Tag Archives: Italian-Americans

This is a great story, unfortunately…

This is a great story.
Unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.

I finally got around to watching last week’s episode of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? The program, sponsored (at least in part) by Ancestry.com, follows the journey of a celebrity (one per episode) in learning more about their family’s history.

Last week’s episode (August 23) was about actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleBreaking Bad, etc.), and a segment of it took place here in Dayton, Ohio, where one of Cranston’s ancestors was a resident at the Soldiers’ Home (now the Dayton VA Medical Center).

I was hoping to see some familiar faces in the Dayton segment, as I know that in addition to the folks at the Dayton VA, some of my friends (and fellow Dayton history preservers) at the Dayton Metro Library and the Montgomery County Archives & Records Center provided assistance for the episode. However, only one Dayton person made it on screen — Tessa Kalman of the Dayton VA – and I confess I do not know her.

Without giving away ALL the details of the episode — which I think you can theoretically watch online here — and which is not the reason I came here to write, anyway — I will say that there was a bit of a theme to what was revealed in Cranston’s ancestry: fathers who abandoned their families.

At the beginning of the episode, Cranston expressed that he hoped he would find something exciting, something that would make a good story, though he acknowledged that something that makes a good story probably wasn’t actually so good for the people it actually happened to.

My mind immediately went to the story of a particular great-grandmother, before I even knew what the rest of the episode would entail.

Cranston finds that his grandfather had a first wife and a daughter that he’d never heard of (the daughter died of TB as a teen); the grandfather left this family, enlisted in World War I a few years later, and later went on to have another family with Cranston’s grandmother. A more distant ancestor did something similar, abandoning a wife and son in Canada and eventually enlisting in the American Civil War.

At about that point in the episode, Cranston observed: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

If I ever write a book about the story I’m thinking of (my sister Sara keeps telling me I should write books), I’ll have to remember to put that on the flyleaf or something (credited, of course)…

The story pertains to my great-grandmother Nunziata. She was born in Italy and later immigrated to Ohio.

Before Nunziata was married to my great-grandfather, she had a first husband named Silvio, who abandoned her. He left her pregnant with a daughter he would never even meet. He eventually went back to Italy himself and served in World War I.

Silvio may or may not have died fighting in the Alps. I’m not being cute; I’m really not sure. I have a clue that seems to indicate that is indeed how he met his end, but I’m not completely sure it was him. On the one hand, I kind of hope so, because “that’s what you get for abandoning your pregnant wife and leaving the country, jerkwad.” On the other hand, if he hadn’t done so, I probably never would have been born. So…there’s that.

Nunziata married and had 3 more children, one of them being my grandmother. She died at age 24 of tuberculosis, leaving those 4 small children (age 7 and under), including the daughter by her first husband. That daughter also later died of tuberculosis, at age 19.

my great-grandmother Nunziata

my great-grandmother Nunziata

That’s Nunziata in the image above, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I find it difficult to believe that as the face of a woman aged 24 years or younger (because Nunziata died at 24 so could not be older than that in any photograph)…she looks so much older. But I know that people of the past tended to look older, sooner, because life was harder then — especially if their lives were harder than average. And from what I know about it, she certainly had a tumultuous life.

There’s more to the story than what I’ve written here — well, isn’t there always? There’s always more to any historical story than we could ever know. But in this case, I mean, there’s actually more to this one that I do know but have elected not to share. I recently found out many more details about this woman with the short and dramatic life. But when I excitedly recounted these recently discovered gold nuggets of information to my father — it was “a great story,” after all — he did not seem to share my excitement. To be honest, I think he may have even been less than thrilled that I had uncovered them at all — 100-year-old details that even he didn’t know, yet I think he would have been content to have never known. Anyway, I doubt he would be too happy if I laid them all out here.

But getting back to Cranston’s story and that concise little sound bite: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

I guess I was just glad to hear someone else say that — to recognize a really enthralling story for what it is, but yet, even though it’s got the makings of a great tragic novel…it’s not fiction, and more than that, it’s something that happened to not just a real person, but to someone in your family. And that in addition to being justifiably mesmerized by “the story,” you should probably try to remember to be at least a little bit sad about it, because for somebody (actually more than one somebody) that wasn’t just a story; that was their life.

The Italian Cemetery Question

A couple of months ago, my mother asked me a question that reignited a search into my Italian ancestry that has yielded some exciting results. I’ll share the exciting results in another post, but first I want to lay out her question (i.e. the context for the Internet search that brought me to the treasures I found later) as well as the answer I located.

So one day in early July, Mom called to ask me a genealogy question. She said she was sitting there chatting with two of my Dad’s sisters (aunts on my Italian side of the family), and they had gotten onto the subject of genealogy and were wondering about the father of my great-grandfather Quinto. The ancestor in question is named Antonio Pasquinelli. Mom said she seemed to recall that when I had visited relatives in Italy in 2004 (ten years ago – wow), I asked them to take me to the cemetery but he wasn’t there anymore and she couldn’t remember the rest of the story, so she was calling to ask.

Ah yes. That was quite the let-down.

Having been engaged in genealogical research in the United States for almost 10 years already at the time of that trip, I had always found cemeteries to be a veritable gold mine of information. Families are often buried together, as you probably know, and so if you find one, you’ll likely find others, with names and dates to go along with them (and if you’re really lucky, maybe some relationship explanations like “son” or “mother” right on the stone).

My great-grandfather Quinto died and was buried in Ohio, but I had my sights set on his parents, Antonio and Benedetta, neither of whom (as far as I know) ever even visited America. And seeing as I didn’t have the slightest clue how to request Italian records (or what to request or where- although come to think of it, that might have been a good or even better thing to ask the relatives while I was there), much less that comparatively very little was online in those days (especially international records), visiting the cemetery seemed like a sound strategy to potentially find a lot of information quickly and easily.

So at my request, our relatives took us to the cemetery where our other relatives were buried. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even know exactly which cemetery they took us to (why did I not write that down?! for shame, genealogist!), but it wasn’t far so it must have been within the province of Pistoia (where we were & where my ancestors lived).

And when we got there, they showed us the graves of the available relatives, one of whom was their mother/grandmother Parigina (or “Genni” for short), who was my great-grandfather Quinto’s baby sister:

Renato and Genni Sali cemetery marker, somewhere in Pistoia, 2004

Renato and Genni Sali cemetery marker, somewhere in Pistoia, 2004

I have a few other photographs of graves that they showed us or names that I recognized. I don’t really know who most of these people are though. And I unfortunately I don’t seem to have a wide shot of the entire cemetery. (I either didn’t take one, or it was a casualty of the camera difficulties we had on that trip. We still had only film cameras with us at the time, so we had no way of knowing that half the shots weren’t coming out…but that’s another story.)

You can get a little bit of a sense of the way the cemetery looked from these pictures:

Irene Sali grave

Irene Sali grave

Palmira Pasquinelli grave

Palmira Pasquinelli grave

It’s a far cry from the look of most of the cemeteries (most of which are in Ohio) that I have visited:

Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2011 (Photo by the author)

Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2011 (Photo by the author)

Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, 2013 (photo by the author)

Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, 2013 (photo by the author)

St. John's Cemetery, Wheelersburg, Ohio, 2011 (photo by the author)

St. John’s Cemetery, Wheelersburg, Ohio, 2011 (photo by the author)

Carroll Cemetery, Olive Hill, Kentucky, 2004 (photo by the author)

Carroll Cemetery, Olive Hill, Kentucky, 2004 (photo by the author)

Ah, sweet, glorious Midwestern space.

So having seen how crowded that Italian cemetery was and knowing, well, anything at all about Europe and its population density, I probably should not have been so surprised (which would have lessened the disappointment, though that itself still seems valid) at what happened next.

I politely checked out the graves that they showed me (above), and then I asked about Antonio and Benedetta. Where were Parigina’s parents? I asked.

They responded that they’re not here…anymore.

Say again? Wait. So they were here…but they’re not anymore?

Looking back now, I’m not even 100% sure that we were all on the same page as to whether this particular couple I was looking for ever was buried in that particular cemetery, but however the conversation went, they understood who I was asking about and what I was asking to see — but the fact remained the same: We can’t take you to see where they’re buried, because they’re not buried there anymore.

I think then the gist was conveyed to me that you don’t keep a burial plot indefinitely in Italy. You basically rent it.

That much I got from my relatives in 2004. But my mother’s question to me two months ago was: Well, OK, so after your lease is up on your final resting place, then what happens? I told her I didn’t know. I guessed it might involve cremation of whatever was left, but I really didn’t know…

I have since acquired a couple of guide books on Italian genealogy: Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research (by Trafford Cole, 1995) and Finding Your Italian Roots: The Complete Guide for Americans, 2nd. ed. (by John Colletta, 2009). These books have been very helpful and informative.

Cole’s explanation (from pp. 115-116) is better than anything I could hope to paraphrase (and describes with pretty much eerie accuracy exactly my experience), so I’ll just give to you straight:

When going to Italy, many Americans mistakenly assume that they will find cemeteries in which their ancestors are buried; they hope to locate their ancestors’ gravestones with genealogical information engraved. In the United States and most of North America, cemeteries contain graves and gravestones that sometimes date back hundreds of years and have genealogical information for the people buried there. Unfortunately the same is not true in Italy. In most large towns and cities, a burial plot can be rented and a gravestone placed for ten, twenty, or thirty years. After this period of time the remains are exhumed and, if the family desires, placed in an urn and deposited more permanently in the wall of the cemetery. Otherwise, the remains are placed in a communal burial spot within the cemetery. In any case, the gravestone is removed and the burial plot is used for a new grave. Therefore, in most cities it is difficult to find a gravestone older than thirty years. This practice is due to the scarcity of land in Italy and the need to dedicate existing land to the living rather than to the dead.

In smaller villages there may be less demand for space and the grave may remain longer than thirty years, but rarely will you find graves that precede World War I… The exceptions are the noble families, whose members were often buried in family vaults in the floor or basement of the church, their names engraved in the marble flooring. Some families had private burial plots on their property. It is rarely possible to find the gravestone of an ancestor, and cemeteries are seldom helpful genealogical sources…

So, there you go. That’s the answer to the Italian cemetery question.

The book goes on to say that the records that will tell me where my ancestor Antonio was buried are likely to be found in parish records. But I will probably never know exactly the spot of ground in which he was interred, because I doubt the record will be that detailed, and…clearly…he won’t still be there.

Meanwhile, on a plot in St. Mary’s section (northeastern corner) of Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth, Ohio, Antonio’s son Quinto rests soundly next to his wife Pia, in a piece of ground he has occupied for over 62 years (more than double the longest usual lease of a cemetery plot in his homeland):

Pia and Quinto Pasquinelli, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2012 (photo by the author)

Pia and Quinto Pasquinelli, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2012 (photo by the author)

I’m sure that’s not particularly one of the reasons he came to America to stay, but it’s one of the things he got, just the same…

Now, I actually told you that story to tell you a different story—an exciting tale of atti di morti!—but that one will have to wait until next time.

Book Un-Review: Intimacy and Italian Migration

I hate book reviews. I hate writing them. I don’t really like reading them. But I recently finished reading a history book I picked up at the library (with my fancy new Wright State University staff library card!) several weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about it. So…whatever you want to call that.

A few years ago (it must have been pre-2011 because I wrote about it), I decided I finally wanted to get down to business on trying to understand more about my Italian American history: really specific stuff about Italian immigration, legal hoops they had to jump through, typical family life, etc., etc. And in the course of that, I read two books that were extremely helpful and interesting: Coming to America (1990) by Roger Daniels and Italy’s Many Diasporas (2000) by Donna Gabaccia.

So when I saw a new book with Donna Gabaccia’s name attached to it on the library’s “New Books List” in December, I decided to check it out (literally – I know, haha, library humor). The book is called Intimacy and Italian Migration: Gender and Domestic Lives in a Mobile World (2011) and is edited by Gabaccia, as well as Loretta Baldassar.

I have to say, it wasn’t what I was “hoping” for or what I expected—but that’s my own fault, honestly. If I had investigated a book review (sigh) or even the back cover or the table of contents, I might have realized it probably wasn’t going to include what I was hoping for (more on that in a minute). But I it was like an “impulse buy” (er, impulse borrow) based solely on my existing positive (and, I emphasize, still positive) opinion of Gabaccia. Kind of like if you checked out J. K. Rowling’s new book simply because it was Rowling and then acted all surprised when it wasn’t like Harry Potter, but if you’d read the description, you would have known that. (I have not read Rowling’s new book, just FYI.)


The book includes many interesting articles on Italianness and gender roles, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. I think my two favorite chapters were “Calculating Babies: Changing Accounts of Fertility Decisions among Italians in Melbourne, Australia” (by Pavla Miller) and “Love Crossing Borders: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Gender Relations among Italian Migrants in Germany” (by Yvonne Rieker), both of which included a lot of oral history and interviews, not to mention subject matter that I found particularly intriguing.

I was also pleased to read in general about “chain migration” — which may have been mentioned in those two previous books but I had perhaps forgotten — and there was talk about “campanilismo,” a term I know I’ve read about before and find positively delightful. (That must sound like an insane way to describe how I feel about those words, but I suppose it comes from having observed something in your own family history over and over again and then finally finding out there’s an actual TERM for it: what joy at finally putting a name to something!)

Intimacy and Italian Migration was a very interesting, informative, and well-written book, but as I said, not what I was hoping for — which could be somethin that simply not exist. If, after I’ve described it, anyone can give me a recommendation for something that may cover what I seek, I’d be glad to have it!

My grandfather Renato was born in Italy. He came to America on the eve of his 21st birthday (that’s a whole other thrilling tale) in 1934. His mother Pia and younger brother Vasco had already immigrated to America in 1933. But his father Quinto came to America in 1920, when Grandpa was 6. To the best of my knowledge, based on the records I’ve found and the story I was always told, Quinto stayed in America for years — like a decade — before returning to Italy to (basically – though it involved a lot of hoops – again, a tale for another time) bring his wife and two sons to the U.S.A.

I remember the first time I heard — from my parents, many years ago — that that’s how it went down, thinking, “What the hell? That seems kind of weird. To just leave your family for years?” Now that I’m older, learned a lot more history, and read the aforementioned books, I realize it wasn’t weird at all for that to be the way with Italian immigrations. Apparently, it was downright common. But my initial knee-jerk reaction of “My god, that must have sucked!” still seems pretty valid. I’m sure it did suck. On many levels.

And so, I’ve wondered from time to time, about a lot of different aspects of how that…worked (or, didn’t work?), particularly with regard to my great-grandparents’ relationship. How do you go from being married with two kids to just not seeing each other for 10 years? Did they write letters? Did they even know how to read/write? I honestly have no idea; it’s probably more likely for him than her, but I really don’t even know. Even if they knew how? Could they afford it? It can’t have been cheap to send international letters, not to mention the time lapse of sending them trans-Atlantic by boat. This is all assuming, of course, that they…well, liked each other. I mean, part of me wants to make the terrible joke about the stereotypical Italian couple that drives each other crazy—(cue movie reference to that scene in Under the Tuscan Sun where Chiara’s mother says of her husband, “I hate him half of the time”!)—but I mean, hey, with all I just learned about semi-arranged or downright arranged marriages in Italy back in the Day (or, quite a long time after what one would really consider “The Day” – scary recent), it’s entirely possible that…hell, maybe they never liked each other to start with? I’m just saying…I have no idea. (They look relatively content in this pic from 1938, though, don’t they?)

Quinto and Pia, 1938

Quinto and Pia, 1938

But that’s some of what I was kind of hoping to read about when I picked up Intimacy and Italian Migration…something “older,” I guess, than what most of the chapters actually discussed. And perhaps it simply doesn’t exist, for the simple truth of the circumstances under which those relationships were forced to take place. If you were a highly educated and filthy rich 1920s Italian, you weren’t going to be in that situation because you either (a) didn’t need to go to America for a “better life,” because yours was pretty darn good already; or (b) if you did need/want to go to America, maybe you had the money to plunk down for all those passenger fares right from the get go (all U.S. anti-immigrant laws and quotas aside, of course- again, a thrilling tale for another time); or (c) at the very least, you could probably go home to visit more often or afford to send lots of letters, and your probably-also-higher-society wife could probably read them and write them (I’m guessing?). But poorer immigrant husbands and wives were probably too busy working, taking care of themselves and (in the wives’ case) the children (to whatever extent possible), without a lot of time (much less knowledge or resources – I don’t know if the particular two in question had it or not) to write or keep letters or diaries that I so wish I could read.

I’ll probably wonder forever. Because some things just don’t exist. I’m pretty sure that if Pia and Quinto had left letters or diaries that I could read, I’ve have them in my hands by this point. But if there’s anything out there along the same lines (but from different people), I’d be interested in reading that.

I suppose my interest in history has (almost) always come back around to being interested in people “I know” — or have seen pictures of in the family photo album or their names on my family tree — or have held their handwritten documents in my hands. This is just another instance of that. I hear (true) stories, and I want to fill in the blanks.

Okay, not a great way to end a book un-review, but… I’ve run out of steam. Honestly, that’s not quite true, but if I don’t cut it off here, I could ramble for hours (pages) about these people. And I’m sure nobody wants that. Or, if you do, ask me questions, and I’ll write more. 🙂

Hidden mothers, post-mortem, and 1940s Italian-Americans

(Now there’s a weird blog title for ya; how the heck do those things fit together? Well, read on, my friend, and I’ll tell you what I’m getting at…)

A day or two ago, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post she’d found about “Hidden mothers in Victorian portraits” (and its follow-up, “More hidden mothers in Victorian photography: post-mortem photographs or not?”) by Chelsea Nichols.

I found these posts ridiculously interesting (ha, play on words of the blog title) for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, they are quite visually interesting, as they include a lot of photographs to illustrate the subject of the posts: mothers (or whoever) hiding under blankets, curtains, etc., to hold children steady in Victorian-era portraits. Remember, back in Ye Olde Dayes, the process of capturing a photograph was not instantaneous; so you had to hold still until the exposure was finished. Not so easy to get little ones to do this; hence, the mothers in the pictures.

Another reason the subject piqued my interest is that it reminded me of a couple of similar photographs that I have seen before. (Oh, that archivist brain : always pulling things up from the back-files of my mind…)

One of the photos I thought of actually fits the description of what’s being discussed — well, sans blanket:

PEIRCE, Howard Forrer 13 from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

Howard Forrer Peirce (and his mother?), from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

That’s Howard Forrer Peirce (born 1865) and, presumably, his mother. If it was meant to be a photo of the two of them, it’s not very good, since mom is mostly hidden (much to my chagrin, as an archivist, since that’s the only pic we have of her! –if it is indeed his mother, which I’m pretty sure it is, based on what her sisters looked like!–). So I suppose it is probably a situation of trying to get the boy to cooperate and/or hold him still while the photo was exposed.

The other photo that came to mind is actually a lot more similar to the photos in the posts. But it is not from the Victorian era; it’s from the early 1940s:

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

The baby in this photo is one of my aunts, and the person under the sheet is, more than likely, my grandmother. At first I wasn’t totally sure if therewassomeone under the sheet, or if they just draped it over a chair as a backdrop, but then I noticed how the sheet seems to be “holding” the baby, under the arms…so there must be a person under there.

But why? Why in the 1940s? Presumably, they were using a camera that was capable of taking an instantaneous photograph. So I guess they must have just thought it would be a fun thing to do, stylistically. (Unfortunately, anyone who would have been around — and old enough to know what was going on — the day the photo was taken…is now deceased, so I can’t ask them.)

Then, there’s one more thing I want to mention. When I was first thinking about writing this post, all I was thinking about was the “hidden mother” pictures I had seen.

But then I got to thinking: This is the second Victorian photography trend I have seen duplicated by my Italian-American ancestors in the 1940s. That’s…interesting.

Remember the post-mortem photographs I found in my grandfather’s photographs?

Now, before I go any further with my thoughts and wonderments, let me just say that I realize it would be bad science, and bad history, and just bad in general, to pretend like I could make any gross generalizations about an entire group of people or a practice, based on a handful of isolated examples.

But…it’s not going to stop me from wondering if this could, in fact, illustrate some sort of a legitimate historical trend.

Sometimes, we see something that looks cool — e.g., in photography — and we seek to replicate it, simply for the sake of “art”, without regard for the rhyme or reason behind why the thing we are replicating may have happened or been done out of necessity in the original work.

For instance, why is everyone obsessed with Instagram? Don’t they know that the original “retro” photos they are seeking to replicate look all yellow and weird because of the subpar photographic processes of the 1970s? No, they just think it looks cool, so they take a perfectly good (new) digital photo and intentionally make it look degraded…for the sake of “art”.

Similarly, I wonder if my grandparents saw older photographs of babies being held by mothers under sheets and thought, “Hey, that is a neat way to photograph a baby; let’s replicate that.” Maybe they didn’t realize why the mothers had to hold the babies (although I’m still not sure why they had to hide); or maybe it didn’t matter either way, but they just wanted to create something “retro” (before “retro” was cool — or even a term!).

Same thing with the post-mortem photos my grandfather took of his parents. People used to do that (especially in the Victorian era) because taking photogrpahs was less common then, and the deceased person might never have been photographed before, thus making the post-mortem photo your “last chance” to capture their likeness in photographic form. I wonder if my grandpa had seen some of those type of photographs and just thought, “Hey, I should do that,” when his parents died. I have seen several photographs of my grandfather’s parents — when they were alive — so I know such photos existed and were in his possession; it’s not like he had no others.

And here’s where my stab at bad history comes in:  If they were taking those pictures because they wanted to replicate others they had seen, I wonder if socio-economics had anything to do with it all.

Now, just stick with me a minute here.

The Italian immigrants of the early 1900s (like my ancestors) tended to be poorer (at least initially) than many other Americans. Being not-so-well-off (which in many cases is a great understatement) is probably why most of them left all they’d even known and came to great Land of Opportunity in the first place.

And okay, so, people (and dare I say “civilizations”) that are lagging a bit behind in a variety of areas, like technology, might tend not to have the latest-and-greatest advancements — especially since a lot of those were being churned out in the United States back then, not in backhills of northern Italy, where my relatives were from.

I wonder: did the photographers in rural Tuscany still use photographic processes that required holding still for a long time, later than most American photographers? Might my grandfather, who lived in Italy until the mid-1930s, have seen a lot more of those “hidden mother” photographs than most young men in the 1940s had?

And, as for the post-mortem photos : if things were “worse” in Italy in the early 1900s than they were in America — after all, Italians came to the USA to find work and a “better life,” not vice versa — wouldn’t that likely include people being generally poorer? And when you’re poor, what can you not afford? Well, probably “luxuries” like owning a camera or visiting a professional photographer more than every great once in a while. So it makes me wonder if those “last chance” post-mortem photographs might have been more common, up through a later date (year), in places with a greater concentration of poor people.

We typically associate these styles of photographs — the “hidden mother” and the post-mortem — with the Victorian era in America. But consider that poorer communities (such as, in my example, early-1900s rural Italy) might have still had some of the same issues (older technology that required standing still for photos; greater likelihood that the deceased had never been photographed because it was too expensive to take photos willy-nilly like we do today) that were the root causes of those “odd” styles of Victorian photos.

And if we sometimes mimic what we know, what we’ve seen, what our friends and relatives are doing or have done or did in the pretty recent past, I can imagine how it might have happened that my Italian-American grandparents ended up essentially duplicating some things that were popular (in America) decades before they themselves were even actually born. (Meanwhile, I’ve never seen such things in the collections of American-born people from the same era.)

Like I said, this is completely unscientific and not good history either. But it was a thing that made me go, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I thought I’d just wonder out loud.

Has anyone else seen any “hidden mother” or post-mortem photos from the 1940s?