversation to mind again, an experience that helped me to appreciate an even better gift that Grandpa bestowed upon me and my entire family.

In mid-September, my wife, Barbara, our daughter Katrina, and her friend Jessica, flew to Rome, Italy, for a nine-day Mediterranean cruise. As we planned our activities for each port, I noticed that one of our first stops was at the port of Messina on the island of Sicily. The guidebook was full of various options, but the one that was most intriguing was a 30-minute ferryboat ride from Messina to Reggio, Calabria, on the other side of the strait of Messina to the toe of the Italian mainland.

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“That’s where Grandpa LaBate lived before he came to America,” I said excitedly. “We have to go there. I want to see his hometown; I want to walk where he walked.” And so we did.

When we arrived in Reggio, I looked at the small port, and I wondered if that’s where Grandpa departed from when he began his long journey to Amsterdam. Later, as we walked through a residential neighborhood nearby and ate outside at a corner pizzeria, I wondered if Grandpa had lived in that part of town.

Eventually, we found the downtown area of Reggio, and I said to Barbara, “Wouldn’t it be great if we saw the LaBate name on a storefront?”

And sure enough, within five minutes, we saw a men’s clothing store with the name “Cristoforo LaBate.” Unfortunately, the store was closed for its mid-afternoon break, so we couldn’t speak to the owner, but Jessica took our family picture in front, so we could show it to our family back home.

The best part of the day, though, occurred next. Near the end of that downtown strip, we found the “Duomo,” the regional cathedral for that community. Again, we took pictures outside, but when we walked inside and I saw the altar, the pews, and the artwork on the ceiling high above us, I knew immediately that Grandpa had been there. For even if Grandpa had not walked on any of the streets where we had walked earlier that day, he must have walked into that church at some point in his life.

When I realized that I was definitely standing where he had stood over a hundred years earlier, I said a quiet prayer: “Dear Lord, thank you for bringing Grandpa to America,” and at that moment, my emotions got the best of me; my eyes teared up, and I couldn’t speak.

Annunziato LaBate came to America as a young, single man. He met an Italian girl, Maria Santangelo, here in America, married her, and they settled in the East End of Amsterdam. Grandpa worked as a “picker” on the looms in the carpet mills, and he and Grandma raised eleven children: eight boys — including my father, Pete — and three girls.

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Today, only two of those eleven children survive, Mary LaBate and Madeline Van Allen, but 21 grandchildren and even more great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren have carried on the family name. Obviously, if Grandpa had not left his hometown, his family history would have been so much different. Personally, though, I am so grateful for his courage and his sense of adventure, and I feel truly blessed to have grown up in a remarkable family, in a wonderful city, and in an extraordinary country. Thank you, Grandpa.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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